Anti-capitalism was in fact the most obviously ideological basis of the student movement but its most salient feature was the assumption that politics could be based on semi-permanent mobilisation. When the German ‘Extra-Parliamentary Opposition’ or APO (Ausserparlamentarische Opposition) advocated direct democracy, democratic councils, rule by the assembly of students (or workers in factories), rather than by delegates, it made demands which ran counter to the fundamental principles of Western representative democracy, and hence against those of all the political parties of the Left throughout Europe. It seemed clear to these parties that the historical models from which one could draw analogies with the forms of direct democracy advocated by the students - the Paris Commune, the Russian Soviets, the Italian occupation of the factories in the 1920s - belonged to a rejected insurrectionary past, probably unrepeatable and certainly unsustainable.
The overt commitment to popular rule and the democracy of Western societies somehow clashed with the obvious fact that most people felt they had very little real power over their environment. The basis of the Western conception of democracy remained the electoral process, defined as the designation of representatives. Examined from a different perspective, this, however, could be seen as a process whereby citizens were required to divest themselves of the main powers of decision-making in favour of representatives who would exercise them on the citizens’ behalf. To be able to choose the powerful is better than having them imposed by fiat; but it is not the same as having power oneself.