The campus and the state

James Turley argues that students have an antagonistic relationship with college authorities

Making overtures to the student population has been a standard feature of leftwing activism for many decades - while not every group has been doing it, there are very few points in the history of British Marxism when nobody was. The Socialist Workers Party has relied, on and off, on a regular turnover of student members to keep itself alive since the end of its ‘turn to the class’ in the 1970s; and it is well known that many of the current generation of Blairite and Brownite MPs came to political consciousness in the ‘official’ Communist Party while students.

What is less frequent is for communists to actually theorise their work on campuses. It is not at all obvious why a small group, such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, can obtain such a disproportionate influence at particular universities and colleges, when it is so much more difficult for it to do so in, say, a particular electoral constituency, or even a trade union branch.

The result has generally been that, however ‘broad’ and ‘inclusive’ a given party’s student front is intended to be, they have nevertheless simply formed an ‘SWP juniors’, or ‘AWL juniors’, etc - and transferred the political method for constituencies, workplaces, unions and the like onto the campus. Socialist Students, set up by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, inherits the parent body’s total fixation on cuts and privatisation to the exclusion of virtually all other considerations; the Socialist Worker Student Society (and Student Respect) replicates the SWP’s minimal-demands-hysterically-phrased approach; and the AWL’s Education Not for Sale does not mention the war.

It is to be welcomed that Mike Macnair, in an opening at the CPGB’s February aggregate, written up for this paper, has attempted to establish some basic theoretical coordinates for student work (‘Driven by ideas’, February 14). I am in agreement with large parts of his thesis, but also believe it does not paint the complete picture.

‘Real improvements’

A concrete negative illustration of the thrust of Mike’s piece is found in examining the letter of Eben Marks to the Weekly Worker (April 17).

Comrade Marks criticises Communist Students for refusing votes to members of ENS who refused to call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. This is “ridiculous”, says the comrade: “NUS conference can do absolutely nothing about” the occupations, and it is a matter of urgency to unite, ignoring “stupid divisions over issues such as this”. We must win “power and influence to enact real changes to improve the situation of students”.

Comrade Marks is guilty of the same economism that underlies the general approach of the student left groups. There are two major issues on which his polemic founders.

1. Firstly, while comrade Marks is correct that the power of the National Union of Students to deliver troop withdrawal is extremely limited, it is transparently the case, once the most superficial layer of ‘obviousness’ is peeled away, that the NUS is actually no better placed to produce even the most modest improvement in the material situation of students. There are simply not enough students for a mass demonstration to be truly massive; a student strike in itself has nothing like the power of industrial action. It has no direct relationship with educational policy. In fact, if Marks is truly interested in “real improvements” in students’ lives, he is better off going along with the NUS right, whose negotiation of student discounts, cheap alcohol and such - while pitiful - is considerably more than ENS will ever achieve on its economistic minimum programme.

This is not to say that the NUS is theoretically incapable of leading mass struggles for the end of student fees, extension of grants and any number of economic demands. However, mass struggles that have really ‘made an impact’ have been those (predictably enough) that took on the most militant and uncompromising character, and indeed today’s economistic student left never misses an opportunity to call for such action; but the tactics implied by this are fundamentally no more successful at winning bread-and-butter gains than storming the loftiest heights of politics (in a given conjuncture, of course, one or the other type of demand may be more ‘negotiable’ for the ruling class).

2. It is clear, furthermore, from any historical analysis of the great mass student struggles that these are very rarely indeed about the immediate material interests on campus (only the Berkeley Free Speech Movement even broadly falls into this category). The mass uprisings of 1968 were about the Vietnam war, the black struggles in America and the general soullessness of capitalist culture. The French événements may have begun as protests over student conditions, but rapidly developed into a struggle over the way we were ruled. The continued prominent role of students in democratic movements under repressive regimes, from Tehran to Tiananmen Square, is well documented.

The bottom line is that the ‘common sense’ approach to left activism off campus (particularly in the pseudo-trade union variants of Socialist Students and ENS), economistic to begin with, translates particularly badly to student politics.

So far, we are on the descriptive level, rather than the level of theory. Why, then, is it the case that student politics tends in so many obvious ways away from its analogues elsewhere? Mike Macnair argues, in the first place, that students “are not a class and do not form a fraction of a class either”. Rather “being a student is a life-cycle position” - an intermediate stage between possessing the rudimentary education necessary to be a basic manual or service worker (as a school leaver) and acquiring the saleable skills that will lead hopefully to privileged occupations (as a graduate). The social process that takes place is no more than the sale of certain intellectual property which will act as “means of production” in capitalist production, which the graduate can then ‘rent out’ to employers for a fee incorporated into the wage.

The consequence of this is that the relationship between students and university authorities, let alone academic staff, is not one of class antagonism. Student unions, therefore, are not trade unions. They do not represent a layer of the proletariat in direct class struggles against individual capitalists.

Why, then, do they not simply evaporate? This is due to the university’s relationship to the state - the university’s primary function, in its historical origins, was to provide able employees for the rapidly-expanding bureaucracies in the new era of bourgeois political power. The first university systems, in Germany and France, both coincided with an explosion in state employment and civil service. Today there are parallel ‘private’ destinations for graduates, but they look for the same essential skill as the state: ‘decision-making under conditions of uncertainty’. The uncertainty is artificially created through the promotion of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, where a number of contradictory approaches and ideas are necessarily given prominence.

Mike concludes that the objective dynamics behind student life paradoxically point away from political interventions based on immediate material interests and instead towards those based on ideas.

Not the whole story

Mike’s analysis does well in smashing the economism of the likes of comrade Marks, and accounts for the existence of student politics as such (as well as its propensity towards more dramatic political lines).

However, it does not account for the general persistence at a local level of campaigns against particular privatisations, the closure of departments and so on. At Exeter University, when vice-chancellor Steve Smith announced the closure of the chemistry and music departments, there were demonstrations involving large sections of the student body, well beyond those studying the affected subjects; an apocryphal story sees angry students scattering broken glass on Smith’s patio, in the hope that he would attempt to collect the morning paper barefoot. At the University of Sussex, the chemistry department was actually saved following a series of protests and sit-ins.

There is also the matter (though this is not at all the same thing) of the original anti-fees and anti-top-up fees campaigns, which did achieve quite significant growth at their heights, in spite of the opposition and general treachery of the bureaucracy.

The central problem with Mike’s theory is that, while he correctly sees the general relationship between the student and the university as not one of direct class antagonism (ie, not a relationship of exploitation), he fails to follow the full implications of the ‘life-cycle’ element of student existence. The university is not only selling the student intellectual property - in the first year, it is also almost invariably the student’s landlord; it is responsible for the maintenance of an infrastructure equivalent to one or two council wards, plus recreational facilities. The result is that, while not a direct class antagonist, the university authorities do replicate obliquely many of the antagonisms found in genuine class conflicts.

There is another issue here, highlighted by Mike, which is the university’s relationship to the state. The university is deeply tied up with the military-industrial complex. Research is funded by arms companies; conversely, universities often invest funds in military production. The campus is also responsible for picking up much of the slack on state repression - a student caught using marijuana will face a far harsher response from the campus authorities than the police, and the recent farrago over spying on radical muslim students (and who knows who else?) only highlights the general state of affairs. The Berkeley Free Speech affair is also illustrative - the revolt was triggered by the refusal to allow agitation around off-campus issues (except by the officially sanctioned Democratic and Republican societies).

The consequence of this is that the student’s relationship to the university is not ‘simply’ that of a client purchasing a service. The use-values and periodisations specific to higher education see to that. There is a significant antagonistic element involved. There is no homology with the employer/employee type of class struggle, true - but there is a relationship similar to that between a striking worker and the riot cop who attempts to break up the picket. It is an antagonism not to a class enemy, but to the set-up as such.

Thus, there is a tendency for students to engage in specific battles against their campus authorities and this is particularly the case in the current neoliberal stage of capitalism. This runs parallel with the tendency towards ‘ideas-driven’ politics on the national stage. Indeed, where these tendencies run into contradiction with countervailing trends, a process of condensation can occur, forming a ruptural unity and spilling over to general rebellion. This is the case with May 68 - specific issues with the educational system and academic establishment combined with the anti-Vietnam war struggle, and a concrete repression of student dissidence triggered the mass revolt.

A major feature of May 68 - the parallel general strike of two-thirds of the French workforce - points to another key limitation of Mike’s conception. Academic and service/infrastructural staff certainly are in a relationship of class antagonism with the university. Combine this with the intermittently antagonistic student-university relationship, and there is an objective basis in certain conjunctures for large-scale unity in action with the campus workers. This basis means that an academic does not fulfil an equivalent role in students’ lives to a Tesco cashier.

What there is not, however, is any objective tendency towards a generalised national campaign on immediate material issues. However dismal things get on particular campuses, unity on a national scale must take the form of unity around ideas. There is no short cut: students need to be activated as political agents as such, not as fighters in an imaginary class struggle.

This is why, contrary to comrade Marks’ assertions, the silence of ENS on imperialism is an objective obstacle to the student left.