1980s >> 1986 >> no-980-april-1986

All Quiet on Campus

Good news if you missed the “Swinging Sixties”: a revival is underway. However, while the music and fashions might be making a comeback, one of the most popular products of that period is not. The long haired, tee-shirt wearing, slogan chanting, banner waving student appears to be dead and buried.

Most undergraduates today are too  young to remember the Sixties, when a wave of student upheavals swept across America and Europe. In Berkeley, Berlin, Madrid and Paris, young men and women turned against the very institutions that had nurtured them. The student leader, Cohn-Bendit, mimicking Marx, wrote: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of student revolt.” In Britain, too, higher education became a battleground with anti-war demonstrations, marches, sit-downs, sit-ins, rent strikes, days of action and grant campaigns. Hornsey College of Art was occupied and declared a “Student’s Republic”. Inevitably, there were casualties as students clashed with the police. At the London School of Economics, a porter died of a heart attack when students occupied the building. Today the slogan, “Essex, Oxford, Kent, Unite. One Struggle One Fight” must sound rather strange to students.

If the Sixties were characterised by “student unrest”, the late seventies and eighties have seen a general decline in protest. This is not surprising given the bleak climate of cuts, competition, and record levels of unemployment. Much student energy today is taken up with grades, jobs and overdrafts, which leads to a number of problems. In an article called “When Finals are the Final Straw”. (New Society, 30 June 1983), the writer states:

    “… all the counsellors I spoke to agreed that the economic climate is greatly increasing the stress on students. Their grants are worth less than ever, and many have overdrafts. Academic staff, facing redundancy themselves cannot always give them support they need. And they risk not finding a job after they’ve finally achieved that degree.”

Two recent government papers have angered students into organising limited demonstrations at Southampton, Portsmouth and Oxford. Firstly, the Green Paper, Higher Education into the 1990s, described by P. Flather (New Statesman, 11 October 1985 “The Sack of Academe”) as “perhaps the greatest peace time threat to higher education”. This paper will not surprise socialists as it sets out in plain terms the purpose of education under capitalism – to meet the needs of the economy. Vocationalism is the new “in” word. Subjects in the arts and social sciences which do not directly contribute to the economy are to be severely cut and the cuts presently hitting higher education are to be extended. Libraries are closed in the evening, research is shelved and universities are losing one in seven of their staff. Secondly, the White Paper on Social Security proposes to exclude students from claiming Supplementary and Unemployment Benefits in the short vacations and intends to withdraw the right of students to claim Housing Benefit if living in halls of residence. The National Union of Students believe that the combined cuts will cost individual students up to £1,100 a year.

There have been mixed fortunes for those organisations involved in student politics. Left Wing groups have been on the decline for several years now; their heyday was in the late Sixties when students were “in struggle” – demonstrating against the Vietnam war and campaigning against bad housing, social services cuts, rent increases, the wage freeze, unemployment and racist government policies.

This provided groups like the International Socialists (now the SWP) and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party with the opportunity to recruit concerned students. The activity of these groups is at best silly and at worst undemocratic and anti-socialist. The fact that marching up and down and chanting reformist slogans is considered “exciting”, says a great deal about college life. Far more serious is the undemocratic behaviour of groups like the SWP who, acting as a self-appointed vanguard, decide which views can and cannot be heard by other students. When the SWP organised a mass picket to prevent Patrick Harrington entering North London Poly, not only were they suppressing free speech in the name of “socialism”, but they were also giving the dwindling NF valuable publicity. Similarly, in January, the SWP broke up a meeting at Southampton University because it was being addressed by the Right Wing MP, Harvey Proctor. Fascist ideas need to be exposed and defeated, along with all anti-working class ideas, but this is not achieved by disconnecting the microphone.

If the new economic climate in higher education has led to the general decline of the Left, the Right have fared much better. Indeed, the balance of intellectual and academic thought has shifted as professors, departments and students have realigned themselves with the new Right. In the past, Keynes dominated university economics; today, free market economics is taught in the departments of York, Bath, Exeter, Liverpool, Southampton and the LSE and the so-called “Libertarians” have become increasingly active on campus. They even have their very own guru. Professor Roger Scruton, a sort of intellectual Rambo whose task in life is to remove Left Wing academics from their privileged position. He sets about this task in his recently published book, Thinkers of the New Left. Conservative student organisations are also flourishing. The Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) which is dominated by a libertarian faction, made the headlines last April when its members were involved in acts of hooliganism during their conference at Loughborough University. Then the Chairman of the Conservative Party, John Gummer, set up an investigation into the FCS, but the intended crackdown never came. David Rose, writing in the Guardian, (15 November 1985) comments:

    “The grip of the hard Right on the Federation of Conservative Students was strengthened last night by the internal party inquiry originally supposed to curb it.”

This change of style among Conservative  students was commented on by the Tory MP, Michael Brown, in the Guardian (31 May 1985):

    “Traditionally, in the 1960s, the FCS was no more than a mouthpiece for the Party to disseminate party literature for that small band of short back and sides, sports jacket and tie brigade.”

The tactics and new found enthusiasm of the Right mirrors the Left. Some members of the FCS wear provocative tee-shirts which read, “Hang Nelson Mandela”. Opponents’ meetings are boycotted or disrupted. Slogans are chanted, such as “The Right united will never be defeated!” The ideas of the libertarians include extreme market economics, leading some members to advocate the legalisation of heroin and paedophilia, loans for the unemployed and students, and no doubt the right of prisoners to buy their own cells. They are generally pro-South Africa and anti-Soviet. At the annual societies’ fair at Cambridge, a poster of the Cambridge University Right read, “Apartheid OK, Apartheid UK”. The FCS also supports Ulster Unionism and is firmly opposed to the recent Anglo-Irish Agreement; indeed, some of its members are said to hold Loyalist and Protestant views which make Ian Paisley look positively middle-of-the-road.

Students, like all other members of the working class, need to organise themselves within their own organisations to protect their position within capitalism. Although the protestors of the sixties have grown old and, for the most part, disillusioned, the problems are still with us in one form or another. The only effective protest against them is the struggle to abolish capitalism itself.

Brian Rubin

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