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International Socialism, April/Maly 1969


Stephen Marks

Student Theory


From International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April/May 1969, p.42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt
Chris Harman, Dave Clark, Andrew Sayers, Richard Kuper, Martin Shaw
IS, 1968 4s 6d

By now, we all know why we have a student movement; it’s a product of the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. This comforting piece of knowledge even has its own genealogy; from Andre Gorz’s article in ISJ in 1965, through Martin Niklaus’ article in New Left Review 48 to Ernest Mandel’s brilliant all-embracing speech in the Sorbonne in the heady days of May, into Britain through the Cliff-Barker pamphlet on France, and finally written in to the programme of the RSSF, this explanation of the wave of student revolt sweeping all advanced societies is accepted in outline by all but a few empty-headed sectarians. The modern multiversity now produces not a thin stratum of mandarins and dilettantes but the most skilled layers of the modern working class. The student revolt is a rising of white-collar apprentices.

Like all applied developments of Marxism, this theory follows to some degree the unfolding of the events it describes. The owl of Minerva still takes her flight at dusk; but with Marxist wings she can fly faster than light, catch up with history, and help in turn to mould it. But for this more is needed than repetition. If this insight is to serve as more than an ideological justification for the existing practice of student militants, it must be applied concretely to the specific University system of each country, and serve to explain its distinctive unevennesses, its specific contradictions. This needs hard work. It is the chief merit of this pamphlet that this is what its authors have provided. The increasing complexity of modern capitalist technology and the ever-increasing intensity of international competition have swollen the demand for the types of manpower that only the Higher Education system can provide; thence the student explosion. To know this and say it is easy. But here the thesis is worked out in all its complex specificity; we are shown how a universal trend of modern capitalism manifests itself in the particular, peculiar, context of the British system, and the specific contradictions to which this gives rise. For this alone, this pamphlet is indispensable.

At time the tempo gets a bit breathless and the passion for concreteness goes too far. Thus at the beginning of the third chapter, five and a half pages are spent recapitulating the basic statistics on the class-selective nature of primary and secondary education, not excluding the registrar-general’s figures on differential infant mortality rates by social class, and a Cook’s tour through Bernstein’s theses on Social Class and Linguistic Development. A simple statement of the class-ridden nature of British education and a list of standard references would surely have been enough for a pamphlet few of whose readers could in any case imagine that British education is egalitarian.

This would have left more space for a discussion of strategy for the student movement. What analysis there is of this is thought-provoking, and gives the reader a thirst for more. The proposals outlined in the last chapter follow on well and visibly from the best parts of the earlier analysis; a brilliant dissection of the contradictions of Robbins, preceded by a well-documented demonstration of exactly how the British University was dragged (is still being dragged) into the age of neo-capitalism. The authors’ account of this throws into relief a distinctive feature of the British system; the binary barrier, and the low-status high-pressure Techs. The contradictions of this last sector are those affecting the ‘technologists’, the most purely ‘proletarian’ in destination of today’s students. But student revolt originates amongst the third of three categories of students, the students of ‘humanities’ and arts, alienated by the emptiness of their courses, the hollowness of the ‘humanist’ deal, and the-insecurity of their future prospects.

In confrontation situations the militants may mobilise beyond the limits of the third category, winning over the second, the ‘technocrats’. But, it seems, a French-scale crisis is needed to make the first category move; ‘at present the technologists are almost completely non-militant and reactionary in their attitudes’. We are given a rising scale of possible demands, from abolition of ‘in loco parentis’ rules and like petty restrictions, to control over courses, warned against ‘representation’ and other forms of compromise, and told a new student movement can only be built from the bottom up. The programmatic section ends with a pious bow in the direction of RSSF, that long-awaited Godot of the student left which seems since the LSE closure to have finally arrived, and is preceded by these sage words, also underlined by the LSE experience:

‘The actions of protest have to have a strong basis of support inside the student body. This requires elaboration of programmes of action that really correspond to the interest of the students, without obscuring them behind the rhetoric.’

How far have these all-to-brief conclusions stood up to the experience of the last few months? The earlier phases of the LSE struggle – from the initial lockout through to the evacuation of ULU and the subsequent overwhelming victory of the first mass Union meeting – confirm the wisdom of the words quoted above. The need to rebuff ultra-leftist adventurist self-indulgence and press for the less spectacular long haul was also underlined by the nature of the solidarity response. On the one hand, the Universities reacted less well than expected, and instant occupations were the exception rather than the rule. On the other, the response from the other half of the binary system was surprising to many; in several colleges Soc Socs emerged for the first time in solidarity with an LSE whose experiences must have seemed very similar to their own.

The reasons for this are to be found in the specifics of the development of the British system, brought out well in the pamphlet. Due to the backwardness of British higher education, itself a product of Britain’s headstart in the industrial revolution and thus inseparable from the general crisis of British capitalism, the British student movement was later in developing than elsewhere and, as we are now discovering, runs up sooner against the limits of its ‘spontaneous’ development. This same late backwardness has ted to the division between the University and the tech-college sectors, incarnated in the infamous binary system. In the first sector, that in which student movements develop ‘spontaneously’, the hollowness of liberal metaphysics may provide the spur, but a combination of largely liberal reality in some places and swift repression in others soon provides the limit. The multiversity is simply not as present in Britain as elsewhere. Once the limit is reached the movement may burn itself out in senseless adventurism. The best long term strategy here is one of course-critiques and counter-courses, combined with hard and careful work in the second sector. Here, the more naked dependence of the techs on the ruling class may make them more passive now, but could also mean that their explosive potential is greater. At this point it must be emphasised that this same historical absence of mass higher education has led to a view of students as a privileged elite which deadens the impact of any alleged ‘detonator effect’ misread from the French situation. Here the pamphlet sagely draws the reader’s attention to the German and Japanese movements, which have been detonating away like mad for years without exploding anyone in particular.

The conclusions are clear. Student ‘terrorism’ (in the historical Russian populist rather than the contemporary Short-thuggish sense) and the current fashionable empty rant about ‘red bases’ is a dead end without an extension of the mass base of the student movement. For this students must turn to serious organising work in the ‘silent sectors’ around their intense specific contradictions which can be explosive and where, as in the working class, the absence of tradition makes for greater mobility in both directions. This work is also a potential bridge to the building of revolutionary organisations amongst youth, of whose iceberg the student revolt is the articulate tip.

Finally it is also necessary to combat the populist obverse of the ‘terrorist’ coin, the narodnik dream of ‘going to the workers’ and other like misty romanticisms. The road to worker-student unity lies through the construction of a common revolutionary organisation, and not through some process of instant combustion. Anyone claiming to be building such an organisation must also be present in the student movement, and proving themselves by the relevance of their politics to the student struggle, using their organisational-political vantage point to inject a total political perspective without which the movement will be wrecked on the shoals of corporatism and adventurism. This pamphlet is a vindication of the credentials of those who produced it in this regard, and should prove a potent weapon in the hands of student militants. Subsequent events require additions and a development of its perspectives, but also confirm its general approach. If its groundwork is soundly built on in the struggles ahead, the development of Britain’s student movement may yet be integrated into the general development of a revolutionary movement.

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