Revolutionary lessons from the SCA campaign

There is a crisis of underfunding across the entire university system. Universities have always been degree factories but as a consequence universities today are run more and more like businesses. University bosses, the Vice Chancellors and Deans, resemble corporate managers ‘headhunted’ with big salaries. Disciplines like art that do not fit the needs of big business or the logic of profit-making are increasingly seen as expendable, a burden even. The effort to gut SCA is only one example of this. There are cuts across the board on Australian campuses. Earlier this year the ANU cut programs from its language school and the UWA announced 300 job cuts.

All this is symptomatic of the warped logic of capitalism. Working against this logic, the marches, strikes and occupations organized to save SCA are part of a fight to stop one rotten decision by management, but they are also part of a fight against a rotten system that puts profits before people.

Solidarity is a revolutionary organization that has been at the heart of this fight from early on. We believe that struggle from below is crucial for the fight at SCA and to change the world. The debates and discussion that have raged during the occupation have shown the importance of revolutionary ideas.

Organisation is necessary

The capitalist system inevitably forces people into situations where radicalisation and a fightback become possible. The management proposal to destroy SCA exposed a complete indifference to art practice and the welfare of students and staff. This angered people en masse. But it takes organisation to respond effectively. There is debate every step of the way in any campaign or struggle.

At the start of the SCA campaign there were debates over whether there should even be democratic meetings and rallies to save SCA. There were debates for and against the student strikes and occupation. If we are not organized on the basis of a clear theory of change that can guide us at each turning point, those debates can be lost. Without political leadership the inspiring struggle at SCA could have easily become a top-down lobbying campaign that quickly fizzled.

As Marxists, Solidarity understood from the start that the uni management are the product of a tertiary education system that was corporatised in the 80s. We were able to draw the clear conclusion that they would have to be fought and not just reasoned with.

It was this understanding that led us to argue for the right tactics very quickly—tactics that involved mass mobilisation and gave people confidence and prepared them to fight. We understood that the rules we defy during acts of civil disobedience are there to prevent us using our collective power—that the legal system concentrates power in the hands of the few so they can better exploit the many. This gave us confidence to argue for the occupation and connect with like-minded students—sometimes in the face of nasty slander from a minority of conservative students.

No doubt, looking forward there will be future arguments to be had about how to spread the rebellion to main campus and escalate action amongst SCA students. These will be vital to determining the success of the campaign.

But throughout this whole process we didn’t just have ideas. We had activists on campus who were able to be in the meetings and at the rallies to make the arguments and write the leaflets. We had activists off campus who were able to send solidarity and draw on their past experience and union connections. We had an organizational structure of a magazine, branches and so on that were able to effectively draw all this theory and activity together amid an often bewildering frenzy of activity. Our organization was effective because it already existed before the fight broke out at SCA.

In the bigger picture, we don’t get to choose the moments when massive struggles, and even revolution, can potentially break out. But we do get to decide whether we are prepared. We have a responsibility to build a revolutionary socialist organization that can win struggles now, and build them in the future. Revolutionaries should commit not just to individual campaigns but to long term revolutionary organization.

Class politics and linking the struggles

As the campaign escalated support and solidarity became increasingly important. In particular we were able to draw support from unions and other students to strengthen the occupation both materially and politically. Union support helped cement the political legitimacy of the occupation in August and made it a symbol of the society-wide struggle to put people before profit. When the uni cut off the internet the MUA bought everyone dongles. Food and support photos poured into the occupation. A long list of organisations expressed support and joined rallies outside the occupation. All of this was vital to pressuring the uni, maintaining morale, making eviction difficult, getting media and to materially sustaining the action.

Solidarity played a particular role building this support due to our class politics. Many oppose the closure of SCA, including some of Sydney Uni’s wealthy alumni donors. However, we understood that they would be unreliable allies. Their wealth is protected by the very laws that prevent occupations and strikes. That is why we looked to unions from the start. Before the occupation we involved unions in our activity as much as possible and ensured unionists appeared on rally platforms.

Connections from previous struggles meant we were able to call for support because we had been there when workers were fighting in the past. One young maritime worker was part of a group that visited the SCA occupation. He pointed out that there were many familiar faces in the room. Many of those faces were student Solidarity members who spent time on the pickets to support wharfies facing job cuts last year at Port Botany. We built the support we did as a result of combining theory and practice—through our class politics and our practical history of involvement in struggle.

A system of crisis

Crisis is built into the DNA of capitalism. The corporate university is a product of the last great capitalist economic crisis that began in the 70s. In order to make investment more attractive when profit rates were low for business the ALP sought to cut corporate tax, in part by slashing uni funding in the early 80s. This created a class of corporate managers tasked with squeezing the money needed to run an expanding university system out of staff and students.

The attack on SCA is a continuation of this logic. In the wake of the GFC whole countries have been subjected to the kind of corporate savagery we’ve seen on display at SCA. This has provoked political polarisation. Look at Europe for example, where crisis has fed the rise of both far-Left and far-Right political parties. But any socialist party that seeks to run capitalism will find itself in the position the ALP did in the 80s—held hostage to the power of unelected investors.

That’s why any fundamental change will require us to seize the means of production itself and place it under democratic control. But regardless of the government that is in power, it is the job of the military, police and courts to prevent such change. Many staff were told about the large fines workers face for striking illegally. These fines are a testament to the immense fear the ruling class has that workers action will challenge their unfettered control.

Revolution is possible

One of the most demoralising things for those who want radical change is the feeling that everyone else is willing to accept things the way they are, or at least not willing to do anything meaningful to achieve change. The experience of the SCA campaign shows why this demoralisation is unwarranted. The system itself forces people into situations where they see the need to fight- regardless of how complacent they have been in the past. This provides the opportunity for them to radicalise through their own experience.

Those who felt helpless as individuals felt strong when they marched and chanted with hundreds of others through the business school. Some who would have never participated in civil disobedience before the campaign started found themselves occupying the Dean’s office. They saw for themselves management couldn’t be reasoned with. Struggle is a university that teaches people who their friends and enemies are and shows them their own power.

Capitalism is a system of terrible crisis. This leads to struggle on a national and international scale. This is what makes revolution necessary and possible. But only if we have organisation to seize the opportunity.

Join Solidarity

This is a call. Join us. Reformism is a dead end. Acting as a lone revolutionary is a dead end. There is only hope in revolutionary politics and organisation. We’ve seen a glimpse of that hope at SCA. We saw people stand up, get organised and fight. Students and supporters of many political stripes made immense contributions to the struggle. But that determination to fight for a better world is most potent when organized on a revolutionary basis. Capitalism provides the fuel we need to spread the sparks.

Together we need to draw the lessons, organise and go forward stronger. We need to look at the lessons of history and apply them in practice with the support of an organisation. This is what our members do! If you are revolutionary, stand for socialism from below and recognise the value of organisation, join us.

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