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You Had to Be There | The Nation

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You Had to Be There

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In February 1968 the Situationists for once managed to be tactical and concrete enough to win an election, albeit only to a seemingly inconsequential body, the student union at the University of Strasbourg. They proceeded to dissolve the union and use its funds to issue their famous pamphlet calling for a global uprising. A judge was brought in to evict them and restore order. He explained--it was now March--that in three weeks of power the accused had devoted themselves to "the abolition of work, total subversion and a worldwide proletarian revolution with 'unlicensed pleasure' as its only goal...sinking to outright abuse of their fellow students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, and the governments and political systems of the entire world." Actually, a pithy summary of their case.

Robin Blackburn spent 1968 in Havana, Prague, Berlin and London.

About the Author

Robin Blackburn
Robin Blackburn, distinguished visiting professor at the New School for Social Research and former editor of New Left...

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With the eviction of the Strasbourg Situationists, the baton passed to a small group of self-described enragés at the new college at Nanterre, outside Paris, who had demanded--a modest installment of "unlicensed pleasure"--the right to cook in their dorms, change the furniture, discuss politics and entertain visitors of the opposite sex. Failing to prevent some of the students from putting their demands into effect, the authorities called in the cops. As Kurlansky observes: "How twenty-five mischief makers turned into a force of one thousand... [and] in a matter of weeks became fifty thousand and by the end of May ten million, paralyzing the entire nation, is a testament to the consequences of over-zealous government. Had the government from the beginning ignored the enragés, France might never have had 1968." The workers had their own quarrel with the government--it had just hiked social security payments while cutting back benefits--but it was those pictures of police clubbing students that triggered a wave of demonstrations, strikes and factory occupations.

The tactic of the occupation had up to this point been used only on a small scale and in an episodic way--for example the occupation of Sproul Hall at Berkeley in 1964--but now it embraced hundreds of colleges and thousands of factories. It was to spread to countries like Britain, which, unlike the United States, had never known the sit-in strike. Kurlansky hardly discusses Italy, though the scale of factory occupations became even wider than in France that year. The occupation tactic--spread by TV images more than leftist agitation--seemed to embody the ideal of a self-managed society in which citizens could begin to regain control of their everyday life.

The 1968 rebellions came at the end of two decades of extraordinary growth throughout the West, but there was much latent dissatisfaction with the often contradictory and alienating results of consumerist affluence. As an American politician put it:

We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the Gross National Product. For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. The Gross National Product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads....It includes...the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children... And if the Gross National Product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike.

As many will have realized, this was not an early salvo from Ralph Nader but one of the last perorations of Bobby Kennedy, the former Joe McCarthy aide who, as Attorney General, permitted the FBI to tap Martin Luther King Jr.'s phone. By the time he came to utter these words he was a presidential candidate who had been changed by the civil rights struggle and the mounting evidence of disaster in Vietnam.

There was scarcely a week, let alone a month, in 1968 when images of the pitiless US war in Vietnam did not provoke demonstrations and other solidarity actions, both in US cities and campuses and around the world. The best-reported demos were in Europe, where a wing of the established order thought Washington must be stopped. Kurlansky quotes the words of a liberal French editor, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, alarmed at the US combination of technological and military prowess with a messianic sense that only its own way of life could save the world: "If Europe, like the Soviet Union, is forced out of the running, the United States will stand alone in its futuristic world. This would be unacceptable for Europe, dangerous for America and disastrous for the world.... A nation holding a monopoly of power would look on imperialism as a kind of duty, and would take its own success as proof that the rest of the world should follow its example."

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