From Warwick to Sussex: Six Lessons Learnt about Organising on Campus

Callum Cant

Professor Thomas Docherty addressing a student occupation at Warwick

Professor Thomas Docherty addressing a student occupation at Warwick

Build a Broad Front

The first step is to generate broad, coalition organisations that unite the most students possible behind a unifying idea – Free Education.  By opening up organisations to the maximum possible base you tie them to the student body as closely as possible. People need to recognise that our organisations are not just for a special lefty elite – they are genuinely broad, and genuinely built on the back of organising as many students as possible.

Focus on Education and Connection

Within this broad front, the task is then to convince people of your ideas. People won’t come to their first meeting as your particular favourite brand of Socialist/Communist/Autonomist/Anarchist. A broad front has to engage in political discussion and education that is accessible to first timers and builds a collective perspective on social change.

Simultaneously a broad front also needs to communicate with new people, and continue to integrate new activists. A relentless campaign of information spreading and conversation has to be the top priority.

This means not treating your average student with contempt. If they don’t agree with us, it’s likely because they have never had a discussion on the issues – not that they are evil. Talking to thousands of new people, explaining the issues, and presenting our arguments is the absolute fundamental and basic work of organising on campus. Once you do enough of this groundwork, you start to change the prevailing conditions on campus, and then everything gets much easier.

Engage with the SU

This grass roots organisation then needs to be embedded within your union structures, so that you have activists working through the internal democracy of the union to make it more effective. The larger the external movement, the more effective this pressure will be. The goal has got to be converting unions into mass participation political structures – even if we retain a perspective that is distinct from them.

In concrete terms this means standing people for election for every position and level, passing motions, and debating issues in referenda. Yes, there are a certain set of skills to be learnt in order to do this well, but they are skills that pay back a thousand fold.

Aspire to Mass Democracy

Small activist groups can be more or less democratic, but they will never be able to function as a democratic measure of the whole student population. If we want to avoid acting like a direct action vanguard, we need to eventually always be attempting to convince the student population of our position. An on going goal, then, has to be to create the democratic structure for thousands of students to get involved in the direct democratic processes that shape the movement.

Escalate… slowly

This goal of convincing the student population means, unfortunately, that some forms of action have to wait. We can’t just lead a mass insurrection against management and expect to win long-term gains – although there is a certain short-term pressure to be derived from disruptive direct action.

What is needed is a balance between a movement that uses its collective strength to enter into a power struggle with university management and the state, and a movement that has substantial support within the student population.

This balance is tricky to find, but at its most basic we should always be working towards an increase in the ability to connect with students at the same time as we work towards increasing pressure on our opponents.

Build Infrastructure

The student movement has a fast turn over. Most of its members are in and out in under three years – meaning that at the start of every term there is always a need to start anew. In one way this is a great thing – it means we rarely get bogged down in the repetition that the old left enjoys so much. But it also means that we are always starting from near zero.

For students and the left more generally the last thirty years have seen the destruction of a lot of the stuff we relied upon to keep us from having to start all over again. Unions have stopped striking, organisations have lost their offices, and communities have been ripped apart. Part of our job now is to rebuild those structures within our particular arena of struggle: the student movement.

This means getting together things like banners, megaphones, a blog, a social media presence, a table, a printer, a big bag of red squares, and so on. On a broader level it also means developing habits and orientations like regular meetings, socialising together, connections to national organisations, and a militant student union. We need to have the basic material stuff that will help the movement tick on year after year after year.

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