Education, capitalism and the student revolt

Issue: 158

Chris Harman and others

The pamphlet Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt, chapters one and four of which are reproduced here, was written by Chris Harman, Richard Kuper, Dave Clark, Andrew Sayers and Martin Shaw, five student members of the International Socialism group (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party) in 1968. It was one of the first Marxist attempts to explain why student revolts developed in the 1960s and to outline their possibilities and limitations. IS members at the London School of Economics (LSE), including three of the authors, had absorbed the experience of the 1964 movement at Berkeley, especially through the account of the American international socialist Hal Draper in his book Berkeley: The New Student Revolt, and played a key part in developing the first British student protests in LSE in 1966-67. As student movements spread from the United States across the world to Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Pakistan and many other countries, a rapidly growing IS was at the heart of the eruptions in British universities and colleges.

The group produced this analysis to contextualise the movement in the development of mass higher education, its new roles in modern capitalism, and the structural and ideological contradictions that generated protest. Unlike some Trotskyists who dismissed student movements as a diversion from the class struggle and other revolutionaries who had exaggerated ideas that students alone could catalyse change, IS—which placed the self-emancipation of the working class at the heart of its approach—saw students as potential professional and white collar workers and their protests as precursors of broadened class struggle, but also believed that mass student movements could play the distinctive role the pamphlet describes.

Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt was written in a hurry by multiple hands, although the driving force was the extraordinary theoretical and practical energy of Chris Harman, then a graduate student and later the SWP’s most prominent theoretician after Tony Cliff. The work shows signs of unevenness and internal contradiction, not to mention unfortunate gendered language in the final section where it says: “If he develops a critical revolutionary (and therefore Marxist) consciousness, the student begins to reappropriate his own mind.” The second-wave women’s movement was to develop in Britain—partly out of contradictions in the student movement which the pamphlet did not recognise—from 1969.

In retrospect, the mass education described in the pamphlet was only in its early stages 50 years ago. The subsequent huge increase in the proportion of the 18+ age group going to university has not been accompanied by consistent mass radicalisation, and there has not been another moment in which student movements were at the centre of global politics as they were in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, more mundane student politics has expanded, and students have played key roles in movements for change, from the overthrow of dictatorships in southern Europe in the 1970s, Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, and democratising movements from South Korea to South Africa in the 1990s. In the light of this history, this pamphlet was asking the right questions even if its answers were only a beginning.


Chapter 1

Revolution today is no longer the empty word that it has been for some decades in the West. No more do Western socialists need to look with envy on the struggling peasants of the Third World. It is the contradictions of advanced industrial capitalism which are now beginning to explode. Dramatic, worldwide convulsions have blasted away the limitations on human possibilities which capitalist prosperity had seemed to make final. They have reminded us that we still have great opportunities—larger than ever before—of realising the dreams of generations for a new world to replace the barbarity of capitalism.

Students have contributed more than any other social group to this change in the political climate. Campuses have exploded across the world—Tokyo, Berkeley, Nanterre, Berlin, Milan, Warsaw, London and hundreds more. The strikers, sitters-in and demonstrators have rarely contented themselves with narrow reforms in their immediate situation. Consciously and creatively, the movement has challenged the whole structure and ideology of the university and bourgeois society. Everyone, the ruling class included, must recognise the reality of the “student revolution”.

A revolutionary does not, however, bow down before facts—not even before the facts of revolt. The coming social revolution will be qualitatively different from anything the student movement has created. We must therefore ask ourselves how and why the student movement has developed, what its potentialities are and so suggest the course which it can take in the future. This is what we hope this pamphlet will contribute to the British student movement. We have grounded it in a study of the British situation; but it is necessary to begin by putting this in a global perspective. The student movement is a response to changes in the educational system and in society on a world scale.

Education in class society

Education in general has the function of giving individuals the technical knowledge necessary for them to participate in social life. It has also the function of ensuring that they conform to the goals and norms of the society into which they are born. It is these aspects of education, of course, which are most commonly identified with it. Education is for many synonymous with knowledge.

But in class society the educational system performs other functions which are determined by the social relations on which that society is based. It does not simply impart knowledge, or inculcate norms of behaviour which would be necessary in any society. The educational system performs certain functions which are necessary only to secure the smooth functioning of society in the interest of the ruling class, and to maintain its class rule. Education under capitalism is characterised by its functions in social selection, in ensuring subordination to repressive authority, and in integrating people into a society in which they will be exploited.

Education in capitalist society is an important mechanism in the process of dividing up the potential labour force according to industry’s requirements for labour of different degrees and types of skill. This process largely confirms workers in the same (or a very close) level of employment as that of their fathers, but it also allows a few “talented” members of the “lower” strata to rise to the ruling class and so ensures a degree of renewal in that class. Equally significantly, this process legitimises inequality and privilege. If one does not rise to the top it is one’s own fault, for not working hard enough… And finally, this process of social selection is an instrument for masking the fundamental differences in capitalist society (exploiter vs exploited) by presenting society as a finely graded hierarchy with no sharp antagonisms. The “middle” strata are given the illusion of superiority over the workers so as to create a cushion between the latter and the ruling class. Manual workers are led to believe that it is differences between types of wage labour (labourer/clerk, etc) which are the crucial divisions in society, and that mobility within the class is the highest hope for most.

The schools function within this process largely by confirming a selection which occurs through the effect of income, the cultural conditions of the family and the social power of the class of origin. These factors work to perpetuate existing class divisions, and the school system is designed to push back to the class of origin the vast majority of the population. A minority is allowed to rise, but only by accepting the categories of the dominant culture and the given authority structure. Promotion is dependent upon the complete acceptance of the subordination of the student to the teacher first, and then to the headmaster. The more complete the negation of one’s personality, the blind acceptance of authority, the greater the guarantees that the future will not lead to rebellions, that the authority of the boss will be accepted as a matter of course, and therefore the greater the rewards.

With the family, the educational system is the main instrument for the transmission of the society’s values. The difference is that in the family one often also receives values of a conflicting nature (a clear class consciousness in working class families) while in schools the values received are in general those of the status quo.

The development of education

These functions of mass education in capitalist society are not the same as those fulfilled by the institutions of higher education in the period of the emergence of capitalism, or even in the early industrialism. This is simply because the mass of the population was excluded first from all formal education, and then from the universities. Indeed at first the universities played a marginal role even for the ruling classes. Universities were founded in the Renaissance by students, and professors were hired to act as tutors. The ruling classes took only a mild interest in them, sometimes only being attracted to them out of the general revival of a desire for knowledge. Education, however, was not an integral part of the requirements of the ruling classes, indeed in some cases (Spain for example), was absolutely disdained by the aristocracy. The educational system was left to a subordinate class of intellectuals and bureaucrats that one then hired. The right to rule of the aristocracy was not challenged, and the traditional pattern was to give the first son the family fortunes, leaving the others to make their way in the army or the church.

In time, however, the educational system was used more and more by the ruling classes to enable their sons to spend a few years in relative leisure, to acquire a certain discipline of mind (thus the retention of classical languages in the curriculum expressly to develop with their highly complicated grammar the ability for closely argued logical thought), and above all to learn to rule, by which it was meant to learn to command.

In the pre-capitalist world instruments of social control were generally quite sufficient to deal with the exploited classes. The family sent the young ones to church; the church preached the sanctity of the family, respect of authority, resignation to one’s state, and in exchange it promised a better lot in the future life. It is interesting here to note how the Roman Catholic church, which is historically the religion of very poor countries, has always laid a stress on resignation, and the Protestant churches a greater stress on hard work and self-betterment (given their existence in a society where at least a minimal degree of self-betterment was possible).

The rise of capitalism

With the rise of industrial capitalism the educational system was changed, even if for different reasons and at different times in all advanced countries, and institutional education arose for almost all classes.

The educational system became thus composed of two different parts, what we may call a “popular” and an “elite” stream. Although early capitalism did not really require a skilled or even literate working class, “popular” education was introduced relatively early. This was partly due to the need to save a valuable labour force from child labour and partly to condition from an early age the future workforce.

The shift of the population from the countryside to the new urban areas had led to the breakdown of the traditional family structure. The church was also declining in importance in the new environment. Parallel to this displacement of the traditional condition, the new system of production had led to entirely new forms of organisation and resistance. The urban proletariat was proving to be very different from the old peasant classes.

Thus the distinguishing characteristic of the “popular” educational system was its brutal enforcement of discipline. The literature and history of the time bear a powerful witness to this effect. The all important element was docility, acceptance of authority. The sooner the kind of conditions that were to be met in the factory were met and accepted the better. The teacher took the role of the boss, the prefects that of the foreman and the policemen that were to hound the pupils for the rest of their lives. Education was in the system marginal, or better an excuse for its existence and more often than not it was not even attempted.

In contrast, the “elite” system was continued and even slightly extended. Here too, however, education was, in a sense marginal. Since one’s place in society was clearly defined by one’s birth one could easily afford to spend one’s early years in leisurely pursuits worthy of a gentleman, tutored by amiable eccentrics. The distinguishing characteristic of the educational system for the elite was that it was completely divorced from reality. Indeed great pride was taken in this. To reinforce the point one studied the classics, greats or such like, and education acquired a role similar to the “Grand Tour”, a pleasant diversion, an interim between the joys of infancy and the rigours of exploitation.

What was important was the acquisition of an attitude of mind: The firm knowledge of belonging to an elite, a belief in one’s right to do so, and the ability to command. If some knowledge was to be useful later in life, this could easily be picked up later on the spot, and the educational system could remain untouched and uncontaminated by worldly considerations. It was thus that the universities could remain aloof ivory towers where students and teachers could indeed be a “community of scholars”. If there was some authoritarianism, it was only because society as a whole was authoritarian. Indeed in many ways this educational system was a lot less authoritarian than society at large.

The intermediate jobs in society, those between the elite and the proletariat, were taken by poor relations of the elite or their illegitimates, and these seldom required more than a minimal formal education. What knowledge or skill they required they picked up during a period of apprenticeship.

Changes in capitalism

The further development of the industrial society led, however, to a radical increase in the skill and knowledge needed by society. This increase was experienced at all levels. The increased competition in the internal and international markets made research and the immediate application of the latest techniques of the utmost importance. More and more technical knowledge came to be needed by the elite to rule, but also by the workforce in order to man the ever more complicated industrial machinery. And as the size of the working units expanded and working methods advanced, an increasing gap was experienced between the direction and the shop floor. An increasing number of intermediates was needed both to relay and enforce orders from the direction and to provide information to the direction as it became more and more aloof.

British capitalism, the earliest to develop and the slowest to change, woke up late to the fact that modern industrial technology requires not only sources of raw materials, capital, labour and markets but a highly trained and adaptable labour force as well. Although even Arthur Balfour had admitted that education was “chaotic, ineffectual and utterly behind the times”, and bemoaned the fact that “although Britain was a great industrial nation, there is no organised training of those upon whose ability and skill the future of our nation depend” organised education continued to jog along in the tradition of British pragmatism.

The industrial revolution in Britain ignored the universities and schools: it was brought about by self-made men. It was not really until after the Second World War when British capitalism had been forced to the outer limits of its technological inventiveness, that the years of pressure by the labour movement and the great socialist reformers began in earnest to take a hold on the consciousness of the ruling class. Forced into ever greater competition by the capitalist giant across the Atlantic, by revived European and Japanese capitalism, and by the ruthless efficiency of state capitalism in the Soviet Union, a whole new outlook on education began to emerge. When the words “Made in Britain” were no longer sufficient to guarantee the sale of the goods, when the Imperial markets ceased to be solely the prerogative of the British ruling class, Britain would have to streamline its educational system.

The birth of the technological university abroad

If the British ruling class only became aware of the need for “technological capitalism” after the end of the Second World War, this was not, however, the case with other capitalist countries.

In a sense, Britain, by virtue of being the first country to industrialise, had had a fairly easy task. Its goods were superior to those of its competitors, and furthermore in large areas of the world, ie the empire, it had no competitors at all. By virtue of its early monopoly position, Britain was able to hold a virtually unbeatable position of privilege for quite a time.

Other European countries trying to get a foothold of the international markets, either by competing commercially or militarily for them, had by virtue of their having arrived second an uphill fight from the start. America too had to fight, this time not to capture the international markets, but simply to render itself more independent of their previous economic forefathers. The need to industrialise in a world where Britain had already established itself as the major producer of manufactures, and even more industrial machinery, where most of the technical discoveries were made and applied in Britain, impressed on these countries the need of a modern educational system that was to furnish the countries with the technological skill they required. It was thus in the France of Napoleon the famous Écoles Polytechniques, an embryonic example of the technocratic schools of the future, were founded to provide the technical elite that the republic needed. These were established in all the countries through which the Emperor’s armies marched and were retained when they were forced to retreat.

If in France the emphasis in the universities was for the production of technocrats, in Prussia the rising capitalist class put a much stronger emphasis on territorial expansion as a way out of their impasse and the universities were closely geared to the needs of the army.

Thus these and similar countries, because of the relationship between their development and that of industrial capitalism as a whole, experienced a much earlier coordination between economic and educational development than was the case in Britain. But these changes only slightly indicated what was to come. Capitalism in its highly developed stages has had to introduce vast educational changes which are the basis from which the world student unrest has grown.

Education today

Modern capitalism is characterised by acute competition for the international markets, in response to its basic contradiction of overproduction. In order to compete efficiently, capitalist enterprises require a high level of research which can be immediately applied at both the product and production stages. The tendency towards the concentration of productive resources, leading to both vertical and horizontal integration, is implicit in the capitalist dynamic of competition and accumulation.

Thus modern capitalism is characterised by particularly great educational needs. The ruling class has an ever greater need for an educated workforce. The directing elite needs more technical knowledge to rule, and the armies of intermediaries between the elite and the workforce—the vast industrial bureaucracies above all—are expanding. Thus modern capitalism has basically three different classes to educate. Now between the “elite” and “popular” stream there is an intermediate technological one.

What is important, however, is that the educational needs of the categories overlap to a considerable extent. The educational needs of the top “technocrats” are not really different from those of the ruling classes. Their educational requirements have, in a sense, converged since education or knowledge is not any more marginal for either of them. At the other end of the scale the more skilled of the workers have a need for a general and technical education which is even frequently in excess of that of the lower echelons of the intermediate classes. Here too educational requirements have converged.

The convergence in requirements does not necessarily point to a convergence of the actual educational process but there are, however, at present some trends in this direction. Two additional factors are here of primary importance.

The rise of parliamentary democracy in the West, and the organisation of working class resistance in the form of trade union and political movements, made it necessary to use the educational system in order to maintain unaltered the crystallised social relationships. Thus education today is used to give rise to the myth of social mobility. In order to achieve this, the more obvious positions of privilege within the educational system have to disappear. It is much better if there is a semblance of—democracy—if your position in society is, as always, guaranteed by your social birth, but it is glossed over with an apparently meritocratic system. This “meritocracy” has, however, a built in bias, and so always gives the same result, thus legitimising automatic positions of power.

The second is an economic reason. If the educational needs of different classes considerably overlap, then it is more economical to educate them together. In a world of harsh competition every little bit counts!

But this convergence is not an absolute tendency leading automatically to uniform educational institutions. The educational requirements of different kinds of labour cannot be fully reduced to common denominators, nor will privileges of any kind be quickly surrendered. We have seen in Britain that the rationalisation of the state secondary school structure, which has begun to replace the grammar and secondary modern schools by the comprehensive, does not imply any elimination of public schools: only the basis of entry needs to be modified to ensure adequate flexibility and mobility. At a university level, too, only marginal reforms are effected in the leading ruling class institutions such as Oxbridge. Capitalist educational reform does not yet threaten their existence in their present forms.

Producing white collar workers

The changing problems of capitalism do, however, necessitate a massive transformation of the institutions of higher education, a change of much greater significance than any which takes place in the schools. Modern capitalism requires a vast expansion of higher education, and the changes which must occur are qualitative as well as quantitative. In earlier periods universities served to educate the ruling class itself and narrow strata of the future professional groupings (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc) who would themselves be considerably privileged compared to the majority of the population. In the present stage, the higher education system is required to produce in addition great masses of highly trained individuals whose destiny is to become white collar employees. The intellectual element, science and its application, has become crucial to the development of economy and society. Large numbers of scientists, engaged in the research that is becoming a more and more necessary part of industrial and military development; technologists, even more directly concerned with this process; lower-level industrial management; administrators generally, with both extra specific skills and a general education to make them capable of higher flexibility; lawyers to service the giant corporations—purveyors of human manipulation; and teachers to perpetuate the whole process, as well as providing a higher level of general education for the rest of the expanding workforce. All these performers of mental labour are becoming more and more essential to the system, a powerful productive force. They are becoming an important section of the proletariat—paid in wages and divorced from control of the productive process just as are manual workers. And it is to produce these very changed groups of workers, who are not even necessarily more privileged or better paid than any manual workers, that the educational system has undergone its vast expansion throughout the world in recent years.

These changes have profound effects on the political and social character of the student population. No longer part and parcel of the ruling class or of a privileged elite, increasingly destined for subordinate positions in society, often unsure even of this future and existing in an extremely insecure condition, students no longer identify automatically with the bourgeois order. They become open, in a way in which they have not been in the past, to political and social ideas and modes of action which would not have been possible to the comfortable middle class students of earlier generations—the strikebreakers of 1926 and the like throughout the world.

We are not suggesting that there is any straight line between the changing functions of education in capitalism, the expansion of higher education, and student revolt. For students anywhere to become conscious of themselves as a group opposed to the ruling classes and the existing social order, much more has been necessary. We must consider the ways in which the university expansion has been mediated in particular countries. In the United States the transformation of higher education is more or less complete, and conflict arises over the effect which the streamlining of education, dictated by the needs of industry, has on the prospects of intellectual freedom which is guaranteed by the whole liberal ideology of the university. In Germany and France, on the other hand, the universities have been vastly expanded, but most have not been reformed in order to adapt to the changed needs of capitalism or of the students who are poured into them. The crisis arises from the same transition, but in a somewhat different form because of the different stages in the transition which each country has reached.

The political crisis

We believe that the contradictions which have given rise to the student revolt have their basis in the changing economy of capitalism and its effects on higher education, which have been described and which we analyse in greater detail in the following chapters. But the forms which student revolt has taken are not simply determined either at the economic or at the educational level, or in a combination of the two. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain the timing of the revolt in different countries. The crucial factor here has been the political and ideological changes which began throughout the advanced world in the 1950s and have developed very rapidly, although with great unevenness, in the last decade. Everywhere a younger generation which did not know the 1930s and 1940s has arisen to question the political divisions which became fixed during that period. A new generation, which has absorbed and takes for granted the material progress of the last 30 years, can afford to examine the relevance of old political institutions to the present age.

Youth does not need to accept that the choice is between two repressive forms of society, capitalism and Stalinism. The general disaffection towards both of these, and especially the erosion of both social democratic and Communist parties, have profoundly contributed to the student movement (and in addition, the students have contributed towards their decline). It is no accident that the real student revolt in Britain did not emerge until well into the period of Labour government, or that in America was profoundly affected by the Vietnam War, that in Germany by the Grand Coalition, etc. Because of its origins the student movement can never involve the divorce from politics which characterises the trade union movements in the advanced West. As we shall see, it must develop its challenge to the university, but it has tremendous political choices and responsibilities as well.


Chapter 4

The emergence of students as an important politically active force is a very recent phenomenon in advanced capitalist countries. Until three or four years ago those who debated the future of university industry and government were completely unworried by what happened on the campus. The discussion in the columns of elite journals, government committees and business dinners went on untroubled by the need to manipulate the student section of the population. Mass sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations did not hit the colleges until Berkeley in 1964,1 Berlin in 1966-7,2 Paris in 1968. In Britain, although the heyday of CND gave a foretaste of the future, mass activity among students dates from the LSE sit-in of March last year [1967]. Yet already the upsurge has imprinted its message upon the wider society. It has shaken the complacency of late capitalism. Together with the struggle of the Vietnamese, the ghetto uprisings in the US and above all the general strike in France it has brought to an end the “end of ideology” and confronted the “consensual society” with radical, socialist alternatives.

Yet the causes of this unrest, everywhere analysed, are nowhere explained.3 Sociologues have spoken of “intergenerational conflict”4 (as if subsuming a phenomenon under a wider category explained it) and the frustrations of upwardly mobile students of working class origin5 (although protesting students come from the whole range of social origins); others have emphasised lack of physical amenities (somehow a long walk to the lavatory makes one oppose the war in Vietnam) or the role of a few agitators in manipulating the mass student body6 (perhaps this should be called the “Bolshevik as Hypnotist” thesis). So accustomed are they to manipulating people as objects, whether in the factory or the university, that the administrator of bourgeois education and their sociologue apologists never conceive it as possible that revolts against their rule are not produced by an alternative source of manipulation.

But neither has the left been particularly successful at coming to terms theoretically with the new student revolt. Its analysis has remained at the level of generalities that rarely guide meaningful action. Those that go further than this tend to proclaim students as “the new vanguard”7—ignoring the vast numbers of students still unmoved by the insurgency. Others merely repeat parrot fashion that students need to join up with workers—true, but it says nothing about how to mobilise the students who are to do this linking up.

The basic cause of the student upsurge is to be found in the one factor never focused upon by the apologists of the status quo: the changing forms of manipulation required by the new capitalism. This is related to the changing function of the university (see chapter 2) and the changing composition of the student population. It affects different sections of the student body differently. But associated with it are more general factors that affect all students. These are particularly important if a view of long-term possibilities is to be obtained.

The failure of reformism

No account of student militancy can ignore the wider failure of social democracy. The last five years have seen a general discrediting of attempts to overcome the evils of existing society by the gradual changing of the existing power structure. In the US the “New Frontier” and the “Great Society” have progressively revealed its true nature, from the Bay of Pigs to the Vietnam War and the Chicago convention. In Germany the “Grand Coalition” has left student militants and individual trade unions alone facing the threats of emergency laws and the present reality of police brutality and press monopoly. In Britain the role of the Labour government is too well known to bear repeating. The oppositional state of the Communist Parties in France and Italy has meant that their reformist politics was not so automatically exposed by events—but their intensified search for national (ie bourgeois) respectability soon disenchanted first a small minority, then much larger numbers of students when these themselves began to move.

The fruits of disillusion with reformist and permeationist politics are easily seen. In Germany it was after the SDP joined the government that its expelled student wing, the SDS, gained its real strength; in less than three years the American SDS moved from a permeationist attitude to the Democratic Party, with the slogan “Half the way with LBJ”, to all out opposition to capitalism; in Britain the half-hearted pacifism of the CND has been replaced by the massive militancy of VSC [Vietnam Solidarity Campaign] demonstrations.

The success and militancy of direct action in turn encourage more direct action. The failure of social democrats and liberals to fight for reformist or liberal demands is readily contrasted with the success of the NLF [National Liberation Front/Viet Cong] in Vietnam, at least among a minority of students. The action of these in turn offers possibilities of success to other sections of students. A success in California encourages a struggle in Berlin; one battle in London can produce a rash in a dozen other universities. The May events in France provided the climate in which struggles at Hull, Hornsey and Guildford could take place.

While the ritualised and jargonised ideologies of the past reveal their impotence, a new generation finds its feet through its own activity and its own example.

The student experience

This leads us into the second underlying factor. Students are above all young. Nowhere else in capitalist society are young people separated off and pooled together in the same way. There are no factories containing only young workers. But late capitalism concentrates growing numbers of students into special institutions. This has many disadvantages for the long-term development of a student movement—isolated from the mass of the population it can easily be taken on by the authorities without receiving outside help and it is incapable by itself of really damaging the ruling class through attacking their profits. It also lacks the tradition of sustaining struggle that some sections of workers have. But this lack of tradition also means lack of inhibition by outdated modes of struggle or by past defeats. Youth alone can confront late capitalism with the resources of unlimited imagination. It is not weighted down by the past. When young workers occasionally do struggle for their own ends (as in apprentices’ strikes) they too display some of this initiative and ability to learn quickly. Yet it is only in the colleges that these qualities are really concentrated. That is why students have been the first to respond without inhibition to the much wider disenchantment with past political forms.

These two factors, however, do not explain the recent student upsurge. They determine its form only. They do not locate the underlying sources of discontent and opposition to the status quo that students feel. To understand these it is necessary to look at the particular relations of different sections of the student body to capitalist society.

The student body can be broken down into three more or less distinct sections on the basis of their future role in capitalist society.

Firstly there are the technologists (including in this physical scientists). These are being trained to play an integral part in the production process. In reality they will be nothing more than very highly-skilled workers. Their labour will be productive and they will be employed because the value of what they produce will be higher than the value of their wages—in short because they will produce surplus value. In terms of their future role in the economy and their present conditions in the institutions of higher education (where, in general, they have to sign on for classes and lectures, have long fixed hours of work and are given little time or opportunity for a relaxed personal life, with high failure rates in the exams) they have much more in common with manual workers than any other section of students. Their eventual earning power will be relatively high—but no higher than for isolated groups of the working class (eg some Fleet Street printers). Yet at present the technologists are almost completely non-militant and reactionary in their attitudes.8

Secondly there are what we will call the technocrats. These are destined for the middle levels of the bureaucracies of state and industry. Here they will implement the dictates of the ruling elite. They will deal with the administration of men rather than of things. They will be paid not because they produce surplus value but because they help manipulate those who do, and will themselves willingly accept manipulation from above. Into this category fall management trainees, many students of business studies, some economists, lawyers, etc. Some of this group receive the same training as technologists (eg in engineering), others as ideologues (eg industrial sociologists and psychologists).

Thirdly there are the students of the “humanities” and arts. These will play a role in propagating existing ideology and culture—as teachers (although these also include technologists), academics, journalists, etc. It is this section of students that has above all been involved in the recent upsurge of militancy. To see why we have first to look at the impact of the transition in the functions of higher education.

The crisis of the transition

The history of capitalism is the history of the transformation of previously entrenched attitudes and interests under the impact of the developing needs of production. We attempted (in chapter 2) to portray the elements of such a change in the field of higher education. It is implicit in our argument that it is the liberal conceptions of academic freedom and of disinterested scholarship that suffer in this process.9

At one level “academic freedom” was always an ideology—a simultaneous denial and defence of mundane interests. It defined one style of leisured activity for the ruling class and their immediate hangers-on. As the preserve of this elite it was not expected to extend any further. Those with political and economic power were part of the same group as those teaching or being taught in the universities. Academic autonomy was a device whereby one section of the elite was prevented from intruding upon the affairs of another. It was possible because there was “no basic difference between the two sides involved”.10

But an ideology is never a question just of conscious deception or self-deception. It is accepted by whole strata who have no interest in doing so. “The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas”. It moulds the opinions and shapes the actions of all sorts of subordinate groups. It becomes an integral part of the total social process. Its jettisoning requires a more or less prolonged and protracted effort.

The old structure of higher education and its accompanying ideologies conditioned all sorts of other structures. It became the chief means by which the middle classes could transmit their status from generation to generation (see chapter 3). By the 1950s it conditioned the expectations of most of those who wanted to move up in society. It defined part of a hoped-for way of life. Above all it dominated the rest of the educational structure, as thousands of teachers preached its standards to their successful pupils. In this way the “liberalism” of the older universities, with barely concealed disdain for the needs of industry and commerce, became an integral part of British intellectual life. As such it also became an integral part of the crisis of higher education in the late 1960s.

At the top the radically changed function of the universities under late capitalism are readily accepted—particularly since Oxford and Cambridge will, as elite institutions, be hardly touched. Further down middle level academics, whether with the glee of the successful entrepreneur or with the resentment of the new entrant to the world of the work-ethic, acquiesce in order to preserve their privileges. At the base, however, the reaction is bound to be different.

A whole section of students is bewildered to find that what awaits them at the end of a long and arduous climb is not the kingdom of the mind they were promised. Increasingly what is demanded of them is not pure science and scholarship, free debate and critical thought, not an up-to-date and expanded version of the old university (it does not matter whether this actually existed or not—it is what the students are taught to expect), but participation in or apologetics for the world of money and militarism, poverty and police forces. Instead of being offered a chance to understand the world and society they themselves are subjected to a crude quantification; in place of an exploration of reality they get exams. Although their institutions may still be described as “communities of scholars”, the atmosphere inside these comes to resemble more that of factories. In Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude never fulfils his ambition of entering Christminster; had he done so certain disillusionment would have awaited him. Today entry is almost automatic; but for the non-member of the elite disenchantment remains. Those most eager to learn soon become those most alienated from the means of learning.

It makes little difference if the elite is chosen by birth or by criteria of “merit”, to varying extents arbitrary (eg in the art colleges), for the mass of students their position is to be low-level functionaries in the capitalist order. As university education expands they no longer ever expect the old rewards in terms of money and prestige. A few, mostly from Oxbridge, might rise to be the high priests of bourgeois society; the majority can only look forward to being its clerks, with appropriately low salaries.

A variety of responses are open to the disenchanted student mass. They can drop out (not yet a major phenomenon in Britain), or attempt to find individual avenues of escape (for instance, drugs). They can go to the other extreme and compulsively identify with the system, seeing inability to succeed as an expression of their own failings, not of the structure; ritualistic participation in the academic rat-race becomes an end in its own right. They can come to accept their position, trying to find enjoyment and self-expression in non-academic spheres (from coffee bar discussions to drinking sessions and student rags). But they can also rebel against the total structure of domination, articulating their particular grievances as part of a general view of capitalist society.

The erosion of liberal values

This last possibility completely changes the significance of the debate over the liberal values associated with the old notions of “academic freedom” and a “community of scholars”. For the structure the student finds increasingly oppressive to himself personally is simultaneously breaking with the values he has been brought up to accept. Paradoxically an ideology elaborated to defend the old interests of the high priests of the ruling class can become the mobilising cry of a new army of the dispossessed.

This disintegration of the old academic ideals is part and parcel of the general erosion of liberal values under state monopoly capitalism. On the campus this erosion can take on forms as crude as elsewhere. We have referred above to increasing government and industrial control over the internal operation of the university. It is worth noting even more blatant forms of external control eg direct police prying into the lives of students. Despite its prevalence this has not often been noticed. It did, however, lead to a student sit-in in Leeds earlier this year after it was discovered that the hall porters had as part of their official duties to investigate people’s political activities.11

The mutual interpenetration of the state and the monopolies makes the old mechanisms by which the bourgeoisie used control its own increasingly useless, and even dangerous to it. Parliament, for instance, becomes only a minor weapon in big business’s armoury of controls over the state. At the same time the growing centralisation of the ruling class increases the possibility of a coalescence of different sources of opposition to it. Because they might facilitate this process, “democratic rights”, “freedom of speech” and so on begin to be seen as a dangerous luxury.

More than ten years ago a considerable public controversy broke out over the issue of spying on student activities. In May 1957 Lord Chorley revealed that MI5 were collecting reports on the personal habits, reading habits and outside activities of students. “Some of the things I have heard”, he told the House of Lords, “have really been almost unbelievable:

A university teacher has been asked in effect what documents a colleague has in his room, which in fact means that a teacher has been asked to find a way into a colleague’s study. This is not a thing that happens now and then: it is going on all the time. Numerous colleagues of mine who work in London University have told me in the past month that they have been asked to report not only on their students but on their own colleagues.

Lord Chorley’s speech led others to make startling disclosures about the conduct of the security service. Amid the hubbub a leading member of MI5 admitted: “We have members reporting from every university and college in the British Isles”.12

This abandonment of liberal forms by the bourgeoisie carries inherent difficulties for them. For while “liberal” patterns of behaviour may be a residue from the past, liberalism as an ideology is still essential in legitimating their rule. While limiting freedom of speech to themselves they have to give the impression that their rule is the choice of millions of freely debating citizens; while restricting 99 percent of academic work to their own physical or ideological needs they have to give the impression that the free pursuit of science justifies their rule; the more they pursue particular interests the more they have to appear to pursue general interests.

The contradictions involved in this attempt to maintain the forms of an ideology while transforming the situation that gave it content and meaning, find their most extreme expression in that area of social life most deeply concerned with the elaboration and propagation of ideology: the sphere of higher education and in particular the “humanities”. In general there is bound to be a sharp clash between old academic definitions that are as often as not still used—both to justify the particular interests of teachers and professors and to cloak subordination to the needs of industrial research and vocational training—and the new functions. But usually the tensions that result are external to the subject matter of study—they concern the use of the discipline, not its inner structure. In those areas of study concerned with analysis and interpretation of social life itself, however, this ideological tension has to be part of the subject matter. The inability of the ruling class to openly and unambiguously define its own exploitative and manipulative role means that the economist, sociologist or philosopher cannot do so either. For the academic this usually presents no problem. The attempt to reconcile irreconcilable contradictions can go on endlessly, giving rise to endless research papers and counter-papers, lecture and seminar topics, as well as the periodic rise of “new” and fashionable theories together with their propagators: in short it can be quite a profitable industry.

The mass of the students gain no such benefits. The whole operation appears as quite external to any interests they themselves might have. It only serves to increase their general alienation and bewilderment. At best it can seem like a complex sort of crossword puzzle, for which an aptitude will lead to postgraduate study and opportunities for the relative leisure of academic life.

In Britain at least, there is one further factor that accentuates ­alienation. There is a tendency for all those who have been at all critical of existing society in the ­pre-university or early university life to be pooled into certain departments—­particularly sociology. Because sociology seems to be concerned with understanding society, it tends to attract those who feel that there are problems about society and life in it that need confronting. The “science of society” is seen as offering that disinterested debate that will enable solutions to social problems to be approached.

Once in the university they find that the reality is quite different. Far from coming to terms with social problems, they at best merely measure them, at worst are asked to join in a long-winded and jargonised commentary on the status quo that offers no possibilities of meaningful action to change it. Confronted with the reified and ritualised “analyses” of the sociologue two possibilities are open to the student. The first is himself to accept what he is taught as “science”, to limit his own aspirations within the bounds it prescribes, and to try to participate in its alienated discourse. This was until recently the rule. Those who became students as opponents of nuclear weapons ended up as fellows of “peace research”, those who had supported trade unionism would become lecturers in industrial relations, those who had liked Marx would pontificate endlessly on “theories of social change”. More recently, however, it is precisely this group of students that has begun to choose the opposite option—to rebel completely against the system.

The dynamics of the student struggle

The university (or college of technology or art school or training college) is a structure of permanent repression. It has to both transmit the whole heritage of human culture, but do so in such a way as to ensure that it will be used in ways that are useful and safe for the ruling class. Increasingly too it has to transmit it to a social stratum which will itself never be part of the ruling class. It has to simultaneously stimulate the development of ideas and restrict their free play.

From this flow all the irksome restrictions that confront students: the arbitrary power of the principals, or vice-chancellors, the refusal to consider effective student control, the irrational examinations system, in short, the crude authoritarianism, as also the arbitrary division of subject matter (in the “social sciences”) and the universally accepted limitation on areas of debate. In some cases these features are starkly exposed; in others they are hidden under a veil of paternalistic “tolerance”. But nowhere are they absent in the universities of modern capitalism. The increased integration of the universities with industry and the state make them more than ever necessary, even if it makes cloaking of them also more necessary (for instance beneath structures of “participation”).

But a considerable proportion of the students have been educated in an ideology that stresses a non-authoritarian view of higher education, and speaks of the “community of scholars” as an end in itself. These will only accept the authority structure of the university as long as it can maintain a liberal pretence. So long as it can do this they will readily accept it, believing it to work in their own (or society’s) interests. They will accept its pose of being insulated from the more unpleasant features of the wider society and of operating in the interests of science or the nation.

This “stability” is only possible for the structure as long as no one seriously questions its purpose or its working:

Student political rebellion tends to break out when a series of events which violate the liberal bureaucracy’s norms set off shocks among those students who have not yet been sufficiently assimilated into the corporative system. The university administration is the de facto ruler of academia. It not only has the power to move against student dissidents; it is also often able to use the weapon of time to its advantage. It can forbid, harass, abolish and destroy student institutions and activities and it can do so just prior to the final exam, when students are away from the campus during the summer recess or between semesters. Nevertheless the administrators are sometimes forced to drop their liberal facade. When their informal mechanisms of control give way to vulgar manipulation and repression a critical stage is reached. Expansion along these lines by university elites moves students to act to protect their rights.13

This analysis admirably describes the development of many student struggles. Based on what happened at Berkeley in 1964 it could equally well be applied to the LSE in 1967, Essex in 1968 or the beginnings of the May explosion in France.14 In each of these cases relatively small groups of students acted in ways which accorded with the liberal pretentions of the university structure but were clearly opposed to its manipulative ends. When the elite reacted in accordance with the latter, the mass of the rest of the students (at least of the humanities and to another smaller extent of the pure sciences) who accepted the liberal ideology supported the minority against the authorities.

In this situation all the tensions within the university between past and present, between ideology and reality find their expression through the student body. The minority (chiefly in the “social sciences” but not wholly so) who came to university looking for answers to social questions, and receive instead the commonplace prejudices of the bourgeoisie rewritten in a more pretentious language, find that when they ask these same questions about the university structure itself through their actions they receive much more realistic and immediate answers, albeit crude and brutal ones. This in turn forces other students to begin to raise the same questions.

In Berkeley the initial confrontation in 1964 began with the authorities acquiescing to the outside interests established in the power structure of the university, by trying to stop recruitment for outside political activities. At LSE it began when a section of the student body protested against the appointment of a new director for the school who had previously acquiesced to demands by the racist Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia. At Essex it was similarly a demonstration against the involvement of the university in illiberal outside practices—in this case a scientist, Dr Inch, working on germ warfare, giving a lecture—that produced the first demonstration.15

The minority and the mass

In all cases the reaction of the authorities to this minority of students (who for shorthand we will refer to as “ideologues”—in the sense that they tend both to already have some ideological—although not necessarily socialist—commitment and to be students of ideological disciplines) is to resort to the crudest forms of direct repression. Either they bring the police onto the campus or they suspend the “ring leaders”. At this point the broad mass of the student body is brought into action. They begin to see that the university is not the pretended ­“community of scholars”. They react with outrage to the betrayal of the ideals which the university-dominated educational system itself has taught them. They also begin to grope for alternatives to the present structure. An intense debate begins about the relation of the real university to the ideal, about possible changes in the former, about the role of the student in the university and in society. For some at least of the previously non-ideologically committed students the outcome is a complete redefinition of their position in revolutionary terms.

But not all student movements have developed through this dialectic of student “provocation” and administration repression. More recently mass sit-ins and strikes have taken place for positive student demands about the running of the colleges. The basics of the process are not, however, really different. The demands still accord with the ostensible ideals of the university; they are pushed by the relatively small proportion of students who already feel uneasy about the wider society and its relationship to the university; they are accepted by the majority of the “liberal” students (chiefly within humanities); they are rejected out of hand by the authorities. The struggles in the summer term of 1968 at Hull University and also at Hornsey College of Art seem to have developed in this way.

It is important to note a certain ambiguity in these struggles. The demands of the movement change as it grows. The initial motivation seems to have little relation to the final outcome. At Hull the first sit-in of a few hours resulted both from a political identification with the French struggle and a general ­dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the university that was not yet formulated into any programme. This comes into being after the struggle has begun. At Hornsey the sequence is similar, although in this case there is an initial programme, but it concerns issues of no real concern to the mass of students (the financing of the students’ union and the question of a sabbatical year for the president). The mass of students accept the justice of these demands, and support them, but only in a very passive manner. Once, however, they are gathered together to push for them they feel their own strength and begin to formulate demands intimately related to their own life situation (content of courses, etc).

This ambiguity can only be understood by understanding the differing motivations of different groups of students. Those who begin the struggles tend to be those who are already radically discontented with the status quo. These were the ones who came to the university looking for something they were promised but will never find there.

They respond to the struggle with little regard to the issues. The confrontation with the authorities offers them the opportunity to explore the world, to take hold of reality in theory and practice, which the authorities themselves deny them. They support the struggle because they learn through it, just as they oppose the authorities because they cannot learn from them. It is almost as if they want to “sit-in” and are looking for an excuse.

But for the struggle to expand and be successful it has to respond not just to the intense ideological alienation of this first group, but to the more broadly based alienation of the mass of students. It has to formulate programmes that appeal to these. Because the most easily mobilisable body of students are those (chiefly in the “humanities”) who accept liberal definitions of reality, it is within the liberal rhetoric that such demands tend to be phrased.

“Representation” and “student power”

We have argued throughout that the university has an equivocal relationship to liberalism. It has to define itself in liberal terms, but its practice can no longer be fully assimilated within them. Above all its internal mechanisms of repression and its external commitment to a system of oppression belie them.

While students are engaged in defensive battles for elementary rights they are aided by this ambiguity. For in fighting victimisation, for instance, they can see themselves as fighting liberal battles. The authorities have departed from the prevailing ideology, not them. The same can apply in struggles against elements of racism (as at LSE or Enfield) against participation in war efforts (Sussex and Essex) or against police snooping (Leeds).

Difficulties arise, however, as soon as students begin to move from defensive to positive demands. And this movement is inevitable once power begins to be exercised by the student body—for every section of this has previously unarticulated grievances of its own. The temptation is to couch these in a liberal rhetoric so as to make support for them by the students and acceptance by the university easier. But nothing is easier than for the authorities to accept the rhetoric, perhaps make marginal changes, but leave the underlying discontents of the students untouched.

The most popular, the most ambiguous, and the most dangerous of such liberal formulations is that of “representation”. It has come to the fore in struggle after struggle. It has seemed to challenge the status quo. It has unified the student body as no other slogan has. And at the end of the day it has left this same body divided, demoralised and even defeated. For its strength—that it appeals to quite diverse sections—is also its weakness: it defines the essential aspirations of none. That is why it can also be accepted both by the most reactionary students and the most far-sighted of administrations.

Like the similar cry of “workers’ participation in industry” it is essentially meaningless. With only 49 percent membership of ruling bodies the workers or students can always be outvoted—and will be as soon as they challenge the system. Those that elect the representatives come to understand this lack of power, begin to feel the whole operation has no point; their failure to bother to vote for representatives is then defined as “apathy” and taken to prove that they are incapable of exercising power. (In fact what is offered is also much less than even 49 percent of membership.)

This danger, which leads to containment of the movement for change and a feeling of defeat for its participants, can only be overcome by constant criticism of the demand for representation, while drawing out from it those elements that really appeal to students and articulating them in a new form. Strategies for developing real student control, both over particular areas and over the whole of higher education, have to be elaborated—we make attempts at this in our last chapter.

The demand for representation has moved large numbers of students. It has done so because it seems to all those wanting some sort of change in the status quo to challenge it, at the same time being acceptable to others who accept the liberal ideology while being generally contented. But it does not either offer the students any real change or compel the authorities to reveal their true nature. Nor does it force the students to begin to explore the sources of their own discontent. Acceptance of the slogan tends to be passive. And when the demand is granted students cannot help feeling that either they have been conned into struggling or that they have been sold out by their leaders. In a sense the slogan provides a bridge between the minority of students who are radically alienated and the larger numbers who are not so immediately aware of their discontent—but a phoney one, the shortcomings of which are soon exposed.

“Moderates” and “extremists”

In the process of struggling, the student body itself is transformed. For the first time people find themselves shaping reality rather than being mechanically moulded by it. The alienation from learning and debate that characterises most students is replaced by an unprecedented desire and ability to learn. They reach inside themselves as if to draw out unnoticed qualities. The previous atomisation is replaced by a new feeling of purposeful self-activity. What so many of the students had wanted from education and found lacking—creativity, imagination, purpose, knowledge—is suddenly found in the struggle against the institutions of education. “The lessons of 30 years are learnt in one day.”

But within the new situation old forces continue to operate. Those who argue for lifelong habits of deference and subservience are pushed aside in the initial enthusiasm of the struggle, but as it proceeds—they still bring their weight to bear. Within the apparently spontaneous movement are a multitude of debates between advocates of opposing worldviews. In these the variety of contradictory opinions students hold about themselves, their work and the world are brought out. On the one side the prevailing liberal ideology, hesitations about finally breaking with it, fear of being out on a limb, deferential faith in vice-chancellors and professors. On the other a willingness to completely reject the status quo, to see in the developing movement its own justification, a preparedness to reshape reality and to develop new theories to accomplish this.

This split between the “moderates” and the “extremists” as well as the numerous equivocating individuals in between, is an integral part of the movement. It cannot be wished away. It is particularly dangerous to try and hide it beneath ambiguous slogans (such as “representation”) or to try and prevent the debate in the name of the “unity” of the student body. The clear argument between alternative worldviews is a prerequisite of a clear understanding of the possibility of struggle.

But there is the danger that this argument will be prevented from taking place by the established position of strength of one of the participants. Even at the height of the struggle there is danger of manipulative politics—or rather manipulative politics can be used to prevent the struggle reaching these heights. For one factor in the consciousness of the students is the established form of organisation of the student body, the old student union. Wherever this has played a role in the student struggle it has acted as a deadweight on its further development.

To understand why it is not enough to just talk about the politics of the personnel of the union bureaucracy. Whether these are well-meaning leftists or traditional rightists they tend to have very similar reactions in the struggle itself (although a minority might go over to the students). What is at stake is the nature of student union politics itself and those who hold office through these in the period prior to struggle.

The central fact here is that student unions always operate on the basis of the “apathy” of the majority of the students (which itself is a product of the lack of power of the unions). Even where there are regular general meetings, these rarely discuss issues considered important by the majority. They tend to become the preserve of a minority obsessed with these matters, either because of their own political ambitions or because they are genuinely well-meaning. In either case their whole attitude is conditioned by the conception that it is up to them to act for the majority, not for the majority to act for itself. Even when members of the hard left take over such positions they are subjected to the same forces. They may try to pass left wing resolutions—but not by involving the whole student body but rather by relying on its apathy. They are constantly balancing between their own minority of supporters and what they conceive of as a reactionary mass. Rather than struggling to make the latter self-reliant they attempt to keep it dependent upon themselves.

These attitudes persist even in the middle of struggle. Although the union bureaucracy might ostensibly support the students’ aims (particularly if these imply representation for themselves) and even play a role in initially formulating these, they always tend to try and limit the struggle, to try and keep it within old forms. Even unconsciously they can wreck mass meetings through their ­knowledge of union constitution dating from a previous era. The feeling among militant students at these tactics is a hatred of individuals and a wish that others had been elected. But the retarding role of old structures in a new situation is not a result of the actions of any one individual, but of the uneven consciousness of the majority. The job of militants should not be to complain about individuals alone, but to fight for a representative organ of the student body, directly accountable to it and subject to instant recall.

Related to this is the need to prevent anyone engaging in secret negotiations with the authorities. Not only does this let the authorities know the depths of division within the student ranks without committing themselves in public, but also leads to individuals gathering status for themselves through their “special role” with the authorities. These then can demoralise the mass of students by giving them advice about the administration’s intentions that has no substantial basis (this happened at both Hull16 and LSE).

The staff

One other group usually emerges alongside the old bureaucracy and tries to use previous attitudes of deference to contain the movement. This is the academic staff. The number of these who will actively solidarise with the students is usually very small. The interests of large numbers of the rest are not identical with those of the administration. The transition from traditional academicism to functional integration into modern capitalism threatens established patterns of academic life. The accompanying erosion of liberal values may even be resisted to differing degrees. But the mass of academics never become a completely dispossessed group as a result of these changes. Some of them even benefit—those prepared to argue for the erosion of values in order to advance their own career prospects: the educational entrepreneurs, the paid apologists of outside interests (eg professors of “industrial relations”). And even if the majority of academics are in no way part of the ruling elite, they are completely unable to resist its demands. For their underlying motivation—that of the “academic career”—is one that continually destructures them as a group. Promotion for individuals is the natural course of events. This implies not only (or often even) academic excellence but also getting on with those who do the promoting. In this way even the lowest academic is vertically integrated by his expectations into the ruling class structures at the apex of university government. Related to this is the ability of the authorities always to put on pressure by taking a negative attitude to requests for promotion—a reaction that can never be proved to be based on political considerations. Finally, the majority of academics are likely to see their own career prospects, their standing in the profession, as tied up with the standing of the institution. They fear student rebellion as likely to detract from this.

The chief concern of academics is then to try and contain and limit any student unrest. They resent it as a source of disturbance to their own symbiosis with the ruling values. Their natural reaction is to side with the powers that be. The only instances of any sort of counter-tendency to this seem to have been in the art colleges.

But if the students are militant and insistent, some sections of the staff will begin to equivocate. They still accept the fundamentals of the ruling attitudes. They certainly do not support the students. But they see any intransigence on the part of the authorities as itself becoming dangerous to their own stable situation. This group is likely to begin to appear before the students “in the interests of the academic community”, to suggest compromise solutions, which do not, however, concede anything real to the students. A notable instance of this occurred during the LSE struggle when a group of about 60 teachers took on a mediating role—while denying any possibility of a victory for the students (although this was later achieved without the “help” of this group).

This should not be taken as implying that academics necessarily display bad faith (although they often do). Rather it is their class position, as an intermediate group, not fully without privileges and power, that prevents them being able to decisively oppose the authorities in the manner of the students. Even the most left wing of teachers is likely to succumb to the pressures of possible victimisation.

All this would be of little importance were it not the case that whole sections of students continue to defer to the staff. They look to them for a leadership they could not give even if they wanted to. It is precisely at the moments when the students are most under pressure, are most uncertain of themselves, that individuals or groups of them (often associated with the old union bureaucracy) emerge with “compromises” endorsed by members of the staff. If this is not resisted it can only lead to a vicious circle of demoralisation and further deferential dependence. The self-reliance and creativity of the students is undermined.

Even if the struggle continues, the old authoritarian teaching relations can find their reflection within its structures. To at least one outside observer this seemed to be the case at some stages in the Hornsey struggle.


In countering the power of the authorities student movements have often been extremely successful. They have forced concessions where none were thought possible. They have demonstrated the impotence of the strongest of structures of repression when confronted with mass opposition.

But victories have so far been limited to certain areas of struggle. Defensive battles, such as the defence of victimised representatives, have been won. Offensives against the entrenched power structure have been much less successful. They have produced marginal (although still worthwhile) gains for the students, but have left major features unchanged. “Representation” may be gained, but never control.

Rosa Luxemburg used to refer to the trade union struggle as the “labour of Sisyphus”: necessary if the situation of the workers was not continually to deteriorate and if they were not to be completely helpless before the arbitrary power of the ruling class but unable ever to change the balance of forces so as to permit relief from the grinding necessities of further struggle. Much the same can be said of the student struggle. It permits temporary inroads into the dominating structures, it may produce marginal changes so as to make life less irksome to the individual student, but it cannot in itself do away with the structures for good. That is why even after considerable successes there tends to be a certain defeatist atmosphere. What are the concessions wrung from the authorities compared with their seemingly complete overthrow at the height of confrontation?

These problems are aggravated by the differing situation of students compared with that of workers. Even in a purely wage struggle workers are grappling with the central process of capitalism, the pumping out of surplus value. For students so far at least these areas where reforms have been won are not those that are most intimately related to their particular forms of oppression. They may change the conditions in which they are taught, but they do not alter the content of their courses. This particularly affects those students whose initial militancy is very much connected with their alienation from courses of study they feel to be irrelevant (eg sociologists). At the height of the confrontation they begin to experience and articulate radically new and more valuable forms of knowledge. This can only make the eventual return to academic irrelevancies more disheartening.

But the real rewards of struggle cannot be measured by any crude weighing up of gains and losses. They lie elsewhere, in the more long-term damage done to the authoritarianism of the educational system together with the wider social interests this reflects, and in the self-change of the student body.

It is control over the rest of society that gives the ruling class the resources that enable it to contain and wear down student revolts. But this control is above all ideological. Physical force can be effective against minorities, but not against a confident and conscious disaffected majority. But even in defeat the student movement plays a part precisely in undermining this total ideological control. Its efficacy here will vary with its circumstances (eg compare the undreamed-of success of the of the French students in May 1968 in igniting a general strike, with the continued insulation of just as bitter battles in Japan over a period of eight years or Germany for two). Nowhere are the universities the only or even the chief source of the ruling ideas. But with students in ferment the authorities will find it that much more difficult to propagate such ideologies.

Such effects are closely related to those operating on the students themselves. Through changing reality and stripping the ruling elite of its ideological cloak (however transitorily), students can begin to grasp the sources of their own alienation. They cease to blame themselves for failing to come to terms with the world through the fragmented and reified concerns of the official arts and “social sciences”, or for being unable to bear the exaggerated workloads of the physical sciences and technology.

Practical and theoretical opposition

The long-term consequences of such transformation will vary from student to student. Some will radically change their worldview. For these the natural outcome is a revolutionary socialist commitment. Hence, for example, in the US and Germany the development of the student movement has also been the development of a new socialist movement. With many of the other students the changes might not be so explicit. They are necessarily much more difficult to detect. They are quantitative rather than qualitative, perhaps preparing for a future commitment rather than a present one. Here the contradictions of “common sense” consciousness—made up as it is of elements from the various opposed worldviews the individual comes into contact with during his lifetime, are accentuated, not resolved.

Such developments are not extraneous to the student struggle. Changes in consciousness are not merely a result of the confrontation; they are also intimately related to its basic cause: the attempt of the ruling class to appropriate the student’s mind. If he develops a critical revolutionary (and therefore Marxist) consciousness, the student begins to reappropriate his own mind. He may not be able to overthrow the objective basis of his alienation (ruling class control of higher education) but he can contest this and in doing so overcome its subjective manifestations. This may not be a once and for all change (the pressures to succumb to the system continuing to exist), but it can occur.

The attempt to carry the area of conflict into the centre of the ideological field has been characteristic of many more recent student struggles. In Germany there has been the critical university, in Berkeley the demand for courses run by Black Panther speakers, in Britain the “free universities”, in Paris the “summer university”.

The fact that many such attempts have proved abortive should not be taken as an argument against them. It is merely evidence that the ruling class has more resources than the students in the long run. While it controls both funds and exam syllabuses, voluntary courses are likely to be peripheral for many students. That is why it is utopian to see, as many “moderates” do, such parallel institutions as a substitute for struggle. But if conceived of as part of a continual critique of the ruling ideas that is also carried into the official lecture room they can have a central significance. After a particular mass confrontation has been contained by the authorities, large numbers of students (although probably a minority) can complete their practical opposition to the status quo with a theoretical one. The natural outcome of this must be both renewed practical confrontation within the university and a joining together with those forces opposed to the ruling class outside the university. In particular, students must join with that working class opposition that can develop into the only force capable of destroying capitalist power.


1 Draper, 1965.

2 Buddeberg, 1968.

3 With a very few exceptions the best analysis we have found has been Jacobs and Petras, 1967. Although we disagree with certain aspects of its analysis of the wider society.

4 Percy Cohan, in a talk to LSE students, March 1967.

5 Martin, 1968.

6 See for example the Professor of Industrial Relations who blamed “anarchists, Trotskyists and admirers of the Dutch provos” for the 1961 LSE sit-in (quoted in “LSE: What It Is and How We Fought it”, p24.

7 “The New Vanguard”, Black Dwarf, 5 July 1968.

8 For instance, students were the most ready source of scabs in at least one recent dispute (Injection Mouldings at Queensbury).

9 For a discussion on the relation between “academic freedom” and different university and social structures (although not a fully clear one) see Ben-David and Collins, 1967.

10 Ben-David and Collins, 1967, p163.

11 For facts see University News, Leeds University Students’ Union newspaper, 28 June 68. Quoted in unpublished manuscript by Ray Challinor.

12 Tribune, 31 May 1957, referred to by Challinor.

13 Jacobs and Petras, 1967.

14 See the analyses of French events in the French students’ paper Action, August 1968.

15 See “Trouble in the Valley”, Solidarity, volume 5, number 4 [See also].

16 Fawthrop, 1968.


Ben-David, Joseph, and Randall Collins, 1967, “A Comparative Study of Academic Freedom and Student Politics”, in Seymour Martin Lipset (ed), Student Politics (Basic Books).

Buddeberg, Manfred, 1968, “The Student Movement in West Germany”, International Socialism 33 (summer),

Draper, Hal, 1965, “Berkeley: The New Student Revolt”, Center for Socialist History,

Fawthrop, Tom, 1968, “Hull”, New Left Review, I/50 (July-August).

Jacobs, Harold, and James Petras, 1967, “Populist Students and Corporate Society,” International Socialist, volume 4, number 19 (February).

Martin, David, 1968, “Trouble in the University”, The Listener (7 March).