Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The rise of student activism

In 1963 a clean-cut Cliff Richard reached No1 in the hit-parade dreaming of his ‘Summer Holiday’. By 1967 a hirsute John Lennon and the Beatles were singing, on the defining LP of the decade, of a trip with ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. A year later they were proclaiming ‘Revolution’. This change sums up the evolution of youth culture during the 1960s.

The 1950s and early 1960s had been an era defined by broad political consensus and economic growth in the West. Some spoke of an ‘end of ideology’, at least at a level below the great ideological and nuclear stand-off which defined the Cold War. However, this all began to change around 1963, with increasingly widespread protest. A driving force behind this change was the awakening of youth and student activism. The unrest was to peak in 1968, a year sometimes held-up with 1789, 1848 and 1917 as a year of revolution (though, notably, a revolutionary year in which history failed to turn).

Levels of student activism witnessed in the 1960s have, arguably, not been matched since. Young people felt alienated, which led to a new and provocative engagement in politics. During the 1960s many of the characteristics of civil society and popular culture we now recognise as the norm began to emerge, driven by the progressive youth movements.

Student activists shared a sense of disaffection with the establishment; the controlling forces with which they did not identify. They were also disaffected with the political left – partly this was because of ever- growing revelations of atrocities in Stalinist USSR and Maoist China, partly because of a perceived ‘copping out’ of the ‘Old Left’ to the establishment.

A ‘New Left’ emerged, which had a strong level of distrust in the ‘system’. It was a revolutionary, not just reformist movement, and at its vanguard were college and university students, rebelling against many facets of the world they lived in: big business, the Vietnam War, mass media, and so on.

The most famous outburst of 1960s student activism took place in Paris in May of 1968 which, when combined with a general strike, appeared at the time as the closest the post-1945 Western world came to revolution. However, it is easy to over-state the desire for fundamental change: just one month later the Gaullist party won the largest majority in French parliamentary history, yet tried to appease youthful rebellion by introducing major reforms in the education system. Some historians argue that most young people in the 1960s were less interested in radically changing society than in securing their economic futures.

The impact of 1960s student activism has been profound. Some have argued that it was their protests, particularly those in Paris, which ended traditional views of revolution: taking to the streets to overthrow the system. Instead, many politically active people, especially the young, began to turn towards the Gramsciite ‘long march through the institutions’, engaging in new forms, broadly labeled ‘social movements’. Such movements have come to dominate political protest worldwide, a major legacy of student activism. Consequently students came to be defined as a social group in themselves: an active and significant demographic in major socio-cultural and political terms.

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