Sam Mauger of the Joint Committee of Communists

A Critique of the New Left Review and International Socialism: Assessments of the Present Student Movement

First Published: Towards A Student-Worker Alliance. Documents from the Joint Committee of Communists’ Conference on the Student Movement, 1969
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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[MIA note: This text is one of the papers presented to a conference organized by the J.C.C. on the ’Problems of the Worker-Student Alliance’ in February, 1969.]

Recent publications by the New Left Review and International Socialism (see sources below) underline a number of dangers within the student movement of which Marxist-Leninists must be aware in order that they may combat them. Just because there has been a significant and important movement away from the crassness of ’peaceful transition’, ’parliamentary cretinism’ and much of the rest of the Social Democratic apparatus, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded to basic flaws in analysis of the present situation.

The main contradiction is centered around the confused assessments made of the class position of students and thus their relationship with the working class. An International Socialism (I.S.) member wrote scathingly in 1966 of the chances of conducting positive and useful struggle within the university (source 4), and stressed the number of students who desert the movement for the corporations and the ’bureaucracy of life’ (sic). But their recent symposium includes as “an important section of the proletariat,” “lower-level industrial management; administration generally” and corporation lawyers because they are “paid in wages and divorced from control of the productive processes just as are manual workers” (our emphasis). It seems then that their opportunist volte-face from despising campus issues and mechanically positing the need for socialism before a socialist student movement (source 4), to embracing the whole gamut of student power (source 3 Points for a Student Program, pp 64-65) is rationalised by suddenly finding that students are or will be workers anyway. It remains unclear how this connects with an earlier statement (source 3 p 8) that “modern capitalism has basically three different classes to educate,” or a later one (p. 49) that “the student body can be broken down into three more or less distinct sections ’technologists,’ ’technocrats’ and ”students of the ’humanities’ and arts.”

This political incoherence is also in evidence in the recent New Left (NLR) contributions. Fernbach (source 1 p 38) sees class background as relatively unimportant; he sees the destiny of the majority being skilled positions in the productive labour force, although his examples in the next paragraph contradict this assertion. The basically idealist position is typified by his suggestion that teachers ”are in a position in their job situation itself to subvert bourgeois socialization and turn it into its opposite. “So too could university lecturers, television newscasters and advertising copywriters. Triesman’s solution (source 1 p 34) is even simpler: ”That seizing and holding of red bases is clearly the last act the students can undertake as students, for once they engage in that course, they are a fair way down the road to abolishing the intellectual – manual-worker distinction, as they will have liberated the university from selectivity.“This kind of trivialization of the vital issue for students is to attempt to reduce Marxism to a collection of situationist phrases. Stedman-Jones starts to develop some of the problems of making a class analysis of students. He sees the danger of either asserting students as apprentice workers or as pa id up members of the bourgeoisie. But, in refusing to look at the ’social destination of students’ and in only negatively defining their background – “non-working class” – he is driven into the self-created sterility of asserting the predomination of the’ present’ for the student. He thus prevents himself from exploring the effect on students of their previous conditioning and their life expectations.

What is never approached by the I.S. or NLR is a clear statement of the existence in all class societies of what Marx called the “intermediate strata” of which the intelligensia is a component part. Mao Tse-Tung in his “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” places students with the petty-bourgeoisie. It is one of the features of the paucity of the Marxist tradition in Britain that there is no such class analysis which we can take hold of but it is undeniable that students both by their background and their destination have the characteristics that Mao ascribes to intellectuals. They “often tend to be subjective and individualistic, impractical in their thinking and irresolute in their action until they have thrown themselves heart and soul into mass revolutionary struggles.” Because of their intermediate nature they can either become servants of the bourgeoisie or with Mao’s qualifications and provisos true allies of the proletariat.

Marx makes it clear that there are other criteria apart from ownership of the means of production which determine consciousness. The production worker is controlled by the machine, and by selling his labour power directly creates surplus value. The function of I.S.’s managers, administration and corporation lawyers is to increase the relative surplus value that a worker produces and as a reward he receives a salary, conditions of work and security that the worker can never expect from the capitalist system. They are the ’over-lookers’ and, for example, the mining engineers whose role Marx exposed so clearly in Kapital. I.S. in their disjunctive analysis mention them – “the technocrats” – but never explore how they fit into their earlier rosy description of them as proletarian.

The incoherent and often contradictory analysis of I. S. and NLR on this central issue allows both of them to believe that it is possible to create a socialist consciousness among students through creating new participatory mass organisations which will apparently “overthrow capitalism”. Thus “what the student power movement is about is freedom” (source 2 p. 328). Freedom and democracy are opposed to authority and coercion (source 2 p. 38) without asking the basic Leninist question, “For which class?”. We are told that academic freedom is “immensely valuable” (source 3 p. 14), that “science should be free to define its own problems and concerns for progress in science is dialectical or it is nothing” (source 3 p. 17). And so on. They want to avoid Lenin’s dictum “Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is what constitutes the difference between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeoisie.”, State and Revolution) He had already explained “Dictatorship is the domination of one part of a society over the rest of society, and domination, moreover, that rests on violence.” (A Caricature of Marxism and ’Imperialist Economism’ 1916).

Of course the only way in which students will really fight successfully for a socialist society is linked with proletarian revolutionaries by a democratic centralist Marxist-Leninist party. Again the I.S. and the NLR do not accept this or presumably they would have made it very clear in the propaganda that they address to the student movement. Indeed what typifies their products is the rhetoric of Marxism without its substance. Thus James Wilcox (source 1 p. 23)

“It should not be thought that the call to make the creation of Red Bases a strategic goal of our struggle is merely a flight of rhetoric. The time has come to take seriously the images we use, to explore the limits of the analogies we invoke to the boundaries of the possible.” If this means anything it is that we create a strategic goal in November for the. R.S.S.F. [MIA note – Revolutionary Socialist Students Movement] Conference (i.e. Red Bases) by image and analogy and then in February we decide if it is time to take them seriously and move from analogies towards the possible and indeed , its boundaries. Apart from this intriguing concept of scientific socialism, the analogy is amazingly inappropriate. Red Bases in China were created by a few cadres led by Mao Tse-Tung when it had become clear that an urban revolution was not possible. The Bases were situated amongst the mass of the Chinese people, the peasants, were flexible in area and indeed location, were held militarily and were the basis of ideological work amongst the people. They were in time able to expand and link with others in order to surround the cities and thus complete the revolutionary overthrow of the Kuomintang regime. None of these factors obtain in Britain if the concept is applied to higher education. Furthermore the wild comparison of geographical inaccessibility of the Chinese bases from their ruling class and the sociological inaccessibility of the student movement from ours presumably pleased the author so much that he felt no need to defend it.

This is not to say that in the course of many of these articles there are not interesting tactical ideas for organising and provoking struggle against the ruling class and its representatives. But without being put within a correct strategical perspective they can only be harmful and mislead students about the nature of the necessary proletarian revolution.

It might therefore be useful to conclude with a brief outline of what our attitude to the student movement should be, and which should be seen in the context of the other working papers in the two collections of documents published so far.

1. We must recognise that students are part of the intermediate strata in capitalist society and as such are, in general, in a contradiction. Many can see the crisis of imperialism and monopoly capitalism threatening their security and their liberal “freedoms,” and may well intellectually understand the need for socialism. However, they will realise that for the moment that in their prospects in terms of work and income they are still a privileged strata separate from the working class. (Even the humble teacher is guaranteed over £30 a week by the age of 35 and with absolute security will, if a graduate, probably earn over £40 a week for his last 30 years of employment and then retire on half-pension.)

The difficulties then of choosing the proletarian revolutionary road while a student are considerable.

2. We cannot rely on a crisis developing like that of last May in France and must realise those contradictions which hinder the development of a proletarian ideology. We must not limit the policies we fight for to those which will be acceptable to the mass of students.

3. Their political consciousness can be raised in confrontations with the authorities in higher education but only by linking these struggles with the wider anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly capitalist issues. On no account must we pander to petty-bourgeois illusions of an above-class “freedom,” “science,” and “education.”

4. In the course of these struggles we must realise that students need experience of working class struggles and must not be allowed to isolate themselves in self-proclaimed “red bases”. We must stress that all struggles in Britain take place in a world where the dominant fight is against imperialism and is being led by the national liberation movements. The fact that the “countryside is surrounding the cities” is the dominant aspect does not of course devalue struggles in the metropolitan areas. We must stress that power can only be taken from the capitalist class by imposing a dictatorship of the proletariat led by a disciplined democratic centralist party. Middle-class or petty-bourgeois elements will only playa positive role in this process by integrating themselves fully in the working class under the leadership of such a party.

In short, unless these elements, who acclaim Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung as the leading revolutionary figures of our century (this of course does not apply to I.S.), take their central strategic lines for their theory and practice, they are then engaging in the merest dilettantism to acclaim their tactics.


1. New Left Review, no 53

2. Student Power, ed Alexander Cockburn, Robin Blackburn. Penguin/NLR

3. “Education, Capitalism and Student Revolt” , Harman, Clark, Sayers, Kuper, Shaw. I.S. Publication

4. Kuper (I.S.) in “Teach Yourself Studenty Power”. ed. Adelstein