Lessons from the 1968 student movement.  Reflections on our Teach-Ins so far.

logo of Lancaster Marxist Society

Tuesday’s Teach-in was led by the Lancaster University Marxist Society who have given extraordinary support to staff throughout this strike; standing with us side by side on the pickets every day and making essential contributions to all the Teach-Ins.

It is very hard to capture in words alone the spirit and energy of this Teach-In.  We soared through the philosophical and political theory of Marxism, we reflected on the Paris student movement of 1968, we talked practical detail of how to continue our movement towards a better higher education for all, and we celebrated the safe space we had created together, in which we exchange thoughts, ideas, reassurances and encouragements.

A few – of the many – highlights

Joe Simpkins reminded us that history matters (a theme that has threaded through from our very first Teach-In).  If we are building a movement towards a better higher education sector, and a better society, then we should look to specific examples, such as the 1968 student protests, and to the general social and economic trends.

We also need to take care not to romanticise.  Joe acknowledged that students today are probably not activists in the way students were in the late 1960s.  But the covid pandemic has disrupted many taken for granted parts of life.  It has made students more aware of major social and political issues.  By far the most important is the growing awareness of the global environmental catastrophe that we are facing.

image representing global environmental catastrophe
Image: Maxipexels

Joe told us how students and young people are frightened; they are grieving.  They do not know what future they will have, or if they will have a future.  When our young people tell us they live in fear, they live without hope – they are grieving for their possible lives – we must act.  There is no excuse of ‘not being able to afford to strike’ or all the other excuses.  Joe expressed a generation’s call for us to reimagine and reclaim, not just the university, but our physical world and our society.

Nicholas Whittaker continued the theme of learning from the past, and using the lessons of the past to shape the actions of today.  He told us how the actions of May 1968 demonstrated there was revolutionary potential in Europe.  Nicholas focused on two lessons from the May 1968 protests.  Firstly the significance of unity.  Student protests don’t succeed based on students alone: it is always the joint endeavour of students and workers that ensures success.  Secondly, the significance of leadership. The 1968 uprising ultimately failed because the student-worker movement was betrayed by the leaders of the unions and the PCF. In contrast, the Russian revolution succeeded because it had a professional leadership of workers and students imbued with revolutionary theory and a wealth of practical experience from 1905 to 1917. However, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, the question of socialism could only be posed in Russia, it must be answered internationally. It is in that sense that the movement of workers and students must learn from the lessons of our history to succeed in our present struggles.

image from May 1968 Paris
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nadia Hashid acknowledged that students today were not facing the physical violence that met the 1968 protests, university management has exercised profound emotional and psychological violence, as demonstrated in a previous Teach-In about the Lancaster students’ Rent Strikes.  Management attempts to divide students and staff are acts of deliberate violence. 

In contrast, Nadia said that students know staff truly care about them.  These strikes are in the name of a better education.  But we can take optimism from the rent strikes and anti-racism efforts – which demonstrate that management can be made to change oppressive policies.

staff members holds a placard reading "We are always there for you"

The university will listen if their reputation is at risk.  A sad observation, however, which implies they do not listen or act when their students’ education is at risk.  Nadia called for more students to come to the picket, email your lecturers asking them to support the strike and email management – ask them to listen and change their divisive and destructive ways.

All three speakers reflected on what we had built over these Teach-Ins and what we could continue to build:

  • The Teach-Ins had fostered a sense of leadership that would not let students down. 
  • They have been fabulous examples of student-worker solidarity
  • Already we have the concrete ideas for the regular Student-Staff Assembly and for the Radical Reading Group. 

In the discussion that followed we all emphasised the importance of different forums with different characters, from the formal to the less formal.  What unites them all is solidarity and safety. 

The discussion which followed was joyful, celebratory but also challenging and focused on ensuring we build on the ground we have gained over this strike, and particularly in these student-staff Teach-ins.

In any movement there are times when there seems to be a lot of action, and times when little seems to happen.  We need to understand that during what seems the quiet times, we need to be acting to prepare for the busier or high profile parts of the fight.  This means students and staff must continue to build this solidarity to re-imagine and re-claim Lancaster University between strikes.

Lancaster activism is not dead – it is just getting going

To this end, people shared many examples of successful movements, and so we include links to some of these below.  One to perhaps mention specifically, as it demonstrates the power of the counter-culture: when the Olympics were held in Nazi Germany in 1934, a group of athletes formed the People’s Olympiad in protest and in solidarity against fascism.  This counter-Olympics attracted more athletes than the official version – despite heavy threats of huge punishments for not participating in the games in Nazi Germany.  There is always an option:  there is always a just choice.

Logo of the Peoples Olympiad 1936

As we end this part of the strike action, students and staff stand together to ask those of you who have not participated – please make that right choice. Please join our movement for a kinder Lancaster University and a better higher education sector.

Not attended a Teach-In – maybe these ideas from the chat will entice you to join us?

Kristin Ross’ book on the social-cultural background and after effects of ’68 in France is really worth a read and might be of interest folks 🙂

are you familiar with Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture? Recall that making a similar argument about that generational consciousness — thinking through how that relates to ecological struggle definitely worth doing

And as for building this culture on campus, we need to try challenge this sort of Oxbridge centric idea that they produce all the famous people and they produce all the culture. Because I think a lot of students are disheartened because they see themselves as inferior to Oxbridge, but we are a top university we need to be more active in creating that culture. I see hope in new societies and student groups like Lancsolidarity , filmmakingsoc and LuPeenyGreeny. As a Lica student I think we need to stand up against Oxbridge and draw upon the mental health crisis, enviornmental crisis etc to radicalise students

Upcoming demonstration on Saturday related to struggles over local hospital services as an example of a case where student and worker co operation can be further built 🙂

Matt Myers (author of a book on the 2010 anti fee demonstrations) wrote a good piece on these matters a few years ago https://www.redpepper.org.uk/the-rise-of-the-student-worker/

In case people are interested, I recommend a series of essays by Michel de Certeau (a thinker I work on) on May 1968 and its aftermath, originally published in French journals during 1968, and later published in his book “The Capture of Speech” – very insightful not only on the event itself but also its aftermath/reversal.

I think a really interesting strike is that of the Chicago Teachers Union- they built alliances with parents, students and other workers (nurses, TAs, librarians). They located their strike within a broader crisis of social reproduction suffered by their students and workers, e.g. terrible housing, gun crime. Thru this they built extraordinary support for their strike.

Bit random but ‘Tout Va Bien’ is a great film by Jean-Luc Goddard about class post ’68 France 🙂 I think he has a few films about class in general !!!

Tout Va Bien is pretty good 🙂 Chris Marker who worked with Godard did some good more documentaryish films about worker and student struggles of that era—-his essay film Grin Without A Cat from 1977 (which looks at the wider global struggles of the 60s/70s is highly recommended and has a great section of archive footage from strikes and occupations in France)

Another upcoming demonstration around energy bill and rent rises in a few weeks’ time 🙂 – Facebook link

If anyone is interested in hearing about the student strike solidarity that’s been happening across the country over the last few weeks. there’s a twitter space being organised tonight at 6pm to hear from students across the country who’ve been occupying uni buildings and taking other solidarity actions. https://twitter.com/RedSqMovement/status/1495749870153576453

The No Dams movement in Australia in the 1980s is also a very interesting example of a movement being built and gathering momentum.

Similar to Chipko movement in India which was against logging….

Posting this here as it ties into today and yesterday’s talk—collection of articles by and about French radical publisher Francois Maspero who popularised leftist and anti-imperialist literature in the 60s and whose work can be seen as part of wider countercultural milieu that fed into the events

Followed up on the Lux mag recommendation from yesterday. Thank you for that.

not sure if anyone has suggested this book already but a very prominent book about pedagogy can be seen in bell hooks’ “teaching community…a pedagogy of hope” – I think she has more books relevant towards this and towards other topics discussed in the teach-ins 🙂

Marxist analysis of May 68 found here.  

Socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham has a nice line about theory being “concretised experience” I quite like—make clear the insights are drawn from the practices of past struggles

Yes—I mean the key point is that in the UK the last several decades has witnessed the purposeful annihilation of those counter institutions—David Graeber had a nice line about the UK’s most significant export of recent decades has been being a model for destroying working class movements

These teach-ins are what being at a university SHOULD be like