Leadership and the student movement

by Sadie Robinson

Socialist Worker found itself at the centre of discussions about the recent student movement over the Christmas period.

The student protests were magnificent. Their militancy and confidence smashed the myth that people in Britain are apathetic or incapable of radical action.

Some people have seized on the protests to say that politics is now radically changed, and that political organisation and leadership are irrelevant.

So Laurie Penny wrote in the Guardian before Christmas that, “The young people of Britain do not need leaders.” She condemns what she calls “the old deferential structures” of the unions and says that Socialist Worker sellers are similar to “cockroaches”.

In an article that condemns infighting and sectarianism on the left this is somewhat amusing.

But there’s a serious argument here that has also emerged from the UK Uncut protests against tax dodgers – that the organisational structures of the left are outdated and damaging.

The idea is that anyone on the left who argues their political position openly is either dividing the movement, stifling spontaneous action, or both.

This is wrong. Pretending that only the organised left has any politics allows anyone who isn’t part of an organisation to hide their political position. But the ideas of people who are leading movements – even when they claim no leaders exist – fundamentally shape those movements.

For example, UK Uncut recently floated the idea to hold an event called “The Feeling is Mutual”, a celebration of businesses like John Lewis on the basis that other corporations are worse.

UK Uncut has organised some great protests. But to channel the energy of those who want to make the bosses, not ordinary people, pay for the crisis into pro-business events would squander the radical potential of the protests.

After the recent protests, NUS president Aaron Porter denounced people who took part in militant action at Millbank. Students could have said we don’t recognise him as our leader so it doesn’t matter.


But it was right that students rounded on Porter and forced him into a partial retreat – he then began visiting occupations to try to prove he supported the fightback.

And it was important that the NUS and the UCU called the initial protest in central London over fee rises – it made Millbank possible.

When that old dinosaur, the TUC, called for co-ordinated industrial action last September it boosted workers’ confidence and put strikes back on the agenda. It matters that the TUC has called a mass demonstration on 26 March.

What that protest will be like, and its impact, depends on ordinary people. That’s why Penny is correct to say that people shouldn’t simply “take orders” from leaders, but she’s wrong to say that those leaders don’t matter.

In every political action, however small, there is a choice about which direction to go in.

Socialists argue for effective strategies that can win and give confidence to ordinary people – broadening struggle even further.

The dominant ideas under capitalism are those of our rulers. They include sexism and racism, and the idea that ordinary people have limited power.

Failing to put forward a socialist strategy allows such ideas to dominate. Rather than dividing movements, concrete political debate strengthens them.

Like Penny, we don’t want movements to descend into pointless bickering and endless rows. But we do want democratic political debate. Penny says that there are “hundreds of thousands of voices” in the student movement and that’s true.

Clear political leadership isn’t about stamping out spontaneity or the diversity of opinion that exists in mass movements. It’s about fighting for strategies that can win.

We want to argue for a mass, militant struggle and to make this struggle part of a broader resistance to the capitalist system itself. We also want to put forward a revolutionary socialist alternative to the chaos, war and poverty of the present system.

Socialist Worker


Vigil held for Alfie Meadows, student injured by police on fees demo

Some 40 Middlesex students and lecturers, present and past, gathered outside Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, west London, today to hold a vigil for their friend and fellow student Alfie Meadows.

Alfie is recovering from brain surgery after he was hit on the head by a police truncheon during the student protest in London yesterday. He walked around dazed before being found by a friend who tried to get police to call an ambulance.

His friends say police initially refused, despite the fact that Alfie was bleeding from his head. But eventually the police did call an ambulance.

Alfie lost consciousness in the ambulance and had to undergo emergency brain surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain as a result of the blow. His friends and fellow students, concerned and angry, have decided to call a protest outside Scotland Yard on Tuesday of next week against the police violence on the student protests.

“I was outraged and scared for Alfie”, said Johann, a Middlesex University student. “I was afraid something like this would happen because the police were so violent yesterday.

“People call smashing buildings violence, but it isn’t. Police repeatedly charged and provoked the crowd—that’s the real violence I witnessed.

Greg, a friend of Alfie told Socialist Worker, “When we got to Parliament Square we were kettled. A lot of people feel we’ve done everything we can—how else do we express our anger?

“I feel sad and angry seeing my friend like this. We have to keep protesting—Alfie would agree.”

One of Alfie’s lecturers, Christian Kerslake, was also at the vigil. He told Socialist Worker, “I’ve come to find out how Alfie is. We are all very concerned. I went on the protest to express solidarity with the students. I am shocked at the police behaviour. It seems to have been a turn for the worse.”

Students formed a campaign group today, determined that the police be held responsible for Alfie’s condition. But they also want to raise the tactics of the police on protests.

Cas, one of the students involved in setting up the campaign, told Socialist Worker, “This morning I woke up and read about Alfie on the internet. I am very upset and shocked even though I saw how aggressive the police were yesterday. It made me think of the case of Ian Tomlinson on the G20 protest, and Blair Peach who was killed by police on an anti-Nazi protest.

“We want to make this part of a larger campaign against police violence.”

The campaign is calling on students and workers to kettle Scotland Yard—the home of the Metropolitan Police—on Tuesday.

“We want everyone who can to join us, wearing hard hats to symbolise police violence,” Cas said. “We want to highlight the dangers of kettling and the dangers of containment, especially when riot police and horses are sent charging into a crowd of contained protesters.”

When discussing where to protest one student said, “We should go to Scotland Yard, we shouldn’t be afraid”. Others agreed, “We have to go to the source of the problem,” said another.

Over 100 messages of support have flooded in since news of Alfie went out today. Messages of solidarity have come from school and university students and trade unionists including Tony Kearns from the CWU. and the PCS national executive.

Mark Bergfeld, an NUS executive member, told Socialist Worker, “Our thoughts and with Alfie and his family. The police behaviour yesterday was horrendous. It was like watching a scene from a repressive regime. It shows the political impotence of the coalition government—they voted through a brutal assault on students, protected by their watchdogs, the police, who were brutally attacking students outside. We have to bring this government down.”

Socialist Worker


Student protests – what really happened on fees vote day

by Sadie Robinson

Metropolitan police commissioner Paul Stephenson says that “any right-minded individual” will condemn yesterday’s student protests in central London.

He’s very wrong. Any right-minded individual will be furious at the government’s cuts, at the violent response of police towards protesters—and will be cheering anyone fighting back.

Students took over large parts of central London as police lost control for the third time in weeks. Police may have kettled people—but in reality they couldn’t control the students.

Thousands of protesters occupied Parliament Square. They weren’t meant to be there. Police wanted to keep them away from parliament and used horses and batons to push people back.

But they were powerless as thousands of young students charged through police horses and took the square. Police on horses swayed unsteadily as the surging crowd pushed them back. Demonstrators easily broke down the fences that surrounded the grass and occupied the area.

Students were determined to get as close to parliament as possible to make their furious opposition to the government heard—and they were successful.

Initially the crowd was determined and angry but also celebratory. It felt like a street party. Students chanted, “That’s not what democracy looks like—this is what democracy looks like” at parliament and “We’re young, we’re poor—we won’t pay any more!”

The smell of smoke filled the air as protesters let off flares. Music blared out and people lit fires to keep warm. Every few minutes came the sound of fireworks.

Students made heroic efforts to protect tents in the square as police with riot shields and batons forced them back. They were constantly checking on each other to make sure they were ok—apologising for standing on feet etc as police crushed people.

Then mounted police charged several yards into the crowd—and the mood changed dramatically.


Jessica from Strode’s College near Windsor was two rows back from the front when police charged. She told Socialist Worker, “The police were vicious. People were crying because they couldn’t breathe. There were people knocked to the floor—yet the police were still pushing forward.”

Another woman from Cambridge described how her friend, a student from Manchester University, had been taken to hospital with a broken collar bone following the police charge.

Her bag was splattered with blood—from the head wounds of other students.

Students fought back heroically. Despite the mindless brutality of the police, many protesters seemed fearless. The crowd passed metal fences over heads to the front, so that students could use them as barricades against the cops.

Some ripped up concrete, and used breeze blocks and placard sticks to defend themselves against police.

Police told students that they were free to leave whenever they liked—but they were lying. They told people to head to Whitehall where they would be allowed to leave the kettle. Students arrived only to be confronted with riot police and horses.

Some were scared as police rode into them on horses, but not scared enough to retreat for long. They persisted in challenging the police line, playing “Dancing in the Moonlight” on a sound system as fighting continued.

Students stayed in Parliament Square and in Whitehall as it got dark. Despite being surrounded by police, it felt like they were in control of the space. As one protester put it, “It feels like part of London belongs to us.”

Protesters clambered onto London Underground signs, climbed up traffic lights for better views of the police lines, and sat on the windowsills of the Treasury.

Students with a radio held a megaphone to it so protesters could hear the speaker of the house announce the disgraceful fees vote. Boos spread around the square. MPs voted to allow universities to raise fees to up to £9,000 a year but the vote was close—323 to 302.

A government majority of 80 fell to just 21—and although students were furious, they didn’t feel defeated. They know they have the coalition on the run.

“We tried peaceful protest and it hasn’t worked,” said one student. “Now we can do whatever we like.”


Students smashed windows of the Treasury building. A group of riot police moved in—only to find themselves surrounded by delighted students chanting, “Who’s kettling who?”

Police lashed out. They charged students with batons and shields. One student lay motionless on the floor as others gathered around, calling for a medic and putting him in the recovery position.

Police chose this moment to charge again—pushing students onto the injured protester and unleashing a furious response that forced them to retreat. They forced a woman protester to the ground and batoned her. It wasn’t the first time that someone said, “Someone’s going to be killed”.

Despite their fear, people still fought back.

Students used a piece of metal to batter through the doors of the Treasury and streamed in—to roars of support from the crowd. Others forced open windows from the outside and threw in fireworks.

They taunted police from the outside. When one cop launched a baton out of a Treasury window to hit a student, the student grabbed it and held it aloft, to huge cheers.

prince Charles

Later students targeted the Supreme Court. And yet more protesters outside Westminster smashed windows at Topshop on Oxford Street and surrounded a car containing prince Charles and Camilla.

A protester told Socialist Worker, “Half-way up Regent Street, the royal car came towards us with its outriders at the front. Hundreds of us stopped the car. Camilla put on a big smile for us to try and calm things down, but people just shouted “Off with their heads!” and started kicking the car and throwing paint.

“The car then drove through us and everyone charged up the road after them.

“Despite the press coverage of the incident, I haven’t met one person who has said it was a bad thing to do.”

Police, politicians and the right-wing media say these protests were “mindless”. But they were the opposite. Students targeted symbols of power and wealth because they are sick of living in a world where the rich get richer while everyone else suffers.

There was real class anger on the protests. As a group of students interviewed on BBC news said, “We’re from the slums of London. How can we afford £9,000 to go to university?”

And the students have won wider support. Their march to parliament had at least 17 trade union banners on it—including from the RMT, PCS, CWU, NUT, Unison, Unite and UCU unions—along with GMB and TSSA flags.

Many workers watching the march pass supported the students. “It’s their right to protest,” said Yilmaz, a street sweeper. “If I was a father, I’d be marching for my children.”

The fantastic student movement has shown the scale of anger at the government’s cuts assault. It has also exposed the vulnerability of the government.

The trade union movement now needs to throw its weight behind the student. It must defend students against police and media attacks, send support and solidarity to students fighting back—and take the spirit of resistance into workplaces up and down the country.

Socialist Worker

1968: The year the world caught fire

The events of 1968 inspired a generation and shaped struggles around the world for years to come. Chris Harman, a student activist at the time, looks back at this tumultuous year

Occasionally one year can cast a spell over the decades that follow. 1968 was such a year. Supporters of capitalism still bemoan its impact 40 years on. Nicolas Sarkozy on the eve of his election declared he aimed to eradicate the “harm” that it had done. Before him it had been Tony Blair who blamed “the 1960s” for what he sees as the ills of society today.

Yet you would have great difficulty understanding why the year was so significant from most of the media coverage. It has been dominated by renegades from the left who have turned into right wing fogies, with the likes of Martin Kettle and David Aaronovitch regretting their youthful folly. Interspersed with them has been the occasional ageing hippy recalling with nostalgia overindulgence in drugs and sex. At best what happened is presented as a euphoric student rebellion against conservative social mores: a time of dropping out, dropping acid and, perhaps, challenging old sexual stereotypes.

There are very different reasons for commemorating 1968. It was one of those moments in history when it suddenly seemed that the coming together of many different acts of revolt could overturn an exploitative and oppressive society in its totality.

The year began with a devastating blow to US imperialism’s attempt to crush opposition to its puppet regime in the southern half of Vietnam. There were armed risings against US troops in every city in the country, the brief seizure of part of the US embassy in Saigon, and a battle for Hue, the country’s former capital, that lasted for weeks. Television screens across the world featured a US general admitting of one town, “We had to destroy it in order to retake it.”

Blown apart was the arrogant assumption of the US ruling class that it could crush resistance anywhere in the huge chunk of the world it dominated. The consequences fed back into the heart of US society. The Democrat president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), had looked forward only a few days before to a triumphant re-election; the Tet Offensive meant that an anti-war candidate, Gene McCarthy, enjoyed unexpected success in the New Hampshire primary in March while Johnson declared that he would not be standing again.

While this was happening, the rival imperialist power in Moscow was also taking a hammering. The Stalinist regime that had ruled Czechoslovakia since the Second World War split apart, allowing students, intellectuals and workers to organise freely and discuss genuinely socialist ideas for the first time, while across the border in Poland students occupied the universities and fought back against police attacks in the streets.

When we demonstrated against the Vietnam War on 17 March in London, there was not just revulsion at the barbarity of US imperialism – with the chant, “Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids have you killed today?” – there was also the feeling that we could fight and win amid a world in turmoil. It was the most militant demonstration anyone could remember as tens of thousands of us tried to break through the police lines outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Just two and a half weeks later came the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis. People rose up in every black neighbourhood in the US, attacking symbols of authority, with young African-Americans turning away from the civil rights movement’s goal of peaceful integration into existing US society towards the overtly revolutionary ideas of the Black Panthers. A week after this there was a similar eruption of angry militancy among West Germany’s students at the attempted assassination of one of their leaders, Rudi Dutschke, after a hate campaign by the right wing Springer media empire. Tens of thousands took to the streets with red flags in an attempt to close down its newspapers.

May was the most amazing month. What began as a small group of activists defending themselves against a police attack outside Paris’s Sorbonne university escalated into a “night of barricades” involving tens of thousands of students who drove the police from the area and caused trade unions to call a one day stoppage and demonstration in solidarity. That then showed millions of workers their potential power. Strikes and occupations spread, closing down radio, television, airports and cutting petrol supplies, until the whole country was paralysed by a general strike of up to ten million workers that had grown from the bottom up.

France’s President de Gaulle had ruled with dictatorial powers for ten years, brought to power by parliament panicking in the face of the threat of a military coup. Now he was visibly humiliated. People in their millions laughed at his speeches denouncing the movement. The strikes made it impossible for him to implement a referendum that was meant to bring it to an end. The world’s media talked of “France’s May revolution”.

In June it was the turn of the students of Yugoslavia to precipitate their country’s biggest political crisis for 20 years as they battled with police in Belgrade to chants of “Down with the Red bourgeoisie.”

Defiant salute

August saw the Brezhnev regime in Russia set out to crush the ferment in eastern Europe by sending its tanks into Czechoslovakia and kidnapping the country’s leaders – and get a shock as it met massive passive resistance from virtually the whole population. Meanwhile, anyone who believed in “American democracy” got a sharp lesson as thousands of police viciously attacked anti-war demonstrators outside the Democratic Party convention in Chicago as it chose the pro-war nominee, Hubert Humphrey, as its candidate despite him not winning in a single primary.

The Olympic Games were in Mexico City in October. They were the occasion of a massacre much worse than any we have yet seen this year in Tibet. Police cornered a demonstration of tens of thousands of students in a square away from the city centre and opened fire from surrounding buildings, killing hundreds. They forbade the press from reporting what had happened. The world’s media and politicians chose to ignore the blood flowing in the streets. Instead they reserved their condemnations for victorious black US athletes who gave defiant clenched fist black power salutes on the podium – and were immediately banned from sport.

That month also saw an event whose consequences were to ricochet through British politics for the next 30 years. The armed Northern Ireland police force viciously attacked demonstrators from the nationalist ghetto of the Bogside in Derry who demanded civil rights. Inspired by the rebellions elsewhere in the world demonstrators fought back – the beginning of a great revolt against the sectarian statelet Britain had established when it partitioned the island in 1921.

But there was more to the year than just a series of exciting events. Each upsurge of struggle inspired those involved in the next, creating the sense of an international movement. People who otherwise might have regarded their struggles as over particular grievances saw they had much more general significance.

As with any great upsurge of revolt, no one expected it. The 1950s and early 1960s had been one of those periods in history in which the structures of existing society seemed frozen. The ruling powers had contained and rolled back the rebelliousness and ferment of the inter-war and wartime years. The US and the USSR had divided the world between themselves, not only geographically but also ideologically. If you did not accept the inhuman behaviour and dogmatic utterances of one you were expected to line up with the inhuman behaviour and dogmatic utterances of the other. Russian dissidents were thrown into labour camps or psychiatric hospitals, US dissidents were driven from their jobs by the Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned like Dashiell Hammett, expelled from the country like Charlie Chaplin or deprived of their passports like Paul Robeson.

The time when the CIO unions in the US had been a radical force was long since past; the union movements in France and Italy had been divided and their power apparently broken; Britain’s union leaders were the bastions of the pro-US and pro-nuclear weapons right wing inside the Labour Party; the National Union of Students was part of a CIA international front.

A stultifying conformity pervaded social life. The family was taken to mean the man working while the woman toiled in the home waiting on him with complete responsibility for childcare. Women were expected to kowtow to men, young people to look up to their elders, black people to be thankful when occasionally they were not discriminated against. In the Southern part of the US, black people were still subject to the separate and unequal “Jim Crow” status which denied them voting rights and any redress against racist thugs and police.

Liberal and Labour apologists for the system claimed its remaining ills could be cured by peaceful and patient endeavour for small reforms within existing structures. They spoke of an “affluent society” that was delivering rising living standards, of an “end of ideology” and the demise of the working class as it embraced “middle class” consumerism. It was a message which even influenced adamant opponents of the system like the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse. He portrayed a “one-dimensional” society of people so enmeshed in the ideology of “consumerism” as to rule out any revolt in its advanced industrial heartlands.

Hardly noticed by anyone were changes beneath the surface of society that were undermining the existing structures and ideologies which justified them.

These were bound to find expression first among young people. At all times in any society they are more likely to kick back against oppressive and exploitative conditions than their elders, worn down from bearing the weight of the past. Such kicking back grows in magnitude the greater the contrast between the official conformism and the conditions in which people live. And students are especially sensitive to the contrast in present day capitalism. They are herded together in their thousands and expected to become proficient practitioners of ruling ideologies that make little sense. They also find it much easier to argue out and give organised expression to their feelings than do workers, even young workers, since they are not bound to machines or office routines eight hours or more a day.

So it was students who were the first to move in 1968, giving the impression that expressions of more general social crises were a specifically student issue – the impression that so much media coverage of 1968 seeks to perpetuate.

Already the early 1960s had seen some dissent. There had been mass demonstrations against nuclear weapons in Britain; thousands of black and white students had taken part in the civil rights movement in the US; French students had resisted the Algerian War. There was a new flourishing of such activity in 1966 and 1967, with the first protests against the Vietnam War in the US and Britain, the radicalisation of German students after the police killed a demonstrator on a Berlin protest, the adoption of the concepts of black power and armed self-defence by African-American student activists, revolts against professorial authoritarianism and appalling conditions on the Italian campuses. The impact of 1968 was to gel these different movements together.

The Tet Offensive brought the sudden realisation that those who ruled over us were not all-powerful. So it was that in the first months of 1968 there was a rash of protests in Britain, mainly by students, against Labour ministers for supporting the Vietnam War and against Conservative politicians like Enoch Powell, Duncan Sandys and Patrick Wall for their racism. These were initially minority protests of perhaps a couple of hundred students. But a couple of years earlier they would not have been bigger than a couple of dozen. When the authorities tried to discipline protesters, hard arguing and insistent agitation by these minorities were able to swing previously liberal “moderates” – and even some outright Tories – into supporting the radical position.

In the early months of 1968 the student movements in Germany and Italy were much bigger than anything happening in France. French activists complained to one of our comrades that they did not have a movement like ours in Britain. The language of the movements was increasingly revolutionary but usually in terms of “student power” and students as “the new revolutionary class.”

Those who were more radical looked to the notions spread by Che Guevara (who had been murdered by the CIA only months before) that revolution would come from armed actions in the most remote areas of Third World countries and that Western workers were “bought off” by “consumerism”. This could divert them from making connections with wider numbers of people here.

This began to change with the May events in France. People suddenly saw the possibility of revolutionary change much nearer home and one which came from below, involving the mass of people. The media concentrated on the student battles with the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris. But by the third week of May the spectacle of the working class holding to ransom the government of a major capitalist country had an impact on those fighting back against the system everywhere.

Great revolts cause a fantastic widening of people’s horizons. Those who would have laughed at the idea of revolution in 1966 – or at least deemed it impossible – were taking it seriously in the summer of 1968. When Britain had its biggest Vietnam demonstration, in October 1968, the most popular slogan alongside “Victory to the NLF” (the Vietnamese liberation movement) was “We will fight, we will win, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin”; the most popular placard was of a clenched fist with a spanner and the words “Workers’ Control”.

Only a small minority within the student movement anywhere became committed revolutionary activists – but that minority was many times bigger than that of only six months before. The ideas of a much wider number of people were turned upside down by the experiences of the year. They began to listen, argue and discuss, and to read Marxist texts which had been all but excised from university syllabuses. The forms of social conformism that had underpinned the old ideas were also challenged.

Some of the changes were superficial but symbolically important, as when male students gave up wearing suits and shaving for jeans, beards and long hair.

There had been a very small counterculture on the margins of mainstream society in the late 1950s and early 1960s, characterised by a mixing together of those into hallucinatory drugs, left wing or pacifist ideas, avant-garde theatre or poetry, folk music and eastern religions. This counterculture had begun to find a wider audience with the “summer of love” in 1967 and the rise of the hippies. Its audience grew much greater because of the events of 1968, but also more political. It even began to influence the western world’s dream factory in Hollywood, with a new wave of directors and actors producing films previously unimaginable. But in the process it was easy for people to confuse changing their own lifestyles with the revolution.

Wave of occupations

There were more profound challenges to the old conformism, even if often mixed up with the lifestyle approach. It was in 1968 that the Women’s Liberation Movement was born as women activists began to challenge the sexist assumptions which the young men who had been radicalised brought with them into the new movements. The next year saw the first open organisation of gay people.

Very important for the future was the way activists drew lessons from the French events, lessons which led them to take up revolutionary Marxist ideas which had only been held by handfuls of people previously. They saw that it was not just “the people” in general that had shaken French society, but the workers.

The new student revolutionists of Italy (a fair number converts from the Catholic student organisations) turned to the factories and played an important role in the workers’ strikes which swept the country in its “hot autumn” of 1969 (sometimes called its “May in slow motion”). The slogan of Students for a Democratic Society in the US had been “Half the way with LBJ” in 1964; at the end of 1968 its activists declared themselves to be “Marxist-Leninists”. In Britain students went from occupations and demonstrations to leaflet the docks and the factories.

Such efforts were to be immensely important in the years that followed 1968. The French slogan after May had been “Ce n’est qu’un début” – it’s only the beginning. And across the world as a whole it was only the beginning. 1969 saw student demonstrations transformed into a mighty rising of car workers in the Argentinian city of Cordoba and an autumn wave of occupations and strikes in Italy. 1970 saw the biggest yet wave of student protests in the US after Nixon and Kissinger extended the Vietnam War to Cambodia and the national guard shot students dead at Kent State University, Ohio. 1972 saw a great upsurge of popular struggle in Chile and, at the end of 1973, an occupation by Athens students which turned into a huge popular uprising that caused the Greek military dictatorship to collapse six months later. 1974 saw a coup which overthrew the 40 year old fascist regime in Portugal and opened up 18 months of ferment with revolutionary characteristics. 1975 saw a rising tide of struggle against Spanish dictator Franco that caused his heirs to begin to dismantle his fascist regime within months of his death. And in Britain we went through the biggest wave of industrial struggle for half a century, culminating in the fall of the Tory government of Edward Heath.

Students who had been radicalised by the events of 1968 were able in these years to find common cause with a layer of workers and together create networks of activists committed to social revolution in the factories, mines, docks, offices and schools.

The importance of such networks was one other lesson of the May events in France. For, if de Gaulle was helpless in the face of the rebellion from below through most of May, at the end of the month he finally found a way to bring it to an end. He relied on the cowardly willingness to compromise of those who dominated the official structures of the working class movement. Union leaders were prepared to end the general strike by getting workers back to work, one section at a time, in return for partial concessions. And the political leaders were so thrilled by the prospect of a general election that they urged an end to the strikes, even though by doing so they broke the momentum of the movement and enabled de Gaulle to win the election.

That pattern too was repeated elsewhere in the years that followed, culminating in agreements by official leaders of the workers’ movements in 1975 and 1976 to campaign against strikes in the interests of “partnership” and social peace with the “social contract” in Britain, the “historic compromise” in Italy, and the “Pact of Moncloa” in Spain. Employers were not slow in seizing the opportunity to begin rooting out socialist activists and inflicting severe defeats on workers’ movements that had once threatened them.

As the workers’ movement went down, so did the other movements born of 1968. By the 1980s capitalism in crisis was taking bitter revenge on the hopes of that year, and by the 1990s a new conformism seemed all dominant, embodied in Blairism and neoliberalism.

There are differences with old conformism of the 1950s and early 1960s. The old suppressed open discussion of sexuality; the new extols its transformation into a commodity. The old confined women to the home; the new witchhunts mothers who will not work for poverty wages. The old believed in the right of white Western governments to use bombs and tanks to subdue vast areas of the world; the new preaches using them for mass killings in the interests of “humanitarian intervention”. The old believed in deference to the upper classes; the new in the divine rights of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Just as there was pessimism among much of the left in the 1950s and 1960s, so there is today. Neoliberalism had its shadow in postmodernism, with its claim that any total challenge to the system is both impossible and dangerous. Its stranglehold has loosened in recent years, but its paralysing effects still linger on. And some of the older generation contrast their own rebellious years with the supposed complacency of today’s younger generation. They forget that the millions who marched against the Iraq war are many times greater in number than those who marched against the Vietnam War. They forget how confused and sometimes demoralised the left was before the French May. Above all they ignore the way the very dynamic of capitalism itself, with its continual transformation of economic relations, forces masses of people to rebel against it, even when they themselves least expect to.

1968 showed a generation how such revolts can erupt, interact with each other and enable millions to see the possibility of a new world. That’s something hated by the likes of Sarkozy and Blair. It is something the rest of us should rejoice in.

Marxist Internet Archive

london demo against education cuts

Historical Materialism 2010

This year’s Historical Materialism conference started a day after the biggest and most militant student demonstration in decades giving the speakers and attendees a more confident tone. A meeting on the media started with Ampuja taking apart the arguments that we live in a “network society” stating that it ignores Imperialism, Class and Oppression. The arguments of the network society associated with Castells propagate the idea that in the absence of social change “globalisation” has already fulfilled people’s demands for autonomy and control. While Freedman put forward convincing criticism of Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of the media that has become “common sense” among some on the left. The basic idea being that the media puts forward propaganda that dupes people into supporting the ruling classes in society. Freedman suggests that it ignores divisions among fractions of the ruling class that we can exploit. Using the Iraq war as example he states that the Daily Mirror supported demonstrations and printed its own placards increasing its sales in the process. Again using the Iraq war as an example the “public” do not always go along with what the media are putting out especially if there is a large movement saying the opposite.  A highlight was the meeting on Art which featured the carrot workers collective and Dave Beech. The Carrot’s (?) concentrate their attention on people who work in the cultural industry as interns. Interns often work for free and are expected to work long hours as Art is there “passion”. The hierarchy within the culture industry often means your “boss” is usually the last intern who has the attitude that “I went through it, so you will go through it and a little bit more”.

 Beech read out a manifesto on political art stating that art needs to be “twice political”:

“We don’t want the revolution, we want a million revolutions”  

The public does not exist for your art, “publics have to be won, earned”

“Political art must be the best art around, if it is not, it is not political enough!”

 Political art must fight on all fronts including the “armed struggle”.

He then answers a question of what makes a piece of art beautiful with “the march was beautiful” referring to the student demonstration the day before.

Further highlights included Farris’s talk on Marx’s On the Jewish question. Farris states Marx outlined that Jewish people were treated by states as though they were from an alien culture which refused to integrate into universal values. Sounding familiar yet. Farris draws the obvious parallels between how Islam is treated today and the way that Judaism was treated in the past. Marx refuses to make a hierarchy of religions with some seen as more progressive than others, as the target of Marx’s work Bruno Bauer did. Bauer suggests that it would be progressive if Jewish people converted to Christianity like Marx’s father had done. This has echoes in the way the new humanists such as Dawkins make a hierarchy of religion. During the pope visit Dawkins stated Catholicism was the second most dangerous religion, I wonder what number one is for him?

The two meetings that I attended on Feminism were mixed. Judith Orr gave a lively speech on contemporary feminism and Laurie Penny made frequent references to Gok Won to a bemused Historical Materialist audience. Lindsey German situated women’s changing role in society to the expansion of women’s employment after the Second World War and spoke about the centrality of the “nuclear family” to maintain women’s oppression. Nina Power made reference to the 1982 book the managed heart by Hochschild that studies the way women air stewards are expected to do “emotional labour” such as smiling, pretending to like the guests, flirting etc.

Gramsci was a frequent topic with Peter Thomas author of The Gramscian Moment usually chairing the meetings. Michele Filipini highlighted Gramsc’s notion of crisis which can be economic but also political or sexual. Filipini in the questions and contributions section then states that the term “Hegemony” should not be used anymore given the divergent ways it is thrown around. A debate on Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution was interesting. Neil Davidson defined passive revolution as “bourgeois revolutions from above” against feudal relations in which the masses demands are partially taken onboard without being centrally involved citing the examples of Scotland, Germany and Japan. The debate saw Adam David Morton became the first person to say that Alex Callinicos was being “playful”. Callinicos pointed out the different uses Gramsci makes of passive revolution both as bourgeois revolution from above and in reference to American Fordism and Italian Fascism, meaning that the term is both used for bringing in different social relations (Capitalism from Feudalism) and situations within capitalism (fordism, fascism). Callinicos highlighted the danger of extending the concept too far, something Chris Hesketh does by suggesting that the neo liberalisation of Mexico was a passive revolution. Morton also stated that neo liberalism could be seen as a passive revolution to restore class power for the rich.

Callinicos reacted by saying that the idea workers demands were incorporated into Thatcherism was around in the 80’s and was nonsense, neoliberalism is a brutal process of class war carried out by the state.  

A meeting on the recently deceased Daniel Bensaid revolutionary of 68 and the fourth international was difficult with many of his personal friends on the panel such as Stathis Kouvelakis and Sebastin Budgen. The talks focussed on Bensaid’s last published book Marx for our times. The opportunity for sectarianism was taken up by a member in the audience that said Bensaid was wrong about Russia being a degenerated workers state while ignoring the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Another suggested that Bensaid should have read more Trotsky. Another low light included a talk on the failings of liberal multiculturalism that suggested that fascism should not be treated differently from liberal pandering to racism.

All in all this expanding conference should be in every Lefties calendar. Until next year the journals will have to suffice.