by Sebastian Wright
Today was meant to be a talk by Tariq Ali at the ‘Transversal Space’ of occupied Mansion House, Middlesex University. Instead of a lecture, however, people arrived to discover that the whole building had been surrounded by security guards. An injunction had been served to the occupiers by university management, and individual students had been named in the document.
These tactics obviously worked, because after holding the entire building for a week, the occupiers decided to leave as a group—using Ali’s talk outside on the lawn as the focus for a post-occupation rally.
I am never sure how to feel at these moments. Despite the applause all round—which the students obviously deserved after their heroic actions—applauding the exit leaves me feeling cold. Although the vacation of Mansion House by no means implies the end of the struggle, it provided a focus for activities with a real, corporeal commitment and, crucially, an expropriation of the university’s resources, i.e. its teaching space. The importance of this should not be underestimated.
The deflationary feeling was compounded by a bizarrely uninspiring speech by Tariq Ali. Meandering and obviously unprepared, it lacked the fire and brimstone befitting such a militant action.
Even worse was the content. Whilst liberal types are wont to bemoan the ‘unrealistic’ radical left, it seems to me that, quite the contrary, the radical left often suffers from far too little radicalism. Ali argued that all students should stand together to defend ‘high quality education’; that vice-chancellors should get a pay cut; and, most disturbingly of all, that a popular front should be formed with the centre and the right to defend public education.
Could these words have been spoken by a figure such as, say, Nick Clegg? After all, Tory-Lib Dem ministers have just agreed to take a pay cut. Tick. All profuse a commitment to high quality education. Tick. And all appeal to a broad base of liberal-left and rightwing libertarian sentiment. Tick, again. Surely at an event like this we should pushing exactly the kind of ‘unrealistic’ ideas to give the prefix radical in front of left its worth. These could include, for example: the abolition of all tuition fees and the democratic management of all universities by academics and students. It could also be linked into the wider struggle against cuts across the public sector, which will doubtless become the focus of a working class struggle in the coming years.
In general, I would have much preferred to hear more of the occupiers speak—to find out more of what they had learned through the experience, and their thoughts on the way forward. Figures of radicalism past like Ali, weary with the defeats of the 1980s, are probably not what is need to inspire a new generation, or push the ideas needed today.