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Alex Callinicos & Simon Turner

The Student Movement Today

(February 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.75, February 1977, pp.9-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE MODERN student movement in younger even than its members. Ten years ago there was no student movement to speak of in this country. In this, Britain was typical of almost all the advanced countries of late capitalism, East and West. The exceptions were few; in France the student union had been a lonely centre of opposition to the colonial war in Algeria; then there was the memory of 1956 when in Poland and Hungary the students had spearheaded the challenge to the Stalinist bureaucracies.

The politics of what little student movement existed were firmly right of centre. In Britain and the US the national student unions were run by the nominees of the CIA. The most tenacious image of students among working class militants in Britain even today remains that of Oxbridge undergraduates scabbing on the general strike in 1926. Trotsky had long ago dismissed the revolutionary potential of students:–

‘The intensification of the struggle between labour and capital hinder the intelligentsia from crossing over into the party of labour. The bridges between the classes are broken down and to cross over one would have to leap across an abyss which gets deeper every passing day ... this finally means that it is harder to win the intelligentsia today than it was yesterday and that it will be harder tomorrow than it is today.’ [1]

These remarks were valid when they were written; this article will show why it is no longer so.

So much has changed in the last ten years. In the late sixties massive confrontation between students and the authorities swept across the world from London to Prague, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Paris to Tokyo. In their wake they left large numbers of highly political students who identified actively with some form of revolutionary Marxism.

Nor was this revolt a flash in the pan. To take the example of Britain, the National Union of Students now embraces 700,000 students. It sees its primary role that of organising mass campaigns involving direct action as a way of winning concessions from the government. Its executive is dominated by the Communist Party controlled Broad Left and includes a minority of revolutionaries from the National Organisation of IS Societies. The NUS’s constituent students unions gave massive material and political support to the miners strike in 1972 and 1974.

British students are on the move again. The last 18 months have seen a series of revolts unknown since the late sixties. At Oxford, Essex and Kent in 1973/74 thousands of students found themselves engaged in bitter battle with the authorities. This involved a determined effort by the authorities to break the student movement. Each Vice-Chancellor was keenly aware that he was being watched by others as to how he dealt with the militants. In the event, large scale victimisations took place but not before the intervention of the police and the courts invited by the authorities. At Essex no less than 105 students were arrested for picketing the university.

The first months of 1974/75 have exceeded anything that took place in 1968. Thousands of students have occupied their colleges or the local education offices, boycotted lectures, refused to pay excessive prices, and other protests. In London 40,000 marched in support of the NUS grants campaign.

The cuts taking place in education have ensured that students are going to take direct action on an unprecedented scale.

Students and Late Capitalism

WHY HAVE these changes taken place?

Capitalism has always moulded higher education to suit its needs. But before 1945 higher education was primarily a way of preparing the children of the ruling class for the exercise of power and of training members of the middle classes for the liberal professions and the senior administrative posts that an imperialist power requires. Of nowhere was this more true than Britain. Other countries, like Germany and France which has to industrialise in the shadow of Britain’s industrial monopoly, placed more of a premium on intellectual workers whose skills could contribute to their national capital’s relative competitiveness. Hence the Ecoles Polytechniques in France and the Technische Hochschulen in Germany.

Not so Britain. At Oxford and Cambridge the separation of higher education from the practicalities of running a capitalist economy was taken to its furthest extreme ... ‘Greats’ – the study of Greek and Roman history and literature – was seen as the ideal of a liberal education and the young gentlemen were ridden with a loose rein. ‘Young barbarians at play’ Matthew Arnold had called them in the 19th century and so they remained well into the 20th century, as the diaries and novels of Evelyn Waugh testify.

The creation of institutions like the London School of Economics and the civic universities did not challenge the dominance of Oxbridge; their role was to provide the personnel for the liberal professions and the administration of the Empire. The number of students was small; 25,000 in 1900; 61,000 in 1924; 69,000 in 1939. They constituted a fairly homogenuous social grouping that, given it’s members origins and the social rule they were intended to perform, naturally identified politically with the ruling class. The only significant recruitment of students to the Marxist left in this country took place in the 1930s under the combined impact of the slump, the rise of fascism and the adoption by the Comintern of the strategy of the Popular Front, which made Communism far more palatable to sections of the bourgeoisie than it had been either in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution or during the ultra left third period in the late twenties and early thirties. The political loyalties formed in the thirties proved ephemeral and wilted with the coming of the Cold War, if not earlier. Denis Healey was one such Communist.

The demands that capitalism placed on higher education changed dramatically after the war. The stabilisation of the system was affected by means of massive waste production; capitalism East and West poured much of its surpluses into arms production. One effect of this new stage in the development of capitalism was to build into industry a process of continual technological innovation. Combined with the need to raise the productivity of labour though technological advances so as to make each national capital more competitive on the international market, this created a huge new demand for skilled intellectual workers.

Other factors also contributed to the post was expansion of higher education. The nature of post-war capitalism has placed a premium on a skilled and quiescent labour force; neither repression nor mass unemployment provided palatable solutions to working class discontent. Hence the importance of forms of ideological manipulation and control. The result has been a massive increase in the number of what the Wobblies called head fixers – teachers, sociologists, social workers etc.

The post-war expansion of higher education took place throughout Western capitalism. In Britain, the decisive point was the Robbins report which appeared in October 1963 and called for a vast expansion of higher education. In 1962, 7 per cent of the 19 year old age group were in full time education; by 1980 – the proportion would be increased to 15 per cent – that is 558,000 students. The reasoning behind this proposal was stated explicitly:–

‘The growing realisation of this country’s economic dependence upon the education of its population has led to much questioning of the adequacy of the present arrangements. Unless higher education is rapidly reformed, it is argued, there is little hope of this densely populated island maintaining an adequate position in the fiercely competitive world of the future.’ [2]

And as Robbins put it else where:–

‘I am sure that if we do not move forward on something like the scale indicated by the recommendation of our Committee, we are in real danger of being outclassed and undersold.’ [3]

The expansion that followed reflected the needs of British capitalism. Higher education is divided into two sectors; the so-called autonomous sector, the universities – and the public sector which includes colleges of education, polytechnics, arts colleges and technical and further education colleges. The universities are funded by the government via the Universities Grants Committee, whilst all other colleges are funded by the Local Education authorities. Both receive considerable sums of money from industry in return for which research is directed by the investing companies and the controlling committees of the colleges are dominated by representatives of big business.

Although the universities have been extended and new ones founded, the fastest rate of expansion has been in the public sector. This pattern was codified in the Heath government’s 1972 White Paper, Education: a Framework for the Expansion. The expansion of student numbers to a target of 750,000 for 1980 planned for most of the expansion in the public sector. The reasons for this are simple; the public sector is far more directly under the control of the State and local industry. Students in this sector do not receive automatic grants but are at the disposal of the local education authority. The colleges are much more closely related to the needs of industry in two ways. Firstly, in that large numbers of the students are day or block release students from a local factory (which will have a large say in the running of the college) and secondly in that the courses are much more vocationally related. Expansion in this sector is thus cheaper and more convenient to the needs of industry. Unlike universities with libraries, students unions, shops and sometimes parks and lakes, the technical and further education colleges are simply a few classrooms slung together.

Students’ position in society has markedly changed as a re suit of the expansion of higher education since the war. In part this is a change in numbers. Students are now a large social group. In 1900 students were 1 per cent of their age group; in 1971-72 there were 463,000 full time and sandwich students – 15 per cent of their age group. In other countries, the proportion is even higher. In the US they are about 35 per cent of their age group.

More importantly, the place assigned to students by the social relations of late capitalism has changed. Higher education is no longer a preparation for, or an entry ticket into, the ruling class. Most students will become some form of worker. If a student takes his or her degree in science or engineering he or she can expect to become a highly skilled worker employed in industry and playing an integral part in the capitalist productive process. The wages such workers receive are large but then so are the amounts of surplus value they produce thanks to their skills. A student taking an arts subject is more likely to become a white collar worker of some sort, employed in the middle echelons of the state machinery or industry. Workers of this type, for example local government employees and schoolteachers, often receive lower wages than those received by manual workers and have provided a major source of militant opposition to incomes policy in Britain in recent years.

At the same time, students as such do not enjoy any definite relation to the productive process. While they are students, their future career remains uncertain. Their fate will be settled by imponderables like the state of the labour market when they leave college and their performances in examinations. Their time at college is financed by the State. They have not sold their labour power and receive no wages, therefore they are not members of the working class; nor is their situation that of small producers, such as the old petty-bourgeoisie. Among them there are those, a small minority who have come from or are heading into the ruling class. Students are defined socially by their transitional situation. Their future remains uncertain while they are at college. It will be settled in the first instance by how they do at their exams. The effect of the examination system is not to unite students into a socially cohesive group, but to atomise them; each student’s fate is settled by his or her individual performance separated from that of all the others.

But they are also an oppressed group. Aspirations as to what college life might be like are soon dashed by the reality. Insecurity about their future is reinforced by the isolation of life on a campus. Although the discipline is less rigid than at school, decisions about content of course, appointments, price levels or anything else remain just as remote. The corridors of power inside colleges are certainly not for the use of students, except on a few occasions and only then at the convenience of the authorities. This general alienation of students creates their readiness to rebel.


THE HIGHER education system of late capitalism is one geared to a continual expansion of the system. It therefore rests on the tension between the attempt to plan an orderly expansion of higher education and the anarchic and unplanned nature of capitalism.

Decisions about student numbers ten years ago may mean that the labour market today is clogged up with unwanted graduates. Building programmes planned years in advance may come into conflict with decisions to cut public spending. The course taught in the colleges may bear little relation to the immediate needs of industry. An over hasty expansion of higher education may mean crowded libraries, scarce accommodation, poor facilities for the students thrust into the colleges by a capitalist state feeling the bite of foreign competition. All these are forms of the basic contradiction faced by national capitals as they try to plan the expansion of higher education, while responding to the pressure of competition, boom and slump, which render it impossible to plan.

Spending on higher education means that a portion of the surplus value created in industry is diverted from the accumulation of capital and instead spent on what is seen as a necessary expense of production. But in a period like the present, as capitalism veers into ever deeper crisis and international competition takes on an increasingly acute form, every capitalist state is under tremendous pressure to reduce spending on higher education, thus freeing more resources for productive investment.

This is particularly so in the case of a relatively weak capitalist nation like Britain. If Britain is to keep a place on the world market, then it must continue to expand higher education. But, given British capital’s crisis of profitability, the cost of the expansion must be lowered. The 1972 White Paper places cutting costs at the centre of its strategy:–

‘If expansion is to be continued as indicated in the decade ahead, unit costs cannot be allowed to go on rising and scope must be found fpr economies of scale.’ [4]

In other words, numbers are still to be expanded while costs are cut.

So, staff-student ratios are to be raised. Students are to be encouraged to live at home and go to colleges in their area; a two-year strictly vocational diploma in Higher Education has been introduced which does not qualify its holder for further studies. Large numbers of small colleges are to be amalgamated or closed; no: new universities are to be set up.

In December 1973 the combination of the oil crisis and the miners’ go slow forced an extension of this government policy of higher education on the cheap. Anthony Barber’s emergency budget sliced £180 million off education spending. This meant cuts right across the board from nursery schools to the universities. New building has been frozen completely in the university and polytechnic sectors, partially in the schools and CPEs. The policy of closures among colleges of education has been speeded-up. The results are increased overcrowding, higher student/staff ratios, unfilled vacancies, redundancies among college workers, rent and price increases. The target for student numbers in 1980-81 has been cut from 750,000 to 650,000. The university sector is in deficit, individual universities are suffering very severe cash crises. The vice chancellor of Lancaster university has already predicted that one university may go bust within a year or so. These cutbacks, although introduced by the Tories, has been continued by the Labour government.

The Student Revolt Round One: The Late Sixties

IN THE great student revolts of the late sixties, the dominant role was played by politics. Across the world the hopes aroused by the revival in a number of countries of the parliamentary left, or even centre, had been shattered. The Students for a Democratic Society in the US abandoned their slogan in the 1964 election, ‘Half the Way with LBJ’, for militant opposition to Johnson’s Great Society as it dissolved into imperialist war in Vietnam and black rebellions in the cities. The French Communist Party took a back seat over Algeria and Vietnam rather than complicate its strategy of alliance with the social democratic left. In West Germany, the Social Democratic Party formed a Grand Coalition with the right and rammed repressive emergency laws through the Bundestag. And Harold Wilson broke the seaman’s strike, froze wages and backed the Americans in Vietnam.

Opposition to the Vietnam war was the thread running through all the student rebellions. The high hopes raised by the revival of the left had been dashed; what was revealed was imperialist barbarism laying a small country waste. The international campaign against the Vietnam war was spearheaded by students; it both served to fuel the student revolt and was mightily strengthened by it. The Comite Vietnam National in France was the training ground for the student leaders of the May 1968 revolt; the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in this country was based on the student militants.

But students were also experiencing the effects of the contradictions between the expansion of higher education and the anarchic nature of the system. At both LSE and Sorbonne they suffered from over-crowding and poor facilities and were hedged in with dozens of pettifogging restrictions. In British universities the authorities claimed to be in loco parentis – to have the powers of a parent over the students. At Nanterre, the segregation of the men’s and women’s residential blocs helped to spark off the 1968 revolt. At Berkeley in 1964 even the Republicans for Goldwater backed the Free Speech Movement’s campaign against the administrations ban on political activities on campus.

In Britain the first wave of revolts began and ended at LSE. It was the appointment of a new Director, Walter Adams who had a dubious record as Principal of the University College of Rhodesia, that set the train of events off. But the first occupation which took place in March 1967 as a protest against the suspension of the President of the Students Union for objecting to Adam’s appointment in a letter to the Times, was not entirely spontaneous. A small but active Socialist Society had agitated for a number of years around issues like Rhodesia and incomes policy, winning a committed group of supporters. It was the Socialist Society that took up the Adams issue and drummed up opposition to the appointment. And, although the occupation was voted on the proposal of the Tory President-Elect of the union, it was the Socialist Society that forced the pace in the sit-in.

The first LSE occupation, although successful, found no echoes. In the absence of concerted working class resistance to Wilson’s incomes policy, with no students elsewhere taking up their example, the revolutionary students thrown up by the events at the LSE found themselves isolated. They involved themselves outside the LSE, in the GLC Tenants Action Committee and the Barbican dispute.

The effect of external political events, above all the May uprising in France and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in Britain, sparked off a wave of student militancy throughout the country. The occupations for example, at Hull University and Hornsey College of Art, were seen not simply as a challenge to the college authorities, but as one to the system itself. In June 1968 the Revolutionary Socialists Student Federation was founded to link up the various struggles through an organisation uniting the militants.

The autumn of 1968 saw the high point of the revolt. On October the 27th one of the greatest demonstrations in London since the Chartists had 100,000 marching on the US embassy in Grosvenor Square behind the slogan ‘Victory to the NLF’. There existed genuine and widespread belief that students in Britain could repeat the French example and detonate workers’ uprising against the system. Those who had led the struggle at the LSE and elsewhere, primarily the International Socialists, found themselves outflanked by those who held this belief and who sought to drive students into action in the hope of sparking off the revolution they expected by the hour.

This period highlighted two of the main political dangers featured in student struggles – opportunism, and abstentionism. The latter consists in the dismissal of student struggles as peripheral to the class struggle and hence the refusal to participate in them. The most obvious example here is that of the Socialist Labour League (now Workers’ Revolutionary Party) who only turned up at the great Vietnam demonstrations to distribute leaflets entitled ‘Why we are not marching’. This is an example of where an apparently very ‘left’ position – workers’ struggles are all that matter, student militants should relate to them, demonstrations against the Vietnam war are mere ‘protest politics’ since they cannot overthrow the capitalist state – in fact results in a conservative abstention from a mass movement, thus avoiding all the very real risks – victimisation, jail, skulls broken by the police – which protest politics involve.

The mirror image to this position is that adopted by Ernest Mandel, leader of the ‘Fourth International’, and his associates. The degeneration of the ‘Fourth International’ had left them without any comprehensive analysis of the latest stage of capitalism and of the central position of the working class as the only force capable of destroying imperialism. Hence the obsessive quest for some force that could replace the apparently quiescent working class as the agency of revolution and the opportunist ability to adapt their analysis to fit whatever new element that was thrown into the struggle against capitalism. In this search, the student revolt came as a godsend. Mandel declared that ‘the university can be a cradle of a real revolution’. [5] Students joined youth, Third World guerillas and blacks as one of the proclaimed ‘new vanguards’ of the international revolution in the ‘Fourth International’s endless attempts to make friends and influence people.

This ultra-left canonisation of the student movement gave rise in Britain to the theory of red bases. It was argued in the pages of New Left Review that the colleges could become organs of dual power-’red bases’-that would challenge capitalism’s legitimacy as well as its monopoly of violence. The argument rested on doutbful analogies with Cuba and China;

‘The guerilla’s liberated zone is initially located in those areas which are geographically inaccessible to the repressive forces of the established order. We must ask ourselves whether the complex structures of late capitalism do not contain areas sociologically inaccessible to the repressive forces of the ruling class.’ [6]

The answer is that they don’t. How sociologically inaccessible to Papadopoulos’ tanks did Athens Polytechnic prove to be? Nonetheless, a resolution calling for the establishment of red bases was passed at the second RSSF conference in November 1968.

The conflict the emergence of student vanguardism gave rise to was acted out at LSE. The School was occupied during the weekend of the October 27 demo to provide accommodation and first-aid facilities. The authorities’ attempt to prevent the occupation only raised support for the left to an all-time high. But its aftermath was confusion on the left and a decision by the School to clamp down. The ultra-left, a motley assortment of American New Leftists, Maoists and luminaries of New Left Review, pressed for further action to pre-empt the authorities’ plan to instal new gates in the School buildings. Robin Blackburn announced in a leaflet to the Socialist Society that ‘those who reject the strategy of the Red Bases and the tactic of the New Year Offensive will be in serious danger of becoming the objective allies of social imperialism and social fascism’. [7] The International Socialists, who had won the leadership of the left through their role in the first sit-in and in the VSC, argued that the mass of students were not prepared for the sort of confrontation that the ultra left were proposing and the authorities hoping for.

In the event they were proved right. A confused chain of events led to the removal of the gates. However, when IS proposed a sit-in to stave off the inevitable closure of the School they won little support even from the left. The left was simply too weak to mount the defensive struggle their action entailed. The occupation and strike that followed the reopening of the School did not prevent the sacking of Blackburn and another left-wing lecturer, nor the arrest or suspension of a number of students. RSSF, although it succeeded in mobilising several thousand students for a demonstration at LSE and in mounting a number of sympathy occupations, could not crack the united front presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, who clearly saw the clampdown at LSE as an example to their own students. It eventually dissolved into a sectarian talking shop, and then vanished.

But the first phase of student revolt in Britain was not quite over. The discovery of political files kept by the authorities on students during an occupation at Warwick University in February 1970 led to the most massive wave of sit-ins Britain had yet seen. Traditionally conservative ‘ universities like Manchester and Oxford saw thousands of students occupying. Here again, the sit-ins did not come quite out of the blue. At Oxford the local branch of RSSF had since 1969 been campaigning against the reactionary university and college authorities; Manchester had seen protests against the undemocratic way the new Vice Chancellor had been appointed. The issue of files served to focus a whole number of grievances about the repressive and authoritarian structure of higher education, and the increasing interpenetration of academic and industrial interests.

The response of the authorities was generally to refuse concessions and fight it out. In this they were largely successful. They were aided by the mistakes of the left and the ability of both national and local student union bureaucrats to defuse militancy and divert the focus of students’ attention away from mounting and extending direct action. At Manchester negotiators conceded away most of the students’ demands. At Oxford the Student Representative Council succeeded in leading the occupation out into a campaign against a new disciplinary statute and for a ‘Democratic University’. By the end of the year the files issue was dead.

Thus ended the first wave of student militancy. If it had arisen out of a unique combination of general political factors and limited student grievances it did have certain general lessons to teach.

One lesson is that student struggles are extremely volatile. Because of the fragmentation and isolation that is their existence, students can move very quickly between passivity and militancy. When they do rebel they do so with tremendous force, inventiveness and spirit, rapidly generalising and taking the struggle beyond grievances specific to their situation to a rebellion against the capitalist system. At the same time, once the particular struggle they are involved in is on the downturn, they can relapse very quickly into complete apathy.

A second lesson that emerged was the limitations inherent in student struggles. The students in the Latin Quarter, thanks to a very special configuration of events, were able to spark off a massive general strike. But they were unable to overcome the conservative dead-weight of the French Communist Party, which prevented the strike from developing in the direction of a workers’ revolution. In Britain the students at LSE were unable to match the combined forces of the authorities and the State, and the heady currents of October 27 soon dissipated.

Yet the student revolt did give the revolutionary left a tremendous fillip. Indeed, in many countries it was the making of the revolutionary left. After the long night of the Cold War, revolutionaries found an audience for their politics and recruits to their ranks. In many countries, for example, West Germany, the revolutionary left remained a primarily student phenomenon. In Britain the student movement provided a levy of revolutionary socialists who saw the limits inherent in the struggles they had led and recognised that the working class alone was the agency of revolution. They accordingly set themselves the task of building a mass party based on the working class. The growth of the International Socialists and their transformation into a working class organisation over the last few years depended in part on the base it had won leading struggles like that at LSE.

The Student Revolt Round Two: 1970/73

THE CHARACTER of the student movement today is markedly different from its forerunner in the late sixties. The period between the two upsurges contains the key to understanding the changes.

The 1970s saw the re-birth of an aggressive workers movement. Inflation was accelerating and the Tories made a determined effort to hold back wages through the Industrial Relations Act and various attempts to establish wage norms. Starting with the dustmens strike of Christmas 1969 more and more workers struck for more pay. The culmination came in 1972 when the Miners smashed the Tory pay policy and the dockers, in securing the release of the Pentonville Five, crippled the Industrial Relations Act.

This meant that theories of student vanguardism went out of the window. The focus was no longer the Vietnam war but solidarity with workers struggles. At the same time in the colleges the effects of inflation were beginning to bite. The value of the student grant declined rapidly and for those who only received discretionary awards the issue of grants became crucial.

This lead to two important changes. Firstly the National Union of Students was pushed to the centre of the stage, and secondly the majority of students became concerned to defend their material interests.

In the sixties revolutionaries had rightly ignored the NUS. Its bureaucratic structure controlled by right wing social democrats and linked with the CIA, ruled it out as an instrument of student for student demands. [8] But the NUS itself was not unaffected by the shift to the left in the colleges. A forerunner of the present Broad Left, an alliance of the Communist Party and Labour Party left wingers, was able to capture control of the NUS Executive. By 1971 NUS had elected a CP President, Digby Jacks. This was all very fine but apart from the setting up of an International Department, which followed Russian foreign policy, the Union was still unimportant to the mass of students. What changed the situation was the attempts by the Tory government in 1972 to stop students’ unions from making payments to strike funds or to the ‘free school milk’ campaign. A series of court cases had merely accelerated the flow of money. Margaret Thatcher introduced proposals to take students unions under the wing of an Auditor General, who would authorise all payments.

This threatened the very existence of independent student unions, which had become regarded by students as their right. The fight against the Thatcher proposals sparked the imaginations of virtually every student, from the Socialist Society fighting for survival to the Rugby Club concerned that the number of away matches might be cut. For the first time there was a need to take the issues up on a national level, to co-ordinate the fight back. NUS became central in the minds of students. For the first time the NUS conference became a debate between the Broad Left and the revolutionary left, since the right wing had completely lost its base through not fighting for the autonomy of students unions. To begin with, the debate centred around the response to the Tory proposals, but it soon spread to a number of related issues – for example, the nature of students and their relation to the working class – as well as issues like Ireland. In the absence of local struggles, the influence of revolutionaries, principally IS, was out of all proportions to their real base in the colleges. Once the autonomy of student unions had been successfully defended, the issue of student grants became the focus nationally. In 1972/73 and 1973/74 the first national grants campaigns were organised. These were supported by rent strikes in some colleges and by huge demonstrations. The character of these demonstrations was markedly different from that of the VSC demos. They involved far less political commitment. Defiance was expressed not by fighting the police but by wearing outlandish clothes and carrying colourful placards and banners. The students were different too. The majority came not from the universities but from the small colleges with a much higher proportion of working class students.

But, while this period saw the emergence of a really national student movement, the locally-based militancy of the VSC days was missing. However, the sporadic local struggles that did take place were by and large led by IS members. It was not only the NUS that had changed but also the local student unions, which had become genuine forums of debate in the colleges regularly involving large numbers of students. It was here that revolutionaries argued from week to week about support for strikers and the need to see the grants campaign in the context of a British capitalism in increasing crisis. It was the revolutionaries, again principally IS, that led the support for the two miners’ strikes and many local disputes. The result was that, as a nationwide upsurge of student militancy is now gathering strength, the Broad Left controls the student union bureaucracies, but IS has established a political base in the colleges from which to intervene.

The Student Movement Phase Three: The Present

THE LAST few months have confirmed beyond any shadow of doubt that the student movement is re-establishing itself. Once again thousands of students are involved in militant conflict with the authorities. The central issue this time is the cutback in education spending. The £250 million cut from the education budget coupled with the re-direction towards vocationally orientated courses, are causing cutbacks, closures, price rises and redundancies in every college in the country.

Inevitably this has led to a re-emergence of locally based struggles. However the existence of a national student movement ensures that these local fights against the cuts have a national perspective. Many of the militants involved expect support from their national union. Needless to say their expectations are not fulfilled by a union whose Executive is dominated by careerists and social democrats.

Increasingly the polarisation between the leadership, and the rank and file students actually resisting the cuts, is forced into the open. Moreover, to fight the cuts in the present circumstances requires an overtly political fight. Students are having to reply to the attacks with a very clear understanding of what they are fighting and how they can win. The rejection of alliances with so called progressive vice-chancellors or principals and a working alliance with the trade unions in the college (NUPE, ASTMS, ATTI) is becoming essential for victory. It might have been possible a few years ago to simply apply mild pressure onto the college to force concessions, today students are being forced to the most militant tactics to gain any ground at all.

These two factors, the expectations from the national union and the determination of the government to cut back education, present revolutionaries with the tremendous opportunities to intervene successfully.

Firstly in the colleges, it is increasingly only revolutionaries and often IS members who can provide the leadership. Faced with the closure of the college or a thirty per cent rent rise, those who can only offer empty rhetoric about democratising education and the need to unite the mass of students do not capture the attention of the militants in the colleges who are interested in fighting. Meetings involving hundreds or even thousands of students from one college are listening to the arguments put forward about the nature of the crisis, the Labour government, who runs the colleges, and the need to take direct action. Many of these meetings are voting for militant action. This time it is not the universities that are the backbone but the polytechnics, the further education colleges and the colleges of education. These are the colleges that are feeling the pinch the hardest. The need for the disputes to be linked nationally is clear to those involved. The failure of NUS to do this is also clear. The possibilities of developing a national student movement with direct links to a revolutionary workers’ organisation are immense. That is why the National Organisation of IS Societies was founded last year. Already it has established itself as a force in the student movement. Many of the militants in the colleges are involving themselves in IS Societies, or at least are prepared to work with them. At a national level the NOISS was patently the only organisation that attempted to link up the struggles and provide national support for any college in dispute.

In the days of VSC, union meetings would be dominated by Tories and their supporters. The left could make the running on the demonstrations but the right controlled the machinery. The development in the early 1970s of student unions as fighting unions rather than social clubs, coupled with the unpopularity of the Tory government, pushed the right wing out of most unions and their influence nearly everywhere became minimal. This remains the case today. The Tories have nothing to say about fighting the cuts and therefore cannot gain a hearing. However on the political front it would be dangerous to ignore their potential. When NUS conference voted for ‘no free speech for fascists’, the right were provided with the support they had lacked for several years. They were not able to hold the support or commit large numbers of students but the potential was there. Of course the left was also provided with large audiences to put the arguments to and was able to build support from meetings. More recently the bombings in Birmingham have provided the right with a similar opportunity. Whilst the revolutionaries remain active within the student movement and the working class do not suffer major defeats then the right are unlikely to gain much support. It is therefore vital that while these opportunities are open to us, they are utilised to the full.

Revolutionaries and the Student Movement

THE CHANGED position of students under late capitalism, the deep crisis the system is undergoing, the attacks on higher education, all these factors have combined to create a situation in which the opportunities for winning large numbers of students to revolutionary politics are tremendous.

But these opportunities will have to be taken. Students will not automatically gravitate to the side of the working class. Workers experience on the shopfloor a continual unifying pressure that arises out of the day-to-day struggle over how much surplus value is squeezed out of them by the bosses. Wages, hours, speed up, conditions, manning, battles over all these issues force workers to organise and act together in the workplace. But we have seen that their situation isolates and fragments students.

Whether students overcome the atomising pressures inherent in their position and unite to challenge capitalism depends upon the overall political situation. In certain circumstances – those of social crisis and a demoralised workers’ movement – students can be won to fascism. Fatherland and Freedom, the Chilean fascists, had a significant base among students. The National Front has set up a Students Association in an attempt to build a base in the colleges. This has failed as yet; but a neglect of the student movement by revolutionaries could change things.

Students must see socialism as a real alternative to a system in crisis. In the long run, this will depend on there being a mass revolutionary party based in the workers’ movement that can offer students this alternative. In the short term, revolutionaries committed to building such a party must intervene among students to win large numbers of them to socialist politics.

In Britain there are two main left groups that operate in the student movement – the Communist Party and the International Socialists.

The Communist Party’s perspective centres around the Broad Left, its alliance with Labour Party reformists. The Broad Left is seen as the driving force for the mass movement among students that NUS increasingly expresses. [9] It is able to serve this role because it draws together the left in the colleges on a basis that does not commit the various allies to a definite political programme but which seeks to strengthen the mass movement through fighting around students’ grievances. In all this it differs from ‘the sectarian approach of the ultra left’ (IS etc.),

‘... an approach to work in mass organisations which is contemptuous of their “limited” objectives, and seeks only to use them to benefit the “revolutionary” objectives of another organisation.’ [10]

Or so the story goes. The reality is somewhat different. While obviously revolutionaries must often unite with reformists around particular issues, the dangers of a permanent political alliance with reformists on no firmer basis than a commitment to work in mass student organisations are obvious. They are fully realised in the case of the Broad Left. Work in the mass movement, as in the case of the Communist Party in the trade unions, is identified with the hunt after union positions. The absence of any definite programme defining the Broad Left’s politics serves as a perfect cover for the worst sort of opportunism. Broad Left candidates for posts in both the NUS and local student unions change the cut of their coats as the political climate changes. The result is that when an issue of political principle that both has important practical bearings and splits the student movement, the Broad Left is unable to take up a coherent position. For example, when the NUS conference in April 1974 passed a resolution denying fascists a platform in the colleges, the Broad Left at first adopted heroic anti-fascist postures at the rostrum, but split in all directions and then retreated in the face of a major right-wing backlash.

More importantly, capitalist crisis changes the struggle for reforms. To demand even the most modest reform from a system splitting apart at the seams is a serious challenge. To organise a real fight for reforms in these circumstances increasingly implies a commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of the system. The strains of this paradox are increasingly felt by a reformist grouping like the Broad Left. The result is, on a national level, a rhetorical commitment to a mass campaign of direct action on issues like the cuts and grants, combined with a complete failure to translate this commitment into action. At a local level it frequently means alliances with the right wing to prevent direct action from taking place (Leeds and Stirling universities saw examples of this in 1974). What is needed is an organisation that combines a commitment to building a revolutionary party based on the working class with a strategy of militant action in the student movement. This means organising around the issues that affect students directly, like the education cuts, and seeking to initiate and lead struggles based on these grievances. While these struggles may often break out spontaneously, increasingly it will only be revolutionaries who can provide a political direction for them. Moreover, the experience of the late ‘sixties shows that it is through involvement in mass action that students in large numbers become open to the appeal of revolutionary politics. And the only way for revolutionaries to establish the correctness of their politics with the mass of students, as with the mass of workers, is not alone by propaganda from the outside but by giving a lead in their struggles.

These factors led to the emergence of the National Organisation of International Socialist Societies. The aim of NOISS is to provide the focus for the left in the colleges through its intervention in student struggles. The scale of the British crisis means that it is not enough to win student militants to revolutionary socialism as such; what is now needed is an organisation of revolutionary students who identify politically with IS’s strategy for building a socialist workers’ party. But NOISS will be built through its intervention among students. Already there are about 90 IS Societies. The founding conference of NOISS at Leeds in November 1974 was attended by delegates from 28 universities, 11 polytechnics, 6 colleges of education, and 6 colleges of further education and technical colleges. Its journal, Agitator, has a circulation of about 3,000.

At a national level, NOISS has already emerged as the left opposition to the CP-dominated NUS Executive. An emergency NUS conference in June 1974 adopted a strategy for fighting on grants and the cuts proposed by the IS Societies. Although an extension of this strategy was rejected by NUS conference at Margate in November 1974, the IS Societies played a prominent part in the local struggles that burst out that term, and in the NUS grants week of action.

The task for NOISS now is to develop the base it already has. The crisis in higher education has drawn into struggle large numbers of students with little previous contact with left politics. The test for NOISS will be its members’ ability to break with the narrow tradition of sectarian politics in which the revolutionary left has found itself in the colleges of recent years and to relate to the mass of students. This means developing a tradition of mass work, being able to combine a principled and consistent revolutionary perspective with agitation around student grievances that draws in the largest number of students but to fight for their demands. It also means reviving the anti-imperialist traditions of the student movement which in recent years have become the captive of the Communist Party and its version of the Moscow line. The opportunities are there. It is up to NOISS to take up the challenge.



The theoretical framework of this article derives largely from the pioneering analysis of the student movement in C. Harman and others, Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt, London 1969. S. Buddle and others, Students and the Struggle for Socialism, London 1972, was a source of clarification.

1. L. Trotsky, The Intelligentsia and Socialism, London 1966, p.12.

2. Higher Education (Cmnd.2154), London 1963, para. 16.

3. Lord Robbins, The University in the Modern World, London 1966, p.28.

4. Education-A Framework for Expansion (Cmnd. 5174), London 1972, para. 125.

5. E. Mandel, The Revolutionary Student Movement:Theory and Practice, New York 1971, p.41.

6. J. Wilcox, Two Tactics, New Left Review 53, Jan.-Feb. 1969, p.26.

7. Cited by D. Widgery, unpublished manuscript.

8. See D. Widgery, NUS – the Student’s Muffler, in A. Cockburn and R. Blackburn, Student Power, London 1969.

9. D. Cook, The Student Movement, Left Unity and the Communist Party, Marxism Today, October 1974.

10. Ibid., p.298.


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