COMMUNISM IN THE UNIVERSITIESCategory: Education
The last few years have seen a considerable growth of Communist influence in the universities. That influence has often been overestimated, particularly by the Right Wing Press after the Oxford motion. But none the less it persists and it is growing. It is no longer a phenomenon that can be dismissed as an outburst of transient youthful enthusiasm. It has established itself so firmly that any serious analysis of trends in the universities must take it into account.
This influence has shown itself in a steadily growing volume of the left-wing activities. In 1933 the storm aroused by the famous Oxford “King and Country” motion swept every university, and in the majority of Unions this motion was passed by a large margin. That same winter the students of Cambridge got themselves into the newspapers by a 11 November demonstration which successfully kept a three-mile march unbroken, fighting almost the whole way against students who were trying to break it up. In 1934 the Hunger
Marchers received a great welcome from the students of Oxford and Cambridge. In 1935 the Northern Universities put themselves on the map when Sheffield students played a real part in the unemployment fight in February. For a few days Sheffield Communist students sold over 200 copies of the Daily Worker in a university of 800 students. At the end of 1935 it was significant how rapidly student opinion reacted to Hoare-Laval plan. At very short notice big protest meetings were held at King’s College, London, the London School of Economics, and Manchester. It would perhaps be true to £ay that the students reacted more quickly than any other organized body. Then at the beginning of this year the Federation of Student Societies, the revolutionary students’ organisation, and the University Labour Federation formed united body covering 2,000 students in all the universities. During all this period the membership of the Communist Party, though even now not very large, has grown steadily and continuously without once looking back.
Of course it would be wrong to represent this movement as wholly and solely the work of the Communist Party. But it is none the less true that everywhere the Communists have played a continuously active and leading part, and that the disciplined and centralised leadership of the Communist Party has given, the movement a direction and co-ordination of which no other body would be capable.
Thus Communism in the universities is a serious force. It is serious because students do not easily or naturally become Communists. Communism has to fight down more prejudices, more traditions, more simple distortions of fact, than any other political organisation. It would not have gained ground without a serious appeal. Its significance is precisely this. It is the first systematical attempt by a working-class party to win over a whole section of the middle class. The Labour Party has made many efforts to adapt itself to middle-class prejudices. It has never made a serious attempt to win the middle classes into a fighting alliance with the Labour Movement on the basis of their own interests. That is what the Communist Party is just beginning to do. It is notable that the Central Committee of the Communist Party pays far more attention, gives far more- criticism and more assistance, to the work of its student members than any other political body gives to its student section.
This swing to the Left has not come primarily because students are interested in politics in the abstract. It has come because the actual conditions of their lives, the actual problems with which they are confronted, force them steadily though hesitatingly to a revolutionary position. Because a student does not have to be interested in politics before he comes face to face with one great reality. The existence of the capitalist structure of society means that there is an ever-widening gap between the potentialities of scierfce, technique culture and education and their actual application in the world today. The most glaring obvious form of this is the destruction of foodstuffs when people are hungry. But students for the most part are not yet hungry, and do not come up against this. But a medical student comes against the fact for example, that hundreds of children suffer every year from rickets, which is an unnecessary and preventable disease, simply because of poverty, and bad conditions, and lack of adequate attention. An economic or an agricultural student will notice that the immense productive capacities of industry and agriculture are not being used — not because there is no need for industrial goods and foodstuffs, but because the capitalist property relations cannot overcome this widening gap. The whole field of British industry and agriculture today presents a picture of productive waste that capitalism cannot overcome, of preventable deaths and preventable accidents that are not prevented because our present rulers find it more important to spend money on interest, on war debt and on huge rearmament than on the health of the English people.
And this show’s itself to the students in an increasing restriction of their possibilities in their future life. Already the professions are overstocked with qualified graduates. People with Firsts who, a few years ago, turned up their noses at teaching jobs are now glad enough to get a job in a secondary school. Medicos with first class qualifications will take the wretched job of a ship’s doctor which they would not have touched not so long ago. I have known one case, of a graduate with first class honours in zoology with a job as a rat catcher at 30 s. a week. Scientific papers have been printing advertisements for men with first class degrees at £ 125 a year. And the number of totally unemployed is mounting up: and unemployment for a middle-class person who does not sign on at a Labour Exchange results in a kind of hopelessness and isolation which is quite unique. The number of ex-students peddling vacuum cleaners and tooth paste for a living is mounting up. One point is worth bearing in mind. If during this upward movement, the 1935—36 “boom”, the professions are gradually becoming overstocked and saturated with qualified students — what will be the position when the next crash comes? It is not impossible that whole years of graduates will be 70—80 per cent unemployed. The colossal nervous strain of competitive examinations on students who depend on the results for their whole future career means that even now a student’s life is not so happy and carefree as is generally supposed. As to those who are just coming up to the universities to graduate, the outlook will be far more tough for them than it is for us now.
This general economic insecurity has its effects. Of course it does not of itself make revolutionaries. But ultimately all the secure prejudices and traditions of the English middle and professional classes depended on a stable and more or less well-provided environment. This comfortable life is breaking up, and with it comfortable illusions which it fostered.
There is another process also at work. The developments of the postwar years have brought about revolutionary changes in the relation of every branch of knowledge to-society. The official academic teaching is for the most part incapable of reaction to these developments, and is thus becoming more and more isolated from social reality. For instance, while the world economic crisis 1929—32 was raging, the equilibrium economists of the London School of Economics did not find it necessary to bring forward any attempt at crisis analysis, and went on quite happily teaching the theory which explained why crisis did not and in the nature of things could not have a serious effect. It is not very surprising then that from that time certain students began to turn to Marxism, which had consistently predicted the crisis, and which had consistently based its analysis on the real world.
(From Communism Was My Waking Time by 3. Cornford)