Where are all the revolutionaries of 1968? They are long gone | Martin kettle
Ahis weekend, I was sitting in a Parisian cafe, sipping coffee and reading in Liberation the memories of the events of May 1968. Fifty years ago to the day, more than 300,000 people had marched in these streets to demand the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle, one of the high places of the rebellion. One of the banners waved high in the crowd announced: “Those in power retreat! Now they must fall!
Today, what must be said of 1968 is that it was indeed a liberation, but that it was also a failure. In 1968, it was as if the European world was coming back to life after a long hibernation. Society, ideas and culture changed for the better afterwards. Above all, women’s equality flourished. But the political and economic power has not changed. Those in power may have backed down in 1968, certainly in the case of De Gaulle. But they did not fall. Most of them were quickly re-elected.
May 1968 was followed, for the most part, by electoral victories of the right, not the left. Georges Pompidou, Richard Nixon and Ted Heath were all in power in 1970. Franco survived in Spain. The Andreotti era began in Italy. Leonid Brezhnev’s tanks crushed the Prague Spring. It was only in West Germany, where 1968 expresses a very particular account with the post-1945 era, that the social democrat Willy Brandt came to power as an agent of change.
The political failure of 1968 was not only reflected in the following elections. The failure was also historic on a larger scale. Half a century later, it is perhaps difficult to understand how much 1968 felt at the time as a political renaissance – and how much that renaissance was sought after by the post-war left. Across Europe, but particularly in France, events were an often conscious reaffirmation of a form of revolutionary left politics with deep roots and echoes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This policy aspired to usher the frustrated and satisfied working class into a new era of militancy. This happened in the streets and in the factories. He attacked the police and other institutions of power. He sometimes used and constantly romanticized violence. It draws directly from the legacies of 1789 and 1917.
Some of this was further energized by what were then called Third World movements, particularly in Cuba and Vietnam. In the end, however, this revolutionism reversed almost nothing. The events in Paris were not the revival of the French or Russian revolution. May 1968 was less the beginning of a new form of politics than the end of an old form. It had more to do with the defeated Peoples’ Spring of 1848 than with the dubious achievements of the Jacobins or the Bolsheviks.
We all still live with this heritage. After 1968, the revolutionary tradition in Europe was largely exhausted. No democracy, then or subsequently, was overthrown. Underground groups, mainly in Germany, Italy and the Basque Country, are turning to more extreme violence. The IRA revived in Northern Ireland. Yet even that did not last. The guns finally fell silent. Instead, the nations that changed most radically in Europe were authoritarian states – not democratic states supposedly tolerant of repression.
In 1968, many of us young people on the streets of Western Europe called themselves revolutionaries. No one serious says that anymore. Yet, as Jeremy Corbyn’s era shows, a romantic attachment to aspects of that old revolutionism still has appeal for some.
What I still retain from the minor British experience of 1968 is the Europeanism of the time. The movies we watched were European. So were the political authors who fascinated us. Paris was still the largest city in Europe. In 1968 we bounced off Whitehall doing Ho Chi Minh hop to the chant of “Paris, London, Rome, Berlin / We’ll fight and we’ll win”. Four European benchmarks, please note.
In fact we fought a bit but we didn’t win. In 1968, I was outraged when revered Italian Communist Giorgio Amendola denounced the student revolutionaries as enemies of the labor movement. Today, I am much closer to Amendola’s point of view. He understood that the revolutionary moment had passed. He saw that the future of the left lay in reformism and alliances. He understood how progressive movements should work in democracies. After 1968, Amendola spent the rest of his political life pushing for principled compromises within the left to enable him to govern. That hasn’t changed.
It can be said that it is not only the romanticism of the barricades that has disappeared now. Even the very idea of the grassroots movement is debatable. Extra-parliamentary politics makes little sense, and even peaceful protests don’t change governments.
Chartists used to argue over whether to use “physical strength” or “moral strength” to achieve their goals. 1968 marked the death of the politics of physical force. They should not be mourned. Our real problem today is that the politics of moral force is so weak too.