The Decline of Activist Spirit at LSE

By Iraz Akkus

The reputation and repertoire of LSE has always far exceeded national borders. Though this can be attributed to the ‘stellar’ higher education standards and opportunities offered by the School, it also has much of its roots in what makes the spirit of LSE distinct from other renowned universities. Our founding mother and fathers set socialist-leaning attributes into the heart of the university when it was first opened and from the outset, the fabric of the university was weaved with a sense of togetherness against the reigning status quo. LSE’s pedagogy consequently focused less on theory, which higher education at that time often worshipped, and more on the importance of contemporary, bureaucratic, practical applications of learning. Webb famously claimed that “the radical vice of University life [is] the divorce of thought from action”, clearly setting priority focus on action, rather than just seminal debates trapped within the confines of the classroom. Those attending LSE were entering an environment of assertive dynamism and gaining tools to pioneer genuine change. Students were expected to be the ‘doers’ of society and not just preachers of the hypothetical. 

As I look back at old editions of The Beaver, in honour of the 75th anniversary, I can see how this reputation was immortalised. From its preliminary years in the 1950s urging students to “Boycott: Action Stations” with its very own Boycott Committee, to major headlines such as, “Can we really protest too much?” in the 1990s, every issue is filled with addressing not only important campus-wide and domestic, but also international complexities and injustices. The pictures and the coverage always emanated an unmistakable sense of unity within the student body, stepping out with big signs with even bigger volumes of people. Causing a fuss. LSE’s protest and defiance had a certain flair and yes, bourgeois, charm. A mesh of comedy, outrageous (yet successful) protest methods, and frankly jailable political commentary, no box was left unchecked. This all-encompassing charisma can be seen in the quintessentially LSE headline of the 1999 Women’s Liberation Campaign titled “NO BRA BURNERS PLEASE, we’re LSE!” with the coverage accurately describing the event as a “defiant two fingers to all those who were anticipating a hysterical rabble of screaming”. 

Now we’re lucky if we can fill a monthly town hall meeting at the SU without demanding some voucher as a reward.

I can’t help but question whether LSE’s strong fighting spirit has deflated (in fact I’m perfectly sure it has). There seems to be a domestication in the way we approach injustice, or how we stand up for what we believe in comparison to the good ol’ days. Could it be that we are all far too polarised – only defending our own niche definition of right and wrong on the international and domestic happenings? Taking to the CBG square when it suits us. Perhaps when we don’t have an important class or AC that we just can’t pass up. If so, are we losing perspective of what is important as an aggregate, as a collective, and as a community? Especially when put into a hierarchy over our own direct future.

Or are we just burying our heads in the sand, turning a conscious blind eye as long as we graduate with the LSE’s already acquired impressive reputation and hurrying to the next phase in our life where we are perhaps more hidden in our 9 to 5, less exposed or expected to bear the accountability to take to the streets by something or other?

Maybe we aren’t wholly responsible for this crisis of faith in activism. The direction of LSE’s ideology saw a sharp shift from the very top of LSE’s administration with Walter Adams, LSE’s Director in the 1960s, placing emphasis on stripping out LSE’s Fabian tendencies. Perhaps we’re finally seeing that trickle down to the student community. The adoption of institutional neutrality in response to recent world events and a change in LSE’s aim means the focus has been on providing the ‘politically correct’ takes so as not to scare away donors and speakers. We have gone from hosting the first suffragette meeting to inviting alleged gender critics and racists to our campus, guised under the branding of free speech and providing a ‘balanced’ argument. LSE’s message has therefore changed, from what’s right, to what’s acceptable; trading what is important for the progression of society’s ideology to what is politically correct at a given moment in time. 

Perhaps this is far too cynical a view? Perhaps the observation is grounded in the disillusionment of a few unfortunate situations or disappointing protest turnouts. Realistically, other external factors, like the entire direction of Western societal progression with our commercialisation and technological dependency, are also at play in diverting our attention from important realities. Even so, the calibre of our conversations and care for anyone but ourselves seems to have declined, from the collective to the individual. And I know I’m not the only one who thinks so. There seem to be far too few of us willing to share and contribute our opinion, if we have any of that left at all, as a tight-knit unit.

Maybe, we can dispel our scepticism by simply looking back at the last few weeks. For instance, our return to archetypical LSE-spirited response to the hosting of Benny Morris by our very own Law Department, or The Beaver’s illumination of perpetual sexual misconduct by LSE’s own staff. Because does it really get any better than providing a catchy chant to dismantle an (alleged) racist or cause a huge Twitter storm to expose an (alleged) sexual predator? I don’t think so. 

And though this is all pointing in the right direction, we still have a long way to go before we realise LSE’s community has tragically tamed its fighting spirit. We seem to be less and less inspired by each other, generally following what the herd is doing and thinking little of anything else. How incredibly boring and disappointing. I suggest we take a look back at our own history, our archives that covered 75 years of activism and reinstate LSE’s progressive eccentricism, without which there seems to be a gaping hole in what makes LSE worth enduring.

Iraz examines how LSE's original spirit has changed from socialist principles around protest, to subdued modernity and institutional neutrality.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Key

Related Posts

scroll to top