The Crouch End Commune

In 1968 one of the most prominent protests in the UK was at the Hornsey College of Art...

The occupation of Hornsey College of Art in north-east London was one of the most prominent student protests in the UK during 1968. Tom Nairn, then a young sociology lecturer at the college, wrote this exuberant eyewitness account of the event for the New Statesman. The college, now part of Middlesex University, was then under the control of the local council, which took a dim view of the student movement. Among the student leaders was Kim Howells, now a Labour MP.

Selected by Robert Taylor

A student is a student is a student rumbled a well-remembered Times editorial only last year, when the LSE students were sitting-in. There is no need to underline this gigantic misjudgment, after Nanterre and the Sorbonne. But now the dear old thing need go no further than Crouch End, N8, to see how wrong it was.

Just over a week ago, the young people attending Hornsey College of Art decided that they too were fed up with being 'students’, in this odious and out-dated sense. What was to have been a one-night discussion of grievances, under the benevolent but watchful eye of Authority, turned into the most sustained and successful sit-in yet. The Principal withdrew discreetly, under some pressure. Under the leadership of the Students’ Action Committee, all of whose meetings are public and can be interrupted anybody from the student body, these serious rebels have enjoyed a 10-day-long surge of creativity unheard-of in the annals of higher education. Naturally, they have run the whole College from canteen to switchboard with the greatest energy and efficiency, and repainted the shabbier parts of their old building. But more important, they have talked, and talked, and talked.

Those who have never seen a revolutionary discussion of this sort (almost everyone over 20, alas) can have little idea of what this means. And little idea of the shape of future politics, either. These extraordinary explosions of debate, lasting literally and effortlessly from one dawn to another, are as different in quality from conventional modes of discussion as a space-satellite is from an aeroplane. They make the Oxford Union look ridiculous. After four days and nights, some militants were unsteady on their feet but still with it. “I hate sleep,” said one of them quietly, “how can one sleep while this is going on?” Fusing day and night into one intensity, this is the heat where a future can be made.

What future do the Hornsey artists want? In the astonishing torrent of duplicated memoranda signalling each phase of the revolt, one stands out clearly. Called Document No 11, it has no less than 31 clauses and three lengthy appendices. So much for the inarticulacy of artists. It calls for a radical revision of the entire structure of art education, and notably for: the abolition of the present entrance requirements; the abolition of the present exit requirements (i.e. the examination system); and student control of whatever takes their place.

Why did this superb happening happen here? In general terms, the Hornsey rebels confronted until 10 days ago a situation in which a wretched and anachronistic curriculum was mechanically imposed on them from above, with total disregard of their participation and even of their consent. However, this might be said of almost any institution of the Higher Learning. What was peculiar to Hornsey, perhaps, was a severe aggravation of the usual contradictions. This was partly a matter of the chaotic conditions of art education, and partly derived from Hornsey’s resistance to being conscripted into one of the government’s new polytechnics. In the campaign against the polytechnic the students first realised that it was possible to do something collectively.

By challenging the structure of their sector in this remarkable way, they are of course implicitly challenging the overall character of higher education. And who can fail to see that the presiding values of this system are by and large those of the society outside? A society gets the educational system it needs to keep it going. Examinations and the authoritarian teacher-pupil relationship are not some kind of accident. This is the real ‘political’ significance of the Hornsey occupation and other similar events.

Comic relief to this genuine revolution has been liberally provided from outside, particularly by the press. Fleet Street has searched with mounting rage for the Trotskyites under the table — that is, for a ‘political’ explanation in conventional terms of tired slogans and bearded agitators. Beards are everywhere at Hornsey, but such few sectarians as have approached have only borne out the tragi-comic truth of Paris: most of today’s professional revolutionaries don’t know a revolution till it kicks them in the behind.

How much further will the Hornsey Commune develop? This is of course partly a matter of the sympathy and support it wins from other art colleges, and from society outside the limited sphere of art education. It is also partly a matter of the reaction of the Haringey Borough Council — the controlling local authority — which is under pressure from certain quarters to intervene and stop the experiment by force. In this perspective, it may be worthwhile pointing out that a large percentage of the Hornsey staff are not merely tolerant of the movement, but actively participating in it, as their meeting on Wednesday made clear.

However, the real — and quite indestructible — achievement of the Hornsey coup is precisely this: everyone knows that the clock can never really be turned back, to the remote era of 10 days ago. Even if the old system was re-installed, it would never work in the same old way, in the light of the new consciousness which has been created. In this sense, all revolutions of this order are permanent. For 10 days, a college has been transformed into a living organism of work and education, a small embryo of our future condition.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything