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1968: liberty or its illusion? 3

Many 68ers now feel ambivalent about their heritage. Was too much of value discarded? Were the hippies just carriers of a new strain of capitalism? What was the silent majority thinking? Prospect writers give their views

By prospect   May 2008

Every contribution to our symposium can be accessed directly by clicking on the name of the individual author below. You can also discuss issues raised by the symposium, and by our latest issue, on First Drafts, Prospect‘s editorial blog.

Bryan Appleyard, Arthur Aughey, Cheryll Barron, Peter Bazalgette, Vernon Bogdanor, Rudi Bogni, Joe Boyd, Samuel Brittan, Lesley Chamberlain, Stephen Chan, Robert Cooper, Emma Crichton-Miller, René Cuperus, William Davies, Meghnad Desai, Anthony Dworkin, Geoff Dyer, David Edgerton, Duncan Fallowell, Timothy Garton Ash, Anthony Giddens, Robert Gore-Langton, David G Green, Johann Hari, David Herman, Michael Ignatieff, Pico Iyer, Josef Joffe, Alan Johnson, Eric Kaufmann, Tim King, Denis MacShane, Jean McCrindle, Edward Mortimer, Onora O’Neill, PJ O’Rourke, Paul Ormerod, Mark Pagel, Ray Pahl, Jonathan Power, Gideon Rachman, Jonathan Rée, Bridget Rosewell, Bob Rowthorn, Jacques Rupnik, Dominic Sandbrook, Roger Scruton, Jean Seaton, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Erik Tarloff, Tzvetan Todorov, Emily Young, Slavoj Zizek.

The 68ers

by Timothy Garton Ash

The best thing about ’68 is the 68ers. They have their faults, but 40 years on, many of them continue to be engaged politically and our societies are richer for it. 1989 was a much bigger historical event than 1968, but I am still waiting for a comparable class of ’89. With the benefit of hindsight, one of the worst legacies of the 1960s is the dismantling of even the most basic knowledge of national and international history among most children, especially in Britain. What went before was narrow and imperfect, but the deconstructed dog’s dinner we have today is worse. Perhaps now ’68 is itself history, the 68ers can help restore the teaching of it in schools.

Bourgeois fools
by Paul Ormerod

I observed the events of May 1968 from my council estate in Rochdale. They seemed to have no relevance to us. We saw on our television screens self-indulgent children of the bourgeoisie calling for the overthrow of the system. This system had brought a modicum of prosperity and security to a population with memories of both the grim inter-war years and the pride and sacrifice of the war itself.

These feelings of bewilderment were enhanced when I arrived at Cambridge later that year. Public schoolboys, with glittering careers awaiting in finance, the media and the law, occupied buildings and pontificated about revolution. It was hard to treat it seriously, as anything other than some live street version of Footlights. These people were surely not for real. I was wrong. The passage of the 1968 generation through the body politic has had devastating consequences not just for the working class but for society as a whole.

Not that I am invoking a mythical golden age. Things needed to change; that was why we supported Labour. Class divisions were wide, complacency was rife, patriarchy and sexism deeply embedded. But things were getting better, economically and socially, under the banner of the social democratic compromise all parties had embraced.

The distinguishing feature of the 68ers has continued to be their capacity for self-indulgence, and their blindness about the consequences of their actions for others.

The systematic denigration of western culture by the 68ers has impoverished the lives of millions. The concept of a high culture had once been embraced without question by generations of working-class activists. The generation that won the second world war knew Shakespeare and Beethoven. They aspired to an idea of progress that would allow their children to access high culture as readily as the bourgeoisie.

So too with the idea of history. The 68er interpretation of British history is a relentlessly negative one. No country’s history is perfect, but we can be proud of much of our legacy, from defeating European dictators to abolishing slavery. Children with no sense of history are deprived of their inheritance as citizens.

And the family? The proposition that the conventional nuclear family is on average the best structure in which to bring up children has one of the firmest empirical backings in the whole of social science. Yet this has been blithely ignored. The result has been the virtual destruction of the conventional family among the poor, with resulting increases in their social and economic degradation.

Multiculturalism is in partial retreat, though the spirit of ’68 is hard to eradicate. During the past decade, Britain has experienced one of the greatest movements of population in Europe since the collapse of the Roman empire. Yet we are invited to believe that this has no adverse effects on our sense of well-being and cohesion. Again, it is the poor who bear the brunt of the dislocations this policy creates.

Those middle-class students who took to the streets in 1968 sought to make common cause with the oppressed. Yet the impact of their posturings has been to reduce social mobility and to trap people in lives devoid of cultural nourishment.

Paul Ormerod is an economist

Honesty, fun, values
by Duncan Fallowell

The best legacy of the 1960s is that life can be fun and people can be honest about themselves. The worst legacy is that everything is supposed to have equal value.

Duncan Fallowell is an author

A tale of two springs
by Jacques Rupnik

Forty years on, the ex-68ers in Paris commemorate a liberating moment that challenged the Gaullo-Communist conservative postwar stalemate. In Prague, for the first time since 1989, the memorable Havel-Kundera debate of 1969 has been republished along with a series of articles and conferences on the ’68 legacy and all the famous “eights” of Czech history—from the foundation of the state in 1918 to its demise at Munich in 1938, from the communist takeover of 1948 to the Prague spring of 1968 with its doomed challenge to Soviet rule.

From Paris to Prague and from Warsaw to Berlin, not to mention Berkeley or Mexico, there was a generational moment of “incoherent fraternity” (Paul Berman): similar fashions, listening to the same music, the shared distrust of political establishments. An instinctive sympathy among 68ers has survived 40 years; see the recent dialogue on ’68 in Warsaw between Danny Cohn-Bendit (today a Green MEP) and Adam Michnik, the former dissident and now editor of Poland’s leading daily Gazeta.

But in reality the language and the political aspirations differed substantially. The “alienation” in a consumer society and the traps of “formal democracy” denounced by French radicals were by no means scorned in societies then emerging from 20 years of real socialism. The French 68ers wanted to reclaim the purity of the socialist idea from the communist grip, while the Czechs, who had learned the hard way about such things, were trying to dilute it with all the intellectual trends of the time, from psychoanalysis to the Christian-Marxist dialogue. For French 68ers the word “Europe” was then associated with the “common market,” and references to “European civilisation” smacked of colonialism in the aftermath of the Algerian war. Their international horizon was “third worldish,” with the opposition to the war in Vietnam, support for Mao and for Cuban-style “revolution in the revolution” (the title of an essay by Régis Debray, who joined Che in the Bolivian mountains). In Prague, the identification with European culture was part of an emancipation from the post-war Sovietised eastern orientation of official cultural life.

As Milan Kundera put it ten years later: “The Parisian May was an explosion of revolutionary lyricism. The Prague spring was an explosion of post-revolutionary skepsis… The Parisian May was radical. The Prague spring was a popular revolt of the moderates.”

And what of the respective legacies? In Paris, it was “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The 68ers have gradually conquered the institutions they had challenged and reached the peak of their power in French society. From feminism to environmentalism and multiculturalism, they have imposed their agenda. In the words of Cohn-Bendit: “We have won culturally and socially while, fortunately, losing politically.”

The fate of their Czech counterparts was very different. They were purged and expelled from all walks of public life for two decades. So when the “velvet revolution” of 1989 surprised them (and the rest of their countrymen), they were pushing 50 and had lost 20 of their most creative years. 1989 was anti-68 in the sense that it did not try to pick up where the ’68 reform movement stopped: it sought western market democracy rather than the utopia of “socialism with a human face.”

Jacques Rupnik is an academic and expert on European history. His book “Le Printemps tchécoslovaque” is published by Editions Complex

1968 in other news…

The 1968 Mexico Olympics saw the gold medal in the high jump going to Dick Fosbury, inventor of the new “Fosbury flop,” (pictured, right) about which his coach gave this warning: “Kids imitate champions, but if they imitate Dick he will wipe out an entire generation of jumpers because they will all have broken necks.”

In October 1968, Tom Maschler, a young literary editor at Jonathan Cape, persuaded the food and agricultural company Booker Brothers to back a £5,000 prize to stimulate interest “in serious British fiction as a whole”—giving Britain what Melvyn Bragg has called “the Grand National of culture”—the world’s most famous national book race.

In September 1968, a new method of relieving pain in childbirth was reported—the “epidural technique.” It was so effective, one press release boasted, that “a woman can read a paper while having a baby, with a mirror to watch the birth.”

Meanwhile, the Biafran war, which had been sparked in 1967 by a secessionist movement in southern Nigeria, moved into a period of stalemate and blockade. Starvation and disease was rife among the Biafrans, and when shocking images started to reach the west, a massive relief operation began, involving Oxfam among others. The high-profile emergency fundraising campaign—as seen today during events like the Asian tsunami—was born in Biafra.

Down with the dons!
by Jonathan Rée

When I tell people I was an undergraduate at Sussex University in 1968, I am usually met with looks of envious complicity: what could beat that blissful student summer when all of us were drunk or stoned or both, with love in our hearts and flowers in our hair, and acting our part in an uplifting drama of worldwide revolutionary liberation? But that is not how it really happened.

Sussex—or “Oxford by the sea”—was a new university at the time, intoxicated with its popularity and its magnificent presence in the media. When they told us we belonged to a golden generation, fated to lead better and happier lives than our uptight war-scarred parents, we believed it. The future was going to treat us bounteously, no doubt, but in the meantime we were entitled to our doubts and our ups and downs.

There was a pervasive but passive presumption of heathen leftism. We were not exactly narrow-minded, but we would have been bewildered if a Tory or an Anglican or a supporter of American foreign policy turned up in our midst. We ranged ourselves eagerly on the side of nuclear disarmament, state education and taxing the rich till the pips squeak, while revering Che Guevara, Lenin, the genial Mao Zedong and—as the songsters among us would have it—Ho Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh. But there was nothing political about our leftism—at least not if politics is about taking up controversial positions that may expose you to vituperation and abuse. We just wanted to be nice.

Enemies? What enemies? The capitalist state? In a generalised sense perhaps, but as far as we were concerned the British government seemed rather benign. Members of the ruling class? In theory maybe, but surely not the nice, progressive parents of our nice progressive friends? The police could sometimes be provoked, but the plainclothes officers smiled sweetly when we spotted them eavesdropping in big student meetings. University officials were indulgent when we went through the motions of militant disobedience. And the lickspittle journalists from the capitalist press seemed quite nice too, especially when they stood us drinks in the university bar hoping to winkle out the secrets of our Sussex.

News of student riots elsewhere, especially in the land of Gauloises, wine and summer holidays, increased our good cheer, though rumours of violence were disconcerting. Come on, said working-class Pete: were we too frightened to go to Paris with him to defend the barricades? Would we have stayed away from Paris in 1789, or Petrograd in 1917? But none of us was quite won over, and anyway I needed to write my two essays a week, and I’d queued all night for tickets for the opera. Maybe I was influenced by my first encounters with Marx, but I suspect my adoration for George Eliot played a bigger part in my scepticism, along with my immersion in the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein: in any case I was pretty sure that changing the course of history would be harder than Pete seemed to think.

The habit of using “1968” as a byword for a worldwide festival of liberation dates back to the year itself, but so does the uneasy feeling that there was nothing to it except a bit of youthful vanity backed up by parental flattery and journalistic hot air. It was not until it receded into the past that it became a vintage year and a rallying point for the unpolitical politics of libertarian goodwill. I could not conceal my disgruntlement when people started talking about “the Movement” as though it was something I must have signed up to, and by the early 1970s I was ready to fulminate against the “mythmakers of 1968.” By then my head had been turned by Germaine Greer (and if there was ever such a thing as the spirit of ’68, The Female Eunuch is a perfect expression of it, right down to the fact that it did not come out till 1970). Around that time I observed the hooray-revolutionaries of Oxford University having their own belated 1968 and occupying a grand old building, surrounded by dons in billowing gowns and the university policemen in their bowler hats, and at last I had an inkling that some fundamental transformation might after all be under way—not the students changing the world, but the world changing the students.

It seemed to me that the patterns of seniority and deference that structured Britain’s universities, and which were replicated across the entire educational system, were at last buckling under the strain of their own ridiculous pomposity. Those clever old men with their casual sexism and their fussy way with words might command the strategic strongholds of the academic disciplines, but they did not have their finger on the pulse of culture, even high culture. I was still in love with Wittgenstein and George Eliot, and I had fallen for Hegel, Marx and Virginia Woolf as well; but I was not convinced they were well served by the universities and their eminent professors.

Resentment had nothing to do with it. I did not envy them their privileges: I pitied them for the prissy refinement that cut them off from what was most interesting in the world around them. Elitism, I came to think, was much more frustrating for those who are supposed to profit from it than for those whom it rudely excludes.

Watching the dons being ridiculous, I thought I glimpsed a future where the stiff old academic disciplines would be displaced by honest science, ordinary intelligence and simple intellectual courage. I dreamed of institutions that would cherish the best that has been thought and said, without relapsing into complacency. I imagined that the days of academic fear would soon be over. For a decade or more I believed that a new spirit was dancing through the land—a spirit of ’68 if you like—giving us the vitality of the English National Opera compared with Covent Garden, the vigour of Radical Philosophy and History Workshop Journal as opposed to the lassitude of the old academic quarterlies, and above all the intellectual blue sky of the polytechnics, in contrast with the relentless grey-on-grey of the universities.

Discouragement kicked in at last, and eventually, belatedly, I gave up caring. The academic dragon had recovered from its wounds, and by the end of the 1980s the cultural world was filling up with systems of snobbery and obedience more asinine and exacting than ever. The reign of fear had re-established itself, and it no one waned to put forward a single critical thought without invoking the protection of some professorial celebrity. But who knows? None of us understands the times we have lived through, and my dejection just might be mistaken.

Jonathan Rée is a philosopher

Hormonal in Italy
by Rudi Bogni

1968 in Italy was more about hormonal growth than about politics. It brought us the Red Brigades, but not democratic maturity. I mistrusted from the outset a movement based on megaphones and one-liners.

Rudi Bogni is a banker

The hippie capitalists
by Anthony Dworkin

In the US, 1968 was not only the year of liberation but also the year the backlash began. Republicans were to hold the White House for 20 of the next 24 years. Among intellectuals, the protests and cultural experimentation led a group of influential liberals to take fright at what they saw as the erosion of standards and to drift towards cultural conservatism.

One of these writers, the sociologist Daniel Bell, distilled his worries into a classic of social criticism. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism began as an essay that Bell started writing in the autumn of 1969; it was published as a book in 1976. It was notable above all because it explained the eruptions of the 1960s not as a deviation from the orderly bourgeois path of capitalist society but as the working out of a logic inherent in capitalism itself. Bell argued (after Weber) that capitalism developed and drew its strength from an ethic of sobriety, saving and deferred gratification—but he added the observation that free-market capitalism itself worked powerfully to undermine those qualities and stimulate hedonism and the desire for self-realisation and instant gratification. There was a tension between what capitalist society required of its citizens as producers and the habits it fostered in them as consumers. This contradiction, Bell argued, would leave advanced capitalist societies without the moral basis they needed for continued prosperity and cohesion.

Bell’s notion that the individual self-expression promoted by 1960s radicals was itself a product of capitalism has been widely echoed. But the idea that an ethic of self-realisation was inimical to the further flourishing of capitalist societies now looks plain wrong. This was not just a matter of the emblematic children of the 1960s who went on to become millionaires, like the “yippie” Jerry Rubin in America or Richard Branson in Britain. The development of a “new capitalism” based around the creative and service industries involved the elevation of decentralised management and employee initiative above the hierarchy of old-fashioned corporations. Individual self-expression and capitalist production joined hands. The radical manifestos of 40 years ago have become the business school clichés of today.

Still, the legacy of 1968 should not be seen only in terms of the adaptive capacity of capitalism. This year’s presidential election, with a woman and a mixed-race candidate competing for the Democratic nomination, would have been inconceivable without the 1960s. In Barack Obama, who came of age in the 1970s, the US has its first prominent post-68 politician, whose candidacy is based on his offering himself as a vehicle through which the country can move beyond the divisions that opened with the upheavals of 40 years ago.

Anthony Dworkin is director of the Crimes of War project

Hope and despair

by Alan Johnson

The 1960s had two souls. The optimistic soul spoke in the brave and beautiful cadences of Martin Luther King and extended the pursuit of happiness to the excluded. The nihilist soul—where soon enough, all the action was—denounced “Amerika” in the tones of the yippie-irrationalism of Abbie Hoffman, the glamorised thuggery of Huey Newton and the gloomy authoritarianism of Herbert Marcuse. After a long march through the institutions, the nihilists won. The new common sense—that the human condition is blighted by the “western-patriarchal- racist-homophobic- logocentric-capitalist-imperialism”—has left us unable to think clearly, to see threats plain or to defend ourselves.

Alan Johnson is editor of Democratiya

Demographic transformation
by Eric Kaufmann

The 1960s heralded the end of the baby boom, Vatican II and the rise of the contraception revolution. This allowed couples to largely control their fertility for the first time, a definite advance. The flipside, however, is that fertility has fallen below replacement in virtually every society where this revolution’s winds have blown.

Eric Kaufmann is an academic

French perspectives
by Tim King

In France, what is known as Mai ’68 was primarily a conservative movement, based on Marxism. At the time its three achievements were seen as a reform of universities, the end of De Gaulle’s political career and the acceptance by employers (particularly the state) of paid trades union representatives within the workplace. Of those three, only the trades union reforms remain: 40 years on French universities are still in crisis and Gaullism lives on.

Tim King is a writer living in France

Imaginative avenues
by Pico Iyer

The best thing to come out of 1968 was a sense of new avenues for the imagination—broadly speaking, music, and all it stands for. The worst thing was a sense of entitlement, and the idea of taking responsibility only for oneself. The 1960s showed us that the young could change and rule the world; the years since have shown us what happens when the youngest power is the strongest power, and youth is seen as an end in itself.

Pico Iyer is an essayist and novelist

Often unchanged
by Ray Pahl

In 1968 I attempted to lecture about women as a minority group to students at the University of Kent. It went down like a lead balloon. “But I’m looking forward to ironing my husband’s shirts” said one.

In five years all was different, but in 1968 we wore gowns to process to high table in the evening, and the undergraduates stood up. I felt uncomfortable and surreptitiously waved them to stay seated. The staff were far more radical than the students.

Ray Pahl is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent

Grief and anticlimax
by Jonathan Power

For me, an ex-graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, returning to Europe in 1967 was an anticlimax of severe proportions. And 1968 was difficult to get worked up about.

In the US I’d moved down to the slum of West Garfield Park in Chicago to work on Martin Luther King’s first northern campaign to end slum landlordism and the other evils of the ghetto. (Barack Obama tried to do the same a generation later.)

Back in England, all seemed a pale shadow of my previous life, and when King was murdered I felt not only immense grief but that the students of England had no sense of proportion with their tinpot protests. Even when the French students seemed to have no greater cause than to turn the universities into centres of academic laziness.

Cobblestoning and beating up the police went against everything I’d learn from King about the power of non-violence. Being a young married Catholic with two babies, I failed to realise the true nature of the protests—that for a majority of students in Europe, they were a charged celebration of the power of sexual, not political, freedom.

Jonathan Power is an international media commentator

Social and political currents
by Tzvetan Todorov

I lived through the events of May 1968 in a slightly disjointed way. That May, I was teaching in the US. I returned to Paris on 31st May on the first plane I could board; for this reason, and perhaps because of my Bulgarian origins, I have always viewed the events with some detachment.

There were two quite distinct currents: one social, the other political. The transformation of social relationships was a revelation. Rigid hierarchies that had lost all justification fell away: between men and women, between the old and the young, between the upper and lower classes. It became possible to speak a more direct and less ceremonious language, and to behave in public in a way less ruled by convention. Feminist movements blossomed, and there were new opportunities for women. Who, today, could wish to abandon these inheritances?

Things went very differently in the realm of political discourse. One could say or hear nothing, within the countless general assemblies and action committees, that lay outside the scope of communist ideology. Diversity did have its place within that: the conservative pole was occupied by the orthodox members of the dinosaur French Communist party, the far left was incarnated by the Maoists, and between the two one found Trotskyites, Althussérians, Anarchists, Situationists, the “March 22 movement,” followers of Fidel and plenty of others.

While a great wind of change was blowing in the social realm, political speeches breathed dogmatism and preached (often unwittingly) the imposition of dictatorship. For those who, like me, came from a land of “real socialism,” all this was a chimera.

At first glance, this heritage has almost entirely disappeared (with the exception of the peculiar popularity of French Trotskyite leaders in presidential elections). But, a few years later, the project of a violent social transformation reappeared in the doctrines dubbed neoconservative. The neoconservatives entered the corridors of power in the US and they now have influence in France, too. The permanent revolution that the 68ers used to preach has changed in its objectives but not in its nature: the eradication of the enemy is still what is called for. And often by the same people as in 1968! This is a heritage that truly does deserve to be abandoned.

Tzvetan Todorov is a philosopher and cultural theorist

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