Kevin Hind, of Pembroke College, has just sent this message around:
Dear all, I had this idea the other day of setting up a Radical Society in Oxford University. Oxford Brookes has a Radical Alliance, but I thought it would be a good idea to set up an anti-Capitalist debating society in Oxford Uni as there are lots of groups who seem interested in coming along. I have been in contact with Amnesty International, Green Party, Drop the Debt and People and Planet. I have sent e-mails to O.G.A., S.W.S.S. and the Labour Club. If you think this is a crap idea please tell me, but I want to encourage high-profile debate on anti-Capitalism. I thought about inviting a famous person at the first meeting which would take place next term. I had in mind Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, George Monbiot or Naomi Klein. Please tell me what you think, yours, Kevin Hind.
I’ve never met Kevin Hind, but thinking about this was more interesting than spending Sunday afternoon marking students’ essays, so I sent him this reply:
I’m not sure we’ve met (have we?) nor am I quite sure how I ended up on this Globalise Resistance list (don’t worry: I’m happy to be here), but I wanted to say hi, and that you should forward this message to your GR list if you think it would be helpful in provoking discussion.
I don’t think yours is a crap idea at all. But there’s historical precedent for thinking that you should proceed with caution, and that a Radical Society or equivalent might not work especially well in this University.
In 1993 a group called the “University Left Forum” — of which I was a part — came into existence. 1993 was a good moment for this kind of thing: leftists were disappointed with the election result the previous year; the events of Autumn 1992 (the pit closures and Black Wednesday, especially) made the Right extremely unpopular, and Tony Blair hadn’t yet become leader of the Labour Party and alienated the support of young people by, e.g., imposing tuition fees. The University Left Forum was supposed to be a non-sectarian group of friendly-minded left people who would get together for occasional “debates” with “high-profile” speakers (sound familiar?). And I don’t think I’m making an especially controversial claim when I say that it didn’t really work, and didn’t last an especially long time.
Its meeting of 21 May 1993 got a decent audience, and was addressed by Paul Boateng (then in opposition, so a more credible left figure than he is now) and Yvonne Roberts (with, I think, Kitty Kelley in attendance!) — but apart from lending the name to “sponsoring” various other things around town, I’m not sure the Left Forum ever did much. Its “steering group” meetings provided an opportunity for a couple of people who might not otherwise have met to hook up and start going out with one another, but in political terms, I don’t think the people who went along to those meetings thought that they ever achieved as much politically as they were meant to.
There were personality clashes, and a rather obvious split between what we might call an Old Left and a women’s/rainbow/diversity/new-social-movements crowd. But I think the key problem was this: that genuinely ecumenical umbrella groups require input from several people coming from different groups, but most of the kinds of people who would be interested are already putting their organisational energies into their favourite causes and preferred organisations. At Left Forum meetings, it was clear that A was “the person from OUSU”, B was “the person from the Socialist Workers”, C was “the person from Amazon”, D was “the person from New College JCR”, and so on, and that this remained the focus of their primary loyalty. When everyone was slightly over-committed already, no one much wanted to spend their evenings doing boring University Left Forum work. (And, on the other hand, had anyone in particular volunteered to run the thing and do most of the work, it would have much more quickly become that person’s particular thing, and would have lost the ecumenical and genuinely democratic character to which it aspired.)
Three other structural problems, I think, also lurk in the background for any group of this kind:
First, mostly but not entirely because of the existence of the Union, which distorts the market for political discussion meetings, it is the case that Oxford already gets stackloads of high profile speakers, so they aren’t the lure they are in other contexts and on other campuses.
Second, that there’s no day of the week you can pick to hold meetings on which won’t piss off at least one medium-sized Oxford progressive organisation which holds its meetings on that day. (When we made the decision to hold my Corporate Power and Political Philosophy discussion group on Tuesday, people told me that that meant people from “People and Planet” couldn’t come, and the Labour Club has since started doing weekly canvassing trips on Tuesdays, too).
Third, that people who are Quite Active aren’t necessarily keen to go to more meetings than they already do. If people go to two club-and-society meetings a week, that’s probably because that’s all they are willing to go to, and want to save the rest of their time for drinking, working, pretending to work, having sex, listening to music, wasting time, whatever else they like to do with their evenings. Some people will go to anything at all — but do you want them to be your main audience for a “Radical Society”?
This isn’t meant to be negative criticism: just a warning, to help you think about how to avoid the errors of the past. All you need is a good Plan — but you do need a good plan, which manages to be the product of genuine collective deliberation without running aground on the kinds of problems listed above.
But I’ll end this message, as all leftwing tracts should, on an upbeat – though self-serving – note. One institution survives from this 1993 moment of Oxford Left Unity. The Left Forum never launched the publication it thought it wanted to organise, but Ben Fender of the Oxford University Fabians did begin to produce and circulate around the University a pamphlet series called “The Voice of the Turtle”, which had its first two issues in that same Trinity Term of 1993, with six in all over the period 1993-5. After a period of hibernation following graduation, Raj Patel (also at Oxford 1992-5) and I revived the title in 1998 and launched it onto the worldwide web, where it now lives at voiceoftheturtle.org and operates on a thoroughly global scale, still committed to the same ULF values of ecumenical anti-capitalist radicalism. (An odd twist, perhaps, on the conventional wisdom: we originally thought locally and have ended up acting globally…) And, yes, fresh contributions are always welcome…
Avanti popolo, etc.
Thoughts? Comments? Disagreements?