Talking about the Why Generation

February 1968. From South Vietnam the explosive Teêt Offensive has dealt a final blow to shattered US troops and sparked a worldwide appetite for insurrection. Left destitute by standards of living and provoked by a three-year war on their ideological comrades, student leaders across Europe rise up with a single voice ‘We shall fight. We will win. Paris, London, Rome, Berlin.’ Within six weeks, 20,000 protesters will besiege the American embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. It is the Spring of Discontent, and revolution is the air.

1968 remains framed in history as the year that defined an entire generation. It was a year in which a collective wave of hope, anger and direct action swept across four continents,laying foundations of change and toppling governments in its wake. Although the events of that momentous year are too often discounted by the clicheì of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, it is worth remembering that, in the 40 years that have passed, no movement has come close to reclaiming the immortality of that time.

The kids aren’t alright

Looking back, the political unrest that grew to dominate the period could largely have been predicted. As a result of postwar welfare reforms and investment in education, student numbers across the western world doubled between 1952 and 1960. For the first time, a generation of students found themselves educated to think independently and cushioned from the shackles of unemployment. It was an explosive combination and only a matter of time before it found its mark. In the UK, the failing Labour government of Harold Wilson provided a likely target. Increasing state involvement in private lives, support for the US invasion of Vietnam and conservative attitudes towards women's right, homosexuality and abortion had polarised public opinion. Dreamers demanded a 'new-dawn of inclusive politics' while activists agitated movement of the New Left.

What was fundamental to the students, however, was the belief that an alternative was both realistic and ultimately achievable. During this period, the traditional Left retained its socialist integrity with the support of the Trade Unions, while the Students’ Union provided a solid foundation in which the emerging movement could build affinity and find support.

Leading up to ’68, New Socialism became adopted as the alternative model, with students drawing inspiration from Cuba, China and, increasingly, Vietnam. In this way Vietnam came to epitomise their struggle; the attack on Communism in Vietnam represented an attack on free-thinking individuals across the world, while the might of the US military demonstrated the fear with which inclusive politics was viewed by the West.

Political writer Tariq Ali, then a founding editor of The Black Dwarf magazine – the voice of the New Left – describes the essence of the time: ‘Students everywhere experienced a system incapable of fulfilling its promises, let alone satisfying their intellectual and social needs; a political order reluctant to accept any serious criticism and an imperial giant engaged in a brutal war against a poor, Third World country.’

So it was, that when the world woke on 1 February 1968 to the news that Saigon had fallen to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, it was the spark needed to light the first Molotov cocktail. The US had not been defeated by superior fire power or outnumbered in the battlefield; instead, the world’s largest superpower had been brought to its knees by a simple but impassioned belief in an alternative political ideology to free-market capitalism.

Students around the world erupted on to the streets. Across Europe, the US defeat demonstrated that Babylon’s throne could – and would – fall, and gave birth to the rallying cry, ‘Be realistic! Demand the impossible!’

Rise of the campus campaigners

Although they didn’t command the headlines, actions were taking place on UK campuses that contributed significantly to the sense that a groundswell was gaining momentum.

One unlikely hotbed of student radicalism to emerge was Essex University. Having only been established in 1964, the Colchester campus was relatively small, numbering only 600 students. Within its short history, however, students had already set a precedent and established a reputation by disrupting a visit by Anthony Crossland, then education secretary, and facing down riot police and dogs during a visit by Harold Wilson.

Tensions at the campus were further provoked by the presence of the nearby MoD base, Porton Down, then involved in researching chemical and biological weapons. In May 1968, Essex students didn’t have to go far to find solidarity with the Vietnamese people, when a poorly judged visit to the university by a professor from Porton Down was met by mass demonstrations and arrests.

TThough later reinstated, Pete Archard, a post-graduate studying at Essex at the time, was one of three students to be expelled following the demonstration.

‘The Porton Down protest really captured the feeling of the time and radicalised the student body, not just at Essex but in other universities as well,’ he recalls. ‘We showed the threat of expulsions could no longer be used by the authorities to contain our protests, giving us a new sense of confidence and helping to establish our own anti-university.’

The Essex Anti-University was in fact the second to be set up in England that year, the first being launched in London in February. According to one of the founders, Joseph Berke, the idea of the anti-university was ‘to counter the intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the educational establishment.’ Prose aside, anti-universities proved an invaluable forum for lectures, debates and networking within the movement.

May 1968, however, will be remembered most vividly as the month that the student barricades went up in Paris. The decision to hold American-Vietnamese ‘peace talks’ in the city provided disaffected French students with a welcome backdrop for three weeks of running street-battles. Not only did the French empower an entire continent with their audacity, but also inspired a wave of trade union strikes that brought the country to a standstill and left the presidency of Charles de Gaulle in tatters.

Throughout the summer, it was again the students who would lead the charge against Soviet tanks invading Czechoslovakia; and students who ignited the uprising that overthrew Pakistan’s military dictatorship. It was in Mexico City, however, where they would pay the ultimate price for their courage. On the night of 2 October, 74 students were killed and several hundred wounded after the military opened fire on a demonstration in Tlatelolco Plaza calling for civil liberties.

As the year drew to a close, campus tensions continued to flare, although the taste for revolution had been numbed by disbelief at the Tlatelolco massacre. Instead, 1969 and the early 1970s saw a renaissance in political activity, though this time largely confined, by increasingly authoritarian control, to the lecture halls and traditional lobbying corridors. The economic promise of the Reagan-Thatcher era was apparently sufficient to turn public sentiment away from civil disobedience and confine protest to the fringes of society.

John Papworth, now 86, was one of the UK’s foremost social activists. He believes the momentum of ’68 was lost due to a small but fundamental oversight by the protesters. ‘Essentially, the 1960s movement didn’t last because it failed to recognise the importance of the small-scale,’ he says. ‘Many protests took place on campuses but were nearly always focused on national or international goals.

‘The mistake was to focus on the power at the top, not the powerlessness of the people at the bottom. The concept of scale is central to the argument – ultimately the power lies in the hands of the local community.’

Papworth also blames the rise of neoliberal politics under Thatcher and Reagan for deliberately eroding people’s awareness and confidence in calling for change.

‘A movement needs theoretical equipment, which today is sadly lacking,’ he says.

Today, the UK student movement is forced to operate within a very different environment. Post 11 September 2001, the definitive street protests, which embodied the movement of ’68, have become yet another casualty of the War on Terror. Any attempt today to restage 1968’s Grosvenor Square protest would undoubtedly be met with tear gas, mass arrests and media censorship, supported by a raft of anti-terror legislation.

Those who don’t learn from history. . .

The similarities between the discontents of the 1960s and those of today are striking, however. A failing Labour government, increasing state involvement in private lives, support for the US invasion of Iraq and conservative attitudes towards race and immigration. Sound familiar?

The focus of the movement has also had to evolve in the face of a changing world. Whereas during the 1960s the emphasis was largely on issues of political ideology, race and gender, the past 40 years has seen the emergence of a much wider spectrum of campaigns ranging from social and economic justice to deep ecology and the environment.

Tactics are also changing fast. A campaign can no longer be judged on its effectiveness simply according to the number of individuals turning out on the streets to protest, but instead by its ability effectively to engage with its target. This is demonstrated by increasing student involvement in direct action campaigns, from faculty occupations to factory blockades and the Camp for Climate Action.

People & Planet is the UK’s largest and longest-running forum for student pressure groups. Established at the end of the 1960s, the organisation has witnessed first-hand a shift in student engagement over nearly four decades. As a student activist in those days, People & Planet’s director, Ian Leggett, believes that on many levels today’s student population is much better equipped to tackle these issues.

‘In 1968, the student population was relatively small and was drawn by and large from relatively middle-class and upper-class families,’ he says. ‘Today, roughly 45 per cent of teenagers will take some form of higher education, representing a wider, more diverse cross-section of society. Students these days are much more savvy to the internal and external dimensions of exploitation, poverty and environmental degradation.’

And it’s not just awareness that is growing. Within the past two years, People & Planet has seen a 50 per cent increase in membership from UK universities, while its annual Shared Planet conference has seen attendance figures double over the same period. There are now more than 160 student groups active across the UK, from universities to sixth-form colleges.

Another important difference is that today’s student movement is not only restricted to affiliated campaigns, but also increasingly led by autonomous groups bringing actions to UK campuses. Recent examples include refugee solidarity actions at the London School of Economics, and the Student Climate Project launched at Oxford University last year.

In October 2007, students from University of Sussex were among those arrested during a peaceful demonstration outside the Brighton headquarters of EDO Technologies, an arms manufacturer supplying weapon components to the US and Israeli military. Charlie Walsh, a second-year anthropology student at Sussex, was arrested at a previous EDO demo. She believes the student movement is now learning the importance of bringing global issues back to campus-level.

‘We have to be realistic,’ she explains. ‘We are not trying to tackle the arms trade, as it is an impossible industry to try and defeat. What we are doing is focusing on one achievable target. It is essential that grassroots campaigns can respond to what’s being done within our communities. You can go to noisy demonstrations and lobby officials, but at the same time there is the empowering option of taking immediate and direct action.’

The new green generation

Reflecting changing attitudes in society as a whole, the environment is now playing a leading role in sculpting student attitudes both inside and outside the lecture halls. As observed by Joss Garman, himself a veteran student activist and co-founder of the UK’s Plane Stupid direct-action group, the recent climate change debate has inspired a generation of students ‘armed only with peerreviewed science’ to take to the frontlines.

‘The past few years have seen things really kicking off within the student community, and this has been triggered largely by climate change concerns,’ he says. ‘Almost all actions we have been involved in recently have been supported by students, from protests in Sheffield and Cambridge to occupations at Manchester and Nottingham airports. Student activism is undoubtedly on the rise and the environment is at the top of the agenda now more than ever.’

It’s easy to see why: with 360,000 employees and an estimated student population of 2.5 million, our universities are the fourth largest service providers in the country. Each year in the UK, the higher education sector is directly responsible for 300 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, 16 million cubic metres of water consumption and one million commuter journeys per day.

There is little ambiguity, then, for ethically minded students looking for campaign targets on their own campus. At the end of February, People & Planet will hold its annual ‘Go Green Week’, which last year won it National Environmental Media Award. The event brings climate change awareness to the campus by highlighting and supporting actions from sourcing green energy to minimising waste and closing campus car parks.

In April this year, a grassroots pressure group, Ecodemia, will also launch itself across the UK to campaign for radical changes in environmental policy within higher education. Supported across the board by students, staff and faculties, the movement, which began at Sussex University, will emphasise the role of direct-action in achieving change on campus.

According to Dan Glass, Ecodemia’s national co-ordinator: ‘The most exciting thing is the diversity. All the time different groups wanting to take action: cleaners against bosses not purchasing ecological cleaning products; bus drivers challenging the fuels in the buses and supporting green alternatives. Many people are shocked to learn that education establishments are not in fact subject to the same environmental regulations as industry.’

Ecodemia’s launch will involve a national ‘trail of environmental construction’, bringing students into contact with action groups such as Bicycology and Plane Stupid, as well as the traditional trade unions.

‘The focus of our campaign is constructively to expose areas where universities are currently compromising their environmental record and then using positive action to bring about change,’ says Dan.

Ironically, the failure of the high-profile ‘Fuck Fees’ campaign at the end of the 1990s handed today’s students a powerful weapon in their armoury. As fully paid-up consumers, the UK’s 2.5 million student population is now in a position to make previously impossible demands upon their institutions.

With tuition fees now averaging £3,145 a year, students are more entitled than ever to have their concerns acknowledged by their universities. According to the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, staff salaries and research spending account for 64 per cent of this figure, leaving a massive £2.8 billion a year of student finance spent on procurement of goods, services and investment.

University procurement covers sourcing of everything from paperclips to building materials – £2.8 billion a year represents a considerable chunk of the economy, which could be used as a vote for ethical alternatives. The scope for action is enormous, from sustainable sourcing to improving efficiency and reducing wastes. A campaign on fair trade, for example, has resulted in 55 UK universities being awarded full Fairtrade status over the past four years.

In addition to procurement, universities also invest your capital with banks and financial institutions. People & Planet recently highlighted investments made by The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and NatWest in oil and gas industries.

‘As a number of UK universities currently invest in RBS, we think they should be aware that climate change, not oil and gas exploration, is an immediate priority for our students,’ says campaigns officer James Lloyd. ‘Instead, we would like to see universities investing in banks that can guarantee their ethical credentials’.

So is the environment emerging as the new spark the movement has been waiting for? Joss Garman believes so.

‘As last summer’s Climate Camp at Heathrow showed, real direct activism is on the rise once again and students are at the forefront of this. Protests are becoming more targeted, more creative and crucially, more effective,’ he says. ‘I think we’ll see that the Climate Camp was just the start.’

And he has a point. The current fixation with the environment by media and government is both timely and unprecedented. Green pledges made by industry demonstrate that the environment has its foot firmly in the boardroom door – although posturing still vastly outweighs action. Even so, growing environmental concerns are inevitably reflected by the central role the environment now plays in the curriculum, from primary through to secondary and higher education.

It is also undeniable that today’s graduates are the first of a generation that will see their professional careers dominated both by social and environmental responsibility. A report by the Confederation of British Industry in November 2007 was the latest to highlight the immediate action required to tackle climate change and environmental sustainability head-on – as well as the job-creation potential. There is evidence, too, that the environmental movement is filling the void left by traditional social values, reigniting the original belief in a realistic and ultimately achievable alternative.

John Papworth believes the recent revival in environmentalism, and the Transition Towns initiative in particular, is the most encouraging sign he has seen since the 1960s that a movement is gathering pace.

‘What Transition Culture has done is to place the environment at the centre of a whole range of issues – political, social and economic – through our response to peak oil,’ he says. ‘More importantly, it has done this with the “scale” factor at its heart. By building alternatives on a local scale, this movement is offering, for the first time, a real alternative to the economic and political disorder we find ourselves in.’

Whether this alternative manifests itself through a continued resurgence in grassroots activism or launches itself as a united international front, one thing is for sure: the potential of this time is immense, and a spring offensive could be just around the corner.

Ed Hamer is a freelance journalist

Jon Hughes is deputy editor of the Ecologist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008

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