Who Fears to Speak of ‘68

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40 years on, and the legacy of 1968 remains contested. This is probably inevitable. While it’s one of those few years like 1789, 1848 or 1989 that are synonymous with uprising and revolution, 1968 is unique in that there’s little or no consensus on what it meant then or what it means now.

Sean O’Hagen, in a recent feature for The Observer, gives a good overview of the events of that year. Over on the Prospect website, you can find a variety of views on ‘68 under the title ‘1968: liberty or its illusion?’ from a slew of writers ranging from Tsvetan Todorov to PJ O’Rourke. Don’t miss this characteristically bitter little piece from Alan Johnson. Not to be outdone in the bitterness stakes, of course, our own John Waters (sub req’d) describes 1968 as ‘The tragic conflict between freedom and tradition’. A little more coherent than most of Waters’ pieces, he does descend into his typically nonsensically quasi-mysticalism towards the end, stating that:

(F)reedom is a deceptive word which, in its modern meaning, conveys a pursuit of desire without limit. Because of the structural limitations of the human mechanism, there is a point at which the pursuit of desire, in any direction, becomes destructive. One of the consequences of the disrespecting of tradition since the 1960s is that this consciousness of limits has been mislaid.

Hours of fun could be had speculating about where John Waters thinks the ‘structural limitations of the human mechanism’ lie, but we’ll simply gesture towards the area between the navel and the knees and move on.

Over on Comment is Free, the fight is being played out between Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who argues that the actual consequences of 1968 are four decades of near uninterrupted right-wing political control and 17-year olds being offered positions as strippers at the Job Centre, and Peter Lennon, who instead argues that the events of May 1968 in Paris had substantial positive effects lasting even to the present day (although he does include a rather gratuitous ‘My demonstration is bigger than your demonstration’ dig at the British soixante-huitards).

As disparate as Wheatcroft and Lennon’s positions are, they both, I think, fall into the same error: that of seeing 1968 solely in terms of events in Western Europe and the United States (Lennon, in fact, implies that only the Parisian ‘68 is the authentic one). This is a perception shared by many of the Prospect writers and writers elsewhere, as well as in the popular consciousness. When one thinks of 1968 one immediately thinks of either French students digging up cobblestones to throw at policemen or the mixture of rioting and assassination that characterised the US Presidential campaign that year.

This is, without a doubt, the sexier side of ‘68, the side which appeals to those who prefer the ‘Street-Fighting Man’ of the Rolling Stones to the ‘Revolution’ of the Beatles. However, it’s also extremely limited and the more we look back on the legacy of 1968, the more limited such a view appears.

While, for example, the anti-war movement in the United States, and globally, was hugely significant at the time, and was a crucible from which major figures in contemporary US politics emerged, it’s important not to see it as a spontaneous mass phenomenon which emerged sui generis on the Washington Mall and on campuses across the continent. It evolved slowly, and gradually, over the course of half a decade. As Chomsky writes in the current edition of New Statesman, contrasting the anti-war movement of the 1960s with the opposition to the invasion of Iraq five years ago:

You have to remember that, during Vietnam, there was no opposition at the beginning of the war. It did develop, but only six years after John F Kennedy attacked South Vietnam and troop casualties were mounting. However, with the Iraq War, opposition was there from the very beginning, before an attack was even initiated. The Iraq War was the first conflict in western history in which an imperialist war was massively protested against before it had even been launched.

It’s also worth recalling the extent to which the anti-Vietnam war movement, the student movement, was dependent on the civil rights movement for its very existence. Even though the formal civil rights movement had, to a large extent, played itself out by ‘68, when one looks at leaders like Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, even Abbie Hoffman, what’s particularly notable is how many of them either had their political baptism or were heavily involvement in the Freedom Riders or the voter registration projects from earlier in the decade. Indeed, many of the tactics employed by the anti-war protestors were perfected on the streets of Selma, Birmingham, Albany and other towns across the deep South. It’s fair to say that without the initial work of the NAACP, the SCLC and the SNCC, there wouldn’t have been an anti-war movement, certainly of the scale that came to exist. However, this doesn’t tend to be part of the dominant narrative of 1968, or to feature prominently in the Sunday newspaper nostalgia pieces, where the massive significance of the civil rights movement at the time, and its legacy to the present day, tends to be reduced to the assassinations of that year.

Similarly, when one considers whether 1968 represented a turning point in the United States’ engagement with Vietnam, one should overplay the significance of the anti-war movement. Important though the domestic and international demonstrations were, they paled in comparison to the actions of the Tet Offensive of the same year, which demonstrated that the United States military machine could be defeated on its own terms, and acted as a call to arms for anti-imperialist movements across the world.

Turning East, or West (depending on your perspective) there’s also a tendency to diminish the significance of the uprisings and protests across Eastern Europe (not to mention in Southern Europe, where the term ‘fascist government’ carried much more weight than just a rather self-indulgent hippy cliché) as an off-shoot of the demonstrations in Paris or Chicago, where the main event was happening. However, in hindsight we can see that what occurred in Czechoslovakia, as well as in Poland and elsewhere during that year, proved to have a far greater impact than the equivalent Western activities. Far from being a failure, as they may have appeared at the time, they proved – as Timothy Garton Ash notes – in time to have laid the ground for the revolutions of 1989, arguably the most important mass social movements since the Second World War.

None of this is intended to in any way denigrate the achievements and the commitment of the students, workers and revolutionaries who took to the streets in Paris, Berlin, London, Chicago and elsewhere in 1968. Many argue that the lasting legacy of 1968 is the dominance of right-wing politics over the last forty years, that the backlash which thrust Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher and, latterly, Sarkozy into power can be laid at the feet of those who fought for a better world at the time. This strikes me as a rather myopic, not to mention begrudging view, of those events. The achievements of feminism, of the gay rights and anti-racist movements and the rise of Green politics are, at the very least, just as much the outcome of 1968 as the emergence of the Red Army Faction of the ex-Trotskyists of neo-conservatism, and those of the left should be unashamed to claim this legacy as their own. It’s far more plausible to state that the civil rights movement – by breaking the stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the Southern states of the US – inadvertently caused the near permanent dominance of the Republicans in US politics, but no one would suggest that, because of this, perhaps it would have been best if Rosa Parks had taken a different bus after all.

It is probably a mistake to speak of 1968 as a single phenomenon. Rather, it might best be remembered as a confluence of different events, movements and individuals which together formed something greater than the sum of their parts. However, on one point they were as one. Like the proverbial stopped clock, John Waters is actually correct on one point. What the various strands we understand as ‘1968? have in common was the determination to challenge authority, particularly traditional authority, in the name of human freedom. Of course, for Waters, this is a bad thing, being synonymous with the uppity women he despises (particularly those who play house). However, if one imagines the kind of Ireland that Waters seems to advocate in his criticism of those who challenge authority – one where the Roman Catholic Church retains a tight grip on social policy, women are still treated as second-class citizens, where Northern Catholics never demanded their rights from a state which structurally discriminated against them and where gay people remain in fear of criminal prosecution, one can see that the spirit of ‘68 is something which should still be held dear.

Image courtesy of The Observer’s gallery of 1968 photos.

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