Anarchy 84/Further observations on students

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Further observations
on students

I find eliza­beth smith’s assess­ment of the revo­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of uni­ver­sity students much more con­vin­cing than the more fashion­able and opti­mis­tic assess­ment of people like Dr. Edmund Leach. It doesn’t require a very sophis­tica­ted Marxist (but it does usually seem to require a Marxist of one sort or another) to see that intel­li­gence, youth and a radical outlook guaran­tee very little in the way of worth­while poli­tical inno­va­tion when these quali­ties are strongly asso­ci­ated with social and edu­ca­tion­al privi­lege.   In Miss Smith’s eyes stu­dents’ iden­tifi­ca­tion with left causes is suspect. Stu­dents either cannot see, or else ner­vous­ly try to dis­tract atten­tion from, the deep contra­dic­tion of inter­ests between them­selves as the heirs of privi­lege and others who are the victims of it. Miss Smith’s picture is a pretty swee­ping one, but I am sure it shows us the rough shape of the truth. She ex­plains the mili­tancy of so many uni­ver­sity stu­dents (Tech­ni­cal and Further Edu­ca­tion stu­dents are a dif­fer­ent kettle of fish) by saying that they are impa­tient for the bene­fits that they have been brought up to expect as their due. Fair enough, but there is no hint of what her view would be on these much more central ques­tions: Why does student unrest ally itself so habi­tu­ally with liberal and radical
causes speci­fi­cally? Why, if they are the heirs of privi­lege, do they choose to attack the estab­lish­ment from the left rather than from the right? Why, if they really only want to cash the cheque of privi­lege, do they waste so much time and energy cham­pio­ning the under­privi­leged? A bleary old Labour poli­ti­cian would no doubt make in­can­ta­tions about the vast fund of altru­ism and idea­lism in the young; but Miss Smith is clearly not a bleary old Labour politician, and she shows no sign of offer­ing such a non-expla­na­tory (and non-Marxist) thought. Instead she leaves a big gap in her argu­ment.

  I believe it is impor­tant to try to formu­late a satsi­fac­tory answer to this problem because only when we are clear about the answer will it be pos­sible to under­stand the nature of the poli­tical atti­tudes and acti­vi­ties of mili­tant uni­ver­sity stu­dents and the liberal-radical intel­lec­tuals whose ranks they will shortly be joining. My own view is that the politics of these groups can be seen as a kind of drama-therapy which offers comfort to the indi­vi­dual who as a result of edu­ca­tion has become poli­ti­cally con­scious at a point in society where that con­scious­ness is parti­cu­larly dif­fi­cult to realise in action: the indi­vi­dual rehear­ses pos­tures of bene­vo­lence and giving-ges­tures in the direc­tion of those he recog­ni­ses as the op­pressed and the ex­ploi­ted. And these pos­tures and ges­tures can be repea­ted inde­finite­ly because he is not really giving of his sub­stance. Nothing is given, nothing re­ceived; but he feels a better, less guilty, person.

  It is a matter for sorrow, not scorn, that even the rela­tive­ly privi­leged are under the curse of ali­ena­tion. But it is also a matter of truth that the privi­leged since they are com­pro­mised and ren­dered useless in this way—no matter how liberal or left—should not be hailed as poten­tial sa­viours of the situ­ation. Miss Smith, with a very nicely-judged measure of defea­tism, keeps them (i.e. us) in their (i.e. our) proper places.

London edmund p. clark  

I too felt that some­thing should have been said about the rele­vance of Carl David­son’s article on Student Syn­dica­lism to the situ­ation in which British stu­dents find them­selves. I thought, though, that Eliza­beth Smith was far too harsh in her judge­ments on this rele­vance.   Mrs. Shirley Wil­liams, Secre­tary of State for Edu­ca­tion, told a UNESCO con­fer­ence re­cent­ly that the pro­por­tion of working class students (26%) at British uni­versi­ties com­pared favour­ably with any other country in Europe. So it is not the factor of working class com­posi­tion which auto­mati­cally makes for poli­tical acti­vism among stu­dents—the sort of acti­vism for example which makes the bour­geois anarcho-Uncle­Tom­Cobley­ites of Berlin 5,000 strong, the sort of acti­vism which is endemic at the bour­geois Sor­bonne or in bour­geois Amster­dam. Eliza­beth said that British stu­dents are “over­whel­ming­ly and irre­deem­ably bour­geois in origins and outlook”. Well you can’t do much about your
origins but why are they irre­deem­ably bour­geois in outlook? The stu­dents at the LSE almost had their sit-in by acci­dent—had not the autho­ri­ties been so stupid Adel­stein could have sent his letter to The Times and that would have been the end of that. But the experi­ence that stu­dents there gained from the sit-in, coupled with in­volve­ment in the Grosvenor Square bit, has har­dened the ones I’ve met no end. Stu­dents, like every other section of the popu­la­tion, can float along without com­mit­ment or inter­est until the balloon goes up: it is the in­volve­ment in and the reac­tions of the autho­ri­ties to direct action which makes for con­scious­ness. There can be no revo­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness without revo­lu­tion­ary action.

  And this is the crux of the matter. Until re­cent­ly stu­dents have been apa­the­tic both because action has seemed impos­sible against the imper­tur­bable mono­lith and because there seemed to be no ques­tions they wanted to ask. LSE has shown that action is pos­sible and I for one can think of a lot of ques­tions—our func­tion as student anar­chists should largely be to shout them as loudly as we can. But note when I say “stu­dents have been apa­the­tic” I mean towards their uni­ver­sity envi­ron­ment—CND in Leeds had a mem­ber­ship (as active as any) of 10% of our student body at one time (about 600). This shows, what­ever one’s doubts about CND as a move­ment, that with an obvious demon­stra­ble cause a pretty size­able “dis­sen­ting mino­rity” can develop. This is where Carl David­son’s ideas are rele­vant. They place stu­dents in society (though N.B. in Ameri­can society) thus giving per­spec­tives for action and he gives good tac­tical hints which are parti­cu­larly rele­vant to, say, Teacher Trai­ning Col­leges and Techs where the posi­tion of stu­dents is often almost the posi­tion of feudal serfs. (Here I am thin­king of the “free student union” demands.)

  Can we ho­nest­ly say that we see our posi­tion in British society as clearly as Carl David­son sees his America? Eliza­beth calls uni­ver­sities and col­leges “govern­ment trai­ning centres for ap­pren­tice ex­ploi­ters” but what do stu­dents do when they leave college? Teach? Can one pro­perly call a teacher an ex­ploi­ter? The State at­tempts to exploit the edu­ca­tion system but this is another matter. This ex­ploi­ta­tion must be resis­ted and it seems essen­tial that tea­chers should be doing the resis­ting. The same argu­ments apply to those stu­dents who go into re­search and deve­lop­ment in tech­no­logy and the sci­ences. Their posi­tion seems to be at a knight’s move from the cor­pora­tive hier­archy. If we can merely show scien­tists and engi­neers what the conse­quen­ces of their actions can be we will do nothing but good. Liber­al­ism? All right but it’s what Paul Goodman has been doing for years and his influ­ence is signi­fi­cant in America. As far as the poten­tial for these careers goes, then, propa­ganda must be as strong as pos­sible and Carl David­son’s point about the effect that this could have, stands. The only people who fit clearly in the “ex­ploi­ter” niche are those who go into ma­nage­ment and the Civil Service. But how many, what percen­tage of stu­dents go into this sphere? We don’t know (though we can try and find out). What effect could propa­ganda have as dis­cour­age­ment? We don’t know (and here I admit to opti­mism: we can try and find out). The point is that it is no way
clear that the stu­dent’s posi­tion in society is objec­tive­ly that of a ruling class or part of one in Marxist terms nor is it clear that stu­dents objec­tive­ly consi­der them­selves to be of such a class. Any iden­ti­fica­tion is sub­jec­tive and is thus sus­cep­tible to propa­ganda. In terms of the owner­ship or control of the means of pro­duc­tion, dis­tribu­tion and ex­change stu­dents are in a class­less limbo. The “bour­geois poten­tial” is there, the tea­ching is bour­geois value laden but the only way to stop this is by orga­nised oppo­si­tion from within. Anar­chists used to say that with an ency­clo­pedia and a revol­ver they were free men. We still need that meta­pho­rical ency­clo­pedia (we’ll leave argu­ments about the revol­ver till later)—we must use the uni­ver­sity (as Eliza­beth says) while it is at­temp­ting to use us but we must attack its as­sump­tions and its basis pub­licly. We must go towards the revo­lu­tion on all fronts; we cannot afford to ignore the edu­ca­tion process or the demands of sane human beings within it. The reason is that the cate­go­ries of inside and outside the uni­ver­sity are not mutu­ally exclu­sive: in the end one cannot say that the poli­tical con­scious­ness that helped LSE stu­dents through the sit-in was dif­fer­ent from the con­scious­ness which led some of them to go on the Barbican strike picket. Civil Rights workers were the moving force in the “campus insur­rec­tion” which now finds its ex­pres­sion in the anti-Viet­nam war move­ment. The cate­gories are not exclu­sive because in the final analy­sis the answers to the ques­tion “what is wrong with the uni­ver­sity?” are the same as the answers to the ques­tion “what is wrong with society?”.

  Members of the working class join the army and the police, some of them even have “autho­rita­rian per­sona­lities”, but does this mean that as a whole the working class no longer counts in the move­ment towards social­ism? Of course not. Some stu­dents become mana­gers, civil ser­vants and army offi­cers allying them­selves firmly with that dung-beetle (who’ll take any old shit), the State. I should guess that the majo­rity of stu­dents even­tu­ally find them­selves in the camp of the mani­pula­ted rather than the mani­pula­tors but because of the afore­men­tioned shits do we give up stu­dents alto­gether? Surely not. Oh I know that some mani­festa­tions of student life can be pretty dis­hear­ten­ing—but so can some workers (e.g. the recent example of the racia­list trades unions in Lancashire). But you can’t expect the strug­gle to be easy in a bour­geois world. The slogan remains “Find where you’re at and orga­nise”.

Leeds University Union peter redan black  

p.s. I suppose I ought to add that perhaps the reason I write so vehe­ment­ly defen­ding the student bit is that poli­tical life in Leeds is largely nowhere—except in the uni­ver­sity. In the town we have some young libs, a small YCL, a deci­mated YCND, and that’s it. One of our members wrote to <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: freedom">freedom asking if anyone was inter­ested in forming a town Anar­chist Group and had no answers. You see, Eliza­beth, we haven’t an outside to go to. If anyone is inter­ested please write to above address.