Is student activism reviving? Ivor Gaber drops in on a UK teach-in
It was almost like old Vietnam times: two dozen student activists sitting in a room in London University's School of Oriental and African Studies planning how they were going to bring the country to a halt. Actually not - they were all rather restrained. A man - no one knew anything about him except that his website was called "Revolution Now" - had a plan to disrupt London by blocking its bridges. The activists humoured him, told him what a clever ruse it was and then moved on.
The meeting took place during a recent "teach-in" organised at Soas - the London School of Economics of the new millennium, in terms of staff and student radicalism, I was told. It was a repeat of their first teach-in a year ago, which was then focused on the coming war in Afghanistan. This time Iraq was at the centre of their concerns.
If attendance at the Vietnam-style teach-in was anything to go by, then student activism reached its peak soon after September 11 2001 and has been in decline ever since. "More than 400 attended the Afghanistan teach-in, and we're hoping for even more today," one of the organisers told me at the start of the day. Attendance never roset much above the 100 mark, but never mind the quantity, how about the quality?
Teach-ins are odd events - a clash of political rally and educational event. For education requires the airing of competing views, and when nearly all the panellists agree on their basic understanding of the situation, how much education occurs?
The day did not begin promisingly. I started by attending what was billed as the main session, "McWar: The military face of globalisation". However, a quick burst of sub-Marxist generalisations about the state of the world under "late capitalism" convinced me that interesting things must be happening elsewhere. And they were.
Nancy Lindisfarne, a US anthropologist from Soas, who specialises in Afghanistan, gave a fascinating insight into "things you didn't know" about that long-suffering country. She clearly knew the country well, but I had to raise the odd metaphorical eyebrow at some of the generalisations she made. Comparing the "malign" effect of US intervention on the status of women in Afghanistan, she claimed that in the eight years after the Russian invasion in 1979, there were "virtually no rapes reported throughout the country" because, she claimed, military commanders stopped the men under their command from committing such acts. All this changed after the Russians were expelled and the various warlords and religious factions, with US backing, took over and rape became an instrument of war.
And when Lindisfarne ended her talk with the words: "Fight and resist US imperialism on every front, fight and resist global capitalism on every front, fight racism and privatisation in Britain, fight for drugs for people with Aids in South Africa and against the war. It's the same struggle," the metaphorical eyebrows shot up even higher.
From Afghanistan, I moved on to the ironically (we were informed) titled "Footnotes to the 'War on Terror'" session, but the irony was lost on many who claimed that their particular region of the world was being marginalised. Speakers from the platform covered Colombia, Africa and Indonesia (pre-Bali bombing), but the audience appeared more interested in their own wars, turning it into more of a political bring-and-buy sale than a teach-in session. From the audience came claims from a Congolese man that the US and UK were to blame for his country's tragic state of affairs (no mention of the French or Belgians or of Mobutu Sese Seko); a Togolese "comrade" from the "International Liaison Committee for a Workers' and People's International" (rough rule of thumb - the grander the name, the smaller the group); and a speaker from the Africa Solidarity Campaign whose claim that President George W. Bush was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks was met without even the slightest hint of a guffaw from the audience - which I took to be a sign of their politeness, naivety or mental equilibrium.
Not all the sessions were quite so eclectic. Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn gave a powerful statement of the case for opposing Britain's involvement in any coming war, although his talk was somewhat eclipsed by the subsequent denunciation of his fellow panellist, Lindsay German, a Socialist Workers Party activist and member of the Stop the War Coalition. She, and her party, incurred the wrath of the Spartacist League for making common currency with "reactionary clerics" (the archbishop of Canterbury), capitalist politicians (London mayor Ken Livingstone) and, worst of all, Labour MPs (Jeremy Corbyn) and for trying to fool the people that they could "stop the war" without a violent overthrow of the ruling class.
Despite the traditional mumblings, rumblings and grumblings of the grouplets, the students behind the teach-in were convinced that there was a growing mood of political activism in Britain's colleges and universities. Scott Cunliffe, a Soas postgraduate, told me that international developments were radicalising students. Helen Salmon, a leftwing member of the National Union of Students executive, added: "I have spoken at meetings all over the place in the past 12 months, and attendances have been in the hundreds - that never used to be the case." There was a surge in interest in the Stop the War Coalition at freshers fairs, she said: "They've been queuing up to sign petitions."
Certainly the success, in terms of numbers, of the anti-war march in London last month came as a pleasant surprise to the student activists who played a key role on the organising committee. They plan another day of local action on Thursday, when they hope that some student unions will occupy university buildings. "If we succeed, these will be the first political occupations for 30 years," Salmon says.
Ivor Gaber is emeritus professor of journalism at Goldsmiths College, London.