Hero to Zero


Jamie W and Søren G

What we’d like to do with this post is to continue the conversations that have got us thinking about politics and organisation in a positive way. That is, not simply defined by what has dogged us for the last 14 months, but by the material conditions and problems facing us all. We want to look at the way we responded, in Autumn 2013, to the sudden proliferation of awareness about, and anger towards, zero-hour contracts. We say this because, whilst we attempted some good initiatives, we ultimately failed to respond adequately as a collective. Some of that failure can rightly be put down to the sheer chasm of ill will between different factions, an indication at the time of just how broken the SWP was as a tool. However we also think that there was a problem of approach that demands we make a more rigorously honest evaluation. We want to use thoughts that we’ve had about this to inform the way we operate and organise, to further prise open the discussion of who we relate to, how we do so and why.


Mike and Liz’s Magical Mystery Employment Practices

When the zero-hours stories exploded in the media, we found ourselves trailing. In late August and early September the media caught on to what some had been banging on for years – that there was an iceberg of precarity underneath the apparent benefits of ‘flexible working’. Initially arising from some shocking statistics about workers at Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct, the stories came flooding in. Catering and Higher Education were the most habitual offenders. Even the Queen was employing people on zero-hour (Øh) contracts at Buckingham Palace. The Office for National Statistics was forced to, embarrassingly, re-configure its statistics about Øh contracts by 25%. Business ‘experts’ at CIPD then estimated figures may have been closer to 1 million workers. Unite’s research suggested it might be closer to 5.5 million people, more than 1 in 5 private sector workers.

Oppositionists in the party set up a Facebook page ‘Zero Tolerance for Zero Hours’ in an attempt to network action against Øh and raise the profile of rank and file politics within that. Through a private message we found some of the members we knew who were actually working these kinds of conditions. The page proliferated in size over the period of a few days,  to around 600 likes, with a reach that appeared to extend beyond the boundaries of the established left. Having worked on building the Justice for Mark Duggan campaign page it is fair to say that we put in a very small amount of work to build that page – it achieved something approaching virality in those few days because it hit a nerve.


However it was just a Facebook page and was obviously very different from having sustained links to workplaces. In attempting to react to a growing situation we ‘discovered’ that we actually had a good number of comrades (inside and outside the SWP) who were on, or had recently been on, Øh contracts. Like Schrødinger’s worker, it is never entirely clear whether you _are_ working on a Øh contract until you properly scrutinise it. Some of these comrades had been inside the organisation for several years, and yet had rarely or never been part of a collective discussion into their conditions at work and their ability to organise. If they were able to be represented in a union at all at work, discussions in the SWP were largely determined by the power tussles of the union at a national level. The SWP woke up to the issue and, to the industrial office’s credit, did attempt to organise for the demonstrations, and to speak to insecure worker members. The demonstrations ended up being relatively small, and Øh work was largely dropped – another sad victim of the crisis.


Shock, shock, horror, horror. 

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that anyone in the party had heard about Øh, or the concept of casualisation. We’re wary of simplifying events for the sake of rhetoric, but there was an irony in the SWP having spent the last few years polemicising against Guy Standing and those who argued that there was a greater level of insecurity of work. Where there is a great level of debate, we presented guilt by association. Guy Standing’s intellectual experiments and rhetorical flourishes are problematic, but that doesn’t deny the material basis for people to say that neoliberal capital has made work more insecure, with a increasingly significant layer of people affected. Guy Standing’s arguments are the easy target that allowed us to stake out a theoretical space on the left. Yet when a major hype landed in our laps we were forced to admit we’d missed a trick.

The net effect of such a denial was obfuscation, to say that insecurity is merely a feature of capitalism that will have to be confronted by organised trade unionists. That there was nothing unusual or specific about it, and that organising insecure workers was backwards thinking, working from your weaknesses rather than your strengths. The problem with this was it accepted a kind of fatalism, and wrote off any potential or actual self-activity of precarious/insecure workers as irrelevant. Yet in the same breath we would declaim the idea that there was a historical novelty to insecure labour by evoking the dock workers and match women of the late 1900s. Who organised them? It wasn’t the TUC or well-established unions. They did it themselves, through techniques that made others gasp.

Indeed the only union that seems to have taken on a serious anti-casualisation campaign, at least where SWP members were a part, was the UCU. A predominant section of those active in the anti-casusalisation campaign were themselves workers who took the precaritisation argument seriously! What this suggested was both a problem of how the SWP constructed itself through theory and a problem in our process of understanding the world.


‘Coulda Woulda Shoulda’, but where now?

How could we have dealt better with the explosion that took place? The answer clearly lies in being better prepared. There was a problem of outlook and perspective, that we’ll talk about more in a bit. But think what it could have been like if we’d had been having regular caucuses for Øh and insecure workers to discuss their conditions and share practical experiences of challenging bullshit. We should have been agitating and investigating amongst circles wider than the SWP membership. We could have used the Facebook page as a tool to boost the profile of a network of Øh workers across different workplaces.

Of course, the fact that the media hype around Øh has died down doesn’t mean that the material conditions no longer exist. We feel our lessons are threefold. 1. That we need to be prepared to make inquiries from the perspective of workers, not simply the Office for National Statistics. 2. That we need to foster activists who can organise and network in their workplaces, not just in their national unions. 3. That we need to experiment in order to find out what is working, if at all, and be honest when we are doing so.

Here are things we can still do: not all of them may work, but they are worthy experiments and will provide us with a greater understanding, as well as a greater network.

  • Set up a website, in the style of the adjunct.edu site, where users can report their successes and frustrations in current and former workplaces. Begin with an blog that is more reporting in style, London workplaces where we have members – not every story needs to be a success. Use it as a means of helping people co-ordinate to apply for union membership for example. Then we would be in a stronger position to develop a member discussion system. You want it to get a reputation of notoriety on the level of Silk Road – somewhere where workers with little power or recourse go, not just to slate their bosses, but to organise against them.
  • Begin some workers’ inquiries into various workplaces. How is zero work, decreased hours, precaristisation, used as a means of discipline and what can you do about it, what politics can bring people around you? What are people doing when they are bullied out of their hours?
  • We need to think of a way to flesh out the various processes behind casualisation and precaritisation in a way that allows us to memify the idea and start bringing together people who face different types of shit. For example, a catch-all term like ‘shadow work’ or ‘phantom work’ would be more useful than zero-hours contracts, given that the problem of those contracts isn’t that you don’t have to work but that it is a stick to threaten you with. The threat of absent work, which binds you whilst it starves you and takes away your benefit.
  • Start co-ordinating the workers we do know for skill shares and socials. Encourage them in groups to be part of their own inquiries, share skills and experiences.
  • The reality is that this is already taking place in a sporadic way. Our political experience has taught us how to do this in a systematic and political way that strings together propaganda and agitation, makes those who are active and frustrated by zero-hours the theorists of their own positions.

Furthermore, an investigation in to the state of the working class would inevitably extend beyond the workplace, if it wanted to be serious. How is the reproduction of capitalist social relations felt by those with slum landlords, those forced out by rent rises and gentrification? What is the effect of removing all right to being disabled, both on those who have lost DLA and the class in a wider sense? What about the way that workers see their children in relation to child care? These struggles do have material effects on the ability for capital to accumulate – how could they not when they are about the government acting on behalf of capital to impede the declining rate of profitability? We simply don’t know enough about the vicious way in which landlords are operating, the ways in which the state is victimising and raiding immigrant communities. One of the most vital questions thrown up by some of our young members has been the inability to understand or relate to the whole generation of urban youth that rose up in revolt against the state for an entire week in 2011. Where are they now and how do they see work?


Nature of the period and what it demands.

The SWP has made a virtue in the last decades of on one hand, rightly emphasising the dialectic aspect of Lenin’s thought – that it isn’t all elitist vanguardism – and then using arguments based on a party at an advanced period of revolutionary struggle to avoid political and organisational contradictions. A myth has developed that the SWP was somehow the party that would lead the revolution, when in reality the asserted aim., when it was set up out of the IS, was to be the organisation that could foster the basis for a revolutionary party. So we are a ‘interventionist combat organisation’, when we have don’t have the weight or social basis to be anything of the sort. When Cliff talked about the ‘smallest mass party in the world’, you would hope that he was being ironic, not boasting. What we end up being is a big fish in a small pond, using our relative size to steamroll our way out of difficult arguments.

We think that we set our sights too low, however, by a perspective based on ‘being smaller than the SWP’. We are less concerned now with an honest accounting of what took place during the crisis – we have done that already, it is for them to do if they wish – but instead about reckoning with the tsunami of neoliberal bullshit that has managed to wash over our heads. There is a real need to do detailed work, not in order to ‘defend’ the idea that capitalism is a bad system, but to understand why that incredibly dynamic system has changed and what concrete problems it provides. We have to start from a position of honesty and say that we have not been able to develop the kind of organic links with the class which, whilst defined by its wage labour and/or dependence on wage labourers it may remain, is variegated, is contradictory and is still unknown for those reasons, as it has been in all eras of capitalist development! Far from an abandonment of activism, we want the reverse, we want an organisation where inquiry, reporting and theorisation flow through activism and are written directly in to it.


We would argue that:

  • Any organisation needs to flow from political necessity – what we choose to invest our energies in should dictate the way that we organise, and we shouldn’t assume that we can simply organise in the old way having gone through this year-long process
  • Our political activity needs to be driven by the spirit of inquiry – what is material reality, how are we going to investigate it honestly, building contacts with people as co-learners, no simply studied subjects.
  • That means not coming up with an industrial strategy based around national unions, but about building consistent links organising through different workplaces – public and private, secure, precarious, places with a lot of immigrant labour, across different workplaces that are in the same supply chain. The goal is having a finger on the pulse. At the moment our finger is so far from the pulse as to make you think that the body was dead. We keep asserting that class struggle is at an all-time low, that we remain in a downturn, yet really our only basis for asserting that is national union battles with the ONS’ days lost to strike action figure as a measure. We think that there is worth in attempting to determine how many small fights are going on that are simply undetected.
  • We don’t think that ‘the precariat is the new vanguard’. It is difficult to point to any group of workers in this period and see a leadership. However casualised, precarious and insecure work is a group neglected by unions which, in its overwhelming youth, is not particularly enamoured with the labour left and social democracy. Who have a lot of grievances and reasons to be angry, yet little organising capacity as a means of recourse.
  • Our inquiries shouldn’t be limited to the workplace, especially if we have members who can’t have jobs or are precarious in the work they have. There are many questions that relate to the state of the working class today that are beyond the workplace but fundamental. Why is it that a generation of urban youth rose in revolt against the state. More importantly, why is it that we have among our ranks less than a dozen of them – we don’t understand them and we don’t know them. If any activity is likely to attract them it is going to be gangs.



Bad Omens/Trying to Figure Out #copsoffcampus


The more I tried to write about Wednesday, the harder I found it. That’s probably a good thing.

Acrid tarmac smoke mingled with fog Wednesday morning whilst cops crawled all over New Cross looking for cyclists to fine and black men to harass. It felt like Moses was outside the walls of the city, visiting Holy Justice on a town that has declared war on its youth. It set off those religious visions of bad things to come – fearful omens – about the #copsoffcampus demo in Bloomsbury.

Despite that tight knot in everybody’s stomach, however, the police hardly turned up. The indiscriminate thuggery we saw last Thursday was almost completely absent. All the police I saw looked like they were stumbling around after a staff Christmas dinner. And whenever I saw groups of riot vans they would careen off in one direction, only to return the completely opposite way a few minutes later, Benny Hill-style.

So we have some problems to approach, not just about Wednesday but about what led us there. What seems clear to me is that there are clear reasons that this is happening, and why this protest was able to chime with people in a way most of what we’ve done since Mud-Gate hasn’t.

Why have the police become so more violent in the last few weeks? Clearly a key component was UoL Managements’s green light, to its own security and the Met, to prevent any direct action that challenged its authoritah, by any means necessary. I would guess as well that they thought that they could just beat people off of the streets before it became a bigger issue.

I think it was a mistake for them, and they misjudged the degree to which they have been delegitimised. Even the NUS, which has been useless on loan privatisation and the strike, roundly condemned the police violence. That’s because something has shifted, some myths have been undermined and that means something.

Why did the police hold back on Wednesday? I think its fair to say that they had been shamed, and they had been publicly shamed in a way that they hadn’t in 2010. This can’t be related simply to the successive crises at the top around hacking and Murdoch – this is also about what people have actually done to oppose them. Alfie Meadows is a clear example. But also the Hillsborough inquiry. The Rigg sisters forced the IPCC to re-open the probe into the police’s role into Sean Rigg’s death. These things drill into the ideological bedrock that the police strive to do the right thing, that the police are what ensure justice, that the police would never use violence unless provoked.

As a result of that process of delegitimisation, it was far easier to engage a wider layer of people against police violence. When it comes down to facing off state repression this is the most important thing. Masking up and affinity groups are ways of dealing with the tactics police employ in order to criminalise protest, but what allows us to be powerful is numbers. Occupy Sussex has shown how crucial it is for movements to be something that the majority of the student body can relate to and engage with. Its what ensures that we move beyond our own circles, beyond people who call themselves ‘full-time activists’.

If last Thursday was a good-sized demo that the left could muster from its own ranks, then Wednesday was a better-sized demo as a result of the left organising and prising apart the gap that had been opened by having videos of police violence at Senate House go across the world.

To a degree its probably good that we didn’t have to face off the police again – simply for the reason that its not something we can sustain. Moreover, whilst being the victims of police violence can generate a sympathetic audience, continually facing off against the cops can lead a to a political impasse if the rest of the student body, and a healthy section of workers, don’t see the need.

People have written well about needing to take the police’s ‘retreat’ with a healthy dose of skepticism. It certainly is true that they were attempting a tactical retreat and we didn’t force them out by physical force. But I’m not sure we want to _just_ as students in Bloomsbury. Ashok wrote that it took us ‘3 years and a riot’ to realise that black communities faced police violence every day. It needn’t take us 3 years more to realise that we can only have relevance if we are fighting for our own concerns as a component of struggles for all oppressed and exploited people in society.

That said, I do believe in history; that events and processes mean that things change. The police’s response was a tactical retreat, but there were equal parts choice and circumstance in that decision – to a degree they were bound to act in a way that didn’t increase sympathy for students. Just take a second to compare that to the way they became more violent as 2010 protests continued. They were able to do so because we were absolutely demonised by the media.

So whilst we accept that its a contradictory development, we have to recognise it as a small victory. We didn’t acquiesce, and we won something. But this is just a platform, a jumping board that shows the potential for a real invigoration of the student body. Just like when we took a student demonstration to the Egyptian Embassy in 2011, taking the demonstration down to the Royal Courts of Justice is important. Yes, it would have been fantastic for that number of people to have been involved before Wednesday, and to be fair, some of them were. However from what I saw the majority of the people that made up the demonstration, who bolstered it and provided the key difference, were people I didn’t recognise at all.

Yes it was symbolic, but symbols have power, and our collective task is to take that action and make it committed. If we expect people who are attracted to the movement to have participated in solidarity action with everyone who has been the victim of state violence we are missing the point, we are denying the reality of the historical process that means we can have demonstrations against cops, something we wouldn’t have been able to do in 2010. People have begun to debate where to take the #copsoffcampus mood. I admit I’m not sure; there’s a problem of only directing it away from campus to other struggles against state violence, as important as that is.

Coming back to the point about relating to the mass of students, I think it needs to relate the frustrations and pressures of students to a collaboratively constructed vision of better education. Increasingly there’s the possibility of making that vision one of social justice, that doesn’t just understand education as a campus for 18-23 year-olds, but as a component of reproducing class society. The pressures and concerns that such a vision would have to relate to would have to be far broader, not just feedback times and employability, but the entire raft of shit. It would have to be a vision that relates to lives defined by insecure work, exploitation and oppression that could actually provide an antacid for all the neoliberal memes we’re supposed to ingest in order to justify such an existence.

Who Teaches the Teachers that Teach the Teachers? what relevance the idea of ‘education’ has for revolutionaries and organisations.

Last week I sat down and thrashed out a whole raft of thoughts I’ve had about the way the swp attempted to ‘educate’ members and what I felt were its shortcomings and contradictions. I think that the concept of education, learning and pedagogy, can be a way of understanding the role that revolutionaries and Marxists are trying to play in society. Like the way Marx goes through different concepts in different chapters in Capital, education can be a view-hole through which we peer to understand the whole a little more yet only makes real sense when taken in context with the whole. So comrades have pointed out to me that, from another angle, the question of education is really one of democracy. I don’t think they’re wrong, but that we’re both right, and that these are two ways of seeing the same thing that are actually complimentary for an understanding of the whole.

Thinking these things through is helpful. Many of the things that we already do – and I use ‘we’ to mean activists way beyond the membership of the swp – but don’t acknowledge the extent to which those practices are rooted in pedagogical assumptions.

Disintegrating any distinction between teacher and taught.

One distinct problem, that’s admittedly become a bit of an obsession, is the overwhelming use of lectures as a means of what is basically education. Its the format most parties use to present their ideas. Now for some people a lecture is the best way for them to engage with those ideas. However the idea that a lecture is the most serious, or the most accessible means of engaging members and the wider class with ideas is bullshit.

When it comes to the students party members come into contact with in schools, colleges  and universities, we would always want them to learn through critical engagement, to question everything. Understanding comes from context, from the way that ideas arise in relation to other ideas. Why do we think then, that our meetings, teach-ins and conferences need to be a set of talks? What we want to be able to do is thrash ideas out. Let’s be honest –  faced with a large room, just after academics have articulated clear positions for 25 minutes, you end up thinking that you either have to deliver your own 3-minute thesis, or just ask a question. This is no basis for actually thrashing ideas out. We title branch meetings ‘has the working class changed’, and then deliver our position before that question can actually be asked. This is before we even talk about the fact that  lot of people find it very difficult to concentrate for such a period of time – its simply not accessible for some people.

As a teacher comrade has pointed out, the way the swp ‘does education’ is ‘more Michael Gove than New Labour’. Our formal means of engaging people in ideas is actually far more didactic than we believe education should be. If its not a lecture series then its a reading list of key texts. In reality people are ‘cadreised’  by a whole set of other processes. ‘Going for a coffee’, i.e. sitting down for hours and thrashing different ideas out, was a constant meme that we talked about using to get people involved in the organisation. Oxbridge tutorials for all! However serious development was piecemeal, and depended largely on loyalty or prodigy. Ostensibly for lack of resources, certain people would gain favour and therefore get regular contact from the centre and be encouraged to write – a dogma treat. What contributed to this was a push for next-big-thingism – everyone in the centre was in a sense attempting to meet targets for ticket sales and conference sign-ups. What was lost was the attention to detail. Some did take it very seriously (Estelle C I’m thinking of you) by actively reaching out beyond the pool of approved writers, by speaking out about the appalling gender balance of articles in publications and by constantly prodding people to express their opinions. 

Those kind of process should be ingrained – they’re the basis of a genuinely democratic group.

The educationals were a big step forward, yet the focus was often more on the comrade booked to speak than the change of methods used to explore the ideas discussed. There was a lot of potential – ensuring that the person who began the meeting was asked to leave the room whilst the discussion took place was an admission that people need to develop the confidence to formulate and express their own opinions. However I think we could have gone further. Why did we have to start with a lecture, and simply pretend that because the group was smaller it was somehow different? Why not start with questions or scenarios? ‘If the party were to stop every project tomorrow morning and start afresh, what would you do and why?’

Ironically there has been a degree to which the crisis has played this educational role. By having to articulate what kind of organisation and politics we actually want, far more of us than usual have taken the time to attempt to write, inquire, theorise and explain.

Yet we need to think about ways that we engage people not in ways that emulate the hierachies of knowledge

Association with school is bad, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it makes people feel bad.

Frustrating and confusing – that’s how it feels when you look at just how many revolutionaries go into teaching. And I say that as someone who wants to try working as a teacher. Some have argued that its the ‘only job a socialist should do’, not just because its represented by strong public sector unions, but apparently because its somewhat counter to the interests of capital. This simply cannot be the case. Now, this isn’t to say that teachers are like cops, nor to ignore the very real tussle for over pedagogy that has taken place in schools, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that having lefties as teachers can do anything but soothe the pain of what is basically a traumatic system.

Boil down the formal education system, and you find the alienated version of learning. The reproduction of understanding and interaction with the world.

Who could really claim that school is a heart in a heartless world, somehow independent or autonomous from the vagaries of capital accumulation. It wasn’t before this recent phase of privatisation. Academies and free schools are merely an intervention by the state on behalf of capital to open more sources of profitability. Schools, as much as the media, are the flesh where capitalist production is the bone. Their history, and their structural concern, is the preparation of another generation of workers, to variable levels of skill.

Just as labour has been a social process found through history, so the reproduction  of knowledge, understanding and conceptualisation has been necessary to continue the practice and understanding of those labours. Understanding, or theory, has therefore been historically constituted around the world-view that is associated with particular modes of production and their social set up.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that loads of people hate school. We don’t deny that good teachers make a difference, nor deny the victories for leftist pedagogy in teaching practice – but that is at odds with the structural role of education.

So why talk about education? The temptation would be to avoid all reference to the idea in revolutionary organisations? The most pertinent question, it seems, is to break down the implicit assumption that education is progressive. We consider comprehensive education to be a modern invention and a sign of progress. It is progress, in a sense, but it would be ludicrous to think that no-one learnt anything before schools.

The overriding point in all this is that learning is a social process that, by necessity and in the main, accompanies the modes of production in a given society. It is a social process that fits with the needs of that society, reproducing technical expertise but also the worldview of the prevailing social order; its logics, its common senses. Capitalism, as a particularly hyperactive society, has thrown up structures and institutions capable of formalising, and now commodifying, those very processes that are essential for its own reproduction: schools, colleges, universities, staff training, apprenticeships. There are, famously, more proletarians now just in Korea than there were in the entire world when Marx was writing. The same comparison could be made about students. Those who are not touched by education are in a minority globally. As I said before, there is nothing inherently good or progressive about this – the ramifications of literacy in terms of anti-capitalist action are real, but not structured into existence in the way that they are for proletarians.

Is ‘revolutionary education’ a false start?

Why is it worth saying all this? What I wonder is whether there can be a space for a counter-hegemonic ‘education’, and what it actually looks like.

To be a bit blunt, if the ultimate means of learning is play – doing – then the real university of counter hegemony is the struggle. What else allows for a sufficient marriage of material imperative and political development. A few thousand Marxists does not constitute a counter-hegemonic force. A social movement that will not leave the streets and go back to work without forcing some demands is a counter-hegemonic force.

What we are attempting to do when we are too few then is to learn as much as possible, in a way that is as un-alienated as possible. Alienation can’t be escaped  -it is a product of the image of labour in society, and our day-schools therefore cannot be pools of temporary communism that if we baptise just enough people in a movement will emerge from.

What our actions and learning can do however is lubricate processes and thoughts already occurring. That precarious, zero-hour work is shit and there’s things we can do to confront it. Because there are thousands of us in the same position. That our friends and neighbours who are illegals have a means of self-defence. That they don’t deserve systematic sexual assault and humiliation in Yarl’s Wood.

Organisation can enhance, link and motor those fights. To do so it needs to be prepared to learn and be a means for others to learn at the same time. Learn not just the nature of the system but what works to undermine it. We may know the answer in the abstract – that is the result of the collective education the working class has undergone since its birth – but need to be prepared for the contours of contradiction in reality.

I think this is one way of seeing the kind of organisation we need. The idea behind Workers’ Inquiry is an exciting way of seeing that relationship of joint learning.

The workers’ inquiry – an example of revolutionary pedagogy. 

Workers Inquiry is a term that Marx first used, though its mostly associated with the Italian autonomists these days. In effect all it means is attempt to be honest about reality by investigating it in conjunction with the subject that you’re investigating. So its about reporting and analysing the nature and processes of workplaces with workers, as workers. It’s a direct attempt to dissolve the division of mental and physical labour, the division between the intellectual and the proletariat as the subject of the intellectual’s inquiry. 

To some extent, its something we all do when we visit a picket line, or talk to friends about their work – we talk through with people the conditions and practices of labour that they have to put up with. Often we do it because we’re interested about how work is changing and transforming, and to think about what possible ways, and around which issues, our friends could organise in their workplace.

The idea of Workers’ Inquiry is that we use that co-operative investigation as a tool in a systematic, not just to ‘give voice’ to workers’ experience, but to actively confront the division between mental and manual labour. What it provides is a means to involve all members in knowledge production, through co-research. Sometimes the fruits may be simply the ‘microsystems of struggle’ – the thousands of little ways workers confront capital in the breakdown of the working day- , and sometimes those fruits may be more theoretical. Either way, the task of producing those analyses is important because it clarifies what Marxist tradition actually is; living and fluid.

Jamie W produced a workers’ inquiry of a call centre, which you can read here.

Additionally, whilst workers’ inquiries are largely associated with workplaces, there’s a clear need for investigation into the way capitalism manifests itself in the life of the class in a wider sense, in the few hours that people get outside the workplace.

Revolutionary Reporters and the Internet as Organiser.

The way that we have treated reporting, publications and analysis over the last few decades presents a problem. What we want, and what we have always argued we want, is active members who don’t defer to anyone. We have regularly noted the decline of contributions to the paper from members, of local reports and wider analyses, yet have prevented no strategy to end it. Perhaps the fact that we have reporters is something to do with it – that we have a division of labour and a professionalisation of a set of tasks that is fundamental for members to do regularly if they are ‘active’, not ‘passive’. Amy G and Mark B have written about this well for the IB. I hope that they’ll put it online soon.

Towards co-research and a spirit of inquiry.

Lets not mystify the word pedagogy. I still trip over my tongue trying to pronounce it but all it means is strategy and tactics for learning. So revolutionary pedagogy isn’t just about Marxist ways of being a teacher – it’s about trying to win people to the ideas that bring about social change. We don’t do that by just getting loads of people to become educationalists – this is a weird reading of Gramsci – unless we are going to actually agitate collectively around syllabus and pedagogy. We need to think instead about organisations that are both separate from the institutions of the capitalist state yet which at the same time have no pretences to being liberated zones from capital.

If people still baulk at the idea of ‘educating the class’ then good. If education is associated with a strict relationship between teacher and taught, in institutions which are fundamentally geared towards the reproduction of the working class and its subservience, then the taste of vomit in your throat is a good thing.

Having said that revolutionary pedagogy is not ‘just a better way of teaching’, I do think that there is a smorgasbord of opportunities that we just haven’t used. These different pedagogic practices are tactics, if the overall principles are strategies.

In conclusion, why have we spent this long bothering to analyse revolutionary politics and practice through the lens of education. Clearly the last year has shown us that we have a lot to learn. Anyone who claims to have a monopoly on truth in a period where almost everyone’s plans have been scuppered needs to be willing to learn. I don’t think that those answers are just in academic theorisation, I think they’re in the material world (unless we’re looking at casusalised workers in academia, obv). As someone active on the Loughborough estate in Brixton pointed out, there’s a fuckload of stuff happening, it just doesn’t get on our radar. This, for me, is a fucking important point. If we just measure the level of class struggle by set piece fights, or the numbers of days officially lost to strike action according to the Office of National Statistics, we’re missing a trick. There are hundreds of thousands of small means of resistance that people do every day that mean something. Its not saying that those things in and of themselves are better than public sector general strikes, nor that they in themselves will bring down neoliberal capitalism, or that we should catalogue each and every instance – it is to say that those things are worth knowing. We ourselves have seen how we can have hundreds of thousands of people on the street and receive no news coverage, so just think how many things happen that go under the radar. An entire generation of urban youth revolted against the state two years ago and they are in real terms completely unknown, let alone understood, by the activist left. Why? We’ve made little to no attempt to theorise or understand why people organise in gangs. Maybe its not relevant and its just something whipped up by the press. Maybe it is, but until we attempt to inquire, we won’t know.

There’s a problem with treating our theory as a tradition to be won to. It’s a conceptualisation that actually mirrors Gove’s filling-young-minds-with-rote-facts. What it encourages is the idea that we the IS tradition is an iconoclastic stake in the ground. Yet the early history of our organisation showed that there was far more strength in heterodoxy than orthodoxy. Whilst we have in the last few decades demarcated ourselves from autonomists, the early growth of the IS bears a remarkable similarity to the growth of the anti-Stalinist workerist and autonomist left in Italy, more than we did with many Trotskyist organisations. Tony Cliff didn’t come up with State Capitalism. State Capitalism was incredibly important, in countering Stalinists and social democrats, but the Berlin Wall fell over 20 years ago. It can’t be the way we define who we are and what we do. Why should this be controversial?

Bearing witness to this reality – that any Marxist tradition is not solid but fluid – is not weakness, doesn’t undermine unity in practice, it can be the basis for it. Members who are actively aware of nuances and able to hold different opinions are the fundamental basis of democracy in an organisation. The active engagement of the mass of membership with the strategic and theoretical direction of the party seems to have far more relevance in terms of the way we define ourselves as revolutionary socialists. We need active members, who are capable of simultaneously designing a leaflet for their workplace, but also of writing the political content and of investigating, reporting on and theorising the nature of 2013 capitalism – not just in the international markets but in their own workplace. We do have these comrades, but as a result of individual members making a concerted effort to challenge and develop them, not as a result of systematic work.  Moreover how that process takes place is crucial – is it about reproducing an interpretation or about testing that interpretation?

Our activity needs to flow from a desire to inquire.

Death of a hip-hop fan

lives; running


What do I know about Richard Laco? Thanks to the joys of social media I can tell you that he watched Frasier, Lost and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, listened to Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and NWA, and played ice hockey and basketball. He was 31 years old, a former student at Middlesex University, and on Wednesday last week he was crushed to death while watching the installation of a concrete staircase at the new Francis Crick building near Kings Cross where he was working as a labourer.

The building itself has a chequered history; locals were nervous about its construction, since the building will be carrying out research into level 4 toxins – as dangerous a biological hazard as you can find. Locating the lab at the southern end of one of Europe’s largest concentrations of residential housing seemed, frankly, bizarre. But the project was forced through…

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Supporting CUNY Research Foundation Strike

CUNY Contingents Unite

1 JULY – A one-day strike was held today by workers at the CUNY Research Foundation’s central office in midtown Manhattan. The workers, who are represented by the Professional Staff Congress, denounced management intransigence over the past six months of contract negotiations, and the private body’s push to establish a two-tier system in which new hires would get lower benefits. Strikers’ spirits were high despite a heavy downpour. CUNY Contingents Unite worked to bring adjuncts and other contingent employees to the picket line in solidarity with our striking union sisters and brothers.


P.S.: Documents posted by the Gawker site show that today — while CUNY Research Foundation central office workers were on strike in the rain — CUNY sent a “commitment letter” to former General David Petraeus stating that he will be receiving $150,000 for his appointment at the Macaulay Honors College, “which will be paid through the CUNY Research…

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Slow-burning movements; graduate workers’ organisations in the face of adjunctification.


The Adjunct Movement has not been as loud as the Quebec CLASSE movement. Most of the people involved are in their mid 20’s and early 30’s – certainly not as youthful and militant as the Chilean Pingüinos[1]. There haven’t been mass demonstrations and occupations. But they have managed to build something profound; organising against some of the most embedded and most advanced neoliberalism. Their successes, as well as their limitations, are not just fascinating but also provide useful lessons for any of us wanting to fight marketisation in education.


Who are adjuncts?


The term refers to graduates, mostly but not exclusively studying for PhD’s, who teach, mark and research either to fund their work or because it is a requirement of their programme and who don’t hold any permanent contract. Many universities grant fee waivers to these students on the basis of them fulfilling this work. However, even with fee waivers, many adjuncts live on less than minimum wage. This is despite, or rather because, higher education is now run more on adjunct labour than full-time labour.

This situation is emblematic of the transformation of US Higher Education. One of the key motors of that, over the last few decades, has been the proliferation of private, for-profit, colleges recruiting ever-greater proportions of students. This isn’t just the Ivy league or the top 10 – its institutions like the University of Phoenix – a behemoth corporation that operates mainly over the internet with quick and vocational courses. I want to look in more detail at the transformation of the education system below but for the purposes of understanding what adjunctification is lets just start with this image. Whilst on one hand universities like Phoenix have opened up a new market, they’ve also begun infringing on the territory of state universities, often dragging them further into the whirlpool of competition and market values.


Adjunctification as a key motor of neoliberal universities.


Adjunctification is a tendency that slots very neatly into the overall tendencies towards commodification and marketisation. In keeping with the experience of neoliberalism worldwide, the line between public and private has become increasingly undermined, overwhelmingly in favour of the private. For teaching, it means not only an undermining of academic quality and freedom but of actual academic labour capacity. Getting senior students to teach fresh students provides a means of cutting staffing costs. Keeping those senior students in a permanent and vicious cycle of adjunct-ness ensures that they work to the greatest efficiency. Most crucially they have a shelf-life – and the rotation of stock is a fundamental part of keeping labour costs low.


The dereliction of working rights is just one reason to oppose the process of adjunctification. By forcing researchers to grovel for scraps of funding it pushes them towards corporate sponsors – inevitably making it harder for those researching knowledge with a low profit margin to maintain academic freedom.


In many US Higher Education institutions adjuncts can’t get representation from the local lecturers’ union[2]. Even if they do have the right to get involved in the union, the pressure of time and finances usually undermines their ability to. Rushing from one campus to another, juggling different jobs, makes it incredibly hard to be around enough to build the kind of profile necessary to get elected to the unions, or consistently raise issues relevant to adjuncts.


However, in spite of these conditions, adjuncts across the US have found ways of organising around their grievances.  What they’re doing is exciting, audacious trade unionism thats comes face-to-face with one of the key motors of marketisation. Whilst the history of graduate organisation stretches back into the late 60’s its been a deeply uneven process and its only just in the last few years started to ripen.


These cherry-picked examples are to show what’s been possible in the last decade


GEO at Illinois State


Faced with continual attacks on their conditions, adjuncts at Illinois State (Urbana-Champaign) set up their own union, the Graduate Employee’s Organisation, and in November 2009 struck for tuition fee waivers – effectively fair pay – and won. Last November management tried to take the waivers back and refused to go into negotiations[3]. As a result the GEO voted to form a strike committee. Without even needing to strike they got the administration to agree to keep the waivers. The GEO has existed in different forms since the early 1980s, but became a fighting organisation in the early 2000s in response to the administration’s attempt to deny them legal representation. They combined union organisation with political agitation; not just going through the motions for bargaining and strike action but also occupying management offices when negotiations bottlenecked and building campaigns with active participation from students and local workers.


The continuous recurrence of attacks from administration is just one reason for the GEO to attempt to build networks wider than the campus. Hence, since 2008, they’ve been part of convening a national coalition the Association of Graduate Employee Locals. The success of this model is, justifiably, open to criticism – it certainly hasn’t been able to confront the trends that lie behind the administration’s actions. But it is clearly effective in its locale; a testament to the democracy and politics of the organisation.

CUNY Contingents Unite


The City University of New York (CUNY) is the second largest education system in the US, with over half a million students. Whilst their promotional video proudly trumpets their tenure of Rhode Scholars and new full-time academics[4] there is little mention of the fact that the majority of the academic functions of the university – teaching, marking and research – are done by adjuncts. Even with waivers adjuncts, or contingents in CUNY terms, earn several thousand dollars less than what is required to live in and around New York City. Whilst the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the CUNY trade union, maintains a relatively active and dense membership, representation for contingents is inadequate[5]. Moreover the PSC’s response to budget cuts from the State Governor’s office has been mainly through piecemeal stunts and lobbying in conjunction with the New York Public Interest Research Group[6]. Students and contingents have been the ones organising protests and campaigns, when they’ve actually happened.


Contingents, frustrated with the PSC leadership’s failure to act against cuts that squeeze part-time and uncontracted workers harder, begun the CUNY Contingents Unite campaign in 2008. One part of what they have been doing is pressuring PSC to act. In 2012 they turned up en masse to the PSC congress in orange t-shirts demanding representation and heckling speakers who sidelined the contingent issue[7]. But they haven’t attempted to set themselves up as a separate union. The political basis of the organisation is demonstrated in their founding statement[8] which stresses its resentment, not towards those workers who receive higher pay through tenure, but to the two-tiered system that makes it impossible to get tenure for those who don’t already have it!


How has US education got this way?


I mentioned above that it was a necessary simplification to see marketisation as a problem creeping over from private to public universities. Marc Bousquet emphasises that it is, to an extent, a simplification to see the trends of marketisation and ‘managed education’ as a result of for-profit universities infringing on the traditional public universities[9]. It is true, but only in the sense that it hardens up tendencies that have been taking place on a far more fundamental level in public universities for decades. Its helpful to contextualise the development of marketisation within the wider global trends towards neoliberalisation.


Neoliberalism, the class project intended to restore capital profitability in the wake of the 1973 OPEC crash, had at its heart what Susan George described as;


“The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given less rather than more social protection[10].”

Combined with a reaction to growing union membership and militancy, public institutions slowly adopted, through the 1970s and 1980s managerial and neoliberal mantras[11]. Faced with budget cuts they were driven, encouraged (though often willingly) towards adulating and mimicking the behaviour of the private sector. As well as producing an entirely new and bloated layer of middle management such a shift required a reconstruction of the workforce. Tenure-track lecturers had been part of the move towards unionisation in the public sector, albeit after inspiration from firefighters and teachers[12], and administrations looked for means to undermine the solidarity that bound them. One means was the development of liberal ‘institutional missions’, which gave the university a more progressive vibe. Often adopting the language of Foucault, side by side with the economic ‘common sense’ of Milton Friedman, university administrations could begin to incorporate more senior academics within the structures of management, getting them to put aside solidarity with other staff members and replace it with paternalistic ersatz responsibility[13]. The other side of this was to radically re-structure teaching. Over the last thirty years graduates have gone from doing less than 1/4th of teaching to doing over 3/4ths[14]. This is then combined with an attempt to reduce the number of tenure-track positions available, creating an ever-growing rift between permanent and contingent staff.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s graduates were told, in accordance with what were known as the Bowen predictions, that academic careers were open for people if they were simply to complete their PhD. What transpired is that PhD completers became the waste, rather than the product, of the system and were being used by ‘permanent’ management to create an ever-reproducing pool of ‘temporary and contingent’ teaching staff[15].


Adjunct organisation is hardly new…


Graduates have been organised since the 1960s, when the wave of unionisation I spoke of earlier began. At the University of California, for example, graduate employees affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers in the 1970s but failed to win contracts for at least 25 years[16]. The GEO at Illinois Urbana-Champaign also has a history of actions dating back 30 years, in different organisations[17]. It wasn’t really in the 1990s that the battle for recognition began. With different cases in different states, much of the struggle was, for a long time, over graduates’ legal definition. The landmark case came in 2000, between the National Labor Relations Board and NYU and Brown U[18], when graduates finally won the legal right to be recognised as workers, not just as students with added responsibilities. However, the Bush era that followed saw a set of attacks on workers’ rights, and administrations were once again on the re-offensive. Since then therefore, graduates have often found that their campaigns need to be overtly political.


The most visible attempt to build a unified national collaboration can be seen in the ‘Adjunct Project’[19] – not a union but an online resource and toolkit, detailing graduates’ experience of exploitation and organisation against it. Whilst it looks impressive, its funding coming in large from the Chronicle for Higher Education, it seems at odds with the political colour and vibrancy of the organisations and their campaigns.


Given Wisconsin’s notoriety as the beating heart of American trade unionism, it shouldn’t be surprising that adjunct organisation has been taking place there since the 1960s; the Teaching Assistants’ Association. Since the 1990s, and a historic tuition waiver win in 1997, the union has been built on the right to collective bargaining. As the crisis has intensified, their interests have begun to converge with campaigns against cuts to state budgets[20]. TAA members were at the centre of the movement around Madison in 2011 against Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to remove trade union rights[21]. This was in part due to the fact that attacks on collective bargaining would have made it far harder for them to retain faculty, but also due to the political strength of their unionisation. They led the occupation of the State Capitol in Madison, and organised coaches of GEO’s from Illinois State to join them.


Several graduate organisations, as a result of finding difficulty getting representation in the local chapter of their AFT or equivalent union, have found other unions willing to take on their affiliation. For example, graduates at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh PA, joined the United Steel Workers and won the union over to bargain for their rights against university management[22].


            Whilst these experiences are inspiring rejoinders against the apparent lack of struggle on US campuses, are they any use in building strategies for graduates who teach at British universities? Admittedly there are concrete differences between the US and the UK education systems. The US system is clearly more heterogenous, especially with the wider and more pronounced division between state and private universities. The far greater variety between institutions and funding systems, due in part to the federated state system, appears to have mitigated against one national organisation for tenured academics, let alone adjuncts. That heterogeneity means that its, theoretically, far harder for graduates to represent themselves collectively on a national level. In the UK on the other hand, postgrads who teach (often called Graduate Teaching Assistants, GTAs) have the right to join the UCU (national HE and FE academic staff union), even if they haven’t done so in massive numbers. However, unlike in the US, adjunctification has not been the primary means of driving down staffing costs in the UK; the attacks on pensions will continue to have the greatest effect for the near future[23]. Crucially, US postgrads take upwards of 6 years to complete a PhD, whereas their British counterparts are increasingly pushed towards 3-year completions. The NUS has calculated that there are approximately 100,000 postgraduate research students in the UK[24], though the extent of this number who are teaching and working as GTAs remains unclear. In addition there are many Visiting Tutors (VTs) who are not students but who face the same problems. Certainly it is far smaller proportion of overall teaching staff than in the US. Hence, being smaller in number and having a shorter time at university, British GTAs have less objective basis for organisation. In spite of the differences though both systems are clearly subject to increasingly totalising tendencies of marketisation and commodification even if the US has experienced them at a far greater velocity,


Marketisation in the UK began seriously under the Thatcher regime in the 1980s, though it would be wrong to say that she pursued it with anywhere near the same vigour as she attacked miners and printers. That said, whilst shying away from a direct attack on grants and the public nature of the university, Thatcher and ministers like Keith Joseph[25] did engage in repeated ideological attacks on student unions, left-wing and anti-oppression academics, as another insidious part of the ‘enemy within’. More crucially she successfully introduced a raft of neoliberal management directives against which academics were reluctant to resist, most importantly the Research Assessment Exercise which required academics to pile ever-increasing amounts of their time and effort (or that of their postgrads) into activity that made the institution more competitive and themselves more efficient and easy to manage[26]. Similarly, it was Major who, whilst being unable to successfully marketise education, set up the Student Loans Company and pass the 1994 Education act in order to amputate the campaigning power of students’ unions. However it was Blair and Brown who introduced tuition fees, with successive increases. Whilst their expansion of the education system was soaked in progressive rhetoric, the meritocratic assumptions that underlay the policy was demonstrative of the fact that, at its heart, the move was an attempt to expand the skilled workforce for the benefit of British capital, with little or no increase in funding and an opening up of the sector for private ‘investment’.


Its as if the last 30 years in the UK have been a process of laying the foundation for marketisation, dropping the gravel and pouring the cement. As that has hardened up, the most recent draft of reforms come as a cast iron plate dropped on top; a manoeuvre to prevent any form of resistance or reversal growing up through the cracks.


            However, whilst these tendencies reflect the American experience it is not yet the case that GTAs fulfil the role of a huge, casualised and hyper-exploited workforce as they do in the US. And, as mentioned above, the biggest attack on wages has been on pensions. However, this attack shares some of the qualities of adjunctification in the sense that it is younger, and more casualised, education workers who are hardest hit. So whilst adjunctification does not yet operate in the same way as it does in the US, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, nor that it won’t ripen as an issue.


Not without a fight…


Since 2010 the greatest resistance to marketisation has come from movements visibly lead by Undergraduates and FE students, though postgraduates have clearly been present. In the wake of those heady days the movement has struggled to regain momentum. The logic of marketisation means that changes take place in an uneven manner; so the response to them takes place not through street movements but on campus. The fantastic movement at Sussex[27], and the solidarity demonstrations that it attracted has shown that these local struggles can have a potentially invigorating effect on the rest of the country. The alternative strategy coming from the national union is to wait for 2015 and get Labour elected in order that they might, by sheer munificence, grant us…graduate tax[28]. The only real choice for those interested in education, for liberation, for all, is the former strategy. Build local struggles, where possible, into a generalised fightback that forces, not pleads, governments into concessions. In that sense being able to see the potential in any point of friction is vital.


In this context it seems more than likely that GTAs will be at the sharp end of funding cut-backs and will experience progressively higher degrees of exploitation[29] as departments try and squeeze a few more National Student Survey percentage points out of their staff. GTAs already suffer relatively high rates of exploitation, low pay and casualised conditions. However there are a number of objective barriers that appear to mitigate against the possibility of building a ‘graduate movement’ on the same scale as the US, most notably the far shorter period spent studying for PhDs. There is a clear need to challenge casualisation and marketisation but are the US graduate modes of organising worth replicating in the UK? Are they adequate for the challenge? In short: the methods are good but they aren’t, in themselves, good enough. The building of unions and graduate organisations now has to be placed within the context of crisis and austerity. Can these organisations confront an accelerated and steroided phalanx of attacks?


The key lesson, arguably, from the US adjunct movement is not a particular tactic in itself – whether joining the dockworkers’ or setting up alternative unions – but the strategic principle behind those tactics. Networking and organising large numbers of graduate workers, united around specific grievances on a political basis and winning solidarity and unity with other groups on campus. In many places in the US simply gaining recognition has been a audacious and political task. In the UK we have the advantage of being able to utilise, in comparison, the openness of the UCU, through what are on many campuses called anti-casualisation committees. In addition Student Unions can be tools that we can use to accelerate the process of organisation and raise the politics of the campaigns in a more overt way than the UCU can perhaps get away with. Additionally we have the collective memory of a national education street movement, which was more recent and overt than anything in the US over the last decade. The idea of solidarity across groups, and of opposition to marketisation arguably still pervades as a result of this powerful reference point, even if the high point has passed. Therefore threading solidarity with graduate workers through any new developments of these movements could potentially provide the basis for a far more serious challenge to marketisation.



The NUS’ own survey into GTA conditions shows that less than 10% would go to their Student Union when concerned about their conditions and less than 12% would go to their trade union rep[30]. In part this reflects the woeful inadequacy of both student and trade union leaderships to confront austerity and show audaciousness over local grievances. The hegemonic politics of the NUS in 2013 is best summed up as a committment to ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘partnership’ with university management, reflecting all of the worst corporatist conclusions the trade union movement has made over the last 20 years. Corporatism in a period like this is suicidal. The postgraduate report is at least a break with this mainstream, largely due to the role played by anti-capitalists and socialists in the postgraduate committee and NUS more widely.


They argue for different approaches at different universities, but primarily ‘ensuring that whatever structures and processes are in place, they are ultimately transparent and fair’[31], Acknowledging the ‘important role of trade unions, particularly UCU’ they suggest that ‘one possibility would be to create a graduate teaching committee with representatives from UCU, students union and graduate teaching reps’[32]. What this reflects is that there is a possibility to organise, but it has to come from multiple angles. We can place demands on the union and SU leadership, focussing on their failure to act, encouraging them to open up spaces where postgrads and casualised workers can organise around grievances. At the same time we have to combine this with us making ‘facts on the ground’, networking with GTAs to ensure that the need for those spaces to be opened up is materially evident.


What the American experience shows, as well as the Postgraduate report, is that we may have to apply a political attitude to our attempts at challenging marketisation through GTA organisation. That doesn’t mean we evacuate the organisations, like UCU or the SU, that we already have, but that we look at the possibilities of working through and beyond them, of opening spaces from above for casusalised sections of the workforce to organise, but also ensuring that those spaces allow those workers self-organisation. 


In a period when the free education movement appears temporarily fragmented and demoralised, our ability as a movement to strengthen the representation and political organisation of graduates who teach could potentially be crucial in determining the social weight of the forces who oppose marketisation. Of course the organisation of graduates alone will not stop a process that is embedded in a far larger onslaught, but it can at least provide additional flashpoints around which to organise as well as unveiling contradictions which, in being drawn out, begin to undermine and negate the ideological phantoms conjured up to justify the neoliberalisation of education.





Anon, ‘About CUNY Contingents Unite’, Last updated 12 September 2008, accessible at: http://cunycontingents.wordpress.com/about/


Anon, ‘About the occupation – ongoing since Thursday 7 February 2013’, accessible at http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/about/


Anon, ‘About this Project’, accessible at http://adjunct.chronicle.com/about


Anon, ‘History’, last updated on 27 November 2012, accessible at http://www.uigeo.org/history-2/


Anon, ‘Key Information: Branch briefing –  the impact on YOU’, Accessible at: http://www.ucu.org.uk/defenduss#key


Anon, ‘TAA History: The First Forty Years…And Beyond’, Accessible at: http://taa-madison.org/taa-history/


Bousquet, Marc, ‘Grad Employees Spearhead Wisconsin Occupation’, March 1st, 2011, Accessible at: http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/282


Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, New York, NYU Press; 2008


Burrett, Robin and Wenstone, Rachel, Postgraduates who teach’, NUS Pamphlet, 2013, p7 Accessible at: http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/1654-NUS_PostgradTeachingSurvey_v3.pdf


Callinicos, Alex, Universities in a Neoliberal Age, London, Bookmarks; 2006


Cech, Jeff, ‘NLRB Announces Landslide Victory for the Adjunct Faculty Association at Duquesne University’, September 20th, 2012, accessible at: http://adjunct.chronicle.com/nlrb-announces-landslide-victory-for-the-adjunct-faculty-association-at-duquesne-university/


CUNYMedia, ‘CUNY Value’, 14 November 2012, video accessible at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=NR23F137fio#!



Joseph, Keith, ‘Speech at Edgbaston (“our human stock is threatened”), October 19th, 1974, accessible at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/101830


Moody, Kim, Towards an International Social Movement Unionism, 1997


NUS National Campaigns, ‘Come clean on Student Funding – Elections 2015’, accessible at http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/campaigns/come-clean-on-student-funding/elections-2015/


NUS Postgraduate Campaign, ‘Engaging Postgraduates Students Guide’, last updated on 18th July 2011, Available at: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/news/article/postgraduate/562/


Reyes Rodriguez, Damian and Werst, Daniel, ‘GEO prepares for a strike’, Socialist Worker (USA,) November 26, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/11/26/geo-prepares-for-a-strike


Singsen, Doug ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA),  November 19, 2010 http://socialistworker.org/2010/11/19/cuny-adjuncts-deserve-better


The Real News, ‘Student Movement Rocks Chile’, video accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z9UdQxThKo

[1] The Real News, ‘Student Movement Rocks Chile’, video accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z9UdQxThKo


[2] ‘Unlike unions at most universities in the U.S., the PSC represents many different categories of academic workers’, Singsen, Doug ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA),  November 19, 2010 http://socialistworker.org/2010/11/19/cuny-adjuncts-deserve-better

[3] Reyes Rodriguez, Damian and Werst, Daniel, ‘GEO prepares for a strike’, Socialist Worker (USA,) November 26, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/11/26/geo-prepares-for-a-strike

[4] CUNYMedia, ‘CUNY Value’, 14 November 2012, video accessible at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=NR23F137fio#!

[5] ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA),  November 19, 2010

[6] ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Anon, ‘About CUNY Contingents Unite’, Last updated 12 September 2008, accessible at: http://cunycontingents.wordpress.com/about/

[9] Bousquet, Marc,  How the University Works, New York, NYU Press; 2008, p8

[10]http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/a_short_history_of_neoliberalism_and_how_we_can_fix_it  However it is worth stating that all neoliberal projects have remained contradictory to their very core; requiring an expansion of state power and expenditure in order to fight to restore profitability on behalf of capital.

[11] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p12

[12] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p18

[13] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p13

[14] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p2

[15] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p20

[16] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p33

[17] Anon, ‘History’, last updated on 27 November 2012, accessible at http://www.uigeo.org/history-2/

[18] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p38

[19] Anon, ‘About this Project’, accessible at http://adjunct.chronicle.com/about

[20] Anon , ‘TAA History: The First Forty Years…And Beyond’, Accessible at: http://taa-madison.org/taa-history/

[21] Bousquet, Marc, ‘Grad Employees Spearhead Wisconsin Occupation’, March 1st, 2011, Accessible at: http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/282

[22] Cech, Jeff, ‘NLRB Announces Landslide Victory for the Adjunct Faculty Association at Duquesne University’, September 20th, 2012, accessible at: http://adjunct.chronicle.com/nlrb-announces-landslide-victory-for-the-adjunct-faculty-association-at-duquesne-university/

[23] Anon, ‘Key Information: Branch briefing –  the impact on YOU’, Accessible at: http://www.ucu.org.uk/defenduss#key

[24] NUS Postgraduate Campaign, ‘Engaging Postgraduates Students Guide’, last updated on 18th July 2011, Available at: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/news/article/postgraduate/562/

[25] ‘The decline is spreading. We know that some universities have been constrained to lower their standards for entrants from comprehensives, discriminating against more the talented [sic] because they come from grammar or independent schools. We see how the demand for absolute equality turns into the new inequality. In the universities, which should be sanctuaries for the pursuit of truth, the bully-boys of the left have bean giving us a foretaste of what leftwing dictatorship would endeavour to achieve, actively cheered on by the casuistry of some members of the university staffs, cuckoos in our democratic nest, and by the pusillanimity of others, by the apathy of many and, I must add, by moral cowardice in public life’ Keith Joseph, Speech at Edgbaston (“our human stock is threatened”), October 19th, 1974, accessible at: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/101830

[26] Callinicos, Alex, Universities in a Neoliberal Age, London, Bookmarks; 2006, p18

[27] Anon, ‘About the occupation – ongoing since Thursday 7 February 2013’, accessible at http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/about/

[28] NUS National Campaigns, ‘Come clean on Student Funding – Elections 2015’, accessible at http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/campaigns/come-clean-on-student-funding/elections-2015/

[29] [29] ‘Almost one in three postgraduate teachers did not receive a contract…The average postgraduate teacher will work almost twice the hours they are paid for…almost one in three postgraduates who teach earn below minimum wage in real terms.’ Burrett, Robin and Wenstone, Rachel, Postgraduates who teach’, NUS Pamphlet, 2013, p7 http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/1654-NUS_PostgradTeachingSurvey_v3.pdf

[30]Burrett and Wenstone, Postgraduates who Teach, pp22-23


[31] Burrett and Wenstone, Postgraduates who Teach, p27

[32] Burrett and Wenstone, Postgraduates who Teach, p28

New struggles, new unions? On the Pop-Up Union at Sussex University

Mark Bergfeld


This article was first published in Ceasefire Magazine

April 18, 2013

A piece on an innovative trade union tactic pioneered by workers fighting privatisation at Sussex University

The struggle at Sussex University is the latest in a series of student rebellions against austerity and neoliberalism in our universities. Occupy Sussex held Bramber House for 55 days and called a successful 2,000-strong demonstration against the outsourcing of 235 non-academic jobs. It has shown us how students can resist university managers implementing their new fees regime.

The response by trade unions at Sussex University has, in contrast, lagged behind. The three campus unions – Unison, Unite and UCU – have finally called a membership consultation ballot nearly a year after the campaign began. But this welcome step forward would not have happened without a new factor: the Pop-Up Union recently founded by Sussex workers, which has pushed for ballots, built and supported…

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Dave Widgery/NUS – The Students’ Muffler

“The National Union of Students has 336,000 members and is the sixth biggest union in the country. The NUS offers, in the stirring words of its President, ‘service provisions in the fields of personal and life insurance, entertainments, concessions, vacation work, cultural activities such as drama and debating and a number of other such issues’.(1. Geoff Martin, ‘Focus’, Home Service, 25 May 1967.) The NUS has bored a generation of students to political death.
The backwardness of British students, their political isolation and docility, and the conceit and self-indulgence which passes so often for ‘university politics’ is directly reflected in the world picture of the leadership of the NUS. For these leaders, the submission of evidence and the preparation of reports has ben a substitute for mass activity and commitment on the campus. Policy is equated with the text of those motions passed at Council, and is left to moulder in the Minute Book as proof of the Union’s liberality. Militancy is the ‘last refuge of the politically impotent’ (2. Tom McNally, Liverpool Council, Easter 1967.). Tio Pepe diplomacy becomes the only conceivable form of student action. The NUS has all the passion of an ashtray. Today, a verbal war between the radicals and the Union escalates as its President complains of the ‘liberal use of sweeping and seemingly fashionable cliché’ and ‘one sided trouble-shooting’ (See T.W. Savage, ‘NUS, the First Forty Years’). Beneath the rhetoric of this bitter and complicated struggle, lies a deep political crisis int he nature of British class society as it is worked out in higher education.
Where are the real differences and what are the alternatives the NUS faces?

In the Beginning

The NUS was formed in 1922 as an outgrowth of various inter-university organisations. It was mainly created for international cooperation and this preoccupation with international affairs has remained with its leadership. In the early period it proselytised in the Dominions urging them to form National Union and affiliate to the Imperial Conference of Students and then the CIE. From the late twenties, it concentrated on a massive travel department with visits and vacation holidays. Out of these service concerns grew interest in welfare in the university; the familiar pattern of consultation with staff unions, drives for student health schemes, text book concession; motions on the iniquities of the tutorial system had begun. Concern for exclusively student welfare and conditions remained at the core of NUS throughout the fifties- even as late as 1961, the Council was still debating the opening hours of the British Museum.
After the war, the definition that discussion could only relate to the ‘student as such’ was enlarged to allow the union to discuss the whole of educational policy. The remaining provision, that the Union should under no circumstances ‘become a general political Forum’ was rigidly enforced. The NUS Council asked for ‘representation of consumer interest on all committees reporting into matters of study’ and the submissions to Robbins, Plowden, Newsom, Hale (university teaching methods) and Anderson (student support) were the source of great pride. The union’s leaders were increasingly welcome at the tables of undersecretaries; the NUS leaders’ delight at their own respectability must have been equalled by the gratification of the Department of Education and Science at finding students so eager to participate in their own subordination. ‘NUS is of course an educational pressure group and this can be measured in terms of the support that we gain form other educational organisations and from the trade unions. In addition to which our representations to the Department of Education and Science are noteworthy for their frequency and their positive results,’ (4. Geoff Martin, op. cit.) said President Geoff Martin last year.
Much of NUS ideological underpinning is in fact contained in these reports t the Royal Commission which are prepared by single executive members and the Research Staff. The draft document ‘Student Rights and Responsibilities’ which amounts to NUS philosophy, contains twenty-eight references to Union Policy, only seven of which refer to motions discussed in Council. Up to 1964, the union’s main policy concerns were the abolition of the means test on student grants, payment of student national insurance dues, lodgings and sports facilities and the pay and conditions for years. Some mass involvement was generated around the campaigns against apartheid (educational) in South Africa and racial discrimination in Britain. in 1965 a large meeting and march was held in protest against the level of teachers’ salaries. The liberalisation proceeded dizzyingly; Council called for the retraction of the Immigration White Paper (because of its effects on educate). At the present rate we can expect a condemnation of the deleterious effect of napalm on text books and mortar boards in North Vietnam by the early seventies.
Recently, the tripartite secondary education pattern of grammar, secondary an public streams wand the Binary System’s division into public and autonomous sections of higher education have been attacked as ‘socially divisive’ and the vision of a ‘comprehensive university’ was offered. The various campaigns against the means test, for teachers’ salaries, for student housing were never linked to make intelligible the structure of educational spending. While meeting after meeting deplored the cutbacks in building, overcrowding and crash expansion of the colleges of education, the inadequacy of teachers” pay, the condition of school buildings and the low grant levels, the total picture of a Labour Government quite unwilling to meet even the modest programme of the 1964 election manifesto was never drawn together. The state of the economy flitted through delegates’ contributions but the assumptions of Wilson’s deflation and freeze were never challenged. the economy and education’s input into it were taken as given. In short, the main body of NUS thought would not have frightened the Townswomen’s Guild.

NUS and Democracy

The structure of the union makes it especially vulnerable to ruling minorities. The rapid turnover of delegates and their lack of political experience leaves procedure and the direction of the Council in the hands of the old men and ex-students on the Executive and the Steering Committee. (The last two presidents have both been twenty-seven, a clear generation older than the students entering the universities they presided over.) The infrequency of Council Sessions, (it meets only twice a year and threes no middle tier of representation) and its unwieldy size in plenary means that the Executive alone takes the fundamental decisions about policy implementation and initiation. While attempts by constituent unions to bring forward their own information seemed to be slowed down from the platform (Newcastle Memorandum on Voting, UCL on Means Test, GLCs on the London Differential, LSE on the crisis negotiations). (5. Voting Commission Report, October 1966, para 56)
Members of the Executive themselves have attacked its level of political morality, especially in relation to the elections. Michael Stern found ‘the most distasteful aspect is the use of the Union machinery they control, by the incumbents, to elect their successors’. Roger Lyons, Union Vice President and later Treasurer, attacked what he called ‘corruption’ from the platform at Margate in 1966. When challenged by the remainder of the Executive to substantiate his allegations, he listed eighteen examples of Executive malpractice which were confidentially circulated to NUS secretaries. Even then three of the examples were not reproduced, ‘on the advice of the Union’s Solicitor’. The Times reports Lyons, who was elected against the ticket, as accusing the Executive of ‘using its prior rights to have information in order to contain members and stop them taking part in discussions’. (6. The Times, 26 January 1967) The most obvious example of abuse is NUS’ unique voting system which has survived the repeated wishes of over half the Council to introduce a more representative election system. The particular dangers of the present Multiple Transferable Vote system is that an organised group of 51 per cent can control all ten Executive seats if they operate a ‘ticket’. While weak candidates can, with the support of the ticket organisers, be dragged on to the Executive, independent candidates have to break the ticket list entirely. The system leads to a polarisation of radical and conservative opinion in the Union and effectively forces groups within the Council, say the ‘political’ universities, to adopt takeover tactics to get any representation on the Executive at all. (7.For general discussion of the Executive’s role in policy and implementation, see op. cit. paragraphs 77-89) Since the Executive plays such a crucial role in the whole policy creation, direction and campaign, it is inevitable that radical opinion in the Union will want at least a voice on that Executive.
The Executive acromegaly and all-or-nothing election system has produced in out view a particularly low level of campaigning based on various modifications of a basic smear, the calling of anyone left of the Rotary Club ‘Communists’. Discontent came to a head at Exeter in 1966 where one of the listed ticket supporters of the executive was changed within minutes of the election. Geoff Martin, who was reported as ‘dedicated to reducing Communist influence'(8. Guardian, 12 April 1966), has admitted, though it was scarcely necessary, to using a ticket on this occasion. An emergency motion at this Council led to a Commission which introduced new methods to make tickets an blatant abuses more difficult without actually changing the voting system. The new system will cramp smear canvassing: militants will find it easier to run for elections without being libelled as mentally sick, sexually deviant or politically motivated.
One of the most nauseous aspects of the election smears has been the intervention of Fleet Street. The Sunday Times in particular has devoted five articles over the last two years to the danger of ‘extremist takeovers’ of the NUS. The paper has exposed ‘a determined left wing bid for power’, ‘closely organised extremist plan’ and ‘far left’s attempt to seize power’. When militants we Labour Party members, the Sunday Times simply said that ‘they deny being Communist Party Members’. A recent article boldly named three ‘self-declared Communists’, none of whom had any connexion whatsoever with the Communist Party. The Observer tagged along rather less energetically, in an article headed ‘Union Fights Communist Bid For Power’. Alan Hunt was quoted, for example, as saying that he did not mind who got elected to the executive, as long as they are ‘aggressive’, when what he actually saud was, ‘progressive’. The rest of the press has been more straightforward; any remotely progressive move is immediately labelled a plot from the Kremlin. Thus after attempts to introduce a ‘Student Charter’ summarising NUS student polecat had failed, at Easter 1965, the Evening Standard trumpeted ‘Communists defeated in First Round’. In the week that RSA held its founding convention, Bruce Kemble, the Daily Express’ Education Reporter, posed the question ‘that worries every responsible don and student in Britain’; ‘who will capture the students’ ears in the next few months – the lively young Liberals or the Moscow-organised militants? …'(9. Bruce Kemble, ‘Crisis among the angry students’, Daily Express, 1 February 1967). Peregrine Worsthorne was less alliterative. “The result is a growing body of bloody minded students who poison the university climate by setting teachers and taught at each other’s throats and generally embroiling the universities in an endless caterwaul of puerile protest.’ (10. Peregrine Worsthorne, ‘Too easy to go to University’, Sunday Telegraph, 5 February 1967). When an NUS conference decision was taken to pursue a neutralist international policy in November 1966, the reaction of the press was such that, as Tribune commented, ‘anyone who thought that the idea that non-alignment meant pro-communism had gone out with Senator McCarthy would have been proved wrong by the press this week.’

NUS and its Activists

The Executive’s paranoia about student Communist Party members is a very revealing aspect of their political outlook. For those who see politics as essentially manipulative, opposition becomes subversion. Any attempt to alter the present situation is sedition, the result of a minority plot and mass gullibility. The evidence of Battersea CAT to the NUS Voting Commission aptly commented: ‘It is unfortunate that the people who fight to keep politics out of the National Union are the same people who go round to you at election time and say, “Don’t vote for him he belongs to the…”‘ For the Executive, CP members have provided suitable scapegoats. In practice, Communist students have been simply too few to operate blocks and ‘control’ delegations and have had to rely on their ability. Precisely because of the smear barrier in most colleges, elected Communists are not only able to downright pedantic about obeying mandates and observing delegation responsibility. What characterised UCL or Leeds when they had CP secretaries was their painstaking and informed motions and speeches: UCL used to manhandle a three-tier filing cabinet into Council floor; Leeds intervention on teacher training and the National Plan verged on the academic. Clause Three of the Union specifics that ‘it is not the role of the Union to become a general political forum.’ (11. Sunday Times, 5 February 1967). In this demonology, politics is seen as something that threatens to bring the conflicts of the real world into the educational enclave which is the students’ only arena. Those from political backgrounds, it is implied, wish to superimpose the ideology of their parent party on the virgin neutrality of NUS thought and reproduce the pantomime of parliamentary debate in NUS Council. in practice, of course, the ‘apoliticism’ appears to conceal a principled adherence to the assumptions and aims of Fabian Labourism. NUS Executive members pass fluently and regularly into Transport House and the Union bureaucracy. The 1964/6 Secretary went direct to the editorship of the Amalgamated Engineering Union Journal whose (unsuccessful) role in the 1967 AEU elections is notorious: the heads of Transport House Research and of its Overseas Department were both until recently members of the NUS oligarchy. The last two personal assistants of Sir Ronald Gould of the NUT have also been NUS Executive members. The present Executive and right-wing floor organisers are active supporters of the London Fabian Society. They are our social engineers, nudging and anticipating capitalism. There is no secret about this. Only they themselves bother with the polite fiction of their ‘apoliticism.’

The Radicals Emerge

The assumptions of a centralised bureaucratised Union with local militants attacked an the central machinery increasingly inducted into central planning mechanisms are explicit and highly political. NUS’ ‘sane and sensible policy to get at the levers of power’ (12. Ian Cunningham (NUS executive) Surrey University, 5 June 1967) has involved respectability at all costs and converted it into a listless company union.
It was inevitable that studens would eventually come to revolt against the menopausal leadership of NUS and its flaccid policies. For the last eight years the larger universities have tended to be an awkward squad with the NUS, continually advocating more radical policies. Universities with a strong and democratic union came to Council with an elected delegation fully briefed and mandated on all issues by general meetings. Universities like Leeds, Manchester, UCL and more recently Birmingham, Hull, LSE, Keele, York and Sussex, have sent sophisticated delegates who have generally voted and organised against the Chair. The main areas of Executive support comes, by contrast, from the backward areas which have tended to rely on national leadership rather than local initiative; the traditionally conservative universities and colleges of education which command a quarter of the votes. The Technical Colleges have become increasingly disenchanted with the Chair and provide rather an unpredictable and truculent bloc.
The pattern of growing opposition to the NUS style and leadership, however, depended on the growth of parallel organisations which were concerned with the type of politics which NUS insisted on ignoring. In October 1965, a new London based student newsletter called Snap was started by NUS activists, for distribution among student unionists. It had been originally conceived as a group called Students Now for Action and Progress, but this thirties-sounding alliance never lasted as far as its launching. the first issue declared, in the sort of prose that seemed necessary at the time, ‘We Believe in the vale of inter-collegiate communication. Students in this country have never had psychological unity – not because common student concerns and action do not exist but because most students are simply unaware of them’ (13. Snap, 8 October 1965.) The news service scooped the first Department of Education and Science mutterings on student loans on 6 October 1965 – although NUS took no action until 22 October when they sent a confidential letter to union presidents, a tactic which managed to let sleeping dogs lie. Snap readers’ groups discussed their own problems rather than those that NUS had in mind for them. The Establishment reacted by barring its reporters from NUS Margate Council 1965, and attacking it. Alan Evans announced from the platform that was edited by lying Communists , despite the well-known fact that both editors were Labour party members. Tom McNally called it a ‘despicable rag’. Both went on to enter the Executive ticket. Frank Fuchs, the editor of Sennet, the London University newspaper, who had refused and was physically barred from the office. Two libel writs were sent to the paper, one in the name of the NUS solicitors, and it was repeatedly attacked in Student News.
The pattern of journalistic agitation continued both in the increasingly disenchanted student press and in specifically insurrectionary papers like The Agitator at LSE. The party-political groups begun to issue joint statements. The first was a mild rebuke to the Americans in Vietnam signed by officials from the Liberal, Labour and Communist student groups and drafted at NUS Margate 1965 Council. it was at this meeting that the fist left-wing NUS breakthrough came, when the Council decided overwhelmingly to reject the proposal of the Majority Report on International Affairs which advocated full membership of the ISC (see David Triesman’s article), the CIA financed, anti-Communist organisation with which NUS had been traditionally identified. The Report’s advice was not accepted. Usually the Executive was prepared to accept the occasional defeat as a tolerable dissonance in their overall fugal pattern. But this reverse undermined their central stance in Cold War student politics and they fought it with ferocity.
Immediately after the decision, delegates were told that they would lose their travel concessions and that anyway the defeat was engineered by left-wing journalists. Over the following six months, a great deal of interest was stimulated in colleges all over the country as the international question was debated. The Establishment found the lobbying of the student hierarchy more to their taste. Selected students were taken on an expenses paid weekend at a Maidenhead hotel by an organisation called ‘The Fund for International Student Cooperation’ where they were gently told the facts of life about world politics by lecturers flown in for the weekend (14. See Private Eye and Essex Left, May 1967) The pressure on the Union Balls and Banquets was unrelenting; at a reception at Endsleigh Street held immediately before the UCL FoundationBall, two past presidents of the NUS were there to support the Executive’s canvassing. Eventually the ‘swingometer’ which the UCL NUS Committee had installed in their Gower Street office moved slowly in favour of the ISC and the Executive. The Council decision was reversed at Exeter
But during these six months radical counter-networks developed; left-wing centres had kept in daily telephone contact and this enabled the cooperation behind attempts at national student opposition to the Rhodesian UDI centred on LSE and York. Throughout this period there was increasing concern with the going pace of student activity in Europe and the USA where the universities were spearheading the opposition to the Vietnam War. The syndicalism of the French students and the Direct Action of the Provo movement increasingly became part of British students political syntax. Jut as the Americans had studied the tactics and literature of the CND movement, so FSM and SDS literature was shipped back to English activists. There was a sudden growth of motions moving no confidence in the philosophy of the NUS, an approach which would have been unthinkable two years ago. The first of these debates was in Hull on 25 January 1967, where David Adelstein’s attack on the inadequacies of NUS’ vision was supported by 208 of the 250 student unions. The Times described the vote as ‘essentially a victory for the union’s politically active element which has successfully exploited a widespread dissatisfaction among students who feel that they are not being given enough say in how their union is run’. (15. The Times, 26 January 1967) Geoff Martin’s reaction was ‘philosophical’, he continued to attribute these reversals to minor and temporary discontents. The Guardian’s summary was more realistic, ‘in constituent union there has been criticism of misuses of executive powers, lack of militant leadership, a decision to double membership fees, internal voting procedures and divisions of opinion among the executive.’ (16. Guardian, 24 January 1967) Over the following months motions of no confidence proliferated in Swansea, Keele, Birmingham, Essex and both the London technical colleges and colleges of Education. The Executive remained complacent; Martin told New Society, ‘that he expects to see unions “trot in and out” for a time’. (17. New Society, 16 February 1967) The first signs of a nationally organised alternative to the NUS’s unrepentantly non-militant politics came when twelve student leaders, six of them primarily active in ULS, NALSO and the CP, and the rest local union celebrities, signed a manifesto which they offered the waiting student movement as ‘a basis for discussion and action’. The Radical Student Alliance was thus launched. The actual content of the manifesto was moderate and basic, stressing student rights to control their own union and union funds and have a say in disciplinary matters. It demanded an end to the means test and declared that education must be ‘classless, integrated (not tripartite or binary) and comprehensive at all levels’. It asked for more pay for teachers and solidarity with foreign students, especially those who were victims of oppression. It even went as far as to mention collective student action on ‘matters of social concern… for example in opposition to racialism wherever it occurs.’ For those without knowledge of the turbulent conflict within NUS, it would appear innocuous; for those convinced of a need for a revolutionary challenge, it was scarcely fiery. For most of the winter term things were quiet. Meanwhile however, the attack on Walter Adams’s desirability as Director of LSE had begun; LSE students boycotted lectures on the day of Adelstein’s trial (for writing to The Times). At the NUS Margate Conference in November, Bill Savage, the outgoing President, skilfully endorsed the LSE action in terms of an attack on ‘educational Colonel Blimps’, a typically golf club image, and managed to use LSE as a codpiece for the NUS’s lack of militancy over less spectacular discipline problems. Every time Adelstein spoke he was received with rapturous applause, but an LSE motion advocating the use of direct action in cases where negotiations broke down, failed to reach the floor. Mike Thomas, Vice President, said angrily, ‘Some of those concerned were not protesting solely about the suspensions.’ (18. At St Mary’s College of Education, Strawberry Hill.) The NUS response was further proof of their ability to miss the point as they stumbled though the wood of injustice trying to find the legal tree. The most heated debate was over the much vaunted change in the voting system. In a bitter debate the platform was clearly split in its attitude to the whole relationship of Executive with membership. The Treasurer attacked ‘corruption’ from the platform. The 58 per cent vote for a change in the election system against the strong advice of the platform reflected a growing independence and radicalism.
The next period is worth some examination to plot out the Executive’s responses to a fluid situation. The RSA pressed ahead to its first conference which was held at LSE over the weekend of 28/29 January. The press release promised that the meeting would be the ‘first public testing of a common front student alliance which has so far been influential but ambiguous… it can be expected that the convention will dramatise the growing split in the leadership and local membership of the national union.’ About 500 students arrived from all over Britain with strong Union contingents from Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Hull. Not a single official from NUS was apparently visible. The discussion was energetic and volatile. Procedure was dispensed with and formal motions scarcely occurred. The meeting had a very strong antipathy to organisation; the phrase ‘grassroots’ could be guaranteed to enter every speech. RSA speakers pledged themselves, as the Guardian put it ‘to a brand of political involvement which NUS has studiously sought to avoid’. (19. Guardian, David Gowlay, ‘The Shape of Student Politics’.) The central discussion was on the government’s announcement of a discriminatory fee increase for overseas students which was decreed on the first day of the Christmas vacation without any consultation whatsoever. After electing twenty members of a council to act as a coordinating body to service student radicals, the meeting called for a day of mass student activity in the form of strikes, boycotts, meetings, and town rally on 22 July 1967 and massive participation in the NUS parliamentary protest rally organised for 1 July.
The NUS’s absence from the meeting did not prevent their attempting to nullify it with the sort of press release which they so much prefer to dialogue. On Sunday, Geoff Martin put onto the Agency tapes the most hackneyed ploy ever used by the NUS. It took the form of a letter to the Russian Student Council, complaining about an alleged meeting between two Russian students visiting this country as guests of NUS and Communist students in Britain. This offence took place in Novemeber and although it took two months for the President to decide that a rebuke was deserved, it was also deemed necessary to release its contents to the British Press before it had been received in Moscow. The press rose beautifully; stories headed ‘Students Protest Against Russian Interference’ all mentioned RSA as the subject of discussion between the Russians and the British Communists. The notion that militancy can be imported from Moscow and student radicals stage-managed from the Kremiln could only occur to an antiquated Cold War bureaucrat.
Despite the assault in the press, students arrived in massive numbers for the July lobby of Parliament, and despite the deliberate attempts of the NUS leadership to confine it to two union officials from each college, like a coach trip to The Sound of Music. Martin walked out of the lobby after twenty minuted but the rest of the 3000 students waited patiently and in spite of the painful movement of the queue and the rain, the lobbiers remained determined. The National Press gave it the wildest coverage that a student lobby has ever had. The Evening Standard described the protest as ‘symptomatic of a fairly modern phenomenon. The development of an obsessive and direct interest in political action among students.’ (20. Evening Standard, 1 February 1967.)
Subsequent NUS activity was centred on manoeuvring with the Conservative Party to have a motion sufficiently mild to encourage Labour rebels, placed on the House’s business. The plan was to stage a one-day protest on the day before the debate in the House but the letters to their local NUS secretaries were entirely concerned with the dangers of militancy. Rather than any rash talk of strikes, they suggested what the Guardian called ‘a moderate policy of lobbying and letter-writing’ and were obsessed that any action that was taken should have the full approval of the college authorities and local newspaper editors. Aware that on the campus the radicals were forcing the pace, the Executive chose this period to dissociate itself from the RSA and its activities.
On Sunday 5 February, the Sunday Times reported that ‘a group of hard-line moderates will demand the proscription of the RSA, a popular front ginger group within the NUS’ and went on, ‘a hard-line member of the Executive..said yesterday “This will be a crushing blow for the Union, but we believe it necessary to prevent Communist control.”‘ The article then attempted to list ‘self-declared Communists’ naming three well-known non-Communists, members of the Labour and Liberal parties, to whom the Sunday Times apologised the following week. Although there is no constitutional means for proscribing anyone, the Exectuive, meeting the same day, busied themselves in the composition of a letter officially, ‘disassociating themselves’ from the RSA. In Manchester, the right wing forced a filibuster through three Union meetings and the Union ran a referendum before the strike action was agreed on. The NUS had still not committed themselves to a date for their action, indeed could not, till the date of their parliamentary debate was decided on by the Whips. They continued with their anti-militant pleas; on no account was any action to be called a ‘strike’ since, ‘preliminary response from the national press to this sort of action has been highly unfavourable’. On 18 February, the Executive chose, lo and behold, 22 February for their activity too, although the parliamentary debate was on the same day. In their letter which announced this, they sternly warned against any lobbying of Parliament in case it would distract and anger previously sympathetic MP’s and insisted that ‘under no circumstances should the word strike be used’… all these admonitions despite the apparent knowledge that any mass activity would have been planned for three weeks now. On the eve of 22 February, the NUS began the final stage of its desk-bound protest and started to claim that it was the radicals who had procrastinated and has ‘attached themselves to our shirt tails because its the only way they can get publicity. They have called for strikes and pickets which we think frankly ridiculous’. (21. The Times, 23 February 1967) Having heaved themselves on the bandwagon some three weeks late, they proceeded to denounce the drivers and announce that it was all a mistake. These anti-militant tactics had some success. The claim that strike action might alienate press and parliamentary opinion confused some unions and Lancaster, Glasgow and Strathclyde called off boycotts. But The Times still calculated that ten universities took effective strike action and quoted an RSA leader as estimating that as many as twenty were officially involved. The only meeting that NUS could claim to have taken a direct hand in organising was the ‘orderly and attentive meeting’ at the Friends House, Euston Road, where Lord Arran called the decision ‘a highly morally distasteful action’. That evening, Geoff MArtin was once again on television where he devoted his time to another attack on the RSA’s motives. At the NUS Easter Council in Liverpool, the Executive’s ‘timing’ of their protest action was censured and the RSA, the Northern Presidents’ Meeting and Coordinating Committee of Overseas Student Organisation were congratulated.
The point of this examination of dates and decision is to show that in a real context the NUS leadership lack both the desire and the political structure to mobilise protest on this sort of scale. For in practice, the people who care enough to organise strikes and lead protests are precisely those militants the NUS Executive had constantly attacked.

Now the Grants

The same patter was repeated with an identical script when the Government announced its intention to halve whatever increase might be recommended by the Triennial Grants Review due to report in 1968. The vicious cut in the value of grants came at a time when the Margate Conference on the NUS (November 1967) had discussed and rejected the notion of a student wage. Discussion of the idea of the ‘student worker’ was widespread among radical students at the RSA’s Second Conference, NALSO’s Student Power meeting and the National Workers’ Control Conference. The concept did challenge student loyalty to the ruling class ethic of the old universities and the power structures of the new. But it is evident that students do not occupt the same position within capitalist relations of production as do workers – whose daily life drums into their consciousness the fundamental conflict over the division of the product. The remoteness of much of this discussion became obvious when -after the freeze, devaluation, the highest bank rate for forty years and a new £3000 million international loan – the January 1968 measures turned to the business of dismantling the social services. The ruthlessness of the cuts of school building, school milk and teacher expansion made complete nonsense of the NUS proposals for educational growth. The international needs of British capitalism made it essential to depress domestic living standards to the point where even British business might its increase its share of world trade. Some of the cuts were economically gratuitous: school milk and prescription charges were attacked entirely for the benefit of foreign bankers. The severity of the assault on student grants showed up the optimism of those militants who felt that the main problem confronting the NUS was whether to dub inevitable increase a grant or a wage. The impossibility of considering student conditions apart from the larger social crisis had never been clearer.
The NUS reactions which ensued follow too closely those of the Overseas Fees Campaign to need repetition here. Martin argued that students were prepared, like anyone else, to make sacrifices for Britain in crisis, although his membership was constitutionally prevented from discussing the nature of this crisis. In his public appearances, he competed with the Government in proposing possible attacks on education spending, denouncing student militants and urging better discipline. Various meetings were held with Gordon Walker.
Aware of the opposition by even the Right to his earlier enthusiasm for the grant sacrifices, Martin now tended to decorate his statements with appeals to protect the ‘children of less well off families’. The usual rallies and marches produced some mobilisation, but the NUS leadership relied on inertia to cover the traces of a defeat they had no intention of fighting. Indeed the circumstances of a cut in grants placed them in a very difficult position. For either the accepted the cut and the ‘Back Britain’ logic that went with it, or they had to accept that the attack on education and student conditions was merely the climax of a sequence of attacks on working-class wages, living standards and industrial organisations – and could only be fought alongside the other groups attacked.
An attempt to move No Confidence in the Executive’s handling of the grants issue failed at the NUS’s Leicester conference despite a wide backing from local union. This setback and the defeat of radical candidates in the 1968 elections depended largely on skilled handling of delegates. The elected president for 1968-70 is Trevor Fisk, previously Union Secretary, who publicly announced that he was running to stop the radical candidate. The Elctions Commission ruled that he was ineligible for candidature because he only signed on to his law course at the Inns of Court six days before the election papers were due. This decisions was then startlingly reversed in a second overnight session. It is an index of the general level of political and intellectual credulity within the NUS that even the gymnastics were not seriously challenged. In 1962, Fisk was listed by David George, the President of Debates at London University, ‘as one of the signatories to George’s own proposed constitution of a University of London Chapter of the John Birch Society’. While there is little doubt that his views have been suitably modified since those days, Fisk remains the product of the right-wing, elitist Union dynasty that is one of the worst bureaucratic cliques in the country.
The international chain of student insurgency in the spring and summer of 1968 began to transform the perspectives of the British student movement. Occupations and sit-ins occurred in a wide range of colleges on a wide range of issues (the examination system, the nature of courses, disciplinary powers of university authorities etc.). Events such as these prompted some student radicals to abandon their tussle within the NUS and to strengthen revolutionary student power agitation at the base. At the same time those socialists who had formerly condemned student movements as irredeemably petit-bourgeois began to acknowledge that they might have a genuinely revolutionary potential after all. The inauguration of a Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation in June 1968 was in part the product of these reorientations. This promises to be a crucial initiative in the development of a revolutionary student movement in Britain. The reaction of the NUS leadership to the stirring events was to tell anyone who cared to listen that student insurrection could be avoided in Britain if only the Government and Vice Chancellors would concede the petty ameliorations proposed by the NUS. Nothing could be more loathsome to Fisk and his kind that a revolution which promised to strangle the last capitalist with the entrails of the last bureaucrat. Their reflex appeared merely to use the student insurrections to apply a little pressure to the authorities and present the NUS as the champion of the reasonable majority of students.

The Future

The NUS oligarchy will certainly never reform itself. Despite opportunities for even a diplomatic shift to the Left, it has remianed wedded to a deeply conservative vision of society and human action within it. It has refused to reassess its ‘apoliticism’ and, if anything, has intensified its fetishistic concern with the niceties of non-involvement. The politics of NUS still remain manipulative, managing the press and manufacturing debate; the only hope for mass democracy is bigger parties and more sherry. The Executive’s stained-glass minds concentrate on methods of reforming the Union without allowing any of their top-down power into the hands of the active membership. Externally there is no attempt to unite the fragmented policies of the Union into a single intelligible critique, far less to link this to strategy for change in British education and society. A phoney consensus with genuine differences glossed over, is still preferred to the admission of fundamental divisions. The feebless of NUS consensualism in student crises, like LSE and the Overseas Student Fees decision, emphasises the gap between it and a genuine student union.
What is needed is a programme which would enable the students to experience new rank and file alliances and a much higher level of demands and activities. This is precisely what happened in the USA, where the direct contact of the activist with the machinery of segregation in the South and the Northern Ghettos, expanded their outlook into the wider picture of the American power structure. A real student movement will grow out of a real struggle, not vice versa. The sort of transitional projects that activists could increasingly launch should have as their central aim enlarging the arena of student activity to include the Trades Council and the Stewards Committees as well as the Union and the University. A national Housing Campaign could, for instance, link up with local housing struggles and Tenants Associations in a way which could enhance all three activities. For they are all reflection of the same failure to divert adequate funds into public housing.
The particular situation of the student in lodgings and flats which are quite useless for serious study and cost him two-thirds of his grant, is merely one consequence of the same crisis which forces council rents up and allows the domination of the Rachmans of Islington, Moss Side and Liverpool 9. The ‘sustained programme to provide more houses at prices that ordinary people can afford’ of which the Labour Party Manifesto spoke has utterly failed to change the basic situation. Three and a half million houses lacking basic amenities; four million houses over 80 years old; land prices up 40 per cent over the last 5 years; the student has lived all these problems. Any demand that University students should jump the queue of stagnation may make educational sense in terms of ‘output and efficiency’ but it would the effort of a fragmented interest group to evade the general crisis by a partial solution. Wilson’s satellitism to Washington forces an attack on Government spending. It does not distinguish between student building or local authority building. The new Rent Act, welcomed by NUS as another lever to decent student accommodation at reasonable prices, has turned out to be controlled by precisely these landlords, lawyers and estate agents it was designed to attack. Of the 1100 cases going to appeal in the GLC area, many of them by students, only 357 had a decrease in rent upheld and 480 had their rent levels increased. What is needed is student evidence which can link the students’ housing conditions to the general social situation and then use this factual background not just on the shelves of the DES, student union files and newspaper editors’ waste paper baskets, but in a campaign at tenant meetings and council house protests. A housing campaign for students which does not take the plight of the rest of the community into consideration will get the contempt it deserves from the working people. Students should not be asking for special treatment and university cubicles but fair housing and a council house for students as well as any other young worker. By uniting their experience of the need for decent living conditions with the fights and organisation of other groups, who are demanding dramatic improvements in their housing conditions, students give meaning to their demands to be treated like ordinary people and ordinary people will respect them for it.
Equally, the radicals’ demand for militancy and involvement can be made concrete action over the teachers’ pay claim. Teachers’ real wages have been steadily failing, in relation not only to manual workers but also to white collar and other professional groups. A comparison with ten other European Countries puts Britain at the bottom (except for Eire) in some categories. The combination of a non-militant Union, desperate overcrowding and absurd salaries has long caused an exodus from the profession. In one year alone, 2000 newly qualified students never even took up a position. If the Government were serious about increasing the leaving age, reducing classes to statutory size and implementing the staffing recommendations of the Plowden Report, it would need to increase the number of teachers by about 200000, some 70 per cent of the current teaching force. Yet the blame for the present situation lies very largely with the teaching unions, which have used any and every excuse to evade any militant action. They have followed the ATTI and the AUT’s concept of a white collar union with its ‘professional ethic’ (which never cramps the BMA’s style), isolated from their own rank and file and other union. The correct models of course, are the white collar unions like DATA, ASSET and AScW, which use selected strike action, intensive negotiations and a high level of strike pay to great effect. Employers are powerless against militant wage bargaining in one sector with the whole area resources behind it. Afterwards the neighbouring sectors can fight to drift their wages up to the new differential levels. The selective sanctions that teachers have agreed to apply make possible this form of sectional attack especially if the areas of militancy were already Plowden designated ‘positive wage discrimination’ areas. The NUS has always had a formal policy for increasing teachers; pay, but militant action is now needed on the picket line and the school hall.
In many respects the alternatives which are said to confront student militants – the industrial struggle or the university – are simply a function of a comparatively small number of student militants. A developed, autonomous student movement with a clear theoretical perspective would be able to obtain wide inroads of control within the university while at the same time participating participating in anti-imperialist and workers’ struggles. This is already true of Japan and increasingly so of Germany. Without experience of mass political struggle, above all in the Labour movement, the best criticism of colour-supplement culture, the most complete blueprint for students’ control or the grooviest anti-university might all be sponsored by the Arts Council. The Left within the university has got to find a bond with those parts of the system which are able to halt and change it fundamentally, such as tenants and unofficial strikers. The campus cannot become a citadel of advanced political consciousness if the same lies of national unity, social peace and racial difference are steamrollered over the rest of society. The Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation could play a vital role here, in clarifying and generalising the political content of student struggle.
For either radical or revolutionary, work in the NUS is depressing and seldom rewarding. The sheer dead weight of an organisation defined by the absence of militants is difficult to exaggerate. Debate appears so infantile, organisation appears so manipulative and elections appear so deeply conditioned by hucksterism that the value of enlarging the radical enclave within the NUS is very questionable. At present, given the wide range of interest-groups within the union and their uneven level of political development, it is unlikely that a radical Executive would be able to give the advanced political militants in the universities what they want and at the same time service the entirely different attitude of the apolitical small colleges. The NUS does represent some kind of expression for the activities in the small colleges without any socialist formation, and the NUS Council is their main chance to make contact with other militants, especially those in local universities and bigger colleges who can make available their experience. This happened in Leeds, Manchester and Essex on a very political basis. RSA was welcomed by precisely these people as a way to overcome the isolation of radicals marooned in backward colleges; it allowed them to gain invitations and thus footholds in colleges that would ban the Conservative party. But it is also true that the leadership of the NUS could change hands without anything like a majority of British students being aware of it; unless a radical Executive had some mass backing at the roots, a well-organised Right deprived of power would be in a strong position to counter-attack.
Perhaps the most important of the current developments is that the increasingly frustrated militant universities are talking of disaffiliation. The NUS at present remains almost unique as a single national union What is more frequent is one militant union and a sorry service organisation. But where an autonomous revolutionary student movement emerges outside the national union, such as the SDS in Germany or the SDS in the USA, the latter often trails belatedly after it. If a genuine lead is given, it will oblige the national organisation to follow – such as the VDS and NSA had to some extent to do in West Germany and the USA.
Beyond all these questions of organisation, it is clear that out of the ideological wreckage of social democracy and Stalinism, a new student revolutionary perspective is emerging – international, extra-parliamentary and returning militant politics to the street. These students have seen through the fancy dress of modern capitalism and found the irrational violence and the hopelessness which is its core. They have seen their community of interest with the working class – a community which should concern us as much as it should frighten those who rule us. There is a spectre haunting Europe and its banners read, in Berlin and Warsaw and Paris and London: “Today the Students, Tomorrow the Workers’.”

1969 – London