Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Students fighting for Socialism

The remarkable recent events at Sussex University, where following the violent repression and victimisation of students protesting against cuts, lecturers are now also on strike today, naturally have a whiff of 1968 about them. However, those students protesting may also be interested in events at Oxford University way back in the early 1920s, which also seem to be a kind of precursor of many student protests to come. Brian Pearce once summarised the story which began when a group of students set up a publication, ‘Free Oxford’ from 1921-22 (a special May Day number (1922) which carried as its masthead a quotation from Trotsky: ‘To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him.’):

When the arch-reactionary Tory Minister Lord Curzon of Kedleston was Chancellor, there darted across the Oxford firmament a comet called ‘Free Oxford’. This was ‘an independent socialist review of politics and literature’ (later: ‘a communist journal of youth’), which came out in six numbers in 1921 and 1922 and achieved an amazing success, with a circulation of at least double that of other university papers. Contributors included Louis Golding, A. E. Coppard, Edgell Rickword, Richard Hughes and other bright young writers, together with Edward Carpenter, of the older generation, and also E. Varga and K. Radek, who sent their articles from Moscow.

‘Free Oxford’ found purchasers in every university and aimed to become a regular inter-university paper reflecting and promoting the work of the University Socialist Federation. Already before it was closed down it was publishing a regular ‘Cambridge Letter’ from the youthful Maurice Dobb.

Towards the end of 1921 the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, one Lewis Farnell, sent for the editors, told them: ‘I will not have Bolsheviks at Oxford’, and expelled them. ‘Free Oxford’ went down with all guns firing. In particular, the following headlines caught public attention: ‘Editors Sent Down. Curzon’s Campaign Against “Free Oxford.” Foolish Foreign Minister Forces Feeble Farnell to Fight Free Speech.’

Reaction in the university world and in the press to Farnell’s action was generally unfavourable (‘Farnellism and Crime’, and ‘Academic Pogrom by Modern Canute’, were typical newspaper headlines) and Curzon, being a politician, sought to dissociate himself from his Vice-Chancellor. This he did, in a letter to The Times. Farnell was stung to reply to it, and a great deal of unpleasantness was created for the University. The more Farnell and his supporters tried to justify themselves, the bigger fools they made of themselves. ‘The crux of the matter was whether it was wrong to advocate the use of force as a means of attaining political ends, and it was pointed out, with reason, that if this ruling held in the university the Officers’ Training Corps should be abolished’ (Maurice Ashley and Christopher Saunders, ‘Red Oxford’).

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At 12:58 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Perhaps equally remarkable is that Pearce's discussion of this and praise for the oxford students is published in the Newsletter, a publication of the Socialist Labour League, in 1960. By 1968 - just 8 years later, the SLL had so degenerated as a political organisation under Gerry Healy (Pearce himself was no longer a member by that point) that its position on the student demonstrations of that year was famously useless - an abstract propagandist abstentionist one towards the 'middle class' students - cf the famous 'Why the SLL is not Marching' leaflet.


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