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8 May 2008

Eric Hobsbawm on 1968

The Marxist historian casts his eyes back 40 years

By Eric Hobsbawm

Nineteen sixty-eight was obviously an unforgettable year and not purely because of the student movement. The Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive were accelerating and developments in Czechoslovakia culminated in the Prague Spring, which was then strangled in the summer. I was in Paris in early May, so was vividly aware of the student protests and had myself taken part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations in London. Through friends I felt very much involved in the Prague Spring, and can remember the tremendous trauma of discovering in the hills of Wales that the Russians were moving in on Prague.

Nineteen sixty-eight is a place full of memories; whether they’re the same for someone of my age and a younger generation is questionable. For the younger generation, 1968 was a great awakening to a world on the brink of revolution, whereas the middle-aged like me never expected a revolution to occur in western Europe, or America. In spite of differing attitudes at the time, the spirit of the students was striking. In the early 1960s I taught in the United States and in 1967 was teaching at MIT, so I was keenly aware of the SDS and other US student groups. Nevertheless the novelty of the student movement was most striking in Europe and in particular in France and Germany, where students sought to crush all ideological borders. In Yugoslavia, Tito was forced to make some concessions to the students. Meanwhile student protest in Poland brought about a nasty crisis in which the anti-Semitism of the government provoked widespread emigration among the remaining Jewish intellectuals. Even on the other side of the Atlantic in Mexico, protesters were shot down in large numbers on the eve of the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Politically, a post-1968 political movement did not really develop. Although a lot of people became politicised on the left in ’68 and many subsequently rose to prominence in their countries, nothing much changed politically. The Prague Spring is an excellent example of the limits of the student movements. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the belief in a revolution at the time was not an old-fashioned belief. It was felt to be a cultural revolution, and as such it was major and irreversible.

The student activity of ’68 did produce a new reservoir of politicians – the Trotskyites and Marxists who became leading figures of the Labour Party and are still in business. This characteristic of student activists joining the political left wing eventually led to a polarisation of the memory of the decade, whereby people on the right rejected the memory of 1968, in some instances in a very hysterical way.

The political heritage of ’68 is relatively minor; the cultural heritage is most important. The women’s movement changed universities, which had previously been uninterested in women’s history. What does survive goes much beyond universities, including the belief that from the Sixties life changed completely – the rules changed. This process began before ’68. In 1965, for the first time, the women’s clothing industry in France produced more trousers than skirts; ’68 was part of this development, but the transformation of the rules of life and what is and isn’t permissible had its roots earlier in the decade.

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Nineteen sixty-eight was one of many political and cultural experiences in my long life. But for a lot of people who were young in those days it was the central experience, and to that extent thus natural that it should be celebrated. How we judge it is something different.

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Eric Hobsbawm is a Marxist historian