Lead book review

1968 and the summer of our discontent

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

’68 will do as shorthand. Most of ’68, as it were, didn’t happen in 1968. It was, at most, the centrepoint of a long accumulation of radical protest. It began with duffle-coated marches against nuclear war, a well-mannered and respectful movement whose spirit persisted to the end of the decade. (In October 1968, a rally against the Vietnam war finished with demonstrators linking arms with policemen and singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’). It continued into the 1970s with real political violence — the Baader-Meinhof gang and many other groups. It is not very much like 1848 as a year of political upheaval, more the symbolic statement of a large-scale change of mind. That change of mind is probably still happening.

Richard Vinen’s excellent, cleanly focused book on the subject makes it plain that the événements of May in France form the central episode. The way that a protest among students spread from institution to institution, and then to trade unions and the entire workforce was something quite new, and baffling. What did they want?

Discontent started for particular reasons — a student protest against Vietnam, or, Vinen says, ‘concern about their conditions of study and prospects of getting jobs’, a very un-1968 motivation. Fairly soon, protest seems to have become an end in itself. Some of the workers who went on strike did so without presenting demands.

Much of the French establishment had lot of sympathy for the protestors, with the thrilling sight of (not very effective) barricades, chic slogans and the hurling of paving stones. André Malraux, the minister of culture, was having lunch one day with the writer José Bergamín; afterwards, he dropped Bergamín off at the occupied Sorbonne on his way to the National Assembly. General de Gaulle was not one of these, and indeed hardly believed in the protestors’ identity. Two years earlier he had dismissed a report on ‘youth’ in the splendid words:

One must not treat the young as a separate category. One is young, and then one ceases to be so…They are French people at the start of their existence, it is nothing special.

In May 1968 Danny Cohn-Bendit and the other leaders of the protests would try to prove him wrong.


Vinen also addresses the growth and impact of radical politics in West Germany, the UK and the US. The truly significant political event of the year, the Prague Spring and the crushing of Dubcek’s reforms by a Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, is outside his remit, though it might have provided an amusing counterpoint to some of the radical posturing in the West. The US had two proper subjects for radical protest: Vietnam, and civil rights. These remained largely separate. The president who had succeeded in making the greatest strides in civil rights, Lyndon Johnson, was also the one with the responsibility for Vietnam. Those black men who were the first for the draft in Vietnam were, Vinen says, often surprisingly indifferent to Vietnam as a cause. They were used to injustice. A significant part of the radical black movement that arose around this time was certainly not part of the liberal protest movement, and had no intention of placing flowers in the muzzles of anyone’s guns. Some of them were affiliated with the National Rifle Association, and the quasi-Marxist Dodge Revolutionary Movement ‘offered an M1 carbine as a prize in a fund-raising raffle’. They hoped the moment to use it would come.

In Germany, everything is overshadowed by the consequences, or pre-shadowed by history. The generation shaped by the Third Reich was very much in evidence; their children were of an age to make their opinions of that felt. One important factor was that 70 per cent of German students were aged between 23 and 30; these were not children, as in the US. Some of them would go on to form the Red Army Faction, or the Baader-Meinhof gang, and murder. There was no particular motivation at work here apart from the Oedipal one, and the intention to shock the elders. One of the most outrageous was the move by some radicals to break with liberal German regret, and say some genuinely vile things about Jews and Israel. A synagogue was firebombed by radicals on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and the Baader-Meinhofs’ lawyer was eventually convicted for Holocaust denial.

The British ’68 took a somewhat different form. There was a fundamental division between the working forces and the educational establishment, nicely illustrated by Vinen: at the end of the 1970s, the quarter of a million members of the National Union of Mineworkers contained 15 members of Militant Tendency, nine members of the Socialist Workers Party, and five members of the International Marxist Group. ‘There were fewer Trotskyists in the most important of British trade unions than there were among the staff at North London Polytechnic.’

By contrast, only 2 per cent of students matriculating at Essex in 1968 described themselves as Labour supporters rather than ‘non-party extreme/moderate left’. The occasional Maoist sociology student who tried to reach out to the labouring classes met with, it is fair to say, a ribald or bemused reception. Perhaps the single most effective limit on student protest was the curious English habit that meant that students lived on campus during term time, and went home to mum and dad during the vacation. A Sussex sociologist — not always, despite the impression, the most radical members of staff — observed that ‘the one redeeming feature of all the unrest is that revolutions always go on holiday’.

Vinen very effectively reminds us that 1968 was not quite as ’68-ish as we have come to assume. It also saw the election of Richard Nixon, and some of the largest political marches of the year in the UK were in support of Enoch Powell’s most notorious speech. Best of all, he brings the question of women’s rights and gay people into the argument. ’68 is, if anything, a shift from principle to personal inclination; as the Paris slogan had it: ‘Structures do not take to the streets.’

The significance of personal inclination, however, often seemed to depend on whose personal inclination it was. Radical students at Lanchester Polytechnic thought nothing of shouting ‘Fascist pig! Get her knickers off!’ at a visiting Mrs Thatcher in 1971. Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers proposed that rape could be an insurrectionary act. Although feminists were a more significant part of the radical movement than they were of mainstream politics, they could not be guaranteed a warm welcome. The same was true of gay liberation movements, just beginning, and probably hardly recognised by the majority of heterosexual radicals.

By the 1990s, the soixante-huitards had achieved the long march through the institutions; some were MEPs, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, British cabinet ministers, like Jack Straw, or even the leader of the free world like Bill Clinton. Vinen tells the story well — where the borders of his subject lie must have been a challenging question, and we will disagree on his decision to leave the Prague Spring out and include the IRA.

He is capable of some puckish humour, including a wonderful photograph of Jack Straw, the student radical, dancing in a dinner jacket with the Duchess of Kent. He also brings up the sociologist Laurie Taylor’s idea that the bank robber John McVicar, having escaped from prison, might go into hiding with him and his radical housemates. ‘McVicar, no doubt feeling that lentil bake and consciousness raising would be worse than prison, sought refuge with his criminal acquaintances.’

When Mrs Thatcher first heard of Cohn-Bendit, she remarked, in a 1968 speech, that she had discovered that at the end of his degree, ‘his examiners said that he had posed a series of most intelligent questions. Significant? I would have been happier if he had also found a series of intelligent answers.’ Those answers came slowly, and are still coming.

To have found those questions — if they were questions — was probably enough​.​

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free


Show comments
Close