On Friday 16th March, several hundred students marched through Cambridge to demonstrate against the victimisation of a single student who has been handed the punishment of two-and-a-half years suspension for his role in a peaceful protest earlier in the academic year. This outrageous punishment was a clear signal from the University authorities that students should not step out of line and that protests against education cuts will not be tolerated. Meanwhile, the 500-strong demonstration sent an equally clear message that the mass of students will stand by their victimised peers in solidarity.
The punishment of the victimised student was in response to a protest in Cambridge in November 2011, when the Coalition’s universities minister, David Willetts, came to give a speech on “The Idea of the University”. Willetts was due to give a talk about the government’s Higher Education White Paper, in which the Coalition outlined their plans to open up universities to privatisation, threatening the closure of courses, departments, and possibly entire universities.
The Cambridge University Student Union responded to the visit of Willetts by calling a demonstration before the talk. A group of 20-25 students, however, decided that this was not enough and decided to disrupt the Willetts talk. Before even opening his mouth to speak, Willetts was stopped in his tracks by a “human mic”, in which one student recited lines from a poem that were then repeated by the rest of the protestors. The poem, specially written for the event, gave a stinging and eloquent criticism of the Higher Education White Paper, of the coalition government and their austerity programme, and of Willetts himself.
Freedom of speech
The University responded by accusing the students of “preventing freedom of speech”. This is a joke in very bad taste. To suggest that David Willett’s “freedom of speech” was prevented by this protest is pure nonsense. Willetts is a government minister who has the whole state apparatus and all of the major media channels at his disposal in order for people to hear his thoughts regarding the dismantling of higher education, which he has made clear on many previous occasions. Allowing “freedom of speech” does not mean providing a platform to government ministers who are hell-bent on privatisation and austerity.
Some academics and students who attended the talk by Willetts complained that they had been prevented from challenging the minister with difficult questions and engaging him in debate. Presumably these individuals felt that they could persuade Willetts, with their intelligence and intellect, not to privatise and cut higher education. Unfortunately, however, the Coalition’s programme of privatisation and austerity is not an ideological one that can be turned around through academic arguments. The Tories are well aware of the various arguments against their policies, and the minds of Willetts and all other coalition ministers will not be changed simply through a nice, calm, rational debate. The Coalition’s policies are motivated, not simply by ideology, but by the crisis of capitalism, which is forcing all governments across the world to carry out austerity and attacks on working people and youth.
The only way to stop the government’s attacks on higher education, and all public services, is to get rid of this rotten government itself. Whilst we are sympathetic to the aims of those who disrupted David Willetts’ talk in Cambridge, we must point out that such small-scale actions are not enough in terms of achieving this goal. What is needed is for mass action involving the mass of students and workers, led by a fighting leadership that is armed with a socialist programme.
In this respect, it is the role and responsibility of the student unions to organise and lead a mass campaign against the privatisation of universities and the cuts to higher education. The student union leadership should be using every available platform at their disposal to argue the case against cuts and for a socialist alternative, and to build a mass movement of students. This should be linked to the labour movement and the need to fight against all the attacks on pensions, jobs, wages, and public services.
This was the position put forward by Ben Gliniecki in his recent campaign for President of Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU). In all his election material (see www.gliniecki.com), Ben argued that CUSU must link up with the trade unions, university staff, and school students, along with other student unions, in order to fight all the cuts.
The right to protest
Importantly, it is the organisation of mass demonstrations by student unions that will prevent student protestors from being victimised and punished. Paradoxically, it is only through mass protests that we can defend our right to protest.
This victimisation of the student in Cambridge caused anger and outrage amongst the wider student body. At the time of writing, 2800 Cambridge University students have signed a petition condemning the University’s decision to suspend the individual concerned. In addition, the news of this outrageous punishment made national news, and a further 4800 people have signed the petition from across the country, including John McDonnell MP and Liam Burns, the President of the NUS.
In response to the pressure from below, the CUSU leadership organised the protest on Friday 16th March at only 24 hours notice, with approximately 500 students in attendance. The scale of this demonstration, achieved at such short notice, shows the huge reserves of support that can be gathered for action when organised through the mass organisations. The important thing now is for CUSU to carry on the campaign against student victimisation in a serious manner.
The next step that will be taken is unclear. The CUSU leadership have made it clear that they would prefer not to organise a mass campaign, but that they would prefer to challenge the suspension using legalistic measures, by appealing through the University’s archaic internal judicial system. Such methods, however, can only work if they are backed up by the physical presence of mass demonstrations and meetings.
The Cambridge Marxists are calling on the CUSU leadership to organise an Extraordinary General Meeting – i.e. a mass meeting of students – in which a vote of no confidence in the University and its disciplinary procedures can be made. This was the tactic employed at the University of Sussex in March 2010, when six students were suspended for taking part in a protest. Following a mass meeting of the student union, at which 800 students unanimously voted for no confidence in the Vice Chancellor. Following this, the decision to suspend was overturned, and the “Sussex Six” were reinstated.
Victimisation and the state
The victimisation of this student in Cambridge is part of a wider move in society towards the restriction of the democratic right for students and workers to organise and protest. The ruling class is determined to defend the capitalist system at all costs. They have no reforms to offer the working class and the youth in Britain or elsewhere. The cupboard is bare and austerity is the only item on the menu.
Without any concessions to offer to the masses, the ruling class in Britain and internationally have attempted instead to lean on the leaders of the labour movement and ask them to hold back their members. However, in times of deep crisis, the pressures within society must be reflected in some way, and even the most conservative of trade union leaders can be forced into calling for strikes and mass action. This was the case with the public sector strikes on the 30th in spite of the trade union leadership, not because of them. As was the case with the 1926 General Strike in Britain, reluctantly called by the TUC leadership due to pressure from below, the November 30th action was called as a result of these pressures within society, which cannot necessarily find a safe outlet through the leaders of the labour movement. The ruling class is forced to rely ever more on tools of the state – the courts and the police, in order to stop workers and youth from organising and taking action. Hence the victimisation of student protestors, the blacklisting of militant trade unionists, the heavy presence of police on demonstrations, and the legal challenges to strike action by employers through the courts.
In the final analysis, however, the law is only words on paper, backed up by the state – which in turn is composed of armed bodies of men. The example of the recent Egyptian revolution – and many other revolutions throughout history – show that even the most authoritarian and monstrous state apparatus can collapse like a house of cards once the masses move. The wildcat strikes – i.e. illegal strike action – at the Lindsey oil refinery and across the UK in February 2009 shows that when workers move en masse, there is nothing the state can do to stop them (see http://www.socialist.net/lindsey-strikers-latest.htm). Similarly, the recent victory of the Sparks shows that militant mass action pays (see http://www.socialist.net/victory-sparks-dispute.htm).
In order to stop the victimisation of protestors and activists, students and workers must unite and fight to defend our basic democratic rights to organise and take action. This battle of workers vs. the bosses, of students vs. university officials, requires a leadership that is willing and able to build a mass movement, armed with a socialist programme, that will kick this government out and put an end to the misery and oppression of the capitalist system.
· No to the victimisation of students and workers!
· No to the privatisation of higher education and public services!
· For a mass movement of students and workers against this bosses’ government!
· For a socialist alternative to cuts and austerity!
This article was first published in Socialist Appeal
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This post was written by Cambridge Marxists