Student Power: 1968... 2010

Is a student movement starting in England in opposition to the Government's cuts and marketisation of higher education? If so, how does it compare to the first student movement in the late 1960s? A veteran reflects.

I've just been in to University College London to show solidarity with the students, including Guy Aitchison, now occupying the Jeremy Bentham Room #UCLoccupation. It freshened up my memories of the first wave of student occupations in the late sixties. Much feels the same, except for the laptops and phones and the hired in security. Others might want to add their reflections.

The sixties was the start of the great capitalist cycle of expansion - its announcement. Education was free, jobs were plentiful, rent was cheap, consumerism was just getting into its stride, for young people especially those with any skills. In England, we were at the forefront of the wonderful economic sixties: music, mini skirts, mini cars, a swinging boom. It was 'Americanisation' but we influenced them too.

Accompanying this heady sense of emancipation was the sense that our parents were from another planet. They had grown up without television, central heating, open sexual relations before marriage, rock and roll, and often without university education as we were part of the first great expansion of mass higher education then underway. There was a generation gulf.

A lot of the student protest was driven by opposition to the hierarchy that was the residue of the old order; its ridiculous rules and not so much the morality as the hypocrisy of the older generation. For students, authoritarian teaching methods and secrecy ('open the files' was a demand, and a number of occupations broke into the administration to do just that) were another target.

While it was a strongly international moment, each country had its own national characteristics. The revolution in France was against the culture of "Oui Papa", the formalism was much stiffer than here and a wartime General was the President. In Germany, which had much the deepest and best sixties, the "anti-authoritarian movement" embraced an entire generation who had to deal with the fact that their parents had been Nazis.

While London pioneered an early, massively popular consumer revolution from the mid-sixties, the political student movement here was relatively late and narrow in European terms. Sit-ins were in part inspired by and directly emulated the example of France. 

Then there was Vietnam. The sixties were fundamentally violent as well as joyous, and America expressed both. Hundreds of thousands of their troops were occupying another country, thousands of Vietnamese were dying by the month, torture by the West was routine: this was the deadly backdrop to the arrival of drugs, which then fed its stream of victims into the maelstrom. (The combination was personified by Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison - I saw the Doors at the Roundhouse.)

How does then compare to now?

It feels to me that today, like forty years ago, the protest connects to something larger. Now we are at the end not the start of a long boom, even if the BRICs are just taking off. While socially much more equal and open as a society, economic injustice in Britain has increased astronomically. It lost all legitimacy when the system crashed - exposing bankers as robbers, skimming off unearned capital, rather than ensuring we all benefited. The popularity of the Millbank protest movement, the fact that it was not seen as self-indulgent privileged students trying to look after themselves, must be due in part to millions saying when they saw the images, "At last somebody is protesting".

Whereas in 60s Britain student protests were marginalised as well as pilloried, today by contrast they are making a credible claim to be representative of the wider public. The fact that the student demonstrations have been joined by children protesting about the abolition of the EMA (Educational Maintenance Assistance, that pays girls and boys from hard-up families to stay in school) adds to this sense. 

The web also creates a generational divide: the way young people experience how they communicate and relate to each other is making them the pioneers of a twittered world in which they can flash mob, be flexible and communicate instantly. The kind of society their generation will set about building will be, therefore, in some way unlike that of any that has gone before. It is easy to exaggerate this and then puncture the falsely inflated projection. It's a gap, not a gulf as humanly painful as their sixties predecessors. But it exists.

The relationship to violence is also much better, as shown by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators against throwing the fire extinguisher at Millbank. There is an understanding of the need for no willed violence against people. Doubtless provocateurs will try and spoil this. But this student movement, if that is what it is becoming, will not go on to create bands of terrorists like the Angry Brigade. Because it has already been preceded by terrorism, and everyone can see how reactionary it is.

Women and race (added in the morning): the sixties student occupations preceded the feminist movement. The basic attitude to women was set by the Rolling Stones. They were "chicks". Attachments with closed mouths and short skirts. This was not imposed, individual women could insist on being treated as equals and then were. It was a culture of experimentation for everyone, of both sexes (and as with drugs, experiments can go badly wrong). But the energy also fed into the feminist movement which became the greatest political legacy of the sixties along with the idea that to protest is a right.

There weren't black and ethnic students in any significant numbers in the 60s for their participation to be an issue. Today, it seems to me from just an initial glance that women are equal but not yet equal. That's to say, while their participation is not a problem the boys, if I may call them that, have not yet been taught - or taught themselves - to desire equality as a mutual benefit. There is a casual 'of course you can be equal if you want to be' attitude which somehow leaves open the possibility of benefiting from inequality 'if that's what they want'. All this unspoken, of course. I may be wrong, but I don't think the feminist struggle is over yet. 

It also struck me from the videos that there seem to be many more black pupils among the school protestors than amongst the students. 

Here, unlike France and Germany, the political movement of the sixties was pushed away and marginalised by the political Establishment. The exception was Ken Livingstone but his story shows how hard they fought, and succeeded, in keeping him out of official national power. Ed Milliband's saying he thought of going out to talk to the students was a smart move. Times have changed.

But then his father backed the revolting students of 1968. 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy