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The protesters of 1968 changed the world – but not in the way they hoped

In some ways, the revolutionaries of 1968 helped capitalism flourish.

When I attended the mass demonstration against the Vietnam War in London in October 1968, what most impressed me was the sedateness of the occasion. Among the demonstrators there was concern about the police horses. An anarchist fringe was rumoured to be planning to throw ball bearings under their hooves, a tactic many – including myself – deplored. The police were mostly restrained, many seeming chiefly concerned to avoid trouble. A section of the demonstrators led by a Maoist faction broke off and moved on to Grosvenor Square, where they attempted to break through police cordons guarding the American embassy. There had been a violent clash with police in an earlier demonstration in March, but after some hours of scuffles and a handful of arrests this confrontation fizzled out.

The body of the march continued as planned, handing in a petition at 10 Downing Street and proceeding to Hyde Park, where speeches were made demanding an immediate end to a war that would drag on until the fall of Saigon nearly seven years later. The home secretary of the day – the future Labour prime minister, James Callaghan – visited Grosvenor Square in the evening to watch it being cleared. Callaghan praised the demonstrators and the police, commenting that a demonstration of this kind would not have gone off so peacefully in any other part of the world.

The impression I formed during the demonstration has endured throughout the half-century that followed. In this country, 1968 was no more than a moment in the long history of a singularly British system. The atmosphere of the period is well conveyed by one of the photographs that precede each of the chapters of Richard Vinen’s deeply researched, richly detailed and thoroughly absorbing book, showing a youthful Jack Straw, president of the students’ union at Leeds, dancing stiffly with the Duchess of Kent, chancellor of the university. As Vinen puts it: “Britain was an ancien régime with a hereditary monarch, an established Church and an unelected upper house of parliament that was composed in large measure of those that had been born into the aristocracy… Nowhere was the ancien régime more deeply embedded than in universities.”

He continues:

In 1967, reform at Oxford University was discussed by the Privy Council – the group that formally existed to advise the Queen. Some academic positions were chosen directly by the monarch – in practice, by the prime minister’s appointment secretary after having taken appropriate “soundings”. One of these appointments – RA Butler, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge – was a former Conservative home secretary. Another was General Sir John Hackett, a former paratrooper… 
Both Butler and Hackett proved to be sympathetic to student demands…  Hackett, wearing his homburg hat and regimental tie, was famously to lead a student demonstration in 1974.

The historian Gareth Stedman Jones, who spent ten months in Paris after leaving St Paul’s School, is quoted as expressing a parallel view:

I went up to Oxford in 1961, smoking Gitanes and immaculately dressed in the best that could be found on the rive gauche. My time in France reinforced my sense, shared by many of my friends in the early 1960s, of Britain as some sort of ancien régime presided over by hereditary power and still clinging to the decrepit trappings of Edwardian gentility.

In many ways Britain was still an Edwardian country. Power was dispersed in self-governing institutions that worked by an unwritten, sometimes unspoken consensus. But these institutions operated in a society that was deeply hierarchical, and this was reflected in the protest move-ments of the time. A host of new Marxist organisations emerged from the late Sixties onwards, but they included very few industrial workers. According to Vinen, the security services estimated that among quarter of a million miners in 1980 there were 15 members of the Militant Tendency, nine members of the Socialist Workers Party and five members of the International Marxist Group. There were fewer Trotskyists in the most important British trade union than at North London Polytechnic. With a few exceptions, revolution was a middle-class avocation.

Gender relations in protest movements mirrored those in society. At the beginning of the Sixties, 593 women were admitted to Oxford and Cambridge as against 4,002 men. Similarly, in a book of 12 essays on student power published in 1969, 11 were by men. While the “Third World” was on everyone’s lips, the politics of race played a minor role. Protest was directed against white minority government in South Africa and Rhodesia and anti-immigrant Conservatives, above all Enoch Powell. There were few signs of the current insistence on the overriding importance of ethnic identity.

 Defining “the long 68” in terms of “the variety of movements that became associated with, and sometimes reached their climax in, 1968 but that cannot be understood with exclusive reference to that year”, Vinen writes:

It had several components: generational rebellion of the young against the old, political rebellion against militarism, capitalism and the political power of the United States, and cultural rebellion that revolved around rock music and lifestyle. These rebellions sometimes interacted, but they did not always do so. Sixty-eight often subverted or circumvented existing structures… Sometimes, it seemed that 68 subverted itself and that the movements of the early 1970s –women’s liberation, gay liberation and some of the organisations devoted to armed struggle – were rebellions against, as well as continuations of, aspects of 68.

Sixty-eight was all of these things, and none of them entirely. Certainly it was not merely a generational protest. For one thing, by no means all of the protestors were old. In a celebrated incident, a student demonstrator at Berkeley in 1964 shouted, “Don‘t trust anyone over 30.” But Tom Hayden, the student activist who drafted the 1962 Port Huron statement that signalled the start of the campus rebellion, was 29 years old in 1968. Among the leaders of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), which Hayden helped found, those born after the Second World War were a minority even in the late Sixties. One of the leaders of anti-Vietnam Americans in Paris, Maria Jolas – scion of a wealthy Kentucky family, who for a time occupied the house in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises that became the home of General de Gaulle – was born in 1893. In Britain, one of the most vocal protesters against the Vietnam war was Lady Dorothea Head, daughter of the Earl of Shaftesbury and wife of a Tory politician, who was born in 1907.

A remark made by de Gaulle in 1966, when asked to comment on a report on “youth”, summed up the limitations of a purely generational analysis. “One must not treat the young as a separate category”, the General observed. “One is young and then one ceases to be so.” François Mitterrand made a similar point when he told a student group in 1968, “Being young doesn’t last very long. You spend a lot more time being old.” Student bodies were not uniformly left-wing in any traditional sense. Among the 88 per cent of 490 students beginning their studies at the University of Essex in 1968, only one per cent described themselves as “left Labour” and a further one per cent as “centre Labour”. The number who identified themselves as “Powellites” was the same as those who identified themselves as Labour. At the same time, 26 per cent saw themselves as “non-party moderate left”, five per cent as “non-party extreme left” and four per cent as anarchists. Rather than expressing a generational divide, 1968 represented a break with the Old Left, which for many protestors in France and America had become too involved in cold war struggles and, particularly in the US, too closely aligned with trade unions.

 Links between student radicalism and youth culture were real enough, but can easily be exaggerated. Jean-Luc Godard, at the time going through a Maoist phase, filmed the Rolling Stones recording “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968, but there is no reason to suppose they shared Godard’s views. As Vinen notes, when the Stones moved to France it was not in order join the Gauche prolétarienne but to escape the Inland Revenue. A more genuine connection with political radicalism existed in the folk music of the Fifties.

This does not mean 68ers were not inspired by popular culture. Among those who turned later to more explicitly insurrectionary strategies, cinematic portrayals of violence were a significant influence. A former member of the Red Brigades confessed that he was initiated into political violence by watching films, “especially American cinema where people do not die for real”. In Britain the Angry Brigade signed some of its pronouncements, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. The favourite film of Andreas Baader, one of the founding figures in the terrorist Red Army Faction (also called the Baader-Meinhof Group), was Sergio’s Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Many who had been radicalised in the late Sixties were influenced by crime fiction, and some turned to writing it. The communist activist and writer of detective stories Dominique Manotti believed that May 68 was “the founding event” for authors like herself. The Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, author of the best-selling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was a 68er at the age of 14, and six years later joined a Trotskyist group.

***

Only small numbers of 68ers were drawn to violence, and here the differences between the four 68s Vinen examines – American, French, British and West German – are important. Germany, where the left made much of the horrific legacy of Nazism, was also the country where segments of the far left veered to the far right. When a synagogue was bombed on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Vinen reports, one of the radical left groups produced a pamphlet called “Shalom and Napalm”. Others suggested that the supposed capitalist traits of Jews made them partly responsible for their fate under Nazism. The lawyer Horst Mahler, a founder member of the Red Army Faction who later joined the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, was convicted of Holocaust denial and spent several years in prison, returning to gaol when, after fleeing to Hungary, he was deported back to Germany.

In the US, violence had mainly been directed against property by the Weather Underground and seems to have been used mostly for defensive purposes by the Black Panthers. It started to subside when Nixon began to extricate the US from Vietnam.

In France it did not take long before revolutionaries became respectable political figures. Régis Debray was able to shelter Baader and Meinhof in his Paris apartment when they were on the run because he knew his political connections would protect them from police raids. By 1981, Debray had an office in the Élysée Palace as an adviser to President Mitterrand.

Aside from armed struggles in Northern Ireland and terrorist attacks by the Provisional IRA on the mainland, radical politics ceased to be linked with violence in Britain when the Angry Brigade, probably never a very cohesive force, faded from view in the early Seventies.

***

The 68ers played little part in the industrial conflicts of the Seventies and Eighties. Sixty-eight had a more lasting legacy in the Nineties, when former 68ers – Joschka Fischer, Bill Clinton and Jack Straw, among others – held high political office as avowed reformists. Significantly, none of the 68ers produced anything like a systematic critique of the economic system they rejected. The closest approximations were Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life and Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, both of which appeared in 1967. Oddly, Vinen does not discuss either of these books, although they were widely read in France, Britain and the US at the time.

The two thinkers were distinctive in noting how movements formed in opposition to capitalism were eventually absorbed by it. Ironically, this was nowhere more true than in the case of their own short-lived Situationist movement, which had its most enduring influence in the worlds of fashion and advertising.

In some ways the 68ers helped capitalism overcome its cultural contradictions. “If it was to survive,” Vinen observes, “capitalism needed to produce consumers as much as producers.” The hedonistic lifestyle of the late Sixties produced consumers in large numbers. Vinen cautions that, “One can make too much of soixante-huitard capitalism.” Few of those that had been anti-capitalist in 1968 went on to embrace capitalism in any positive manner. But a cult of individuality, which co-existed among many 68ers with a theoretical admiration for collectivist economics, played a definite part in opening the way to Thatcher and Reagan.

As Vinen points out, the term “68” was not much used in 1968. Many revolution-aries assumed the year was only a prelude to an enormous social upheaval. In one sense, this proved to be the case. In the decades that followed, society was radically transformed in ways the 68ers had not imagined. Capitalism spread throughout the world and extended its reach into every corner of society. In Britain, the archaic self-governing universities against which students and their sympathisers in the faculty had revolted became subservient to market imperatives and government directives. Everywhere, the middle classes became more insecure even as their incomes increased.

A revolution had come to pass, but not the one the 68ers expected. Most went on to spend the rest of their days struggling to maintain a bourgeois way of life that in 1968 they had taken for granted and rejected. 

John Gray’s “Seven Types of Atheism” is published by Allen Lane on 26 April

The Long ’68: Radical Protest and its Enemies
Richard Vinen
Allen Lane, 446pp, £20

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special