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7 lessons from a departing student activist

The lack of memory within student politics is one of its great pitfalls. Every year lessons must be learnt and relearnt. So as I depart, here are seven lessons I've learnt and would like to pass on.

p>Since 2010, the world of education and student activism has transformed and yet remained the same. It has grown, receded, stabilised, imploded and reorganised – but many of its challenges and limitations are perennial.

I’m now moving on after having been involved on a full-time basis in one way or another for four years, primarily as an organiser for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), and as a sabbatical officer at UCL and the University of London as well as a dissident member of the NUS’s national executive. One of the greatest weaknesses of student activism is its lack of memory, and the inability or refusal of those who have been involved for a long time to pass down what they have learned and to reflect on what they have witnessed.

So here are 7 things that I have learned, along with some parting observations for the world I’m leaving. Many of them are aimed as much at myself as they are at anyone else.

1. Student and education activism is important, and what you are doing matters

The popular impression of student activism dismisses it as ‘toytown politics’ – and this is true to the extent that one looks at the formal debating halls and the tedious apolitical power wranglings that characterise some student unions. But look beyond it as merely a training ground, and student activism is actually quite serious.

Education is not just any public service under attack: it is where society reproduces itself, and where the frontiers of knowledge are pushed forward. What happens to higher education—to its curriculum, to the research it produces, and to the people who pass through it—matters on an immeasurable scale. Universities are becoming private companies with consumers. But if they are sites of resistance and politicisation, and if we can transform education into a force for liberation and progress, we can convince people of ideas and transform society. 

Higher and further education have consistently been on the front line of a broader attempt to resist austerity – from the 2010 student riots to the continuing industrial action of workers in the sector. Student dissent informing broader politics or triggering a wider movement is nothing new, whether by bringing to life other forces (primarily workers) who hold the ‘real’ industrial power, or, as in Quebec in 2012, actually bringing down the government.

This is the first and most important thing to remember. Ignore what patronising “grown-ups” tell you, and grit your teeth through petty disputes, disciplinary action and factional warfare: what you are doing matters.

2. You cannot escape the macro-political climate in which you swim, but you absolutely can work local miracles by force of will.

The experience of being at the mercy of huge social and political forces on one hand and being witness to the power and agency of ordinary people on the other is something that almost any activist will recognise. But in many ways, political agency in student activism is particularly polarised. To the extent that it is a left-wing or anti-capitalist endeavour at all, student activism is inextricably bound to the fortunes of the labour movement and the wider left – to the cycles of strikes and occupy camps and the big shifts in political culture. Even when the student movement has been significantly more resilient than the rest of the left, for instance in the 1990s when it retained a level of slightly heightened mobilisation years after the demobilisation of the labour movement, it eventually succumbed to the same fate.

There have been moments—some of them very recent—in which it has been possible for a student movement to break through and to trigger a more widespread moment of resistance, to lead the macro-political climate that surrounds it. These moments are, however, rare, and are a two-way street. In 2010, students significantly accelerated the development of the biggest anti-austerity movement in decades; but when the public sector pensions dispute and Occupy ended almost simultaneously in 2012, and the wider movement ran out of steam, student mobilisation also went into a period of decline. In autumn 2013, it was the other way around: a national strike by lecturers and support staff triggered students into occupations and direct action.

It is straightforwardly impossible for students to avoid the fate of the wider climate. To an extent, this is about limiting expectations: the task of really building a movement capable of threatening the status quo must be one of painstaking work, not merely a flash-in-the-pan moment of creative student brilliance followed by a frustrated rejection of the wider movement or a hopeless denial of the purpose of student activism.

But it is also about realising that this comparative lack of agency (or rather the shared fate which everyone in the labour movement and the wider left has been grappling with forever) is only one side of the coin. The very same things which make student activism unstable and overly reliant on wider movement—the short collective memory, the relative depoliticisation of most campuses, and the interpersonal basis for connections between activists—also give activists a much greater sense of personal agency. On a micro level, the student movement is often a blank slate: it is quite possible for the actions of individuals or small groups to meaningfully alter the course of history within higher education and the student world – on a national scale, in student union bureaucracies and on campuses.

Too many student activists—and I count myself in this—spend their time shrugging their shoulders and using a lack of agency as an excuse not to do things: in reality a few determined minds with a strategy can achieve loads.

3. You are not too cool for school: get involved in existing groups

From the outside and to the newcomer, the student groups and political factions which operate nationally and locally often look messy, unnecessary and scary. To a great extent, we live in an era of ‘independents’, who sit proudly apart from any existing group. Why this is the case is the subject of a long essay: it’s partly because various parts of the organised left have done awful things; it’s partly a bad anti-collectivist instinct that exists among our generation, even on the left; and it’s partly because some prominent activists will always want to have a group or clique which is ‘theirs’, regardless of the lack of political differences with existing groups. I used to be a ‘proud independent’; I no longer am.

Disdain for organised groups and national campaigns produces two common reactions amongst activists and lefty union officers. The first is to retreat entirely into one’s own campus, focussing on local issues and abandoning involvement nationally or more broadly. This instinct is often disastrous: as well as being an avenue for organising, wider groupings and national campaigns are also an intellectual point of reference and a place in which ideas are debated and developed. Without a link to a wider movement, it is easy to get demoralised or to be pushed around by the political forces in your locale; for many burnt-out student union officers, retreating entirely into your campus is a recipe for demoralisation and bureaucratisation.

The other is a constant attempt to re-invent the wheel, almost always without learning any lessons from the past. Every year, new networks of activists or leftwing sabbaticals emerge, claiming to represent new and exciting developments and alternatives, and fall into the same traps of structurelessness and lack of continuity. Apart from often being an undemocratic way to organise (often being led by big individuals rather than collectively, or only including sabbaticals) this is also a chronic and repeated waste of energy. Since the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) was brought into being almost five years ago, it has had to justify its existence on average every three months. Rather than get involved in broad organisations and push them in one direction or another, there is a perennial tendency among students to set up new ones and to declare old ones—which have spent years building up historical memory, resources and contacts—bankrupt and stale, often without examining them. In reality, there are a finite number of political spaces on the student left, and almost all groups that develop grow out of their predecessors.

The weakness of organised national groupings in terms of participation has a long history. When NCAFC and others called demonstrations in 2010, over 100,000 people sometimes mobilised, but barely 150 would attend organising conferences. This is partly a problem with the approachability of groups, but it can also be countered by challenging a problematic political culture of ‘proud independentism’. So maintain your independence and think for yourself, but get involved in wider campaigns and national groupings, and resist the temptation to be ‘too cool for school’.

4. Fight to change the world, not for the purity of our own cliques

Some ideas are intolerable and can only be met with scorn, confrontation and ridicule. The vast, vast majority are not. We live in a society in which liberal and social-democratic ideas are better than the average, and in which oppression and prejudice are rife. In tiny activist circles and islands it is possible to forget that this is the case – and some do.

Building a force that can change education, and the world, is about persuading people of ideas and courses of action. This means being patient and decent with people, and valuing pluralism and individual agency. It is also about recognising the fact that the way we organise should be based on our goals—bringing in new people, putting forward ideas and organising action—not just on what makes us feel good (though of course these things interrelate).

For instance, a common problem for local groups is the perceived need (usually from more experienced activists) to go ‘beyond’ the usual cycle of student protest and activist recruitment. While it is both possible and desirable to break the process by which various holidays and breaks mean that movements recede (usually between December and January), the broader student cycle cannot be avoided, and must be embraced. Every campus will always need to run public meetings and organising meetings; these will always have to repeat basic content year-on-year for new participants; and they will always build to some extent towards coordinated action, which in many cases will be marching or occupying. If inviting a famous speaker (whose politics are perhaps less radical than the average member of the group) will get more people involved, then it is worth considering; having a group of thirty people whose politics are unknown or developing is far, far preferable to a group of three friends with identical politics and a perfect working knowledge of consensus decision-making.

The vast majority of student activists change their political leanings while at college or university, and this process doesn’t stop when someone has been involved for a few years, or gets elected to a student union position. Whether by being radicalised, convinced of a particular leftwing tendency, alienated from another, or completely changing their ideas about a particular area, such as liberation or environmentalism, student politics is by its nature a space in which people make mistakes and find their feet. 

In order to become a serious movement, student activism must develop an inclusive political culture – in which dissident ideas are welcomed and discussed, and in which political traditions (anarchism, trotskyism, social democracy, environmentalisms, feminisms) are treated with respect and engaged with seriously and critically, not just written off or uncritically embraced.

5. You are not too cool for school (again): take ideas seriously

In a field of organising, education, whose very purpose is the production, reproduction and (sadly) marketing of knowledge and ideas, one of the most staggering things is often the lack of an intellectual culture. Especially in the weird and hectic world of student unionism, it is entirely possible to exit the scene having never had to think seriously about the nature of the state, how society works or what kind of world we actually need. The growth of blogging and the internet has certainly helped to advance the amount of reading that activists do, but it has also created a culture in which those who disagree with each other almost never discuss ideas in person, instead exchanging sarcastic tweets.

In student activism, so much is done not on the basis of ideological conviction, but on the basis of what seems in vogue, and perhaps most importantly what particular social circles are doing and thinking. Perhaps the most stand-out example of this in recent years is the growth of student “anarchism”. When examined in detail, many of the adherents to today’s “anarchism” in student circles share very little common political ground. Convinced and well-read anarchists share a label with people who are against the existence of organisations, and others who have confused criticism of trade union leaderships with the abandonment of unions altogether, and others who argue in the wake of the Comrade Delta crisis that to have any organised hierarchy is to risk becoming the SWP, and others who are in favour of consensus decision-making but who have no particular strategy for the overthrow of anything, nor any particular conception of the state. Many more simply call themselves anarchists because they have no other label that is not toxified or too moderate-sounding, even if it would fit better.

The practical task of doing student organising necessitates an extremely pluralistic and tolerant approach. But many mistake this for a get-out clause for actually thinking about the world; pluralism and broad campaigns can only be built on the basis of honest learning and discussion.

If you think you have completely invented something or have come across an idea for the first time, you are probably wrong. Student circles are constantly awash with the same ideas, debates and conflicts – and it is worth reading up on them. Consensus decision-making, privilege theory, critiques of privilege theory, intersectionality, non-hierarchical organising, the tyranny of structurelessness – all are decades old, but often presented as somehow new or revolutionary. Without knowledge of these debates, these ‘new’ ideas can become shibboleths – words that are simply said over and over again, devoid of real content.

So one of the things that student politics needs most is the development of a culture of inquiry and discussion, running alongside practical activism. This can come through national groupings, campaigns and networks, but in practice it is local activist groups that can do this most sustainably.

6. Sabbatical officers: full-time activists, not professional activists

British student unionism is almost unique in its concentration of full-time elected posts. Almost every campus has a few, and over the course of the past few years an increasing number have been elected on leftwing or ‘free education’ platforms. This is, overall, a huge boon, but it can also be a major pitfall. From every angle—liaisons with college and university managements, ‘grown up’ union staff, and the charity governance model pushed by NUS—sabbaticals are under pressure to regard their work as just another office job.

The sabbatical-officer-as-professional-activist can appear in a variety of guises. The ordinary symptoms—internalising the logic of trustee boards, generally absconding from leftwing activism—run alongside seemingly anti-bureaucracy ‘leftwing’ notions, that sabbatical officers have no purpose beyond harvesting resources and booking rooms, and then clocking off for the day.

This culture of ‘professional activism’ is pernicious: it creates a class of activists in whose (often not meaningfully accountable) hands many decisions lie; it means that sabbaticals—like trade unionists on honorariums—grow away from the experience of their members and have less stake in disputes; and, perhaps worst, it perpetuates the defining notion of campus politics, that politics is something that someone else does and which needs only passive support, even at times of high struggle. More directly, in student unions, the practice of mediating political disputes through HR procedures is profoundly dangerous and gives unelected staff and trustees a decisive say in the outcomes.

To an extent, some level of professionalization and centralisation of work is inevitable when people are full timers (after 3-4 years as a full timer, it would be absurd for me to claim that I related to student activism in the same way as everyone else). But sabbatical officers and the activists who surround them should take steps to prevent a professional culture from emerging. Firstly, leftwing student union officers should have a rigorous policy of airing and addressing political problems in democratic assemblies (and creating these assemblies where necessary), not behind closed doors or with backdoor processes. Secondly, full time union officers can only be meaningful full time activists if they work for and within a functioning local activist group (of whatever size or faction), which meets regularly and is active on campus. Thirdly, union officers should approach their work as activists, not as professionals: it may be necessary to work more hours than our moderate or right-wing counterparts, it may be necessary to ditch superfluous bureaucratic engagements (the odd union or university committee) to focus on activism, and it may be necessary to upset political opponents even if you like them personally.

7. He who is tired of student activism…

… should move on from student activism. Not attack the entire purpose of it.

As anyone who has been around it can attest, student politics can be a brilliant and an awful place. There are all kind of reasons why some people grow to loath it: personal bickering, harsh factional clashes, personalities, repetitious activities and arguments, etc.

But one of the very same things that can make student activism painful and undoable—the inability, often related to burnout, to distinguish between the importance or efficacy of a thing and how one personally feels about partaking in it—can be mistaken for a political argument. It is not helpful to argue that student activism is only a valid activity at certain points, as if student movements, organisations and networks are things which can simply pop up by magic with no preparation when the media is looking and the whole thing seems a bit glamorous, such as in 2010.  Neither is it helpful to contend that students should only bother fighting on education funding or privatisation when there is a parliamentary focus for it, when this is in fact precisely the mistake that the British student movement has made for 20 years (and the mistake that was avoided in Chile or Germany!).

It is difficult not to have some sympathy with this perspective: it comes from a need to find a political rationale for what is often a personal – and wholly reasonably and respectable – decision: to move on from student activism, to use one’s time in other sectors or places. But old hacks like me should know better than to fall into it.

And on that note, I’m off. Good luck to everyone who remains.

About the author

Michael Chessum is a campaigner and journalist based in London, a Labour and Momentum activist, and national organizer for Another Europe is Possible.


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