s1I 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
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.
s2I too felt that something should have been said
about the relevance of Carl Davidson
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-UncleTomCobley
ites 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”.
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.