Labour’s Leadership and Student Politics Part II:
The Student Movement and the CPGB
The former student politicians who have risen to influence in the Labour leadership learned their politics in the student movement of twenty years ago. In the second of a series of articles, Hugh Roberts explains how that movement was formed, what it was really about, and how it corrupted the leftwing idealists who were active in it.
Student unionism was conceived and developed by the Communist Party of Great Britain in the late 1960s and the early 1970s for a purpose. This purpose was not to defend and advance the interests of students. In this fundamental respect there was no analogy with trade unionism, which in Britain has always had an existence independent of the CP’s plans for it.
Whatever secondary or ulterior purposes may have been attached to trade unionism by the CPGB or other political groups, the fundamental rationale of trade unions has always been evident to all and beyond question – the vital need of workers to unite in effective organisations to defend their interests against employers, to negotiate with employers from a position of collective strength. The business of trade unions is therefore to establish a monopoly or a near monopoly of the type of labour in question and then use this – whether at local or at national level – to drive as hard a bargain as possible with the employers on pay and conditions of employment. All attempts by political organisations to graft other purposes onto the trade unions have been obliged to take account of this fundamental purpose, and to present these other purposes as necessary extensions to or corollaries of this fundamental purpose, or at least consistent with it.
The fundamental purpose of student unions is entirely trivial in comparison. It is to provide and administer recreational and catering facilities for students on campus, to allocate small grants and rooms to student societies and clubs, and to express students’ views on such matters as university or college rules, discipline, curriculum content and, latterly, assessment procedures. Only in the latter function may a student union be said to represent a student interest opposed to the interest of the university or college faculty. But this conflict of interest is entirely insubstantial by comparison with the conflict of interest between employee and employer, because the average student’s stake in it is minimal.
An employee has a clear, material and enduring interest in the firm or institution by which he or she is employed, in its ability to employ him or her and so its long term viability, and in the pay it offers and the conditions it provides. A student has no long run interest in the university or college. Students do not have a stake in their conditions of existence as students in the same way that employees have a stake in their conditions of existence as employees. The student’s interest is a purely transient interest, which lasts for three years in most cases, four years in some cases and more than four years only in the case of post-graduates. And the relationship between students and faculty is quite unlike that between employer and employee. There is no element of exploitation in it (except occasionally where a research student finds that his or her work is surreptitiously exploited by the member of faculty who is supervising it). There is an element of a power relationship in respect of assessment, but faculty do not have an interest in marking students down or failing them; they have a general interest in students doing well, and in my own experience as a university lecturer I have found faculty far more inclined to connive at poor students passing their exams than to maintain standards at their expense.
Because the fundamental purpose of a student union is trivial, it was entirely natural that, before 1969, student unions should have been very largely apolitical. The politicisation of student unions was the work of the CPGB. It politicised them by grafting onto them a purpose which had nothing to do with them, and which it was possible to graft onto them only in the very peculiar circumstances of the early 1970s.
The CPGB politicised student unions by developing the politics of student unionism. The immediate purpose of student unionism was not to serve students’ interests, but to do something else altogether, namely to develop the ‘student movement’. The ‘student movement’ did not have any purpose of its own. It was quite unlike the labour movement in that respect. But it was quite like what the phrase ‘the labour movement’ actually meant when uttered by Bert Ramelson and Mick Costello and Johnny Gollan.
The CPGB’s conception of the purpose of the student movement was never spelled out in front of student audiences. But it was at least partially explained in more limited forums. The February 1972 issue of Labour Monthly carried an article on ‘Student Action’ by Jeff Staniforth. Staniforth was one of the key Communists on the NUS Executive. It was he, more than any other, who functioned as the Executive’s hatchet man against the Trotskyists, and he visibly relished this role. The function of his article was to explain to the traditionalist wing of the CPGB, which took its bearings from Palme Dutt and Labour Monthly rather than from Johnny Gollan and Marxism Today, and had considerable reservations about the CP’s involvement in student politics, what he and his comrades were up to.
He began by addressing these reservations in a manner which has become extremely familiar to observers of the present Labour leadership, that is to say, in terms of images:
“Ten years ago the working class image of students was little different from that of 50 years ago. A privileged elite with the prospect of becoming the next administration generation of the ruling class; with rag-days, boating and boozing thrown in as fringe benefits.
“By 1972 a very different image is emerging. Many student unions now have strong links with their local trades council. The National Union of Students (now with over half-a-million members) has a long-term policy of wages instead of grants, and even hopes for eventual affiliation to the TUC. These more than any other single item reflect the deep basic changes taking place. These changes are fundamentally reflected in the extension of higher education and the political struggles which have accompanied these developments.
“The rapid expansion in student numbers, allied with the effects of Tory and right-wing Labour Governments, has inextricably linked the future of the majority of students with the future of the working class.”
He went on to argue that the expansion of higher education, and in particular the growth of the ‘public’ sector (polytechnics, technical colleges and colleges of education) at the expense of the universities had meant that most students were now being trained for roles as skilled workers, that only a minority of students could look forward to high-flying ruling class careers, that many students had to take the threat of unemployment seriously, and that students of working class origin could “retain pride in their class and identify with it.” Having set the sociological scene, Staniforth then explained the politics of student unionism:
“Based on these changes the left in the student movement was able ten years ago to launch a long-term campaign under the slogan of ‘reclaim the student unions for students’.”
This slogan alluded to the fact that before 1969 the NUS (but not local student unions) was run by a coterie of Labour Party careerists who were willing to accept a measure of covert funding by the CIA. Staniforth went on:
“This movement was based on the perspective of moving masses of students into action on the issues facing them. The early successes of this campaign caused a series of NUS right-wing leaders to conduct a particularly vicious anti-left campaign .. However the left policy was correct in inception and in implementation, and consequently the gradual quantitative change has now developed into a qualitative change, with the leadership, policies and campaigning tactics so altered that those from ten years ago would have some difficulty in recognising it as the same organisation. The task of course is by no means completed; rather is the student movement now sufficiently broadly based/or further developments.“
At this point Staniforth digressed from the matter of “further developments” to talk about the reaction of the Tory government and its “anti-student union campaign”. But he returned to the theme of the development of the student movement in the last two paragraphs of his article.
“… the past two years has been a period during which NUS has proved itself genuinely in support of trade union activities. As a result unions are now much more ready to discuss questions with NUS and to give real advice and assistance. The forging of closer links with workers and their organisations is crucial to the continued development of students and their unions. In this respect the building up of relationships with trades councils has been of particular value, and must be the centre of continued liaison.
“Prospects for the future are tremendous. The continued development of building a strong progressive student movement will have an immense effect on higher education in Britain and will convince many more students that their real position is as allies of the working class movement. The growing links between students and workers are more than symbols of political desires; they are the guarantee of moving another large section of the people into an anti-Tory, anti-monopoly position and strengthening the central position of the working class in the struggle for socialism. “
It emerges from this that the student movement, in Staniforth’s conception of it (which was, I think, that of the entire CP student leadership), had no independent aim or agenda of its own. Nowhere in the article did Staniforth give any hint as to what he might have had in mind when he spoke of the student movement having “an immense effect on higher education in Britain”. Its chief purpose (and the only aspect of its purpose which Staniforth discussed) was to constitute students into allies of the working class movement. And the latter’s student allies were not to get above their station; although allies, they were not equals; in so far as “the growing links between students and workers” were handled in the right way, they would not subvert but, on the contrary, strengthen “the central position of the working class in the struggle for socialism.” And strengthening this was linked, in the CPGB’s view, with the business of moving students “into an anti-Tory, anti-monopoly position”.
It is important to bear in mind that Staniforth was able, when addressing Labour Monthly readers, to take certain things for granted and to write in a kind of short-hand or code. By moving the “large section of the people” that was made up of students “into an anti-Tory, anti-monopoly position” he did not the mean that the CP was interested in developing the kind of common-or-garden anti-Tory sentiments that would bear fruit merely in an enlarged vote for the Labour Party. What he meant was that if students were moved into an anti-Tory position under the CP’s leadership, it should be possible to move them ultimately into an anti-monopoly position.
By an “anti-monopoly position”, Staniforth meant the CP’s overall position on Britain and the British state. This would have been well understood by his readers, but it may be entirely obscure to L&TUR readers twenty years later.
The doctrinal premise of the CP’s action was the same in student union politics as in trade union politics. It was its characterisation of the economic structure of post-war Britain as ‘state monopoly capitalism’. It was not socialism, of course, since the CP was not in power. But it was not state capitalism either, for a very convoluted set of reasons.
‘State capitalism’ was Lenin’s way of characterising the state sector of the Soviet economy under the New Economic Policy after 1921, when the enterprises in this sector were subject to state ownership on the one hand but responsive to market forces – in place of the rigid state direction of the ‘War Communism’ period – on the other. It was not a concept that could be employed by the CPGB in the 1960s and 1970s, because the rise of the revisionist ‘Market Socialist’ school in the CPSU and within the CPGB had destroyed in the pro-Moscow Communist mind the distinction which Lenin had clearly made between state capitalism and socialism. And because the CPGB no longer knew the difference in Marxist theory between state capitalism and socialism, it was incapable of answering the argument of Tony Cliff and the International Socialism group that the Soviet economy in the Stalin period, when market forces had been superseded by command planning in the state sector, was ‘state capitalise’ rather than socialist.
Because it was incapable of answering this argument, the CP contented itself with heatedly denouncing it as rubbish. From the point of view of classical Marxism Cliffs argument was rubbish, but the CP could never explain why it was rubbish. So it did everything it could to discredit the very term ‘state capitalism’, instead of showing how it was simply no longer applicable to the USSR. It could not show this, because it had been axiomatic for the CPGB since the 20th Congress in 1956 that Stalin was either a very great criminal or a very great madman, and because such a monster could not be credited with the construction of socialism the fundamental change he made in the Soviet economy between 1928 and 1934 had to be forgotten about, and socialism had to be assumed to have been introduced in the Lenin era, and Lenin’s own thoughts on the matter obscured.
By state capitalism Lenin had meant an intermediate stage between capitalism and socialism, and thus an advance on capitalism, a stage where socialists were in power and had already nationalised the large scale means of production but had not yet introduced planned economy – where, in short, they had begun, but not completed, the business of superseding capitalism with socialism. To employ Lenin’s usage in respect of postwar Britain would have been lo acknowledge that the Labour Party had, by establishing a large public sector and the welfare state, made a massive advance towards socialism. And this was something that the CPGB could not possibly afford to acknowledge, because it implied that its own existence and role were surplus to British (as opposed to Soviet) requirements.
On the other hand, the economic structure of postwar Britain was not simply monopoly capitalism. The economic structure of the USA could plausibly be characterised in this way, given the massive independent power of the corporations and the insignificance of state ownership. But the state sector of the economy in post-war Britain was huge and palpable. And so the CP took account of this fact by adding the adjective ‘state’ to the damning term ‘monopoly capitalism’, and by asserting that the massive development of public property which had been engineered by the Attlee government was a manoeuvre carried out on behalf of private property.
Everything that had been done by government since 1945 was in the capitalist interest. The public sector had been established at the behest of the monopolies in order to subsidise the private sector. The NHS had been established because the monopolies now required healthy workers. And higher education had been massively expanded because the monopolies required educated workers. No advance towards socialism whatsoever had occurred. The ruling class was still firmly in the saddle, and the ruling class was as capitalist as ever. And the working class, although healthier and better educated than ever, and enjoying a better standard of living than ever, and in a stronger position vis-a-vis its employers than ever, and governed by its own party for at least half of the time, was as far from political power as ever. And it followed from this that every Labour Government between 1945 and 1970 had been, by definition, ‘right-wing’ as far as the CP was concerned.
This was the considered opinion of the CPGB. It underlay everything else it said and everything it did in the trade union movement and the ‘student movement’ twenty years ago. And because this outlook enjoyed massive influence on the Left in the trade unions and in the student movement, it comprehensively disabled the Left from thinking about how the cause of socialism in Britain might be advanced beyond the tide mark of the Attlee-Bevin settlement, and made the destruction of the public sector by a genuinely right-wing pro-capitalist government after 1979 inconceivable to it. It guaranteed that British socialism would be hopelessly disoriented in the face of Thatcherism, and easily routed by it. And it ensured that the destruction of most of the achievements of British socialism, while experienced as an inexplicable catastrophe by ordinary working people, would be shrugged off as virtually neither here nor there by a British Left that long ago withdrew from the business of giving political leadership to ordinary working people, as opposed to talking about them and trying to manipulate them for obscure and exotic ends.
A simple ‘anti-Tory’ position in 1972 was a pro-Labour position. But an ‘anti-Tory, anti-monopoly position’ was, objectively if not subjectively, a pro-CPGB position, that is an anti-Labour position to all intents and purposes, in that it rubbished Labour’s historic achievements and opposed Labour’s actual policies. And even if it was only objectively pro-CP, it was subjectively as well as objectively anti-Labour, and that was enough for King Street to be going on with.
In so far as the student movement had any agenda of its own to address, as distinct from constituting students into deferential allies of the working class movement on the basis of an anti-Tory, anti-monopoly, anti-Labour position, this agenda consisted of defending the autonomy of student unions, criticising bourgeois ideology in higher education curricula from the standpoint of Marxist ‘science’, denouncing both private and public business links with universities and colleges, and defending students against Tory ‘attacks’ on their living standards by campaigning for higher student grants.
The ‘autonomy’ of student unions came under ‘attack’ from the Heath government because student unions were misusing their funds by making grants to political causes which had nothing to do with student societies and clubs. The NUS under the CP’s leadership defended the right of student unions to spend their money as they chose, and succeeded in engineering a massive mobilisation of students on this issue. In doing so, it determinedly ignored the fact that the ‘autonomy’ of student unions was entirely spurious in the financial sphere. If student unions raised their own funds, it would indeed have been an inadmissible attack on their autonomy for the government to dictate how they spent them. But since the student unions did not raise a penny of their funds, and depended entirely on public money, the government had not merely a right but a duty . to the public interest to see to it that this money was spent on the purposes for which it was made available. But there was no such thing as the public interest in post-war Britain in the CP’s view. There was merely the interest of the monopolies, and the interest of the working class movement. And the CP was the authoritative interpreter of the latter, and the authoritative arbiter of the distinction between the two.
The work of criticising bourgeois ideology and denouncing business links with higher education made sense on the grounds that the institutions of higher education merely served the interest of the ruling class in ensuring an enlarged supply of educated workers. It did not make sense from any other perspective. It was not based on a worked-out idea of what higher education would or should consist of in the context of a socialist society or a society in transition to socialism. Its purpose was to discredit and disrupt higher education, and promote the CPGB’s version of Marxism. In encouraging this sort of thing, the CP deliberately encouraged an ‘ivory tower’ conception of higher education. It denounced business links on the grounds that these constituted an intolerable pressure and infringement on ‘academic freedom’. It did not have the honesty to admit that it did not believe in or care a fig for ‘academic freedom’, and that it was simply engaging in good old-fashioned class struggle in the ideological sphere. Like the Catholic Church, which always campaigns for ‘religious freedom’ in countries where it does not possess religious hegemony, the CP has always campaigned for abstract freedoms in countries where it does not hold power. But it was only through the student unionism of the 1970s that it managed at last to infect an entire generation of British students with its double-talk on the subject.
The NUS campaign for a higher student grant was about the only action undertaken by the ‘student movement’ which could reasonably be said to have been in the interest of British students. But its virtue from the point of view of the NUS’s Communist leadership was that through this campaign student unionism might exhibit an economic aspect and so approximate to trade unionism. And the conduct of the campaign was characterised as much, if not more, by the anti-Tory rhetoric that it employed than by the reasoned case it made to the (Tory) government on students’ behalf.
The ‘student movement’ was not in the least about ‘reclaiming student unions for students’ so that students might be empowered to move of their own volition in defence of their own interests. It was about student unions being ‘claimed’ by a form of politics which envisaged students being moved to a vaguely indicated destination by a force external to them, with a political agenda of its own, which it never made explicit in student forums, and described in code in its own internal discussions, and scarcely ever really debated within its own ranks.
I was a member of the CPGB from 1971 to 1975, and an active member of its Oxford Student Branch from May 1971 to July 1973. From late 1972 to July 1973 I was also a member of the CP’s South Midlands District Committee and of the latter’s Secretariat, as well as a peripheral member of the CP’s Left Caucus in the NUS. In all the party meetings I attended I never once heard the CP’s fundamental strategy for the student movement so much as discussed. It was an unspoken premise of what was discussed. But that is not to say that everyone actually knew what it was. It would be more accurate to say that most student Communists assumed that there was a coherent strategy and assumed that they knew roughly what it was, while the actual business of discussing strategy was very carefully confined to a tiny circle of initiates. All I ever heard discussed were tactical and organisational questions, and questions of doctrine (but doctrine – the Line – was a matter of tactics rather than strategy).
I knew very well what I was about, in the particular context of Oxford student politics at that time. I set out, in mid- 1970, long before joining the CP, to establish a proper Student Union at Oxford University, and by mid-1973 I had established it. And from July 1972 onwards I had got the Oxford Student Branch of the CP to back me in this purpose. But I cannot honestly say that I knew what the CP as a whole was about in student politics at the national level. I was not very interested in the national level of student politics, and I operated on vague assumptions rather than an intimately informed understanding with respect to it. And it has since taken me many years to develop an understanding of what the CP was really up to in those days that satisfies my sense of truth.
It would not be entirely accurate to say that the student movement was merely a figment of the CP’s imagination. It achieved a kind of existence for a while. But in so far as it actually existed it was certainly a creation of the CP’s will. It was the CP’s alternative to the New Left’s notion of the ‘student revolt’. The New Left was into revolts. The CP was into movements.
The New Left was not into leading revolts. It was merely into getting excited about the revolts that somehow or other contrived to occur, here and there, from time to time, and putting pretentious literary glosses on them in the name of ‘theory’. The CP was not into organising movements. It was into manipulating existing organisations and institutions in the name of ‘movements’ which existed primarily in the realm of its own wishful thinking. But it invested enough energy in this activity to endow the postulated movements with an intermittent semblance of life.
The student movement was not only an alternative to the student revolt. It was also, and above all, an alternative to what the various Trotskyist groups were up to in the student sphere.
Because the New Left, once Perry Anderson & Co. had seized control of New Left Review, was oriented exclusively towards academia and had no ambitions of its own in the sphere of practical politics, it posed no real threat to the CP, and the CP contrived to establish a comfortable relationship with it. NLR kept its lines open to the CP by having a Communist economics don at Cambridge, Bob Rowthorne, on its editorial board, by publishing whatever Eric Hobsbawm offered to write for it, and by taking up the Marxist fashion pioneered by the French Communist Louis Althusser. The vaguely Trotskyist outlook of Anderson himself was of no political significance.
The organised Trotskyism of Tony Cliffs International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers’ Party), the International Marxist Group and Ted Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist League (aka the Militant Tendency) was another matter, because these groups were interested in politicising students for non-academic purposes. The CP had a very definite interest in ensuring that its conception of how students should be politicised prevailed over alternative conceptions. This interest was a function of the CP’s pre-existing stake in ‘the labour movement’.
In the ideological sphere, the period from 1956 to 1968 was a miserable time for the CPGB. In 1956 Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and his suppression of the Hungarian rising were body blows to King Street’s pretensions and influence. The rise of CND was an enormous embarrassment, and the CP only came out in support of unilateralism late in the day and gleaned only meagre pickings from its change of line, and its influence in the trade unions on this issue was not enough to prevent them swinging back to Gaitskell & Co. in 1961. This influence had in any case suffered from the exposure of the CP’s ballot-rigging in the ETU, a scandal which actually began in 1956 but only climaxed in 1961. In international affairs, the Sino-Soviet split was a further embarrassment, and the CP gained little or nothing from the Vietnam war, since in deference to Moscow’s ultra-cautious attitude it was forced to content itself with calling merely for peace, and was easily outflanked by the Trotskyist-inspired agitation with its “Victory to the NLF” slogans. Finally, as if all this was not enough to put up with, 1968 delivered two further blows to King Street’s influence and morale with the May Events in France, in which the initiative was clearly held by the ultra-left and the Communists’ role was unequivocally conservative, and Brezhnev’s suppression of Dubcek’s quasi-liberal experiment in Czechoslovakia.
It says something for the sheer dogged tenacity of the Gollan-Ramelson generation in the CPGB’s leadership that they stolidly kept plodding away through all this .. And this persistence was rewarded, for in 1969 something at last turned up. What turned up was not the election of fact Straw to the NUS presidency, which only subsequently acquired any significance, but Barbara Castle’s attempt to rationalise the enormous industrial power which the working class had built up over 2S years of full employment, In Place of Strife. If anything revived the CPGB’s fortunes, this did. At long last, the extensive network of influence which the party had built up and managed to preserve over the years throughout the trade union movement could be vigorously mobilised without reservations to ‘kill the bill’. By helping to kill the bill, and by helping to foment the ensuing ‘wages explosion’, the CPGB helped to ensure Labour’s defeat in the 1970 general election, and transformed Its own prospects in the process ..
Between 1970 and l974 the CPGB exercised a degree of leadership within the organised working class’s resistance to the Heath government of a kind it had not enjoyed since the 1930s. It was the CP-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions (LCDTU) which spear-headed the trade union movement’s opposition to the Industrial Relations Act. It was Communists who led the ‘work-in’ at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971. It was the CP which provided much of the effective organisation and planning which underlay the successful miners’ strike of early 1972. It was Communist dockers who brought the National Industrial Relations Court into disrepute in mid- 1972. And it was Communist influence which helped to torpedo Heath’s bid to secure trade union agreement to an entirely new, and immeasurably enhanced, role for organised labour in the running of the economy in the Tripartite Talks of August-September 1972, and which prompted the NUM to launch a second offensive against Heath’s government in December 1973.
But the ground had been prepared for this development some years earlier. The LCDTU had been set up by two CP members, Kevin Halpin and Jim Hiles, its first chairman and secretary, in 1966, the year the Wilson government introduced the six-months statutory wage freeze, and the year Wilson denounced ‘tight-knit groups of politically motivated men’ (i.e. the CP) for fomenting the seamen’s strike which precipitated the government’s austerity measures. The Labour Government’s successive attempts to introduce incomes policy were the original cause of the revival of the CP’s industrial influence. The CP was determined to sabotage any and every kind of incomes policy, because it was determined to exploit traditional wage militancy to undermine the Labour Party’s position as the political wing of the labour movement and its claims to have become ‘the natural party of government’ and to be pursuing socialist economic policies. Preserving traditional trade union practices in order to maximise the scope for wage militancy in order to subvert the Labour Party’s conception of democratic socialism was the CPGB’s grand strategy in a nutshell. And because Wilson’s Labour Party did not have it in it to wage a real fight within the unions in defence of its policies, the CP had made a massive amount of headway by 1970.
Its chief strategic problem lay in the fact that its position as the revolutionary exploiter of wage militancy was being challenged by Trotskyist or quasi-Trotskyist rivals, chief among them the International Socialists (IS).
Only IS posed a serious challenge on the industrial front. Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL) had some industrial strength, notably at the car factory at Cowley, but it was small and localised and, above all, showed no sign of growing. The !MG, with its links to NLR, its fixation on Third World revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, and its laughable concept of universities as ‘red bases’, was no threat at all. The RSL (i.e. Militant) was far more interested in infiltrating the Labour Party, especially the Young Socialists and the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS), than in setting up its own stall in the trade union movement.
IS had a highly developed position on wage militancy which concentrated on the question of ‘productivity deals and how to fight them’, as the title of one of Tony Cliffs books put it. It was therefore trespassing on CP territory in a serious way. And because it knew it was doing this, it sought to undermine the CP’s own influence by counterposing the trade union ‘rank and file’ to the trade union ‘bureaucracy’, the CP being compromised by its prominent involvement in the latter. Although the IS dichotomy was simplistic, it had plenty of mileage as an agitational line, since there was no shortage of cases where local circumstances had prompted CP trade union officials to dampen rather than inflame wage militancy. And, at the same time that IS was seriously beginning to get on the nerves of the CP’s industrial wing, it was making impressive headway within the leftwing intelligentsia.
IS was the only theoretically innovative group within British Trotskyism, and as such the only theoretically innovative brand of Marxism that came to the attention of British students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its abandonment of the orthodox Trotskyist view of the Soviet Union gave it two advantages over all its rivals in leftwing student politics.
First, the great drawback of the orthodox Trotskyists (IMG, SLL) was their view of the USSR as a ‘degenerate workers’ state’. The problem with this was that it left people not knowing where they were. Were they for or against the USSR? The IS line, that the USSR was ‘state-capitalist’ in the (wholly non-Leninist) sense that it was a class society run by a new exploiting class, the Soviet bureaucracy, while open to refutation from the classical Marxist standpoint, had real mileage among leftwing students, because it implied an unequivocal political attitude towards the USSR, and one which chimed with most leftwing students’ instincts in the wake of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968, etc.
Second, the IS ‘s theoretical departure on this question had a highly stimulating effect on the group’s own intellectual life and literary output. For a few years, IS were by far the most interesting brand of Marxism on offer in British universities. The work of people such as Michael Kidron and Nigel Harris was thoughtful and interesting, in a word, lively, in a way that distinguished it from both the tortuous prose of Robin Blackburn and the devitalised, mind-numbing, output of the CPGB.
In short, IS posed, or at any rate threatened to pose, a major challenge to the CP. It was fashionable in the universities in a way the CP had long ceased to be, and, unlike every other brand of academically fashionable Marxism, it was in earnest about implanting itself in the organised labour movement and had made a vigorous and creditable start in this business. It threatened to disrupt or outflank the CP’s industrial cadre at the very moment this cadre appeared, at long last, to be coming into its own. Something had to be done about it.
Moreover, the leftwing student radicalism of 1967-1969 had had a demoralising effect on Communist students. The CP was making no organised input into this radicalism, the initiative was held by other tendencies. And just as many individual Communists in the late 1950s were drawn into CND by the sheer excitement of it all long before the Party reversed itself and came out publicly in support of unilateralism, so individual Communist students were getting drawn into things like the Revolutionary Socialists Students Federation (RSSF) and drifting away from King Street in the process. Something had to be done about that.
And so Digby Jacks and Jeff Staniforth and Co. were given their head by the CPGB’s leadership, and student unionism was born, and the ‘student movement’ was launched, and the CP regained the initiative.
The function of the ‘student movement’, in the CP’s strategy, was to head off the disruption of the ‘labour movement’ by student radicalism. The role of the student movement, under CP guidance, was to give leftwing students useful and above all harmless things to do and so prevent them from interfering with what the CP’s industrial cadre was up to in its own neck of the woods.
In the process, leftwing student union activists were induced to develop an unprecedentedly complicated and convoluted attitude towards the working class and the trade union movement. This attitude was a morass of self-deception.
The CPGB and the IS were both exploiting leftwing students. But IS had a comparatively straightforward attitude – “let’s recruit students with working class backgrounds or at least stricken consciences and get them to sell the paper to the workers at Cowley or Longbridge or wherever“. This attitude did not encourage students to attach much importance to student politics as such; what mattered was the class struggle, and industry was the locus of the class struggle.
The CP’s attitude came across as quite different. Student politics was important in itself. It was a form of the class struggle. In fact, of course, it was a surrogate for the class struggle. What the CP was telling students, in effect, was this: “you don’t need to waste your time standing around in the cold at Cowley trying to persuade bemused car-workers to buy Socialist Worker. You can spend your time in the safety and comfort of the university or college you are more or less privileged to have got to, and do so with a clear conscience, because your proper job is to build student unionism, and bring the student body as a whole into the broader labour movement as a whole, by getting student unions to imitate trade unions, by giving student union money to trade union strike funds, by passing resolutions condemning the Industrial Relations Act and by entertaining day-dreams about the NUS affiliating to the TUC and student grants being replaced by student wages.”
The CPGB taught a generation of student politicians that an imitation of trade unionism was virtually as good as the real thing. In doing so, the CP demonstrated a comprehensive contempt for the very trade unionism it affected to be extolling. And it taught a generation of leftwing students that talking and making token gestures about the working class from inside highly insulated political forums was as good as, or even better than, trying actually to have anything to do with real workers at the factory gates or anywhere else.
The great difference between the student debaters of the 1930s and 1940s, and the student unionists of the 1970s, is that the former, when making speeches about the working class, never for one moment supposed that they were doing anything more than make speeches. When the young Anthony Wedgwood Benn told his hearers in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union that “the wages of evil are death, and the wages of the miners a good deal worse”, he knew that what went on in the Oxford Union and what went on in Penallta colliery m Glamorgan were two entirely separate things, But twenty years on the student unionists thought that they were doing something which was politically purposeful and important when they fought over the wording of motions about the Industrial Relations Act and the Miners’ Strike and the next NUS grants campaign. They invested these activities with a political significance which they did not possess, they deluded themselves completely, and consequently developed an entirely cock-eyed attitude to the world that existed outside, and to the trade union movement above all.
I have suggested that the CPGB had its own reasons for bringing about this state of affairs. Its attitude expressed above all its concern to preserve its own trade union cadre from interference and contamination by IS and other trendy lefties. So, while talking endlessly about the unity of the student movement with the labour movement, it was actually working overtime to ensure that ne’er the twain should meet – beyond the attendance of carefully selected student activists at trade councils, and visits by carefully selected shop stewards to student unions.
In doing this, it sought to preserve its own monopoly over the outlook and reflexes of militant trade unionists, and largely succeeded, and so ensured that trade union militancy remained locked in a dead end, able neither to exploit its victories nor avert its subsequent defeats. At the same time, by fobbing off initially idealistic student politicians with a mere imitation of working class political purposefulness, it comprehensively corrupted their political outlook, and made them good for nothing. By reducing them to mere fans of the trade unions when the unions were powerful and fashionable, it ensured that they would forget all about the trade unions when Thatcher had smashed their power and destroyed their image.
What the CP created in the minds of student unionists was not a real sentiment of solidarity, but a cult, an affair of ritual gestures and incantations. The cult could only last for as long as its object, trade union power, lasted. But the CP had no programme for developing trade union power in the 1970s, and used its influence to block every other programme on offer, and ensured that trade union power was eventually destroyed for a generation by Thatcher. And so the former student adepts of the trade union cult who are now running the Labour Party are the present adepts of other cults, the cult of the market, the cult of ethnic politics, and the cult of electoral reform, and to hell with the trade unions. What can be more embarrassing than the memory of an outmoded enthusiasm?
The CP conjured up the student movement by developing student unionism. It developed student unionism by creating and guiding the Left Caucus in the NUS. And when the Left Caucus secured its control over the NUS between 1969 and 1971, the CP realised that it was time to develop the Left Caucus itself. The arrangements needed to combat right wing control up to 1969 were not suitable for exercising control thereafter. And so the CP arranged for the Left Caucus to be superseded by the ‘Broad Left’. It is the politics of the Broad Left which, since Neil Kinnock became leader, have taken over the Labour Party. Several major characteristics of these politics remain to be described.
(To be continued)
Hugh Roberts is no longer associated with the Bevin Society. But what he said remains of great historic interest.
This article appeared in November 1991, in Issue 26 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.