You Had to Be There

You Had to Be There

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


Old soldiers, they say, don’t die, they just fade away. For some reason 1968 hasn’t died, nor has it faded away. As Mark Kurlansky’s book testifies, it is still with us, alive and kicking. Surely we don’t need yet another book on the événements? Leftists and radicals can be encouraged that the writer of a best-seller, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, sees an audience for a new book on 1968. Unlike the last spate of books, which appeared in 1998, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World doesn’t even mark an obvious anniversary. The fondness of publishers for such works comes, no doubt, from the power of demographics–1968 being the baptism of the first wave of baby boomers–and of their own memories. Sixties glamour can still make converts in surprising places–for instance, the authorities at Columbia University, who, in a film celebrating the institution’s 250th anniversary, proudly cited its 1960s rebellions, so much deplored at the time, as one more proof that Columbia leads the way.

“An attempt at objectivity on the subject of 1968 would be dishonest,” writes Kurlansky, who was twenty that year, “of the generation that hated the Vietnam War, protested against it, and has a vision of authority shaped by the memory of the peppery taste of tear gas.” He uses press reports, memoirs and interviews to put together a story that works its way through the calendar, from January to December, by way of demos, general strikes, insurrections, assassinations, manifestos and mass resistance, ranging from Saigon to Chicago, Paris to Prague, Berlin to Mexico City. By the end, the old order has been shaken but is still very much in place. Yet a new sensibility is evident and a new perspective glimpsed.

While 1968 was a remarkable year, the only way to make sense of it is to insert it into some larger narrative of the 1960s and the twentieth century as a whole. For Tom Nairn, 1968 announced The Beginning of the End, the title of a short book he published at the time. But the end of what? The postwar “Golden Age”? “Monopoly capitalism”? Stalinism? Patriarchal authority and bureaucracy? A Eurocentric world? A social order defined by material rather than mental production? These all hint at parts of the answer and help to explain why 1968 retains a hold on the imagination, notwithstanding such later turning points as 1989 and 2001. Like Nairn, Kurlansky stresses the centrality of communication in the “global village,” as theorized by Marshall McLuhan. Major events in widely scattered regions–the Tet Offensive, the Paris barricades, the Democratic convention in Chicago, the invasion of Czechoslovakia–were seen around the world in real time, and became mixed up with one another.

In his conclusion, Kurlansky reproduces the photo of Earth spinning in space, with the Moon’s curve in the foreground, transmitted from Apollo 8 in December 1968. “As the craft approached the moon, it turned around and from space sent back to earth the first astonishing photos of our little blue-and-white planet,” he writes. “The television broadcast and photographs from Apollo 8 gave a sense, in this first global year that this, too, like so many other milestones that year, was an event the whole world was watching.” As Kurlansky sees it, the sight of “this planet of blue seas, rich vegetation, and endless strife” prompted a sort of mirror-phase epiphany as humanity saw its abode from space (he compares this to Dante emerging from the underworld at the end of the Inferno). The astronaut Michael Collins later declared: “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of…100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed…. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions…. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.”

Such yearnings were to be encountered in strange places that year, as a long process began that was eventually to transform conservatives into revolutionaries and revolutionaries into conservatives. In 1968 French students and workers put on a faithful, if almost bloodless, simulacrum of a revolution, but its target, de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, was an amalgam of neocapitalist modernity and political ancien régime. The revolt against it celebrated the small-scale and the artisan. The students complained that in the new age of mass higher education they never saw their professors, except occasionally on TV. The utopian slogans of the Situationists–“take your desires for reality,” “under the paving stones lies the beach”–scorned high tech. They were scribbled on walls, or laboriously embossed using the silk-screen process.

The student rebels, defending a pastoral ideal of the past as much as a vision of the future, collided first with the university authorities, then with a police force hardened by the bloody suppression of Algerian demonstrators, and finally with TV cameras that carried images of the confrontation into every French home–and, before long, by satellite, around the globe. By chance, the clashes of May coincided with the first meeting between American and Vietnamese peace negotiators in Paris, so there was a particularly large gathering of international reporters on hand.

The students’ aims combined the libertarian with aspirations to a visionary wholeness and the return of a lost age, articulated at its most radical in the famous Situationist pamphlet denouncing “the poverty of student life.” The impoverishment was cultural as much as material. The state had decreed a rapid expansion of higher education but not the cash needed to sustain the ideal of the university: “Once upon a time, universities were respected: the student persists in the belief that he is lucky to be there. But he arrived too late…. A modern education system demands mass production of students who are not educated and have been rendered incapable of thinking.”

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.

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.”

The national narratives of 1968 have to be understood in a global and epochal context. Africa’s decolonization meant that battles over civil rights in the American South–and the riots erupting in Northern slums–were far more embarrassing to Washington than ever before. The new women’s movement first gained some public notice in the United States in the 1960s with the founding of NOW, though this was only a hint of the wider horizon of “women’s liberation” that was to come. If the French took the 1968 Oscar for reviving political revolution, then the second-wave feminists of North America undoubtedly carried off the prize for carrying forward what Juliet Mitchell called “the longest revolution,” the emancipation of women.

Kurlansky furnishes thumbnail sketches of several of the countries that witnessed upheaval in 1968; Czechoslovakia, Mexico and the United States, in addition to France, are given a chapter or more. The impact of China and Mao’s Cultural Revolution is seriously underplayed, but Cuba is brought in because of Che Guevara (killed in 1967, of course, but swiftly adopted as a left-wing martyr and international icon of revolutionary virtue). Guevara’s concept of a new “Socialist Man” depicted an ideal that had unexpected points of contact with the sentiments quoted earlier from Bobby Kennedy. Kurlansky also brings in Cuba because of the significant gatherings there, notably the January International Cultural Congress. He doesn’t seem to know that when some of the American delegates met with Castro, the Cuban leader took out a large map of Chicago and quizzed them on what was likely to happen at the Democratic Party convention.

While acknowledging that the official position of Students for a Democratic Society, the main US New Left organization of the time, was “critical support” for the Cuban Revolution, Kurlansky claims that many SDS members were seduced by the revolution’s social achievements, to the point of justifying Castro’s dictatorship as a necessary evil given the US siege against the island. In fact, while visitors pointed to Cuba’s successes, they were often rather critical of the Cuban government, of its voluntarism and military model of organization–K.S. Karol’s widely read Guerrillas in Power being a case in point. Somehow those who fell under the influence of China and Maoism found it more difficult to mix support and criticism, opting instead for starry-eyed praise and myth-making. While there was a Mao cult inside and outside China, this was not true of Castro.

Cuba was both culturally and geographically accessible; China was not. (Cuba also had good music and film and great beaches, another contrast with austere Maoist China.) Cuba’s successes and failures were not difficult to identify. Education, healthcare, housing and telephone calls were free, and there was only a nominal charge for public transport. On the other hand, its political system was an emergency affair, with the Constitution of 1940 still supposedly in place. In the first months of 1968 Castro denounced a “micro-faction” of former Cuban Communist cadres and called for the abandonment of slavish attempts to imitate the Soviet model. But by the end of the year, the Cuban leader had endorsed the occupation of Czechoslovakia, souring relations with many New Left supporters. Within a couple of years, many who had attended the 1968 Congress of Intellectuals addressed a public protest to Castro when the Cuban authorities detained the poet Heberto Padilla for a month for “counterrevolutionary” views. For some reason, the extraordinary mayhem of China’s Cultural Revolution–vividly evoked in the recent movie Morning Sun–prompted no such solemn and collective censure from foreign sympathizers of the Chinese revolution.

Kurlansky is not much interested in the intragroup dynamics that gave rise, in some revolutionary subcultures, to the phenomenon of “political correctness.” This was something that perhaps owed a little to the idiom of an older left, but PC now targeted deeply embedded racial and gender assumptions. Young revolutionaries invented a new vocabulary, etiquette and sensibility. I recall talking to a young woman at a Washington gathering addressed by Bill Ayers, a leader of the Weather Underground, who mentioned that she had met a compatriot of mine at a demo the previous day. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Why do you assume that I’m speaking about a man?” she replied, covering me in confusion. (My interlocutor later became a feminist therapist, said to number Princess Diana among her clients.)

The ability of a secretive elite of “stupid white men” to run the world was first exposed to mockery in 1968. By adopting a pro-war plank and anointing Hubert Humphrey as its champion, the Democratic Party furnished the perfect target for a Yippie put-on in Chicago. At a press conference they nominated Pigasus the pig as their candidate. Kurlansky explains that there were really two rival pigs and that, in a further twist, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman could not agree which was the best contender. To those who saw it on TV, Yippie drollery rendered even more incomprehensible the viciousness of Mayor Daley’s club-wielding policemen. The demonstrators chanted “The world is watching you,” but there was no letup.

Kurlansky is too inclined to celebrate American radicals’ weakness for expletives of the “Off the pigs” variety. A movement that fails to express its aims better than this has a problem. The language of European radical leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit in Paris and Rudi Dutschke in West Berlin was different. Of course, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. showed that eloquent leadership carried its own risks. And if European revolutionary thought was more theoretically ambitious, American activists had a stiffer fight on their hands, from the early battles of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in which life and limb were at stake, to the later exertions of a many-sided–and ultimately successful–antiwar movement.

What were the ’68 rebellions really about? The Prague Spring had its 2,000-word statement. The French movement of May, triggered by police brutality, escalated to a frontal assault on Gaullist capitalism. The Situationist slogans spoke the movement’s dreams but the attack on the “personal power” embodied by the Fifth Republic’s presidential system probably evoked the widest popular response. Campus revolts throughout the West attacked US militarism but also sought to achieve “student power” and “participatory democracy.” In the 1960s there was a lot of mileage to be obtained by denouncing the established order for not living up to its own ideals. Just as American SDS stood for Students for a Democratic Society, Czechoslovakia’s Dubcek called for “socialism with a human face.”

The year was experienced very differently in the East, West and Third World, and from country to country, but the convulsions soon became mixed up in people’s minds, and produced unexpected reverberations. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev involuntarily helped Nixon win the election by invading Czechoslovakia. In France, the Communist-led trade unions briefly backed the student uprising, despite the movement’s anti-Stalinism. Allen Ginsberg and Fidel Castro, who had thrown the poet out of Cuba in 1965 for protesting his government’s treatment of homosexuals, made common cause against the war in Vietnam. Kurlansky notes these ironies, but not the curious fact that in 1968 the Communists in France and Czechoslovakia successfully practiced nonviolent direct action, even as some members of the student left were rejecting nonviolence. In France the Communists extracted huge concessions from de Gaulle, while 95 percent of Czechoslovak Communists came out in favor of Dubcek, forcing the Soviets to bring him back for a year. Despite the leverage they had obtained, the French and Czech Communists chose to settle for a paltry compromise.

Of course, 1968 was fueled by powerful utopian and antinomian impulses. As authority was discredited and crumbled, it was necessary to make the world anew. Kurlansky assumes that this was limited to the student rebels, but he underplays the undercurrent of worker radicalism that was important in Europe. When the workers at Berliet, a French truck company, occupied their factory, they rearranged the letters in the sign outside to read Liberté. John Lennon’s “Imagine,” composed shortly after the decade’s end, also memorably captured this 1960s spirit. In previous epochs revolutionaries not only aimed to overthrow capitalism but brandished “nationalization” and socialist plans as pathways to the goal. The revolutionaries of the 1960s were too busy demonstrating against war and imperialism, occupying schools and factories, discovering the fragility of the planet or contesting gender identity to worry much about the specific program of anticapitalism. On the tenth anniversary of 1968, Régis Debray–a Guevarist radical in his youth, now an iconoclastic left-nationalist–complained that the rebels of 1968 had turned out to be as deluded about their real destination as Christopher Columbus, when he famously mistook the Americas for the Indies. Setting sail for Mao’s China, the ’60s revolutionaries had instead landed on the beaches of California, where many succumbed to New Age fancies, exalting individual subjectivity to the point where nothing else counted, neither the constraints of capitalism nor the forms of collectivity needed to allow individuals to flourish. Debray was concerned not just with individual sellouts but a larger impasse.

The uncomfortable element of truth in Debray’s analysis stemmed in part from the eventual defeat of the project of the “self-managed society,” as it had been conceived up to that time. Students and workers could exercise pressure on the authorities by occupying colleges and workplaces, but these turned out not to be society’s commanding heights. And, in a modern economy, polity and media regime, to occupy was not to control. Calling for the abolition of property and money as abstract entities didn’t help when what was needed was to grasp the way they worked and how they could be changed.

It is a weakness of Kurlansky’s book, as it was of the movements of the time, that too little attention is paid to the power-holders, who contained the challenges of 1968 and subsequently launched offensives of their own. In the aftermath of the 1960s, it was to be the right, not the left, that reinvigorated capitalism and the urgency of an ideological struggle to defend and extend it. From their positions on the frontlines against campus revolt, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, and Margaret Thatcher, education minister in 1970, saw the need to rediscover the virtues of the market and roll back a welfare state and an organized capitalism that had both enabled the postwar boom and spawned the 1960s revolts. The neoliberals and neoconservatives were not above stealing the watchwords of their antagonists. The calls for “power to the people,” or for citizens to control their own lives, were adapted to become war cries of the right, by means of the privatization of all aspiration.

The right-wing think tanks were to prove more powerful than the tanks of the Warsaw Pact. Kurlansky quotes Jacek Kuron, the Polish revolutionary of 1989 as well as 1968, as saying, “near tears”:

The one thing I regret is participating in the first government [postcommunist]. My participation helped people accept capitalism…I thought capitalism was self-reforming. It’s not. It’s like Russia–controlled by only a small group because capitalism needs capital. Here now [in Poland] half the population is on the edge of hunger and the other half feels successful.

Reading this book I was prompted to ask myself whether another global upheaval like 1968 could happen again. I came to the conclusion that it is almost inevitable. In France today the two Trotskyist groups that came to the fore in 1968 recently obtained 31 percent support in an opinion poll, ahead of the Socialists as well as the Communists. But this is not the reason another test looms. It is because we really have now reached the interactive stage of the communications revolution. In 1964 McLuhan gave a brilliantly prescient summary of this revolution, in a passage quoted in Nairn’s 1968 essay:

Wealth and work become information factors and totally new structures are needed…. With electronic technology, the new kinds of instant interdependence and interprocess that take over production, also enter the markets and social organizations. For this reason markets and education designed to cope with the products of servile toil and mechanical production are no longer adequate. Our education has long ago acquired the fragmentary and piece-meal character of mechanism. It is now under increasing pressure to acquire the depth and inter-relation that are indispensable in the all-at-once world of electric organization.

All these processes are far more advanced today than they were in 1968. The world is no longer divided by the cold war. It’s true that the Islamic world is culturally resistant to the West, but it is now within the same global communications space. All this persuades me that there is a greater potential today for a type of “global storm” that will see even stranger alignments and interconnections. So perhaps, as we used to say, 1968 was just a rehearsal. The actors were still trusting too much to improvisation and had yet really to understand their parts. Will their successors be better prepared next time?

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