Every idealistic student dreams of changing the world. In 1848, they actually succeeded. In urban capitals across Europe, revolutions broke out that year — with students playing a key role in many uprisings. That year launched a political alliance that has held for many subsequent social transformations: between young, radical bourgeois intellectuals — whether still studying or recently-graduated — and the industrial working class.

But that alliance is now faltering, and the search is on for a new one between young radical intellectuals and the wider masses. And whatever form it takes, it’s far from clear that it will follow the progressive lines that have characterised youth politics for the last two centuries.

The politics of students, and of that ambiguous class of 20-somethings whose lifestyle remains studenty even after graduation, has been a meaningful force for change ever since young people began flocking to higher education. For a new wave of higher-education institutions was, as historian Sheldon Rothblatt argues, inseparable from the class politics that emerged with that era.

In France, for example, the grandes écoles were founded after the French Revolution, and sought to shape a post-revolutionary elite to govern the country according to Enlightenment principles. These were the youth whose presence on the streets in 1848 was so conspicuous. In Prussia, meanwhile, a newly-powerful industrial bourgeoisie saw education as a key means of constructing a widespread national identity, which would serve their interests against the entrenched Prussian aristocracy.

Such institutions served as crucibles of national identity, finishing schools for the bourgeoisie — and also as a stretch of time in which young, idealistic, middle-class youth absorb high-minded ideas while remaining relatively free of economic and political obligations. It should come as no surprise, then, that such young people have often used that time to develop utopian visions, which they then seek to realise in the wider world.

Such youthful radicalism was, in the 19th century, a fertile breeding-ground for nationalism, liberalism and revolutionary fervour alike. Half a century later and somewhat further east, too, students and young elite radicals played a key role in the revolutions that brought down the Tsar, and brought the Soviet Union into being (and some of their number into power).

But today’s utopians appear actively hostile to more place-bound constituencies, whose causes they championed in earlier ages. Most now prefer a borderless and often identity-driven form of youth activism that came of age with the internet, in the dominant mass student-activist cause of my youth in the late Nineties: the Jubilee 2000 campaign. This sought to persuade Western nations and international institutions to forgive the unpayable debts owed by the world’s poorest countries. Forget helping the poor in your own country, in other words: the proper scale for idealism is now planetary.

In aid of this planetary scope, too, all intellectual traces of a link between centres of power and feelings of national solidarity have become increasingly deprecated. This consensus is now well-entrenched in higher education, with institutions and youthful activists in lockstep: just this week, the Quality Assurance Agency, which monitors academic standards, recommended “decolonisation” across the board — even in science and maths.

And supporters argue that this change is driven by students themselves. But it’s less universally well-supported by ordinary Britons outside rarefied social and political circles. When, last week, Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy loudly applauded a Cambridge Union vote in favour of Britain paying reparations for past imperial depredations, the response from the general public was cynical. At the more polite end were accusations that “a prominent subset of the elite want to take money away from working Britons and give it to governments who openly hate us”. At the less polite end, responses were more along the lines of “Fuck off, you fucking grifters”.

Is this simply the latest front in what the historian and political theorist Peter Turchin calls, “the problem of an excess of educated men”? With too many would-be rulers, and not enough positions for them all to fill, Turchin argues, the result is invariably a large number of disgruntled also-rans who combine intellectual firepower with strong senses of entitlement and grievance. In Turchin’s view, this “over-production of elites” helped precipitate the uprisings of 1848, as well as the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Young scions of an emerging bourgeoisie, without obligation to land-holding aristocrats and eager for a slice of political power, joined forces with the new urban poor and industrial proletariat to demand political reforms.

While the 1848 uprisings were swiftly put down, they had long-term consequences including much that we take for granted in the modern political settlement. (Arguably the long-term consequences of Soviet Russia also include a great deal we take for granted in the modern student-activist outlook.) Most remaining systems of serfdom were swept away, while (significantly from the perspective of bourgeois youth interest) governments crafted a series of political compromises with the emerging middle class and their working-class allies.

In Paris, the legacy of 1848 for workers included a shorter working day, a minimum wage and a guaranteed right to work; in Germany, the revolts spurred the move toward freedom of the press, jury trials, and expanded suffrage. Over the longer term, the same political changes also solidified Europe’s nation-states into more or less the political forms we have today, as the romantic idea of national fellow-feeling spread outward from the new graduate intellectual class to the masses.

In the process, many young activists also did well for themselves. And the cynical response to calls for “reparations” suggest others see in this campaign something like the same professed desire to help others while also accruing personal power and influence. Someone, after all, must be tasked with purging those libraries of reactionary classics such as Shakespeare, and administering funds designated for “reparations”. Who better than those who campaigned for the change?

If such efforts no longer command much support from the masses, the hinge moment for this slow coming-apart of the radical coalition was another uprising in Paris. In May 1968, the stones were once again torn up by students fired by something like the liberalising energy of their 1848 predecessors. Or intra-elite competition, perhaps: after all, this was a baby-boom generation reaching adulthood in far greater numbers than their elders. The result was, once again, social upheaval — followed by accession of many revolutionaries to the elite, where many of the 1968 revolutionaries ended up as politicians and other establishment figures.

But if the student activists of 1968 were still demanding liberalisation, like their predecessors in 1848, the world had changed around them. The grievance that triggered the riots captures just how far. The precipitating factor wasn’t poverty, or even political idealism, but individual desire: specifically, a ban on students spending the night in each others’ dorms.

The riots triggered a general strike that nearly brought down the French government. But at root, 1968 was a sexual revolution, that only took on the cause of the industrial proletariat as a kind of afterthought.

Since 1968, student idealism has continued on that rarefied trajectory. As the West has de-industrialised, so youth politics has lost interest in the industrial working class, and instead turned either to pursuing the individualistic politics of identity, or expanded beyond the “national” polities first forged in the student politics of the 19th century toward global issues such as poverty or climate.

In my own youth, I wholeheartedly embraced this planetary vision. The Jubilee 2000 campaign made a tremendous impression on me at the time, fuelling my youthful idealism about the power of the internet to network people worldwide for the good of humanity. Looking back, though, I’ve come to wonder if it doesn’t serve more to illustrate how the digital age has changed the dynamic of intra-elite competition that’s characterised student activism since universities emerged as formative institutions for the industrial bourgeoisie.

Drop the Debt campaigners of my acquaintance now sport OBEs and comfortable berths in the 21st-century NGOcracy, much as many soixante-huitards before them ended up at the heart of the liberal French establishment. The organisations themselves are still going, not to mention paying the salaries of activists, researchers, fundraisers and so on.

Meanwhile, it’s far from clear whether the campaign achieved much to ease the burden of debt in the long term. Tens of millions signed the petition. There were concerts. Bono got involved. And over $100bn of debt was forgiven. In the early 2010s, David Golding of Debt Justice made a celebratory video showing how ordinary people in Zambia had benefited from this forgiveness. But last year, The Economist reported that in 2020 Zambia, a key beneficiary of Jubilee 2000, was once again as indebted as ever. The only difference is that this time Zambia’s creditors aren’t the IMF, but an opaque web of international lenders including China and Saudi Arabia, largely immune to moral pressure from well-meaning Western campaigners.

None of this is to say that activists were wrong exactly, in calling for debt cancellation. It’s more to suggest that political idealism meshes at best uncomfortably with the fallen nature of humankind. And with that in mind, where a utopian scheme seems likely to run aground on the disappointing complexities of reality, the principal beneficiaries of such utopianism — however well-intentioned — may end up being those who appoint themselves to realise that utopia in the world. And as this grows starker, without delivering any obvious benefits to the masses whose lives may be up-ended by another bout of student radicalism, it’s hard to see the time-honoured coalition between progressive radicals and the working class holding up.

The great unanswered question for today’s students, then, is this: where is the mass support today for the rarefied post-1968 brand of idealism that’s come to dominate youth politics? Even the soixante-huitards acted in a coalition of sorts with France’s industrial proletariat; but the post-national orientation of student activism today feels more like a revolution against what’s left of that proletariat, than anything calculated to serve working-class interests.

The counterpoint might be: well, the industrial age is behind us now, so who cares? It’s not like the masses have disappeared, but who knows what the new political poles are. And today’s students are making a big gamble, when they assume that even a post-industrial working class will rally behind the middle-class activist call for more post-nationalism, more identity politics, and more skimming of funds from the real economy for redistribution on moral grounds such as “reparations”.

It’s long been taken for granted that youth politics only ever gets more liberal. But when post-nationalism, globalism and so on is now an overtly elitist project, a truly radical youthful counter-elite would be one that mobilised mass revolutionary support by swinging back in the other direction. In this uncertain moment, perhaps the only subversive move would be to draw a line under the liberalising project begun in 1848, and seek mass support for a politics of limits.

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