From Controversy, International Socialism, No.56, March 1973, pp.15-17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
It is now six years since the Conservative president-elect of the LSE Students’ Union proposed the start of the first student sit-in in Britain. This unlikely (and in many ways unrepresentative) figure thus formally ‘inaugurated’ the mass student direct-action movement in this country; a movement in which the revolutionary movement itself was enormously revitalised. That was 13 March 1967.  Barely three years later the movement as such was more or less spent, although student militancy has survived in different forms to confront the Tories.
Where are they now? Wasn’t the movement a kind of mistake, a pre-political expression of naive enthusiasm? Surely it cannot have any lessons for us, other than showing us how not to proceed in the sober ’seventies?
Such stern opinions have been expressed, not least among student revolutionaries themselves  (note that there are no longer any ‘revolutionary students ‘). But effectively, the revolutionaries in the colleges have been widely reduced to propaganda circles. And some have reverted to the antiquated theoretical positions of Trotsky on students, which seem to restrict the work of socialists to individual conversion rather than the leadership of masses. 
I should like to recall, in opposition to these practical and theoretical trends, the main theoretical gains of the hectic period of student struggle in the late sixties:
- the recognition of the immense quantitative and qualitative changes in higher education;
- corresponding to this, the recognition of the huge change in the social character of the student population and in the relations of students to the educational institutions and their controllers;
- seeing that the tendency of the student population to fight against capitalism, and to be objectively aligned with the struggle of the working class, has consequently become the dominant one. 
In these fundamental respects, the world upsurge of the ’sixties highlighted irreversible trends within modern society. (These were, in retrospect, evident well before the late ’sixties. E.g. in the USA, the proportion of youth in higher education had already reached, in 1940, the level it had attained in Britain at the height of student ‘unrest’ more than a quarter of a century later; also, students were a prominent force in most active left movements throughout the world in the 1950s. But theory does tend to follow action ...)
In these conditions, the broad strategy of revolutionaries in this field must (where at all possible) be that of the best revolutionary students of the late ’sixties, to mobilise the mass of students for struggle against the system, and so to win them for an alliance with the working-class movement. The only divergences are really over tactics and methods of work and organisation. It is here that the real problems arise as to the value of the experience of the revolutionary student movement and the wave of direct action.
It is clear that on the question of tactics there are important differences in the conditions which now prevail.  Perhaps of greatest importance is the fact that the movement of the late ’sixties provoked a reaction from government and educational authorities. This in itself made a repetition of the first successes, like that at LSE, more difficult to achieve; it also produced a wave of victimisations, especially in 1969 and 1970, which made an impact in a number of key centres. The Tory election victory, which posed a number of very serious threats to students as a whole and to the left in particular, on a national scale, seemed to set the seal on the phase of localised mass actions.
But how fundamental was the change? Did it make student militancy impossible or irrelevant? Or did it call for new forms of mass action and organisation, on a higher level? And should not the political, ideological and organisational breakthroughs of the revolutionaries of the late ’sixties have the basis for developing student tactics, in further struggle?
I think we can see, even from the limited battles over student union autonomy and now over rents and grants, as well as from the recurring local struggles (such as that at Lancaster), that the second alternative which I have just posed was and is the one necessary in the situation. But it is also difficult to avoid noticing that the revolutionaries have not met the needs of the situation. And the main reason, I suggest, has been the mistaken retreat from the tactics and (at least as important) the methods of work and organisation of the earlier period -instead of the development of its positive achievements which should have taken place.
The revolutionary left has barely, if at all, maintained its numerical strength in the colleges. In political terms we are certainly more marginal than we were 4 years ago. The CP and reformist bureaucrats in the student movement, people who had little credibility at all around 1968, have regained and largely held the initiative both nationally and in a large number of localities. The attitudes I have, referred to are both cause and effect of this situation. They have their origin in real problems: of course the student revolutionary left did need to learn the ABC of marxism, the role of the working class; and some of the students who learnt this, who mainly joined IS, could play an important part in building the revolutionary movement in industry and the localities.
But the withdrawal of the revolutionaries from consistent mass work in the colleges was another result. And especially because it was not even clear that this was a tactic, we have the situation today in which the revolutionary left has been seriously weakened among students, theoretically and politically as well as in organisational terms. Ultimately we shall find it impossible to recruit the kind of students who have until now played an important part in our general growth. This would not be as serious a loss now as several years ago, but it would be a loss, and an unnecessary one.
We can learn a lot today from the organisation and methods of work of the student of the ’sixties. We may, then, have lacked political clarity and organisational coherence; but precisely because we were only moving towards a fully revolutionary policy we had to work out our politics in the context of our own situation as students. We had to act on our ideas in our own milieu; we had to relate them to people with whom we had direct relationship, our fellow-students. We had no problem of knowing what was going on, or in establishing our credentials with the mass of students, because we were obviously, and on a day-to-day basis, involved in our colleges – not just selling Socialist Worker or organising meetings, but in discussing and dealing with the concerns of students.
Comrades who learnt their politics in this way, as part of an activist student group rather than (primarily) of an area branch of a revolutionary organisation, learnt them very thoroughly (and looking around the revolutionary movement today, the number of leading activists who came from this phase of the student struggle is impressive). We learnt the need for mass involvement and activity as a practical necessity, not just as a theoretical point to use in criticising bureaucrats and CPers. We learnt the need to raise demands as they arose from the struggle, and thus when we attempted to formulate a programme it was not mechanically, from general principles. (In this respect, Chris Harman’s programme in Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt still provides essential components of a revolutionary programme for students, even if it is too narrowly conceived.)
All these qualities are just as necessary for today ‘s student revolutionaries who have the definite advantage of working on the basis of a relatively well-established political tradition and organisation. But to achieve these things today requires a major reorientation – an acceptance that for students in a revolutionary organisation a major priority, indeed other things being equal the major priority, is to educate, agitate and organise in the colleges. Ambivalence on this issue has produced an ‘intervention’ in student unions and the NUS which – as in the case of much activity around the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Student Unions – has often been more formal than real. Now, when some kind of basis has been achieved for the revolutionary movement outside the universities, is the time to make this reorientation.
We are coming to recognise that the basic unit of the embryonic revolutionary party, in which its members are most involved, must start to become the workplace unit, the unit of struggle. The argument has been that the International Socialists need factory branches – the corollary, in higher education, is university and college branches too. In anticipation of the reaction this suggestion may provoke in some quarters, I ask readers to consider the following. Socialists would not think much of a worker-militant who spent so much time selling socialist papers on the street or outside workplaces other than his own, that, he did not agitate in his own workplace and union, stand for shop steward etc. Why should we think so much of the student who does precisely this? The point that we should have learnt from the ’sixties is that, while important differences remain between students and workers, the job of revolutionary students is in many practical respects parallel to that of revolutionary workers, and not just subservient to it. We should be organised so that revolutionary students can do their job, too.
1. For a still relevant account of the first sit-in see LSE: What it is and how we fought it, a model for many accounts published since. (Agitator, LSE, 1967.)
2. E.g. the dismissal in Students and the Struggle for Socialism (IS, 1972).
3. Trotsky’s views are to be found in The Intelligentsia and Socialism (1911), which is criticised in Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt (IS, 1968) – also in his 1932 interview recently circulated in IS.
4. See both the IS pamphlets referred to for justification of these assertions.
5. The 1972 IS pamphlet spells out many of the tactical problems of the current period in a useful way; what I am suggesting is that the orientation and organisation of the revolutionary left, in practice, has made it difficult to implement these and other policies.
Last updated on 29.6.2008