Worldwide “Moment of Madness”

Against the Current, No. 196, September/October 2018

Gerd-Rainer Horn

“If you want to synthesize a student revolt in your laboratory, proceed as follows. Take several thousand students of sociology and make them attend lectures in a hall that holds a hundred. Tell them that, even if they pass their examination, there will probably be no job for them. Surround them with a society that does not practice what it preaches and is run by political parties that do not represent the students’ ideas. Tell them to think about what is wrong with society and how to put it right. As soon as they become actively interested in the subject send the police to beat them up. Then stand well clear of the bang and affect an attitude of confused surprise.” — The Times (London), June 1, 1968(1)

THE YEAR 1968 marked one of those exceptional “moments of crisis and opportunity” that periodically occur throughout history and leave a lasting mark on societies. They are characterized by a rapid succession of turbulent events, frequently taking place in multiple countries and not limited to one specific calendar year.

Other such “transnational moments of change”(2) are the years 1848-9, 1917-1923, 1943-1948 and last but not least 1989-90. But 1968 was the first truly transcontinental “moment of madness,”(3) although Western Europe certainly played a crucial role as one of the epicenters of this revolt. What, then, happened in Western Europe to catapult 1968 into such iconic status that even fifty years later, major academic and journalistic attention is bestowed on the analysis and commemoration of this particular transnational moment of change?

The Student Revolt

If there was one literally universal novelty characterizing 1968 in the long view of history, it is the sudden appearance of students as major agents of progressive social change in European and non-European) countries. Militant and prolonged student mobilizations, including campus occupations in virtually every single country of Western Europe, occurred with particular frequency between 1966 and 1968.(4)

What may account for such a novel characteristic of protest cultures in virtually all parts of Europe? Indeed, it is useful to recall that in earlier decades of the 20th century, the pendulum of student politics actively tended to swing to the political Right rather than the Left. The university student government elections were the first elections in Weimar Germany, for instance, in which the Nazis gained substantial majorities in free and fair electoral contests. This was long before the Great Depression hit home.

Why did the pendulum swing to the left in the course of the 1960s? Certainly, the phenomenal extension of university infrastructures across the Western world, most pronounced precisely in the crucial decade of the 1960s, played a crucial role in assembling a critical mass of students from a growing pool of social backgrounds.

Up to the 1950s, for practical purposes universities were still the almost exclusive playground of upper class and upper middle class offspring, with a mere sprinkling of students hailing from lower social strata to provide some color and semblance of diversity. From the late 1950s, in many Western European states, old universities expanded and new universities were created from scratch.

For Italy and France, two examples amongst many, the almost tripling of student numbers in a mere 10 years speaks for itself. Student enrollment in Italy from 246,081 in 1958-59 to 604,000 in 1968-69. In France over that same period they jumped from 248,610 to 630,000.(5)

Such a huge expansion opened up the sociological profile and recruitment possibilities for campus populations, but also caused unavoidable logistical problems for campus administrators and newly-arriving students. The physical atmosphere on the campus that’s generally regarded as the cradle of the French student movement in the Long Sixties, the University of Nanterre in the western suburbs of Paris, may stand for the dysfunctions affecting campuses in many western European states at that time — though not in Spain and Portugal, for instance, where the university expansion program kicked in only much later.

The vast campus at Nanterre was a construction site, with half-finished buildings standing next to completed student halls, the entire campus surrounded by an industrial zone on one side and substandard migrant housing on the other.

To mention only one other example, when the largest new university in Great Britain, the University of Warwick, was built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this greenfield campus on the edge of the industrial city of Coventry was remarkably undersupplied by meaningful and convenient bus routes to campus, forcing students and lecturers alike to rely on time-consuming and cumbersome journeys from their homes to lecture halls, with the closest bus stops at some distance from the campus itself.

A Tale of Two Europes

Virtually no part of Europe remained unaffected by the turbulent events of this era of momentous changes. Even calm and proper Switzerland witnessed its relatively vibrant “1968.”(6) But, on the whole, it is possible to postulate the existence of two rather contrasting versions of 1968 in Europe as a whole.

Much of the history of the 20th century, can be subdivided into what I have termed “northern” and “Mediterranean” Europe (omitting for the present discussion Britain and Greece, for reasons outlined in footnote 9 below).(7)

Certainly in 1968, it is useful to highlight the existence of an invisible yet real dividing line between these two halves of Western Europe, running from Rotterdam through Aachen, Strasbourg, Geneva, Trento and Trieste.

North and east of this imaginary frontier, to be sure, the contestations of 1968 were turbulent, sometimes downright violent, at any rate profoundly affecting public and published opinion, just as 1968 did south of this imaginary border. In what I call “northern” Europe, however, by and large the social milieus actively shaping and affected by 1968 encompassed above all youth and students.

In West Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia, university towns became the battle grounds in and around 1968, but leaving much of the rest of their respective societies largely untouched.

To be sure, the eyes of the media carried images of altercations on streets and campuses of university towns into the remotest corners of each individual viewing area.

Student demonstrators elicited interest amongst the general public in the same manner as visitors gazing at exotic animals in a zoo; curious objects perhaps, possibly even interesting, but without any real impact on observers’ personal, let alone political comportment throughout the respective countries-at-large.

To the north of the imaginary line from Rotterdam to Trieste, 1968 directly affected only a small minority of those societies, though a growing sector of young people in general (and not just university students) eventually took a liking to what they experienced, as the proverbial sixties continued into the seventies.

South of the imaginary line, in Romance-language Europe above all else, the reverberations of global 1968 went much deeper and were generally more long-lasting than in the North.

Of course young people and university students in Mediterranean Europe were also in the forefront of demonstrations, occupations, sit-ins and related protest settings. Yet on the whole in Mediterranean Europe, young people and university and high school students were rarely operating in such conditions of social isolation as were their comrades to the north.

Mediterranean Europe saw far more concrete and meaningful instances of cross-class cooperation and alliances in the social and political struggles of 1968.

In Belgium (what I call the northernmost “Mediterranean” country of Europe), France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, student mobilizations and working class struggles often went hand-in-hand, mutually reinforcing each other.(8) As a result, the impact of 1968 on Mediterranean societies was usually much more encompassing, deep-going and long-lasting.

The threat — or promise, depending on one’s point of view — of fundamental changes affecting society and politics in Mediterranean Europe was far more real and direct than in northern Europe, where it was relatively easy to assume an air of disdain and to regard university student combats as sandbox games with few serious consequences.(9)

The Working-Class Dimension of 1968

In Italy, if the calendar year of 1968 has entered the annals of history as “The Year of the Students,” 1969 became “The Year of the Workers,” as the second half of 1969 witnessed massive strike waves throughout Italy, giving that season the well-deserved term “The Hot Autumn.”

Indeed the wave of working class mobilization in Italy lasted for not just one season but for half a dozen years. In many factories in northern Italy, from 1969 to 1975, it was no longer management who determined the intensity of labor, such as the speed of the assembly lines.

Rather, workers called the shots by means of their rejuvenated trade union representation or in one of the countless innovative counter-institutions popping up in factories and offices at that time, such as the Unitary Base Committees, in which all employees of a given production unit could have a say regardless of which particular trade union federation they were members — or, indeed, regardless of whether they were members of any federation at all.

Unity was the name of the game. And the ubiquitous slogan “Vogliamo Tutto! (We Want Everything!)” became the watchword.

The cycle of working class mobilization in and around 1968 in Western Europe had in fact commenced in underground Spain. It is sometimes forgotten that in 1968 there were still no fewer than three countries in Western Europe under vicious dictatorial rule: the regime of the colonels in Greece; the longest-lived dictatorship in Western Europe, Portugal; and the Francoist regime in Spain.

From 1962 onward waves of underground mobilizations against the Franco regime, which was largely responsible for truly miserable working conditions in factories, offices and mines, gave rise to grassroots working class coordinating bodies, most famously known by their label Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO).

Along with equally dynamic student mobilizations in universities across Spain, the combative and courageous actions of the CC.OO. were an early form of working class activism in the proverbial “Long Sixties” which, in very many concrete ways, inspired working-class rebellion elsewhere in subsequent years, notably Italy.

Yet the most impressive working class rebellion occurred in the second half of May and the beginning of June 1968 in France. Following a two-week-long mobilization cycle amongst university students, best exemplified by the “Night of the Barricades” on May 10-11, in an entirely unforeseen and unplanned manner the French working class began to move.

All major trade union federations called for a one-day strike and protest demonstrations throughout France for Monday, May 13. Amazingly enough, not only was the strike successful, but no fewer than 164 protest demonstrations occurred throughout France, with the mother of them all, assembling between half a million and a million demonstrators, winding its way through central Paris.

Then, in the middle of a succession of unprecedented actions, something even more extraordinary happened in a spontaneous manner. After the one-day general strike on May 13, blue- and white-collar workers were expected to return to their work places. And so they did.

But on Tuesday afternoon, in an airplane factory near Nantes, Sud Aviation, today part of Airbus, the 2500-strong workforce gathered in a general assembly to discuss which way to proceed with regard to a series of ongoing local disputes with management.

No doubt in part inspired by the climate of revolt then spreading throughout France, the workforce at Sud Aviation chose to go on strike and, to further make their point, to occupy their factory. News of this militant action spread like wildfire to other factories and offices throughout the country, notably the far-flung empire of Renault.

By the evening of May 15, the workforce at Renault-Cléon opted for an open-ended strike and the occupation of their factory. Next day, Renault assembly plants in Flins, Le Mans, Sandouville and Orléans joined in.

By 5PM on May 16, the biggest factory in all of France, Renault-Billancourt, with 36.000 workers, was shut down. And other factories and offices joined the fray. By May 21, five million workers had downed their tools and pens.

The ensuing general strike continued for a number of weeks. When the strike wave finally began slowly to recede in early June, between six and eight million workers had taken part in the largest strike wave ever to occur in France.

It was this three-week general strike, in what was then the fifth largest industrial power in the world, that made France into the real and symbolic international epicenter of the worldwide revolt of that year — and remains largely responsible for the fact that even today, we pay close attention to the events of 1968.


  1. Richard Davy, “Cry of Distress Over Trends in Modern Society,” The Times (London), 1 June 1968.
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  2. For a presentation of the concept and some concrete examples, see Gerd-Rainer Horn and Padraid Kenney (eds), Transnational Moments of Change: Europe, 1945, 1968, 1989 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
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  3. See Aristide R. Zolberg, “Moments of Madness,” Politics & Society Vol.2, No. 2 (1972), 183-207.
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  4. For a representative snapshot of such student-led altercations, see the chapter on “Under the Cobblestones Lies the Beach: Student Activism in the 1960s,” in Gerd-Rainer Horn, The Spirit of ’68. Rebellion in Western Europe and North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 54-92.
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  5. Gianni Statera, Death of a Utopia. The Development and Decline of Student Movements in Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 212.
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  6. An informative study of the Swiss 1968 is Christina Späti and Damir Skenderovic, Die 1968er Jahre in der Schweiz. Aufbruch in Politik und Kultur (Baden: Hier und jetzt, 2012).
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  7. Gerd-Rainer Horn, The Spirit of ’68. Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956-1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 228-231.
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  8. For a survey of the working-class dimension of 1968 in Europe, see Bernd Gehrke and Gerd-Rainer Horn (eds), 1968 und die Arbeiter. Studien zum ‘proletarischen Mai’ in Europa (Hamburg: VSA Verlag, 2008), second edition 2018.
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  9. The alert reader will have noted that I do not mention either Great Britain or Greece in my lineup of countries on either side of the postulated divide running clear across Western Europe. Both countries appear to be exceptions confirming the larger rule. Working-class struggles in Great Britain, above all in England and Scotland, were often very conflictual and combative, with days lost due to strikes coming close in quantity to the statistics of strike-related Mediterranean Europe. Yet the end result of the British propensity to go out on strike was far below the accomplishments of comparable strike volatility in southern Europe, where working class gains were truly significant. Greece, by contrast, obviously a country belonging to the Mediterranean world, saw students clearly in the vanguard of social movements in the Long Sixties, rather than workers. For a comparative analysis of working class strike statistics and concrete gains, see Gerd-Rainer Horn, “Arbeiter und ‘1968’ in Europa. Ein Überblick,” in: Bernd Gehrke and Gerd-Rainer Horn (eds), 1968 und die Arbeiter. Studien zum, proletarischen Mai’ in Europa (Hamburg: VSA, 2007 — second edition 2018), 27-50. There are now two excellent English-language studies of the Greek student movement in the Long Sixties: Kostas Kornetis, Children of the Dictatorship. Student Resistance, Cultural Politics, and the “Long 1960s” in Greece (New York: Berghahn, 2013), and Nikolaos Papadogiannis, Militant Around the Clock? Left-Wing Youth Politics, Leisure and Sexuality in Post-Dictatorship Greece, 1974-1981 (New York: Berghahn, 2015).
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September-October 2018, ATC 196