Hornsey Art College in North London has been the scene of the most successful student-power movement yet in Britain. The terms of this success are well-known, thanks to the great publicity the take-over attracted. At the time of writing, the students had occupied the College for six weeks—and the occupation was both complete (i.e. involved every aspect of the institution, not only the teaching areas) and continuous (i.e. 24 hours a day, with a permanently open canteen and a considerable number of students sleeping-in). The movement is running an important exhibition-cum-teach-in at the gallery of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and has called a National Conference of Art Colleges to extend the revolution and change the whole system of art education from below.
The achievements of the Hornsey coup are remarkable, by any standards. Seen from inside, the changes brought about—in people, and attitudes, rather than simply in administration—were astonishing. It is only yesterday that art students were paragons of self-satisfied apathy, farther removed (even) than most other British students from any sort of political consciousness.
Yet, the Hornsey movement has been very widely criticized, within the student political Left. Militants have tended to dismiss it as ‘unpolitical’, or ‘corporative’, concerned only with the problems of art education and indifferent to wider issues. The Hornsey students confined themselves to stirring up other Art Colleges, and trying to establish a permanent control of power inside their own institution, instead of provoking a general crisis of British capitalism (or, at least, of the British Higher Education system). Why such narrow-mindedness? Does this not show indeed (in the words of R. Kuper)footnote1 how ‘. . . Student struggles more than any other form of struggle are less able to bring meaningful advances, unless we really believe in the nonsensical view of islands of libertarian communities in a sea of corporate organizations’.
There is a very important point at issue here, which is bound to affect one’s view of the correct strategy for student revolutionary movements in Britain. Hornsey is indeed an archetype of ‘corporate’ development, in this sense. Again and again, the students there showed themselves hostile to ‘politicization’, in the terms offered by the existing left-wing groups. They consciously tried to confine the revolution to their own sector, to win significant and permanent victories within it rather than orient the movement towards the formation of a general revolutionary situation. But just how much importance do such limited movements have? How much weight will student power have politically, if it sticks to apparently ‘trade-union’ forms like this?
But—pursuing the analogy with the trade unions—it may be objected that the same thing could happen here. Could not student-power movements be isolated, in the same corporative way, as harmless ‘islands’ inside capitalist society—all the more easily, because of the middle-class background of most students?
The second point which ought to determine real revolutionary strategy is, surely, the recognition of the extreme unlikelihood of this happening, even in Britain. True, such a hope clearly animates the attitude of Authority towards the Hornsey revolt—because it has occurred among art students, seen as a marginal sector of Higher Education touched by bohemianism and so unlikely to contaminate those philistine bastions of intellect, the Universities. But the point is, that in the long run—whatever happens at Hornsey—such hope is illusory. There is no real possibility of a successful student corporativism becoming isolated, or a conservative barrier to further development.