An introduction about tradition

An introduction about tradition

At school I was known to both teachers and classmates for being a bit of a lefty. When my conservative history teacher found out I was applying to Sussex she laughed saying “that will hardly challenge your ideas”.

That was my first clue. On my arrival at Sussex, I started to understand what she was getting at. Freshers fair had all kinds of radical groups present; there were anarchists, Trotskyists, feminists. Weed-smoking hippies were strewn around campus like litter at a festival. And talking to people I started to pick up interesting stories: rumblings of a staff strike, previous independent workers’ group for Associate Tutors etc. I immediately knew I would like it there.

I got involved with the anarchists: going to meetings, taking part in occupations etc. Being rather contrary and politically immature I frequently got into arguments with people and I was hardly a leading light within the university’s radical milieu. But I was there, you know, did my bit, most of the time like, I was kind of around…

Anyway, through my involvement in activism I would speak to staff who had been there for years and I began to pick up even more stories of strikes and occupations and interesting groups that came and went over the years. I soon found out that when we held occupations, without even knowing it ourselves (and regardless of the action's effectiveness), our actions were being added to the tradition of protest that has plagued University of Sussex authorities for decades. A member of staff once told me that in a meeting with senior management, she’d been asked why it was that Sussex students kept holding occupations… meanwhile we were hardly aware we had any tradition stretching back further than the late nineties.

By the time I finished university, I’d heard so many stories that I felt they needed to be put down on paper. After all, the events of Sussex uni’s radical past are important for those still there. I began seeing ourselves as part of a tradition of radicalism and feared that the further we got from it, the more likely it would be forgotten. And if forgotten, the more likely that an official history of peace and tranquillity within the safe confines of the university’s immovable institutions would take its place.

Originally I had grand ideas: something along the lines of ‘A history of everything radical that ever happened at Sussex. Ever’. As is clear by now, I abandoned this plan due to it being unrealistic for me to cover everything. There was just too much. In the end I focussed on students because the information was easier to come by and I focussed on the early 1970s because it sort of signalled a change in the politics at Sussex, the really early years of Sussex militancy. That, and I’m also really lazy so it seemed like a realisable goal. I approached it a bit like someone going on a diet or quitting smoking.

So don’t take this text as stressing students or the early 1970s as the highlights of Sussex’s militant tradition. There are many stories outside of that specification that deserve to be told. One I remembered being told about by a technical worker was a dispute in 1982 against staff cuts where workers held a demonstration in the university itself. As the demonstration snaked through the campus, it stopped outside buildings, calling on the workers inside to join them, effectively pulling out large chunks of the university on wildcat strike. There were more stories like this; I wrote notes on some and forgot others. Anyone who wanted to research a history of workers’ struggles at Sussex could write a decent sized book on the subject though.

As the title suggests, this isn’t a comprehensive history of student struggles at the University of Sussex. There are things that occurred in this period that I don’t cover. Moreover, it’s largely the result of research done in archives, building a story from newspaper articles, leaflets, pamphlets and other materials that were produced at the time.

If you were a participant in these struggles, I would urge you to get in touch and add your thoughts to the document. This is very much a first draft that is eager to be worked on and your help would be very much appreciated. Similarly, if you wanted to write your own account, you could submit something to the libcom.org website, which has a growing archive on the University of Sussex (at libcom.org/tags/university-of-sussex).

But here’s what I have so far. It’s not much but it’s something and goes someway to recording the radical tradition of Sussex students. And to paraphrase Haim Topol’s character from Fiddler on the Roof, “If you haven’t got tradition, what do you have?”