It all started with a carnival atmosphere, as tens of thousands of students and sixth formers took to the streets to protest about the state of higher education and inequality in society.

Students carried placards with witty and sometimes obscure slogans such as “Be realistic, ask the impossible” and “Under the paving stones, the beach”. But it turned violent as groups of anarchists seized buildings and confronted the police. Pretty soon, there was an atmosphere of revolution.

No, that wasn’t a report from last week’s student demonstrations in London. It was from Paris, May 1968, when students seized the city in the spirit of the Paris Commune. The 1968 students fought running battles with the police, threw cobble stones, wrecked cars. Their actions struck a chord with the trades unions, and within days 10 million French workers went out on strike. “Les evenements” nearly toppled the French government and Charles De Gaulle, the president, put the military on alert for a violent revolution then scurried off to Germany. His government was forced to concede an early general election.

The current student intifada in Britain against tuition fees may not be quite in the same revolutionary league; there’s no sign yet of any general strike following the Battle of Westminster. But it is important nevertheless, if only because of the timing. As in 1968, 2010 has been a year of protest throughout Europe. We saw general strikes in Spain and France, riots in Greece, mass demonstrations in Ireland as EU governments sought to deal with the financial crisis by driving down living standards and cutting public services. Students have invariably been in the thick of the action. There has been an increase also in less orthodox, internet- based protest, such as the hackers of “Anonymous” who have attacked firms like Amazon and Paypal in defence of the WikiLeaks leader, Julian Assange. Protest has gone digital.

Until recently, however, Britain’s streets had remained eerily calm despite widespread discontent at the prospect of swingeing spending cuts and the return of banker bonuses. It was as if people didn’t quite know what to do, were waiting for something to happen. Then, on November 10, out of a clear blue sky, 50,000 students took to the streets in London and provided the first serious challenge to the political and financial establishment since the financial crisis broke in 2007. The impact was all the greater for the fact that no-one had predicted it, not even the National Union of Students, who had organised the protest. The response was immediate; it was as if a dam had broken. Within 10 days, 34 universities had been occupied and students had launched a rolling campaign of nationwide strikes and demonstrations. It culminated last Thursday in a pitched battle in Parliament Square as angry protesters smashed their way into the Treasury itself after learning that the parliamentary bill to triple tuition fees in England had been passed by 21 votes. Unfortunately, the Prince of Wales and Camilla got caught in the melee.

As Rector of Edinburgh University I’ve spent many long hours with students in recent weeks, not least on overnight bus trips to and from London, and I’ve been astonished by how rapidly these idealistic but largely apolitical young people have been radicalised by their experience. They see their rebellion as less about fees and more about how society should be organised. They reject mindless thuggery, but they are outraged at the rewards given to bankers who caused the financial crisis, yet have escaped any penalty. They are contemptuous of politicians who’ve made ordinary people and students pay the cost of bailing out the banks. Above all, they loathe the Liberal Democrats, who have come to symbolise all that is wrong in a political culture where politicians say one thing to get elected and do the reverse when they get into office. Direct action has become cool again, for the first time since the poll tax marches 20 years ago. Students have been heavily involved in the UK Uncut flash mob demonstrations against alleged tax avoidance by directors of Topshop and Vodafone. Last Monday, students from the University College London occupation descended on Topshop in Oxford Street, to accuse Arcadia Group owner Sir Philip Green of “tax dodging”. Their slogan:”You marketise our education, and we’ll educate your market.”

In four short weeks, the students have changed the weather in British politics. They have thrown down a gauntlet to parents, politicians, trades unions and voluntary organisations to call a halt to what the anti-cuts movement calls the Coalition’s “scorched earth” policies. Whether anyone picks up this gauntlet of protest remains to be seen. The student intifada has divided the commentariat. Old school radicals, such as writer, Tariq Ali, who was a leading figure in the student revolts of the 1960s, believe that the student uprising is a game-changer – the spark that will ignite wider public discontent at banker capitalism and “a new cycle of protest across Europe”. Others, such as Guardian columnist Deborah Orr, have taken a less sanguine view. She dismissed it all as infantile posturing and ultimately futile. “Protesting against the cuts,” she wrote in a column that aroused fury among many Guardian readers, “is like protesting against water’s stubborn habit of flowing downwards.” The Independent’s Steve Richards scoffed that protests “rarely achieve their objectives”. Certainly, despite the demonstrations, the bill to triple fees in England passed into law in Westminster on Thursday, though the Government majority was slashed. The main damage was done to the Liberal Democrats, who have been deeply split over the fees issue.

So, does street protest achieve anything apart from broken windows and a few headlines? It’s easy to dismiss demonstrations, especially peaceful ones, as futile. Back in 2003, over a million people marched against the Iraq invasion in the biggest popular demonstration London had ever witnessed. It didn’t stop Tony Blair launching an illegal war on the basis of weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there. In 2005, a quarter of a million people dressed entirely in white encircled Edinburgh in a largely peaceful attempt to Make Poverty History. It didn’t. Hundreds of thousands marched peacefully in Scotland against the poll tax in 1988/9, but it wasn’t until March 1990, and the riots in Trafalgar Square, that the poll tax’s fate was sealed. It might seem reasonable to conclude that protest is only really of interest to the protesters themselves – that it makes them feel good.

But this curmudgeonly view is mistaken. Protest does have an impact, though sometimes it isn’t obvious. The campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994 did not “kill the bill” but it did moderate it. The anti-war marchers who said “not in my name” in 2003 made clear to history that the war was illegitimate in the eyes of many millions of ordinary people, and destroyed Tony Blair’s credibility. The poll tax demonstrations really did succeed in getting the community charge scrapped, though it took a couple of years and the removal of its architect, Margaret Thatcher. She was forced from office a matter of months after the London poll tax riots, by Tory ministers who realised that she had become a vote loser. In Scotland, the poll tax protests fuelled demands for a Scottish parliament as the only certain means of protecting the country from future Tory legislation. The urban race riots in 1981 in areas like Toxteth, Southall and Brixton led to the Scarman Report, police reform and multicultural policies in local government

It’s also true that the student demos are not Paris, May 1968. But the truth is that 1968 didn’t directly achieve all that much either. Europe’s greatest popular uprising since the Second World War was a political failure. The student unrest and the strikes evaporated almost as quickly as they had emerged, and in the subsequent general election, the right-wing Gaullists were returned with an increased majority. But les evenements, while a failure electorally, were immensely significant culturally, and historians agree that 1968 was a watershed year in Europe and the world. The rebellion wasn’t really a revolution in the traditional sense and was led as much by hedonism as Marxism. The revolt captured the imaginations of young people all over Europe, and marked the end of the authoritarian, sexually repressed and socially conservative post-war era. Feminism, environmentalism and gay liberation all trace their origins to the “spirit of ’68”. Even Gordon Brown took to the streets at Edinburgh University. I half expected to see him on last week’s march to the Scottish Parliament against fees. Had he not been responsible for introducing student fees as Chancellor in the Labour government, I suspect he probably would have been there. The irony is that it is the children of 1968, who benefited from free tuition, who are now pulling up the ladder behind them. And they are despised for that.

Students have always been in the vanguard of popular protest. They tend to be a weathervane for social and political change. After all, they don’t have mortgages, families and responsibilities. They haven’t been worn down by the relentless pressures of bureaucratic life, their brains fixed in an orthodox pattern. They are more open to new ideas and more willing to demand action.

But they aren’t always on the side of the angels, as we saw last week. Remember the Maoist cultural revolution in China, where students waving Little Red Books persecuted and assaulted teachers and lecturers, and anyone else who got in their way. Street protest is essentially an emotional experience, not dissimilar to a music festival or a football match. Being in close contact with tens of thousands of like-minded individuals unleashes a kind of euphoria, a sense of power. The noise itself is energising – the roars that run up and down the march like aural Mexican waves. I felt it for the first time in 35 years when I was on last month’s march in London. It was impressive ... and rather uncomfortable. So was having to shout dumb slogans such as: “Students and workers unite and fight!” The only workers around were the hard hats on the Whitehall building sites, and they looked down with bemused indifference.

Last week’s violence in Parliament Square underlines an inconvenient truth about street protest: people get caught up in the excitement, the disinformation, the chaos, the ecstasy of violence. It ends with broken windows in the Treasury and fire extinguishers thrown from the roof of Millbank Tower, with 34 students and 12 police hospitalised. Protests, even peaceful ones, are a kind of surrogate warfare – a physical show of strength on the streets, and that is why they are so powerful. You can have any number of Facebook campaigns and Twitter flash mobs, but they lack the impact of actually getting out there and putting boots on the street.

Indeed, social media, far from replacing street protest, has become another tool for those engaged in it. Twitter was used by breakaway groups of students to wrong-foot the police. Facebook has turned into an alternative media for many young people, who are more inclined to believe what they read there than what they see in the conventional press. Social media can also replace old-style political organisation. But digitally or physically, mass protest involves a challenge to the state. Direct action, even non-violent civil disobedience, is a threat to public order, and the threat is generally met by a show of force. Kettling is, after all, a form of summary punishment where the police form a kind of impromptu prison to contain the demonstrators for up to seven hours. It’s an unpleasant experience, and intended to be: the equivalent of being taken down to the nick and thrown in the cells for a few hours. Not surprisingly, many are frightened of demonstrations altogether after being kettled. But almost as many are radicalised on the spot, realising for the first time in their sheltered lives, the reality of the power.

But the question remains: were this year’s student demonstrations a flash in the pan or the start of a new cycle of popular protest? Will we talk of the spirit of 2010? Well, history isn’t written in advance, but my hunch is that this is not going to go away any time soon. Len McCluskey, the new militant leader of the Unite trade union, has called for an “alliance of resistance” to spending cuts, uniting public sector workers and students. And with inflation rocketing in the new year – food prices are already rising at an annual rate of nearly 10% – and wages frozen, even many who initially supported Government cuts will start to wonder why they, and not the bankers, are paying the price of the financial crisis.

There is no sign, however, of any general strike. Most people are still in work and clinging on to their homes thanks to zero interest rates. Public sector unions have wisely been keeping their heads down, aware that – as a relatively privileged group of workers who still have jobs, increments and pensions – they may find it hard to win much public support from private sector workers who are really feeling the pinch. The big challenge for public sector unions in the new year will be to demonstrate to the 70% of employees who don’t work for the state that they can still support those who do in opposing public spending cuts.

But the students have given a lead – a very powerful one. Apathy is passé. Commitment is back. And now the fight against fees will move from Westminster to Holyrood as students try to defend free higher education in Scotland. A generation is being radicalised, just as many of their parents were by les evenements in 1968, when the Rolling Stones celebrated Street Fighting Man.

60 years of protest: what did it achieve?

1950s: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organises huge protest marches, up to five miles long. Philosopher Bertrand Russell is arrested for civil disobedience.

Impact: Negligible politically but raises public awareness of risk of nuclear war.

1968: Riots against the Vietnam War in London and campuses across the UK.

Impact: Harold Wilson keeps Britain out of the war.

1971: Mass demonstrations triggered by Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act outlawing strikes.

Impact: The release of imprisoned dockers; law fell into disuse.

1979: SCRAM, The Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace, holds demonstrations in East Lothian against Torness nuclear power station.

Impact: Does not stop Torness, but nuclear power station programme is halted after Chernobyl in 1986.

1981-84: Urban race-riots set city streets ablaze in places like Toxteth, Southall and Brixton.

Impact: Scarman Report, police reform, discrimination outlawed.

1984-85: Pitched battles between striking coal-miners and police.

Impact: Fails to prevent the closure of the pits.

1988-90 Anti-Poll tax demonstrations, initially in Scotland, culminate in Battle of Trafalgar Square.

Impact: Contribute to Margaret Thatcher’s fall. Poll tax abolished in 1993. Tories wiped out in Scotland in 1997.

1994: Demonstrations against the Criminal Justice Bill.

Impact: Does not stop outdoor raves being outlawed.

2003: More than one million march against the Iraq invasion.

Impact: Does not stop the war, but results in Labour suffering its largest-ever back bench rebellion.

2005: G8/Make Poverty History protest encircles Edinburgh with a quarter of a million people.

Impact: World leaders promise to cut debt of sub-Saharan Africa. A bit.

2010: Students revolt against tuition fees.

Impact: Does not stop bill, but splits the Liberal Democrats.