(April 1970)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.43, April/May 1970, p.1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The wave of student insurgency that followed the discovery of files on political activists at Warwick was the largest yet seen in Britain. Although in the past there have been the beginnings of national action among students, it has been on nothing like the present scale. For instance, the solidarity actions taken in solidarity with LSE last year were almost everywhere confined to an already radicalised minority. What developed this time was a movement embracing something approaching the majority of students in more than half a dozen different centres, as well as significant minorities in more than a dozen others.

Eighteen months ago, in Capitalism, Education and the Student Revolution, we tried to analyse the structural factors in modern capitalism that make likely periodic outbursts of student discontent: the massive expansion of higher education in response to capitalism’s needs for increased numbers of technologists, scientists, manipulators and ideologues, and the resulting changes in both the class background and class destinies of students; the sons of the ruling class become only a small proportion of the total. This new mass of students (or at least its arts and humanities component) is particularly sensitive to the increasing irreconcilability between the liberal ideology it is taught to learn and propagate and the illiberal practices of late capitalism.

The post-Warwick events have once again underlined the explosiveness of the tensions created. In university after university large numbers of previously quiescent students have been moved into action by the spectacle of the authorities breaking with the tenets of their own liberal orthodoxy.

Institutions are questioned and ideas discussed as never before. This development not only worries the vice-chancellors. It also provides new opportunities for the revolutionary left.

Yet there is the danger that many of these will not be taken. For much of the left still seems unable to understand the simple realities of the student movement. On the one hand there are still those who regard protesting students as upper-class kids having a freak out. On the other are those who see student activism as a substitute for building a revolutionary working-class organisation – whether through talk of ‘red bases’, of students as a ‘new revolutionary class’, of ‘strategic minorities’ or of an ‘international youth vanguard’. Here two quite different things are confounded: a movement around liberal or reformist demands in which revolutionaries can play a key role and a movement of revolutionaries.

The pre-condition for effective intervention by the left among students is an understanding of the gap between its own ideas and the concerns of the mass of students. The level of these can only be raised if demands are put forward that most students are willing to fight for. If the left are patient enough, this should not be too difficult. An important feature of student movements is that they tend themselves to throw up demands that are transitional. Although liberal in form (e.g., for a degree of student control, for ‘opening the files’, for ending racialist links) these cannot be satisfied for any length of time under capitalist society at its present stage. In fighting to impose them students not only ‘expose’ the authorities, but also have to come to terms with the contradictory ideas in their own minds. For, liberals, particularly the professional liberals who officially lead the students, are unable to fight for such liberal demands in anything like a consistent fashion. Hence their constant tendency to narrow down the significance of demands until the established structure is hardly challenged (for example, from opening all files so as to guarantee against academic spying and blacklists, to the inspection of specific innocuous ones). Such equivocation continually endangers the movement – but it also forces many students into a debate that can only be of advantage to revolutionary ideas.

But here again the left often fails to make the best use of the situation. The other side of believing that a movement of students round liberal issues is really a revolutionary movement is a failure by the left to make known its own distinct view of society in its totality (and hence to explain why it alone is capable of consistently leading the struggle for liberal democratic demands).

Yet this is an essential task. For despite the genuine enthusiasm and mass involvement of the early stages of student struggles, in the long run these come to an impasse. For students do not have real power to transform society. They can question its pretentions, they can irritate the ruling class, but they cannot threaten it. Because the frustrations that express themselves in an outraged liberalism cannot be dealt with by confrontations in the universities alone – even the most massive mobilisations confined here eventually disintegrate.

Such a prospect seems remote to many involved in the recent upsurge. It seemed equally remote to the tens of thousands involved in the Springer action of only two years ago, to those who manned the barricades of May ‘68, to thousands around the ‘non-ideological’ American New Left, to the successive generations of Japanese students who have ‘ignited’ without success. Nearer home it seemed no closer to those who struggled in LSE 18 months ago.

Yet the German SDS has just formally dissolved itself at a half-empty conference; the American SDS fragments and further fragments; the remnants of those who fought back the CRS in the Latin Quarter tragically confront one another as well as the right in Nanterre and Vincennes. Out of a unified movement emerge on the one hand those like the Maoist Spontaeists or the Weathermen who futilely try to recreate a moment of solidarity and victory out of their own isolated actions; on the jther those who have become part of wider and more realistic revolutionary organisations. In between are the majority who have still to find a way through to meaningful action, or long since gave up the attempt.

There is a good deal of life yet in the present student upsurge. It can annoy the authorities a deal more, as well as bring many more of its participants to a true comprehension of the class realities of our society. The revolutionary left must participate in it, attempting to give guidance and leadership, seeing its victories as our victories. But we must also be aware of its limitations, continually pointing out that the only force for carrying through a real transformation of society lies elsewhere and that students who seriously want to solve their own problems can only do so by becoming part of a revolutionary organisation that relates to aspirations and struggles of that class.

Last updated on 17 November 2009