My glorious career in student politics and what I almost learned from it. July 31, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Greens, Labour Party, Sinn Féin, The Left.
On foot of discussions about the strangely long-lived impact student life appears to have had on Eoghan Harris, I’m reminded of the 1980s. Now the WP was an organisation which really placed no great interest in third level, probably since its grip on USI was by the mid-1980s but a distant memory (the student princes of OSF, Rabbitte, Gilmore etc having decamped to the unions or the public sector) and subject to a fightback by both PSF, fellow travellers of one stripe or another and the Labour Party (always more radical at the more – ahem – youthful fringes). As it happened I was probably one of the very very few reasonably active members of the party at both constituency and student union level, quite a trick considering the demands of the former and the way in which the party was regarded as the most Machiavellian and negative political operator in the latter. Anyhow, in my attempt to radicalise my fellow comrades in the student body I would bring in speakers from the party or try to organise that they might go to party conferences.
This was a project which met with mixed success, which is to say none at all. A small number from the Womens’ Group went to a WP Womens’ Conference but returned entirely unimpressed by the lack of theoretical enquiry and “boring” (I quote directly) concentration on childcare, housing and health.
On a separate occasion Pat McCartan, as Industrial Spokesman for the party, was dragged into the college to lecture on the Workers’ Party plans for dealing with the economy and unemployment. This too was met with a certain disdain by the more radicalised elements amongst my peers, the Maoists (of which there was one) found it insufficiently revolutionary and too detached from the rural (actually the latter point wasn’t the worst analysis I heard), those who were premature SF supporters had already developed a deep and abiding hatred for the WP, while most others found the ideas of large scale factory fishing ‘dull’.
Another time I brought a member of the party who had achieved some significance in the cultural field in to talk about his politics. The posters around the college made this fairly clear. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, after the visitor had waxed lyrical about his political education and the way in which the party had changed him for the better (I kid you not, there was more than a hint of a religious conversion at work here) it was announced by one tutor who had brought an entire year group to see this dialectical education that he had expected to hear about the cultural achievements, not the man.
I sort of gave up after that and ceded the field to the SWM who held meetings no-one went to and which even pity wouldn’t drive me to attend. The CPI-ML met with greater luck. They had one member on site and their TCD contingent would troop up on a weekly basis to be met with some interest by the more Republican on campus. Mind you none of those Republicans ever joined PSF, so perhaps their support was also more rhetorical…
I was never elected to USI, but spent some time on the fringes as a delegate to conferences. All good stuff. Particularly Portrush one year where I wound up in the bar having to listen to the large SF contingent give voice to that traditional song which contains the lines “Up the Provo’s, down the Sticks”. Still, this was after I’d been harangued for an hour or so by another member of the CPI-ML (who went onto much more exalted things) about the revolutionary necessity of the armed struggle. Not that this sort of discussion was restricted to the margins. The raw hatred during debates between some in the Campaign for Labour Representation and Nationalists and Republicans was remarkable and to some degree inexplicable at that point, although not quite so much in retrospect once one realises that the malign influence of the BICO was there…
I never saw that as a terribly important ‘site of struggle’. As a hostage to a perhaps delusional pragmatism I saw the real work as in the constituencies. Now, that view might well be correct although much of that work in retrospect seems to have been about getting certain people elected to a certain democratic institution, and not so much about seeing the ideology implemented.
And this in a sense brings me back to discourse. Because I’m innately suspicious of political parties that centre their activities on students. Or maybe suspicious is overstating it. Perhaps it is that I just don’t believe that it is possible to develop large scale long term political allegiance from such protean material.
And again to refer back to Eoghan Harris, his fears of Ireland slipping into ‘civil war’ seem to me to be akin to the idea that somehow May 68 could be played out on the admittedly smaller canvas of the Republic of Ireland with a students/students alliance spearheading such change, with presumably the SWP or whoever providing the ideological cement. Not that it was ever put in such terms. Both work on the line that you can leverage societal change in the most unlikely of conditions (and this reminds me of a friend of mine who was strongly involved in the bin tax protest who saw it as a means of displaying the true reactionary face of the state and therefore being an exemplar to the working class of the nature of that state. Anyone who has signed on in the dole office around the corner from the Rotunda will already have a fairly good idea as to the nature of the state, for bad and good).
The SWM, later the SWP, seemed to me to be living in a fantasy land (oh yeah, well I remember a certain E. McCann at Portrush bringing a certain star quality to proceedings, or not as the case may be) of mobilising people who didn’t want to be mobilised. This had a specific resonance for me because I was involved in the student administration of the college I went to on anti-Fees campaigns and such like.
From 1985 through to mid-1989 which was the period of my deepest involvement we (the Union) found it impossible to seriously mobilise the student body to combat a continuing process of fee increases. Not that there was no protest. There were sit-ins that disabled the College administration for weeks on end. There were also larger protests in tandem with other institutions in Dublin and elsewhere across the island.
But the point was that it was short lived and a basic problem was the rapid churn of students as one year arrived just as another left. Events from even three or four years previously achieved a mythic quality. I saw Joe Duffy on the back of a truck outside the GPO during a USI protest – or did I? I genuinely can’t be sure one way or another. The wars against OSF in USI were spoken of in hushed tones, but who could tell what were the details? I got my hands on some of the USI reports of the time and it all seemed curiously innocent to me, the sort of petty manipulation that characterised students politics during the period and ever after.
This ‘churn’ of students meant that campaigns would run into the ground too rapidly, would mean that only those outside of exam years, or what laughably were called ‘mature’ students, were really willing to give it their all, and even they were a minority of a minority (incidentally in my one size fits all paranoia it always struck me that the pressure to cut degree course from five to four, or four to three years was in part motivated by a wish to exacerbate the churn). Which meant that that SU activity tended to revolve around general administration and “ents”. Some years later, in the early 1990s, in UCD while doing a post-graduate course I saw almost the same pattern reiterate itself, albeit in somewhat better economic conditions. Oddly enough, for all the supposed sectarianism of the times on the left I found there was a broader comradeship between many of the different left groups I met there, from those who would later be in Red Action, Labour Youth and whoever.
But consider this. The mid-1980s was arguably the time of greatest prolonged economic crisis the 26-county state ever saw. Unemployment was sky-high, emigration was a constant. Yet it was impossible to motivate students to any sort of sustained activity. If not then, when? And if not, why? I’d argue that the reason was two-fold, firstly although students were more clearly middle-class then than now, the situation was so grim it made no difference – all would emigrate a seemingly failing state. Secondly the essential conservatism of the society rubbed off and lent a passivity to people. Revolution was rhetoric and everyone knew it – even at that point. A third possible reason was the sheer blandness of the alternative – Soviet style communism, in whatever variant was fairly unattractive, perhaps particularly in an Ireland that was just emerging from the permafrost of a mildly culturally and socially repressive state itself, and in any event was also a clearly failing system at that point.
This isn’t to argue that there was no capacity for change driven by students (although I’m also innately suspicious of theoretical models which try to reify their agency in political struggle). The late 1960s and early 1970s had seen student agitations which had specific results. Speaking for the institution I was in, moribund curricula were replaced. Tuition was altered. Staff were replaced and buildings and equipment developed. But these were essentially reformist demands, and as such were conceded when funding was available.
Afterwards, almost inevitably, the funding diminished and with it so did the fabric of the buildings, the number of staff and so on.
And I think it is interesting that political parties, such as the SWP, have recognised the necessity to break away – even slightly – from the college over the past decade or so (ironically at the very point where one could argue Third Level education has become somewhat more widely accessible to those from working class backgrounds – that too tells us something about the changing nature of our society and the intriguing ideological frameworks within which certain parties have operated). Again, I wonder if the emphasis on ‘youth’ sections, and students, has in reality been a minor contributory factor to the almost complete failure for radical left projects both in Ireland and abroad. There is a general cynicism about the left in this society, a sense that it is not entirely serious. I wonder how much of that is driven by the sense that ‘ah, it’s just a bunch of students protesting’. Students, rightly or wrongly – and perhaps wrongly, are considered a fairly cosseted group within the society. That the major visual manifestation of further left projects has rested in the past on such groups to provide much of the muscle is unfortunate. And unfortunate as well, if only because there is no reason why students shouldn’t participate fully in political activities. The process of Third Level can radicalise and inform. But can it do much more than that, and if not is this yet another case of the left looking back to partial victories, say the Russian Revolution, say 1968 and trying to crush all future activity and activism into their template?
If one believes in the generally accepted form of the political party, and I know there are those who with good reason don’t, parties have to organise beyond the academic institution. In a way the recent performance by Richard Boyd-Barrett, which was in all fairness quite good, might exacerbate this trend (although, as has been pointed out here and elsewhere he was flying something of a flag of convenience – but at least a convenience that broke away from the traditional image of the further left). Alternatively they might look at Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party and conclude that it really is a little too much hard work and better to wait until the conditions come right. Problem is conditions often don’t come right unless they’re nudged, or unless there is a serious component willing to step up at the necessary moment.
Actually I wonder what effect the most recent election will have on those fractions. Sinn Féin appear to be battening down the hatches and getting on with things. Labour seem to be waking up from the dream that was the Mullingar Accord. But beyond them how will the analyses stack up? No element or even relation of the further left was returned (sure, Seamus Healy did relatively well, and on another analysis so did Joe Higgins, but nowhere near well enough). I’ve spoken to one individual who would broadly be in the further left, although not aligned with a party, who told me a couple of weeks after the result that he was giving up on electoral politics. Good on him, but perhaps it gave up on him.
Yet in the face of the hegemonic grip by the centre centre/right on Irish politics that I referred to previously, where now for those groups? Opposition has its own charms, and we’ve seen various groups survive for decades simply by a sort of activism which bends and shapes itself to whatever is the issue of the day. But it’s unappealing surely? And then there is the instructive example of the Greens. A generous (and not necessarily incorrect) analysis of their words and actions since the election would merely serve to underpin the idea that they too had to accept that hegemony – even once they had stepped inside the tent. That they see no way of altering that until they are given time. It’s not the happiest of prospects, now is it?