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International Socialism, April/Maly 1969


Editorial 2



From International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April/May 1969, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Few people on the Left still question the significance of the present upsurge of student militancy. Originating only three years ago in Berkeley it has already transformed the political scene in its spread from campus to campus. It has not so much leapt national boundaries as ignored them; the same slogans are taken up everywhere (often with their foreign origin not even concealed in the literal translation); a common vocabulary links Prague and Paris, Berkeley and Warsaw, Tokyo and the LSE.

Everywhere too it has had some effect in radicalising the rest of society. Paris was the extreme instance, but the display of unabashed defiance of the old habits of deference has always left some mark. Even in Britain it has introduced that new element into the political climate that has made factory occupation seem a plausible tactic in Armstrongs (York), Fords (Dagenham), Injection Moulders (North London) and Turriffs’ Ivy Bridge site (West London). It has also provided some focus of identification for a minority of young workers cut off from older Labour traditions.

This is the partial truth upon which a variety of theories that describe students as the ‘new vanguard’, or even the ‘new revolutionary class’, and the universities as ‘red bases’ are built. The ideological crisis that confronts late capitalism as it is forced – by its own internal dynamic and the continued if fragmented opposition it breeds – to drop its liberal mask, precedes the more general political crisis it may herald, (just as the financial crisis magnifies marginal economic problems). The ambiguous and intensely ideological ties that bind a growing mass of students (particularly of sociology and related subjects) to society serve to refract and give expression to this crisis at one particular point in the total structure. Revolutionary and almost insurrectionary activity seems to find a base here as nowhere else.

The trouble with these theories is that they try to conflate these limited truths into grandiose new concepts that are to transform the world. In doing so they threaten to drown the living realities of actual student movements in their own rhetoric. For the student movements are still confined within the limits of the possible. Despite once again raising the spectre of complete social transformation, they cannot achieve this alone. Even within the student milieu they are generally only a minority of the total population. The activists are still heavily concentrated in certain institutions and within these in certain faculties. Here the support they receive from the rest of the students is often relatively passive. The successes achieved by the militants have occurred when they have succeeded in involving much larger numbers of students in actions against the authorities, inside or outside the university. Their ideas and initiatives have served to articulate the alienation and aspirations of previous ‘moderates’. A refusal to be trammelled by the ossified traditions of worn-out official radicalism and a willingness to ‘provoke’ authority by taking seriously its own proclaimed liberalism have brought an abrupt and favourable reaction from these whose cherished illusions were being smashed. But while the movement is confined to students a point must come when these tactics no longer pay off. The liberal pool is drained; those without illusions cannot be moved into action by their disintegration. At worst the students become spectators of the acting minority, with a sympathy worn thin by the lack of concrete successes. At best they are revolutionaries without an effective base for shaking society outside their enclaves. If the authorities feel strong enough the socialist citadel can be isolated as a red ghetto in a hostile society.

The present wave of student insurgency has not gone this far yet. But in isolated colleges dim awareness of the limitation of present forms of action is beginning to grow. The ‘liberals’ cease to be enraged and activated by the actions of the authorities; the older militants begin to cynically doubt the significance of what they are doing; all begin to feel that they cannot really change the situation or even involve masses in action any longer. This is a tendency that can readily infect those institutions that have not yet been drawn into the movement, so that protest movements there are born prematurely aged.

At this point nothing is easier than for the revolutionary students to help this process along by letting their own initiative and self activity decline into a modern analogue of individual terrorism. Just as the Narodnaya Volya, thrown up by the retarded and distorted development of the bourgeois revolution in Russia, hit bravely but futilely at the individual products of the absolutist social structure, so the student revolutionary today, bored with waiting for the working class, is in danger of mistaking effects for causes. Frustration instead of being an incentive for action that can produce change, leads to futile actions that merely increase frustration.

For a time confrontation can sustain confrontation, the excitement of the militant demonstration, the preparations for the next – but eventually the lack of a real social base that can hit the bourgeoisie where it really hurts – exports are the testicles of the late capitalist regime – must begin to tell. Alienation from political action can easily succeed alienation from bourgeois society. Indeed the two processes can be identical if the political act becomes a merely symbolic gesture that conceals an everyday acquiescence in the system. A point must be reached where the occasional demonstration or even sit-in can become as ritualistic and demoralising as the occasional bout of resolution-passing.

There is nothing inevitable about this process. If CND and the Committee of 100 underwent precisely this development in the early 1960’s many adherents (and often those whose political consciousness most approximated that of the whole movement today) evaded its consequences.

This will not however be possible unless revolutionary students find a real base – not in a geographical enclave, but in a social group whose aspirations and struggles can sustain and protect them. This may be possible for a time in the student milieu alone. But only in so far as the militants continue to take account of the real needs and level of consciousness of the as-vet non-revolutionary students. It is the involvement of these in activity that gives’ the student movement today a mass significance it did not have during the heyday of CND. It is this also that protects the militants against the vengeance of authority. Of course there is the danger that revolutionaries will degenerate into latter-day Mensheviks by waiting for moderates to act. But there is also the danger of moving in a self-contained world populated by one’s own desires to such an extent as to prevent their actualisation through mass self-activity and self-consciousness.

Yet even the most adept student strategists will not be able to hold together a movement that remains confined to the campus. For the ineffectiveness of purely student action contains the permanent threat of demoralisation. This can be overcome only by transcending the limits of a student movement. In the long run those students who remain active revolutionaries inside and outside the university will be those who begin to actively participate in the long term and far more significant struggles of the industrial workers. Except at the moment of revolution itself this will not be an external, mechanical joining of a mass of students and a mass of workers, but rather the organic integration of large numbers of individual students into a single organisation with industrial militants.

This is not an impossible task. If it is properly carried through universities can be socialist citadels protected by and helping to support a whole infrastructure of socialist activity in the rest of society. The danger with ‘student vanguard’ and ‘red base’ theories is that they elevate isolated aspects of this strategy into a substitute for the whole. They move from the recognition of the fact of the isolation of the revolutionary students to acceptance of this fact. Their policies in no serious way try to overcome this isolation. Their analyses sanctify the present rather than indicate any way to carve out the future. This makes any proclaimed belief in the need to link up with workers mere verbiage however often it is repeated. It is in this sense that they are also intrinsically elitist. Policies are propounded which really deny for the forseeable future mass action to change society; this naturally leads to the elevation of actions by individuals and small groups into the only recognised tactic. As with other substitutionist policies (reliance on ‘Left’ bureaucrats or identification with the fashionable Stalinist dictator), they provide a short cut to nowhere.

Revolutionaries can break out of the university ghetto. The present wave of student militancy can play a key role in the creation of a new revolutionary movement. But this will mean prolonged effort based upon rational and systematic strategies. The danger is that grandiloquent proclamations will prevent people from seeing the need to begin.

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