Maoists and Eysenck at LSE, May 1973: Disruptive protest and the prelude to ‘no platform’

On 8 May, 1973, the controversial psychologist Hans Eysenck attempted to deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics, but faced heavy protests from students. A group of Maoists stormed the stage and assaulted Eysenck. Alongside a sit-in the following month to protest a lecture by US academic Samuel Huntington at the University of Sussex, the shutting down of Eysenck was seen as an example of the grave danger free speech faced at British universities. Occurring less than a year before the ‘no platform’ policy was introduced by the National Union of Students, the Eysenck incident shows that claims that the freedom of speech was under threat at universities has existed for decades and that there has long been debate about the appropriate action to be taken against right-wing speakers who weren’t explicit fascists.

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 Cartoon from the Daily Mirror

Before the NUS formalised its ‘no platform’ policy and put forward a strict position towards the invitation of fascist and far right speakers, the response to individual racist and right-wing speakers was much more haphazard, with various student activist groups reacting in different ways. In the year leading up to the 1974 policy being introduced, there were two incidents that acted as a prelude to a formal policy needing to be implemented. The first was the protest against psychologist Hans Eysenck in May 1973 at the London School of Economics, which attracted student protests, but was marred by the violent actions from members of the tiny Maoist group, the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist). The second was the successful occupation of a lecture theatre at the University of Sussex in June of the same year by student activists in opposition to American academic Samuel P. Huntington, who had previously advised the US government on Vietnam. Both events were portrayed as a serious threat to freedom of speech at British universities, but also met with resistance from within the student unions on both campuses. Prior to the National Union of Students eventually adopting the ‘no platform’ policy, student action against far right speakers on campus was much more varied, with these incidents at the beginning and the end of the era of heightened student radicalism highlighting the localised reactions to the invitation of these speakers.

At this time, Eysenck was part of a controversial circle of psychologists that worked in the area of ‘race’ and IQ, with Eysenck producing a book titled Race, Intelligence and Education in the early 1970s. This ‘scientific racism’, as criticised by radical scientists in Socialist Register, sought to argue that differences in IQ between ‘races’ was informed by genetics.[1] In May 1973, the Social Science Society at LSE invited Eysenck to speak, which was opposed by a number of student groups. One of the most vocal was the LSE Afro-Asian Society, which had links to the tiny Maoist Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist).

The Afro-Asian Society distributed a leaflet prior to the event, titled ‘Fascist Eysenck has no right to speak’, which declared:

Today, fascist Eysenck has been sent by his masters, the British imperialists of the London School of Economics to spew out more of his fascist propaganda. This represents not only a brazen attack on the progressive masses of students and staff at LSE but represents another step in the insidious scheme of British imperialism to provide a rationale to unleash fascist and racist attacks on the broad masses of the English people including the various national minorities.[2]

The Afro-Asian Society characterised Eysenck as a fascist who had no right to speak and that he was using LSE ‘as a platform for his attacks on the working and oppressed people not only of Asia and Africa but also of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales’.[3] The Society saw the opposition to Eysenck as part of a wider struggle against British imperialism, arguing that ‘the broader masses have every right to prevent fascists from doing propaganda for the ruling class’ and called for ‘the progressive LSE students and staff… to exercise their right to oppose the fascist propaganda of H.J. Eysenck’, as well as ‘to vigorously develop mass democracy and mass denounciation [sic] to expose the anti-people and anti-science theories of Eysenck’.[4]

 

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Coverage of the incident in the Daily Telegraph

On 8 May, 1973, Eysenck rose to speak in front of a crowd of around 400 to 500 people at LSE, but as the Daily Telegraph reported, ‘[e]ven before Prof. Eysenck had a chance to begin, heckling, catcalls and obscenities were flung at him’.[5] A vote was taken by the Social Science Society to determine whether Eysenck was to continue, but a section of the crowd was still vocal in their opposition to Eysenck speaking. The President of the London University Conservative Association, who was in attendance, described what happened next for the Daily Telegraph:

About 15 students from the front two rows jumped over the table and dived in with their fists flying. They were hitting out in all directions.[6]

The newspaper further reported that Eysenck had ‘had his spectacles smashed, his nose cut and his hair pulled’.[7]

The actions by the protestors was quickly condemned on all sides, from the media, politicians, other far left groups and the student union. The Chairman of the LSE Social Science Society and former (and future) Labour MP, David Winnick, was quoted in The Guardian as saying, ‘We all deplore the methods used to break up the meeting. They were Fascist-like tactics of hooliganism and physical violence.’[8] Digby Jacks, the President of the NUS and CPGB member, said afterwards, ‘This kind of display will only achieve greater credibility for Eysenck’s views’.[9] An editorial in the Daily Mirror proposed, ‘[a]ny university students who are not prepared to allow peaceful discussion of unpalatable views ought not to be at a university’ and called the students who were involved in ‘a group of hoodlums’.[10] The Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Education and Science, Norman St John-Stevens stated that disagreements with Eysenck needed to be wielded through ‘the weapon of dialogue and rational discourse and not by the fist of the thug’.[11]

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Headline from LSE student newspaper The Beaver

Soon after the events unfolded, it was widely conveyed that the Communist Party of England (M-L) were behind the violent disruption, with students allegedly from the University of Birmingham (as well as other Birmingham-based activists) joining the CPE (M-L) members at LSE for their protest – although the Times Higher Education Supplementclaimed that the ‘Afro-Asian Society was prominently represented but its members only shouted interruptions’.[12] The Birmingham Evening Mail reported that ‘Communist revolutionaries at Birmingham University… admitted [their] involvement in the incident when a professor was attacked and prevented from speaking at the London School of Economics.’[13]

The other groups on the left were quick to disassociate themselves from the CPE (M-L). In the Morning Star, the Communist Party of Great Britain railed against the ‘gutter journalism’ of The Sun and other tabloids that attempted to lump the CPGB in with the Maoists.[14] The newspaper proclaimed, ‘Whoever the people were who ignored the wishes of the great majority of LSE students at Tuesday’s meeting and broke it up by violence, they were not Communists’.[15]The International Socialists Society at LSE also condemned the CPE (M-L) in the LSE student newspaper, The Beaver, writing:

According to their philosophy everyone except themselves (and perhaps THE National Front!) are fascists. Reformists are ‘social-fascists’. IS are ‘Trotsky-Fascists’. Heath is a fascist. Eysenck is a fascist. This would be laughable if it were not for the fact that these tactics and politics are a mirror image of those which enabled the Nazis in Germany to come to power, without any real opposition from the Germany [sic] CP. It is extremely lucky that the Maoists have no following in the working class because beneath their physical and verbal militancy they are pursuing a disastrous course.[16]

The Sunday Telegraph suggested that the CPE (M-L) had ‘worried’ other left groups and ‘now found themselves daubed with the same brush as the CPE’.[17] Chiming with the criticisms made by the IS students at LSE, this newspaper article stated that the ‘CPE’s jargon is so absurd a parody of that of other Maoist organisations that it is widely believed among Left-wing students that its funds derive from the Central Intelligence Agency acting in the role of agent provocateur’.[18]Meanwhile the International Marxist Group contingent at LSE criticised the CPE (M-L)’s tactics against Eysenck as a premature anti-fascist reaction, as Eysenck was ‘not organising such a movement in society around his views… and thus the question for many students is turned into a clash over intellectual ideas.’[19] A flyer produced by the LSE Red Mole qualified this by asserting:

In such circumstances tactically, though not in principle it was incorrect to stop Eysenck from speaking as the physical act to prevent him from speaking is not understood by the mass of students at this stage.[20]

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LSE Red Mole flyer against university investigation into the incident

There was a call for the universities to expel the students involved in the fracas and for the police to investigate. However there was division in the LSE student union over whether to assist with any university or police investigations. The Times reported that some students felt that ‘since an inquiry was going to be held anyway it was best that the union should conduct it’, but this argument was unsuccessful, with the university administration announcing that they were conducting their own inquiry.[21] After a heated internal debate, the LSE student union declared the following motion:

Whilst deprecating the violence of the two meetings on Tuesday we should prevent any student from being victimised over the incident.

The School is holding an enquiry into the matter; exaggerated press statements have already called for any students involved to be sent down.

We ask every student to refuse to co-operate with the School and to give them absolutely no time at all, or to claim they know nothing about the incidents.[22]

John Carr, the Senior Treasurer of the student union, wrote in The Beaver that the students also sought for the union to apologise to Eysenck and condemn the violence, but this was resisted by the International Socialists present.[23] Tim Potter from the International Socialist Society replied to this, saying that the IS students refused to support a motion to apologise ‘because he is a racist’ and that such a motion ‘would play into the hands of the right-wing reaction’.[24] The IS Society argued that even though they condemned the actions of the CPE (M-L), ‘all socialists must defend them against the right-wing witch-hunt being whipped up by the Press and being put into practice by the College authorities.’[25] The IMG at LSE also warned of a ‘renewed offensive’ by universities and the Conservative government against left-wing students, warning that the Eysenck affair would be used to attack students and the student unions.[26] The IMG further lamented that ‘the attitude of the NUS Executive, the LSE Executive and the Communist Party only reinforces this attack by playing into the hands of the right wing and confuses students as to what is going on’.[27] In the end, however, it seems as though there was no action taken by police with regards to the attack on Eysenck.

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Teach-in programme of the LSE Afro-Asian Society organised in the aftermath of the Eysenck protests

The protest against Eysenck at LSE was soon followed by another incident of the shutting down of a lecture by a controversial academic. This time it was American academic Samuel P. Huntington, who was denied access to a lecture hall to address a crowd at the University of Sussex in June 1973. These two incidents were portrayed as a worrying trend by British students as a rejection of academic freedom and the freedom of speech. Inches of column space were dedicated to the spectre of student violence and the apparent end of free speech at British universities. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed, ‘[r]ecent events suggest that universities are no longer firmly wedded to free speech and free academic inquiry’.[28] Another editorial in The Guardian questioned:

If in face of such threats [to freedom of speech] university authorities and academic staffs generally decide to nothing, they should not be surprised when Parliament and the public begin to believe that ‘academic freedom’ is a term which has lost its meaning. If the universities cease to defend it, will anyone else?[29]

Although one incident involved violence and the other was a peaceful protest, together these events were portrayed as end to free speech on campus and an example of a violent turn within the student movement – coming at a time when the British authorities and press were becoming more alarmed about the spectre of political violence from the left.[30] The arbitrary nature of these protests gave way to a more formal approach by student unions, empowered by the ‘no platform’ policy at NUS level. However the description of student activists as either ‘fascists’ or ‘Stalinists’ in pursuit of ending free speech at British universities was one that was returned continually throughout the 1970s by politicians, the press and right-wingers, and similar to contemporary descriptions of students involved in protests at universities by right-wing commentators.

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Coverage of the protest in the Daily Mail

[1] Steven Rose, John Hambley & Jeff Haywood, ‘Science, Racism and Ideology’, Socialist Register, 1973, p. 235.

[2] LSE Afro-Asian Society flyer, ‘Fascist Eysenck Has No Right to Speak’, n.d., LSE/Student Union/24, LSE Student Union Papers, LSE Archives, London.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Daily Telegraph, 9 May, 1973.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Guardian, 9 May, 1973.

[9] Guardian Weekly, 19 June, 1973.

[10] Daily Mirror, 10 May, 1973.

[11] The Times, 10 May, 1973.

[12] Times Higher Education Supplement, 11 May, 1973.

[13] Birmingham Evening Mail, 23 May, 1973, press cutting held in LSE/Student Union/24, LSE Student Union Papers.

[14] Morning Star, 11 May, 1973.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Beaver, June 1973.

[17] Sunday Telegraph, 24 June, 1973.

[18] Ibid.

[19] LSE Red Mole flyer, ‘Defend the Union! Defend the Afro-Asian Soc! Defend the CPE (M-L)!’, n.d., LSE/Student Union/24, LSE Student Union Papers.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The Times, 11 May, 1973.

[22] Executive Committee of LSE Student Union, ‘Eysenck’, n.d., LSE/Student Union/24, LSE Student Union Papers.

[23] The Beaver, June 1973.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] LSE Red Mole flyer, ‘Defend the Union! Defend the Afro-Asian Soc! Defend the CPE (M-L)!’

[27] Ibid.

[28] Daily Telegraph, 5 June, 1973.

[29] The Guardian, 11 June, 1973.

[30] J. D. Taylor, ‘The Party’s Over? The Angry Brigade, the Counterculture and the British New Left, 1967-72’, The Historical Journal, 58/2 (2015) pp. 877-900.

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