In 1968, university campuses were aflame with political activity worldwide. Students challenged university administrations, railed for civil rights, as well as, against racism and inequality in their own countries. It was the year students fought against colonialism, and the imperial barbarity in Vietnam. Inevitably, 1968 was the year of the student.
In France, among other countries, student movements linked with radicalising workers, thereby shaking the seemingly stable foundation of capitalist rul. Openly authoritarian or nominally democratic, governments were threatened by this movement, and responded with brutal and, sometimes, even deadly force.
Such experiences led millions of young people across the world to identify as revolutionaries. Fifty years on from this momentous year, student radicals should look to and celebrate 1968.
Across the world, student numbers were growing, and funding didn’t keep pace. Students were being crammed together in unprecedented numbers, which conflicted with their expectations of university life. Then, like today, university administrators, backed by some student right wing drips, demanded that campus be free from politics. Universities were increasingly expected to work alongside business -familiar today, creating a contradiction for students who expected education to be about broadening minds. These contradictions led to rupture.
As all this was brewing, the horrors of the Vietnam war were becoming harder for the ruling class to obscure. Students in Australia helped friends to evade the draft, even hiding them in student union offices. Japanese students blocked the streets to stop visiting American dignitaries, American students regularly protested draft and recruitment centres. Importantly, students linked both their own frustrated ambition and the war with the for-profit education model – a education run according to the profit motive and linked with business would always deny students fair rights and conditions, and tie itself into the capitalist war machine, with admins using their campuses as recruitment and R&D grounds for weapons manufacturers. Again, this is a familiar reality today, with ANU boasting a plethora of military and fossil fuel industry ties.
As student protests turned into anti-capitalist politics, critiques of war, and demands to remove profits and business from campus, universities and states cracked down with increasing brutality. Violence pushed many students to the conclusion that they were revolutionaries, and that as students, alone, their power was not enough. The student rebellion in France rocked the world – students and workers united, after days of student battles with police, aviation workers walked out. Within 5 days, 9 million workers were on strike. Sections of students were won to the politics of solidarity, centred on working class struggle.
The year of 1968 is an inspiration to all students who search for a way to build a better world, and it offers key lessons. All the issues students faced were fundamentally linked with capitalist profit making and competition. The other great issues of 1968 – the Vietnam war, denial of civil rights, repression of workers, sexism and homophobia – all were also fundamentally linked with capitalism. All the oppressed and exploited people of the world had,and still have a common interest in ending the system that produced these horrors. Their liberation was, and still is, bound together, and only anti-capitalist politics, based on the politics and power of the working class, could achieve liberation for all.
“Be realistic. Demand the impossible”, the French youth insisted, encapsulating the spirit of 1968 student rebels. This slogan should continue to inspire us today, to not just demand the “realistic”, but to set our sights on the destruction of capitalism, and have this politics inform our struggles for a free education system today.