The global youth radicalisation of the 1960s illustrated the revolutionary potential of students in society. Young people and students have played a vital role in revolutionary struggles in the past and continue to do so today. In Latin America, young people are energetic leaders and participants in the social movements, and in Venezuela, young people view themselves as being the "foot soldiers" of the revolution.
A key observation from the '60s was that students have the potential to spark political struggle in broader society.
The global student revolt that grew throughout the '60s was fuelled by the crisis of imperialism and its brutal attempts to crush revolutionary movements, embodied by the horrific war on Vietnam. The expansion and changing nature of higher education after World War II had given students a far heavier social weight as a group.
On May 9, 1968, the French Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR) held a mass meeting of 6000 students in Paris that was addressed by Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel. He told those present: "Students can and must play a powerful role as a detonator. By playing this role within the working class, above all through the intermediary of the young workers, they can free in the working class itself enormous forces for challenging capitalist society and the bourgeois state."
France's May-June student revolt that year was marked by street marches and university occupations, based primarily on opposition to the Vietnam War, and also university conditions and constraints. More than 800,000 workers joined students for a general strike on May 13, three days after the "night of the barricades", when police had attacked student protesters. Soon, 10 million workers — two-thirds of France's work force — joined the strike; 2000 workplaces were occupied.
The students were the catalyst for an outburst of pent-up anger at the authoritarian de Gaulle regime. However, although the students had a revolutionary leadership, the Stalinist French Communist Party dominated the labour movement and made compromises that led to the demobilisation of the movement.
In the US in 1970, there was a massive increase in student activism in response to the expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia in April and the Ohio National Guard killings of four student protesters at Kent State University in May. A student strike gripped the country, beginning spontaneously and involving millions of campus and high school students.
The "anti-war university" was a strategy widely used by students during the strike. It was strongly argued for by socialist activists. Like France in 1968, it was based on students taking over universities and using them as an organising centre.
The student strikes were called by mass meetings of students and campus staff. Broad strike councils were elected to coordinate the strikes. Student union offices or other on-campus space were used as headquarters for the strike; student newspapers were turned into strike newspapers.
After the Kent State massacre, a mass meeting of 17,000 students and staff at the Berkeley campus of the University of California passed a seven-point plan of action, the first of which was: "This campus is on strike to reconstitute the university as a centre for organising against the war in Southeast Asia. We are curtailing normal activities for the remainder of the quarter. We pledge our time, energy and commitment to stopping this war. We will open the campus to mobilise our resources — our knowledge and skills, our manpower and facilities. We will organise not only against the war, but against the structures in society that facilitate that war. And we will organise to end our university's complicity with that war."
The Berkeley students maintained control of the key sections of the university for six weeks.
The "anti-war university" strategy provided the framework to organise radicalising students into political activity and democratic activist structures, raising students' level of political consciousness. The strategy helped raise a series of questions about the role of students and the need to build alliances with other sections of society; about the nature of education and universities under capitalism; and about power and democracy.
The contradiction between students' aspirations and the reality of education being a thoroughly alienating process within the capitalist framework is an important factor in understanding the potential for sudden growth in student radicalism. Students' circumstances, such as in general having more time and freedom than older people or non-students with work and family commitments, mean students and youth have a greater opportunity to think about political issues and the world around them.
Students also have access to more information than most of the population and the concentration of very large numbers of students in the institutions allows for the rapid dissemination of politics and ideas and for students to form a critical mass in protest at a given moment.
While students are a potentially powerful social force, and can act as a catalyst for revolutionary upheaval, they don't have the power to make a socialist revolution alone. Students are not a class — they are a social layer in transition, and don't have a specific relationship with the means of production, although today many students have jobs.
Young people continue to play a major role in the revolutionary and progressive struggles around the world.
In France last year, young people, particularly university students, responded to an attack on the rights of young workers and prompted a general strike of workers. The determined leadership of the youth meant the movement against the discriminatory CPE (First Employment Contract) legislation was successful.
Millions of people from schools, universities and workplaces took part in a series of anti-CPE strikes in April. Three-quarters of universities and more than a quarter of high schools were occupied or blockaded.
The students stared down government threats and attempts to pacify the movement. The mobilisations expanded into general strikes involving more than 3 million students and workers, until the government backed down. The experience of France showed that neoliberal attacks on student welfare rights, which mean many have to work to survive the years of higher education, have eroded much of the distinction between students and workers — a majority of students identify with workers.
In Australia today, students have an important role to play in resisting the Howard government's attacks on education, welfare, and workers' rights. Students also have an important role to play in rebuilding the movements against the war on Iraq and against government inaction on climate change. The key challenge for revolutionary students today is to rebuild campus activism around these issues in order to strengthen the role that students can play in fighting for a just future.
[Emma Clancy is a member of the national executive of the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]