Analysis by Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, May 13 (IPS) - The year 1968 has become a symbol, but
not necessarily one that is easy to sum up. High-profile violent
events involving multitudes of people marked it as revolutionary, but
it is hard to define the nature of that revolution. Endless enigmas
and controversies still surround it.
Widening the focus to the 1960s is an aid to understanding the
broader historical context of 1968, with the May student uprising in
France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Tet offensive
that sealed the fate of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Some French authors
even refer to the period as "the 1968 years."
Give or take a few years, it was in the 1960s that the revolt against
psychiatric hospitals took place in Italy, the civil rights movement
reached its peak in the United States, the gay liberation movement
was born and feminism became more complex, extending its goals from
simple equality to gender equity and reproductive rights.
The environmental movement took its first steps, as people became
aware of the vital importance of biological diversity.
In fact, recognition of diversity in general as an essential value
transformed the world that decade, and respect for ethnic, sexual,
human, biological, ideological, religious and cultural diversity
became the order of the day. In this regard, Brazilian "tropicalism"
was more attuned to the new era than other artistic movements.
The industrialisation of societies had taken schematization to
extremes in almost every area, in the name of productivity. Families
should have a father, a mother and two children -- everything, from
the minimum wage to cars, was designed for four people -- and schools
were factories that produced qualified personnel.
Houses, clothes, food and careers were all as similar as possible,
churned out on a production line.
The ideal of uniformity had no ideological foundation, so communism
took it a leap further, with single parties in power trying to root
out dissident ideas.
The trend is demonstrated by, for example, food. Over thousands of
years of history, humanity had eaten some 10,000 plant species, but
these are now reduced to barely 150, and more than half the volume
eaten is made up of only four species: rice, potatoes, maize and
wheat. In fact, this is a factor in today's food crisis.
The improved prospects for the survival of indigenous peoples and
their languages, cultures and identities are also a result of the
"diversity revolution" which can be attributed to the 1960s, as are
freedom of sexual preferences, full citizenship rights for people
with disabilities and the idea of inclusion in general.
Being indigenous is no longer viewed, as it once was, as a
prehistoric stage, which would be overcome either by extinction or
Diversity is not only about recognising values or rights, but also
about enriching humanity, increasing creativity, and very often,
about our very survival. But these ideas take a long time to take root.
Only now are Bolivia and Ecuador seeking to define themselves as
plurinational states, and in Brazil, there are still generals who
regard indigenous territories on the borders as threats to national security.
Latin America attained its potential for political agitation, with
the Cuban Revolution and Ernesto "Che" Guevara's self-imposed mission
to spread guerrilla warfare, until he was murdered in 1967 in
Bolivia. Rebel groups became commonplace, even in prosperous Europe.
The unrest and tumult of 1968 became a pandemic, mainly driven by the
student movement. Students in Brazil defied the dictatorship with the
"Passeata dos Cem Mil" (March of the 100,000) in Rio de Janeiro, and
in other street clashes with the police, until all their leaders were
captured and imprisoned in October of that year.
In Mexico, protesting students were put down in the massacre of
Tlatelolco Square, when dozens or hundreds were killed; exactly how
many has never been known for sure. Germany, the United States,
Italy, Japan and other rich, democratic states also cracked down
violently on their young people.
May 1968 in France was emblematic because of the extent of the
uprising and the social criticism voiced. The Paris barricades
inflamed millions of workers who paralysed the country, occupying
some 300 factories.
"It is Forbidden to Forbid", "Down With the State", "Empower the
Imagination", "Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible" or "Don't Trust
Anyone Over 30" were among the demonstrators' strident slogans.
The furious rejection of everything that stood for the establishment
was the battle cry of freedom of a generation that could no longer
tolerate the straitjackets imposed on them.
The contraceptive pill had been available since 1960, but the
prevailing moral standards frowned on sex before marriage. Religions
were omnipresent and castrating, and being an atheist was almost a
crime. Long hair was a sign of delinquency.
Hierarchies were absolute, almost military in their rigidity, in
families, the workplace, schools and between state and society.
Europe was prospering and had unprecedented social welfare
programmes. But it was a fool's paradise and in reality a repressive
prison, at least in the view of the students.
Today it is hard to imagine that racial segregation was legal in many
U.S. states until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed in
response to the demands of the black movement which had been staging
mass protests since 1955.
That year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white
man, sparking a rebellion against the Jim Crow segregation law in
Alabama. In 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior was
The intolerance that reigned was exacerbated by the Cold War, which
terrorised the world with the prospect of a nuclear conflagration,
and fenced in political activity and ideas within rigid "ideological
In Brazil, one either belonged to "Western, Christian, democratic
civilisation" or was a communist, and therefore subject to
imprisonment and torture from 1964 on.
Things were not so different on the other side of the "Iron Curtain".
The August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia strangled an attempt to
make the regime more flexible and move towards "socialism with a human face."
Many insurgent movements at the time were efforts to create a kind of
socialism different to that of the Soviet Union, and in this the
Cuban Revolution was a frustrated hope.
But it was also an extremely creative era. Not only did it give rise
to movements of the most varied nature, but also to a great variety
of new artistic ideas and creations. The great Brazilian popular
music composers emerged in that period, as well as educationist Paulo
Freire, the progressive church and liberation theology.
It was a time of utopias, hope and generous self-sacrifice. In
Africa, newly independent countries were established, some following
bloody anti-colonial wars, like Algeria, where one million people
died. Some of their leaders made revolutionary promises. "Peaceful
revolutions," such as the 1970 election of Salvador Allende in Chile,
were also being attempted.
But in most cases, these illusions were short-lived. Allende died in
General Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup d'état. Self-proclaimed Marxist
African governments were racked by civil wars and corruption.
Many demonstrators in France's May revolution hailed the Chinese
Cultural Revolution, not realising that it was a negation of the
students' libertarian spirit.
It is no coincidence that "chaos theory" or nonlinear dynamics were
also developed in the 1960s. These studies showed that small
disturbances in a system, previously thought to be negligible, could
end up having a major effect on the outcome.
Called the "butterfly effect" because the flapping of an insect's
wings could create tiny modifications in the atmosphere that might
ultimately alter the path of a tornado, it introduced a degree of
uncertainty to sciences previously thought to be exact.
"We are all subjects!" was one of the rallying cries in 1968.
Students were not "pre-citizens" still in the process of formation.
Minorities and women were all relevant actors with their own causes.
Ties with the left were also broken. Revolution and the fight for
social rights ceased to be the exclusive preserve of workers and
trade unions, as the Marxists had postulated. Social movements
multiplied and took to the streets, bringing about the fragmentation
The world was always a nonlinear mosaic, but until "the 1968 years,"
it had not been recognised as such.