Editorial: Student Power. Theory, Critique and Practice

“Minerva’s owl takes flight only at dusk”
G.W.G. Hegel, Philosophy of Right

Historical wisdom, for Hegel, is condemned to the realm of retrospective. It is only in the twilight hours that one can truly understand the developments, intricacies and contradictions of the period just lived. Minerva’s owl – the apparition of wisdom – allows, for a fleeting moment, the possibility of understanding. Yet this comes too late. The day ends; a new period starts. The same knowledge just acquired becomes superfluous. This problem vexes all those actively involved in political movements.

The last time we devoted an issue to student politics was in late 2010, following weeks of mass mobilizations and militant resistance to tuition fee hikes. Reading Chihab El Khachab’s review of the OLR 3 (p. 29), it is evident that the chance to transform these analyses into a contemporary political practice has expired. This time around, we review a tumultuous period of student rebellion in Britain and around the world from a very different position. The mobilisations of 2010 remain no more than ghosts of their former selves. The long march from Millbank to the water-logged NUS demonstration at Kennington Park in 2012 is our historical inheritance. Those who seek to re-awaken a cloned chimera of 2010 will suffer a similar fate to King Cnut. Believing the tide will turn at ones command—that one can summon a mass student movement by slogans and heroic posturing—is only a more refined form of political self-flagellation. As Gramsci put succinctly: ‘if you bang your head against a wall it is not the wall that will break but your head’. We cannot simply will a movement like 2010 into being. A renewed theory and praxis is needed; a political synthesis which possesses the humility and incisiveness to critique the past and the present, and one which facilitates a tireless preparation for future action.

Yet, this does not relinquish our responsibility to engage in analysis and refresh the movement’s memory. In 2010, Britain’s students were the first to break the austerity-consensus. They also offered a glimpse of what a mass student radicalisation might look like. In the aftermath of the demonstration in November 2012, however, we need to return to basic questions over both the nature and state of the British student movement, as well as how activists relate to the National Union of Students. Jamie Woodcock (p. 12) provides a compelling political and strategic argument for why activists still need the National Union. Calls to break from it, he argues, fail to respond to the changing circumstances of a smaller movement.

Given the state of the British movement, we felt the need for an international cross-pollination of ideas, experiences and strategy. Witnessing the international dimensions of student struggle – from Chile to Quebec to Greece to Puerto Rico – can give confidence, as well as lessons for those in Britain. A tradition of international solidarity is in the process of a much-needed revival. The articles by Charles Carrier-Plante from Québéc (p. 18) and Aquiles Hervas Parra from Ecuador (p. 37) are our little contribution towards this goal. They show that students across the world are united by the same demands of free, publicly funded education, geared towards individual and collective development – and that such visions can point towards a much wider critique of society.

We have also re-published two articles from the 1960’s; one by Ernst Mandel and the other by the Situationist International (p. 45). Their aim is to draw continuities to the rich history of student power, as well as two conflicting views of student agency in progressive struggles.

To circumvent Hegel’s paradox we must have an eye both on the past and the future. Understanding the nature of Millbank can play a role in clarifying our priorities, as well as offering a common identity (see Myers, p. 5). A symbolic history and consciousness of collective struggle is not something to be negated lightly. The movement of 2010 remains living proof that a life of apathy and political inertia are not pre-determined for students. This issue of the journal asks what we can learn from our collective past, as well as what the potentials of a future movement might look like.

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