Sunday 30 January 2011

Aaron Porter's contortions

So, Aaron Porter – remember him? – warned ahead of yesterday’s student and trade union demonstrations in Manchester and London that ‘[s]tudent infighting harms our cause’ and that the correct strategy is ‘peaceful protests and engaging with politicians – not the violent tactics of a hard-left minority’. That Porter would decry ‘infighting’ in an article that is nothing but is ironic, or would be if he still commanded even a sliver of student support. Generally there is no reason to listen to, much less discuss, Porter’s pathetic mewling as he battles Nick Clegg for the prize of Least Relevant Person in Britain Today. But he uses a number of fairly insidious rhetorical sleights of hand, and those are worth taking apart.

First, Porter’s trying to reassert his leadership over the student movement. He wants to explode the notion that the NUS have been inactive, and he cites what he’s been up to. But of course the issue isn’t that the NUS are doing nothing; it’s that their actions are mostly symbolic and irrelevant. Does anyone remember their glow-stick vigil on 9 December, poorly attended mostly by, one imagines, people who couldn’t find the real protest that was taking place on Parliament Square where thousands were kettled by police for hours?

Now the man is trying to claim the Manchester demonstration while disowning the parallel London protest for being neither ‘supported by students’ unions’ nor having ‘adequate arrangements… for the safety of those involved’. This would be the Manchester demo where Porter had to be escorted by police to escape the wrath of students (so his safety was clearly adequately provided for – go NUS!) and the ‘largely peaceful’ London protest. In reality, of course, Porter is fighting a public relations campaign to persuade the public at large that he is still in charge; students know that he lost leadership of the movement the movement he supported the police and the media against protesters on 10 November.

That, then, is just nonsense. But Porter also claims that those who are in favour of direct action are a ‘hard-left minority’. There’s something really quite pathetic about the man who pledged his support for the UCL and other occupations (after the fact, of course) to now turn on those students and rhetorically marginalise them. First, Porter insists that those in support of and involved in direct action represent a minority of students. Although in my experience they greatly outnumber those who actively support the NUS, in absolute terms Porter’s point is irrefutably true – the majority of students are not well informed or involved. But it does not follow that they are therefore impostors and Porter himself the true embodiment of the will of the student body.

As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, the superstitious belief that ‘in order to carry anything, you must first have a majority’ is a product of ‘parliamentary cretinism’. ‘The same, they [the cretins] say, applies to revolution: first let’s become a “majority”. The true dialectic of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority – that’s the way the road runs.’ (The Russian Revolution, Ch. 1.) Substitute ‘struggle’ for ‘revolution’ and Luxemburg is clearly right even today.

Without the direct action of tax protests, would corporate tax avoidance have become an issue in the public consciousness? Without direct action at Millbank, on Parliament Square etc., would the student movement have been paid more than cursory attention in the mainstream press? Hardly. Determined minorities can create majorities, and there is nothing undemocratic about that. Opinions are not pre-existing notions stuck in someone’s head; they are created, shaped and reshaped by real events. Direct action is necessary, not in violation of but to create majorities.

Second, Porter claims that because most students’ unions are not opposed to him, the ‘radicals’ are a minority ‘pushed by outside forces on the hard-left of the political spectrum’. It’s not new for Porter to claim that mysterious ‘outside forces’ are the source of his troubles, but the main argument is more interesting. It’s intended to convince not students but readers of the Guardian who may not be aware that one of the major grievances of the ‘radicals’ is that they feel students’ unions as a whole with some laudable exceptions are unrepresentative, opportunistic and conservative.

The reasons why SU sabbatical officers are so often among the most reactionary of the student body are manifold and not relevant here, but it’s important that Porter seeks to hide the struggle between student activists and structurally conservative SUs. As these have often failed to support or sabotaged even the mildest action, real opposition to fees and cuts has in many places been forced to act outside the SU. Thus Porter’s argument is entirely circular: ‘the people who support me support me; therefore the complainers are wrong. QED.’ At many universities student activism is being driven by extra-SU forces, with the SU either totally isolated or being dragged along while bleating feebly about ‘moderation’ and ‘responsibility’. (And oh, see Porter’s insistence that the NUS must ‘play the hand we are dealt’, i.e. capitulate, a lapse into the futile ‘moderate’ NUS policy of the last decade-and-a-half that saw no real NUS opposition to the introduction, trebling, and now trebling again of tuition fees.)

So, let’s just stop listening to this man. But let’s have a debate about the NUS: can it be reformed or should it be ignored and bypassed? Ultimately I tend to the view, adapted from Lenin, that the students must be sought and engaged wherever they are to be found and that to this end working within as well as outside the NUS is important, if only to definitively break down its reactionary structures and revolutionise it to become a genuine fighting organisation for students’ interests. Either way, direct action is the way forward as students seek to unite with the wider working masses in our fight against this government.

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