Students — a catalyst for revolution?


By Zanny Begg

On May 10, 1968, thousands of students and police clashed on the streets of Paris in the infamous "night of the barricades". The night has come to symbolise, with fear by conservatives and enthusiasm by radicals, the revolutionary potential of students.

Pavements were torn up, hoardings torn down and cars turned on their sides as students joined with workers in a defiant struggle for justice.

The night of the barricades left the ruling class trembling. What started as a student protest fused with deep levels of dissatisfaction amongst workers and sparked a general revolt. It set in motion a series of events which would bring 10 million workers out on strike and France to the brink of socialist revolution. It confirmed the important role students can play in the struggle for change.

Unlike workers, students do not have a specific relationship to the means of production. The period of time spent studying is for most people temporary. Although some students may come from middle-class backgrounds, it is as difficult to define students by their social origins as by their social future. They are a "layer in transition": a small proportion will go on to become the future capitalist class, some will become professionals and small business people, and the majority will be skilled workers.

Universities are melting pots which bring together young people from a wide range of social backgrounds, who, for a short period of time, share the common experience of being students. Most struggle through university in poverty and must work in part-time jobs to survive. But the time at university gives people opportunities to think, and access to ideas and debate about radical politics.

Universities play a contradictory role in capitalist society. On the one hand they are a transmission belt for bourgeois ideology. The university administration tries to inoculate students against revolutionary ideas by promoting liberal theories such as postmodernism or by crudely distorting and dismissing radical ideas such as Marxism.

On the other hand, students must be allowed time to read and learn about political ideas, which sometimes leads them to radical conclusions.

Students have the potential to radicalise more readily than other sections of society which are more tied down by work or family commitments.

The 1960s rebellion was largely by students. Today, in countries like Indonesia, we are seeing students take the lead in the struggle to change society. In Australia, university students play a vital role in a wide variety of campaigns, from stopping the Jabiluka uranium mine to feminist organising.

But students alone do not have the economic power to change society. By withdrawing their labour power, workers can bring the system to a stand still. To change society, students need to develop links with workers.

This is why organisations like the People's Democratic Party in Indonesia, which formed as a student group and sent activists into worker communities to organise, are so important. Out of that process developed trade unions and organisations of workers and the urban poor. These links were crucial during the momentous events in Indonesia last May and November.

Conversely, it was the failure of the students to develop a mass base for revolutionary ideas amongst workers which led to the collapse of the revolutionary opening in France in 1968.

The capitalist establishment fears the radical potential of students. That is why the Coalition is trying to smash student unions through "voluntary student unionism" legislation. Labor students also try to limit the issues that student organisations take up to those narrowly defined as "student related" (arguing against, for example, devoting resources to solidarity with the struggle in Indonesia).

Despite all the cutbacks in higher education, university students retain their radical potential. New generations of students will be propelled into struggle by the injustices of the capitalist system. If they can use the resources available to them at university to spark a wider fight back in close cooperation with the working class, then students have the power to change the world.