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Tony Tait & Pete Glatter

Circumstances Alter Cases

Notes for the Student Conference

(November 1971)

From the International Socialism, Internal Bulletin, November 1971.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford September 2012.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This Year’s Movement

This year has already seen more militancy among students than last and probably than the year before that. It is often a militancy of a new type. Non-socialist, non-radical students are willing to take more militant action over low-level issues affecting them than ever before. The militancy is not political or anti-capitalist in the way the student revolt was a few years ago. In those days, the key thing was often students’ general disenchantment with capitalism and its works. Issues sometimes had to be half-invented to provide a useful outlet for this feeling.

Today, exactly the opposite is the case. The issues are ones that ordinary students feel intimately affected by for they spring from the raising of the price they have to pay for an education of increasingly doubtful worth in declining living and working conditions. Socialists who rely only on the experience of the past (and this includes many IS students) can be left way behind by student movements before they have time to adjust to them. And the movements themselves can fail because no-one was capable of giving a political lead against local and national student union bureaucrats. The result IS has some influence in about eighty assorted institutions of higher education. Eighty out of more than eight hundred.

IS – The Story So Far

The present situation was taking shape last year. At the last student conference last May we put forward a perspective for student work which was recommended by that conference to the EC. This included proposals to set up IS societies, begin serious local opposition to student union bureaucracy, break into the hundreds of polytechnics, colleges of education, etc., where we have no influence and to produce a popular, recruiting pamphlet. All this was with the aim of getting the maximum gains with the minimum of effort (in order to prevent any diversion from our main thrust in the working class) and in the belief that in order to go on recruiting students, who make useful members if only because of their free time, we have to show ourselves to be relevant to them as students as well as a serious organisation with a working class orientation as its first priority.

A draft pamphlet was written in July but its perspective was rejected by the EC and then by the August NC with a small majority. Two main arguments were advanced against it. One said that students only came to socialism through their general disenchantment with capitalist society and its ideology. This assumed that nothing had changed since the first student revolt (described above). This has led to the following practical proposals:

It was largely as a result of this opposition that the pamphlet was rejected in favour of a Student Special. This turned out to be about the general horrors of capitalism, about Ireland, Women’s Liberation, indeed anything and everything except those things that students were actually becoming actively concerned about at Lancaster, Southampton, Sussex, North-West and Huddersfield Polys, Leeds College of Education, Reading and so on. These students, like thousands of others, are facing a continuing threat of attacks on their conditions of study, worsening accommodation, victimization, a clampdown on protest through government legislation and a graduate unemployment rate currently running at something like double the national average. However sharply some of them feel the absurdity of sociology, however keenly they show active sympathy with the struggles in US prisons, Ireland or UCS, their own troubles claim pride of place with the vast majority of students.

It is no coincidence that Time Out – a semi-underground magazine sold widely among students – ran a main feature on the Student Accommodation Crisis a few weeks ago. Mercifully, there was some recognition at the October NC of the irrelevance of much of the Student Special, but by then it was a little late to do anything about it. Meanwhile, the thousands of students without accommodation or the victorious fight against an attempt to cut out a whole degree course at Huddersfield Poly – possibly the first major student victory for a couple of years – got not even a mention in our publications. The Student Special was effectively little other than a well below average issue of SW. It could not help spearhead a breakthrough in the hundreds of colleges where we are unknown. We need publications that speak about the attacks on students particularly if they are for students and which can generalise from them to a revolutionary conclusion.

The other argument stated that we could not spare the resources to undertake the student conference’s perspective. Effectively, this boils down to the question of the pamphlet. We believe that the production and use of a short, popular pamphlet will be a real economy. It is already written, its use will bring us new members to promote expansion in our main areas of work at minimum cost and it is just as much a commercial proposition as any of the pamphlets produced by Pluto Press.

Time for a Change

Whatever the relative merit of these arguments last summer, the new militancy is now a fact. “Circumstances alter cases” is a principle that should be much dearer to revolutionary socialists than to the legal profession. We believe that the present circumstances are proving our case in practice. We don’t think that the wrong line on students is a symptom of “centrism” or anything like it on the part of the EC and NC. We don’t think that continuing it would do us any serious damage. We just think it would be a silly mistake. The arguments that took place over the summer made us feel that the EC were completely out of touch on this issue. Recent events confirm this beyond question. We recommend:

  1. that the student conference calls for the production of a student pamphlet
  2. that a student special is produced for January taking stock of the last few months of struggle and suggesting the way forward
  3. that students are advised to orientate a part of their activity so as to make new inroads where we have not support at present
  4. that where possible IS societies or Socialist Worker Readers Groups are set up to consistently push our politics.


Tony Tait (Swansea IS)
Pete Glatter (Kingston IS)

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