1968: the global legacy

"With the coming of the dawn, the promises of the night fade away". In politics, as in love, the old Spanish saying sounds a pertinent warning.

Fred Halliday
13 June 2008

"With the coming of the dawn, the promises of the night fade away". In politics, as in love, the old Spanish saying sounds a pertinent warning; not least in regard to the memorialisation and assessment which the events of 1968 (and particularly the Paris uprising of May of that year) are receiving on their fortieth anniversary.

Anyone who lived through those exhilarating and formative times - as I did at the age of 22 - can testify to the hurricane force of that year. Like every such phenomenon it carried multiple elements: in this case a generation's visceral rejection of the accumulated conformism of post-1945 Europe and north America; a heady encounter with new forms of music, art, thinking, and debate; and a many-centred solidarity with global movements of protest and revolt - be they in Vietnam and Latin America, in Czechoslovakia and Russia, or in the United States among African-Americans and anti-war protesters.

As one of the editors of the newly founded radical weekly Black Dwarf, I well remember the day in which we decided on the frontpage affirmation that to me encapsulated the aspirations and enthusiasms of that time more than any other: "Paris, London, Rome, Berlin. We shall fight, and we shall win!"

The problem is that, in many ways, we lost. 1968 was a wonderful time. It shaped the intellectual and moral framework of my adult years. It does not deserve the sneering, partisan dismissal of some of its unacknowledged beneficiaries (such as Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy). But it is equally ill-served by the kind of one-dimensional and (in the true sense) uncritical celebration that contemporary media, publishing and intellectual cultures too often regurgitate.

The cycles of reality

A recollection of the larger political currents that contextualise the experience of 1968 exemplifies the point. The theatre of Paris in May ’68 notwithstanding, the year did not alter the politics of any western European country.

France is the primary exhibit. A month after May, after all, came the mass rallies in favour of Charles de Gaulle in the Champs-Elysées; followed by the general elections of 23-30 June in which the French right won a resounding victory. When de Gaulle resigned a year later, his successor was the loyal subordinate Georges Pompidou. It took until 1981 for a candidate of the left, François Mitterrand, to be elected president - and this socialist was a ormer Vichy collaborator whose conspiratorial style of politics was the very opposite of the best of May '68. Such tainted political advances are characteristic of the year's ambiguous legacy.

In Britain too, the anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations of March and October 1968 (in both of which I was an enthusiastic participant) did not presage any wider change, within or outside the parliamentary system. The protestors denounced the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, but his replacement after the election of June 1970 was not a figure of the left but a Conservative, Edward Heath.

In the United States, 1968 marked the onset of a politically more reactionary epoch rather than a progressive one. The election of Richard M Nixon on 6 November, albeit narrow, was its augur; though it came to fruition only with Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, after the insipid administration of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s (just as the Labour governments of Wilson/James Callaghan in Britain were in retrospect an interlude in a long Conservative hegemony, heralded by Margaret Thatcher's election in May 1979).

True, Germany did see a momentous and long overdue political change with the victory of Willy Brandt's Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1969 (marking, as Brandt's victory speech had it, the final defeat of Nazism). But this was self-evidently the work of an established party descended from the respectable Second International centre-left, not the "extra-parliamentary opposition" of 1968. Rudi Dutschke, whose rhetorical and personal appeal I had been enthralled by at a conference on Vietnam in Berlin in January 1968, was permanently damaged by an assassination attempt in April which forced his withdrawal from the scene.

But one polity in western Europe that was irrevocably altered by 1968 was Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom dominated since the 1920s by the representiatives of the province's Protestant majority, the Ulster Unionist Party. The rise of a "civil-rights movement" demanding equal voting, residence and employment rights for Catholics soon collided with the state's sectarian institutions and instincts. After serious intercommunal violence exploded in 1969 and the British army was deployed to guarantee order, leadership of the Catholic community was seized by the Provisional IRA, a murderous and itself sectarian body that owed little to May 1968 and far less to the non-violent civil-rights movement in its American or Northern Ireland variants.

I well recall, in an interview in Dublin in 1971 with the then Provisional leader Ruari O'Brady (as he then spelt his name), an inquiry about the connections between his "national-liberation" movement and that of its putative equivalents in Vietnam and Cuba. His brisk reply was worthy in tone and content of the schoolmaster he was: "Mr Halliday, in Ireland we have no need of your Che Guevaras and your Ho Chi Minhs." The pattern of the three decades to come was being set, where militarised Catholic nationalism battled its enemies to a dead-end over the bodies of hundreds of innocents, its struggle finessed or cheered by "socialist" fellow-travellers who strained to see a trace of 1968 dreams in the carnage.

The silences of memory

That the political consequences of 1968 defied its combatants' ideas and hopes is not to our disgrace. The events were indeed extraordinary, and remain indelible. What is wrong in the memorialisation is the fetishism of the moment, and associated loss of perspective and overall judgment, which leads to three kinds of distortion of focus.

The first is that the glorification of what was and remains positive about 1968 obscures - and thus at some level perpetuates - the darker sides of the year. In retrospect, the most striking absence from the currents of the time was feminism: true, there was talk of "sexual liberation", but the radical critique of gender came only with the "second-generation feminism" of 1969 and later. (I recall attending the "dialectics of liberation" conference at London's Roundhouse in July 1967, when around thirty prominent leftwing and radical speakers in my recollection included not one woman - and, equally in my recollection, no one commented upon this absence).

The second distortion of the 1968 events is the way that the indulgence of violence is filtered out of consideration. Much of the left thought little about the ethics and politics of violence beyond regarding it as permissible (and even beyond criticism) as long as it was the weapon of the oppressed; but a small section of the movement in Europe and north America, intoxicated by self-glorifying rhetoric and unable to face the blockage of their own politics, opted for proclaimed "urban guerrilla warfare". The Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) in Germany, the Brigate Rosse in Italy, the Black Panthers and Weather Underground in the United States were (as much as hippies, anarchists and proto-environmentalists, though with far more damaging effects) also the children of 1968.

The tides of globality

The third distortion of judgment in regard to 1968 is the absence of political realism: the ability to match aspiration and imagination with a cool assessment of the balance of existing political forces. It was the political "winners" who were to benefit from the events of the year (among them Georges Pompidou, Richard Nixon, and Edward Heath) who in this respect showed a political capacity that their adversaries in the lecture-halls or on the barricades more often lacked.

The inability of many leftist 68ers to anticipate or comprehend the conservative reaction to their own initiatives which these "statesmen" represented is telling here; as is the unreflective tendency of those who espouse some variant of revolutionary Marxism to laud 1968 as a single moment of glorious resistance without looking too closely at its dynamics. This fatal lack of political realism, however, is only part of a wider absence of understanding of the whole period: in particular, the inability of those who prefer the myths to the realities of 1968 to see that this was a time not of "world revolution" but of international - indeed "tricontinental" - counter-revolution.

The years from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s had seen a spate of revolutions and less dramatic but real changes across what was becoming known as the "third world" - in "Indochina" (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), in the Arab world (Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen), in Africa (the Congo, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya) and in Latin America (Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba). From the mid-1960s, however, a series of events indicated that the tide was beginning to turn.

The coup in Brazil in 1964; the fall of the moderate Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the same year; the coup in Indonesia, and the invasion by the United States of the Dominican Republic and South Vietnam in 1965; the coup that ousted Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966; the coup in Greece, the six-day Arab-Israeli war and the death of Che Guevara in 1967 - all heralded a global shift to the right, of which Richard Nixon's victory in the US presidential election of 1968 represented the culmination.

It took until the mid-1970s for a further sea-change to occur, with the end of fascism in Portugal and Spain in 1974-75, and a spate of revolutionary victories (Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Iran, Nicaragua) in what was then not yet known as the "global south". The "second cold war" of the 1980s closed one cycle and opened another. By then, many veterans of 1968 had long exchanged thinking through the present for romanticised celebration of the past.

The cunning of history

The most dramatic events of 1968, and the ones with the greatest long-run consequences were not, however, in either Europe and north America or in the "third world" - but in the "second" (that is, communist) world. Two events here in particular - the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 which crushed the liberalising "Prague spring" under Alexander Dubcek, and the apogee of China's cultural revolution in 1967-68 - signalled the brutal imposition of authoritarian and coercive bureaucratic communism.

In Prague, Moscow and Beijing - a world away from the liberal and culturally experimental world of Paris or Berkeley - it was not the emancipatory imagination but the cold calculation of party and state that was "seizing power". Yet in the longer run the counter-cyclical reinforcement of hardline communist rule in its two major centres proved less durable than appeared likely at the time.

Indeed, the repression of 1968 contained the seeds of the demise of the regimes that deployed it. In Europe, the decision by Leonid Brezhnev and his associates to invade Czechoslovakia in effect killed what were already the last, threadbare hopes that a progressive evolution of communist societies was yet possible. The casualties included the next generation of intra-party reformers, who thus had few reserves of loyalty or enthusiasm to call on beyond the party nomenklatura - and who were challenged by dissidents now hardened by experience to contemplate only communism's demise rather than its reform. The brief flowering of optimism under Mikhail Gorbachev proved as evanescent as that under Nikita Khrushchev, but this time with far more serious results for the communist edifice.

In western Europe, the collapse of faith that the Soviet system deserved even a modicum of trust was more damaged by the Red Army's invasion of Czechoslovakia even than by that of Hungary in 1956. The wholesale evacuation of members from Moscow's "brother parties" in 1956 at least did not damage their core; but Prague led the communist leaderships (in Italy especially) onto the road of coalition-seeking "Eurocommunism" and then to effective oblivion.

In China, the violence, fear and societal damage inflicted by the cultural revolution were of such a scale that the generation that came to power after Mao Zedong's death in September 1976 and the revolutionary spasm of the "gang of four" that followed sought to pursue a moderate and reforming path. The system survived, but it lost its inner, doctrinal conviction. What is left is nationalism and fear of the people: which it can appease only as long as "market socialism" delivers the goods. The years around 1968, for all their zealotry, spelt the end of revolutionary commitment.

Much of the left in western European and the United States feted China's cultural revolution in displays that mixed political misjudgment, exoticist fascination, and infantile irresponsibility in equal measure. The warnings of older and wiser observers such as Isaac Deutscher and Herbert Marcuse against the dangers of collectivist frenzies of destruction and shaming were heard, but also ignored.

It is clear in retrospect that 1968 did not bury European capitalist democracy or American imperialism. It did, however, set in train the death and burial of the Russian and Chinese revolutions and of communism in western Europe. A fine example, indeed, of the cunning of history.

Also in openDemocracy on legacies of 1968:

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005). His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.

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