Chris Harman


Student Power?

(January 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 94, January 1987, pp. 17–19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

HISTORY REPEATING itself? For a moment in late December it seemed like it. Huge and successful student demonstrations in Paris followed by a wave of public sector industrial disputes, most notably on the railways and metro. Strikes by secondary school students in Greece and Spain. The biggest protests since 1977 in Shanghai and Beijing (Peking).

It was all a bit like a rerun of the film of 1968, even if on a smaller screen.

The media, of course, put all the emphasis on the differences with 19 years ago. The Parisian students, they insist, were non-political and not at all like the 1968 revolutionaries. The Chinese students, they say, were calling for Western style democracy – something quite different from the new Paris Commune talked about during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–7. The protests in Spain and Greece were not even thought worth a mention.

The truth is concrete for Marxists. So we cannot afford to ignore the important differences between this and previous spells of student rebellion.

But we also have to notice the obvious: there were similarities, however intent the media are on ignoring them.

For these similarities are not an accident, but flow from one of the structural features of ageing capitalism – the concentration of a layer of youth into huge educational establishments which create conditions in which rebellions can suddenly flare up.

As an International Socialists pamphlet of 1968 put it:

“Modern capitalism requires a huge expansion of higher education, and the changes which must occur are qualitative as well as quantitative. In earlier periods the universities served to educate the ruling class itself and narrow strata of future professional grades (doctors, lawyers, teachers) who would themselves be considerably privileged compared to the majority of the population. In the present stage the higher educational system is required to produce, in addition, great masses of highly trained individuals whose destiny is to become white collar employees.

“These changes have profound effects on the political and social character of the student population. No longer part and parcel of the ruling class or of a privileged elite, increasingly destined for subordinate positions in society, unsure even of this future and existing only in an extremely insecure condition, students no longer identify automatically with the bourgeois order. They become open, in a way they would not have been in the past, to political and social ideas and modes of action.”

This does not mean that students are in any sense permanently in revolt against capitalist society. They are brought up in existing society and by and large accept its ideas. What is more, a few at least can do quite well within capitalism – providing they keep their noses clean. The student population is not a homogenous class within capitalism, but a heterogenous grouping of young people who come from different classes and who are destined to enter different classes on completing their studies. Their situation structures them in such a way as to rule out stabilised, continuing forms of organisation, similar to the trade union organisations of wage labour.

This situation as a transitory grouping between the major classes also means they are very sensitive to elements of social crisis in society as a whole. They often react to these before other groups in society. The student population suddenly erupts in an explosive fashion. Protests develop out of nowhere to involve thousands of students in a matter of days.

This is what happened at institutions of higher education in Germany, Italy, Britain, the US and France in 1967–8.

The following years saw further waves of such struggles – for instance, in the US at the time of the invasion of Kampuchea in 1970, in Britain in 1971–2, in Italy among the middle school students in 1973–4.

Most of the struggles died down in 1974–6 and clever journalists were already writing obituaries on the spirit of 1968. By contrast, the International Socialists’ analysis indicated that further student revolts were likely. As an important article in the International Socialism journal argued in February 1975:

“Aspirations as to what college life might be like are soon dashed by the reality. Insecurity about their future is reinforced by the isolation of life on campus. Although the discipline is less rigid than at school, decisions about course content, appointments, price levels or anything else remain just as remote ... This general alienation of students creates their readiness to rebel.”

The inbuilt, systematic character of the student revolt was shown again in 1976–7. There was a renewed series of occupations in Britain (involving more colleges but probably less overall student participation than earlier) and a huge upsurge of struggle in Italy culminating in clashes with armed police in Florence and Rome.

In most of these struggles students began with very non-political attitudes. The Berkeley revolt of 1965 was initially backed by all the political groupings on campus, including those of the bourgeois parties. The LSE occupation of 1967 took place under the nominal leadership of a Tory union president (who received about five times as many votes as the socialist candidate).

In March 1968 French revolutionaries were still complaining to visitors from abroad how backward French students were compared to those in Germany and Britain. The political backwardness of even many militant students was shown by the way in which, until the French general strike of 13 May 1968, the most common slogan was “Student power”. And even after the French May, the talk in some circles (like New Left Review) was of “Red Bases” or (for the Fourth International) “the international student-youth vanguard”.

Consciousness changed in the course of struggle. Whether the individual students liked it or not, students are a strata in an ageing, crisis prone capitalist society. Any struggle they engage in comes up against that reality in the shape of the police truncheon.

Hence any mass student movement rapidly begins to undergo politicisation. Students who initially do not want to hear anything about politics soon change their attitude. The initially united, non-political student movement becomes polarised in these political and ideological arguments.

This does not mean that the politicisation has to be in the direction of revolutionary socialism.

Here there is a very sharp contrast between the fate of the movements of the late 1960s and those of the mid-1970s.

The bulk of the activists involved in the struggles of 1967–9 moved very quickly to the left and towards what they regarded as revolutionary socialism.

This did not happen in 1976–7. In Britain the National Organisation of International Socialist Societies was much bigger than the revolutionary left in the colleges had been in 1967. It was able to lead most of the major occupations and to mount substantial “struggle contingents” on National Union of Students demonstrations. But it could not succeed in achieving the mass politicisation that the much smaller and worse organised forces of the revolutionary left had nine years earlier.

In Italy the picture was even grimmer. The movement of 1977 contributed to the demise of a revolutionary left that had, just two years before, involved perhaps 30,000 activists. Politics developed, but it was the politics of “autonomism”. This field that each movement was sufficient unto itself, with no need for formal political generalisation.

The problem of working class leadership of the struggle was solved by decreeing that the new “proletariat” was made up of all those elements – the unemployed, part time workers, students, housewives, prisoners – who were “marginal” to the capitalist production process, which in turn was manned by a “labour aristocracy” of industrial workers. The slogan “The personal is political” was adopted, and interpreted to mean than any expression of individual alienation or revolt was as political as any great mass struggle. It was as important to laugh and to cry as to understand and change reality.

The movement of 1977 moved in two directions on the basis of this politics. The first was towards the actions of small, conspiratorial terrorist groups like the Red Brigades, the Armed Proletarian Nuclei and Prima Linea. Whatever the intentions of these groups, the result of their action was completely counter-revolutionary. They isolated militants from the mass struggle, and provided the pretext for the state to launch a vicious wave of repression against the whole revolutionary left in 1979–80.

The second was to retreat into the form of extreme liberalisation preached by the Italian Radical Party. What mattered became getting signatures for referenda, not engaging in real struggle. It was not far from that to collapsing toward Craxi’s Socialist Party.

The key to the different fates of the 1967–9 and 1976–7 movements lay in what happened outside the student milieu. In France and Italy the upsurge in the student movement was followed by a very big upsurge in the workers’ movement. Students who fought the police on the Left Bank in Paris in the second week in May were able to relate to the movement of workers occupying their factories in the third and fourth weeks of May. Students who occupied most of Italy’s universities in 1968 were able to intervene in the huge strikes at the country’s biggest factory, FIAT Mirafiori, in May and June 1969.

As an excellent history of the Italian revolutionary left tells:

“The struggle which lasted the entire week from 16 to 20 June was prepared at meetings between workers and students which were held twice a day in the hall of the medicine faculty ... These not only informed and coordinated the platform, but succeeded in taking the role of leading the struggle, via the real vanguards of the different sections who used the ‘student’ meetings to decide what initiative to take.” (L. Bobbio, Lotta continua: storia di una organizzazione revolutionaria)

Even in Britain – where reformism traditionally has had much deeper roots than in France and Italy – and the level of workers’ struggle never reached that in Southern Europe, the students who were radicalised in the late 1960s were able to relate to a growing level of worker militancy in the years from the attempt of the Labour government to introduce anti-union laws in March 1969 to the fall of the Heath government in February 1974.

Such experiences gave credibility to the initially very small minorities of students who argued both that the working class was the key to social change and that it could be won, in struggle, to revolutionary politics.

Things were very different in the mid-1970s. By the time that upsurge of student struggle took place, capitalism had been able to contain the wave of workers’ struggles and to restabilise itself politically with the cooperation of the bureaucracy of the working class movement. The deflecting of the May movement in France into the electioneering of June 1968, the social contract in Britain, the incorporation of the Communist Party into the parliamentary majority for the government in Italy, the strangling of the Portuguese revolution by the Socialist Party government of Mario Soares, the Pact of Moncloa between the unions, the Socialist and Communist Parties, the government and the employers in Spain, all curtailed workers’ struggles and left those who wanted to fight on isolated.

Under these circumstances students were not pulled towards the revolutionary ideas of working class self-emancipation. In addition many people who had been won to these ideas in the past began to feel that they were “impractical” and to drop out of activity or drift towards reformism.

The situation was made worse by the fact that much of what had passed for revolutionary politics in the past was simply a regurgitated form of Stalinism. So in Italy, for example, the major revolutionary organisations, Lotta Continua and Avanguardia Operaia, were both trying to model themselves on the Chinese Communist Party by 1974. When the reality of what Stalinism meant in China, and above all in Kampuchea, came out in the mid-70s, many former activists turned against any form of Marxism at all. Others, especially in France, began to put their faith in a revival of the Socialist Parties. When these failed in government to behave any differently from any other capitalist party, the conclusion was drawn that nothing could be done to change society.

We cannot tell yet what the fate of the movement of December 1986 will be.

There have been some signs in the last couple of years of some revival of the workers’ movement internationally. In Europe there have been the miners’ strike in Britain, the public sector strikes in Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, the metal workers’ strike in Germany, the wave of strikes in Greece. Generally, however, these struggles have been much more defensive in character than the struggles of 1968-74, and much more under the influence of the trade union bureaucracy.

Outside Europe there have been the series of metal workers’ strikes in Brazil, the struggle of 1980-1 in Poland, the upsurge of workers’ organisation in South Africa. The old Stalinist and reformist political organisations have had little or no influence on these struggles, nor have old established trade union bureaucracies. The struggles have often been led by the most democratic forms of workers’ self organisation, based upon delegate bodies elected from and answerable to the shop floor.

But this workers’-democracy-in-practice has rarely been accompanied by any sense of being part of a Marxist tradition based upon notions of workers’ self-emancipation. This has been truest in Poland, where most workers are positively hostile to any notion of Marxism, identifying it with the state which exploited them, and in the Arab world where the new forces of revolt are more likely to be organised around the banner of Islamic fundamentalism than around a “Communism” which long ago sold its soul to the allegedly progressive Arab regimes of Egypt, Syria, Iraq or Algeria. But it has also been true in Brazil and South Africa, where some of the best militants have adopted “non-ideological”, workerist ideas and rejected any idea of building a Marxist party.

Now there are signs of a similar “non-political” version of workers’ democracy in Europe in reaction to the betrayals of reformism in government. Although individual revolutionaries have sat on coordinating committees of both the student and rail workers’ struggles in France, they have not been able to prevent the official “non-political” pronouncements of these committees.

The result over all is that even where there is an upturn in workers’ struggle, there is no automatic generalisation of the sort which can lead people to revolutionary socialist notions. This in turn means that the upturns in the struggle are defeated by more or less sophisticated ruling class strategies.

The ruling class will not always be able to win by such strategies: if nothing else Reagan’s Irangate affair shows that our rulers are often much less sophisticated and able than they would like to pretend.

But for the time being the heritage of Stalinism and reformism means that even in the most favourable instances the international workers’ movement is thrown back to the situation it was in at the time of the First International – of practice surging ahead of ideas, so that workers do the most revolutionary things without understanding they are doing so. It is not a situation which can last indefinitely. Either ideas will catch up with practice, or practice will fall back to the level of ideas.

We certainly cannot expect any automatic move to the left from the new wave of student struggles. It may show elements of 1968, but it also shows traces of 1977. What we can hope for is that in every country some individuals will begin to look towards those very old Marxist ideas which make sense of new forms of struggle.

Last updated on 30 October 2019