By Alex Callinicos
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The fire this time breaks out in the US

The scale of the US student protests for Palestine has echoes of the global student movement of the 1960s
Issue 2904
A group of riot cops in Columbia illustrating a story about the US student movement

Police officers waiting to be deployed on Columbia campus to repress the US student movement (Picture: Columbia SJP)

By the beginning of May there were over 80 student encampments in solidarity with Palestine on university campuses in the United States. They continue to spread, despite the fact that, according to the New York Times newspaper, 2,300 protesters have been arrested or detained since 18 April. And the movement is growing internationally, as we see here in Britain.

The scale of these protests invites comparison with the global student movement of the 1960s. It too was driven by the spectacle of a murderous imperialist war—Vietnam then, Gaza now. And Columbia University in New York City was at the epicentre then, as it has been today.

Long before the advent of social media, the events in the US in 1968 were the basis of a Hollywood movie, The Strawberry Statement, which helped to radicalise me.

The Vietnam War and the opposition to it provoked a huge ideological crisis in Western societies that contributed to the radicalisation of a generation of youth.

It’s significant that, as in the late 1960s, the slaughter is being presided over by a Democratic Party president—Lyndon Johnson then, Joe Biden now. The imperialist cruelty and hypocrisy of the mainstream centre-left is being exposed once again. And today the polarisation takes place at a time when the idea of socialism had already become attractive to young people in the US in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Indeed, the general crisis of the system is far more acute today than it was in the late 1960s, at the end of the long post-war boom.

Other differences aren’t always so favourable. The youth radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s took place in the context of a rising working class insurgency provoked especially by the pressure on living standards caused by rising inflation. This took place in the US, but happened on a much larger scale in France, Italy and Britain. Young workers were part of the broader radicalisation, and many of them, alongside student militants, joined the growing revolutionary left.

The inflationary upsurge of 2021-2 is still biting into living standards. It has provoked growing wage militancy in the US, Britain and other countries. But we haven’t yet seen explosive workers’ struggles comparable with May-June 1968 in France, the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969 and the British labour revolt against the Tory government of 1970-74.

Meanwhile, the far right is much more on the front foot than it was in the 1960s. In Europe, it is mainly a powerful electoral force, but Donald Trump’s presidency and his battles to regain the White House have given an enormous fillip to far-right activists on the ground.

Some of the ugliest scenes on US campuses came with the organised Zionist attack on the encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles, while campus security and riot cops looked on. Elsewhere, for example at the University of Chicago, we’ve seen thugs waving US and Israeli flags threaten encampments.

There were clashes between left and right wing students at Columbia in 1968, but the potential for an alliance of Zionists and fascists is much greater today.

None of this diminishes the tremendous scale of the solidarity movement with Palestine. Students have been in the vanguard of this movement. The efforts to repress them are a sign of how ruling classes have been thrown onto the defensive by popular disgust at their complicity with Israel’s genocidal war.

This war may be entering a new phase, as Israel threatens to mount its long-feared offensive against Rafah. Responding to this threat will require a mobilisation not just by the students who have led the way, but by workers as well.

The experience of the Vietnam War was a practical lesson for millions in the nature of imperialism. The same thing is happening today at a time when rival imperialist powers are lining up against each other globally. 

The Western ruling classes are sticking by the murderous Israeli state because they regard Gaza as just one front in this global struggle. This underlines the importance of grasping, as my generation did, that the problem is the system—and that we must overthrow it.

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