Memories of ’68 and Paris in the spring as students get radical again

Written By: Ian Sinclair
Published: September 11, 2011 Last modified: September 11, 2011

Beginning with the invasion of Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank, the student protests in London last winter against the raising of tuition fees to £9,000 seem a distant memory today. With the media having long stereotyped young people as apathetic, lazy and often criminal, the rebellion took the establishment by surprise. Struggling to keep control, the head of the Metropolitan Police noted “the game has changed” and predicted “more disorder on the streets”.

He didn’t have long to wait. The subsequent, larger demonstration on November 24 ended with violent clashes in Whitehall, young people and children being kettled and charged by police horses. A couple of weeks later, the defining photo of the rebellion was snapped when,  to the horror of the right-wing press, a band of protesters taunted and struck Prince Charles’ car in Regent Street.

Springtime is an instant attempt to document and make sense of those heady days. Edited by Clare Solomon who, as president of the University of London Union was the de facto leader of the protests, and Verso editor Tania Palmieri, it is an exciting mixture of eyewitness accounts, sharp analysis and pages of tweets and photo essays.

Two clever narrative devices are employed that differentiate the book from potential competitors. In an attempt to highlight continuity with previous struggles, a series of flashbacks are dotted throughout the text. Heavily reliant on the work of Verso chairman Tariq Ali, these flashbacks focus on the mythological events of 1968. So included are the handwritten lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”, Eric Hobsbawm writing in Black Dwarf and a contemporary report of Ronald Reagan’s education policies as Governor of California.

Springtime has a strong international focus, with only a third of the book dedicated to the British experience. Comparing and contrasting student rebellions in California, France, Italy, Greece and North Africa, some common points of experience emerge. The widespread police brutality strongly suggests the police are not a neutral force in service to all of society but are there to protect the interests of the government and the establishment. It is clear the central threat to higher education across the industrialised world is neo-liberal politics, “the established political parties of the West operating, together with the mediacracy, essentially as a capitalist collective”, as the editors note in their introduction.

But while the struggle over the purpose of the university in society is central to all the protests, differences in how to resist cuts and the increasing involvement of business in higher education are apparent. For example, I suspect not everyone agrees with one forceful American activist that “we must leave behind the culture of student activism, with its moralistic mantras of non-violence” and create the conditions for “the implementation of a truly communist content”.

Unsurprisingly, with more than 40 contributors, the quality of individual contributions varies considerably. I found Giulio Calella’s summary of the Italian experience, complete with references to Adorno, Marx’s labour theory of value and the “basic mechanisms of production” unnecessarily theoretical and largely unreadable. I would also question whether the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt should appear in a book about the recent student rebellions. Especially when the book itself illustrates that the demonstrations in North Africa were popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes rather than student-led protests about higher education.

But Springtime is a valiant and sometimes impressive attempt to mark the revival of anger and protest that will influence the political landscape for years to come. And while the British student movement seems to be at a low ebb currently, its voice will no doubt be heard again as resistance to the coalition’s austerity measures increases, as it surely will

About Ian Sinclair

Ian Sinclair reviews books for Tribune.

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