Martin Shaw writes: Ben Brewster’s and Alexander Cockburn’s account of recent events at lse is competent and largely unobjectionable, but I should like to express strong disagreement with the article preceding it: ‘Student Power: What is to be Done?’ In particular I can only express amazement at the statement that ‘it is instructive how the existence of the Radical Student Alliance strengthened the positions of the student leaders in lse, and how this in turn buttressed the power and influence of the rsa.’
The judgment on the value of rsa to lse is just not warranted by the facts. It is significant t hat Brewster and Cockburn do not mention rsa in their account—except in the ‘Note on History and Structure’ where they remark that the officers of the lse Union ‘have played an active part in nus and rsa’. This involvement tells us very little about the recent struggle, in which the Union leaders (David Adelstein included) have been pushed from below. And as your account remarks, in the sitin, a more militant unofficial leadership, in which Socialist Society members were prominent, made much of the running. At the same time, support from outside lse was not organized by rsa—students joined the sit-in and the march very largely without the prompting of any organization. When the Union did try to make contact with students in other Universities, it did not go through rsa. Nor can rsa have been responsible for most of the messages of support—Brewster and Cockburn say there were 357 of these, far more than the number of colleges that rsa is organized in!
As for the value of lse to rsa, this is not easy to judge (not least because rsa has been pretty well dormant this last term). We can, however, say that there has been no mass rush to enrol; in lse, where its insignificance is apparent, this is certainly true, and if it is otherwise elsewhere, the gains are largely unmerited. And this in more senses than one; for one should dispute the criteria on which your writers judge the rsa’s potential.
In particular, socialists cannot accept that ‘Ultimately, of course, the goal is the capture of the nus.’ For what would this mean to the mass of students? Nothing more, I suggest, than that a group of Leftists had replaced the Wilsonites at the top of what they would still see as a Union removed from their concerns and control. For they would not, to get elected, need to rally the vast majority of students in a meaningful campaign. Rather, it would be a sign that they had avoided that, but hope to impose a ‘Left’ line on the membership. For very few students are much interested in a left-wing policy. The problems are much more basic than the article in parts suggests—not to capture the nus, but to build an agitation at the bottom, to help students to change their own consciousness of their situation in society. (I gather that even among rsa leaders, the ‘capture the nus’ line is being reconsidered.)
For socialists, anyway, the prime aim should be to ensure that there are students who are committed to aiding the socialist movement outside the University (for socialism is not and never can be a movement of the intellectuals). And if it is important, for this, to participate in the struggle within the University, this means that the two struggles cannot be separated. We cannot, for example, first attempt to create a corporate student consciousness, and then try to politicize this. The critique of education can only be based on the revolutionary criticism of society; the demand for control over the content of education finds meaning in the struggle for control in society at large. It is therefore imperative that socialists do not muzzle their criticism to make it acceptable to partners in any coalitions, or because they have to be elected to offices by people who are unable to share their position.
Stedman Jones, Barnett and Wengraf conclude: ‘Only by making the struggle for the campus his first concern will the student ever be able to make the acquisition of critical knowledge a right of education.’ May I suggest that out concern should be not so much with the right as with the knowledge itself, and that only by joining the struggle for the campus to the sttuggle for society will students obtain that knowledge of society which exposes the deformation of knowledge in our universities today? This, surely, is where the tasks of socialist students lie.