The anti-war movement and NUS

November 14, 2001


The US-led war against the people of Afghanistan places a big responsibility on student activists. This new imperialist offensive is likely to be a long one, resulting in massive human and ecological costs. Our task is to build the biggest possible movement against this unjust war.

Already the effects on Afghanistan have been devastating. The US bombing raids have killed more than a thousand civilians. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing the air attacks and millions are threatened with starvation as aid agencies cannot move much-needed supplies into the country before the bitter winter sets in.

Moreover, Washington has drawn up a list of 60 countries that may be targeted in its "war on terrorism".

Opposition is mounting to the war across the globe. Campuses throughout Australia are also experiencing a wave of anti-war campaigning. Picture

The response of the National Union of Students (NUS) to the US war drive has been limited. While national education officer Kate Davison took the excellent initiative to organise a "No War, No Racism" conference for December 2-3 in Melbourne, few other initiatives have been taken by the union as a whole.

Building an anti-war movement on campus needs to start now. The November-December round of national and state conferences will be important in deciding on anti-war activities NUS can initiate.

The socialist youth organisation Resistance has proposed that an anti-war delegates caucus be formed within NUS, open to those who have voice and vote at NUS conferences and who support the demands of the movement: stop the war; no Australian support for the war; oppose attacks on civil liberties; and oppose racist scapegoating.

Such a caucus will allow anti-war activists to be co-ordinated in their arguments on conference floor. There will undoubtedly be political differences amongst people in an anti-war caucus. But this occurs in the factions anyway. What can bind the anti-war caucus is the perspective that NUS must build the anti-war movement.

Resistance is also proposing that an alternative anti-war stream occur during the time allocated at the national conference for caucus meetings. This would allow anti-war activists, delegates and non-delegates, to discuss in detail political questions relating to the war and to develop plans for building the anti-war movement on campus in 2002.

The Australian Labor Party factions — Student Unity, Australian Labor Students and the National Organisation of Labor Students — dominate NUS. There are a range of other right-wing and left-wing factions within NUS.

The factionalism built into the functioning of NUS results in decisions around the political direction of the union being sidelined during the conference by the behind-the-scenes discussion over who will hold the office bearer positions. For the dominant factions, this is their only real concern.

Unfortunately, the left has also played this "game" during NUS conferences, becoming permanently factionalised, with a perspective to get the crumbs in terms of office bearer positions.

The failure of the National Broad Left is an example of this. The NBL, formed in 1999, was a home for those who identified as being "left-wing" in general but did not have a common political purpose to bind them together, leaving the NBL aas an empty shell and without impact on NUS. That is why Resistance decided to leave the NBL in 2000.

It is little wonder that some student activists become cynical about NUS. Factionalism, grandstanding, point-scoring and an overall talkshop atmosphere are often the cover behind which unprincipled deals for office-bearer positions is conducted. The failure of the left's intervention in NUS has led many activists to conclude that it is better to abstain from NUS.

Resistance disagrees with this view. It puts forward the perspective of a left that wages a fight within NUS to place activist politics at the fore.

The anti-war movement provides the left with an important opportunity to put politics above factionalism at the coming NUS conferences. The left can lead the fight for NUS to adopt anti-war policies and to build anti-war and fund actions in 2002.

The proposed anti-war delegates caucus and the anti-war stream will allow student activists to discuss the best strategy for building this movement on campus. This could include an NUS-organised national day of action against the war in March 2002, NUS-produced anti-war material for member campuses, encouraging the formation of campus anti-war collectives around the country, organising teach-ins and supporting broader anti-war actions.

Successfully convincing NUS to adopt an activist perspective on opposing the war would help the growth of anti-war campaigning on campuses and it would strengthen the anti-war movement.

From Green Left Weekly, November 14, 2001.
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