In the hazy golden glow of hindsight, Wordsworth seemed to have been writing about us in the spring of 1968; ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!’ The Tet offensive seemed to be a decisive turning point in the Vietnam war (a prediction which turned out, unusually for the left, to be correct). The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign had organised a demonstration of over 20,000 people the previous October and the next, in March, had been over 100,000 strong and even more militant. In May, as I drove through Finsbury Park with the first bundles of the first edition of the Black Dwarf, I listened on the car radio to the sound of the Internationale being sung on the streets of Paris by a huge demonstration of workers and students. Bliss indeed.
There had been a few sit-ins, such as at LSE in protest at the appointment of Walter Adams as Vice Chancellor, the previous year. However, in response to the May Events, a rash of student protests and occupations started to sweep the country - and, indeed, Europe. For a few weeks, students in Bristol, UEA, Sussex, Keele, Hornsey, Guildford, Corsham and at the time, it seemed, almost everywhere else, occupied their colleges - and in many cases won significant reforms from the authorities. Then they all went on holiday.
There was a was a lot of nonsense talked about ‘The Student Revolution’ at that time, with silly theories - such as universities becoming ‘Red Bases’ and whatever it was that Marcuse was going on about - gaining a temporary currency. Despite all that, there was a significant radicalisation among at least some students in 1968 that breathed new life into the dusty archives of socialism. However, while not wanting to overstate the significance of the specific events we have witnessed over the past month or two, I think that the current wave of student unrest is different from - and more significant than - the events in those dear dead days of May and June 1968 in three potentially vital ways.
First of all, while the student protests of 1968 were political, they were political in somewhat abstract ways; opposition to the war in Vietnam or to Apartheid, or even to the universities‘ involvement with corporate and/or state interests. Even the protests about the content and form of teaching in the art schools tended to reflect the concerns of an advanced, fairly politicised, minority. On the other hand, the protests we have been seeing over this winter have been largely the expression of students’ outrage at the attacks on their living standards and educational prospects - in other words, they have been rooted in the real life experience and aspirations of ordinary students.
Second, the student protests of ’68 were overwhelmingly middle class in their makeup; not suprising, since even though HE had expanded in the ‘60s and become an option for more working class kids, they were still a very small minority in a sector that was much smaller than it is today. Today, the HE sector has vastly expanded and far more working class youngsters attend university, or aspire to it. In addition, FE colleges have become an alternative to sixth forms for many working class kids and preparing them for university entrance has become a central role for FE. For these youngsters, the Education Maintenance Award scheme (EMA) is a vital support and the Government’s plans for its abolition from April has been seen by many of them (rightly) as a vindictive and mean minded attack on their living standards and their plans for the future. Thus, a feature of the street demonstrations across Britain has been the involvement of many much younger working class students from FE colleges and sixth forms.
Third, in 1968 there was little or no popular support for the student protests, certainly not within the labour movement. However, this time the protests have not just involved a much wider layer of students than were ever involved in 1968, but reacting as they were to what were merely the most visible of the savage cuts in social provision that face us, the students have to some degree come to be seen by many trade union activists (many of whom, of course, have children who have been or will be affected by the cuts) as the first wave of real opposition to the Tories and their Lib Dem bag carriers. And while Len McCluskey’s public support for the students may turn out to be largely rhetorical, it is public support nonetheless.
While we should not have any illusions about what the spontaneous upsurge of student anger will achieve on its own, I think that we should see it as a inchoate harbinger of the mass opposition that is to come - that has to come if we are to defeat this dreadful government. This is not history repeating itself - it has the potential to be the beginning of something really new.
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