This is the text of a speech made to the Free University of Warwick on February 23, 2018, as part of the student-staff mobilisations around the UCU strike. You can find the my MA dissertation, from which this speech was largely crafted, here.
I want to start by taking you back to the late 1960s. A year of global struggle, with student movements in Italy, West Germany, the U.S., Mexico and elsewhere reaching their peak, gay liberation and second wave feminism beginning to emerge, and the forces of working class resistance stirring into what would become the longest period of worker unrest, for the West, in the post-WW2 era.
A general strike in France in May ’68 by over ten million workers nearly brought down the fifth republic; high school and university students in Italy took over and paralysed the entire education system; and African Americans suffered assassination and imprisonment for challenging the world’s largest empire from within. Anti-colonial movements had shaken off seemingly intractable European empires in India, Kenya, Algeria, Indonesia and elsewhere, and the second great wave of decolonisation was about follow in the Portuguese hold-outs of Guinea-Bissea, Angola and Mozambique.
Meanwhile, a small campus of around one and a half thousand students, based in a field four miles south-west of Coventry City Centre, laid in wait, relatively undisturbed by the global historical events of the time. The student newspaper, Campus, declared the university ‘dead’. The only thing which got students riled up, it seemed, was when University management ordered the turning over of paving slabs on which a Winnie the Pooh story had been scrawled. A festival in protest, ‘Pooh and you’, was hastily called by outraged students.
But Warwick’s management, the rulers of the university, were a savvy enough power centre to know that a tranquil pond can be disturbed by a single pebble, and that beneath still waters an army of creatures lie.
Already in 1967, right-wing academics and Warwick’s management had, in private, nervously discussed the rise of student revolt around the country and overseas. One professor wrote to Warwick’s Vice-chancellor, Jack Butterworth, pointing worriedly at uprisings at LSE and suggesting that socialists on campus – possibly directed by their ‘masters’ in Moscow – were going to use the Union as a vehicle for pushing their subversive politics at Warwick:
On the final sentence, I’m going to come back to this concern by those in power to hide their true views on political matters.
The professor continued: ‘There is a distinct danger of the Despotism of the Union’. ‘We have had instances of this already at Warwick!’
It is always fascinating to read the internal documents of the powerful. To hear them speak candidly and express their true opinions is a revelatory political education in the aloof, patronising and often appalling morality of our degenerate ruling classes. And, appropriately, the elite have been intensely concerned with concealing, hiding and even destroying the record of their opinions and misdeeds.
As Ian Cobain relates in his latest work, The History Thieves, the British establishment has destroyed historical records on an industrial scale, from dumping boxes of files in current-free waters at the twilight of empire, to burning the records of army intelligence in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, to prosecuting anyone who leaks the smallest nugget of unauthorised information to the media, researchers or the public.
Warwick’s management too were steeped in the British culture of secrecy. In 1969, the Registrar sent a memorandum around to administrative staff warning them to stop leaving ‘confidential’ files lying around at night. No doubt the Registrar was afraid of what Warwick’s students might find in the Registry, if they were, to paraphrase Franz Fanon, to shake themselves and stop playing Sleeping Beauty.
The reason I say all this – and indeed, the reason why we even have the above memo today – is because a tranche of documents, unredacted and unweeded, did survive from this early period of Warwick’s history, thanks to a student occupation in 1970. A stash of documents containing the internal discussions of Warwick’s management between themselves and other sections of the elite outside the university was taken from the occupied registry, copied and distributed around the country. We can access this historical gold dust in the archives of long-retired Warwick academics stored in the Modern Records Centre today (or a selection online here).
Thanks to these documents, we know that Warwick’s management was intensely concerned with the prospect of political activity amongst the student population in the second half of the 1960s. As one note to the Vice Chancellor put it in 1969, it would ‘wise to prepare against student activism as long-term phenomena’. The Vice-Chancellor of Manchester wrote to his counterpart at Warwick, describing his desire to evoke either the civil or the criminal law […] which will keep dissident members of staff quiet’.
So concerned was Warwick’s VC with what he called the ‘student menace’, that he devised, in his own words, a ‘method of dealing with an emergency situation within the University caused by student disorder should that arise’. The method involved altering the University’s statutes to make disciplinary action by the University Council easier (a chilling echo of current efforts to gut statutory protections for academic staff at Warwick).
And we know from these documents what management really thought of student activists. In 1969 one staff member privately wrote:
This is how the masters discuss their subjects when unconstrained by the polite conventions of public speech and political correctness. In times of uprisings, marginalised populations often head for the central files depositories, eager to discover the inaccurate and condescending judgements passed on them by prison guards, intelligence officials or school managers. As the Berlin Wall fell, demonstrators flooded the headquarters of the hated East German Stasi intelligence service, and have been discovering fascinating insights about the East German state’s machinations ever since. A similar thing happened in Egypt in 2011. In the UK during the 1990 riot at Strangeways prison in Manchester, prison guards and management were intent to secure the wing containing records, aware that the discovery of unsavoury files has been fuel on the bonfire of prison riots past. A similar, if somewhat less explosive, process occurred at Warwick in 1970.
What Warwick students found in those documents caused a crisis, not just in Warwick, but throughout the British university system. It was revealed that the Vice Chancellor had personally intervened in the application of one politically active college student, writing ‘reject this man’ at the bottom of the student’s application after being tipped off by a conservative school master. Spies had been placed in local Coventry workers union meetings which were being addressed by the radical Warwick academic, David Montgomery, and Warwick’s legal adviser mused on the possibility of deporting Professor Montgomery under obscure WW1 anti-espionage legislation. Several students who handed out an anti-authoritarian leaflet at a local school were the subject of a ream of correspondence stretching from the University Council to the Warwickshire County Council, the local Tory MP, and even Enoch Powell (of ‘rivers of blood’ fame).
What is clear from the documents, and relevant to the superb efforts of Warwick For Free Education and the student-staff solidarity group at the moment, is how concerned management were – and remain – about the possibility of students and staff combining forces. As one member of management wrote to a professor at Oxford University, ‘the real difficulty is not the students but the staff who assist, advise, and indeed sometimes direct the activities of the extreme student group.’
Such concerns over student-staff solidarity were not limited to Warwick. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the coordinating body of upper university managements around the country, was similarly concerned. It held a conference at the peak of the 1968 struggles to discuss how to deal with student unrest and what it called the ‘crucial influence of a small number of staff’ who assist the students.
The Committee continued to share tactics and strategize on how to defeat the student menace throughout the early 1970s. Luckily for us, the documents from this exercise are stored in the Modern Records Centre, too, and they make for fascinating reading. Several reports from managements around the country were submitted to the committee, offering recommendations on best practice to deal with occupations and radical mobilisation amongst the student body.
Bristol’s Vice Chancellor offered this advice on breaking student occupations:
Throughout these documents, senior university managers use terms such as ‘final victory’, ‘enemy strengths’, ‘potential battlefield’, ‘subterranean warfare’, and ‘superior intelligence system’, and clearly see themselves in a power-struggle, almost war like, against radical students and staff.
The Polytechnic of North London had a particularly detailed analysis, dividing the student body into four categories: militants or ‘wreckers’ – that’s us; moderate activists who distrust the modern state; the passive majority; and the right-wing ‘back-lash’ element. The Polytechnic recommended ‘institutionalising the conflict’ and argued that ‘with the utmost discretion, moderate student leaders must be identified, encouraged, and actively helped in everything that may lead to increasing their influence’. For the Polytechnic, ‘The establishment must remain completely hidden in the process.’
Most incredibly, the Committee’s summing up of the consultation exercise admits that it is unlikely that ‘whether in the absence of direct action’ that ‘quite important changes in organisation’ of the universities ‘would have come so fast’ – a recognition of the power of student action by one of the highest university authorities in the land. Such recognition, of course, could never be made publicly – the only rhetorical course possible for university managements is to solemnly affirm the futility and irrationality of autonomous student action (for more on these documents, see here).
These documents are just one small fraction of a global story of reaction and repression which met the unprecedented working class and student offensives. A whole apparatus of political policing, already latent from battles past, was brought into operation to delimit and crush the struggles of the 60s and 70s.
A 1968 Foreign Office report described British student militants as ‘frighteningly radical’, and considered ‘the threat to the west presented by student protest’ as ‘potentially dangerous’. The Cabinet Office set up an entire committee to manage spying operations against overseas students. The Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation, a national body of radical students, was even infiltrated by an undercover cop from the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstrations Squad.
In the United States, the FBI had a twenty year project called COINTELPRO which featured infiltration, snitch-jacketing, agents provocateurs, informants, phone taps, burglaries, false arrests and even state assassination launched against the Civil Rights, Black Power, anti-war, New Left and student movements. The Western establishments were swift to crush, in thoroughly illiberal fashion, the radical threats to the status quo.
These documents I’ve been referencing from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and Warwick management, show up the liberal conception of the university for the fantasy it is. In the liberal imaginary, the university – as the rest of the society – is capable of being configured under a capitalist society so as to bring about a fundamental harmony of interests. The so-called democratic structures of the university, though perhaps flawed and archaic, are fundamentally adequate for the resolution of grievances. At most, students should channel their limited energies into a once-a-year vote for their student union representatives, and leave the technocratic management of the university to those who are able to see the holistic totality of interests in the university community. This view is often voiced by centrist students themselves, usually from the great heights of the Boar, condemning the confrontational tactics of Warwick For Free Education and others, but making the fundamental and long-standing mistake of neglecting the power struggles and conflicts of interest at the heart of our society.
E P Thompson, reflecting on the Files Affair in Warwick University Ltd, noted an ‘identity of interests and of outlook as between County authorities, Conservative MPs and police, together with the University’s officers, on the one hand, as against ill-disciplined university teachers and students on the other’. This is crucial. The management of the university are connected in complex ways to the power structures of the state and capital, the external class forces of the society. The students and parts of the staff body have often found their interests opposed to those of the managers, and found common cause with the working and sub-altern classes outside of campus. Theorising and understanding the internal power structure of the university and its various sectors’ relations to the external forces is a necessary task for any student movement.
Once the political waters broke the dam of apathy at Warwick in 1970, the university became a hub of political action for the next 15 years, until the foot-soldiers of the Thatcherite reaction successfully rebuilt the dam in the 80s.
Relevant to the Free University of Warwick project, attempts were made to link up with the local community and express a vision of liberatory and socially-useful education early on. In 1970, students commandeered the first week of the Easter holiday and declared an ‘open university’, inviting the citizens of Coventry and the surrounding area to campus for talks on global struggle, anti-imperialism, socialism and so on.
These efforts at constructing alternative educational provisions were repeated across the global student movements of the 1960s and 70s. The most incredible and wide-ranging effort took place at the Institute of Social Studies at Trento in Italy. Following the near-uniform shut down of the entire Italian high school and university system in 67-8, students developed the concept of the ‘active strike’, where those on strike – whether students or academics – would actively participate in general assemblies, workshops, talks and so on.
Beyond this, the Institute of Social Studies nearly became the alternative university students have striven for. A coalition between the Institute’s head, Francesco Alberoni, and the militant left students, let to a genuine experiment in sociology, with students doing research in the factories, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, elementary schools, the local press and with Trento’s peasants, to study the problems of the working classes and offer up the resources and prestige of higher education for their benefit.
As Alberoni put it (quoted p.204):
Our mode of operation … constitutes a threat to all those who want to sit back and go to sleep, to those who dream of the secure salary of an irresponsible bureaucrat, to those who wish for a university to be organised like an elementary school, to those who do not want to be creative scholars but who are, instead, predisposed to become or to try to be reasonably well-informed regurgitators of information.
The success of the Institute, he wrote, had been to ‘administer revolutionary power in an exemplary fashion, in a way that produced a working utopia’. For such words to come from a head of an education institutional is quite astonishing, a testament to the power of the student struggle at the time – and an inspiration for our educational efforts today.
I also want to note the history of Warwick student solidarity with striking workers. This began in the late 1960s, with students, often associated with the Socialist Society, traveling in buses from the Rootes building in the early hours of the morning to local Coventry picket lines, like the striking Asian engineering workers at Montgomery Plating, or the Indian women striking at Mothers Pride Bakery over conditions there in 1968.
Solidarity was shown in other ways, too – in 1974, the Students’ Union voted to donate money to the strike fund for the national miners’ strike which helped bring down Teddy Heath’s Conservative government. In 1977 the union voted to send 60 students to London for the mass pickets at Grunwick, where Asian migrant women were striking at the photo processing factory over pay, conditions, and racism in the workplace. We happen to be in the midst of the 40th anniversary of that strike.
Perhaps most relevant to the events of this and the coming weeks is the 1973 service workers strike. Pretty much the entire university staff of cleaners, porters and caterers struck for nine days in January 1973 for higher pay. Almost immediately, 200 students occupied the Rootes Social Building in solidarity and turned it into a strike hub, where donations were collected, talks held, and pickets organised. A motion of support was passed at the SU, and students spent hours over the coming week talking to incoming truck drivers carrying supplies, persuading them to turn around, and guarding the academic buildings across campus which had been locked by the porters. The pickets could be dangerous – one management secretary sped into a picket, lifting a student on to the bonnet and swerving left and right in an attempt to fling the student off. The Worker-Student Occupation Committee publicly mused afterwards whether it was the administration’s desire to kill a student or striking worker.
This solidarity with workers’ struggle, which was often coordinated through the SU, would diminish in the 1980s, as conservative students – emboldened by the election of Margret Thatcher – attempted to legally intimidate the SU and students into stopping material support for external fights. Using the principle of ultra vires, or beyond the power of, they alerted the state every time payments were made by a Union General Meeting to a local strike fund, political campaign, or even women’s refuge. Since the Union was a charitable body, it was argued, it was beyond its own powers to make these sorts of political payments. This also meant no more funding for coaches to political causes, unless it was a cause directly related to the interests of students as students. At one point the Warwick Tory association even tried, unsuccessfully, to sue the SU over the issue:
This campaign was ultimately successful, and by the time of the 1984-5 Miners’ strike, Warwick SU was no longer expressing any meaningful solidarity. The right-wing forces won the battle, not just at Warwick but across the country, and that is why even today the SU will not provide any money for external political activities, unless it’s directly regarding student issues. Abolishing Union’s charitable status, repoliticising them, and eliminating the extensive bureaucratic restrictions on action imposed both nationally and internally is another vital task of a student movement in Britain today.
There is much in Warwick’s history I have not touched on, from the 1975 rent strike and month long occupation of Senate House – turfed out by 400 cops – to the long-running effort to sever Warwick’s links with apartheid South Africa – which including more than a few bricks through the window of the Barclay’s branch on campus – to death of Kevin Gatley during an anti-fascist demonstration in 1974, to the 1983 Fight the Fine Campaign when all university outlets were boycotted for weeks in response to a massive fine the university imposed on the union following an unruly greeting for a hated Thatcherite minister, to the occupation in 2000 in response to the introduction of tuition fees by Labour, up to the Gaza solidarity occupation in 2009, 2011’s Occupy Warwick, Protect the Public University in 2013, and then the spectacular emergence of Warwick For Free Education in the fog of police violence and CS gas in 2014.
This group is in its fourth year now, and has been one of the most dynamic and radical forces to appear and persist on campus for decades. Not since the 1960s Socialist Society or women’s liberation group of the 1970s, I would argue, has a radical left force at Warwick caused so much debate and controversy, achieved so much, and organised in the face of adversity against the machinations of management. I would like to end this talk by thanking WFFE for its contribution to campus, for crafting the political subjectivity of so many of its members over the past four years, for maintaining a set of relationships and political infrastructure to support things like this UCU strike, and for providing future activists and scholars with a historical record of struggle to draw on, learn from, and be inspired by. Thank you.