Driven by ideas

How should communists approach campus work? In the first place by understanding the contradictory class position of students, argues Mike Macnair

This article is not directly about current student politics. Rather, it is an attempt to start - not finish - a discussion on a deeper theoretical level about students and student politics.

I should add that precisely because it is intended to start a discussion it is based on broad-brush impressions about student politics and on my memory of past leftwing theoretical discussions, not - either as to the practical evidence or as to the theories - on systematic research. Corrections are welcome and would hopefully carry the discussion forward.

There are three starting points for the need to think about students and student politics at a more theoretical level.

First, it is pretty obvious that we should be arguing that students here in Britain should solidarise with the demonstrating students in Tehran and call for the release of the imprisoned student activists. It is a lot less obvious that we should be arguing for students to express solidarity with students in Caracas demonstrating against Chávez.

Second, on current student politics, it is fairly clear that, for example, Education Not For Sale operates as an effective front group for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, has in no sense ‘taken off’ as a mass campaign and there is no serious prospect of a mass student movement around the sort of issues ENS raises.

The third point is somewhat more obscure. ‘Student politics’ is centred - in Britain - in the ‘old university’ sector. It is also found in those among the former polytechnics which have made themselves most like the ‘old university’ sector, like Leeds Metropolitan, Oxford Brookes or Liverpool John Moores. It is not routinely found to the same extent in institutions of higher and further education more generally. That is not just true of the peculiar English higher education system, but is also equally true of the United States - you see student politics in the endowed and state universities and not so much in the community colleges and elsewhere. Analogous features can be found across the world more generally. Student politics is something that goes with traditional universities and, to anticipate something I am going to say later, goes together with having a large cohort of arts/humanities and social science students.

Past theories

The last time people seriously argued about the nature of student politics on any sort of theoretical level was in the late 60s-early 70s. Since then left groups have habitually done student work, but simply as a normal traditional activity.

Why do they do so? At a very elementary level, universities have some political life, and it is easier for small groups to make an impact than in the wider political world. So left groups attempt to do political work among students. This does pose the question of why small groups can make more of a political impact in universities than elsewhere, and I will return to this later.

The general beginning of systematic or general far-left student work in the imperialist or ‘advanced capitalist’ countries was in the early 60s around the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Vietnam campaign in this country and around the civil rights movement in the USA. At this stage all groups were involved without much theory.

In the late 1960s, the social democratic parties and the ‘anti-Pabloite’ Trotskyist left - such as the Lambertistes in France, the Healyites in Britain and even the Militant Tendency (not strictly anti-Pabloite, but associated with social democracy) - lost ground in favour of the communist parties (which grew quite considerably on the campuses in the late 60s), the Maoists, the anarchists and the ‘Pabloite’ Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International. This political shift was probably due to the impact of the Vietnam war and the campaign against it, the image of Che or ‘Cuban internationalism’, the Chinese cultural revolution and so on.

In that context, the groups of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), Militant and the Socialist Workers Party (then the International Socialists), precisely because they were losing ground on the campuses to the ‘official’ communists, the Maoists and the ‘Pabloite’ United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), developed a theory that students are basically a section of the petty bourgeoisie. A Trotskyist party needed a ‘proletarian orientation’, building a workers’ party, and hence should orientate itself away from students. To the extent that students were recruited, they should be encouraged to turn away from university and student politics and give out leaflets at factory gates.

The responses of those who continued to work in student politics were slightly different. The ‘official’ communists and the Maoists stood for the ‘people’s front’, whether the ‘broad democratic alliance’ (‘official’ CPs) or more exotic Maoist forms. Since this project involved a cross-class alliance, at least including the petty bourgeoisie, the arguments of anti-Pabloites or left Labourites that students were a section of the petty bourgeoisie cut no ice with these trends.

The USFI at the time was divided into two factions - a minority centred on the American Socialist Workers Party (not connected to the British SWP, of course) and a majority based on the European sections. The two factions advanced different justifications for political work among students against the criticisms of the Labourites and anti-Pabloites.

The line of the American SWP revolved around the strategy of the ‘red university’. The underlying idea here is that science and education are in the general interest of the working class, and thus the existence of higher education institutions is a concession of the bourgeoisie to the working class. Therefore it is possible to conceive of the whole institution, or at least the students and the academics, becoming an ally or even a bastion of the working class movement and there would be, indeed, an objective tendency for this to happen. This natural tendency for students and academics to attach themselves to the working class movement was opposed by the military-industrial complex directly intervening in the institutions of higher education - whether through attacks on academic freedom or state funding for war research and so on.

The strategic implication of this theory was to pursue a line for the democratisation of the structures of the academic institutions and the promotion of Marxist ideas in the academy. In this context the SWP did a good deal of useful theoretical work - for example, translating Trotsky’s writings. In practice, however, after the decline of the movement against the Vietnam war, the project boiled down to the SWP (and its supporters in other countries) selling Marxist literature on campuses.

In 1978-80 this line was abandoned altogether in the ‘turn to industry’. The SWP abruptly adopted the ‘anti-Pabloite’ view. The big battles of the near future, it was claimed, would be in ‘basic industry’. The party (and the USFI) needed to ‘proletarianise’ itself through a ‘wrenching turn’: stopping student work altogether, breaking up the existing fractions within the teachers’ and other white collar unions, and sending students and ex-students into factories to become horny-handed sons of toil.

Barry Sheppard, who was an insider, said later that ‘the turn’ was adopted by the SWP leadership out of purely factional considerations: it expected that its own membership would carry it out successfully, but that the European organisations of the USFI majority would be destroyed or badly weakened. At all events, it was the unambiguous end of the line of the ‘red university’.

The USFI majority (Mandelites) offered an alternative justification for doing student work in the face of the idea that students are petty bourgeois. This was the theory of the new mass vanguard.

The mass vanguard (or broad workers’ vanguard) is the broad layer of working class and left activists in society generally. This has always included an element of the intelligentsia, as well as trade union militants, shop stewards and local activists coming directly out of the working class. The Mandelites’ theory was a theory of the ‘new mass vanguard’, because they held that the old vanguard had become irretrievably dominated by the social democratic, ‘official’ communist and trade union bureaucracies. The class struggle was hotting up and therefore the working class was going to need a vanguard and this would require what is now known as ‘generational replacement’. Essentially it would be necessary for the kids to take over where the old, tired people had failed.

The ‘new mass vanguard’ meant therefore a combination between, on the one hand, the radical head-banging section of the student movement that sought to occupy buildings, have fights with police and (outside Britain) throw petrol bombs; and, on the other, wildcat strike leaders. The USFI mistook the wildcat strike leaders for ‘new’ activists when - though some were youngsters - they were actually in the main long-time Communist Party militants or fellow-travellers, and the tradition of unofficial action went back to the struggles of the 1940s. That misconception enabled the Mandelites to identify the ‘head-bangers’ and the ‘wildcatters’ as one unified group. This, in turn, justified doing work amongst students, because it was part of the same process of the reconstruction of the vanguard, out of which the new mass party would emerge.

The broad idea was not unique. “One generation got old, one generation got sold. This generation got no hesitation to hold” (Jefferson Airplane, ‘Volunteers’, 1969). The idea is actually still with us, in a diluted form, because the current Callinicos-Rees leadership the SWP grew up in the shadow of the 1968 events in France and hence of the Mandelite Ligue Communiste (now Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire). Hence in spite of the fact that their own organisation, the IS, was arguing the anti-Pabloite ‘proletarianisation’ line in the early 1970s, SWP leaders of this generation still think in terms that the old left is dying and the new left is going to emerge out of some section of the youth to replace the old, worn-out activists - it is the activism, the ‘head-banging’, which matters and not the political ideas.

In relation to both Globalise Resistance and the Respect turn, arguments addressed to the SWP’s own members had precisely this character - the Socialist Alliance was dismissed as the ‘old’ left of ideas and propagandism, and the activists of the ‘new’ left were to come, successively, from the anarchist head-bangers and from radicalised young muslims.

In opposition to the theory of students being part of the petty bourgeoisie, the Mandelites employed the theory of the proletarianisation of intellectual labour. This theory holds that white-collar workers have moved a lot closer to factory workers: in terms of subordination to managerial control, in terms of pay and in terms of more general social status. Put another way, in the 1950s to 1970s there was a reduced level of stratification of the workforce by comparison with the pre-war period, when teachers, clerks, nurses etc were very definitely identified as middle class.

We now have an increased level of stratification of the workforce, but not along pre-war lines. Today’s stratifications are between public sector workers and private sector workers (on pay); between permanent, full-time workers and casualised/part-time workers; and, linked to these stratifications, between youth and older workers and between local-born and migrant workers. The blue-collar/white-collar division remains greatly attenuated; and many forms of further and higher education clearly lead merely to skilled-worker jobs. The ‘proletarianisation of intellectual labour’ is perfectly real.

The Mandelites went one step further, however, to analyse the relationships in the university as being essentially the same. This meant to see the authority relations between academic staff and students, as well as managerialisation, in the universities as a reflection of the proletarianisation of intellectual labour. On this basis students were seen in effect as a section of the white-collar working class, and student unions as a form of trade union.

This implied rejecting the American SWP’s line of the ‘red university’: academics as well as administrators were ‘managing’ students (or ‘socialising them for labour’). Supporters of these views also highlighted the point that universities are institutions of the capitalist state. Some picked up Althusser’s theory of ‘ideological state apparatuses’ to explain that relationship. Within this sort of frame it was equally possible to imagine the relationship between students and the administration as being one of class antagonism and to imagine student unions as being like trade unions. In a sense this was also the logic of the ‘new mass vanguard’ line - thinking of the head-banging element of the student activists and the shop-floor wildcatters as part of the same layer.

Taking these points together, they led to the conception that students ought to be mobilised around their material concerns and around ‘student control of learning’ as an analogue of workers’ control of production - at the end of the day an economistic conception of student politics. The mass mobilisation of students would be based on direct life-experience issues, both economic and in relation to disputes over the syllabus and modes of assessment, etc.

This approach came to an end in 1979-81. The Mandelites’ more general political strategy met its Waterloo in the Portuguese revolution of 1974-76. In the resulting disorientation, the SWP’s ‘turn to industry’ won temporary hegemony within the USFI as a whole and thus the ‘new mass vanguard’ and ‘proletarianisation of intellectual labour’ theories were also abandoned. The ‘turn’ did varying degrees of damage to the European USFI groups - the British International Marxist Group being worst affected. But even in the least affected groups, the continuity of the theory of political work among students was destroyed. When the European USFI organisations started doing student work again they theorised it as ‘youth work’: students are merely a part of youth and there is nothing particularly distinctive about them.

There are two basic theoretical lessons from this history. The first is that it is necessary to grasp theoretically the political economy of the class location and dynamics of students. It is hopeless to ignore this issue, as the American SWP effectively did, because it will come back to bite you. Secondly on the other hand, explaining the dynamics of student politics requires an understanding of the relationship between universities and the state. This is true whether we do so through Althusserian concepts of ‘ideological state apparatuses’ or through something else (I personally would argue for something else).


To begin with political economy and class issues. It is a bad error of new left, Hegelian Marxist readings of Marx to imagine that the tendency inherent in capitalism towards polarisation of society into two antagonistic classes is completed and hence that everybody is either bourgeois or proletarian. It is true that the antagonism of the two polar classes is the fundamental dynamic element in the social order. But there remains an extremely extensive middle stratum in the society: the petty proprietors, a class as a class owning some means of production, but insufficient means of production to merely live off the labour of others. This class takes the form mainly of peasants and artisans in the ‘third world’; mainly of managers, professionals, etc, in the ‘first world’.

What almost invariably goes along with reduction of class relations to the two polar classes is that, in spite of the Hegelian Marxism of this view, its supporters fail to grasp the interpenetration of the classes. There is, as Marx put it in Theories of surplus value, a wage element in the capitalist’s receipt of surplus value. Conversely, every worker who is paid more than bare subsistence costs receives an element of the social surplus product in the wage. The classes are in that sense interpenetrated.

This, in turn, leads to a fundamental point that Hal Draper makes in his Karl Marx’s theory of revolution (Vol 2, Politics of social classes). The proletariat shades into the middle class and the middle class shades into the bourgeoisie. Skilled workers are proletarians in a certain sense, but can become petty bourgeois. Certain sorts of information technology specialists, for example, can move very rapidly between working for somebody as skilled workers and working as consultants selling services, as opposed to their labour-power.

An associated problem is that of ‘productive and unproductive’labour. At a very basic level of the material division of labour addressed by pre-Marxist political economists, this distinction revolves around whether what is produced increases the total material surplus product - particularly food, etc. Yet under capitalism, productive labour is more accurately defined - as Marx in places defines it - as labour which produces profit. Marx says, for example, that a singer who sings for her own pleasure is not working productively, yet a singer who sings for a capitalist selling musical performances is a productive worker: she is producing surplus value for that capitalist.

Another point follows from this. The singer’s skills, which make her performances saleable, are, under capitalism, means of production. They can be used to produce profit. It is for this reason that the IT specialists may be able to exploit their skill to set up independent businesses. But even if they do not do so, their wages may include an element of rent: the capitalist who employs them is not only hiring labour-power, but is also hiring the worker’s intellectual property.


Within this framework, what is going on with students and universities? The best way to start is to take the example of BPP - a private profit-making organisation that was recently authorised to issue degrees in accountancy and law. BPP is selling to its clients, the students, a body of intellectual property rights which take the form of access to guild corporate knowledge. The acquisition of those intellectual property rights will enable students to take up jobs as trainee solicitors, trainee accountants, and so on. Potentially, when they have completed their training, they can then become petty proprietors selling legal or accountancy services on the market.

They will not all do so. For example, around 50% of those who get law degrees will go on into the profession. Around half of those will not go beyond being employed as assistant solicitors or other employed lawyers, and in substance these people are skilled workers. The other half will go on to be in business themselves. A very few will ascend to the heights of partnership in one of the global mega-law firms, becoming part of the capitalist class.

BPP employs academics, maintenance staff, cleaners, etc - all of whom they exploit in what is a perfectly normal market operation. The relationship between BPP and the students to whom it charges fees, in contrast, is simply that of the purchase of a service - ie, it is not a class antagonism. That is not just true of BPP - it does not make any difference to the nature of the underlying political-economic relationship that most of higher education is provided by endowed charities and state institutions. The student of higher education is buying a skill.

What of humanities students? Where do degrees lead them? They lead to the ‘milk rounds’, the employers’ hiring fairs, and then to managerial, professional or administrative jobs. Being a student sometimes permits you to climb the ladder or the greasy pole to improve your assets as a trader - whether that is simply as a seller of labour-power plus rent for skills, or as a small business operator.

Not everybody is actually going to succeed in this, nor does any particular degree automatically leads to this outcome. At one of my former employers, for a large chunk of law graduates the ‘first employment destination’ turned out to be in fast food services. Not all students are going to end up as skilled white-collar workers. Yet it remains the case that the transaction between the student and universities, in substance, is the sale of exploitable intellectual property by the university to the student.

What are the consequences of this? Firstly, students are not a class and do not form a fraction of a class either. In the first place they are not a fraction of the working class because a section of them are going to wind up elsewhere. Not all students are going to wind up in the middle class, and not all of them are going to end up in the working class. Further, the student-university relationship is not that of the worker and exploiter. Being a student is a life-cycle position. Being hard up as a student is also a life-cycle position - a gamble on getting better off at the end of the day. In substance this is the same thing as an apprenticeship. Although the relationship between students and staff is hierarchical, it is not one of class antagonism.

The relationship between the students and the administration is no more of a class-antagonistic relationship than when I go into Tesco to buy food. Surplus is not extracted from students, unless in the case where the degree being ‘sold’ is useless and does not get anybody anywhere. But this case is no different in principle from any other fraudulent sale of worthless goods.

Hence, the social relations of which students are part do not in themselves support a mass student movement around students’ material conditions. That is not just a matter of there being no relationship of class antagonism: it is also a matter of the diversity of material existence for students being so great: science students spending hours in labs have very different lives to humanities students.

Amongst workers, of course, there is also diverse life experience. It is very different to work for Barclays Bank as a clerk or even as a cleaner than it is to work as a miner. Yet there is class antagonism between the worker and the employer, and this creates common ground for permanent trade union organisations. However, the social relations that students enter into mean that their material conditions and interests themselves do not provide the basis for student politics.

Universities, state and humanities

What does provide the basis for student politics is the second point: the relationship between universities and the state. The universities in the modern sense were promoted in 19th-century Germany as part of state-building. Student politics emerges alongside this process of state-building. Student politics did not appear in the English system until much later - in fact there were no universities in the modern sense until the later 19th century with major reforms to Oxford and Cambridge and the emergence of the ‘red brick’ civic universities. The same goes for the USA. It is only in the later 19th century that there came into being systematised institutions with exams, etc - and alongside this the emergence of student politics.

What drives the emergence of modern universities is the expansion of the state bureaucracy. The idea emerges that a bigger state bureaucracy is needed and that this requires more people trained to take up managerial and administrative positions. The fact that the institutional form emerges in Germany is actually an accident - the multiplicity of statelets in 18th-century Germany created duplicate bureaucracies, and the different principalities had been competing to set up academic institutions. In France, in contrast, the grandes écoles were set up to provide training for the state bureaucracy and the form of the modern university spreads from there to the university sector. Everybody else copied these forms.

The jobs which the universities were training students to do as bureaucrats or colonial officials did not involve specialist skills like running a lathe or simply general literacy, but rather the skill of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.

To train in this very general skill, what is required is that students are brought into artificial conditions of uncertainty: in the sense of debating issues to which there is no straightforward, ‘orthodox’ answer. How this was done was by building on the teaching of the classics. We spread the teaching and researching of classics into the teaching of history, modern languages, national literature, etc. This was possible because precisely in the study of the classics there is uncertainty about what these old texts mean. We artificially create that uncertainty by promoting debate within the universities - otherwise known as ‘academic freedom’.

In due course, employment of graduates in the state bureaucracy came to be supplemented by employment in corporate bureaucracies as well. The demand is still premised on this skill of making decisions in conditions of uncertainty, where there is not an obvious answer. The techniques of developing the skill remain the same.

This is why we continue to see the existence of humanities subjects, which are of no direct use to capital or the state. It is the skills these studies develop which are in demand from employers. It is also why we continue to have a degree of academic freedom; and why humanities and social science students are encouraged to read ideas which are well outside the political consensus, from the right as well as from the left, and to argue contrary and divergent positions.

That in turn has the consequence that there is student political life in those universities which have large humanities departments. Their studies themselves encourage humanities and social science students to think outside the tramlines of conventional politics. In the ‘hard sciences’, in contrast, much more emphasis in placed on the acquisition of specific knowledge and specific skills. In institutions dominated by this sort of specific (scientific, technical and pure vocational) training activities, there is no inherent dynamic towards student politics.

Training the careerists

A subset of this activity is the development and training of the next generation of the ‘political class’ - not really a class, but a social stratum - of corrupt careerist politicians who monopolise electoral representation. Before the ascendancy of trade unions and Labourism, this role was mainly played by the Oxford Union and similar debating societies in other universities (the Oxford Union is a late survivor of a form which used to be widespread). These institutions mimic the procedures of parliament.

Since World War II the bourgeoisie has ruled with the support of the labour bureaucracy. Hence, we also see in student politics an institutional mimic of the labour bureaucracy in the form of the student unions. In Britain, these are not, in fact, trade unions in any sense. They are in substance state-sponsored cooperatives, whose structures mimic those of the labour bureaucracy. In France ‘student unions’ are appendages to the political parties or union confederations that have sponsored them, mimicking the party-divided character of the French trade union movement.

The National Union of Students thus plays the role of a training ground for the next generation of political professionals and bureaucrats. Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, for example, were both presidents of the NUS. Lesser examples are very numerous.

Radical student unionism and the wave of occupations in the 1970s could be described as the ideological mimicking of workers’ action against the Industrial Relations Act, etc.

Driven by ideas

In order to train students in the abilities they will need to be successful politicians, labour bureaucrats, administrators, civil servants and so on, it is necessary to open up the range of political ideas that can be discussed. A consequence of this is student politics. However, this politics is not primarily driven by student material interests, but by ideas.

Another consequence is that groups which are marginal to the mainstream political consensus can have much larger representation in student politics. Higher education in the arts and social sciences precisely involves thinking outside the range of the consensus, in order to create artificial uncertainty. It is impossible to do this educational job and not encourage students to consider ‘extreme’ political ideas.

Precisely because student politics is driven by ideas, it can equally be the case that student politics is a centre of the left (as we see in Tehran) or of the right (as has happened in Caracas). In fact, one of the big bases of the German Nazis was on campuses - the KPD, in contrast, was much weaker among students in the 1920s. There is no natural affinity of student politics with the left. There is, however, an opening in which it is possible to intervene - even on a mass scale - on the basis of ideas. This can be seen in the ideas of radical trade unionism of the 1970s, in the ideas of CND and the Vietnam campaign in the middle and the end of the 1960s and, for that matter, the ideas of postmodernism that were prevalent in the 1980s and early 1990s.

This takes us back to my original three points. First, we should urge people on the campuses to solidarise with leftwing students in Tehran, but not with rightwing students in Caracas. Second, examples of ‘economism’ like the ENS project in real-world politics reinforces Labourism - in student politics it is merely fatuous. Finally, student politics is likely to be found where there are big arts and humanities departments. It is this which explains precisely why there is ‘student politics’, as opposed to ‘apprentice politics’.