Some concluding remarks

Student union meeting at Sussex, 1975.
Student union meeting at Sussex, 1975.

It’s sometimes difficult to draw useful conclusions from past struggles for the ones we find ourselves in today. Times change, as do the specific issues we address and how we orient ourselves to them. So the point of writing a pamphlet like this? Well, in many ways, this pamphlet is really just a history of cool stuff that happened at Sussex in the early 1970s. Is it relevant to students today? Sort of. Are there lessons to be learned? Probably. What these are though, is harder to say…

Submitted by Ed on February 6, 2011

One of the main things that impressed me from the events covered in this pamphlet was how the students' grievances over their exams moved on to an entire rejection of the university's role in society. The radicalisation of the students' (and eventually the staff's) demands were the logical conclusions of their campaigns against the everyday issues they faced. The radical criticisms which the students expressed in relation to their assessment was not just empty lefty sloganeering but an expression of their dissatisfaction with capitalism as they experienced it through the university.

Is this still relevant today, when a lot more young people go to university? For me, yes. Even if having a university degree is more common these days, what you are able to do with it still very much depends on your final grade. However, a job where the specifics of your degree will be asked for and put to use (such as in academia, research etc) will usually be the better paid jobs of those who went to university. Those pursuing a career actually using their degree will be in competition with other students in their field to get the best grade. Grading, therefore, on the whole divides graduates into those who will go on to the higher paid professions and those who will go on to generic, less well-paid 'white-collar' jobs.

However, grading also has an ideological function. As grading puts us in competition with each other for the opportunity to get the best jobs, it generally passes on to us the individualistic and competitive culture of capitalism. We have to secure better grades than our peers so that we can go on to get better jobs so we can live in a better area and send our kids to better schools so they can go on to do the same. Added to this, grading drives home the top-down approach to education where the teachers know everything and the students are empty vessels that need to have knowledge poured into them. As the IR students' struggle showed, it is possible for students to have ideas in advance of their teachers. Grading, then, reinforces the idea that teachers teach, students study and then teachers assess the students' understanding. Such assessment never happens in the other direction.

These issues might throw up questions about the possibility of similar campaigns today. Well, first it is important to recognise that questioning capitalism is not something which becomes widespread from enough people reading the right newspapers or pamphlets. It comes from people taking collective action to improve their situation against the 'needs' of businesses to turn a profit or to function in the market. As such, it seems clear that rather than try to recreate past struggles, our starting point should always be our current dissatisfaction with how capitalism organises our day-to-day lives. At Sussex, in the early 1970s, this may have been assessment. Today, well, that's for those on the ground to say but in these days of austerity I'd say issues weren't in short supply!

Another thing I took was the contrast between well-targeted direct action and empty lefty sloganeering. It’s always tempting in the moment to put your opinions on all the world’s wrongs into a shopping list of demands. You feel like you're at an ‘all you can demand’ buffet: you don’t occupy buildings every day so you might as well make the most of it. However, cheaply making demands you have no ability to enforce does very little other than make lefties feel good for having thought about the plights of others. But to put it bluntly, class struggle isn’t a shit Christmas present and it’s not 'the thought that counts'.

The 1973 Sussex House occupation illustrates this perfectly. In and of itself, it was certainly a success (students left homeless by Sussex House lived in Sussex House until they were housed). But the other demands seemed superfluous as they were immediately dropped once the main demand was met. Fair enough if the occupation had been a springboard for a wider campaign but it seems it was not. On the other hand, the struggles which were most solidly won were those that targeted something immediate and then took action that directly affected its functioning. This tactical principle is another thing that maintains its relevance to today’s university struggles.

So these are some thoughts I had while researching and writing this. But for people who believe that the world needs a deep fundamental change, history has two main uses. Firstly, of course, is its use as a source of understanding: learning from the successes and failures of the past so as to succeed in the future or looking at the sequence of events leading to the present so as to understand how we got here. But the other function it has, in my opinion, is just as important: that is, to be a source of pride and inspiration for those who feel affinity with the actors in those events. Perhaps this pamphlet fulfils mostly the latter function.

The people taking pride in these events could be anyone: it could be present-day Sussex students walking around campus, imagining the mattresses and blankets being passed through the windows of occupied Sussex House. It could be students from other universities, relating it to their own history of struggle (or lack thereof) and being spurred to action by it. To be honest, it could be anyone who takes inspiration from people taking direct action to improve the conditions they live in… and in the time discussed in this pamphlet, there was definitely a lot of action going on to take inspiration from.

As was mentioned previously, official histories will always emphasise the stability of ‘business as usual’. Even when forced to mention the turbulent struggles of its history, they will gloss over it, apologise for the unfortunate aberration and stress the return back to normality.

But our history is not their history. Where their history takes our inaction as an endorsement of management’s ‘right to manage’, our history takes it for what it is; a very temporary state of affairs. Our histories point to where we utilised collective action for our own ends and how we frequently rejected stability in favour of militancy. And how, after history had 'ended', economic stability triumphed and our bosses had expected it all to last forever, our histories show how, time and again, we return to haunt them. Our history shows us that what we did before we can do again. Not with the same slogans, the same campaigns or the same organisations. But this one very simple principle of history remains always the same… if we did it before we can do it again.