“Beware the pedagogic gerontocracy”: the 1960s protests at the LSE

Molly Blackall

Editors: Christie Van Tinteren and Thomas H. Sheriff

When conceptualising this publication, one of the most contentious issues was its name. We tossed around numerous ideas, some more appropriate than others, until we settled on ’68’. With this name, the paper references the left-wing student protests of the late sixties. Though not the only significant year, 1968 is often heralded as the pinnacle of the student movement. At this seminal moment, campaigns erupted all over the world, but most relevantly for us, at the LSE. 

A history of this sort at the LSE is almost remarkable. Today, the political atmosphere feels largely stultified, dominated by the extremely wealthy aiming to reproduce themselves. In this sense, the era marks a refreshing break in the school’s history, and offers a window in to the radical potential the school holds. 

In titling the publication such, we don’t aim to anchor ourselves to the politics of their day. Their world is very different from our own. However, to nod to their work recognises that we are not the first, or likely the last, to try and tackle the problems we encounter. Rather, we join a rich tradition of students attempting to improve the world around them.

I interviewed five of the LSE’s most prominent student activists; Martin Shaw, Wenda Clenaghen, Richard Kuper, Martin Tomkinson and Colin Crouch. 50 years later, they reflected on the motivations, legacies and lessons of their time at the LSE. In the conversations that took place, a story emerged of determination, drive, and a genuine desire to battle the inequalities and oppressions confronting them.

In Kuper’s words: “We wanted to change the world. It was as simple as that.”

Walter Adams, Bureaucracy, and the Freedom of Speech

The majority of the alumni I spoke to began on the left of the Labour Party. Many had joined the International Socialists (later to morph into the Socialist Workers Party) soon after starting university. They had all been involved with the Socialist Society at LSE, a remarkably numerous cohort of young idealists who managed to gain a majority in the Students Union by the mid-sixties.

Those I interviewed seemed to unanimously agree that the 1966 appointment of Walter Adams as the LSE’s Director was the first great stimulus for action. Adams had previously acted as head of University College Rhodesia (now The University of Zimbabwe), and had been known for his cooperation with the racially oppressive regime. This had led to student unrest in Zimbabwe, which followed him to the LSE. 

Students were outraged at his appointment, both due to his political ties and their lack of consultation. The LSE responded coldly. Many of the alumni remarked on the patronising attitude of management, who presented themselves as above critique or accountability. In Tomkinson’s words, “students were to be seen and not heard.”

When the School banned a meeting on direct action against the appointment, the issue moved from one of anti-bureaucracy to freedom of speech. The meeting was due to be held in the Old Theatre. Management had taken all possible precautions against the gathering, “except,” Clenaghen chuckled, “locking the doors.” Students entered the theatre and occupied it, marking the beginning of a long campaign of direct action.

In protest against Adams’ appointment, David Adelstein, Students' Union President, and Marshall Bloom, Graduate Students' Association President (two separate entities at the time), wrote a letter to The Times. For this act, in combination with their involvement in the occupation, the two were suspended. 

This blatant rights violation provoked an enormous student response. The first sit-in, in March 1967, lasted for ten days in the administration building. It boasted hundreds of students, junior staff, and some professors. Even the president of the Conservative Society willingly embraced the action. 

Lectures were boycotted and pickets established on Houghton Street. A banner holding the protest’s slogan was unravelled; ‘Beware the Pedagogic Gerontocracy’. Despite sounding like a Lewis Carroll poem, the slogan epitomised the sentiment of the early movement - beware the leadership of old men.

The Harvard Crimson, in a 1967 article entitled “The Revolution at the LSE”, reported that by just the third day of demonstrations, 104 students had been suspended. It also praised a 3000 strong march through London by students from across the country, in a demonstration of support for “rebels of the London School of Economics.”

Eventually the school conceded and agreed to convert the suspensions into fines of five pounds each. As I looked pleasantly surprised, Kuper smiled, and informed me that this was the equivalent of fifty today. As an olive branch, the school offered to donate the fines to the anti-apartheid campaign, who promptly laughed them out. 

The Vietnam War

For many students at the time, this episode demonstrated the power of direct action, and the comparative hollowness of the school’s bureaucracy. In 1968, with the student movement growing, the group moved to tackle issues outside of the LSE campus. 

The event which had undoubtedly the greatest political presence for the students was the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement, born in the US, galvanised and epitomised a generation dissatisfied with the structures into which they were born. It incorporated many of the dominant global struggles; anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-militarisation.

As the movement took off, Kuper described the growth of critical thinking, a welcome breakaway from the previously stagnant political culture. Prior to this era, ‘capitalism’ as a word generally wasn’t used. It was, he said, simply the natural order.

Against the backdrop of a world steeped in imperialism, world wars, and conservatism, the 60s’ movement focused on liberation of every form. Politically, culturally, sexually, the protests revolutionised the social climate for twenty-somethings of the day.

The highly international nature of the student body meant that the conflict in Vietnam resonated acutely with those at the LSE. Tomkinson emphasised the importance of meeting students whose university study had protected them from the Vietnam draft, which grounded ideological objections to the war in a sobering reality. Perhaps most harrowing was the story of Marshall Bloom, the suspended Graduate Students' Association President, who committed suicide after receiving call-up papers for possible military service in Vietnam on his return to the US. 

Alongside emotional resonance, the interaction between US draftees and LSE students also had practical implications for the protests. Clenaghen told of the American LSE students who brought the direct action techniques learned on the Vietnam demonstrations to the protests at the School. 

This combination of internal and external, local and global, provided a strong impetus for movement. However, despite these shared ideologies and motivations, the movement often lacked a coherent vision for action. Some students, including Crouch, were less inclined to support direct action techniques after the death of porter Ted Poole at the School.

During the ten day occupation in the Old Theatre, the elderly porter was stationed by the doors and suffered a fatal heart attack. The School was blamed for making an elderly porter, untrained in crowd control, responsible for the management of the occupation, and a post mortem showed that the heart attack was possible at any time. In spite of this, this proved a formative moment for Crouch and other student activists, and led to his shift to more moderate techniques.

For Tomkinson, the activists’ problems stemmed less from their techniques than their lack of continuity. He described the difficulty in building a movement which loses at least a third of its members each year, a problem still faced by student activists. 

Despite problems, the movement reached impressive heights. In October 1968, the students began an occupation at the LSE to provide accommodation for protestors at a large-scale anti-war demonstration happening that month. The occupation lasted for a full weekend, with the participation of over 600 students. 

After this, Clenaghen said, the school’s authorities “decided to get tough.” When students returned the following January, management had erected seven iron gates to prevent protestors from entering the administration building.

The gates, Tomkinson argued, “completely negated any idea of academic freedom”. The Students’ Union were outraged and gates were hacked down, one by one, by hundreds of protestors armed with crowbars and hammers. A Telegraph article from the time reported that the action was led by a lecturer crying “this way comrades!”. 

Despite this rather charming image, the protest swiftly turned ugly. At the request of Walter Adams, over one hundred police officers arrived at the scene and twenty-five students were arrested.

In response to the incident, the School closed down for three weeks. The Socialist Society was exiled to SOAS, who welcomed the protestors and housed them for the duration of the closure. As a result of the action, three sympathetic lectures and a porter lost their jobs, twenty students were suspended, and thirteen were placed under legal injunctions which limited their political activity. 

It was at the end of this protest that the stories of the five alumni drew to a close. The symbolic felling of the gates appears to mark the peak and swan song of the LSE’s 1960s student movement. On the School’s reopening, the authorities threatened renewed closure and disciplinary action in the case of the campaign’s continuation. In response, the students collectively marched to the LSE, but at the following thousand-strong meeting, a proposal for further occupation was defeated. 

Democratisation, Feminism, and the Resurgence of the Right

Given that Walter Adams did not resign and the Vietnam War did not immediately end, there would be a case for claiming that the protests failed to leave any real legacy. However, this is not the view expressed by any of the five. According to many of the alumni, the group helped to push the fight against racism, war, and imperialism to the forefront of British politics. Shaw described the movement as an “incredible radicalising force.”

Looking internally, the protests are likely responsible for altering the bureaucratic functions of the School itself. Today, the LSE hosts staff- student liaison committees, town hall meetings, and regular student feedback - features which were unheard of fifty years prior. Whilst Crouch is cynical, arguing that student engagement runs like customer consultation, many of the alumni consider this democratisation of the university structure a direct legacy of the sixties. 

More broadly, the LSE protests formed part of a vast cultural and political shift which echoed across the world. The momentum of the anti-war movement in 1968, is frequently referenced as a turning point in the American approach to the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s election promise to bring “peace with honour.” If this played any role, then the LSE group can consider themselves a cog in a wider machine, which was partly responsible for the establishment of peace.

A view also echoed by Shaw, Crouch, Clenaghen and Kuper was the importance of the protests for the feminist movement. For some, this came from the natural link between feminism and the other leftist ideologies driving the protests. For others, the contribution to gender equality came, paradoxically, from its neglect. 

Many discussed the inequalities within the movement itself, in which women’s roles were notably less than those of their male counterparts. Whilst there were some attempts to rectify this, such as the establishment of women-only meetings in the International Socialists, the movement was undoubtedly male-dominated. Many saw the galvanisation of second wave feminism as an attempt to rectify the gender imbalance within the left itself. 

In this sense, the LSE protests are perhaps best understood as a thread woven into the wider tapestry of 1960s global politics. 

The aftermath of the sixties, however, did not play out entirely as intended. Kuper described the biggest legacy from the student movement as the reaction to it. This was an idea also picked up on by Shaw, who argued that the rise of the neoliberal right in the 1970s came directly, although not singularly, in response the leftwards swing of the 1960s. 

It is evident that whilst the sentiment of the 1960s never wholly died, the momentum of its movement did.

Tomkinson argued that the movement’s lack of sustainability came in part from its failure to integrate with working-class communities. However, this wasn’t a critique shared by all of the alumni. Clenaghen remembers fondly the unity between the struggles of workers and students, and offered numerous examples of LSE students playing proactive roles in the workers’ rights battles of the 1960s. 

Personal Legacies and the Responsibility of Today
Personally, the legacies for the five are profound. Each one appeared deeply marked by their experiences at the LSE, and most continue to be engaged in left-wing politics. Without exception, they all said they’d do the same again. 

Today, Shaw is an independent councillor in East Devon, in an area which has had a Conservative MP for over 100 years (the only way to get elected, he said, was to go solo). Crouch is a sociologist and political scientist, and is currently contributing a chapter on the 1960s protests for an upcoming book. Tomkinson works as an investigative journalist, exposing fraud and power abuses. Kuper is still politically active, especially in campaigns surrounding Palestine, as is Clenaghen, who rushed off to the Grenfell inquiry at the close of our meeting. Many of the sixties protest group are still in touch, continuing the collective fight they began in 1967. Few, Kuper said, have “sold out”. 

All learnt from their experience, although often about the unfailing resistance of the system against which they riled. But Tomkinson has been left with a lasting belief that people can, and do, change. He observed many students begin reactionary and end radical, and tells a particularly wonderful anecdote about a policeman who gave up his job after he was exposed to the critical ideas of the 1960s group.

They all appear to have carried the experiences, encounters, friendships and ideologies of the LSE protests with them for the past 50 years. Indeed, Kuper described the values he gained from the era as the “most important acquisitions of his life”.

I asked the five about the meaning of student activism for our generation of LSE students. Without exception, all felt that we have a harder time. 

Tomkinson commented on the rise of large numbers of wealthy international students joining the school, which allows the institution to receive larger fees and avoid student loans. This plays into a wider trend, he argued, of treating the education system like one of private healthcare. 

This certainly resonates with the current political climate at the School, where the numbers engaged in the sixties protests remain a pipe dream for the small core of student activists.

Clenaghen commented on the wider difficulties for left-wing mobilisation. She expressed concerns over the comparative weakness of the working-class today, describing forlornly the new depths of capitalist control over society. She mentioned the low union membership rates amongst working people, which government statistics show are just half the rates of the 1970s. This makes mobilisation considerably harder, with organisation and support for strikes and direct action weakened. 

Despite difficulties, all stressed the need for us to continue the quest on which they embarked. Shaw emphasised the opportunity our years at the LSE offer to confront the issues surrounding us. He encouraged us to seize the chance to tackle these problems head on.  It will be of “lasting benefit”, he promised, “to you and society.”

Crouch had a similar message, encouraging us to enjoy our time and allow it to enrich us. He argued that whilst so much of adult life is deeply focused, it is important to have a period of time when you pursue things to satisfy your curiosity. Time at the LSE, he stressed, can do that. 

Clenaghen encouraged us simply to “get up and go”. The plea to keep questioning, organising and fighting was the overarching message they passed on. As Kuper stated, “the greatest respect you can pay to what we tried to do is to carry on trying to do it.”

Students at the LSE today planning occupation

Students at the LSE today planning occupation