The Legacy of 1968

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

Gerd-Rainer Horn

IN 1989, THE world systems theorists Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein wrote the following five short sentences: “There have only been two world revolutions. One took place in 1848. The second took place in 1968. Both were historical failures. Both transformed the world.”(1)

Even if one may not entirely agree with the purported singularity of these two transnational revolts, and even if the full world historical importance of 1968 may only become evident in hindsight 50 or a 100 years hence, the sentiments expressed in this passage are entirely appropriate. 1968 constituted a major caesura in the history of modern Europe, just as the years 1905, 1917, 1934, 1945 or 1989.

The difficulties lie in determining what precisely may have changed. Few if any of the system-transcending goals of social movement activists in the transnational events of 1968 were translated into concrete reality. On neither side of the former Cold War divide did socialism with a human face or participatory democracy take on more than transitory and fleeting shape.

To be sure the revolutions of 1989, more than 20 years later, ended the era of top-down hierarchical control over society by a narrow bureaucratic elite. But nothing could have been further removed from the spirit of Prague Spring than the wholesale introduction of free enterprise, market fetishism and other measures tailor-made to perpetuate the atomization of society in the face of seemingly anonymous, supposedly uncontrollable powers: earlier on the Stalinist nomenklatura, and now the command structures of international finance capital aided by their political henchmen on location.

Western Europe has even fewer tangible regime changes to point to over the past 40 years. Less than 10 years after 1968, three Mediterranean dictatorships, supporting pillars of the supposedly free world in 1968, Portugal, Spain and Greece, gave way to governments where civil liberties and civil rights are by and large respected. But the Western European activists in 1968 had aimed higher.

A Cultural Revolution?

A small-scale industry of academic and popular writings on 1968 suggests that the key achievements of 1968 can be found instead in the cultural domain. From societies which, certainly in the 1950s, were still thoroughly suffused with conservative Christian values, European countries evolved towards more cosmopolitan communities.

Various taboos, underpinned by restrictive censorship laws regarding images and even printed texts, fell largely by the wayside, creating the space for a far more open engagement with controversial topics than had been available to the wider public hitherto. Stereotypically “traditional” values with regard to child rearing — obedience, orderliness and sublimation — were superseded by values such as mutual respect, cooperation and tolerance.

Still the best summary of this particular view of the impact of 1968 is the opus magnum by the late Arthur Marwick, The Sixties, in which he makes a passionate case for the wide-ranging changes brought about in the course of “the long sixties” in the areas of interpersonal relationships, individual freedoms and life-style choices.

It would be preposterous to deny the veracity of this cultural revolution occurring some time between the late 1950s and, say, the mid-1970s. The argument in this respect gravitates around the question of what made this cultural revolution tick. Were these changes perhaps merely evolutions that were already underway, perhaps simply speeded up by the conflicts in and around 1968?

What was more important in affecting the revolution in sexual relations, and later on in gender relations: second-wave feminism or the invention of the pill? Was not the growing autonomy of young people mostly a result of the parallel growth of affluence? Did not 1968 merely crystallise conflicts that were percolating under the surface?

In the end, then, proponents of this cultural revolution thesis wind up demystifying 1968, which is, on the one hand, all to the good. But such often well-intentioned advocates of this culturalist view minimize the important political dimension of 1968.

With virtually no one left to deny that the frontal political challenges of 1968 mostly failed, now the reading public is told that 1968 was probably entirely unnecessary; had May 1968 not taken place, post-1968 European history would essentially have taken a very similar route to the one it did take. 1968 has, in plain language, become largely redundant.

Some 30 years ago, in the middle of the first wave of post-1968 social history, a number of voices began to complain that social history, a methodology closely linked to a new cohort of historians coming out of the social movement culture of the “red decade” 1966-1976, was in danger of jettisoning its political project. To write social history with the politics left out, or so it was claimed, would be missing the forest for the trees.(2)

But an even younger cohort of historians, the generation coming of age in the 1980s, even if they were trained by the “older” generation of social historians closely linked to the spirit of ’68, did not necessarily heed those warnings. Happily unconcerned with what had come before them, rarely having been part of actually existing, system-transcending social movements themselves, this latest crop of social historians practiced social history for social history’s sake.

Cultural history, in particular the so-called “new cultural history” heavily suffused with postmodern idiom, lends itself to a politics-free discussion of historical processes and events even more easily than the ‘new’ social history of the 1970s-1980s. Thus Arthur Marwick, though no friend of postmodernity himself, could write with a distinctly triumphalist tone as regards the politics of 1968: “There was no economic revolution, no political revolution, no advent of the proletariat to power, no classless society, no destruction of mainstream culture, no obliteration of language.”(3)

Glimpsing New Possibilities

Without wishing to negate the reality of the oft-invoked cultural revolution of the long sixties, whether purposefully willed or a more or less automatic by-product of larger societal changes, it is high time to re-draw attention to the system-transcending dimension of 1968.

For despite Hegel, not everything that is real is rational. The most truly radical potential of 1968 lay precisely in its highlighting of the possibilities of a different organisation of social life in Europe — and, of course, not only in Europe. 1968 pointed the finger at the existence of historical alternatives to dominant patterns of politics, the organization of production, and the shaping of modern culture.

Few of these incipient historical alternatives — one should never tire to repeat — were translated into concrete reality back then. But, at a time when countless pundits rarely tired of proclaiming the supposed end of ideology, les années 68 reinvigorated the belief in the possibility of creating a non-alienated society free of unnecessary hierarchies, unwanted authorities and more or less hereditary elites monopolizing the discourse in most walks of life.

Space does not permit the detailed description of concrete manifestations of the spirit of ’68. I merely wish to point to the creative energies unleashed in the countless instances of institutionalised participatory democracy in the social struggles of the long sixties. The plethora of general assemblies, commissions or subcommissions carrying out specific tasks arising at the moment of heightened social conflicts in universities, factories and office complexes of late industrial societies — whether east or west of the Iron Curtain — is legendary but no less real.

In these countless counter-institutions thrown up in the heat of struggle, voices of individuals could be heard who had previously never dared to speak up in public. This was a promising achievement in its own right. Students who rarely spoke up in classrooms or lecture halls could be heard formulating complex thoughts in short and precise sentences. Workers, rarely used to speaking their minds except in late night barroom settings, suddenly discovered the power of speech.

In the words of Rino Brunetti, a southern Italian migrant working in Turin’s Mirafiori plant: “Our atrophied brains reminded me of those birds one keeps in cages which, when we go to set them free, to let them escape, no longer know how to fly. I was overcome by sadness. I told myself: ‘For God’s sake! We do not know how to use our brains any more because something is blocking them.’ Then, suddenly, in ’69, they began to function again. We broke the cage, and we began to fly again.”(4)

It was an extraordinary process of individual and collective liberation which the French anthropologist and Left Catholic activist Michel de Certeau termed “the capture of speech.” “Last May,” he wrote towards the end of 1968, “speech was taken the way, in 1789, the Bastille was taken.” “At the same time that previously self-assured discourses [by the elites] faded away and the ‘authorities’ were reduced to silence, frozen existences melted and suddenly awoke into a prolific morning.”(5)

Women, equally active as men in most struggles of that era but rarely emerging as spokespersons for the emancipatory movements they were engaged in, seized the moment and created second-wave feminist movements, the latter simultaneously products of — and reactions to — the male-dominated social movements of that time.

Anti-psychiatry, a movement of particular relevance in contemporary Italy, was part and parcel of the spirit of ’68. Movements for the rights of prisoners no longer remained lone voices in the wilderness. Gay liberation movements echoed the concerns of women, instinctively adopting, just like feminists, names for their burgeoning organisations that were, prior to the 1960s, the exclusive domain of Third World liberation movements.

The list could go on. But the case has hopefully been made: 1968 unleashed energies that had been previously stifled in ever so many insidious ways. Forms of social organization that had been the near-exclusive concern of lone theorists in earlier ages were experimented with by large numbers of individuals.

A less hierarchical, less authoritarian, more cooperative and solidaristic society appeared within reach. That such visions remained visions and quickly disappeared in the post-1968 return to the status quo ante should not cloud our analytical capabilities to discern such anticipations of qualitatively different ways of societal interaction where they did occur.

Yes: “There was no economic revolution, no political revolution, no advent of the proletariat to power; no classless society; no destruction of mainstream culture, no obliteration of language.”  But let us not forget the words of three less pessimistic scholars, whom I already cited earlier: “There have only been two world revolutions. One took place in 1848. The second took place in 1968. Both were historic failures. Both transformed the world.”

At a time when talk of the end of ideology has been superseded by banter about the end of history, it is useful to remind ourselves of a period in very recent history when countless nameless individuals wanted everything and where everything seemed possible.


  1. Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, Antisystemic Movements (London: Verso, 1989), 97; emphasis in the original.
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  2. See, most notably, Geoff Eley and Keith Nield, “Why Does Social History Ignore Politics?” Social History 5/2 (1980), pp. 249-272; and Tony Judt, “A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians,” History Workshop Journal 7 (Spring 1979), 66-94.
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  3. Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958- c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 805.
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  4. Citation in Marco Revelli, Lavorare in FIAT: da Valletta ad Agnelli a Romiti. Operai Sindacati Robot (Milano: Garzanti, 1989), 50.
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  5. [“En mai dernier, on a pris la parole comme on a pris la Bastille en 1789.” “En même temps que des discours assurés se taisaient et que des ‘autorités’ devenaient silencieuses, des existences gelées s’éveillaient en un matin prolifique.”] Michel de Certeau, La prise de parole et autres écrits politiques (Paris: Seuil, 1994), 40-41.
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ATC 136, September-October 2008