Chris Harman


Students and the working class

(September 2006)

From Socialist Review, September 2006.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Something old occurred in a number of countries in the last year, and often seemed like something new. Students’ strikes, demonstrations and occupations swept Italy, France, Chile and Greece

The reaction of the media was to claim these were the actions of a privileged social layer, whose victories would come at the expense of the mass of working class youth, who would never get near a university. So in France they claimed that the students’ demand for the end of the CPE law to take away employment rights from young people would make it more difficult for unemployed youth in the suburbs to get jobs.

Such reactions to students’ struggles are not new. The first reaction of some supposedly left wing political leaders to the students’ struggle that erupted in France in the first week of May 1968 was to denounce the students as upper class kids, “fils de papa”.

Such claims were utterly mistaken in the 1960s and early 1970s. The bulk of students at that time came from the middle and lower sections of the middle class, and mixed with them were many students from working class backgrounds.

More importantly, the experience of the struggles led very large numbers of young people to challenge central aspects of society. They were at the forefront of the struggle against the Vietnam War and the oppression of black people in the US. And in countries such as France, Italy and Argentina, student protest gave an impetus to subsequent workers’ struggles.

The claim that students are privileged is even more mistaken today. There has been a massive expansion of higher education in the past few decades. In the 1960s only around 8 percent of young people went to university in Britain. Today around 40 percent do. A majority of them will probably end up in white collar working class jobs, as even once privileged occupations like teaching are “proletarianised”, and subject to the payments systems and forms of managerial control that used to be confined to industrial labour.

Today many more students are having to work part time in the most menial “McJobs”. The universities more and more resemble knowledge factories, with students like objects on a conveyor belt.

All this helps to explain how the students struggling this year in France, Chile and Greece found it much easier to make direct links with workers and to elicit solidarity action from them than did earlier generations of students.

Stathis Kouvelakis has written an important analytical account of this year’s movement in France. He argues that what we are witnessing is the emergence of the “mass student”, of a force whose conditions of life and interests are increasingly those of workers.

His central emphasis on the importance of the student movement is correct, but he misses an important point. While a very big section of students comes from sections of the population that are objectively part of the working class, particularly the white collar working class, there is still another big chunk of students from very privileged backgrounds.

In Britain 22 percent come from private schools. Nearly a third of students at the Russell Group of the 19 most prestigious universities come from the upper managerial and professional layer of the population, with another 12 percent from lower managerial posts. Between a quarter and a third of present students will end up in the “new middle class”, with managerial positions of one sort or another.

The colleges are still places where young people from different classes are thrown together. For this reason, students cannot be treated as a special category of workers. Still less can agitation focus mainly around narrow economic demands.

The daily experience, even of those students coming from the working class, is not one of exploitation, of having their labour pumped out of them at the point of production. It is of alienation, of meaningless atomisation and fragmentation as each student worries about her or his prospects at the end of the exam rat race. But protest over particular ideologically tinged issues can suddenly turn such alienation into its opposite, a sense of community in struggle for a better world.

Education under capitalism involves, among other things, processing each new generation to accept the ideological assumptions of existing society. The universities play a central role – many of their products are meant not only to accept these ideas, but then to pass them on to other people. But when those ideas themselves are under challenge the universities can become centres of ideological turmoil.

This happened with the impact of the Vietnam War and the struggle against racism in the 1960s, and it is happening with the wars in the Middle East and opposition to neo-liberalism today.

Student movements in Britain have often taken off first in the “old universities”, even though students there have better conditions, are disproportionately from the upper middle class and are likely to get better jobs when they graduate. There are fewer pressures on such students, and this creates conditions in which political agitation and ideological debate are often easier than in many overcramped and underfunded “new universities”. But it can rapidly spread from the old to the new.

In the 1960s and 1970s small groups of socialist students found out how to take the initiative in leading wider groups to struggle. It is what has happened in Italy, France, Chile and Greece. There is no reason it should not happen elsewhere.

Last updated on 27 December 2009