Making Students’ Movements

By Nicholas Jon Crane

Issue 2.1 | March 1, 2011

Fabio Lanza. Behind the Gate: Inventing Students in Beijing. Columbia University Press, 2010. 320 pp.

The story of a truly political movement is one of dispersed elements that come together in often unexpected and apparently accidental ways, and also, necessarily, of the movement’s distance from and subsequent re-encounter with the State. At least this is what historian Fabio Lanza invites us to believe in his “willfully revisionist” Behind the Gate. An analysis of student politics in Beijing inaugurated by the May Fourth movement of 1919, Lanza’s book traces two processes that overlap but do not completely converge: first, the politicization of students, and second, the invention of a political category that, since May Fourth, has been used to identify individual students with a particular “brand of political action.” For Lanza, “students” is the name given to a group of individuals that has been classified, counted and accounted for, understood in relation to, and known by the State. But also more than that; Lanza argues that, through a wave of activism during what he refers to as “the May Fourth years” (1917-1923), Beijing students experimented with their classification as such, and, through their experiments in declassification—through “a specific political struggle that was located precisely around the definition of ‘student’” (5)—they achieved distance from the State and came to do politics.

Beginning at the end, with his epilogue, one sees Lanza stretch Charles Tilly’s notion of a political “repertoire” to its breaking point through an affirmative reading of Alain Badiou’s provocative Metapolitics. Lanza claims, “May Fourth invented ‘students’ as a repertoire, but also as the name of the possibility of political action and organization programmatically outside any state-defined bond, one that challenged and unsettled the boundaries of the politically proper” (206). This is far different from what one finds in conventional accounts of contentious politics after Tilly, which explain the radicalization of “protest waves” as a mere response to primarily state-organized opportunity or threat “environments” (e.g. Almeida). I say this not only because Lanza avoids the incautious use of spatial metaphors but also because he does not presume that the State would drive non-statist politics. Indeed, for Lanza, the condition of possibility for the set of practices through which Beijing students engaged in locally meaningful politics was precisely students’ distance from the State (and, after Badiou, the state). Created in part through the reforms of Beijing University president Cai Yuanpei (1917-1926), and then actively maintained by student activists in the spaces of daily life, this distance was critical. When it collapsed, student politics were at an end. With fleeting exception, student activists were thereafter reduced to parading for more complete recognition from the State, and, as in 1989, “waged actions that were dependent on and justified by” their subjugation to its apparent imperatives (215).

For Lanza, following Badiou, distance from the State (as the enslaving “bond”) and the state (as the structuring “state of the situation”) is necessary not only for would-be student activists, but also for analysts of their movements. Addressing analysts more specifically, Lanza cautions that neither the process of the politicization of students nor the process through which the student is invented as a political category or “identitarian sign” can be examined upon the assumption, in advance, of students’ position in relation to the State. Students are not “always already there,” fixed in a preestablished or natural political location, nor can their daily life be understood as a mere reflection of shifts in ideology, intellectual posture, or ideas (115). If one is to invest student activism with any independent political meaning, Lanza argues, one must begin with its practices and associational forms and with the lived experience that particular students have taken as “the basis from which to propose a wider redefinition of student life” (48).

Here, with this emphasis on the level of the quotidian, Lanza benefits from Henri Lefebvre’s critique of spatial fetishism, his insight that space is not only a social product but a means of production, “at once a precondition and a result of social superstructures” (The Production of Space 85). For Lanza, following Lefebvre, space is not simply a container for politics; it is generated and generative. Space is what’s at stake! Lanza’s account of Beijing’s student politics suggests that, at the level of everyday practices, “representations of space” were actively disrupted by a struggle against sociological determination that produced symbolic transformations in “the Gate” (of Tiananmen) and allowed for its production as “lived space, truly public space” (172). But the May Fourth years did not, and could not, simply replace dominant (and dominated) space with appropriated “representational space.” For Lanza, it would be better to say that May Fourth student politics expressed a tension between State-imposed classificatory bonds and the promise of infinite creativity held out by what Lefebvre once called “Total Man” (Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1 247). The argument is ambitious and the analysis inspired, but Lanza’s treatment of the possibility of politics deserves further scrutiny.

For all that it is inflected by Lanza’s effort to politicize the figure of the student, the State looms large in Behind the Gate. And indeed, the consequences of its ghostly presence are not obvious. Leaning on Badiou, Lanza argues that boundaries around “the politically proper” may be unsettled through “true politics,” and that this possibility exists on the condition that its practitioners expose the State’s classificatory order to inspection, thereby interrupting the errancy of the State (207). True politics denaturalizes categories that might otherwise be taken for granted. For Badiou, this invariably “summons the power of the State” (Metapolitics 144). For Lanza too, destruction of the bond inscribed in classificatory categories produces a “consequent need for repression and reordering” (213-215). As a rule, that is, the State reveals itself to practitioners of true politics and, through repression, reestablishes the proper boundaries of the political. Accordingly it makes sense that, when May Fourth students made evident an errant classificatory order and thereby challenged habits of identification with the State, they called upon the State to rigidly delimit the student, and to impose strict distinctions between activities that were appropriate to (apolitical) students and those that would be “dealt with according to the law” (142).

But this purportedly repressive State also appears, somewhat incongruously, to be absorptive or retentive. One finds this quality in Lanza’s Part IV (“Social Space”), after a discussion of the May Fourth activism’s intensification, when more radical experiments with self-definition and associationism are said to have elicited harsh repression that, far from having the effect of discouraging student politics, resulted in more widespread sympathy for the activists among non-students. Despite the subsequent multiplication of students’ organizational activity and the State’s response it summoned, it is apparent that repression alone did not dissolve true politics. Indeed, Lanza’s account suggests that the May Fourth mode of activism was “exhausted” by its own overextension and gradually reabsorbed by State sociology. True politics, and its practitioners’ denaturalization of classificatory categories, was, in this situation, a project that would continue only under the auspices of emerging communitarian ties that ensured the renaturalization of that which had been previously destabilized. The practitioners of would-be May Fourth activism came to be “separated from their ‘student’ origin and, while students did not disappear entirely from the political scene, their activism became increasingly limited to what was ‘proper’ to the newly settled category of ‘students’” (198). If, during the May Fourth years, a politically proper position, with attendant tasks and responsibilities, had been held out to students but actively refused (126-136), upon the exhaustion of student politics, when activists “retreated” from the space for politics opened up by May Fourth, it was into this “apolitical” category that they can be said to have been reabsorbed.

Concluding at the beginning, with his introduction, one finds Lanza clearing ground for his contribution, explaining that, “while the influential presence of politically active students in China throughout the twentieth century has been widely studied, the confines and very existence of the category of ‘students’ have been largely taken for granted” (4). Far from taking the category for granted, Lanza’s book faithfully examines the complex processes through which it has been invented and resignified. Through the book’s careful attention to practices, it also serves as a useful methodological model for analyses of what a mode of politics may mean to its practitioners. But one might well ask whether Lanza has not, at times, taken not students but the State for granted. When Lanza looks “behind the gate,” does he not reinscribe a fraught distinction between state and society and therefore accept the “ghost-like effect” of the State (Mitchell)? Certainly it would be too strong to call his book “statist.” It is not—at least, not in the sense conveyed when Timothy Mitchell writes of the state becoming a “disembodied ideality” set apart from society. If anything, Behind The Gate’s homage to non-statist politics promises to disrupt political settlement. Lanza cannot be said to have made the State the independent cause of student politics. But, equally, he cannot be said to help us think through how student politics may itself have the effect of making an autonomous State appear to exist.


Works Cited

Almeida, Paul D. “Opportunity Organizations and Threat-Induced Contention: Protest Waves in Authoritarian Settings.” American Journal of Sociology 109.2 (2003): 345-400. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Metapolitics. Trans. Jason Barker. New York: Verso, 2005. Print.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1. Trans. John Moore. New York: Verso, 1991. Print.

—. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Malden: Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Mitchell, Timothy. “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics.” American Political Science Review 85.1 (1991): 77-96. Print.

Tilly, Charles. From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1978. Print.

Nicholas Jon Crane is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the Ohio State University. He is interested in memory, culture and economy, young people, the state and social movements. His dissertation research examines postmemorial practices and youth political geographies in Mexico City after the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968.