Acoherent and militant student movement has not yet emerged in England. But it may now be only a matter of time before it does. Britain is the last major industrialized country which has not produced one. The immediate priorities for any such movement are obvious: the fight against the authoritarianism of universities and colleges, alliance with the working-class and struggle against imperialism. These are the issues which are the natural focus of struggle for a mass student revolt. There is, however, another front which will have eventually to be opened. This is a direct attack on the reactionary and mystifying culture inculcated in universities and colleges, and which it is one of the fundamental purposes of British higher education to instil in students.

Louis Althusser has recently written that within the general system of higher education ‘the number one strategic point of the action of the dominant class’ is ‘the very knowledge students receive from their teachers’. This is ‘the true fortress of class influence in the university’; ‘it is by the very nature of the knowledge it imparts to students that the bourgeoisie exerts its greatest control over them.’footnote1 An assault on this ‘fortress’ is, in fact, a necessary condition of the successful take-off of a student movement (the example of the German SDS is eloquent here). For one of the main reasons for the lateness of any student unrest in England is precisely the lack of any revolutionary tradition within English culture. Only where revolutionary ideas are freely and widely available—forming part of their daily environment—will large numbers of students begin to revolt. Hitherto, they have been muzzled and quiescent, not primarily because of their class origins (which are somewhat more democratic than in many countries with violent upheavals), but more importantly because of their cultural formation. It is not their social recruitment which distinguishes British students from German, Italian or French students—but their intellectual heritage. To unlock their traditional and uncritical attitudes towards university and society, a systematic critique of established British culture is needed. This must not become a substitute for practical struggle against institutions of higher education and the society of which they are a part: it should accompany it. Where is such a systematic critique to be found? The natural source for it is the political Left. Unfortunately, any nascent student movement will not find much immediate assistance there.

Britain, the most conservative major society in Europe, has a culture in its own image: mediocre and inert. The ataraxy of this culture is manifest in any international context. But it is a culture of which the Left in Britain has largely been a passive spectator, and at times a deluded accomplice. Twentieth century British culture was by and large made against it. Yet the Left has never truly questioned this ‘national’ inheritance which is one of the most enduring bonds of its subordination.footnote2 But this duty remains on the agenda of any serious socialist movement in Britain, that may emerge from the debris of the past. Without revolutionary theory, wrote Lenin, there can be no revolutionary movement. Gramsci, in effect, added: without a revolutionary culture, there will be no revolutionary theory. A political science capable of guiding the working-class movement to final victory will only be born within a general intellectual matrix which challenges bourgeois ideology in every sector of thought and represents a decisive, hegemonic alternative to the cultural status quo. It is enough to say this, to be reminded that in Britain, at present, there is virtually no organized combat of any kind, anywhere along the front. Worse than this, we do not have even an elementary cartography of the terrain that must be disputed. The most influential socialist work of the past decade was called Culture and Society. Yet the British Left has few analyses of its own society: it has none of its culture.

The aim of the present essay is to begin a preliminary inventory of the problems involved in considering the total ‘set’ of contemporary British culture, and its meaning for socialists. Given the complete mutism of the past, any such initial attempt will inevitably suffer from errors, lapses, elisions and omissions. But discussion of the subject is eventually a precondition of political advance by students, and intellectual advance by the Left, and a start must be made somewhere. The risks of haste are obvious; but the fact is that we are suffering from the results of years of delay.

British culture as it exists today is a profound obstacle to revolutionary politics. What is meant by culture here? A preliminary delimitation is essential. We are not concerned with the anthropological conception of culture, as the sum of social customs and symbols in a given society. The generalization of this use of the term characterized the Left in the fifties, and was responsible for some important insights into British society: this was the moment of Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. But this usage also blurred the specificity of the superstructural complex which is a society’s original thought and art.