By Geoffrey Wheatcroft (THE GUARDIAN, 01/05/08):
They say that if you can remember the 1960s you weren’t there, but everyone seems to remember 1968. At any rate, you will find plenty of decrepit old soixante-huitards gathering round this May Day, wheezing and arthritic, to recall the days of our hot youth. For some of my contemporaries, that year remains what the Spanish civil war was said to have been for an earlier generation, the emotional experience of their lifetime. Even for those of us who sat on the touchline watching the political turmoils of that summer with ironic detachment, 1968 is still a sharp memory, and there’s no doubt that it had profound and lasting legacies.
But they were not the ones expected or intended. In France, where it really did seem for a moment as though the foundations of society were shaking that May, one of the rebel leaders was André Glucksmann. He now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury”, which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally”. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.
Another rapturous revolutionary moment in 1848 had led to years of reaction, and the brief orgasmic thrill of 1968 was followed by years of post-coital depression. Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play- acting. We should have remembered what AJP Taylor said about 1848: it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.
When the horrible old Stalinists of the French Communist party said this was “street party, not revolution”, they had a point – as one more of those rebels, Daniel (Dany le Rouge) Cohn-Bendit, may have conceded with his bons mots as they tore up the street: “Under the cobblestones, the beach.” No, the événements de mai weren’t the June days, and if Marx thought Louis Bonaparte’s coup was history repeating itself as farce, what words would he have found for those spoiled children, with their all-too-accurate slogan, “Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho”?
And in Britain, a mob of youngsters baiting police horses in Grosvenor Square was a long way from Peterloo. At the time, let alone now, it was hard to listen with a straight face to Street Fighting Man – “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy, / ‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy” – sung by Sir Mick Jagger, as he now so appropriately is. Tariq Ali echoed that song in his memoir of the 60s, Street Fighting Man. Oh, come on, old boy. Back then one could already descry in Tariq the lineaments of the mild and venerable literary gentleman we now esteem.
A full “where are they now” catalogue of soixante-huitards would be most amusing, if unkind. Christopher Hitchens proudly tells us that “Old leftist friends of mine from the 1960s are now on Labour’s frontbench and staunchly defend the overthrow of Saddam Hussein”, which I think may definitely be called an unforeseen outcome; and Dany le Rouge himself is today an MEP unpopular with his fellow Greens for supporting military intervention in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
What were the actual political consequences of those heady months? The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years, with the interregnum of François Mitterand and his unfulfilled promise of radical reform very much the rule-proving exception. Likewise, our kids jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.
Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy – not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.
Just as 1968 foreshadowed the political and economic victory of the right in the form of Margaret Thatcher (not to mention Tony Blair), Ronald Reagan and the implosion of Communism, it also foreshadowed the cultural – or emotional or sexual – victory of the left. The only serious legacy of the Wilson government may have been the libertarian reforms of the laws on homosexuality, divorce and abortion; and the dramatic changes in society since, for good or bad, really did stem from those times.
And yet even there, the story is ambiguous. If one was clearheaded at the time, it was notable that the old left hated 1968 even more than the right did, and they may well have grasped events correctly from their own perspective. Those youthful frolics elicited a stern rebuke from Eric Hobsbawm, under the memorable headline, “The revolution is puritan”. He meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so. Was he wrong? Since 1968, the west has grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed, and even that cultural victory of the left hasn’t turned out as intended, especially in terms of the sexual revolution that was arguably the true legacy of the age. The “bourgeois triumphalism” of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos which even the governor of the Bank of England now condemns, and our materialistic individualism, might just have had their roots 40 years back.
But then the sexual revolution has had its own unintended effects. Civil partnerships could be one inheritance of the 60s, and another might be the way that, as a parliamentary committee learned on Tuesday, jobcentres have been offering 17-year-old girls work as strippers and lap-dancers. The latest issue of Prospect magazine has a symposium on 1968 in which Josef Joffe says the real revolution was the pill, which has “changed the world more profoundly” than any invention since the steam engine. But the other side of that coin is what Jean Seaton, in the same colloquy, calls the damaging consequences of 1960s individualism today when “everything is sexualised”.
At the time, 1968 seemed like fun. But maybe Orwell got it right again when he said gloomily: “Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist.”