28 May

1968 / 2010: Student Movements in Context

Posted By polity_admin_user

First posted 21st December 2010


British students are revolting – and that’s not a judgement on their appearance. In recent weeks, windows at Conservative Party campaign headquarters were smashed and the building occupied, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have been ‘attacked’ in their royal car, students staged sit-in protests in university buildings and more than 150 students were arrested in London during a large demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament. The trigger for such protests is the coalition government’s 80% cut in funding for university teaching in England, the phasing-out of teaching grants for the humanities and social sciences, replacement of the student Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and, most pertinently, the raising of the cap on tuition fees for university students from just over £3000 a year to £6000, rising to a maximum of £9000 if certain criteria on widening access are met. Ministers argue that a new funding system is needed as HE must bear its share of the pain to help reduce the national debt burden following the 2008 banking and economic crisis. For students and academics, the drastic cuts to HE in England are unnecessarily punitive and will deter those from working-class and poorer backgrounds from gaining a university education which will revert to being the privilege of the wealthy. 

The mass student demonstrations and direct actions took many by surprise, including Liberal Democrat MPs who signed a pre-election pledge to vote against any rise in fees. Why? Academics (including sociologists) had long seen the current generation as quite passive, uninterested in politics, instrumental in their approach to their studies and hence unlikely to take to the streets for anything. Shows what we know. Seeing large numbers of students and lecturers take to the streets with their placards and chants, visibly angry at the injustice of it all, made me think of Paris, 1968 – a momentous year for students that left an indelible mark on society and political life. Yet on reflection, are the similarities or the differences between 1968 and 2010 more striking?

In early 1968, French students and workers protested against President de Gaulle’s authoritarian leadership style, rising prospects of unemployment, perceptions of widening inequality and an emerging gap between parental attitudes of deference to authority and the younger generation’s more liberal outlook and desire for more freedom. At one point, more than 11 million workers joined with the student movement in a general strike that almost brought down the French government (you can access an archive of 1968 news reports here).

The ‘May events’, as they came to be known, spread to other countries including Britain, the USA, Mexico, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, all of which saw university campuses turned into arenas of conflict and confrontation as young students protested against the staid and apparently irrelevant ideas of their teachers. In sociology, the post-1968 discipline witnessed a revival of conflict theories and varieties of Marxism which resulted in a theoretical pluralism that still characterizes the discipline. The older and more consensus-oriented functionalism withered on the vine as students rejected its inherently conservative bias.

The social contexts of 1968 and 2010 are also very different and it is important to see that social movements and their social context are inextricably linked. In 1968 it was not just domestic policy that concerned students. The backdrop was a post-war demographic boom that gave us the ‘baby-boom’ generation with its own shared values, an unpopular US war in Vietnam and protests against failing Soviet rule in parts of Eastern Europe including Poland and Czechoslovakia. Student movements thus sought alternatives to the politics of both East and West, which led to mass anti-nuclear movements, a reinvigorated environmentalism, gay and lesbian movements and a new wave of feminism. ‘1968’ acted as a kind of gateway to the new ‘social movement society’ and a more liberal, tolerant approach to social diversity.

Critics will say that 2010 is utterly different from this wide-ranging period of social change. There is no baby-boom generation for a start, the Soviet bloc collapsed a long time ago and although the 2003 invasion of Iraq was deeply unpopular, the large-scale protests did not bring down Western governments, whilst the current military action in Afghanistan actually has broad support. The student demonstrations in 2010 do not reflect generational change nor do they express dissatisfaction with social values. Instead, they are short-term protests with a clear instrumental aim of keeping down graduate debt levels. In sum, anti-fees protests do not a social movement make. This is quite a persuasive argument.

Yet there is an alternative interpretation, which sees 1968 and 2010 as having some key similarities. First, although the students are out on their own, once the planned public spending cuts begin to bite next year, workers groups and trades unions may well connect with the student movement in joint campaigns. Indeed, discussions in this vein have already taken place and student leaders promise to continue their actions even though the parliamentary vote to raise fees was successful.

Second, there is also a critique of social values in the 2010 campaigns. The slogans of 1968 promoted a shift beyond the old, tired social order – ‘Be young and shut up’, ‘Power to the imagination!’, ‘Be realistic, ask for the impossible’, ‘For education – to serve the people’. Student slogans of 2010 focused, unsurprisingly, on the economic situation – ‘Make the rich pay’, ‘Education for the masses’, ‘Education is a right, not a privilege’. ‘Be young and shut up’ was also rehashed alongside an image of British Prime Minister David Cameron. The notion that education (including higher education) is a right for everyone is not a simple statement of student self-interest, but a critique of social inequality. Similarly, making the rich pay their share in debt reduction plans may become the rallying call for others who feel that harsh public spending cuts primarily affecting the working classes and poorer social groups are unacceptable when large corporations continue to make huge profits and very wealthy individuals avoid paying their share of tax. In short, it may be that the values embedded within the student campaign are indeed at odds with a society that accepts unequal rewards and punishments.

Finally, we should remember that although the 1968 events were spectacular, the response of the French government was to threaten a state of emergency, call a June election (which returned de Gaulle to power) and initiate educational reforms that brought an end to the student-worker alliance on the streets. The 1968 events were a short-lived episode, but the ripples from them continued to spread outwards for much longer, transforming society and culture as they did so. The 2010 protests – which may well continue and intensify in 2011 – may similarly have politicized and radicalized many students, though how that will shape their political attitudes and behaviour is not yet clear.

Chapter 22 covers social movements and, in particular, the new social movements of the 1960s-1990s on pp. 1000-6. Other useful sections include pp. 649-50 on the gay and lesbian rights movement, green politics on pp. 192-3 and the theory of a social movement society can be found on pp. 1002-6.

Philip W. Sutton