Humanity's last rage

Was it a great beginning . . . or just the final great street festival before the darkness closed in

Asked which historical era I would most like to be reborn in, I would answer the late 18th century, the age of Rousseau and Voltaire, Jefferson and Franklin, Paine and Charles James Fox. It must have been a breathtaking age in which to live, as centuries-old power structures and ways of thinking were challenged and undermined. No idea seemed unthinkable, no possibility beyond realisation. I had to settle for 1968 instead, a distant echo, and perhaps history's final echo, of 1789. From Beijing to Belfast, Chicago to Colchester (yes!), Paris to Prague, the world for a few months obeyed the injunction on the walls of the Latin Quarter: "Be realistic - demand the impossible."

The proximate causes and intellectual inspirations of what the French called "les événements" were many and various. What they had in common was that they were initiated by students, members of the first post-Hiroshima generation, with Strontium-90 in its bones.

As a very young (23) reporter, I was assigned to cover and interpret the events of 1968 as they touched Britain. It was assumed, I suppose, that since I had recently been a student I was best placed to make sense of a phenomenon that baffled the older generation, and particularly liberals and leftists. "What do the students really want?" editors asked. To which the only honest answer was that they wanted to tear everything down and start again, preferably with a new model of humankind. This wasn't a conventional uprising with demands for more food, more elections or more time off. The students weren't concerned with the means of pro duction only, but also, as one of their gurus, Ernst Bloch, put it, with "the power of love and of light".

In the eyes of the '68ers, state socialism in the east and representative democracy in the west had both failed. Both were corrupt, authoritarian, militarised and bureaucratic. Liberal intellectuals - all professors were "cretins", observed On the Poverty of Student Life, a key text for the French and German students - and revolutionary socialists were equally guilty of hypocrisy and betrayal. Only six years earlier, the world had faced nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis. When leaders of the world's most powerful nations could calmly contemplate the annihilation of civilisation, it didn't seem unreasonable to propose the destruction of everything that had led to this prospect.

The '68ers acknowledged that western democracy seemed preferable to the eastern alternative. But it was, they argued, a cruel illusion.

Workers in the west were seduced by what another guru, the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, called "repressive tolerance". Freedom of speech, Marcuse wrote, "was granted even to the radical enemies of society, provided they did not make the transition from word to deed, from speech to action". Free election of masters had not abolished the masters or the slaves and, if there was greater material equality, it hid continuing inequalities of power and control, which were enhanced by technology. Nor had mass prosperity abolished alienation. Work was still controlled by impersonal, inhumane forces, its routines and purposes determined from above.

Moreover, capitalism had extended control beyond the workplace into private life and even into humanity's soul. It was transforming reality. The workers' passivity was guaranteed by what Guy Debord, a leading light in the situationist movement, termed "the society of the spectacle", a mighty machine based on advertising, fashion, film, television and the press. "Waves of enthusiasm for particular products," observed Debord, "are propagated by all the communications media. A film sparks a fashion craze; a magazine publicises night spots which in turn spin off different lines of products." Faddish gadgets proliferated so that absurdity itself became a commodity.

"The spectacle," Debord argued, "is the leading product of present-day society . . . The real world is replaced by a selection of images . . . projected above it." For example, the pop ulace was besotted by stars, "spectacular representations of living human beings". By identifying with these "superficial objects", the workers compensated "for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live".

Students were being trained as the technicians and manipulators for this flawed society. They, wrote the authors of On the Poverty, would be the "future petty functionaries", the market researchers, media planners, journalists, PRs and personnel officers. As Alexander Cockburn argued in Student Power (the best introduction to what drove the British student movement), they were learning "techniques of domination", which they had first to practise on themselves without being allowed "to rumble the whole game". Mass higher education was another cunning ploy in the capitalist project; what students learned was "profoundly degraded" from the old high-bourgeois culture. "The modern economic system," declared On the Poverty, "requires a mass production of uneducated students who have been rendered incapable of thinking."

The revulsion from consumerism and its "pseudo-needs" was central to the events of 1968. But the students did not embrace the anti-consumerist societies of the Soviet bloc. They looked to the third world, as it was then called, to save humanity. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, an ally of the Algerian rebels against French rule, was particularly admired. "Leave this Europe," cried Fanon, "where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them." He called on Africa, as it cast off colonial rule, to start "a new history of Man".

The third world provided a new revolutionary force: the guerrilla. He was non-alienated man incarnate who, in his own person, transcended the sterility of existing institutions. Autonomous, non-bureaucratic, non-hierarchical (as the students fondly imagined it), a guerrilla movement in Vietnam was humbling the best-resourced army in the world.

The model was Fidel Castro's insurgency in Cuba. As Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution, another text celebrated among the '68ers, guerrillas did not obey the diktats of a party, with its political lines and commissars. They developed their own political leadership of "fighters like themselves whom they see carrying the same packs on their backs, suffering the same blistered feet and the same thirst".

Spontaneity was all

An uprising forged in the mountains of Cuba might not seem relevant to student gripes in Colchester, Nanterre and Berkeley, but the idea that all the baggage of conventional politics - parties, leaders, policies, programmes - was itself an abomination became very powerful. Spontaneity was all. If students felt like occupying the university refectory, demolishing security gates or shouting down a visiting Tory, they should go ahead without pausing to consider what they hoped to achieve. "Direct action" was politicising, even purifying, and a larger purpose would somehow emerge.

"If a revolutionary movement is to succeed," wrote Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most famous of the Paris rebels, "no form of organisation whatever must be allowed to dam its spontaneous flow." That was the lesson of communism's failure: it wasn't bad leadership that suborned democracy, but "the very existence of leadership".

Conveniently for testosterone-fuelled young men trying to escape the last remnants of the Victorian era, conventional sexual morality was also deemed an anti-revolutionary force. Another well-known guru, Wilhelm Reich, linked psychoanalysis to Marxism. A sexual revolution, he argued, was a necessary precondition for a social one. Sexual restraint, instilled from childhood, made people "anxious, shy, fearful of authority, obedient".

The sexual revolution, some would argue, is among the few important legacies of 1968, and even that was attributable more to the Pill, a product of the modern technology the students despised. It is almost a cliché that the left lost the political and economic battle, but won the cultural and social one. By 1969, Richard Nixon had been elected as the next US president, Charles de Gaulle had reaffirmed his position in France, and the Soviets had restored a grip on Czechoslovakia that would not be relaxed for another 20 years. By 1980, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had launched a revolution that truly changed the world.

In that context, the supposed legacy of 1968 doesn't amount to much: feminism (which was, in any case, barely articulated at the time), sexual freedom, civil rights for minorities, the widening of artistic boundaries, may all be seen as further examples of repressive tolerance. In a world where people buy clothes for their labels, politicians employ image consultants, broadsheet newspapers run supplements on lifestyle and celebrity, and a missing child becomes a media spectacle, Debord's analysis seems astonishingly prescient. His critique is the staple fare of innumerable cultural and media studies courses. Yet established power structures seem more impregnable than ever.

Though the Paris students briefly inspired workers to follow them on to the streets, the rebels mostly failed to provoke the western state to reveal its supposedly violent underlying nature and thus prompt a more general uprising. Rejecting political programmes and organisation, they were left with what Marcuse called "the Great Refusal". He offered, as he acknowledged, "no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and the future". If you accept the rebels' critique, the conclusion is inescapable: 1968 was not a beginning - it was humanity's last rage against the dying of the light, the last great street festival before darkness closed in.

Times of change

  • January

    5:

    Peaceful protesters outside the Lincoln Memorial are charged with conspiracy
  • 31: Tet Offensive launched
  • February

    18: Highest weekly toll in Vietnam: 543 killed, 2,547 wounded

  • 18: 10,000 protest against Vietnam War in West Berlin
  • March

    16: My Lai massacre

  • 17: Police clash with anti-Vietnam demonstrators in Grosvenor Square, London; 200 arrested
  • 31: LBJ announces that he will not seek re-election
  • April

    4: MLK, Jr assassinated

  • 11: The German student leader Rudi Dutschke is shot
  • May

    3-17: Student strikes paralyse France

  • 7: Student unrest at University of Essex
  • June

    3: Andy Warhol shot

  • 4: Robert Kennedy assassinated
  • July

    21: 10,000 in London demonstrate against Vietnam War

  • August

    8: Nixon nominated as president

  • 20: Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia
  • October

    25: Students occupy London School of Economics

  • 27: 250,000 in anti-Vietnam protest in Trafalgar Square
  • 31: LBJ declares total halt to US bombing of North Vietnam
  • November

    5: Nixon elected US president

Research by Jax Jacobsen

Susie Orbach

1968 was an absolutely critical moment. Political and cultural movements came together and changed how one thought and acted personally, emotionally and politically. In 1968, one suddenly found people who were like-minded. I had always admired the civil rights movement in the States and was, in 1968, involved in the anti-Vietnam struggle, but I had not yet approached feminism. The word feminism was being spoken as a whisper with an unprescribed meaning.

In 1968, I moved to New York, drawn by what was happening there. The city was full of a large number of people moving together, coming of age at a time when we thought that we could change the world and have an impact. That idea and experience has endured, alongside a rather more conventional realpolitik. The '68ers were marked by an exuberance and resilience in the face of the appalling political changes of the Thatcher years.

Susie Orbach is an author and psychotherapist

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything