Remembering 1968

In 1968, French youths took to the streets of Paris demanding change and recognition - and incredibly, they got it. Forty years later, Camille Herreman examines the legacy of the movement and wonders if it has been a victim of its own success.

Features - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 5:06 - 0 Comments

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“Be realistic, demand the impossible,” has safely made its way into clichéd revolutionary discourse – along, perhaps, with Che Guevara’s face. As we post-Thatcher youths of today make our way though what are perhaps the last dregs of our formal education, we do so with highly-set precedents of activism behind us. Slogans and movements, ideals and ideas from the heady 60s and 70s remain etched in today’s culture and in our collective memory. The shift, which changed so much, is now neatly stereotyped, printed and hung up in student rooms or on less than sexy t-shirts.

The black power movement is now celebrated with documentaries and bronze statues: a triumph complete, and Feminism is now a dirty, (or worse, irrelevant) word. The Vietnam war is used to evoke notions of presidential competence within the republican party and the student movements of ’68 can be nostalgically perused through the book shelves of all major literature retailers in France- a 40th anniversary special edition of course.

The 1960s in all their commotion have officially been quartered and hung up to dry, available at a good price for anyone with nostalgic left-leaning desires for a time long gone. It is always comfortable to look at rose-tinted revolt when the issues seem no longer relevant- race and gender inequality, a US- waged war and public discontent are obviously moments long gone and strangely they continue to interest us. This very article was to be printed in May 2008 – in recognition of those forty years gone since Parisian students took to the streets and halted the city in its tracks, responding to the non-democratic patriarchal state that France was becoming. The May edition of Ceasefire was delayed due to the unfortunate arrest of our editor under the terrorism act, but I shan’t make any obvious, indulgent or uncomfortable connections to the continuing relevance of the defence of civil liberties.

There are many who wish they could have seen that time and I am certainly a little envious of my mother’s or grandfather’s experiences on the streets of Paris. This is perfectly reasonable based on an appreciation of the events of the era- the gradual transformation of many societal groups’ role and rights in Western society. But this desire to have been there becomes skewed, and indeed dangerous, if it is based on a notion that ’68 presented some kind of last-chance saloon for voyeurs of radical politics. This is what Christopher Hitchens describes as “the last gasp of red-flag socialism.” He explains, “I thought 1968 was the beginning of something. Later, I understood that I had instead been part of the end of something.” He writes of his experiences in Oxford during that famous month of May but frames his experiences in defeatist rhetoric that is endemic of disillusioned former radicals who have lost faith in the effectiveness of social movements.

These movements are nearly always presented sealed: the fate of it is complete, or failed and generally, over. That DeGaulle was not overthrown and replaced by 20 year olds and that the French movement stopped as quickly as it started (due to new deals for workers and appeasement strategies) should not detract from the successes of the time – this needn’t be a debate between revolt, revolution and reform.

With victories achieved often comes the ‘completion’ of a movement that can now be admired from afar- preferably with somber voiceovers from a European white man. The events of the time are inevitably, obviously and beautifully appropriated by the mainstream. In parallel to what Adbusters describes as the “death of cool” (the use of alternative, underground and fringe movements as a tool to sell products commercially) the student riots of Paris, or the womens’ movement or the black power movement have all been repackaged, neatly and expensively into ‘liberal’ or ‘up to date’ ideas that come naturally to the majority of us today.

Collective memory

But don’t worry, all of this indicates the success and impact that such actions have had on wider society. The manufacture of a collective mainstream appreciation of events occurs only after thousands mobilize. Those values – whether equality, or emancipation, or simply liberty – filter through eventually so that most of of us, from many facets of the political spectrum, assume a hazy memory of fights once fought and (now-deemed) just causes.

In 1968 Paris, thousands of students, and later workers (10 million of them), took to the streets in a revolt against the Gaullist establishment, capitalist power and the struggle for a new world order at the end of WW2. Fighting against the idea of a patriarchy (personified by then-president de Gaulle) and control, in May of 1968 the rubbish piled high on the streets as students and workers united in an exhilarating demand for change. Le Monde journalists wrote their paper in the morning and then sold it on the streets themselves in the afternoon, providing information on how movement was progressing (much to the dislike of their older, conservative readers.) Acclaimed existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre interviewed a student leader for the left-leaning publication Liberation: the world was turned on its head, and student voices held more aplomb than ever.

Evidently campaigners of the time, the world over, now find themselves in extraordinarily different socio-political situations after forty years. In 1968, and for years after, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and their families suffered terrible humiliation and persecution at the hands of both authority and fellow citizens in the United States. This was due to their defiant, then outrageous and now iconic stand at the Mexico Olympics, the world famous black power salute. Today their figures stand 22ft high in bronze at their university. Second wave feminism was only just getting to its feet by this point and relations of post-war and post-50s authority- for example in France – were faltering under the surface before “the events” broke out. But the greatly positive changes evoked in that era, which create the contrast between then and now, should take nothing away from the contemporary potency of these movements, of how relevant they remain in struggles that persist today. The angle of analysis that focuses on what is buried with ’68 feeds into ideas of radical left-wing demise, and with this the conceptualization of a completed struggle allows for neat and nostalgic presentations of events.

Although we may find commemorations of activism intrinsically based on conclusions, this construct is preferably enjoyed with a pinch of salt. Those neat new packages of social movements must avoid any unattractive trimmings (activists that were, say, ‘too militant,’), and the manufacturing process of an attractive collective memory may take some time, (it took 37 years before the bronze statues of black civil rights activists Carlos and Smith were erected). But you may look forward to the final package being delivered eventually, shiny and new, just in time for your own children to hang it up on their own bedroom walls, with little knowledge of the exhilaration, work and people power these collective memories take to create.

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