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International Socialism, Summer 1968


Editorial 2

Student Power


From International Socialism, No.33, Summer 1968, pp.2-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What has happened in Paris and Berlin has vital lessons for socialists. The revolt of some sections of students has affected most of the major advanced countries. Beginning in Montgomery, Alabama, the revolt has achieved major successes in Berkeley, in London, Warsaw, Milan, Amsterdam, Rome, Prague, New York, and so on. And these major centres have evoked answering echoes in a host of other places – in Britain, for example, in Manchester, Leicester, Colchester, Sussex, York, and many more. So universal has the revolt become (even if it still encompasses only a minority of students) that it cannot be attributed simply to local peculiarities or accidents. Students have come, from very different initial circumstances, to play a similar role. Unintentionally, indeed accidentally, they have come to offer some lead, to go some way towards filling the vacuum on the Left on both sides of the Elbe. The students have reacted, in part at least, to the glowing sense of insecurity in Western society and to the lack of alternatives, to the failure of the traditional labour movement to present any clear and coherent perspective which is different from that offered by the status quo.

Student power, like black power, may be in part a response by a particular group to the failure of the Left and of the labour movement, but whereas the Left has generally responded in the right way on issues of colour, it has not always done so on questions concerning students. Some revolutionaries who would courageously fight attacks on coloured people, fall into unspoken sympathy with authority’s attempts to isolate students and make them scapegoats of social hostility. Of course, the black minority is visibly and brutally exploited, whereas students, if not as privileged as many think, are apparently trying to earn their passage into the ruling class. The rank and file can hardly be expected to revolt over the conditions of officer training. However, this is only half the case. Higher education in most countries has been immensely expanded over the past decade or more, simultaneously recruiting people from lower social strata and devaluing the old prestige attached to higher education. The students retain roots in the mass of the population, so that they are essentially ambivalent in class terms, pulled in both directions simultaneously at a time in their lives when they have not stabilised what they believe. Students thus are today one of the ideologically most unstable groups. As a result, rulers need to isolate them lest they return to the mass of the population with the message of revolt. The Narodniks in the Russia of the 1870s were just such a by-product of the expansion of the Tsarist system of higher education, and an important element in crystallising opposition. The rulers need to ‘divide and rule’ as much in relationship to the students as the coloured minority.

And by and large the mass of the British population has in the past sympathised with the attempt to isolate the students. In the recent crisis in Poland, the Communist leadership tried deliberately to incite working-class hostility towards the students, in much the same terms as they incited hostility against the Jews – the one is ‘gilded youth’ biting feeding hands; the other, ‘agents of a foreign power.’ They probably failed, as the story that the students were supplied by Warsaw citizens with food sufficient to last six months suggests. In Britain, the Labour Government copied the same tactic with more success – ‘the taxpayers’ would not continue to subsidise idle and ungrateful layabouts. Any serious socialists who uncritically adopts the same attitude fails to notice that the students are, if at a tangent, trying to compensate for the failure of the Left itself. Indeed, the Left’s failure makes the student revolt crucial. Its importance is most vividly illustrated in France. There, the student initiative has been the spark which set alight widespread working-class discontent, the first explosion of which has shaken the Gaullist regime. Alone, the students were isolated in the classic terms used by Gomulka and his English counterparts, but once the French labour movement took up the issue, it became a real challenge to the status quo. In doing so, the students became much more politically committed against the regime, and resisted attempts to buy them off as they were bought off in Czechoslovakia. Of course, the traditional organisations of the French labour movement have continued the tactic of trying to isolate the students, to keep them away from factories and workers lest the dreaded virus of revolution infect their own followers and sweep them away with De Gaulle.

In the first instance of student revolt, few of the student rebels are aware of what is at stake, any more than a worker who initiates a strike against an arrogant manager need see his act as part of a continuing class war. But in practice, the students have rapidly gone beyond the apparently trivial causes of their first action. The action itself developed their consciousness, and dissolved the barriers between them. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French student leader, put it thus: ‘action was the only possibility of overcoming the divisions of the students into a multitude of tiny groups.’ The movement would have dissolved the division between students and workers, dissolved the specific identity of students as a group, if the Communist Party leadership had not intervened to resurrect the barriers. The shift in aims – from reforming this bit of a university or college to overthrowing the existing regime – is simultaneously a shift in social significance, and a recognition that changing society has become possible because the force to change it has appeared. Alone the students cannot change society. They can be only an irritation to the status quo. Yet in the militant pursuit of their own aims, they can, in certain circumstances, demonstrate to the only force which can change society, the working class, that collective action can change things. The lessons from this are clear. The students themselves have to extend their own consciousness, not just to the world context (this is relatively easy for students), but to the society at large. Extending their consciousness means overcoming the separateness they feel, overcoming the elitism implicit in their situation, seeing the multitude of battles taking place outside the university or college. The general theory and the concrete experience of ordinary people have to be connected for political power to become possible. The students must come to grips with the concrete experience of ordinary people. In doing so, in directly making common cause with workers, they can act as a vital precipitating factor in the creation of a working-class revolutionary force. On the other hand, committed revolutionaries who treat the student revolt as an idle game misunderstand the potentialities for change and the role of students as one of the most sensitive indices of social disorder. We need a new movement on the Left, and in present conditions, students must play a vital role within it.

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