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Student activism: a return to the mid-sixties? (1973)

'Student activism' is a term with a perfectly clear sense, habitually and wrongly used to cover the very different phenomena of student dissent and student revolts. It is misused in this way in order to trivialise the latter phenomena and also because it provides a reduction of these phenomena to the activities of the activists - a reduction highly acceptable both to self-styled activists and their conservative opponents.

Student activism in the strict sense was a highly important fore-runner and, contributor to the movements of anti-war dissent and revolt in Australia, the U.S.A. and (perhaps) some other countries. In the U.S.A. the student civil rights activists of the early sixties went on to form the politicised core of the early anti-war demonstrations and campus revolts. In Australia the same could be said of the students who constituted the various action movements around aboriginal rights, education, social welfare, nuclear warfare and conscription. A central feature of all these movements involving students in political missionary activity was that despite the fact that the bulk of the activists already held fairly developed social-democratic, communist or anarchist views their activity was not seen in any way as a challenge to the capitalist state. Student activism was legitimate protest.

Student dissent involved a shift in emphasis. (In passing one should note that anti-war dissent was not a purely student phenomenon as is evidenced, in their different ways, by the draft resistance movement and the moratoriums). In Australia the shift developed within the anti-conscription movement, on the one hand in the radical anti-conscriptionists move to draft resistance and on the other in the replacement of the anti-conscription by the anti-Vietnam theme. The former was the clearer break with the legitimate protest assumption but the latter was more important in changing an activist's organisation into a movement of dissent. Despite the continuity in the forms of protest the relationship to politics had changed. Activism aimed at changing government policies by acting on public opinion; it was tied to the textbook models of pluralist democracy and political influence. By contrast once the issue had become Vietnam and the American alliance the aim became to change the government (or, for a minority, to overthrow it). The anti-Vietnam movement was consciously oppositional and presented itself as such: this distinguished it from the earlier campaigns of activists. On the other hand its membership was less politically aware than that of its activist predecessors and predominantly lacked connections with organised left-wing politics. This was the milieu within which the various radical student movements developed. Whilst many leaders dated from the years of student activism the tone of these movements was set by the membership, the bulk of which had been politicised within the anti-war movement and had had no contact with the "old left" beyond rubbing shoulders with it at the larger meetings and demonstrations. Even so this minimal contact had some effect: Australian student maoism is pallid indeed by comparison with the exotic political growths produced in the U.S. student left's more complete isolation from a left political tradition.

Within purely student movements the logic of opposition could be developed to a higher level than it could in movements dominated by politicians and trades unionists aiming at Moratorium-style mass demonstrations. This development, in the student movement was favoured also by the synchronisation of Australian and U.S. anti-war activities which resulted in the importation, besides other things, of American analyses of the university - another baleful result of U.S. Cultural Imperialism. Organisations such as SDS and SDA imported, together with their names, the American concept of the "System", and of the University as a key part of it. (It is perhaps unfair to criticise SDA for "Americanism" since Queensland political conditions admit of U.S. analogies). At the time the emphasis was individualist and moralistic: "Don't get caught in the System"; "Work hard, study hard, get ahead, Kill:" are two characteristic slogans of the period. For the early Americanisers the student was morally suspect; someone who might well collaborate with the university and hence the system. It was some years before the idea was fully accepted that there was a necessary conflict between the interests of students and of the university and even then it was only accepted within the conceptual mythology of student anti-imperialism in which the university became the local avatar of U.S. Imperialism and the student a third world peasant by virtue of his political sympathies. This metaphysical twist to what in the U.S. was a quite concrete idea can perhaps be traced to the lack of Australian universities (except the ANU) pursuing military-political research for the US and the lack of close links (except for Sir Phillip Baxter) between university governing bodies and agencies using or producing such research.

It would appear that we are currently passing out of the period of student dissent. The decline in anti-war activity means that the political socialisation of new members more nearly resembles that of eight years ago than five and those who entered the movement through the anti-Vietnam demonstrations are now much more politically sophisticated. Increasingly student radical organisations are diversifying to become multi-issue activist groups. Despite the remaining anti-imperialist rhetoric the student movements are now working on the same assumptions as before the rise of anti-war dissent. The issues are almost exactly the same as those that concerned activists in the early and mid-sixties and despite the clearly capitalist orientation of the A.L.P. in office no one in the student movement could support the alternative. Protest politics must be directed towards influencing the government, especially if you are opposed to the opposition.

This shift back to student activism and its implicit assumptions will entail changes in the style and organisation of student politics. Official student bodies, A.U.S. and the S.R.C.'s, are liable to become more important as organising focii and the irrelevance of university occupations to most of the policy issues of student activism will tend to erase the distinction between these official bodies and the student radical organisations. This latter tendency has become apparent in the last year at La Trobe; student maoism as a distinct phenomenon seems to be dying in its former heartlands.

The decline of organisations having university occupations as their raison d'etre does not mean the end of student revolts. Despite the dependence of most university revolts on the general mood of student dissent the best occupations and strikes of the last five years were those arising more or less spontaneously from issues rather than those which were contrived by radical organisations on some pretext or other. The quite unprecedented Sydney Arts Faculty Strike over the women's course this year shows the size of the movements that can arise from the pursuit of concrete objectives for their own sake. Rather than such events decreasing in frequency one might imagine that such conflicts between antiquated university political structures and personages and younger and radical staff will increase as the anti-war generation moves into academic positions.

In the above my topic has been the similarities between trends today and the midsixties. There are also differences. The crucial one would seem to be that of the external political affiliations of student activists. Instead of an A.L.P. in opposition we now have an A.L.P. in power; this will pose questions for those activists, probably still the majority, who are of a social-democratic inclination. Further left the situation is even more interesting. Before the anti-Vietnam movement started the C.P.A. and (in Sydney) the trotskyists were the only left groups of any student following. Today the situation is quite different. There are still trotskyists but there are now three "communist" parties none of which is quite what the C.P.A. used to be. Of the three the influence of the Moscow party remains low whilst the influence of the new C.P.A. seems to be increasing. (Not that it can expect to have much influence; most activists will probably remain non-party). One consequence of this "pluralism" on the left is that it has to some extent opened the trade union movement to students and various joint ventures of students and workers are nor planned or underway in the organisation of rank and file groups and trade union education. There has also been much closer contact and cooperation between student movements and trade union bodies than in the sixties.

The historical significance of student activism of the sixties was that it was the training ground for the first cadres of the anti-war movement. Whether student activism in the seventies will feature as a footnote to the Vietnam war or will have independent importance cannot now be predicted. It depends on future political developments.

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