Skip Navigation

Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Student Resistance Drives Social Evolution: An Excerpt from Student Resistance in the Age of Chaos by Mark Edelman Boren

September 28

by Mark Edelman Boren and Dan Simon

To celebrate today's publication of Student Resistance in the Age of Chaos, Books One and Two by Mark Edelman Boren, we're proud to share a short excerpt from the book accompanied by a letter from the editor, Dan Simon, on the process and impetus for publishing an all-encompassing history of global student activist movements of the 21st century.

A Letter from the Editor

Mark Edelman Boren's Student Resistance in the Age of Chaos, Books One and Two, is one of those rare acts of historical sleight of hand where something we have seen fleeting glimpses of for years suddenly looms large and makes sense in a majestic new way. Working as Mark's editor for the last two years, I learned so much.

We already know that a student-led democracy movement in Hong Kong stood up to China and saw the human cost that many of its leaders have paid. We might remember that Slobodan Milosevic's resignation in September of 2000 was the culmination of a nationwide uprising led by a student organization named Otpor (Resistance) that had formed two years earlier. In the US, in the first two decades of 21st century, students have led the anti-war protests leading up to the Iraq War, the anti-sweatshop protests that targeted multinational corporations like Nike whose products were often produced using child labor and/or under inhumane working conditions, and the anti-racism movement that would eventually lead to Black Lives Matter. Students around the world, led at times by the great teenaged environmental activist Greta Thunberg, have been the ones leading the politicians and even the scientists to turn the attention of the world's leaders to addressing climate change.

And yet, until Mark Boren showed us, we didn't realize that student activism is a global movement—or that it has met with global repression on the part of authoritarian and democratic societies alike—and that this international student movement is still the world's best safeguard of democracy and also of our human sanity everywhere! We didn't know because all the reporting we had seen only talked about one or another movement in one country or region, never of a global movement.

There are some 1.5 billion students in the world today, and they have the ability to communicate with one another and to organize and demand changes within their societies, as no other group can. It is partly out of fear of organized students that governments across the globe have invested so heavily in surveillance and enhanced communications technologies during the last two decades. As students have gained the ability to act more spontaneously and in a more decentralized way, so have governments the world over increased the speed of their response, often resorting to arresting student leaders on the eve of demonstrations for example. In many countries, to be a student leader is to put your life at risk.

In order to tell this story, Mark Boren put together a team of graduate students and researchers to help him cull through mountains of data. He had already written an earlier book on the history of student resistance up until 1999, so he knew the territory. He realized that the dynamics of the story shifted from year to year and from decade to decade, especially over the last twenty years. He also found that, as strategies succeeded in one country or region, they were often then adopted in others. As Boren went to work, the book blossomed from one volume into two, and in 2031 there will surely be a third, since this isn't the kind of story that ever ends exactly. When you see how everything fits together, that's when you understand the monumentality of this global student movement, and why it is truly students who have the best hope of changing our world.

From Student Resistance in the Age of Chaos: Student Resistance Drives Social Evolution

This book documents a constant, often spontaneous worldwide struggle of idealism and change against powers of social control and stasis, a multifront, multi-issue battle that over the past two decades has been waged in both new and old forms in every nation on earth, between youth aspiring to power and older generations trying to keep it for themselves. Hundreds of thousands of student resistance actions have occurred since the start of the new millennium—from strikes to marches, petitions to bombings, single defiant stands against injustice to massive social media–driven boycotts. The sheer number of actions and their effects on the course of societies and cultures confirm that in today’s modern world, student resistance is defining of, or an integral part of, the evolution of every society in existence today. The myth that the heyday of student activism was in the past—in the 1960s and ’70s—is a fiction. Globally, no period has seen more student activism than the past twenty years. And the process has been accelerating. The amount of student activism in the world more or less doubled from the first decade to the second decade of the new millennium—and by all accounts the future holds more.

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world has increasingly been enveloped in turmoil if not outright chaos. Authoritarianism has been on the rise, alliances between nations have been weakened or shattered, and war and famine have caused massive human migrations. Internment camps, slavery, and violence against large groups of people are mundane facts of life, even within developed nations, while many of those in charge of those nations pretend it is not happening. The leaders of nuclear-armed countries have repeatedly challenged and threatened one another, and in 2016, an unpredictable and wholly self-absorbed television personality with no government experience took the reins of the most powerful nation on earth, appointing cronies and corrupt officials to key posts and plunging the world into four years of confusion and instability. While geopolitical and economic storms continue to rage, the planet itself is threatened by pollution and climate change. The stakes for the future of earth and humankind have never been higher than they are today.

Enter the student. She embodies a paradox, having been taught knowledge and strategies for success but also the idea that to gain and accept new knowledge, she must challenge preconceptions, prior beliefs, and authority (the received knowledge of the past). This questing, this cultivation of a “why this and not that?” disposition, makes education, personal development, social growth, and innovation possible, but sooner or later it also may turn her against the forces that control students and their respective societies. Combined with her youthful idealism and the fact that, as is the case with many students, she isn’t yet economically or professionally invested enough for opponents or authorities to use leverage to stop her from protesting (she may risk physical suppression and expulsion but doesn’t yet have a family to support or a career to protect), many students use their newfound awareness, education, and independence to challenge the status quo.

The student, in her nature, is a political creature, learning to be adept at negotiating channels of power in order to accumulate more power (knowledge, position, status, money, technology, things), and more than a few begin to chafe at the restraints of their societies. Although social activism is certainly not limited to students or the young, the conditions that make for creative, aware, knowledgeable, and socially involved students are also perfect for subsequently inducing them to become social activists. This is why education is often perceived as inherently threatening to conservative forces of authority, and why student activism in the modern world is a perennial threat to repressive societies. In times when social and political chaos reigns, when widespread human suffering is clearly evident, when so many resources are available and so many of them wasted, when extremes in human nature come to the fore, when injustice is rampant and the divide between the haves and the have-nots is great, students are more likely to challenge their societies and raise up their heads and their fists.

Granted, not all students fight for altruistic reasons (witness the recent rise of alt-right student groups in the United States, Germany, Hungary, or Poland and violent “traditionalist” student groups in India), but student activists of every sort believe they are fighting for positive social change and against perceived social or governmental threats. Their belief in their causes and the de facto martial context make for a volatile mixture. And since the deck is always stacked against protestors (they do not have well-trained, armed security forces with conflict experience and tactics based on known demonstration practices on their side), students must constantly invent new ways to challenge authority. Usually physically, financially, and legally disadvantaged from the start in their quest, they increasingly resort to guerilla-style tactics (even if they are carried out through peaceful or legal means), trying to stay one step ahead of more powerful opponents and police. They must constantly open new fronts against entrenched power before stronger physical responses can be launched against them. And when they do march in force, they characteristically try to spark larger movements before administrations or governments can assert control or counterattack with direct, overwhelming physical force. In terms of social power, the struggle between the forces of change and forces of stasis is what defines all of our societies, and it is what forces societies to evolve or to entrench and calcify. In this context, student and youth resistance drives social evolution.


Student resistance is an important part of human history. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it has increasingly affected societies and played a central role in shaping them. In researching and writing this book, I’ve come to realize just how much student resistance reveals who we are as humans and—beyond serving as the canary in the coalmine—how much student activism is shaping the present moment and will shape our separate and shared futures. In order to write this book, I and a group of researchers, guided by librarians and archivists and an adept cyberspecialist, culled through thousands of different newspapers, government and NGO reports, articles, accounts, posts, letters, documents, and internet and social-media sources in every form imaginable, and conducted in-person interviews, to build what we called the Resistance Archive. We tracked hundreds of thousands of demonstrations, uprisings, movements, organizations, and materials into a searchable and meaningful form that, even after we had pared it down, still contained tens of thousands of reports of discrete events, organizations, and movements. The sheer number of actions that have occurred recently and that are occurring today as you read this— actions often attended by brutal suppression — reveals the extent to which humans across the planet are locked in this seemingly everlasting struggle between those seeking greater democracy, civil rights, and social justice and the forces of authoritative, entrenched power and social restriction.

The historian’s axiom that in order to understand the present we must look to the past has much value, and in the first section of the book I give a brief history of important events of student resistance throughout history to establish a context for the student resistance actions of the new millennium. While current resistance fits into a long tradition of actions and common strategies, looking at the history also serves to underscore exactly how unique and pervasive recent actions have been, why they’ve proliferated, and how much technology has changed the nature of resistance. By the end of this book, I hope it will be clear to the reader that in order for societies to continue to evolve, to move beyond the constricting forces of social injustice, repression, brutality, cynicism, and entrenched power, young people need to fight against the status quo, to strike for social change, to push for laws that are just and justly enforced, and to hold those in positions of authority accountable. They are in a unique position to do so, and when they take up the challenge of wielding social power directly, they have access to power that can, and does, bring about lasting change. Student resistance shapes the future.

Recent posts