Tag Archives: Cambridge

How dense are the public?

by Anne Archist

As student politics moves through its seasonal cycle back into a period of comparatively high activity, we see occupations in Cambridge and Birmingham, with a strong probability of protest once again sweeping across the country, particularly in the South-East. Politicians might want to carry umbrellas over the weekend as there may be showers of rotting fruit. Seriously, though, the students are at it again.

I have mixed feelings about this, though mostly positive; my enthusiasm is tempered by the impression that despite the relatively high political and organisational continuity from last year, nobody has learnt very much from past experience, or thought very hard over the summer about the way forwards. It feels like an activist ‘Groundhog Day’ rather than the next step in a struggle that’s going somewhere. Regardless of this, the recent student activity (including the recent national march) does at least raise interesting questions about current attitudes within and towards various groups.

Firstly, of course, it raises all the usual questions about the attitude held by the rest of society towards students, students towards education workers (given the upcoming strike), etc. However, it also raises another question with more immediacy and clarity than before (and it has certainly been hovering around for a while). Namely, how long can the media go on reducing this to a question of tuition fees?

I just read an article about David Willetts’ first appearance (should that be non-appearance) lecturing at Cambridge last week. I was in the audience at this event – amazed at the audacity of this man and bemused by the surreal atmosphere that the student intervention created – and something rang very untrue about the media’s representation of this intervention. An article subheading read “protesters take over lecture hall to oppose £9,000 tuition fees”, one of those grey sentences that could have been written by anyone, for any paper, at any time over the past year. What is interesting about this sentence is its distillation of a whole lot of complicated issues down to one simple and fundamentally inaccurate summary. The protest was manifestly not about tuition fees.

If there is one positive comparison that can be made between what had happened by this time last year and the first couple of months of this academic year, it is that the focus within the movement has shifted somewhat from tuition fees. This supposed anti-fee protest consisted of students reading two statements (one was directly addressed to Willetts, while the other was read after he had ostensibly left the building). Only one of these statements is mentioned in the article – the first one, judging by the context. I got hold of a copy of this 2-page statement, and it does not mention fees. Not once.

The second statement does mention fees in various contexts. There is no explicit reference to “£9,000 fees”, but one sentence does presumably relate to this – the criticism in this context goes no further than referring to fees as “a massive debt”. The remaining sections relating to fees are more for the sake of putting other issues (cuts and privatisation) into perspective than protesting fees (in fact, these sections could equally be used as an argument for higher fees), and altogether these make up only 3 paragraphs out of 13.

Whereas earlier protests and arguments centred around the effect of near-tripling fees, there seems to be both a deeper and a wider understanding of the white paper as a whole – it is perhaps possible that the supposedly incendiary issue of tuition fees is merely a flash in the pan by comparison to the kind of unrest that could grow from a thorough and widespread grasp of quite what the government is doing to education. Personally, I take this shift in focus as a good sign; I have to own up to a relatively heterodox position on this, in that I don’t really believe in or agree with a lot of the alarmist arguments used around tuition fees.

By arguing about high fees reducing applications, or whether loan repayments are affordable or not, I think we largely play into the government’s hands. The issue, for me, is not one of whether high fees are unaffordable (because I think it’s fairly rare for this to be the case) or whether they reduce the number of people going to university (there isn’t really any evidence that this is likely to happen). The question we have to put is whether they are fair, given that there are alternative methods of funding education which would put the burden more squarely on the rich and would acknowledge the contribution of education to society and the economy as a whole, etc.

I digress. When I ask “How dense are the public?” I am posing a question that I suppose politicians, journalists, editors, and news presenters have to ask themselves on a regular basis. It could be phrased otherwise – “How much can we get away with? For how long?” For how long will facile arguments such as the accusation that current student protest is motivated by pure selfishness hold currency? How long can the government and the media stick their collective heads in the sand and pretend that this is a passing dispute over rising prices, as if we were bartering at a market stall?

It is convenient for servants of capital and neoliberal ideology to pose this as an argument over a ‘fair’ price for a ‘private advantage’ that happens to have ‘positive externalities’ (in other words, coincidental positive effects for other people). What is not convenient is to acknowledge the truth; in fact this is a full-scale revolt against a fundamental redefinition of the rules within which education operates (and I do mean education as a whole, rather than just universities, as these moves are in concert with the establishment of more academies and free schools, hints in the direction of desecularisation, etc).

The student movement, as part of a wider coalition, is coming to the point where it is not quibbling over price but questioning changes to the very nature of what it is that people are paying for, quite distinctly from the question of how it is funded. This is laudable and is moreover a strategic and intellectual advance compared to where we were a year ago. But it is not getting the attention it deserves, as the same old narrative horse is continually flogged (an apt cliché here since both senses of the verb apply). Who will point out the flies circling the carcass first? Just how much do the public understand that is not let on in the media consensus – on this and other issues? And what will happen if it no longer becomes possible to frame the back-door deregulation and privatisation of public education as “driving up standards” or “ensuring value for money”?

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Filed under Current Affairs, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Police brutality in Cambridge

by nineteensixtyseven

Here is footage taken after the fourth day of action in Cambridge today. Protestors on their way home from a peaceful demonstration were followed by police, peppersprayed and arrested. The police were repeatedly told by college authorities that they had no right to be on the premises yet disregarded this.

[Footage temporarily taken down, should be up again in due course]


Filed under Student Issues

Arrest at Cambridgeshire Council budget meeting

Cambridge Defend Education report that a Cambridge resident was arrested for asking an unauthorised question at the budget meeting of the Tory-run Cambridgeshire County Council earlier today. Apparently Tory councillors applauded when asked how they felt about members of the public being ejected from the gallery.

Can we expect further criminalisation of dissent from councils desperate to push through cuts budgets? Good job we live in a democracy.

Photos here and here.


Filed under Current Affairs

Student activism then and now: an interview with Ian Patterson

The following interview with Cambridge academic Ian Patterson was conducted in the Autumn of 2008 by Ben Pritchett and Decca Muldowney for the second issue of the radical magazine Impropaganda which, in the event, never appeared. We publish it here because it might be of interest to student activists interested in the parallels, or lack of parallels, between campus politics now and how it was in the late 60s/early 70s. It is considerably longer than most posts on the blog, but is published as an interesting in-depth personal reflection on student politics.

Decca Muldowney
: Our theme is student activism then and now. When did you come to Cambridge?

Ian Patterson: I was here from ’66 to ’69, and I stayed till ’71. So I was around for five years. Nothing much happened in Cambridge in ’68, mostly what happened here was a little bit later – in ’69, and in the early ‘70s.

DM: In hindsight we can look at ’68 and see what was happening in Prague, in Mexico, in France, in Britain, in America, and all over the world. Were you aware of those things at the time? Did it seem like it was joined up internationally?

IP: Globalisation has happened since then, and that’s a big difference from when we were here. The sheer volume of information that we know now – we simply didn’t have the same rapidity of information, the same sense of what was going on in different parts of the world that we automatically get now, even though there were many more foreign correspondents then than there are now. There were only three channels on the television.

In 1968 itself, although me and my friends were vaguely aware of what was going on in Paris, and although I knew one or two people who’d gone there, it wasn’t on the top of our agenda.

Jon Chadwick, who is a theatre director still, wrote and directed a play which he took to Edinburgh in the summer of ’69, about Jan Palach and Prague, which I reviewed for Varsity. He was one of the agit-prop type experimental playwrights. And that was quite good, that indicates that we were thinking at least about the Prague Spring and the aftermath of the repression again there. I don’t think anybody was much aware of what was going on in Mexico – or in Italy either, because that’s a bit later. We had a certain distaste for the rather militarised demonstrating style of the Germans, with their helmets and staves…

Rudi Dutschke was meant to come to Cambridge, in the Autumn of ’69, and Reginald Maudling, the home secretary, refused to give him a visa. I remember Jeremy Prynne writing a letter and trying to get a campaign to allow him to come, but that didn’t come to anything. So I don’t know how much one thought of oneself as part of anything that you could call a movement, but certainly thought of lots of like-minded people in different parts of the world.

You have to remember, that at the same time, as usual, lots of silliness was going on, because it was Cambridge, and the silliness was getting as much press as anything else. So we did feel ourselves to be a minority interest – not a majority at all. I can hardly think of anybody else in Pembroke who had the slightest interest in these things. The friends I had in Pembroke, were mostly uninterested or apolitical, and I think that’s probably true of 90% of the people, at least, at university then.

DM: I’m glad that you’re saying that because people paint it as a time when everyone was involved and it was just incredible, and no-one ever felt as though they were struggling against a mass, a wave of apathy.

IP: I don’t know very much about the hard left and the Communist party left in Cambridge in that period, I don’t know what they were doing. I have an idea that the Communist party was probably selling the Morning Star outside the PYE factory, and International Socialists (IS) was moving towards student politics more and setting up their Vietnam solidarity campaign. Student politics in Cambridge tended to be dominated by IS in those days, which was what became the SWP, so there was quite a lot of getting up early and going out to factory gates, and perhaps a distaste for involvement with students in 1967-68.

I knew one or two people who were involved in that sort of thing and it always seemed to me to be a strange choice and not one that I understood. I hadn’t read Marx then, it was not until ’68-’69 that I began to get involved in that sort of thing. So, it made an impact, but not a very direct one.
I wasn’t aware of any of that myself, I was much more, well, (a) I was much more Situationist/anarchistical, and (b) I was approaching it all via poetry. It was a period of intellectual ferment for me, as I guess people’s second and third years at Cambridge quite often are, but it all seemed to tie in much better with the world than it often has at other times.

I was involved mostly in poetry and English faculty stuff. There was dissent in the English faculty, and everywhere else at that time, and there were a series of open meetings in the faculty of lecturers and students. At the end of ’68, probably, I jumped up and ran down to the front because I suddenly had this epiphanic realisation that there was nobody with a gun making you take exams. I said, ‘you realise, we don’t have to take exams? If anybody’s interested in not taking exams, can they stay behind and see me afterwards’. A little nucleus of people stayed behind and we set up this group. We used to meet quite regularly. The group was called X17, because it met in room X17 in King’s, the rooms of somebody called Steve Vahrman. (He did a column in King’s Parade, a year or two ago, in which he recalled that time.) We wanted to abolish exams. There were always interesting people hanging around, and people visited from Essex and LSE, and we got together huge quantities of material about assessment all over English faculties in America and England, and we presented all this stuff to the faculty… and nothing much happened but we were allowed to take books into the Tragedy paper. That’s all. But there was a committee set up, of course. And then there was a sub-committee of that committee to look at exams.

Raymond Williams said to me and my friend Nick Totton as we were walking along King’s Parade after the first meeting, ‘I wouldn’t expect much to happen from this meeting, the university has been quite adept at fighting off change for 800 years, I don’t think you’re going to make a big impact on it now’. Which was true.

By the summer, by the time that the LSE events had been happening, and there’d been a certain amount of interchange, various groups were set up so that in Cambridge then there was a small group of the Radical Socialist Students Federation (RSSF), and there were a few people who thought of themselves as Situationists.There was a group of people in ’68-’69 which split off from the X17 group called the ‘Academic Cripples’, and there was a march which was quite well attended through the centre of town with a banner saying ‘Academic Cripples – Abolish Exams’.

There was certainly quite a lot to complain about and the syllabuses were, certainly in the humanities, academic and unable to cope, both in their teaching methods, and in their subject matter, with things that we wanted to know more about. In the English faculty, for example, we weren’t allowed to study Marx or Freud, which we obviously wanted to do. That changed quite rapidly in the aftermath of ’68. There was a ‘free’ university set up (it wasn’t really a free university or an alternative university) which put on certain events – I remember going to hear a talk on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right by Ben Brewster, which we thought was tremendously exciting. The place was absolutely crowded with people listening to this – it was actually rather dry, academic stuff, but it was the sort of thing that we’d never come into contact with before. In the ’68-’69 year, the English society or club ran a series of alternative seminars on Marx and on Freud. The Freud seminar, a sort of reading group, was led by a graduate student from Columbia. We read through the New Introductory Lectures and it was genuinely inspiring and educational.

In the end of ’68 there was a sit-in at the Senate House. I wasn’t there – I was ill. I can’t remember now what the main issues were, but perhaps there was something to do with the restrictive regulations we lived under, and with the admission of women? There wasn’t very much personal freedom. It was still the days when colleges were locked at 10 or 11, and there were a lot of petty restrictions, and people could be sent down for having people to stay in their rooms at night and so on, rather strange to think of, but… When people were forced out after two days, on Senate House lawn there were all lines of hunting and rowing people from Magdalen and Trinity, with whips, baying for blood. Coming out of the Senate House the people were hit and swung at by this gauntlet of aristos and hunters and unpleasant people in tweeds, and people who wanted to be like that. So there was a certain amount of violence, mostly from the right, though I don’t think that that meant there was a huge polarisation in the university between left and right.

The other important feature of student politics from that time was The Shilling Paper, the alternative to Varsity. It was the left-wing newspaper that was deliberately set up to be based in the town not in the university. It covered town and university issues impartially. It was printed by what was then the new printing process, offset litho, so it didn’t have to use all the old fashioned newspaper print technology which Varsity used. Some of the people who were involved in starting that were around IS, but there were anarchists and there were Situationist-type people, and a lot of good unaligned lefties. The Shilling Paper covered strikes, and any kind of political unrest and tried to explain the university to the town, the town to the university. It was jolly good – a bit expensive actually – a shilling was as much as you would want to pay for a paper, so there was a slight element of good will in buying it. But it was an institution for some years. There may be copies in the Cambridge collection in the university library.

Later on there was the Garden House affair. That’s 1970 I think. The Greek Junta was in power, and the Garden House Hotel in collaboration with a local travel agent, was promoting Greece as a holiday destination, and the Greek embassy was collaborating with them. Because nothing else much was going on, and because this was a way of demonstrating against the Junta, there was a big demonstration, and it got violent. I think it was provoked, to some extent, by the police. Nothing very much in the way of damage happened on this occasion, I think mostly it was broken glass. When you look back on it, it was a time of extraordinary repression, when they came to court. The people who were arrested came up against Lord Justice Melford Stevenson, who was also the judge in the Angry Brigade trial, and who was incredibly right wing – he lived in a house called ‘Truncheons’… For students to get up to 18 months in prison was really quite extraordinary. The arrests were pretty indiscriminate. Lord Eatwell, the current President of Queens’, was originally arrested, and then released for lack of evidence; he was described by the judge as ‘an evil influence’.

But back to the late sixties. There was some quite wild and liberational drama going on. Bruce Birchall at Peterhouse, with his mass of flowing curly hair, did a great version of The Bacchae in Peterhouse gardens, experimental, avant-garde and political, with audience involvement and (I think) music, maybe from Henry Cow, with Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. The other student newspaper thing was called Broadsheet, a listings mag started by a guy called Mike Sparrow (who went on to work for BBC London). It came out as a single or double sheet, and it listed everything that was on that week. It was a wonderful thing, it was the first time there’d ever been one, I think it even predated, or certainly was at the same time as Time Out. And that became quite important for people, it brought people together, allowed people to advertise events. These were pre-mobile phone days of course, pre-phone – nobody had a phone in their room, so if you wanted to telephone somebody up, you couldn’t – you could ring people from a phonebox, that was about it. If you wanted to get in touch with somebody, either you went round to their room, or you sent them a letter. And dropped a note off in their pigeon-hole, that was the only way of doing it. Or you hoped to see them. So, meeting people at places like Sidgwick, or King’s Bar, was much more important – most colleges didn’t have bars in those days, certainly my college, Pembroke, didn’t have a bar.

I think it was much easier also – although this may just have been a sign of our shallowness – to recognise sympathetic people by what they looked like. People were certainly defined much more by their exteriors, by the kind of clothes they wore and how long their hair was. By whether they had beards or not. If you went into a space and there was a group of people with hair on their shoulders, and floppy bell-bottomed trousers, and tie-dyed t-shirts, then you made a bee-line for them, rather than the people in tweed jackets and grey flannels. It hadn’t reached a point where fashion had taken over identity, so there was still an element of protest in the way you dressed. But there was also of course a lot of dressing up in the usual sort of way, so sometimes I looked like the sort of person that I would make a bee-line for, other times I was wearing a three-piece demob suit and fair isle jersey. When I was pretending to be a ‘30s poet. Also, I mostly wore bare feet, which was another thing that people did.

DM: That’s still the height of protest in King’s, people not wearing shoes. People have not moved on greatly.

IP: It’s a strange kind of protest, an uncomfortable one too…

As far as I was concerned, and as far as a lot of people were concerned, there wasn’t much of a distinction between the artistic avant-garde and the political avant-garde; they were much closer. So from my point of view, as poet, my involvement in this was first of all discovering the whole hinterland of social anthropology, Marxism, psychoanalysis and realising that this fantastic literature of thinking about the stuff I wanted to think about had been going on for a hundred years without my knowing about it. This was most excitingly being dealt with by the experimental writers that I was just discovering, partly people like Ed Dorn and Charles Olson, J.H. Prynne, partly writers like Brecht, and Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg and Pete Brown. So there were two kinds of things which were meeting also in music, which also linked in with soft drugs. But too much dope tended to lead to people lying around, and too little tended to people being too straight, so there was a balance to be struck.

The first consciously ‘alternative’ poetry readings in Cambridge, took place in King’s cellar, where it had just been opened as the cellar bar in 1967-’68 probably or autumn of ’69, with Nick Totton I think, or maybe David Shapiro, and me. The other influence on us was from America, particularly with affiliated students and post-graduate students, some of whom were draft dodging, by being post-graduate students. And there were two ways in which they were influential: one, there was a group of American post-graduate students who ran an LSD making lab in their house, which was quite important for some people – though not for me – but the acid culture came through that, but also there were people who’d been involved in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society…

The Americans, most of them postgraduate students so a bit older, had experience of what was going on in the States, and particularly in the West coast, in Berkeley, and so on, and also people from Columbia who’d been working in poetry with Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, and were introducing us to all that kind of stuff. So a whole new kind of poetry was coming in, at the same time of course as rock music was the accompaniment to all this, because all the great rock music was happening at that time.

Ben Pritchett: How might somebody take the experience of that period and translate it into something that might be helpful for us today?

IP: One of the things I think that’s important is linking things together, linking different aspects of one’s life up. Something that was really attractive to me about reading Marcuse, who was a very influential figure on my thinking then, particularly reading Eros and Civilization, was the idea that having fun was part of revolution. A social order that didn’t allow varieties of sexual pleasure, and varieties of entertaining intellectual experience, theatre and painting, as important parts of how you made sense of life, was not a social order to be supported.

Of course, part of the sexual energy that fuelled the stuff in universities, particularly universities like Cambridge, was to do with the fact that there was a ratio of ten to one between men and women. So the idea that it might be better must have been a factor, though we weren’t actively, on the whole, campaigning for that in Cambridge at the time – it wasn’t at the top of our list. Although there were lots of enjoyable things to do, and one had lots of nice relationships, the idea that it could be represented by the sort of thing that you get from a picture of a rock festival – all these images that you get of the ‘summer of love’ – is quite wrong. There simply were, in the streets and everywhere else, or at lectures, overwhelmingly, men, and in colleges, overwhelmingly men. Girls walked through, or walked in, or were guests, or were visitors, and then disappeared again. So there’s an element of fantasy in most people’s recollection of Cambridge.

But to get back to your question, I think we were motivated by the idea that something desperately bad had happened as a consequence of capitalism and the division of labour, and we’d lost touch with all sorts of potential, how life ought to be, and were living in a grey, half useless world, leaving half of us unstimulated, unused, and unexplored. The sense of discovery was partly from discovering that there was more to you yourself than you had thought there was, and there could be more to everybody.

BP: People might argue that one difference today is that this pleasure principle has been co-opted into capitalism – which makes it more difficult to have desire driving your protest…

IP: Absolutely. I still think it’s important to do it, and to try and reclaim it from the advertisers and the merchandisers, and to say that the sheerest form of happiness is not a new six hundred pound bag. The Situationists have got all this sussed in the fifties really, I think that Debord and Vaneigem are much the most interesting of the theorists to come out of that period, and reading Marcuse now, he looks rather clunky, in lots of ways.

BP: You translated Raoul Vaneigem?

IP: Yes – but that was much later on, in the ’80s, or even the ’90s, when that came out, and that’s sort of academic work… But I did do, just for local consumption, some Situationist translation at the time, and some Lacan. That was mainly for my own interest, and to share around with some other people. I don’t think any of that ever saw the light of day anywhere. I still think it’s worth insisting on thinking about the various vectors and trajectories of desire, as Lacan does – Lacan’s no revolutionary, but there are things that can be thought through his thought.

BP: Deleuze and Guattari take up Lacan too…

IP: Particularly Deleuze, yes. But we were reading all this stuff at a time when it was stringently outside the academic framework – we couldn’t write essays on it, we couldn’t go to lectures on it, none of the books was in the libraries, this was an alternative thing. It didn’t last like that, by ’70 or so, people were staying on doing PhDs, and all the people who are now the professors around the land, started using this stuff. But just for the year or two, when Nick Totton and I were editing our poetry magazine, it seemed that universities were not the place to be. Which was one of the reasons why it took me 22 years to come back and do a PhD, because we thought it was quite important that what we were hanging on to should be outside the university structure, and we wanted to try and make intellectual careers outside the co-optive structure of the university.

In the wake of May ’68 there was a new interest in French structuralism, and this is one of the things that was the most intellectually energising and divisive, which became political in Cambridge from sort of ’69-’70 until the end of the MacCabe affair in the late ‘70s. In fact until the rejection of the move to give Derrida an honorary degree. I wasn’t in Cambridge then, so I can only tell you at second hand. But Colin MacCabe was a junior lecturer in the English Faculty, and he was, along with Stephen Heath and Chris Prendergast, responsible for enthusiastic propagation of structuralist ideas; they published a very interesting selection of texts under the title of Signs of the Times, which must have inspired a lot of people.

DM: Do you think the student body is more apathetic than it used to be? If so, is that because the world’s changed, or because students have changed?

IP: Probably demonstrations are smaller when there are demonstrations, and there isn’t the same interest in mass political movements as there has been at certain points. The stop the war moment didn’t get as much support in Cambridge as it did nationally. Things go up and down; the Vietnam war was the focus in the late 60s, and the CND and END were the focus in the mid, early eighties, National Abortion Campaign in the mid-to-late seventies.

BP: Why do you think the CND campaign isn’t so popular anymore, even though there are plans to replace Trident?

IP: There’s an interesting article in the latest issue of New Left Review by Susan Watkins about this, calling for some new updated CND campaigns. I’m very sympathetic to this, CND is where my political engagement began when I was a schoolboy, CND and anti-apartheid, and those were the things that I did in the ‘60s before I came to Cambridge, and didn’t do much of while I was at Cambridge, and then did again in the ’70s, and ’80s. I think that CND is very important, now, I think it’s crucial.

I think partly that there’s a very strong sense that America is so powerful that there is no alternative and how do you set about demanding that America reduce its nuclear arsenal? It’s not a question of the world being about to implode and destroy itself in a conflict between superpowers, at least not at the moment, but who knows what might happen in the future.

Students have far more work to do now than they had in the sixties. I certainly didn’t feel stressed about the amount of time I had for reading. Though to tell you the truth, I didn’t go to any supervisions for my last year and a bit, so I was free to choose how to spend my time. But as far as I can remember, when I was working for Part I, I had plenty of free time. I only had to write one essay a week and I could usually do it in a day or two. I don’t think the conditions are comparable.

The other key thing to remember is that we benefited from free education. Everybody had their fees paid, and there were (means-tested) maintenance grants. We had grants. Nobody I knew really worried about jobs, either; some people who were passionate about a certain career, but mostly assumed they would be able to get into it without too much difficulty. Quite a high proportion of English students still went into teaching, people went into social work, there were a lot of people who were committed to being altruistic members of society. And the growing importance of ‘the alternative’ , of alternative and utopian ways of living, changed the way many of us thought about the future. I didn’t know many people who became bankers or lawyers, though of course some people did.

DM: Whereas now English graduates are targeted by investment banks, and law firms and things. From the day you arrive, you know you’re going to come out twenty thousand pounds in debt. It’s a taxation on the fact that you’ll get a better job – the point is, that means you’re not going to work in the voluntary or public sector or as a teacher.

IP: Because you can’t. And it’s hard enough if you’re going to work in publishing or something because you’ve got to do a year or two as an intern without pay.

DM: It just perpetuates people from Oxford and Cambridge going into very similar types of jobs.

IP: There’s been a huge increase in materialism. That is undeniable. In unthinking materialism – the idea that materialism is the only way of thinking. The idea that the government justifies university education because it improves your earning prospects would have been unthinkable, laughable in the sixties. Or the fifties, I think. And in the early sixties, there were more students in Cambridge from working class homes than there are now, because of the scholarship system. If you did get a scholarship then you were completely paid for. You might not be as rich as some people, but you came out with no financial worries. That was really important. And the loss of that is phenomenally important. The fact that the demonstration against top-up fees last week, or the week before, attracted about a hundred people from four universities seems to me a commentary on the difficulty of getting back to the – you can’t get back to that stage – but getting through the sense that this is not a necessary way of doing it. It’s almost impossible for people to think that it’s not a sensible thing to do to charge fees.

DM: I don’t know whether it’s really short memory on the part of students because the turnover of students is so high. If you have to pay, you just think that this is something I have to pay for – not a public good, not a public service, unlike primary and secondary education.

IP: It’s partly because of expansion of tertiary education since the sixties, which is partly one of the consequences of the sixties. There were 10% of the number of people in higher education then, than there are now. An extra factor of nine extra, makes it that much more expensive – plus everything else is more expensive. Plus the whole notion of ‘expensive’ is different, because accountancy has changed completely. Everything has to be accounted for now, has to have a notional cost. So the whole business of what things cost is a different conceptual area.

BP: Do you think the financial crisis at the moment is going to have an effect on how this plays out?

IP: I was surprised in a way, that there doesn’t seem to have been a very widespread resurgence of Marxist thinking, nobody much seems to suggest that there might be an alternative to capitalism.

DM: Although the word ‘capitalism’ has come back into public discourse, and the word ‘socialism’. At the moment the word ‘socialism’ is being defined by people who are not socialists, like the Republicans who are calling Obama socialist –

IP: Or Bush socialist for –

DM: – or Bush socialist, which I never thought I’d live to see. The danger is that the word gets defined by people who are in no way invested in having it defined as what it is. As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve only ever read a criticism of capitalism in a book, I’ve never seen it on the television. But I think it’s really good that the words are back.

IP: Yes it good. The Historical Materialism conference, which I didn’t go to, at the beginning of November, in London, I’ve been told had a lot of very good analyses. But it’s all very well having a fine critical analysis of something, if nobody takes any notice of it, or if nobody can do anything with it. All that happens is that the truth of it gets taken out and used to advantage by those who can. And things go on the same.

DM: These things come and go. In a time, like now, so many people think that the situation that we are in will never change, and that we have come to the end of history and the pinnacle of civilization, and that it cannot get any better or worse… but in ten years or five years… I think in ’67 or at the beginning of ’68, De Gaulle made a speech where he said ‘I look at the next year with hope of stability and security’ and he was almost completely toppled within the next year. So things change really fast, and I guess we’ve just got to be ready.

IP: After I left Cambridge, and got a job teaching in a further education college in London, I got involved in much more conventional politics and trade union politics, and I joined the International Socialists, and I founded and edited Tech Teacher, the Rank and File paper in the A.T.T.I (further education and higher education trade union), and I did that sort of thing quite intensively for some time… Until I ran out of – well until it ran out of enthusiasm for me, actually, I was expelled from IS – but I was being oppositional, and getting fed up with economism, and the lack of general openness and spark and variety, zaniness.

DM: Had it become the SWP by then?

: No, but it was just beginning to think about it and I thought this was foolish and deluded.

: A lot of what you’ve just said about IS, people are still saying about the SWP…

: Once you get that kind of thing, something that hands down a line, and that claims to run from democratic centralism, it thinks it has the answer, and becomes inflexible and authoritarian.

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The case for women’s self-organisation

This is a guest post by Jordan.

We are thinking about setting up/ re-launching an anti-capitalist feminist reading and discussion group in Cambridge. Something similar has existed in the past, in a couple of different incarnations – the Socialist-Feminist reading group of 2008-9, and Education Not For Sale Women in 2009-10. Every time one of these projects is launched, the debate is raised: should these spaces be open to all sexes? This usually develops (although seldom in an organised arena) to a discussion around what the idea is behind women-only, or women and trans people-only spaces and self organisation.

One of my friends has a tendency to make very strong, simple statements that, more often than not, I find resonate very strongly with me. She said to me recently, “I love women. I love woman-time.” She was, in part, urging me to take advantage of changes in my personal life to embrace the opportunity to have more “woman-time” – by which she means quite simply, time spent in the company of other women.

Why does that sound so good to me? Surely we should be gender-blind in our personal relationships, and the sex and gender of my friends should be neither here nor there… But there is something quite compelling about having the opportunity talk to people who share an experience of the world with you – who might face the same social frustrations, or simply habitually do the same little things that you do. At its most superficial, this might be talking about hairstyles (which she and I did in the same conversation) or, more profoundly, sharing experiences of sexism, personal or institutional, and so on.

So that’s one thing: it’s important to find spaces where you can identify people sharing your experiences, not only so that you can arm each other against shared oppressions, although of course that is important, but also so that we can simply break down some of the odd-one-out-ism, and stop people from feeling quite so lonely and weird – which we all feel, to different extents and at different times. I can hear the criticisms being levelled already: surely we should talk to our friends about things that make us feel lonely and weird, that’s not a reason to advocate a particular form of political space. I could respond to that with a slogan, “the personal is political” but that’s not an argument without justification.

Women have been delegated, socially, to the position of Custodians of Feelings. Some women are about as suited to this as a badger is to driving a bus. Some women are happy with it. Some women – like me – are happy with it to an extent, and then no further. I feel extremely frustrated when I find myself trying to be what I term the “smiling auntie” of the revolution, talking to all of the stressed out and strung out people around me, helping to solve their problems, diffusing personal elements of arguments and keeping things on a respectful, political and intellectual track – in a word, facilitating; not only meetings, but whole environments. Temperamentally I’m quite well suited to this position, but it’s not right that I should play this role all of the time. We need strong facilitation, it’s true, but it should be a collective responsibility and not that of certain individuals. It’s not fair that I or others should do it all the time not because it isn’t important, but because it is passive, and it doesn’t require much from our brains. And it’s often been commented upon, how often those facilitating meetings, or simply cooling tempers in formal or informal discussion, are female.

To relate this to my original point: we are delegated the roles of Custodians of Feelings, and then we are told that this is not political. And yet it is, socially, what we are asked to do with our lives. Look at statistics on people in the caring professions, stay-at-home parents, distribution of child care within families etc. I hope I have illustrated here a way in which this is true in radical circles as well as in “mainstream” society.

I don’t think that the answer to this fencing-off of women from the political arena should be for women to entirely abandon that emotion-driven niche and learn to engage in Capital-P-Political discourse of a kind that might be characterised as being typically “masculine”. I do not wish to suggest for a second that women are not equally capable of this kind of debating or that some women don’t favour it. I don’t favour it though, and I don’t think that I, we, anybody, should be asked to.

The first reason for this is that, as a sector of society even in this country alone, we’d be making ourselves play catch-up against generations of sexist training. Dispassionate, logical debate isn’t a skill that it takes an individual long to learn but it takes a long time to pass that skill on to the millions of people who haven’t been taught it and who don’t, at present, have the confidence to get up and use it anyway.

Furthermore, I think that it is dishonest of anyone to try to leave their personal, perhaps anecdotal, experience out of their political discourse, and pretend that they are a voice in a vacuum. We are not activists for reasons of pure, cold logic – or at least, I don’t know anybody who is. We are activists because the suffering of others hurts us. I feel very strongly that our arguments are strengthened by that admission; look at the way we interact with our opponents on the right (I don’t just mean what people conceive of as the right wing of leftwing activism, I mean the proper Right). We call them heartless, inhuman. At least behind their backs. We believe that essential to being human is being empathetic and compassionate, and yet we try to remove every trace of that emotion from our arguments. That’s a falsehood. Of course we must be articulate, logical and rational too: we wouldn’t get anything done if all we said of an act of oppression was “it makes me sad”. But we must allow that sadness to motivate us; own up to it, champion it and fight to make it go away.

This is an argument against the “masculine” (also often arrogant, point-scoring and competitive) way that much political organising is conducted at present, but how does it contribute to advocating women’s self-organisation? What I hope I have explained is that we feel stronger if we know that we are not the only ones sharing certain experiences, and that I think our personal experiences are an important political tool.

Women-only spaces, or women and trans-only spaces, should not be defined by the absence of men. For me, it isn’t just about being “allowed” the opportunity to organise and debate away from male domination. Building a space where everybody feels confident enough to speak, and helping to build each other’s confidence to export outside of that space, is only one element – and so is the practical, fighting aspect, the argument that goes, “the emancipation of women must be the work of women themselves”. It’s also about community, commonality, solidarity there are ways in which we are the same as each other, and as people around the world, that we don’t even stop to think about. Ways that we act like each other – without thinking about whether that’s by nature, by custom or by force. Things that we know that we never say aloud, and that, actually, a lot of other people know, too, but have never spoken. We need our spaces not just because we want to fight, but because we want to know who each other are, and that we are not alone.

This argument is only a tiny fraction of things to be thought and said, one argument among many that I hold to be true myself. I feel like I should mention that I have not addressed, here, and important problem – the need to engage everybody, including cis-gendered, heterosexual men, in discussion around sex, gender and sexism. That need is great because, as the most privileged group, they are also the most oppressing group – inadvertently or against the will and actions of individuals as this may be. And this is where we see, once again, how much the capitalist society we inhabit is organised against us. If you have found the time to set up a regularly organised, political space for women and trans people to meet and discuss, in addition to your job, your education, your family, your social life and all of the different groups and campaigns that you are involved with as an activist, you have already achieved a lot. Where, in all of that, is the time and space to have the same conversations again with men?

Firstly, I think we should share the articles we share with our sisters, the ones we read and the ones we write, with men too. We should raise questions of gender and sexism in all of the groups we work in. We should advocate new organising and debating methods on the grounds that they are more gender inclusive, and more inclusive of the less confident in general. We talk to individuals, we push for debates in large groups. I can’t give a satisfactory answer to this problem, except to exhort everybody to engage in this debate and to give it real time and thought.


Filed under Guest Posts, Liberation issues, Political Strategy

Escalation or Demoralisation

by Edd Mustill

The following article was first published yesterday at the New Left Project.

The unofficial student movement has shown society that political protests can be more than just marches from A to B, a few speeches, and a coach journey back home.

Inside occupied spaces like Old Schools in Cambridge and the Jeremy Bentham Room in UCL, and inside the Whitehall kettle on 24th November, political beliefs, tactics, and strategy have been discussed, and a direct challenge to power has emerged.

Students have experienced first-hand the reality of society’s powerful institutions. School students have been treated as truants for protesting. University students have been met with refusals to negotiate, treated as trespassers in their own universities, and in some cases denied food and heating. In Leeds, the serving of an injunction on one specific individual this week is designed to weaken and divide the protest.

The myth of the university as an oasis of free debate in a corporate world is being shattered. We are faced with institutions that seem to have already made up their minds. The experience of the Cambridge occupiers shows that, even with a lot of academic support, universities are prepared to ignore members of their community.

This is no less true of Parliament itself. On Thursday we will see the spectacle of the political class making a deeply controversial decision behind lines of riot police, while thousands of protesters crowd the streets outside. Nothing could more sharply indicate our society’s democratic deficit.

Many of the protest organisers, now university students, were politically awakened by the anti-war marches in 2003. These starkly showed that just asking for something gets a movement nowhere.

Knowing this, we are not appealing to our politicians’ consciences, hoping that when they see our witty placards they will have a change of heart. We are trying to force them to do something they do not want to do, to abandon plans they have resolved to push through.

There is an argument that separates respectable protest from direct action, saying that the former is a right whereas the latter has no place in responsible political debate. This argument is not new. It was used exactly a century ago against the suffragettes.

The reality is, however, that there is no “responsible” debate on fees and cuts in the political mainstream. Yesterday, Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather ran away from Sky News rather than defending her own fees u-turn. Michael Gove made it clear that no amount of protests would change government policy, and culture minister Ed Vaizey’s considered response to the issue has been: “They have every democratic right to protest. I just wish they’d do some work.”

The Labour Party, meanwhile, is nowhere on the issue. Having rediscovered a love of graduate tax despite introducing top-up fees in the first place, it can say little against a fees policy which is substantively similar to a graduate tax anyway. Its co-thinkers in the leadership of the NUS have refused to back tomorrow’s main protest, organising a candlelit vigil instead.

Radical protests do not stand opposed to political discussion, but are part of it. However, it is not the discussion the the politicians would like it to be. We are not talking to them, but to the people who already sympathise with us but who are not yet active.

When politics spills onto the streets, it does not take the form of the Oxford Union debating chamber so beloved by those Honourable Members in the House. It is a living, breathing, process. With the fees vote almost certain to pass, we have to chose between escalation and demoralisation. A moderate demonstration, or another eight-hour kettle, coupled with the vote going through, will only de-energise the movement.

Radical protests draw those involved into a direct confrontation with power, and in doing so force us to consider where power really lies in society, and how it can be challenged.

The student occupations have achieved few of their demands, and were never likely to, but that was not the point. The demonstrations have barely changed any Liberal Democrats’ mind on the vote, but that was not the point.

If nothing else, the new activists drawn in will never forget what they have done, just as we never forgot 2003. They will learn lessons from it, just as we did. Hopefully we will inspire others in society who oppose the cuts to challenge the powerful directly. The government has its agenda, and we want to stop it.

The protests allow the movement to give itself direction, to mobilise its supporters and grow. If it grows to the point where, to paraphrase an old slogan from ’68, it no longer asks but takes, it will succeed. In these situations, politics does not rely on gentlemanly debate, but the balance of forces in society.

The TUC has called a national march, no doubt with an exciting line-up of platform speakers, but not until 26th March. If the unions come in alongside us now, at this crucial moment when the coalition faces an issue that could split it, we will have the muscle to defeat the government.

The sort of militant tactics that the students have been using can be adopted by others. This is happening, for example, in the tax-evasion protests that have hit Vodafone and Topshop. The unions, of course, can shut down anything they want if they realise their potential power. But to do so they may need to take a lesson from the unofficial student movement.

On Thursday, escalation is the order of the day. More direct action, more radical thinking, and, crucially, reaching out to the other sections of society that will bear the brunt of the government’s cuts programme.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy, Student Issues

Shamebridge University and its occupiers

by Edd Mustill

There is a scene in the BBC’s dramatisation of the life of the Cambridge Spies where Guy Burgess, played by Tom Hollander, has just learned that he won’t be punished for helping to organise a waiters’ strike, but that the waiters’ themselves will be. He is told by the authorities that Cambridge is a club that looks after “its own.”

Angry, he shouts at the world in general that Cambridge University is a “smug, complacent bloody place.”

When I was there, this is how I felt pretty much all the time.

For over a week now, The university authorities have refused to even negotiate with their own students. This is not only shameful, but revealing. You can almost hear them spluttering into their sherry: “Students?! In a University?!”

Cambridge University prides itself on being a centre for debate and intellectual discussion in a corporate world. Within its walls, according to this myth, nothing is too controversial to be talked about. But when the real world comes knocking on the outside of the bubble, what has its response been? To refuse to talk at all, to use the law to call its students trespassers in their own university, to call the police onto its property, to threaten physical eviction.

Like the political class, university authorities will do what they want, or what they deem “necessary,” ignoring dissenting opinions.

The extent and display of academic support for the direct action has been unprecedented and welcomed by the occupiers. This shows a division between staff and management that exposes another myth, that of the cosy “academic community.” Cambridge University doesn’t even properly recognise the UCU!

The Senior Common Room which is occupied is, apparently, normally open to all members of the university during the day on weekdays. Find me an undergraduate who knew this before the occupation. In typical Cambridge fashion it was open but not advertised, open to the people in the know.

Right now there is a Cambridge “general assembly” against cuts taking place in Old Schools. Trade unions, community groups, and individuals from the town have been invited. If nothing else, this helps break down the town/gown divide and shows that students identify more with people fighting cuts in the town than they do with the bosses of their university.

What does this teach us? That we are not, and should not be, engaged in a movement which aims to defend the ivory tower. That are universities are economic and political bodies; they hire and fire people, they invest in the arms trade and profit from suffering, they are hierarchical and authoritarian when they deem it necessary.

This is not a movement just about fees, or even fees and cuts. It is also about what we think education should look like, and what its purpose is. It is about freeing the university by destroying the ivory tower.

Well done to the Cambridge Occupiers, and everyone else who is exposing the true nature of the modern university.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Student Issues