Does a radical past leave its Marx?

January 23, 2004

As students muster for the top-up vote, Michael North asks respected figures with rebellious pasts if they have stayed true to their radical roots, while Mark Levene and Sophie Hug-Williams consider whether activism has really died out on the university campuses of today.

Dabbling with a student group that blew up a dam sounds like quite a radical way to kick off a career in academia, but it obviously did Deian Hopkin's prospects little harm because he is now vice-chancellor of South Bank University.

Politics, it seems, is in Hopkin's blood: his stepfather was an agent for a member of Clement Attlee's government, and both his parents were aldermen on countless committees and commissions. Hopkin was just following in the family tradition.

At school, he resigned from the obligatory cadet corps on grounds of conscience and, although he was not involved in the dam-busting incident, he was president of Aberystwyth University's Socialist Society during a radical period. In the mid-1960s, for instance, Hopkin and colleagues printed leaflets for the anti-nuclear movement about secret government bunkers. As the leaflets were being taken to north Wales, they fell off the motorbike, landing in the path of a police car. "For days we all laid low and waited for MI5 to arrive. They never did, of course. Such is the exaggerated view of their importance student activists often have." Hopkin says.

In the 1970s and '80s, Hopkin was a constituency Labour Party chairman and political agent. He was the founding editor of the Welsh Labour journal and society, Llafur , which ran residential conferences with the National Union of Miners and the Irish Transport Unions.

Quite a firebrand then, and possibly an inspiration to today's student protesters as they muster their forces for next week's vote on the higher education bill.

Hopkin is not the only high-ranking figure in higher education to be proud of his radical credentials. Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, has been a member of the Labour Party for nearly 50 years, including at Oxford University, where he was chairman of the Labour Club. His father was a Labour MP, and Floud has acted as an election agent for the party.

Both Hopkin and Floud say their past beliefs and actions still influence the decisions they take now. Hopkin has carried on working to change society - he is founding chairman of Cityside Regeneration in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, which helped to build the Women's Library and Rich Mix Centre, creates workspaces and tries to secure City jobs for unemployed Bangladeshi graduates. "That's the nexus of politics, engaging within society itself. I have a background of trying to make communities work. I'm still associated with my past," he says.

Hopkin's radical background has also been helpful in negotiating with unions. "Having worked with trade unions on their side of the fence and in non-conformist groups, I recognise the importance of engaging with unions in constructive dialogue."

Floud's past helps him to empathise with student causes, he says, and he is particularly committed to the 50 per cent participation target.

Hopkin and Floud try to continue their radicalism by working within the system. Ian Gibson, a former union activist and lecturer in biological sciences at the University of East Anglia in the 1970s, has gone one step further by becoming a Labour MP. The fiery chair of the House of Commons select committee for science and technology is one of the government's most vociferous opponents over top-up fees.

At UEA, he was part of a hotbed of union activism. He left the Trotskyite International Students movement to become branch secretary of the Association of Scientific and Technology Managerial Staff union. He was involved in strikes and factory occupations, and he almost lost his job in a dispute with his vice-chancellor.

"I learnt the black arts of politics in academia and the trade union movement," he says. But Gibson believes his science background was the best training for challenging authority. "I'm sure if I had been in the politics department, I would not have been as inquisitorial as I am. Science makes you question everything. The whole system might change if more scientists came into politics instead of lawyers."

Some academics prefer not to taint their radicalism by getting involved in party politics. Alex Callinicos, head of the politics department at York University and a "Marxist in unity of theory and practice", is a political activist in the European Social Forum and an anti-globalisation protester.

He thinks student radicalism, far from waning, is undergoing a rebirth because of the anti-war movement. "There is a huge revival," he says.

Gibson disagrees, arguing that student protesters are still a minority and are "very muted and not consistent".

Former student radical Ivor Gaber, now emeritus professor of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London, says it is hard for today's students to be militant when they are cowed by debt, worried about future employment and have grown up in a more widespread culture of political disengagement.

He attended Warwick University in the heyday of student revolutionary activism, which culminated in "The Warwick Spring of 1970", when students occupied the university's registry. Gaber himself was injuncted for being on the sit-in committee.

"It was a small campus but there were regularly 50 people at student union meetings. We all felt incredibly righteous. We felt we had taken on the university authorities and the whole capitalist system."

The Warwick protest followed a period of international student radicalism, including the 1968 Paris protests. "We felt that we were caught up in a global movement," Gaber says. But he wonders now if this was an illusion:

"I'm not sure if there is ever going to be any connection between student politics and the world at large. When students marched on the Renault plant in Paris in 1968 to show solidarity, the workers were terrified of the student anarchists."

Despite his doubts, Gaber argues that his radicalism has not been compromised by having seemingly joined the establishment. He says one student took him to task, though, when he returned to Warwick to commemorate the 1970 protest. She asked how his managerial position at Goldsmiths squared with his radical past. "I congratulated her on her journalism," he says wryly.

Gaber maintains that his beliefs have not been toned down despite his having had to make tough decisions on redundancies in the Thatcher years:

"Survival was tough. I made decisions for the health of the institute and for students' education."

Gibson admits that he has had to tone down his radical views because of his position as a constituency MP: "I don't represent me any more, I represent my constituents. You can't move too far ahead of the people who put you here."

Floud also talks pragmatically about "deciding what is possible at any one time". And Callinicos believes his role is not to indoctrinate but "to encourage students to form views in a critical way and on an informed basis".

But Callinicos is pleased to note: "My course on Marxism is very well subscribed."

'We were not all Migs or Swerps'

It may not be official but it's true, isn't it? Lecturers are more politically radical than their students. And increasingly, the older we are, the more likely the disparity.

Spot an anti-globalisation protester among your undergraduate cohort or have a student stand up and challenge some assertion you have made and you might be forgiven for getting a little overexcited. Students just don't seem to have strongly held opinions any more. Even the one or two committed Christians usually don't have a particularly doctrinaire position to defend, and if they do they are usually coy about stating it.

The notion that students are queuing up to protest against the asylum bill or the threat from global warming is just wish fulfilment, which is just the way the university authorities want it. Damn it, they're here to get degrees, not to be seduced by dangerous and subversive "ideas".

But hang on a minute. I don't remember being incredibly radical when I was a student 30 years ago. That came later when I got some real education.

Certainly, I can remember those bookstalls piled high with copies of Soledad Brother and Bukharin's ABC of Communism . I remember it was de rigueur to claim that you were a socialist. If you really wanted to proclaim your credentials, you stood outside the union and sold Socialist Worker .

But I can't think of anybody I hung around with who joined the SWP (the Swerps) or their equally Trotskyist but venomously rival International Marxist Group (the Migs). Maybe I was just sad. Or part of the wrong crowd.

I don't remember great political discussions into the middle of the night.

Or, for that matter, anyone overly enthusing about some novel they'd read or lecture they'd attended.

But even if I'm wrong, such dubious nostalgia trips are surely missing the essential point. Yes, it certainly seems difficult to get contemporary students motivated even to read books - and a lot more so to get them fired up by the issues of the day. If the mass demonstration on campus at the outset of the Iraq invasion was singular in being the first of its kind in a very long time, the proportion of students was tiny.

But who is this an indictment of: them, us or society at large? Students are no different now from how we were then. Just a lot more cynical about what they're up against. We were naive about the possibilities of change and vague about getting jobs - not least because there were still jobs to be had. Today's students feel that they have little choice but to get on, pay their debts and get a job. What's the point getting worked up about Chomsky or Said when everybody knows trying to beat the buggers in charge is to be on a hiding to nothing?

Yet their world is going to be hellish if they can't grasp and analyse the nature of our encroaching global crisis. To deal with today's problems, they need a rigorous education. How they'll come by it is another matter.

And you can be sure the way universities in this country are heading, they won't get it from authority figures there.

So who does that leave to inform and communicate, challenge and inspire? You guessed it - you and me. It's no good bemoaning the failings of our student flock. Indeed, it's utterly hypocritical. How can we blame them when we spend so much time cravenly filling in boxes for pointless exercises; striving for ludicrous research assessment exercise results when we should be telling our paymasters what they can do with it; struggling to get one over on colleagues in the race for promotion; and writing applications for awards in the hope that by getting ourselves out of the cycle for a year we can pretend that the juggernaut of university McDonaldisation will pass us by?

Is this the sort of example we think students will learn from? When did you last hear a lecturer get up and say they think variable fees are an outrage to be resisted at all costs? When did we last put students first? Or show them our solidarity? Of course, they can be enthused - and offered alternative, life-enhancing visions for understanding and, thereby, healing the world. It can begin in the space we call universities. But only if we offer ourselves as good examples.

Mark Levene is reader in history at the University of Southampton.

'Our voice is lost in their past glories'

Sometimes it is hard not to get a bit disheartened being a student activist. Any achievements are quickly overshadowed by history - we hear, for example, how our predecessors shut down colleges during 1960s anti-Vietnam war protests.

In a discussion I had recently with a fellow fair-trade campaigner who had been at the London School of Economics, I was trying to point out that it was difficult for us to be taken seriously by catering services. "Can't LSE students do anything any more? We got them to disinvest from South AfricaI" she said patronisingly. And as she walked away, I realised how little had changed in university politics.

History has it that students in the late 1960s were idealistic revolutionaries, compared with today's conservative, apathetic dullards.

How convenient for the protesters of the 1960s and 1970s, who have become the journalists and professors who write that history.

From where I stand, things look rather different. The same type of campus busybodies make the same radical protests as they did back then and the majority look on bemused and occasionally (after a few pints) join in. The only difference is the media. While once they glorified the protesters, today they seem intent on ignoring us.

The most blatant example of this was February 15, the day of the biggest demonstration in UK history. Some 2 million people from all walks of life, many of them virgin protesters, marched against the war in Iraq. Do you remember the massive newspaper spreads? I don't.

Student union banners from all over the country were aplenty. When George W. Bush came on his state visit to London in November, university students held occupations, teach-ins and boycotted lectures. Yet did you read about any of this in the press?

Stop the War groups have sprung up in universities all over the country, and student campaigning organisations such as People and Planet are growing fast on campuses - this generation of students is far from apathetic.

From conversations I have had with staff, the nature of student activism seems to have changed, with demonstrations these days rarely violent and the atmosphere more inclusive. The fact that your average slightly globally concerned citizen is motivated to march to show their opposition to the war just doesn't make an interesting story.

Lecturers say that the things students protest about has also changed.

Aside from Vietnam, I am told most of the unrest in the 1960s and 1970s was more about internal issues.

And yes, although we all grumble about it, anti-fees rallies have failed to attract huge turnouts. But over issues of global injustice, this generation of students is certainly on the ball.

What cannot be doubted is that student life has changed greatly since the late 1960s. Students face more economic hardship, and many have to take part-time jobs, leaving them with no time to engage in other activities.

There is also the switch to more vocational degree courses. In the 1960s, departments such as sociology and anthropology were popular; today those are tiny compared with City hopefuls in economics, law or accountancy.

The higher ratio of international students attending UK universities may also have had an impact, with some coming from countries with no tradition of public demonstrations, and some not feeling as connected to British issues.

From conversations with staff, I understand that the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s failed to win much support. Because of its disruptive nature, it caused only more antagonism. These days, lecturers seem quite oblivious to protests, aside from a handful who do get involved and rescheduled lectures on the day of Bush's visit to allow us to march without missing class.

But why this reliance on students to lead the movement? It seems to me that those who were once leading the marches now ignore the present situation.

While we struggle to get our voices heard, they sit back in their big leather chairs and think "ah, those were the days!"

Sophie Hug-Williams is doing an MSc in development management at the London School of Economics.


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