Students precipitated some of the 20th century’s most dramatic confrontations with the state and capital. In the spirit of ultra-leftist, uncritical celebration, let’s look back at some of the most militant mass actions waged by student movements across the world.
1. Tokyo, 1960: Mass urination.
Japanese students “pioneered mass revolutionary action in an industrialized country”, as Fred Halliday wrote. On 18 June, 1960 – years before the height of European student militancy – the Sohyo and Zengakuren movements mobilised 350,000 students and workers against the renewal of the Japan-US Security Pact, a hangover from the post-WW2 US occupation.
As the ‘snake-march’ reached the steps of the national parliament, the Diet, demonstrators staged a mass urination to show their contempt for the nation’s authorities. Although they failed to stop the treaty’s renewal, the march was the manifestation of a decade of anti-imperialist student struggle which would explode towards the end of the 1960s once again. In 1968, for example, 6,000 Japanese students would be arrested during clashes nationwide.
2. Rome, March 1968: Police retreat.
In Europe, Italian students were the first to initiate mass occupations of university buildings, provoking a fierce response from a police force still unreformed since the fascist era. In Rome, 10,000 students seized the entire university in February 1968 as part of a national wave of occupations demanding student control, curriculum reform and an end to the Vietnam War.
On 1 March, 2,000 students attempted to regain control of the architectural building, the Valle Giulia. When police charged the students, they responded by fighting back with anything they had to hand. “It was the first time we hadn’t retreated in front of the police, the first time we took the initiative and advanced on them,” one engineering student later recalled. “We ripped up the wooden park benches and used the planks as clubs.” The police fled, barricading themselves in the empty faculty buildings until back-up arrived with water cannons.
3. Germany, April 1968: Facing down a media empire.
Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the largest radical-left student organisation in West Germany, the SDS, was shot in the head several times by a neo-fascist on 11 April, 1968. Although Dutschke miraculously survived for another decade, the shooting “sparked off a virtual student insurrection in West Germany”, according to one book. 60,000 students blockaded the buildings of the Springer Press, a rabid right-wing media conglomerate analogous to today’s Murdoch empire. Hurling Molotov cocktails, students overturned and burned 20 delivery trucks, halting Springer’s papers from being distributed across the entire Federal Republic. The events were given a compelling cinematic treatment in the 2008 film The Baader-Meinhof Complex.
4. Manila, 1970: Barbarians at the gates.
The ‘First Quarter Storm’, as it is known, rocked the Philippine Republic in the first months of 1970. Led by the recently formed Communist party of the Philippines, students hit the capital in protest against the dictator-in-the-making, Ferdinand Marcos. Pelting Marcos and his wife before he gave his State of the Nation address on 26 January, 15,000 students came out on 30 January in an attempt to bring down the government. Laying siege to the presidential residence, resourceful students stole a firetruck and proceeded to use it as a battering ram against the gates of the presidential Malacañang Palace. The ‘Battle of Mendiola’, as it became known, lasted for 12 hours as Philippine students used stones, Molotovs and anything to hand against the police. Four students died, marking the beginning of a three-month upheaval that shook the Philippine state and contributed to Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972.
5. Jakarta, 1998: Bringing down a dictator.
Unlike the other examples listed, Indonesian students succeeded in toppling one of the world’s most corrupt and violent dictators in 1998. As Indonesia hobbled its way through the East Asian financial crisis, General Suharto, who had ruled over the archipelago since the mid-1960s, wavered in the face of growing civil society unrest and student mobilisation.
At Trisakti University in Jakarta on 12 May 1998, four demonstrating students were shot dead by the Indonesian army, adding to the litany of disappearances hitting activist groups in the city at the time. In response, 80,000 students took over the entire National Parliament building, which contains both of Indonesia’s legislatures, and pledged to hold it until General Suharto resigned. Their victory duly came on 21 May.
The possibility of mass student struggle is demonstrated by history. Students’ ability to seriously buckle power structures, however, usually only occurs when they coordinate with the wider working class, as they did in May 1968 in France. Students – with their relative free time, access to critical resources and forms of campus collectivity – can act as shock-troops for and instigators of wider revolutionary upsurges. From Britain in 2010 to Quebec in 2012, South Africa in 2015 to India in 2016, the 2010s may, in many ways, appear to history’s gaze as another decade of mass student unrest. Whether students can repeat and surpass the movements of the 20th century will depend on their ability to reach true bonds of solidarity with off-campus sectors. Here’s hoping.