Boredom is counter-revolutionary

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By Jack Hogan on 14.5.2023

Boredom is counter-revolutionary

Forty years ago this month something extraordinary occurred in Paris. On Friday 3rd May 1968, student unrest so prevalent worldwide in the 60’s suddenly exploded into violence. Several thousand students engaged French riot police (the CRS) in a running street battle. Shields, truncheons and gas grenades were met with cobblestones torn from the streets and makeshift barricades. The students, enraged by the closing of the faculty at Nanterre and the arrest of student activists who were meeting at the Sorbonne (another faculty of the University of Paris) took to the streets in numbers.

The national students’ union called for a march to protest the police occupation of the Sorbonne for the following Monday. Over 20,000 students and teachers marched through Paris chanting “Sorbonne for the students! CRS – the SS! Down with police repression!” As they approached the Sorbonne, the police charged with unexpected savagery. Fighting continued throughout the day and into the night. 345 policemen were wounded along with an unknown number of students, 422 of whom were arrested. Walls suddenly became canvases, sporting slogans such as “Debout les damnés de l’Université” – Arise, you wretched of the University, and “L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire” -Boredom is counterrevolutionary.

The following day the high schools students’ unions joined the university students, teachers, and growing numbers of young workers on the streets, demanding the release of the students arrested, the reopening of the Sorbonne and the withdrawal of the police. What had begun as a meeting of students had become something far more significant. The left labour unions, the General Confederation of Labour and its splinter, the Worker’s Force called a general strike and demonstration for the 13th of May. Over one million people marched through the streets of Paris in support.

Unrest continued throughout May and into June. The actions of a few hundred students had nearly destroyed the government, and had brought the whole of France to a halt, before the eyes of the entire world. It is easy to dismiss these events as being of another era, a different world, or perhaps just put them down to the French taste for dramatics, a continental failing, and “simply not cricket, old chap.” I wouldn’t be so sure.

Imagine for a moment that you had been told that UoK kept files on its students which contained personal information, be it of a political, financial, or highly personal nature. You would want to know what was in them, who could read them, what the information was for. So what would you do? Talk to your friends? Make a facebook group perhaps? Complain to someone in the Students’ Union? That isn’t what students did here in 1970.

During the final weeks of the spring term at UoK in 1970, students were concerned about exactly this issue. No one had ever seen such a file, or knew what might be in them if they did exist, and the University denied it, but the students felt they were hiding something. Hundreds of students held at meeting in Rutherford, and well over half voted in favour of direct action. Streaming from the meeting, they occupied the Cornwallis building, ejected the staff, and held sit-in. Filing cabinets were broken open, staff were only allowed to get things from their offices under student escort, and barricades were erected. The administration was outraged, and refused to negotiate with the Students’ Union whilst the students occupied the building. The Students’ Union, which had not sanctioned the action in the first place and were unable to make them leave and in the end what decided the matter was the arrival of the holidays. The students went home, and the occupation was over. No files were ever found. My memory may be failing me slightly, but I was certainly never told that story on my UCAS visit day.

Nor was it an isolated incident. Part 1 exams were boycotted in 1969 and often protested against subsequently. Sit-ins were common, for example in the Keynes Junior Common Room in the same year, indeed FUSS (Forum for University Students and Staff) which was published at UoK throughout the period carried letters describing a “wave of student unrest”, and the period being the “time of the troubles”. The glass extension on the Registry building was build to keep students out after repeated occupations. In 1973, in protest at the high prices and poor quality of food in the colleges, which the residents were forced to subscribe to, the Students’ Union took over the Gulbenkian, providing subsidised food to students, many of whom had refused to pay their dining subscription for similar reasons. Thankfully, the food in the colleges these days is virtually cordon blu and given out for free.

It is now forty years since Paris’ student claimed the streets for their own. So what has changed? Is it that we are now students at a perfect university? Is politics now reserved for the politicians and direct action something we watch on the news? Students have become passive consumers of education, more so than ever before, although passive customers would be more accurate. Students are trapped in, to borrow from Angelo Quattrocchi, “the university-factory where they give answers but don’t ask questions”. Perhaps if you are unhappy with a new arts centre but no extension to the library, or the way the university intends to remove parking from Parkwood without consultation it is time to do something more about it than read the leaflet and grumble to your friends. In 1984, during the Miner’s strike the Students’ Union marched with the Canterbury and District Trades Council, its own banner proudly carried alongside those of the workers. Does the Union even have a banner these days? If it does, it is certainly not red anymore.

– Numerous accounts of the events of May 1968 and on student activism in general can be found online and far fewer in the Templeman library.


  • If anybody from the 60s kept copies of InCant

    can we have it scanned in.

    Remember the trip to LSE to the inaugeration of the RSSF (Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation).

    Those were the days my friend.

    By Helen on 5.6.2023

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  • Great stuff Jack! I look foward to reading more.

    By charlie on 14.5.2023

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