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Socialism Today 118 - May 2008

RSSF conference, November 1968

RSSF: turn to the labour movement!

This article, written by Lynn Walsh, a delegate to the RSSF conference from Sussex University Socialist Club, was first published in Militant No.44, December 1968.

THE FIRST FULL conference of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation was held in London, at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm on the 8 and 9 November.

To those who had hoped it would lay the foundations of a viable national, socialist student organisation it was something of a disappointment. The relatively poor attendance, especially from outside London, indicated a falling off of enthusiasm amongst students since the summer, which must be attributed partly to the lack of direction from the RSSF at the beginning of this term. Unfortunately, the conference did little to give the organisation any real sense of direction.

At the very beginning there was a serious dispute: the conference organisers, supported by International Socialism [later the Socialist Workers’ Party], the International Marxist Group, New Left Review etc, proposed that the situation in the educational institutions should be discussed first, and political perspectives on Saturday. This was strongly but unsuccessfully opposed by a minority, including Sussex Socialist Club and the supporters of Militant, who demanded that the political discussion should come first.

The absurdity of taking things in this order soon became clear. The conference divided into two groups. The majority, supporting the slogan of ‘Student Power’, advanced the idea that the universities are the ‘weak link’ of capitalism and that socialist students, supposedly the vanguard of revolution, should establish ‘Red Bases’ in the universities as the first step towards socialism. In words they recognise the key role of the working class in the struggle for socialism, but in practice they postpone all discussion of the orientation of students in relation to the workers to the distant future.

This approach is the result of a completely false perspective. It does not even recognise that the radicalisation amongst large numbers of students is produced by the movement in society as a whole: by the unfolding crisis in capitalism on a world scale on the one side and by the enormous strength and potential power of the workers on the other. The protagonists of ‘Student Power’, with no real ideas of their own, have merely absorbed many of the ideas of the past period which exaggerate out of all proportion the role of students and intellectuals in changing society. International Socialism, the International Marxist Group, New Left Review, etc, do not agree on any of the fundamental issues. And yet they agree on one thing: to combine on a vague, opportunist platform of ‘Student Power’ and to prevent a thorough discussion of the underlying perspectives. Thus they insisted that the student programme be discussed first, which meant that the issue was decided on before the underlying conceptions had been brought out into the open.

Apart from one or two demands for democratisation and reform tacked on to the call for ‘Red Bases’, the ‘Student Power’ bloc made no attempt to formulate a programme which would connect up the fight for improved conditions in education with the overall need to transform society, a programme with which the RSSF would be able to win students reacting against the existing conditions, but not yet committed revolutionaries, to the programme of socialist revolution.

Attempting to outline such a programme, Sussex Socialist Club, supported by a number of other delegates, moved a resolution which called for an opening of higher education to all sections of society, a living wage for students, a fully comprehensive system of higher education with enough resources to break down all distinctions between the types of institution, and finally for "workers’ control of education as the only alternative to and guarantee against the domination of education by the employing class". This was passed, but the majority clique merely attempted to ignore this motion posing the issue in class terms, without at the same time advancing any real arguments against acting on it.

The opposition group in the conference continually emphasised the importance of thoroughly working out a consistent socialist programme and of turning outwardly to the workers in the labour movement. In the discussion on Saturday the real issues at stake came out. The position of the ‘Student Power’ clique became clearer. They asserted that the existing political parties and trade unions are incapable of "sustaining revolutionary socialist programmes", and "it is neither meaningful or valuable to attempt to capture these organisations". "New, participatory mass-based organisations are required to overthrow capitalism". But they make no attempt to work out how the millions of workers who are still involved with these organisations are to be won to socialist ideas. Apart from ‘Red Bases’ they have no programme in any case. In practice they not only write off the traditional mass organisations, but also the mass of the workers with them.

If the RSSF is to succeed in mobilising socialist students to play a serious and sustained part in the fight for socialism, the organisation must begin at once to work out perspectives that measure up to the present developments in society and the tasks facing the workers’ movement. Differences exist, and the movement will go forward only if they are discussed in an open and honest manner. Unfortunately, the present loose structure, without a national committee elected on a political basis, opens up the way for further cliquishness instead of the various groups fighting for their political positions and putting them to the test of action and experience.

Abstract declarations of the need for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism do not in themselves get us anywhere. The principles by which a socialist transformation could be effected must be embodied in a programme, but a programme that is going to act as a means of winning masses of workers must clearly connect them up with the demands which continually arise from the day-to-day clashes of the workers with the existing structure of society. In order to put the programme into effect it is imperative to forge links with the workers’ organisations, to establish the reliability and authority of the RSSF as a body seriously prepared to take up the workers’ fight as its own fight.


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