From International Socialism (1st series), No.68, April 1974, pp.6-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
ONE development of some importance in the past few weeks has been the eruption of the biggest student struggles for at least two or three years. Large scale student movements have developed at the universities of Kent, Essex and Oxford, as well as smaller movements in a number of colleges and universities. At Oxford and Essex, the response of the authorities of state and university has been vicious in the extreme – with 19 students sent down from Oxford, three expelled and 105 pickets arrested at Essex. Clearly, the police picketing squads developed in the last two years of the Tory government remain on the alert under Labour.
The attitude of revolutionaries to the student movement clearly has to be different in some respects today to what it was in 1967-69. The student struggles of those years were of general political importance because they blew up at a time when the working-class movement internationally has been quiescent for a long time. In Germany and the US a new generation of revolutionary students was formed, long before the first rumblings of any mass workers’ movement, while in France the street demonstrations of students ‘ignited’ a general strike.
In Britain the student movement was never as large as in Germany or France. But it did give rise to a relatively large number of revolutionary socialists, some of whom were later to play an important role in building up the International Socialists as an organisation with some base in the working class.
Student struggles today cannot have the same overall political importance. However large the struggles in the colleges, they could not have the same impact as the miners’ strikes of 1972 and this year, or the dockers’ struggle against the imprisonment of the Pentonville Five.
But that does not mean that revolutionaries, particularly student revolutionaries, should ignore what happens on the campuses. It can still impel large numbers of young people into conflict with capitalist society and a smaller number to join the revolutionary socialist organisation.
The objective conditions are just as favourable to student revolt today as they were five or six years ago, for the underlying factors which made possible the massive struggles of 1968 and after have not disappeared.
When we analysed the events of 1968 in this journal and elsewhere, we pointed out that students were no longer, as in the past, a small minority of society, most of whom could expect to move on into privileged positions once they had finished their studies. Although students are not workers, most cannot avoid a future which will give them salaries and working conditions hardly better than many manual workers. They can be the white-collar trade unionists of the future. And even while they are at college the general attack on wages and welfare services can hit them as a fall in the value of grants and a cutback on facilities.
Under such conditions, an explosion of discontent that brings them into sharp conflict with the authorities is always possible. Its effects will be to drive many of them to the left, if only there are socialists in the colleges putting across their ideas and prepared to give a lead to that discontent. This task should actually be easier than previously, now that the working-class struggle outside is that much more evident and the revolutionary organisation that much stronger.
The ruling class certainly feel that student unrest represents a very real threat to themselves. They regard the universities and colleges as playing an important role in ensuring that their ideas are transmitted to the rest of society. That is why the moment these ideas are challenged actively, they scream out ‘academic freedom’ and bring in the police. That is why the ‘liberal’ press, such as The Guardian or the New Statesman, defends such repressive actions.
Socialists have to take up an attitude to the student struggle which is equally serious. Revolutionaries in the factories have to explain to their fellow workers what the real issues at stake are, the similarities between the attack on student pickets and the attack on workers’ pickets. And revolutionary students have to treat with utmost seriousness the task of leading student struggles, of making sure that other students see the wider class issues behind repression in the colleges, and of bringing the best students into the revolutionary organisation. This may not seem as central as in 1968. But it still has to be done.
Last updated on 18 November 2009