The spirit of ’68 is reawakening

‘Students are revolting’, Emily Dugan of the Independent reports. ‘Campus sit-ins began as a response to the Gaza attacks, but unrest is already spilling over to other issues’.

They are the iPod generation of students: politically apathetic, absorbed by selfish consumerism, dedicated to a few years of hedonism before they land a lucrative job in the City. Not any more. A seismic change is taking place in British universities.

Around the UK, thousands of students have occupied lecture theatres, offices and other buildings at more than 20 universities in sit-down protests. It seems that the spirit of 1968 has returned to the campus.

While it was the situation in Gaza that triggered this mass protest, the beginnings of political enthusiasm have already spread to other issues.

John Rose, one of the original London School of Economics (LSE) students to mount the barricades alongside Tariq Ali in 1968, spent last week giving lectures on the situation in Gaza at 12 of the occupations.

“This is something different to anything we’ve seen for a long time,” he said. “There is genuine fury at what Israel did.

“I think it’s highly likely that this year will see more student action. What’s interesting is the nervousness of vice chancellors and their willingness to concede demands; it indicates this is something that could well turn into [another] ’68.”

Beginning with a 24-hour occupation at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on 13 January, the sit-ins spread across the country. Now occupations have been held at the LSE, Essex, King’s College London, Birmingham, Sussex, Warwick, Manchester Metropolitan, Oxford, Leeds, Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam, Bradford, Nottingham, Queen Mary, Manchester, Strathclyde, Newcastle, Kingston, Goldsmiths and Glasgow.

Among the demands of students are disinvestment in the arms trade; the promise to provide scholarships for Palestinian students; a pledge to send books and unused computers to Palestine; and to condemn Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Technology has set these actions apart from those of previous generations, allowing a national momentum to grow with incredible speed. Through the linking up of internet blogs, news of successes spread quickly and protests grew nationwide.

Just three weeks after the first sit-in at SOAS, students gathered yesterday at Birkbeck College to draw up a national strategy. The meeting featured speeches from leaders in the Stop the War movement, such as Tony Benn, George Galloway MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP. There has also been an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament in support of campus activism.

At the end of the month students from across the country will gather for a national demonstration calling for the abolition of tuition fees, an event that organisers say has rocketed in size following the success of the occupations over Gaza.

Vice chancellors and principals have been brought to the negotiating table and – in the majority of universities – bowed to at least one of the demands. The students’ success means that now there is a new round of protests. On Wednesday two new occupations began at Strathclyde and Manchester universities, and on Friday night students at the University of Glasgow also launched a sit-in.

Emily Dreyfus, a 21-year-old political activist in her third year of reading classics at Oxford, was one of around 80 students to occupy the historic Bodleian library building in the city and demand that the university issue a statement condemning the Gaza attacks and disinvest from the arms trade. She said: “I found Oxford politically very dead when I arrived, but it’s completely different now. There seem to be more and more people talking about politics, which is so exciting. It’s really been aided by the communication tools we’ve got, things like Facebook.”

Wes Streeting, the president of the National Union of Students, said: “What we’ve seen over the Gaza issue is a resurgence of a particular type of protest: the occupation. It’s a long time since we’ve seen student occupations on such a scale. It’s about time we got the student movement going again and had an impact.”

Establishments that have not previously been known for their activism have also become involved. Fran Legg was one of several students to set up the first Stop the War Coalition at Queen Mary, a research-focused university in London, a month ago. Now they are inundated with interest.

“Action on this scale among students hasn’t been seen since the Sixties and Seventies,” she said.

“This is going to go down in history as a new round of student mobilisation and it will set a precedent. Gaza is the main issue at the moment, but we’re looking beyond the occupation; we’re viewing it as a springboard for other protests and to set up a committee to make sure the university only invests ethically.”

As the first generation of students to pay substantial direct fees to universities, their negotiating power has also been strengthened. Their concern over their college’s investments have been given new legitimacy because it is partly their money.

Ms Legg said: “For the first time, you’ve got students getting principals to the negotiation table, saying they don’t want their tuition fees funding war. Everybody wants to know where their money is going.”

The activist: ‘Students will see they can take action’

Katan Alder, 22, student leader speaking from the occupation at Manchester University

“We’ve been occupying the university since Wednesday. More than 500 people came to an emergency Students’ Union meeting and we took the vice chancellor’s administration block that afternoon. Israel’s assault on Gaza made people angry, and we heard about the occupations at other universities through blogs. This is the biggest student campaign we’ve had and it’s also the most wide-reaching. We’ll stay until the university lets us meet with the vice chancellor. I think students will see they can take action on more issues, such as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the education system; the Government’s refusal to stop the marketisation of education has provoked a lot of anger.”

The ’68 veteran: ‘It changed our lives’

John Rose, 63, former student organiser at the London School of Economics in 1968; now a lecturer and author on the Middle East

“I arrived at the LSE in ’66 as an extremely naive liberal student and I left in ’69 as a revolutionary socialist. It changed our lives. I was one of the student organisers with Tariq Ali and attended all the demonstrations and occupations. We did think a revolution was coming; we thought mass action of students might overthrow capitalism and bring genuine equality. It took us some time to realise that wasn’t going to happen.

“It wasn’t just about rioting and having fun, it was political argument that probed all the assumptions about the world. It was a highly intense period and the memory stays powerfully with anyone involved; it’s the memory of those times that has kept me going.

“It was a feeling of fantastic elation: we began to realise that mass action could change things. Once it started, we developed a taste for it and began to consider mass activity as a way of doing politics, which is what’s happening now. People are fed up with bankers, politicians and elite institutions. Hundreds of us thought the revolution was coming in ’69, but maybe the revolution is coming now.”

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

10 thoughts on “The spirit of ’68 is reawakening”

  1. I haven’t stopped hoping for it since then either. The depth and breadth of my hope for it is unspeakable, and grows. I can only touch its vast energy in dreams. Please let those goofy little cell phones with the billions of furiously working thumbs be defeating the mass media. Please.

  2. The trouble with all this is that the system knows how to manipulate the students, and has been doing so for a long, long time.

    Until the students deconstruct that process as a personal and trans personal oddessy they will always appeal to POWER to change rather that seek to undermine the false and violent basis for it’s authority. Appeals can be modulated so as to offer ‘hope’ for change whilst using the time gained to entrench POWER.

  3. The students have a freedom that later is constrained. My hope is that their activities, protests etc open the door for a focus on important issues. In the US the need to break the censure on discussion of Palestinians as human being with rights needs is important. To expose the barbaric Israeli government and its policies is crucial. Change will never come with the actions of students alone, but by these actions being heard, and joined by others in society. THe SYSTEM remains, but openings and breathing spaces are crucial for oppressed groups to function.

  4. As a long-time prof at lse…maybe too long…have been musing recently at what was accomplished by the student occupation just a short few weeks ago. And while I can appreciate the exhilaration of a mass movement getting its way with the administration, in practical terms I believe this whole episode will be quickly forgotten by the students themselves. i see this whole thing as a mass catharsis from the stresses and strains of university student life, much like a mass sexual relief exercise…orgy, if you like. I do not believe that suffering Palestinians in Gaza were relieved of their pain by one jot or tittle by lse student actions. In fact, a Hamas spokesman termed these students children of the British colonialist bourgeoisie. So, I do think a massive reconsideration of this whole boycott carnival needs to be undertaken. I propose that lse student council meet with their counterparts in other UK universities and thrash out a more strategic boycott agenda, possibly starting with a complete changeover in the use of desktop computers on all UK campuses containing Israeli Intel microchips in favour of Taiwan Acer computers for example. This would cost the zionist economy oodles of lost revenue. From there, we could proceed to stop buying zionist made jewellery— rings, diamonds,necklaces and earrings. Why should, for example,the lse administration, its alumni and fund-raisers have their wives sporting these tainted baubles? Surely we can persuade the university authorities to sign a declaration promising to divest their households of these products? And another thing… must our bourgeois elites travel to the Israeli Dead Sea resorts for mud bath treatments of their eczema and psoriasis? Won’t the Czech spas do? Really! There is much work to be done on the boycott front and i invite the appropriate student organizations to meet with me to map out a comprehensive hard-hitting strategy that can bring the zionist usurpers to their knees.

  5. I agree with the anti-zionist LSE professor ;-) that the current wave of student protests lacks strategy.

    This however is the consequence of a genuine lack of expertise/experience amongst the young student population in thinking strategically and favouring action based on passion and impulse rather than calculative strategy. They cannot be blamed for this and certainly they require guidance.

    But how to provide such guidance without appearing patronising or antagonising the agenda of the socialist groups that have successfully infiltrated the student movement?

    As an experienced campaigner and a student deeply involved in the movement within my university, and in the coordination between UK universities, I am constantly confronted with the problem that practical advise is often perceived to contrast the grandeur of the potential of the current student movement.

    In this, the socialist groups have proven successful by distracting the students away from the concrete steps they can take to address the wider political dimension within their immediate entourage (and in coordination with their counterparts in other universities) by feeding them the promise of an imminent revolution, getting them to march the streets with meaningless slogans and abandoning their campuses where they can effectively act as agents of change.

    The inevitable consequence of this aspiration for a glamorous revolution will result in an irremediable delusion that will kill the student movement altogether, allowing the socialist groups to reclaim ownership over The Struggle, because branding carries a greater weight than the mission itself.

    It is in this context that the 68 veterans have the opportunity to prevent the new student generation from making the same mistakes that lead to a failed revolution in 1968. This is where academics can exploit their privileged position within the institution to guide their students in their enlightenment. This is not the time for Zizek and the likes to take the student movement as the next case study for their new book, but to leave their ivory towers and join the students in the lecture theatres and computer rooms they have occupied to provide guidance and feed their students’ inspiration.

    What we students need is to witness small and powerful successes, visible enough to inspire students across the country to replicate those successes by adapting them to our own realities, where success will lead to empowerment, and itself lead to ownership and consequently to commitment. It will be only via a focussed, strategic and constant commitment that change can be achieved. Without this, we’ll be left outside library squares holding a banner with a meaningless slogan…

  6. Hear! Hear! Cushman and the adopted child of the British colonialist bourgeoisie make a great deal of sense. I’m particularly taken by the suggestion that the socialists get their grubby hands off the student Struggle. I know from first hand experience how the rigid Marxists in my groups are using the naive and innocent Palestinian students to further their own ends. They incite them to follow the “secular” paradigm of a free Palestine instead of the revoutionary Islamic republic model favoured by the vast majority of the suffering Palestinian people. And who do you think benefits from this massive duping of our open-minded and directionless Palestinian and British students? Why the Fatah traitors in the Abu Mazen camp who are conspiring day and night to sell out Palestine to the zionist overlords. I appeal to all academics in Britain to distance themselves from the fanatic Marxists who besmirch the revolutionary aims of an Islamic Republic of Palestine. The secular model for nationhood has failed the global working classes. Only a sharia-based society in which the working class is composed of spiritual progressives under the banner of Islam is a viable proposition.

  7. I agree. This ‘struggle’ is not about ideology – it is about real peoples lives, and it is the FACTS of those lives that must be addressed.

    That students are calling for economic sanctions, divestment from Israeli Companies, anything to bring economic and psychological pressure to bear on the Israeli Government, so that those who currently support Israel withdraw that support.

    This is practical work. There are those too who travel to Gaza and the West Bank and work with the people, to help and assist in practical ways, on the ground… That too is practical work.

    There is no, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be a ‘revolution’ that will change the paradigms of POWER over others to POWER shared and expressed at grass roots.

    Appeals to POWER always protect the position of POWER. Attempts to change the actors of POWER leave the POWER in place. What matters it if POWER is exercised by Socialsts or Capitalists or whatever if it is still POWER OVER others?

    The students for the most part are driven by their authentic need to express their power in their environment.

    Both the Educational Authoroties and the Ideologues are threatened by this and will seek to undermine or control that drive. And they will fail. They must.

  8. Think we’re now getting somewhere…student boycotters and their mentoring profs have to realize that the Marxist control of the boycott movement is led by Prof. Moshe Machover, an arch-Stalinist who opposes an Islamic Palestine. Oh sure.. he pretends to support the resistance against the zionists but we Palestinians are merely useful cannon fodder for his goal of proclaiming a godless, atheistic communist state in Palestine. As soon as the time is right , his toadies would executive the brave jihadists among the Muslim Brothers and install the brainwashed Arab clique which mouthes the out-moded Marxist cliches about a dictatorship of the proletariat. So… people, kick out the Marxists in your midst and carry on with the true struggle.

  9. Just to point out again that the Deborah Maccoby who wrote the comment above is not me! The writer seems to be one Charles Edgbaston, who goes under various other aliases – he has also impersonated Deborah Fink, Ruth Tenne, Mike Cushman and others.

    Deborah Maccoby (the real one!)

  10. Agree with Essam. Let’s get rid of the parasitic Marxists. They’re just a drag on the student revolution.

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