Martin Shaw’s letter is very welcome, as, by questioning the concrete role of the rsa in the lse affair and the possible role of the rsa in British politics, it raises general issues of strategy in the student sphere only touched on in the articles we published in nlr 43. The discussion of the rsa in the article by Stedman Jones, Barnett and Wengraf was only a paragraph in length and this undue compression may have made it somewhat too voluntarist. The rsa is as yet a young organization with few achievements to its name and an unpredictable future: all the more reason for socialists to support it and by their active participation ensure that its progressive promise is realized, unless, of course, it can be proved a priori that such efforts would be wasted as it is bound to be impotent or even reactionary. This would seem to be the position Martin Shaw adopts.
There are two possible justifications for this position, both of which he puts forward:
1. ‘Socialism is not and never can be a movement of the intellectuals’. It is self-evident that socialism can never be a movement of intellectuals only. But it is equally obvious that intellectuals do play a necessary part in a revolutionary movement, and not just as lone social critics as Martin Shaw apparently implies. The fact is that Great Britain is probably unique in its socialist movement’s lack of considerable body of intellectuals, and, more important, of a socialist position of strength in the intellectual culture of the country. The whole context of the articles we produced was the unique absence of a significant socialist student movement in this country up to now; in France, unef’s opposition to the Algerian War, the present struggle of Spanish students against Franco, the sncc and sds in the usa and Zengakuren
2. The rsa is not a suitable location for student militancy. This is a much more difficult question. Clearly the significance of a political student movement must be more than building ‘an agitation at the bottom, to help students to change their consciousness of their situation in society’. But in any event student political action requires more than isolated outbursts it needs some co-ordination of struggle and aims outside the individual college or university. Spontaneous student protest rotates around national and international ideological issues, like udi, and parochial discomforts, like overcrowded facilities.
At lse these were effective because they were united at the level of the institution in a demand for student power to prevent the appointment of a new director. Action at this level was effective because it provoked a direct clash between the authorities of the School and the Students’ Union. No doubt the Union’s leaders were ‘pushed from below’, but it was their determination that constituted an effective ‘pull from above’ which was essential to the growth of the movement, which was only effective in and through the Union, it should be stressed. Similarly, if the external support that was so helpful in lse (remember the days after January 31st when no outside help was solicited or forthcoming) was largely spontaneous, many of those who gave it, both by coming and by arguing and voting for resolutions in support, linked the events with the birth of the rsa: it is not insignificant that the inaugural conference of the rsa was held at the lse a few weeks before the sit-in and was attended by many prominent participants in the sit-in.
The problem of maintaining the struggle at the level of the institution is that the internal representative body, the Union, is not sufficiently autonomous. External support is therefore vital to it, both financially in the form of the legal costs paid by nus, and politically. To maintain a significant student movement, spontaneous support is insufficient. This level of action must be organised too. This means either a radical policy for the nus or an alternative national organization of students’ unions. Whether the rsa continues within the nus, as our article suggested, or attempts to become a radical alternative to it (these are issues which still need extensive discussion), it has the potential of providing this essential unity.
The central difference between our approach and Martin Shaw’s is that he sees the whole issue at the level of consciousness, and individual consciousness at that, whereas for us there is a possibility of significant practical assistance to the socialist movement from a specifically student movement. This is our interpretation of ‘joining the struggle for the campus to the struggle for society’: we have argued that the struggle