The Formation of the Student Movement

The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre at the Sorbonne during the events of May ’68

May ‘68 is remembered more for the student movement than it is for the general strike of ten million workers. However, the student movement can only be properly understood in reference to the growing contradictions in the educational systems of all capitalist societies, and the crisis of imperialism as symbolized by the Vietnam War. As Kristin Ross says, 

“It was the ongoing war in Vietnam that made possible the merging of the politics of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism at the time in France. It created the sense that everyone – French workers and farmers, the North Vietnamese, and even French students were involved in the “même combat” against American imperialism. Class struggle, only intermittently perceptible in the West, was seen to be already operative at the international level in the relations between the imperial powers and the neocolonial countries.”1  

The Contradictions of the Capitalist Education System

After the events of May ‘68, intellectuals like Louis Althusser sought to understand how the student movement grew into a revolutionary force. Althusser struggled for most of his life with mental illness, specifically manic bipolar episodes that would leave him hospitalized for months at a time. One of those hospitalizations occurred during the events of May ‘68, and following his release, he sought to analyze and understand the events through letters to Maria Antonietta Macchiochi and in a response to a fellow PCF intellectual, Michel Verret. He also began other collaborative projects at the Ecole Normale Superieure, the famous university that produced intellectuals like Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, and Althusser himself. These research inquiries were designed to conceptualize a Marxist theory of the state and of ideology, and his efforts culminated in the famous essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”2 

His thesis is that the Marxist theory of the state, defined by Lenin’s State and Revolution, is incomplete since it is merely descriptive. It does not explain the mechanisms of the state, but merely its functions. For Lenin, who was drawing on Engels, the state is a tool that mediates and maintains class antagonisms through force and repression. The state will forcefully break up a strike or protest, while also arresting and imprisoning radicals through the carceral system. However, Althusser notes that the state only uses force and repression in rare instances like May ‘68. More often than not, the capitalist system hums along peacefully with barely any resistance. Therefore, there are clearly ideological reasons that people perform their role in capitalism despite being exploited. Althusser argues that capitalism, and every social formation, not only has to produce, but also must reproduce the conditions of its own existence. While production refers to the mode, means, and relations of production, the sphere of reproduction in a social formation is located in the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). Althusser says,

“An Ideological State Apparatus is a system of defined institutions, organizations, and the corresponding practices. Realized in the institutions, organizations, and practices of this system is all or part (generally speaking, a typical combination of certain elements) of the State Ideology. The ideology realized in an ISA ensures its systemic unity on the basis of an ‘anchoring’ in material functions specific to each ISA.”3

The ISAs includes religious institutions, the media, the press, the family, the school system, and cultural institutions (whether sport, film, or art). 

For Althusser, the dominant ISA in the buildup to the French Revolution was the Church, and that is why all major ideological struggles in that time period revolved around Christian authority. The ascending bourgeoisie sought not only the Church’s political dominance, but also their ideological dominance. When the Revolution began to unfold, Robespierre and the Jacobins leveled a full-on assault on the Church and tried to strip them of their power and authority. They did so because they knew that if the revolution were to succeed, they had to destroy the institutions and ideology of the previous regime. He says, 

“The main objective and result of the French Revolution was not just to transfer state power from the feudal aristocracy to the mercantile capitalist bourgeoisie, destroy part of the old Repressive State Apparatus, and put a new one in its place (for example, the national popular army), but also to attack the number-one Ideological State Apparatus, the Church. Hence the civil constitution of the clergy, the confiscation of church property, and the creation of new Ideological State Apparatuses to replace the religious Ideological State Apparatus in its dominant role.”4

Althusser argues that the dominant ISA can be identified based on where the class struggle intensifies. Since the Church was where the class struggle intensified in the French Revolution, it was the dominant ISA. Althusser argues that the educational system replaced the Church as the dominant ISA in post-war France, and this is why the struggle in the school system characterized the events of May.5

So why did the educational ISA become dominant? Why did the explosion of May center around the universities? 

Singer argues that, in the post-war period, the industrialized nations no longer need their entire population engaged in traditional forms of industrial labor, and thus the factory is no longer the center of the working class. Consumer society becomes inevitable once capitalism reaches a higher stage as it must keep inventing new jobs and needs in order to reproduce its existence. This is why the industries of marketing and advertising exploded in the second half of the twentieth century.6 Education therefore becomes a prerequisite for better paying jobs, and as a result, working class people see it as an avenue to increase their quality of life. This would explain why student enrollment dramatically increased in post-war France. Pre-war, there were only 60,000 students enrolled in universities, and by 1968 that number grew to 500,000 students.7 The university transformed from an institution for the privileged elite into an institution for the bulk of the population. Universities went from producing refined intellectuals to functional, specialized workers. The United States, according to Singer in the early ‘70s, is a primary example of this transformation towards functionality and specialization. 

To conceptualize this in Althusser’s terms, the capitalist mode of production requires workers in order to function, and workers need to be trained and skilled. The educational system is thus necessary to train and develop workers by instilling discipline in children early on, by indoctrinating them with the ideology of the nation, and as they grow older, teaching them skills that they will need in a job.8 These virtues can be acquired elsewhere (the family, church, etc.), but, “no other Ideological State Apparatus… has a captive audience of all the children of the capitalist social formation at its beck and call (and – this is the least it can do – at no cost to them) for as many years as the schools do.”9 These functions are concealed by the ideology of the school which depicts itself as a neutral environment free from ideology.

The capitalist education system departs from the classical educational system in a number of ways. The classical intellectual was an individual of a petty-bourgeois background and was generally involved in many areas of inquiry (a generalist). Think of a figure like Leonardo da Vinci, the son of a notary who gained entry into an artistic workshop at the age of 14 – he was a painter, mathematician, architect, and scientist. For an American example, Benjamin Franklin is the archetype. Like Da Vinci, Franklin was not restricted to one sphere of intellectual production: he was a journalist, theorist, and scientist. Lastly, to use a more modern example, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was also petty-bourgeois and spent his life in the university as an intellectual. He was a proper philosopher, writing about metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, politics, and epistemology. He was also a literary writer, producing plays (No Exit) and novels (Nausea). So while classical modes of education sought to produce the intellectual, the capitalist mode of education seeks to produce the ideal worker that can be bought and sold on the market.

The capitalist mode of production necessitates a qualitative transformation in education and the class status of the intellectual. The intellectual is no longer in the tradition of the classical intellectual, but now is a producer of particular knowledges, i.e., a specialist. Furthermore, the intellectual is no longer separate from society and the mode of production, but is now intertwined with it. Christine Buci-Glucksmann argues that the economistic view of the intellectual poses a distinction between theory and practice, where theory is done by intellectuals (who are petty-bourgeois) and practice is carried out by workers.10 This view is pretty common throughout the history of Marxist theory, where intellectuals produce theory and organize within the party, while workers represent practice and organize in the union. In fact, this is the basis of Karl Kautsky’s merger formula, which Lenin incorporated into his theory of the party.11 Buci-Glucksmann says this view “obscures certain contemporary transformations in the state, which Althusser registered through the theoretical argument that the ideological state apparatuses are sites of class struggle of primary importance.”12 Or in other words, the rigid distinction between workers and intellectuals is no longer valid in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.13 The role of the intellectual has been transformed by developments in the mode of production, as they are now often wage-laborers subjected to the brutalities of the capitalist labor market. 

For Badiou, the increased importance of education creates the following contradiction that is intrinsic to capitalist societies: “How can the theoretical consciousness of ever-expanding groups be heightened without calling into question the supremacy of bourgeois ideology, which is based upon ignorance and intellectual repression?”14 Or in other words, how can the ruling class simultaneously provide high levels of intellectual training without this spilling over into politicization? Badiou says;

“Pure’ theoretical practice (the sciences) was divorced from ideological education (the humanities) as though they were two different essences, and everyone was required to choose between the two on the basis of their so-called ‘gifts’, which the system took upon itself to detect. The long-term implication of this ‘choice’ was that science itself was made subservient to the vague humanism in which ‘liberal’ thought languished. As a rule, no one is more blind to the critical powers of science than a scientist. No one is better prepared by the educational apparatuses for slavery than an ‘expert’ or agent of a defined specialism.”15

The rigid distinction between the sciences and the humanities entails that each group sticks to ‘what they know’. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is the empiricist dichotomy between ‘objectivity’ (science) and ‘subjectivity’ (humanities) in practice.16 The capitalist university produces experts whose knowledge is limited to one discipline. The political consequence of reducing every thinker to one discipline is that they do not ever question the meaning of their work, or consider the political effects of their work. Everyone stays in their lane.

As Althusser, Singer, and Badiou all point out, the university was not able to contain the contradictions forming in the educational system. There were multiple reasons for this; the rapid growth of university enrollment, rising unemployment in the build up to May ‘6817, which meant that students who went to university with the expectation of getting a better job were disillusioned when this promise was not fulfilled, and lastly, the experiences of the Algerian and Vietnam Wars exposed the evils of French imperialism for young people. These contradictions pushed revolutionary minded students towards the PCF and communist organizing. However, the PCF rejected them. Both the PCF and the Gaullists downplayed the students as petty-bourgeois rebels who would eventually grow out of their radical ‘phase’.18 This rested on an assumption that there was an organic relationship between class background and ideology. Singer says, “Communist spokesmen tended to treat a bourgeois background as a kind of original sin beyond any possible redemption.”19

The PCF’s rejection of students resulted in the development of organizations external to the party, like the UNEF which became a hub of young radicals. Students were discontent with the world, and the Party’s rejection of them, combined with their lukewarm position on the Algerian War, led the students to explore different avenues for politics.20 The students began to fill the void left by the Party, and with that came a rejection of Orthodoxy and an embrace of “heresy” in the forms of Maoism, Trotskyism, and Anarchism. 

The Crisis of Imperialism and the Student Movement

As I touched upon in the Introduction of this project, the formation of the student movement is intertwined with the Post-War decolonial movements. Kristin Ross says

“I decided to begin my history of 1968 and its afterlives not with the student uprisings in March 1968, as is usually the case, but with what was in fact the first demonstration of mass proportions in France in the 1960s: the protest of Algerian workers against a state curfew on 17 October 1961. This was a protest that ended with violent police retaliations leading to hundreds of Algerian deaths, deaths that were themselves actively “disappeared” from the official record. It was in fact demonstrations like these, linked to the end of the Algerian War at the beginning of the 1960s, that politicised some of the French students – a minority perhaps, but a significant one – who took to the streets a few years later… By beginning here, with the Algerian march, a kind of continuity between student activists and the anti-colonial and national liberation efforts that had preceded them becomes visible in a way that could not be seen previously, due to the fog produced by clichés like, “France was bored.” Starting here, the frame then widens beyond the narrowly national story – something any consideration of a worldwide event like 1968 is obliged to do.”21 

Thus, the Algerian and Vietnam wars clearly radicalized the younger generation in France. However, they were not the only ones to be radicalized by these movements: students in the United States organized widespread anti-war movements, and one anti-war protest at Kent State ended in the National Guard murdering four students leading to the first student strike in US history.22 There were protests against the Vietnam War, imperialism, and other political institutions throughout the world, like in England, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Northern Ireland, and within the USSR. 

Althusser argues that the crisis of imperialism is the cause for all of the student movements of the late 60’s. The crisis is twofold: on the one hand, the wars in Algeria, Vietnam, and in other countries demonstrated to many Westerners the brutality of the imperialist system perpetuated by their countries. Most young people during this time were born immediately after World War II, where France was occupied by the Nazis. Growing up in a country that is trying to restore national pride, while violently preventing decolonization, radicalized many. On the other hand, the crisis of imperialism has economic effects. As Lenin demonstrates in his book on the subject, imperialism generates super-profits for the capitalists which they can then re-circulate through the rest of the working class. The problem is that imperialism always produces surplus wealth, so if imperialist practices are challenged and/or stagnate, the imperialist nation will lose this surplus wealth, thereby heightening class antagonisms in the imperialist country. In France in the buildup to May, unemployment was rising, the economy was stagnating, and these were the results of the crisis of imperialism produced by resistance in France’s colonies. So on the one hand, the violence of imperialism radicalized many in France, and on the other, the crisis of imperialism weakened the economy, thereby intensifying class antagonisms. 

The rebellions in the Global South played a pivotal role in the crisis of imperialism. Without the decolonial movements in Algeria, Vietnam, China, Korea, and dozens of others, imperialism would have not entered such a crisis. Beginning with Algeria, the war of independence dented France’s recovery from World War II. They had to spend resources trying to squash the rebellion, and this not only failed, but also created domestic conflicts. The War radicalized thousands of young people in France, and the failure of the PCF to stand in solidarity with Algeria alienated the party from young people and immigrants within France. The Vietnam War also began as a rebellion against the French colonial forces, and it had a similar effect. The US eventually stepped in as the primary antagonist in the conflict, and its brutality against the Vietnamese people, the effects of the draft, and the domestic struggles against racism created a wave of resistance within the US. The US losing the war also dented the legitimacy of the country as the representative of the global capitalist order. If the US machine could be halted by guerilla warfare in Vietnam, what was stopping everyone else from doing the same? Regardless, in demonstrating how the student movement was a symptom of the crisis of imperialism, it’s essential to remember that this was only possible due to the struggles of the masses in the Global South.

For Althusser, the crisis of imperialism and the contradictions of the modern education system demarcate this student movement from years past. Michel Verret argued that the student movement was merely a youth rebellion common to many historical periods, and thus defends the PCF’s critique of the students as adventurists. In a response, Althusser criticizes Verret for reducing all students to some abstract essence seemingly defined by a desire for rebellion (adventurism), which he says is lazy and pseudo-psychological. This analysis, “inevitably means missing the historical reasons that make a particular student rebellion aesthetic, fascist, or progressive.23 Instead of carrying out a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, Verret conducts a “muddle of Weberian – Durkheimian – Freudian sociological pseudo-concepts.” He adds, 

“We are given no explanation how the world ideological rebellion of educated youth is one of the major effects of the agony of imperialism; no explanation of the role of such examples as Algeria (Verret says that ‘the student group has no memory’! I can assure him that the war in Algeria has left deep traces in the memory of former students and even the students of today); Cuba, Vietnam and China (the echoes of the Cultural Revolution played a far from negligible part in the student ideology of May).”24 

Is imperialism not in crisis again? The contemporary crisis began with the Iraq War, which played a key role in demonstrating to a generation of Americans the evil that their country perpetuates. The American economy has been in consistent decline, with rising unemployment and a generation of college students facing underemployment. The crisis of imperialism today is demonstrated by the growth of movements like Occupy, DSA, and the Bernie Sanders movement, where white collar, college educated people are heavily involved. Like in the 60’s, this is driven by the radicalizing influences of imperialist practices and the lack of economic opportunities. The crisis of imperialism can also be seen in the US’s desire to destabilize countries in the Global South that challenge Western hegemony, whether that’s Venezuela, the DPRK, Cuba, China, and so on. This does not guarantee that young people, or students in general, will be a revolutionary force. Rather, the fact that there is growing radicalization amongst young people is a symptom of imperialism, and thus capitalism, in crisis. The possibility that this develops into a revolutionary element depends on political action. As Althusser says,  “The fundamental question faced by this rebellious youth is the following: will it effect a fusion with the Workers’ Movement, not in words but in acts? Will it be helped to realize this fusion?”25 In other words, a revolutionary rupture can occur only by the fusion of various movements, like the labor, tenant, socialist and abolitionist movements.


1. Kristin Ross, “Against Commemoration: what happened after May ‘68,” New Frame, February 1, 2019.

2. Etienne Balibar, “Foreword,” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2014), IX. 

3. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism,  trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2014), 77. 

4. Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 143. 

5. Althusser, 142.

6. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), 42. 

7. Singer, Prelude to Revolution, 45.

8. Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 146.

9. Althusser, 146. 

10. Christine Buci-Glucksmann, “On the Left-Wing Critique of Stalinism,” Viewpoint Magazine, 2017.

11. Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), 41. Althusser also accepts the merger formula as a basic premise of Marxist theory in “Theory, Theoretical Practice, and Theoretical Formation,” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, (London: Verso, 1990), 31. 

12. Buci-Glucksmann, “Left-Wing Critique of Stalinism.”

13. Understanding the differences in education and intellectual training amongst the working class is still very important, as well as combating certain issues that have historically arisen with intellectuals in the labor movement. However, we must understand that academic jobs have been proletarianized. 

14. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, (London: Verso, 2010), 39. 

15. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 39. 

16. “Mission”, The Philosophy of Construction

17. Jonah Birch, “How Beautiful It Was,” Jacobin Magazine. “By the second half of the 1960s, France had experienced repeated bouts of stagnation, including one that hit just before May 1968. Between the spring of 1967 and the end of that year, the number of jobless workers increased by more than a quarter, and nearly 500,000 were unemployed at the start of 1968 — an unprecedented figure for the postwar era, when France enjoyed close to full employment.”

18. Singer, 51-53. 

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid, 55-56.

21. Ross, “Against Commemoration.”

22. Howard Zinn, People’s History of the US, (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 362. 

23. Althusser, “Michel Verret’s Article on the Student May,” Verso Blog, December 18, 2018. 

24. Althusser, “Michel Verret’s Article.”

25. Ibid.

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