– Alán Camilo Cienfuegos weighs in on the USI Disaffiliation debate, arguing that left-wing students should remain committed to working with and within the USI.
The decision of University College Dublin to disaffiliate from the national Union of Students in Ireland is utterly foolish. In a time when the efficacy of the various organisations of working people and the disaffected in Irish society are being blunted by the ever-useful government tactic of divide-and-conquer (public vs. private sector, etc.), to have one of the largest universities in the country break with their student’s national union and essentially go it alone is nothing but a victory for those whose interests lie in seeing unions in general broken up and emaciated, namely the government and wealthy they serve. That the campaign in favour of disaffiliation was spearheaded by the likes of Young Fine Gael, the lapdogs of their parents in government, should be evidence enough of the motivations for such a move, but to see leftists standing in the same camp as such vermin is, to say the least, surprising.
This brief piece is primarily a response to an article by Aidan Rowe entitled “The long march through the USI: UCD disaffiliation and beyond”, in which he essentially puts forward the point that the USI is an irrelevancy to students in general and to the student ‘left’ in particular, and that the decision by UCD to disaffiliate is somehow progressive, although he does not detail exactly how or why. He states that leftists who engage in pro-USI advocacy in disaffiliation campaigns such as this one “deliver crucial votes for USI which keep colleges affiliated to a structure which offers nothing to students beyond an empty, apolitical and ineffectual “representation”. Indeed, the gist of the article is provided by the final line “…why should we care about USI?”
Such a misguided view is entirely understandable in times when the level of people’s struggle in the country is low, and the tendency of many leftists to look for scapegoats to rationalise their own impatience is more common. However, it would be wrong not to argue against such views whenever and wherever they arise. The thrust of Rowe’s article smacks of crying “the USI isn’t what leftists want it to be, so why should we bother with it?” The fact is, although the USI is indeed a reactionary-dominated organisation, it still represents the vast majority of the students in the country, and has consistently, when it took the effort, brought tens of thousands of students onto the streets of Dublin in protest at fee increases and grants cuts. The fact that it took no proper action with the aid of those numbers is not so much an argument against the USI as against the ineffectiveness of the Irish left in engaging with and seriously working within the USI to influence its policies and actions (or lack thereof).
Comrade Rowe makes the distinction between the role of ‘traditional’ unions with which leftists engaged, and the specific example of the USI today, wherein the ‘traditional’ unions were at the cutting edge of struggles for worker’s rights and the primary breeding ground for radical consciousness. He states that “The same can hardly be said of USI, which doesn’t even rise to the level of the toothless post-Celtic Tiger social partnership unions, which at least retain a functioning branch infrastructure and the potential (albeit remote) of engaging in industrial action”. This utopian view ignores the fact that throughout history trade unions have also on many an occasion been nests of the most reformist and reactionary of views, until advanced workers and outside political agitators of the most developed class and political consciousness have succeeded, through arduous struggle and perseverance, in turning them around, seizing them from the bourgeois opportunists and turning them into militant organisations of the working class.
The same principle can basically be applied to the unions of Ireland today, including the USI. If the USI is to be a site of struggle and militancy, then it is the duty of student leftists and militants to make it such, not decry its shortcomings and yearn for something better, something more in line not with reality but with their own ideals. Such dreaming is nonsense. If we are to condemn the USI as utterly reactionary and useless, then if we are to be consistent, we must also condemn the other trade unions in the country as the same, and refuse to work in them or have anything to do with them. No serious revolutionary worth their salt would suggest such a thing, and it cannot simply be waved away with vacuous statements like “[the unions] at least retain a functioning branch infrastructure and the potential (albeit remote) of engaging in industrial action”. They do indeed, but so does the USI – it’s potential is clearly hinted at by its capacity to mobilise the thousands of students we saw each year at the national demonstration in Dublin before it was discontinued, regardless of the fact that they did nothing meaningful with those numbers. If such massive demonstrations are possible with reactionary leaders, imagine what could be achieved with principled leftists in positions of power?
The domination of the USI by careerists and government hacks has been echoed by the same such domination in almost every union organisation in every country throughout the history of organised labour. This does not mean we abandon the largest and most organised sections of workers (or in this case, students) to the reactionaries, to have their way with them, to lead them on the path of reformism and lobbying without any opposition. To do so is and always has been, from a revolutionary point of view, utterly criminal.
However, let us humour the dreams of ultra-leftism for a moment, and assume that in the near future other universities and colleges also disaffiliated from the USI, and that that organisation was utterly decimated – what would then replace it? We would have a situation whereby each individual Student’s Union, doubtless dominated by reactionaries due to their dismissal as ‘irrelevant’ by the elitist student left, would essentially be acting on its own, with no core demands or common positions, no uniformity of tactics, strategy or even purpose. The fracturing of the national union would result in the final destruction of an already-weak unity of third level institutions in the face of continuing government attacks on student welfare.
It has been put forward by certain comrades on the student left that there should be an alternative organisation set up, to replace or compete with the USI. Ideally, yes, of course we should have a radical union of students with a mass membership and support base, and the organisational and bureaucratic structures to support it and make it effective. But we do not, and the idea that the Irish student ‘left’, as it stands, is capable of creating such a body is frankly laughable. Discounting the likes of SF/Republican Youth (formerly Ógra Shinn Féin), Socialist Youth, and the Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS), who are concentrating on building their own organisations, we are essentially left with the remains of Free Education for Everyone (FEE) as the only ones who have any desire to build such an alternative ‘union’, supposedly on a more or less broad basis. The fact that, outside of the Galway branch (which was the exception, yet has still come to naught), no branch of FEE has succeeded in any way in the last few years of even increasing its own membership beyond 4 or 5 people, or increasing its influence among the student masses to even a small fraction of that of the established SU’s, or even maintaining any consistent level of agitation as basic as leafleting and postering, should be evidence enough of the sorry state of the miniscule student left and its complete inability to build anything other than irrelevant cliques on the fringes of student life. There are of course arguments to be made about the de-politicisation of society and students in general in explaining the failure of the left to grow itself on our campuses,. The pathetic turnout for the UCD disaffiliation referendum is indeed testament to this. But it cannot count for all of our failures, many of which are down to basic errors in organisation and political line (which are deserving of an analysis of their own).
Comrade Rowe states “The path to success for any group begins with the admission of reality and the abandonment of unhelpful illusions.” Indeed. The chief illusion at the moment is that the section of the Irish student left to which Rowe belongs is capable of building any kind of alternative to the USI. The USI, when stripped of its infestation with careerist rats, is nothing less than a mass-based organisation of hundreds of thousands of Irish students, capable, we have seen, of mobilising tens of thousands of them in protest when the effort is made. The student left must seize the machinery of such an organisation, machinery which it clearly cannot construct on its own. To do this, the student left must first grow itself, into a disciplined, cohesive and committed core of activists, tactically and strategically united, and must then seriously engage itself in patiently and methodically raising the level of student political consciousness on and off campuses, seizing the local Student’s Unions on each campus, with the ultimate goal of clawing back the USI from the reactionary filth that has wormed its way into positions of control. Alongside this it is vital that the student left continue to build its own organs of agitation, conduct constant propaganda, protest, and direct action when and where circumstances allow. It must also be noted that the rise in student militancy will to a large extent come with a rise in the level of struggle in the country generally, and that great patience will be required to see the fruition of our goals.
Comrade Rowe claims that the structures of the USI themselves make it impossible to reclaim the union. He states: “Neither can anti-democratic structures be utilised to bring about democratisation in the absence of a pro-democracy groundswell capable of forcing such a change.” What is meant by ‘democratisation’ is left undefined. Each SU’s officer board and Class Representative Council is elected directly by the student body of each university; in turn, these send delegates to the national council of the USI to democratically vote on union policy. One wonders how much more ‘democracy’ is needed, without the decision making processes of the organisation becoming so convoluted and inefficient as to be unworkable.
With principled leftists in positions of power in the USI it will be capable of great things, and more than capable of giving whatever government is in office at the time some serious headaches if it continues to attack the welfare of the most vulnerable in society, such as students, in order to pay the for the extortions of the rich. Without the USI, indeed without a national union of any kind, Irish students will be atomised even further, and the divide-and-conquer games of the government will be even easier to play. And, as usual, the student left will be standing on the sidelines, decrying the state of student politics, having abandoned the only real mass-based student organisation in the country to the depredations of the politicians-in-training.