Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Revolutionaries Reappear?

One thing I notice when driving around the South of England is how many universities there are in the average town. In places I visit regularly like Oxford, Brighton and Southampton they now each have two univerisities, usually one out of town which is older and then a newer one in the city centre (Oxford, naturally has it the other way round). Even small towns like Winchester, Chichester, Portsmouth, Reading and Bournemouth have their own universities. This is unsurprising given the increase in university students in the UK. When I went in the 1980s less than 1 in 10 people who were 18 went, not it is 4 in 10 rising to 5 in 10. It has become the norm for many young people to go, and speaking to a man from one, he said that most universities which were around in the 1980s (and so not 'new' universities) have quadrupled in the numbers of students. Cities are complaining about student 'ghettos' where letting agents or landlords/ladies have bought up a row of cheap houses and these are empty all summer. What did the local councils expect when the universities opened and began to grow? I suppose we should not be surprised as these are the same people who invested millions in Icelandic banks and did not pull their money out when the warnings of collapse began coming even last year, let alone this summer.

Of course with the economy the way it is, I imagine these students' experiences are very different to when I went. Even then we looked enviously at the people who had graduated five or ten years earlier before the Thatcher era, who had got grants and housing benefit so could spend their time studying and enjoying life. Students today not only get none of those benefits, they also have fees to pay, so for them doing paid work is often more important than their studies. Even then they are likely to end up with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, which must put a dampener on having fun. The other thing they are far less likely to do is get involved in politics. I was at university in the last days of Thatcher, I even bellowed at her when she visited our campus, so for anyone who was liberal there was a clear good/evil axis and politics had regained some of its passion as seen during the poll tax riot and the anti-university fees demonstration (at which students were ridden down by mounted police and many protestors suffered baton injuries and wounds from horses stamping on them), even five years on from the miners' strike (1984-5) the harsh police suppression of demonstrations was still common. Now of course the students have no time for demonstrations let alone occupying buildings or anything. Most people, and this is not just for students, do not belong to any political grouping and are only really likely to turn out to protest on single issues. Even the sustained protests against the shipment of livestock or animal testing have faded, and now it is middle class, middle-aged or elderly people protesting about the downgrading of a hospital or the building of a prison in their locale. Young people are apolitical, they wander around siloed by their ipods from day-to-day life let alone anything bigger. Of course, given that they need to get a good job with a firm of accountants to be able to even begin paying off their £20,000 of debt this is no surprise. Now we are seeing the depoliticised population that Thatcher was aiming for, so dependent on getting money to stay afloat that they dare not risk this by stepping at all out of line or making any protest. This is why the protests come from those older people who are economically 'safe' and less likely to be sacked for being at a demonstration.

Given the apolitical context in which we are now in I was quite surprised suddenly to see the reappearance of posters talking about the collapse of capitalism. When I was at university in the 1980s there was a plethora of revolutionary groups, usually most prominent was SWSS (Socialist Worker Student Society) but there was also the Revolutionary Communist Party and other smaller groupings like The Socialist Party. They all had their newspapers and the students who would stand with them displayed on their chest and the call 'Socialist Worker!' with the tone rising on the 'so' was a standing joke of the time. I do not remember all of them, one was called 'The Next Step' and another 'The News Line' which I remember was on sale still when I was living in East London. The Conservatives had their own one, I remember seeing most on sale in Oxford, which is probably not surprising. I had worked previously with the man who sold 'The News Line' and occasionally bought one off him because he never seemed to sell many, though I must confess I have no idea what party my 50p went to fund. I remember the man being put down very effectively by Tony Benn at a small meeting. Anyway, this newspaper included the listings of television programmes and I complained to my local seller that they were clearly copied from a mainstream newspaper and there was no attempt at Marxist or even Trotskyite analysis of the programmes being shown. It would have been fascinating to see a Marxist dialectic approach to that evening's episode of 'Eastenders' or 'Crime Watch' or 'The Money Programme' (sorry this is sparking off a range of reminiscences of politicos from across the spectrum, when on a student newspaper as a journalist I covered the occupation of a library, the occupiers had come well prepared and brought board games with them, the Labour Club were playing 'Monopoly' but the SWSS occupiers refused to play this an instead played 'Diplomacy').

While I have not seen the reappearance of the left-wing newspaper sellers on Saturday mornings (a lot of these parties dissolved at the end of the Cold War or a few years later or went into Democratic Left) I was quite stunned, parking near a university the other day to see loads of pictures of Karl Marx with a slogan along the lines of 'Capitalism is Collapsing: Was Marx Right?'. The crash in the global economy does seem dramatic, but given that we have been here before with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and there was minimal spread of Communism after that (I know China went Communist in 1949 and Cuba in 1958) but by then the World economy had altered a great deal and there had been the Second World War, I hardly see revolution on the cards, especially as the general population has less interest in politics now than it even had 20 years ago. People vote for the Blairite Party (which is why the only Labour Party leader still alive who would raise the party's standing in surveys is Blair) which is the British equivalent of a 'government party' in other countries. They think Cameron would supply the same, though are seeing Brown again as the 'safe pair of hands' and he might pull through.

So, it is interesting that there are still some revolutionaries out there, who have been underground since 1991. The poster seem to come from a coalition of left-wing parties, presumably each with a tiny membership. (This reminds me of something else from the other end of the spectrum, when I used to go regularly to Richmond in West London I would always see a poster for an extreme right-wing group, I forget the name but they used the medieval knight iconography that was popular with the Nazis and the slogans said things about defending England or awakening England. They were renewed every few months with something slightly different but always in the same place and I had this image of a one-man party sticking up his diatribe about the decline of England on the same piece of wall and same electricity control box every quarter).

I wonder if revolutionary parties are seeing a rise in membership with this economic crisis or whether life-long members are just hopeful that this is the crisis that will usher in the revolution they have been waiting for, for so long. Of course Marx and Friedrich Engels, believed Britain would have revolution way before Russia, but I think they are the other revolutionaries overlooked how apathetic the British are, and this goes for the rise of a Fascist state as well as for a revolutionary one. It is intriguing, though, to see the sudden flurry of revolutionary posters. Chinese students who are the biggest section of students coming from abroad to study in the UK these days, must be rather bewildered. China says it is a Communist state and uses Communist iconography and yet it is really an autocratic capitalist state, and the reason why the Chinese students are in the UK is to learn how better (or supposedly) to run a capitalist economy. Them seeing the face of Marx around their campus must be rather bizarre (Che Guevara has appeared in the window of an art shop I passed the other day too, though his image has always been more powerful and penetrating than his political message). Maybe it is time to dig out Andy Warhol's Mao portraits, that would be an excellent crossover of the consumerist art with revolutionary icons. As to the revolutionaries themselves, I imagine they will not gain any more members than they currently have and their agenda will not advance any further than it did 20, 40, 60, 70, 79 or 90 years ago.

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