Ever since I first arrived at uni in the mid-80s campus activism has been dominated by Marxists. A number of small but highly dedicated groups have hammered away at the students, year after year, without much competition from any other activist organisations.
For all this, the Marxist groups have never taken off. They've never drawn a significant number of students to their ranks.
What limits the appeal of Marxism? A lot of students, perhaps, recoil from the general aims of Marxism. Marxists want to abolish countries, they want to overthrow the family, and they oppose gender differentiation between men and women. For a lot of students, this is a dystopian vision rather than a utopian one. Most students, in other words, value their national identity and their identity as men and women; most students also hope one day to have a family of their own. Why then should Marxism appeal to them?
So who is left to join the Marxist ranks? First, there are those for whom Marxist aims actually do seem liberating. For instance, a disproportionate number of those who join the little Marxist groups are homosexual. This makes sense, as homosexuals are more likely to react positively to the prospect of abolishing the traditional family and traditional versions of gender. Similarly, the more radically feminist of women might also approve of these aims.
The problem with this audience for Marxists is not only the limited numbers involved. It's also that such groups have their own political movements, targeted specifically to them. They don't need to wade their way through Marxist theory; nor are they likely to look up to the working-class, when workers are the most remote from their own lifestyle and politics.
So feminist and gay activists tend not to stick around. They're more likely to end up as academics, with a mixture of Marxist and "movementist" politics. They move on, and retain only tenuous links with the little campus groups.
So who else is there to fill the Marxist ranks? The radicalism of Marxism can appeal to those who are rebelling against authority. Often this will be paternal authority, so at times the Marxist groups can recruit very young people (15-year-old girls and 17-year-old boys).
But there are problems as well with this target group. First, it usually will only involve isolated individuals. The exception is when there is a more generalised sense of youth rebellion, a generation conflict. It's difficult to imagine this occurring again soon, though. There is no significant youth demographic on the horizon, and society is so culturally fractured now, that it's difficult to imagine solidarity along generational lines.
Anyway, two things are likely to happen to our anti-authoritarian youths. First, they're likely to discover that the new authority in their lives is the Marxist party itself, rather than Dad or the school principal. This authority is likely to be exercised with much less personal care; the result is that the party itself is often identified as the problem, leading either to an early exit, or else attempts at reform, internal divisions, splits and fragmentation.
Second, individuals do tend to mellow in their radicalism over time, so again the 18-year-olds are unlikely to be there in the long-term to build numbers.
Which leaves one other recruiting point for the Marxist groups. It's possible for people to join such groups seeking meaning in their lives. That's why the high-sounding talk of liberation, equality, brotherhood etc can be effective. It's a way for people to think that their life is serving some significant purpose.
It's possible for individuals joining Marxist groups to have their real interest at this more abstract level of idealism. They might not ever really have thought about, or be passionate about, the particular campaigns they find themselves involved in.
It's notable perhaps that Marxism in Australia reached a high-point from the 1930s to the 1950s, at a time when regular religion was losing its place amongst the intellectual class. Catholicism retained some of its vitality in Australia in this period, and therefore formed something of a line of resistance to Australian Marxism.
The people who find Marxism appealing as a secular religion do tend to be the "true believers" - those who maintain a lifelong commitment. They still most often are, in Australia, heterosexual Anglo males.
Yet, there aren't many of them. One reason for this is that Marxism requires its followers to "believe against belief". If you think that your life will be significant because you helped to bring about an international working-class revolution, then you will be depressed to find yourself part of a stagnant, tiny group of middle-class activists with no real chance of practically implementing your aims.
Nor does a political transformation of society really bring a genuinely religious meaning to life. The liberal philosopher J.S. Mill had a nervous breakdown when, as a young man, he asked himself whether he would really be content if all his political aims were to be practically achieved. He was honest enough to answer no.
This isn't to say that politics isn't important. It can't, though, provide the kind of meaning or purpose which those seeking a substitute religion are looking for.
So a Marxist organisation isn't likely to attract, or hold, large numbers of people as a kind of replacement church. As it happens, the pentecostal churches appear to be far more successful in appealing to young people alienated from modern society. I can't see the little Marxist groups competing successfully with the churches in this field.
For all these reasons, the Marxist groups haven't really benefited from their advantageous position on campus. As dedicated as they are, there's not an audience for them which can give them numbers or long-term appeal.