In January 1969 the London School of Economics was occupied by its students in protest at the appointment of Walter Adams as Director, due to his links to the rightwing regime in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The college authorities erected steel gates in an attempt to prevent students congregating and moving around…
An account and analysis was written shortly after by Martin Shaw, then a sociology student, member of the International Socialists and leading light of the occupation (now a professor of international relations and global politics at the University of Sussex):
“On 24th January the students at the London School of Economics tore down steel gates erected to control sit-ins and occupations, bringing on themselves a three and a half week closure of the School in which police and law courts were used by the LSE authorities against the students.
Although the authorities have now been forced to open the college, legal and disciplinary action is still (at the beginning of March) under way against some staff and students. Students are still faced with a long fight against these measures.
This struggle can be traced directly to the occupation of the School in support of the Vietnam demonstration in October 1968. It was after this action (which lasted for a weekend and was supported by 600 LSE students and thousands of outsiders) that the authorities began to prepare an offensive against the militant movement which had grown up over the previous two years. Since the successful sit-in of March 1967, supported by a majority of the students, students led by the Socialist Society had continually challenged the power of the authorities, without meeting any response. But if the actual events at LSE since March 1967 had not been of proportions to necessitate a showdown, the spreading of student action to other colleges, culminating in the summer of 1968 with the sit-in at Essex and the long bitter conflicts in the art colleges – which coincided with events in France – had made the university authorities determined to act against the students. Meetings of the University vice-chancellors in June, to coordinate their own response, and in October, to rally the National Union of Students to their support, prepared the way for the clamp-down at LSE. The LSE authorities themselves liaised with the Government and the police (as the report of Dr. Adams, Director of LSE, on the October occupation admits). When the lock-out came they received extremely strong backing from the State authorities. It is obvious that the Government, already attacking the educational system for its lack of subordination to economic priorities and determined at the same time to crush opposition in the factories, was ready to support an attempt to crush student militancy and expel the revolutionaries. By January events were coming to a head with the college. A strong movement had developed against the involvement of LSE in Southern Africa, and pressure for direct action built up as the authorities refused to act on student demands that LSE should give up its investments in companies with interests in Southern Africa, that governors should not hold directorships in such companies and that they should not be allowed to recruit on campus. When in mid-January the authorities’ new measures against student militancy, planned since October, finally became clear, a clash was inevitable. The Academic Board ignored an overwhelming student request not to approve the new code of discipline prepared by its General Purposes Committee of which the Director and other Academic Governors are key members. The authorities refused to negotiate over demands to remove the newly installed steel grilles, offering to discuss only the particular location of individual gates.
The gates were removed after a Students’ Union vote by a party of 300 students who walked round the School dismantling each in turn.”
Robin Blackburn: “I was a lecturer at the LSE from 1967. Partly because of the occupation of the college in ’67 the authorities decided that college shouldn’t be used to assist things like the VSC and should never again be open to things like being seized by the students. They put steel gates and grilles in strategic places throughout the corridors and staircases of the university. The Students Union decided to ask the authorities to take them down, which of course they refused to do. Eventually the radical group in the Students Union got a vote that the students themselves should directly tear down the gates, which they did, with the help of some building workers who were building the Barbican and with whom they had been involved. There had been a strike and people from the Socialist Society had been helping them picket and leaflet and so forth. So when the gates had to be taken down they were able to get a couple of building workers in who had the right equipment. I had actually had nothing to do with the decision to remove the gates but I did come out in public, and the papers quoted me afterwards, saying that they’d done the right thing. So the university authorities DECIDED TO give me the sack. That caused more reaction from the students and actually by this time the LSE had been closed down ‑ there was a lockout of the students and the staff.
During these occupations I did try to keep teaching. We did courses on the sociology of revolution, that type of thing.” (Robin Blackburn, in ‘Days in the Life’)
“After this was accomplished, the militants elected an action committee to coordinate action against the measures expected from the authorities. Although Dave Fernbach, an LSE militant, has written that ‘in the face of threats to close a college, we must show that we are prepared to run it – as a Commune …’, at this point the extreme ‘Left’ in the Socialist Society were just as much opposed as were moderates to a proposal to occupy the School to prevent its being closed. A fatalism about the inevitable showdown, which had already gripped many non-revolutionary students, producing a relatively low vote for the dismantling of the gates, extended at this point to the Left itself, which deserted the main buildings. (Most just went home – others stayed in the bar, where the police assault came, hours later.)
After the closure and the clashes with the police outside LSE and Bow Street police station, on the night of Friday 24th January, the Left began to organise. Morale recovered to the extent that ideas of storming LSE were seriously entertained. The main advocates of this were those who saw the LSE as a ‘red base’ from which to set society alight. Borrowing from Mao and Guevara (to the extent that one prominent supporter of NLR [I’m guessing this stands for New Left Review – ed] seriously suggested raiding a sea-cadets’ hall to get rifles in order to frighten the police!) they ignored the weakness within the base. Students who had been unwilling to occupy on Friday, or even to unscrew the steel grilles, were nowhere near prepared to storm LSE on Saturday or Monday. This became clear when the first large meeting, of 500, was held on Monday 27th. If any change had occurred, fatalism was giving way to a curious wishful thinking, with an inclination to believe a hint by the Director that the School would reopen the same week. In any case, few LSE students were prepared to come on a demonstration that afternoon, and if demands for a reopening without gates or police or staff informing were carried overwhelmingly, it was nevertheless without enthusiasm for action. The militants had clearly mistaken their own consciousness for that of the mass of students. Direct action could obviously be undertaken only if the militants substituted themselves for the mass. That ideas of such action were entertained, especially after Monday’s meeting had clarified the position, was due to two main factors.
One was the level of support from outside LSE. Whereas a weariness and fatalistic attitude persisted among LSE students, in many other colleges the authorities’ actions, in bringing the police on campus, cut through much of the liberal ideology of the university and aroused large numbers of new students to support LSE. The Left in many places made major advances. Of course, in many colleges motions of support were defeated, or were carried only in order to defeat proposals for action. And where solidarity occupations or demonstrations did occur, they were often minority actions and all of a token character (only at the most advanced, Essex, did action last for more than 24 hours). But a considerable enthusiasm gripped the Left in most colleges, who came to support the London demonstration. These were the people who found themselves in the University of London Union (ULU) building on Monday night, after the first demonstration, (representatives of most left-wing groups in London were also there, including some who found it much easier to cash in on the LSE than to organise solidarity in their own college.) Many of them – and some of the Left in LSE – believed that LSE would have a far greater impact on the rest of the world than the evidence actually suggested. Thus this outside support combined with some elements in LSE to produce a second factor which was decisive at the time – an ideology of the ‘red base’.
This was the idea that ‘the university or college with a red strategic majority can function as a revolutionary political presence or foco, expressing the ideas of socialist revolution to which the working class must be won.’ This conceives of the student struggle as necessarily a revolutionary struggle, the function of which is to ‘set fire’ to the working class (as in France in May). So despite the fact that most LSE students did not see their struggle as at all revolutionary, and were not even prepared to demonstrate, never mind to storm LSE, and that there was no sign of an insurrection in the universities, or even of token support from more than a handful of workers, it was necessary to take some action which would spark off such national developments. To many it seemed that to occupy anywhere would do. Unwilling to attack LSE or even the University of London Senate House just down the road from ULU, where the LSE students were meeting, they decided to occupy ULU itself – which was the most convenient if strategically irrelevant target.
Of course, LSE students needed a base in which to meet and from which to circulate propaganda among themselves, to other colleges and to workers. The ULU authorities had offered minor obstruction to the LSE militants, but there was no definite prospect that ULU would be closed to us. In any case, even if convenient it was not essential. And LSE students could not be mobilised to defend its use – indeed only a few of them could be mobilised for anything at that point. There was little justification in the LSE struggle itself for seizing ULU – unless it was argued that this would spark off nationwide actions. And, this was in fact the basis on which the occupation was voted, by a meeting in which LSE students were a small minority. Outsiders, identified with Maoist and Posadist tendencies, proposed an occupation in order to establish a ‘revolutionary centre’ for the ‘working masses’. They were not challenged by an NLR spokesman from LSE whose ‘heroic’ speech decided the issue – he too saw the act as indicating a ‘rebirth of a revolutionary movement’. LSE students who spoke against it, and for maintaining direction of the struggle by LSE students, were shouted down.
It became clear the next day that LSE students who had not been present the previous night were even further alienated by this ‘revolutionisation’ of their struggle. It was a big mistake for the militants, because it gave the impression that the struggle was not for non-revolutionaries in LSE, but for ‘revolutionaries’ from all over London (who were themselves isolating themselves from any local base they may have had). It could not have the effect outside LSE which only a strong united stand of the LSE students themselves could have had. The LSE militants began to understand that this was what they had to work towards, and that the ULU occupation was actually a threat to this task. On Tuesday the occupation was ended by a virtually unanimous vote of LSE militants. Many of those who had supported it on Monday were however to disappear from the scene after this, and left-wingers in other colleges who did not understand what was done were disillusioned.
Later that week it became clear that the authorities were not prepared for an immediate reopening, unless it was clear that most students would capitulate to disciplinary measures. These were now being prepared: three lecturers were to be tried for their jobs, thirteen students were placed under injunctions restricting their political activities, and a porter sympathetic to students was suspended. The Director wrote to all students demanding guarantees of orderly conduct and acceptance of disciplinary proceedings if LSE was to be reopened. A special meeting of the LSE Union, called for February 3rd by the Union Council with the support of the right wing in the hope of crushing the militants, roundly refused the Director’s terms and adopted the militants’ demands instead. A committee was elected including ten students under injunctions, which was to act as coordinator for two and a half weeks until LSE was reopened. The militants’ strategy now was to keep the students together while waiting for the pressures to build up on the authorities to open the School – the point being that action was much more possible at that point, with the mass of students constantly around and less intimidated. By Thursday the same week the Academic Board, a powerless if quite influential assembly of the staff, voted for a reopening within eight days. The Director had indicated that the authorities’ intention was to keep the School closed until March 10th while disciplinary proceedings were taken, but next week the Governors announced a reopening on February 19th – a few days after the academics’ deadline.
The reopening of the LSE was accompanied by a firm threat to continue disciplinary action against staff and to launch it against ten students when legal proceedings are concluded. The Governors also threatened renewed closure if students took direct action. The students’ response was a militant march into the LSE, but at a meeting of more than 1,100 a proposal to occupy on the demand to end victimisation was defeated by about 7-4. Another meeting has also rejected this, albeit more narrowly, while verbally reaffirming opposition to victimisation. Students may act when expulsions actually take effect, as they did in 1967 in the cases of Adelstein and Bloom after refusing any action before the verdict was known. But it is difficult to see how this will be possible if the authorities wait until the vacation. This has raised again the question of minority action by the militants.
Although this is often raised as a question of moral duty, it is also argued for on the basis that only a minority will ever act. This of course is very much opposed to the concept of a ‘red base’ with a ‘red majority’, although paradoxically supported by many of those who put forward at least the former slogan. It is contradicted too by the experience of the first LSE sit-in, and of many actions in Britain, that it is possible for a majority to act, or at least for a minority to take action with the definite acquiescence of the majority. There seems to be little reason to wholly exclude this at a later stage of the LSE struggle. The organised right wing is growing, but it is only a small minority who will definitely refuse to act on the issue of victimisation at any point. What is true, however, is that the majority will only act (in the present, non-revolutionary, situation) on limited issues. Although influenced by revolutionary ideas, because the socialist students are in the lead on every major issue in the college, it is not a ‘red’ majority which is likely to won decisively to revolutionary politics. Those who are, are still a small minority; but in order to win these socialists must advance demands around which a mass student movement can emerge. It is in demonstrating the relevance of socialist ideas to meaningful demands within the universities, as well as by general political propaganda and agitation, that revolutionaries will win adherents.
The concept of a ‘red base’ is dangerous because it constantly obscures the nature of the student movement in a non-revolutionary situation, and the relationship of revolutionaries to it. When revolutionaries believe that mass support on Vietnam, or Rhodesia, or repression within the university means they have a firm ‘red base’ ready for any challenge, they are likely to minimise their tasks and resort to the kind of substitutionism seen in LSE. There is a strong danger of isolation and defeat. But in another sense, too, the LSE struggle has demonstrated the danger of the ‘red base’ conception for the revolutionary left. Such ideas derive largely from the May experience in France. On the basis of this it is argued that the proclamation of the ‘red university’ is likely to fire the workers and create a revolutionary situation. This idea was expressed both after LSE closed, and when there was a prospect that an occupation of LSE would coincide with the Fords strike. This hope is a constant temptation to the ‘revolutionary’ gesture. But even in France it was not by general gestures but by a determined fight for their own demands that the students provoked the strikes and occupations. And it is a mechanistic approach which learns nothing from France which expects even this course to be followed here. Revolutionary situations are products of more than just a clash between students and police. Such clashes have occurred on a large scale in many countries without resulting in a significant response from the workers. Revolutionary students must make a real attempt to build links with the workers. Their ‘example’ will not suffice.
One task rather neglected in the LSE lock-out was the attempt to gain trade union support. The LSE branch of ASTMS supported students’ demands, but took no action. Some propaganda work among workers was done by LSE students leafleting, mainly in Fleet Street among printworkers. This was done partly through contacts already made by IS. Much of the leafleting of workers about LSE was done, however, by local socialist groups, and its impact must have been affected by previous activities of these groups. And the only regular information and propaganda about LSE for workers was carried by papers like Socialist Worker. Similarly, support given by LSE students to Ford workers has been organised through contacts at Fords made by IS in months of regular work beforehand. In the LSE struggle the slogan ‘Students Workers, Unite and Fight’ has begun to receive some meaning through the support given to each other’s struggles. But it has depended on a more permanent unity of students and workers inside socialist organisations. The building of such organisations inside the working class is a much more important means of raising the level of working-class activity than the attempt to ‘spark’ working-class militancy from the ‘red base’. What is more, it offers the only possibility that a revolutionary situation will be resolved in a socialist direction. These questions of strategy and tactics, arising from the LSE struggle, will increasingly confront the revolutionary student movement.” (Martin Shaw)
A couple of days after the lockout started at LSE, students also occupied the University of London Union buildings (on January 27th):
‘University of London Union is now liberated territory occupied by revolutionaries The buildings are yours to use as you want. It can be turned into a permanent base for agitation in the London area.The facilities can be used by anyone joining us. We are using the duplication facilities in the Union office on the ground floor, and they can be used by anyone wishes to circulate any kind of document. There is no control over free expression. This goes for the rest of the building ‑ so far only partly explored. The only thing which needs to be organised in common is defence and basic survival ‑ food and sleep. Inside the building, we are all responsible for resisting any bureaucratic organisation of activities: discussion, decoration, planning for agitation, music. Remember there is a swimming pool. If anyone tells you what to do, report them to the security committee. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.
The Security Committee’
Amongst those who answering the radical call to occupy ULU, were some of those involved in the ‘pro-situationist’ King Mob group:
“When we took over the ULU building, Chris Gray and the Situationist mob decided that the only interesting part of the student union was the kitchen, which they took over immediately and rifled the fridge. He just thought it was fantastic that he could fry all these steaks simultaneously. I remember them all cooking and thinking this was brilliant. They could have started their own restaurant right there down in the basement of the student union building.”
“When King Mob was going at full blast, after the LSE sit~in there was a sit‑in at the University of London Union and we got involved in that. It lasted several days Everyone was sleeping on the floor and all that. The New Left crowd tried to run it. We gave Robin Blackburn a really bad time, howled him down, told him he was a wanker. They were very worried this, we might damage things ‑ don’t scratch the paintwork ‑ so a bunch of people went and bust open the swimming pool and had this huge swimming party. The whole thing was very fraught because you’d got this mass of students, the New Left people telling them to be serious and responsible, and King Mob telling them to get their rocks off, let it all hang out, etc. It was very iffy, because the great mass in the middle were swaying both ways. Only a minority supported us; the majority wanted to be quiet and respectable, but these two guys came out of the crowd and joined in with us and said, ‘We’re with you.’ They were a couple of art students from Goldsmith’s and one was called Fred Vermorel and the other was called Malcolm Edwards. They both had long, dirty khaki macs, a couple of impoverished an students. And of course Malcolm went on to finer things and became Malcolm McLaren…” (Dick Pountain, in ‘Days in the Life’)
According to some accounts, it was King Mob who had demolished the LSE gates in the first place:
“Before they could do anything the director, Pall) Dahrendorf had these security gates built so you couldn’t get into the library. They’d just been installed and the Trotskyists were talking about sitting down in front of the gates and standing in pickets and walking around saying ‘No gates’ and the anarchs listened to this meeting which was going on and on. Robin Blackburn of the International Millionaires Group: ‘We think, comrades, that what we should do is blah,bIah, blah… Then Duffy Power got up, pissed out of his mind, and shouted, ‘We’re the International Mine s a Pint Committee and this over here is my friend from the Black Hand Gang and we think we should fuck the gates and take them away and burn them.
‘And they got screwdrivers and they went up and stole the gates.” According to Fred Vermorel, Dave and Stewart Wise’ supplied the muscle (and 2 sledge‑hammers) to despatch the infamous ‘gates’…’ King Mob and The Black Hand Gang (Chris Gray and the Wise brothers) subsequently put out ‘Comrades Stop Buggering About’ LSE poster mag (KING MOB 49) including:’THIS IS YOUR BUILDING. GO WHERE YOU WANT. TELL YOUR SECURITY GUARD To FUCK OFF!’; ‘furtively taken down by the security guards… The LSE, like all other occupations so far, was a mere introjection of the bourgeois order. What do we want: all the shit of bourgeois society?’ (Dave Robins)
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar