A recipe for revolution: Could 1968 happen today?


‘A lack of imagination is not having the imagination to see what’s missing’ - in this week's Friday Essay, Robert Gildea looks at 1968 and asks where the missing energy of 2013 is going to come from.

Robert Gildea
12 July 2013

flickr/ Michael Kappel. Some Rights Reserved

Few people will have noticed that May 2013 was the 45th anniversary of the revolutionary events of 1968. The term ‘May ’68’ evokes familiar images of riots in the Latin Quarter of Paris, but this was only one among various movements of young people who wanted to change the world and change themselves. Between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, this wave broke across the globe, from Spain to the USSR and from Greece to Iceland, as well as in North America, Japan and elsewhere. Now, it seems this all happened a long time ago, in a world of full employment, social opportunity and swinging youth. Nevertheless, it is interesting to ask whether what happened then could occur again today – and if so, how.

The shape of a revolutionary generation

The generation of young people who made 1968 were born just before, during or just after the Second World War. They lived in the shadow of that war: their parents had resisted Nazism and fascism, collaborated with it, or stood innocently by. Many of them saw themselves as continuing the resistance against Nazism and fascism, part of a struggle that needed completing. They were brought up in the grip of the Cold War, torn between thinking communism could change the world and hating the Stalinism that ruled nations in the Eastern bloc and communist parties in some parts of western Europe. More inspirational was the explosion of the third world, seen through movements of national liberation in Cuba, Latin America, Vietnam, Palestine, and the China of the Cultural Revolution.

At this moment, young people shared a common language of protest. ‘Something that is difficult to understand now is that at the time it was almost automatic for a young intellectual to be a Marxist’, says French Maoist Olivier Rolin. ‘You might at the limit be in the communist party, although that was less and less the case. You could be a Trotskyist, Maoist, or Castroist, but not to be a Marxist would have been very bizarre.’ In fact, Marxism was not the only language of protest on offer: there was the anarchism developed by Danny Cohn-Bendit’s 22 March movement in Nanterre, Paris, while across southern Europe ‘liberation theology’ provided a powerful blend of radical Christianity and Marxism. In reality, the mass of protesters were not seduced by Marxism. Instead, they sought liberation in its most diverse forms, personal as well as political. They were in revolt against the nuclear family, bourgeois morality and religious hypocrisy. Nadja Ringart, a sociology student at the Sorbonne in 1968, dreamed of ‘liberation on all fronts, personal and political’. ‘Society was completely stifling. I was in revolt against morality, I think. I had the idea that liberty was a fundamental value in my itinerary, even more than equality. Sexual, personal, political, everything, the self-determination of peoples.’

Danish student activist Ole Vind, who founded the New Society network, remembers: ‘The core of my passion was definitely not about the Marxist revolution, but about something else. It was closer to a consciousness revolution, a cultural revolution. “Be a realist, demand the impossible”, was the slogan in Paris in ’68. A lack of imagination is not having the imagination to see what’s missing.’ 

After the suppression of revolt in Paris in June 1968 and the Soviet invasion of Prague in August, activists learned that the best way to change power relations was to occupy and liberate spaces away from the centres of power. These included experiments in workers’ control at the Lip watchmaking factory in Besançon; defending the sheep farmers of the Larzac against expropriation by a military base; turning the psychiatric hospital of Trieste inside out; and myriad experiments in communal living and counterculture in urban squats and rural retreats. Sexual liberation, contemporary feminism, gay rights and men’s groups all emerged from 1968 in its widest sense. 

The heritage of 1968

If the events of 1968 have been largely forgotten, that is because of the way they have subsequently been seen in wider society and politics. There is a celebratory narrative of ’68, which relishes the personal and political liberation it brought. But there is an even stronger demonising narrative, which accuses it of precipitating society’s descent into hedonism, moral relativism, violence and even totalitarianism. In the era of Thatcher, Reagan and Kohl, as communism fell, former ’68ers were pilloried in the press and on television. In 2007, French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy stormed to power promising to ‘liquidate the heritage of 1968’.

For these reasons,’68ers interviewed more recently are decidedly ambivalent about their past. Some continue to tell stories that both reflect and perpetuate the celebratory narrative. Dominique Grange, who wrote the Maoist anthem ‘The New Partisans’ in 1969 and still sings protest songs, declares: ‘It was the most beautiful time, a time when I really thought we could change the world. That was no doubt naïve, but it was also utopian and I think that we absolutely, imperatively, need a utopia. If there is no utopia there are no dreams, and we simply conform to a liberal society thinking that that is the only way life can continue.’

Jeffrey Weeks, a British gay rights activist and historian of sexuality, reflects: ‘I think the critical achievement of those movements was to develop this sense of agency, of being able to remake your own lives. I don’t look back nostalgically to that 1968 moment. I actually see it as having opened up possibilities, which are still continuing.’

Particularly in the former communist bloc, there is a story of democratisation that directly links 1968 to the collapse of communism in 1989. Gábor Demszky, who became the liberal mayor of Budapest after 1990, observes: ‘1968 historically was the beginning of an anti-authoritarian period, and in my own personal history it had a very powerful effect. After that the world turned to a more cultured and fortunately more westernised direction, and it was already neither necessary nor possible to live or think in these older ways. It was the end of the eastern Soviet system.’ 

Other activists, however, tell stories of their own disillusionment, for both personal and political reasons, responding to the voices around them that condemn 1968. Italian feminist Liliana Ingargiola, who dedicated many years of her life to the women’s movement, realised in the early 1980s that she had lost the thread of her personal life in the collective experience of militant feminism. ‘I was 35, 36 years old, and thus at an age that has a particular significance for a woman. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have children, I’d never thought about having children. I ended up having to go into analysis because I was panicking.’

Some activists felt, ironically, that in their individualism they had contributed to the growth of the consumer society and even to the ascent of financial capitalism, and to the divisions and inequalities that that ideology fostered. Those who had once felt solidarity with third world revolutions against western imperialism were horrified to see these events give rise to brutal regimes, such as those of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Mengistu in Ethiopia. Michel-Antoine Burnier, who edited the paper Action in 1968, was a close friend of former Maoist Bernard Kouchner, later of Médecins sans Frontières. Burnier remembered how the fate of the ‘boat people’ in 1975 changed their ideas about having supported the North Vietnamese.

‘It was only with Vietnam that we did something really culpable, which we tried to repair as best we could. At the time, when Kouchner organised the ‘L’Île de lumière’ boat to go to Vietnam and pull people out of the China Sea, I got going as an activist on the boat straight away, saying that you have to be able to undo what you have done.’


Flickr/Bernard George, some rights reserved

’68 redux?

So could 1968 or something like it happen today? The world is, of course, a very different place. Stories told today of the Second World War are less about underground resistance to Nazism and fascism, more about the horrors of Auschwitz and the western Allies’ crusade for freedom. The Cold War has ended and with it the communist alternative that at least had forced the west to respond to questions of inequality and exploitation. Market forces and global capitalism are triumphant, underpinned by the ideology of neoliberalism, bringing with them sharper inequalities between rich and poor, between global north and south. The spectre of climate change and ecological crisis looms. The third world revolutions that inspired the ’68ers have degenerated into dictatorships in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, often sponsored by the US, European powers or Russia. Waves of revolt since the Iranian revolution of 1979 have often been fuelled by Islam, yet 30 years on the outcomes of the Arab Spring have been stuttering and ambiguous.

That said, there has been talk of a new generational conflict, like that of 1968, this time involving young people born after 1979. They are angry about their parents’ generation – that of the baby boomers, which includes the ’68ers – which they see as monopolising good jobs, housing and pensions, triggering economic crisis and then loading them with debt from their studies, rising rents and the prospect of unemployment. This generation has expressed anger at global capitalism, growing inequalities and ecological crisis. Antiglobalisation has become a powerful force, with the Global Justice movement disrupting a WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 and the G8 in Genoa in 2001. Student protests returned to Britain in 2010 and Chile in 2011. The UK Uncut and US Uncut movements have attacked corporate tax avoidance, while the victims of austerity in Spain and Greece have occupied city squares and rioted. All this culminated in the Occupy movement, which started in Wall Street in autumn 2011 and took on global resonance, powerfully described by David Graeber in his book, The Democracy Project.

These movements have used ’68-style tactics: occupying and liberating spaces and practising ‘direct democracy’, settling issues by consensus. To organise support they are connected by the new technology of the internet. The social critique espoused by the Occupy movement is not a Marxist view of class struggle but a rhetoric of ‘the people against the privileged’, defined as the 99% against the rich and powerful 1%. In their sights is a new financial feudalism that endlessly produces debt rather than goods and thereby keeps the masses in bondage.

The question that needs to be asked, however, is how effective these movements have been. Graeber is of the opinion that the Occupy movements were a success, that at the very least they unmasked financial feudalism, mobilised energies and set a new agenda. A comparison with the movements of 1968, however, suggests that protest today is a good deal more difficult than it was 45 years ago.

The realities of modern protest

In the first place, despite the high profile of these movements in north-west Europe and North America, it is arguable how well connected they are, either through physical encounters or imagined solidarity, with protesters in Greece and Spain, or with the new ‘third world’, the revolutions of the Arab Spring or the Via Campesina movement in Latin America. The wonders of the internet should be made to work harder.

Second, even taking with a pinch of salt Olivier Rolin’s claim that everyone was a Marxist in 1968, there was a common language of social critique and protest among the activists of that time. By contrast, one is hard-pressed to detect a common language of protest today. Marxism has been delegitimated after the end of the Cold War; anarchism is equated with violence rather than libertarianism; Christianity is overwhelmingly conservative. Neoliberalism exercises hegemony, and arguments that there must be an alternative to global capitalism are dismissed in short order as out of touch with reality.

Third, it is true that many ’68ers dropped out of academic studies, lost their jobs or were expelled from countries as a result of protest; a few went to prison. Nonetheless, the environment pre-1973 was one of high employment and social possibility. The levels of debt that saddle young people of today’s generation, and the narrowness of opportunities ahead of them, have made them into new bondsmen, the new villeins. This predicament may trigger particular protests over university fees and debt, but perhaps none with a wider vision.

Fourth, even if protest were an option, it is scarcely a right. The right of peaceful protest may be acknowledged in theory, but in practice it has been delegitimated by politicians and the media as soon as property is damaged, let alone people hurt. The privatisation of public spaces offers little scope for the occupation or liberation of such spaces for protest. The mass media was quick to publish pictures and accounts of violence following the student protests of December 2010, while politicians blithely denounced the rioters of August 2011 as ‘feral’.

Lastly, it is not clear whether the youth of the early 21st century dream of liberation on a scale and with a diversity imagined by those of 1968. The desire for personal liberation has become uncoupled from that of political liberation. 1968 has been described as a failed political revolution but a successful cultural revolution. Indeed, much of the agenda of the ’68ers – sexual liberation, feminism, gay rights – has been realised. Where are the feminists today?

The fear of some former radicals – that individualism would play into the hands of the consumerism fanned by global capitalism – has come to pass. For many, personal fulfillment comes from the next designer garment or iGadget. What does political liberation amount to, apart perhaps from a few ideas about direct democracy? Where are the icons of political liberation to take the place of Che Guevara or Martin Luther King? Ole Vind said that ‘A lack of imagination is not having the imagination to see what’s missing’. What do people today imagine to be missing in their lives and how can they set out collectively to claim it in a world in which, as Graeber says, there is ‘a relentless campaign against the human imagination ... the murdering of dreams’?

Historians cannot predict the future. They explore the past in the light of the present and think about the present in the light of the past. 1968 looks different after the fall of Iron Curtain than it did before, and teaches us that at one moment protest did change the world. The magic ingredients, for anyone planning something similar, are connection, language, hope, imagination, the ability to convince people that right is on their side. And surprise.


This essay first appeared in Juncture, IPPR's journal, crossposted with thanks

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