Explaining 1968

Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Explaining 1968

I have been trying to explain 1968 to 2008. It has not been easy—and not just because I was barely 4 years old in May 1968. Students today seem, to put it mildly, bemused by the fortieth anniversary of les événements de soixante- huit. “I was here in ’68,” enthused a parent who sat in on my lecture on the subject at Harvard a few months ago. “I remember the occupation of University Hall.” His daughter gave him the look my teenage daughter gives me when I try to explain the impact the Sex Pistols had on me when I was her age.

Harvard was not, of course, one of the epicenters of the higher-education earthquake of 1968 such as Berkeley, Columbia, Nanterre, or Berlin’s Free University. But Harvard was not without its seismic tremors, and it will serve as a microcosm of 1968 as it is conventionally understood by historians, not to mention the many journalists, filmmakers, and others who this year commemorated the baby boomers’ annus mirabilis. At its heart was the student New Left, a minority of agitators who delighted in forming revolutionary associations (at Berkeley, for example, these included the Free Speech Movement, the Congress on Racial Equality, the Vietnam Day Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). There was, unquestionably, a strain of Marxism in the movement. Particularly in Germany, student leaders such as Rudi Dutschke had read their Herbert Marcuse and talked of opening “the third front” in the war against capitalism by causing “upheaval in the centers of imperialism.” Yet their specific demands were for changes within the system of higher education, not least the rules governing dormitory visits by members of the opposite sex.

Today’s students can see that there was a certain glamour to all this, hard though it may be to take seriously those old photographs of Dad with giant sideburns and a clenched fist. Yet—partly because they take for granted the changes to campus life that came about because of 1968—the present generation struggles to see what exactly it was all for. Weren’t their predecessors worried about their grade-point averages when they went on strike? At a recent visit to Boston University, the former firebrand of Nanterre, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (now a 63-year-old Green Euro MP), was almost apologetic. “You have always to keep in mind that in the 1960s we were students,” he said. “We weren’t afraid of unemployment. We didn’t know AIDS. Climate change, we didn’t know it. The social and ecological disasters of globalization, we didn’t know them.”


So if they weren’t trying to save the planet, what were the ’68ers aiming to achieve? One part of the answer is readily intelligible today. They were protesting against an unpopular overseas war. It is worth reminding today’s students, however, that this was a much bigger conflict than the Iraq war (to which the majority of them are strongly opposed). By the end of 1968, 30,844 U.S. service personnel had been killed in action in Vietnam, 180,730 had been wounded, and 368 were missing—almost ten times more American fatalities than have occurred in Iraq. It is also worth noting that popular support for the war had already dropped below 40 percent in 1968, so that by opposing the war, students were not wholly out of step with public opinion.

On the other hand, the Vietnam War wasn’t the worst conflict that the Cold War could have produced. To my mind, the puzzling thing is that Vietnam managed to arouse so much more student outrage than the nuclear conflict that had come so close to happening just six years before, over Cuba. At that time President John F. Kennedy had been forced to imagine death tolls in the hundreds of millions, not tens of thousands. Yet the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was at a low ebb in the late 1960s.

Looked at more closely, then, 1968 was about much more than opposition to Vietnam. For one thing, the upheavals of that year were by no means confined to a few American and Western European campuses. As the historian Jeremi Suri has shown in his excellent book Power and Protest, there were also revolutionary events in Eastern Europe and in China that clearly had nothing to do with Vietnam. In Prague, dissident intellectuals such as Ludvík Vaculík and Václav Havel had a brief taste of free speech as Alexander Dubcˆek replaced the Stalinist Antonin Novotný and ushered in the Prague Spring. In China, meanwhile, the Cultural Revolution reached its crisis point as Mao suddenly took fright at the anarchic generational war he had unleashed. In both cases, military force had to be used to bring youthful protest under control.

Explaining 1968

As the Red Army tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and as the People’s Army fought a mini civil war with the Red Guards, the student Left in the West was confronted with a horrible reality: the regimes that espoused Marxist ideology were far more brutally repressive than the governments of the capitalist world.

That would have been a fatal blow if 1968 had been primarily about Marx or, for that matter, Mao. But clearly it was not. Far more important than Suri’s disjointed and doomed “global revolution” was the cultural “great disruption” of the late 1960s. This disruption involved fundamental shifts in the roles of, and attitudes toward, three groups: youths, black people, and women.

At a recent visit to Boston University, a former French student firebrand, now a 63-year-old legislator, was almost apologetic. “You have always to keep in mind that in the 1960s we were students,” he said.

The soixante-huitards really were “talkin’ ’bout their generation”: the postwar baby boom generation, more numerous and more prosperous than the young had been for many years. The change was especially pronounced in the United States, where the proportion of the population between 16 and 24 years old surged from 11.5 percent in 1957 to a peak of 17.2 percent in 1978. Elsewhere, the increase was smaller, but the peak share of the young in population was even higher. In South America by the end of the 1970s, more than a fifth of the population was aged 15–24.

The effects of the postwar baby boom were amplified by the expansion of higher education. Before the Second World War, only a tiny elite of young people had attended university, even in the United States, where students in higher education accounted for just under 1 percent of the entire population. In Europe, the shares ranged downward from 0.29 percent in Austria to 0.07 percent in Portugal. By 1968 these proportions had increased by factors of between 2.5 and 12.8. In the United States there were now nearly 6.7 million students, equivalent to 3.3 percent of the population.

The expansion of higher education significantly increased the presence at universities of two groups who had previously been discriminated against: African-Americans and women (whose share in the U.S. student population had been significantly reduced by the 1944 GI Bill, which guaranteed veterans a college or vocational education). This helps explain why the “great disruption” ended up being as much about black civil rights and about women’s liberation as it was about Vietnam. Of course, the conditions that produced race riots in Watts, Memphis, and Washington could scarcely have been less like those on Ivy League campuses. Yet it was typical of the way genuinely popular protest influenced elite protest that the promotion of Afro-American studies became a key item of campus radicals’ agenda.

Women’s rights mattered even more, considering that already by 1968 the female proportion of the student body had risen back to 40 percent (compared with 29 percent twenty years before). And perhaps, on reflection, that was the most important component of the great disruption. For surely nothing changed more radically in the lifetimes of the baby boomers than the role of women. Economic discrimination was reduced, divorce made more equitable, contraception and abortion made (in most countries) legal.

Published two years after 1968, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch still strikes me as the indispensable document of that era, not least for its memorably fierce denunciation of the “enemies” of “the revolutionary woman”: “the doctors, psychiatrists, health visitors, priests, marriage counselors, policemen, magistrates, and genteel reformers.” Women, Greer urged, must “stop loving the victors in violent encounters. . . . Women must not marry. . . . Women must reject their role as the principal consumers in the capitalist state. . . . They should use cosmetics strictly for fun . . . and form household cooperatives.”

The Vietnam War wasn’t the worst conflict that the Cold War could have produced. What about the nuclear conflict that came so close to erupting just six years before, over Cuba?

Characteristically for the times, Greer also held out the hope that feminism would make it possible to skip the less appealing coercive phases in the Marxist model of revolutionary progress. “Women’s liberation, if it abolishes the patriarchal family,” she argued, “will abolish a necessary substructure of the authoritarian state, and once that withers away Marx will have come true willy-nilly.” Greer’s “fantasy” was that “it may be possible to leap the steps of revolution and arrive somehow at liberty and communism without strategy or revolutionary discipline.” That one sentence says it all about 1968.


They wanted a revolution. But they wanted a mixed-sex party—a really big one—even more. And that reminds us that the quintessence of the late 1960s was not the barricades in Paris, effective though those were in hastening the downfall of General de Gaulle. Barricades were old hat, a tired re-enactment of 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871. A far more original historical contribution was the open-air rock festival, epitomized by Woodstock. Although it was held a year later, in August 1969, Woodstock was the defining moment for the ’68ers. And the climax of it all was, without question, Jimi Hendrix’s searing, distorted solo version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There he was, 26 years old, black, the son of divorced parents, the only one of five siblings not taken into care, a high school dropout, a convicted car thief, a failed soldier, the father of at least one illegitimate child, a musical genius doomed to die a year later. As Hendrix tortured the American national anthem with all the feedback and tremolo his Fender could produce, the frustrations of a generation were made deafeningly audible.

The student Left in the West was confronted with a horrible reality: the regimes that espoused Marxist ideology were far more brutally repressive than the governments of the capitalist world.

This was protest, not revolution. To see the distinction, take a closer look at the lyrics of the two most overtly political songs produced in 1968 by the era’s two most important pop groups, the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and the Beatles’ “Revolution”:

Well then what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ’n’ roll band?
Cause in sleepy London town,
There’s just no place for a street fighting man.

• • • •

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right . . .

Hardly clarion calls to arm the proletariat. On the contrary, Mick Jagger and John Lennon were spelling out their own deep ambivalence toward both street protest and leftist politics.

And that, we can now see, was wise of them. For if the generation of 1968 had an Achilles’ heel it was precisely the implausibility of their claim to be in some way aligned with the working class. “Why aren’t you millionaires’ kids in Vietnam?” shouted hecklers at some of the early antiwar demonstrations in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a good question. Unlike in the Second World War, the educated elite was underrepresented in, if not quite wholly absent from, the officer class in Vietnam. For most working-class Americans, it was obvious who was doing the more noble work.

The veterans of ’68 really were “talkin’ ’bout their generation”: the postwar baby boom generation, more numerous and more prosperous than the young had been for many years.

And that, surely, explains what seems to me to be the key to 1968—the principal reason why the revolutionary energies of the student radicals were so easily contained. The recently released film Chicago 10 brilliantly re-edits archival footage of the battles between protesters and police that raged in Chicago’s Lincoln Park during the Democratic Party’s 1968 National Convention. The most impressive thing is the obvious relish of the riot police and National Guardsmen as they whack the hippies into submission. Everywhere, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Prague to Peking (as we then called it), the story was the same: the plebeian police always sided with authority against the students, their despised social superiors.

It’s easy to forget, as the soixante-huitards exploit their still dominant place in the Western media to romanticize their youthful antics, that the year 1968 ended with Richard Nixon’s election as president—a victory that owed much to the segregationist George Wallace’s candidacy, which took nearly 10 million votes and five southern states from the Democrats. To be sure, Nixon duly embarked on “Vietnamization” of the war, drawing down U.S. troops and pursuing a negotiated peace with Hanoi. Yet his methods were anathema to the college baby boomers.

Far from ushering in a new era of “liberty and communism,” as Greer had hoped, 1968 was the prelude to a profound political shift, most noticeable in the English-speaking world, which saw conservatism gradually reconstitute itself as a political ideology and the rise to power of conservative leaders who took positive pleasure in denouncing the excesses of the 1960s. The great disruption had not been to everybody’s taste, it turned out.

And there is a moral there for our own time, too. Today’s American students are disproportionately Democrats. They strongly incline towards Barack Obama, a candidate who proudly boasts that he was “too young for the formative period of the 1960s—civil rights, sexual revolution, Vietnam War.” That has led some commentators to predict a “youthquake” in the November election. If 1968 has a lesson for 2008, however, it should be to treat such predictions with caution. Considering the deep unpopularity of his own party at the moment, the man who spent 1968 in a North Vietnamese prison is polling very strong indeed.