From the U.S., to Mexico, to Europe, revolutionaries and reformers
forged our world.
By Todd Gitlin
June 17, 2008
Rare are the times when the world seems to rise up in unison,
energized, electrified, in outrage and solidarity, as millions of
people put aside their everyday routines to obstruct business as
usual, to yell and argue about a new way of life, to break rules, to
conjure new ones -- to barge into history.
Only three modern periods saw such a spirit of revolt roll through
much of the immense and variegated world. Between 1776 and 1789, the
United States and France rose up against superpower monarchies and
their "long trains of abuses," tore down existing states and
established republics of very different sorts, but united on the
principle that the representatives of the people deserved to rule. In
1848, Europe was swept with upheaval as liberal nationalists and
democrats rebelled against the Habsburg, French, Prussian and other
autocracies, and the movement spread as far as Brazil.
And then 1968, when, in the United States, France, Germany, Italy,
Czechoslovakia, Poland, Mexico, the young denounced the institutions
of their elders, declared that some sort of a different world would
be vastly better, tried to jam the old ways and press a huge restart button.
Start with the patterns. The singular noun "it" has its uses: It was
freedom's revolt against a fossilized culture that stifled the young,
the female, the gay, the rambunctious or the just plain different. It
was an uneasy amalgam of radicals who wanted a more intense,
communal, argumentative way of life and reformers who wanted a more
equitable, even meritocratic, order. It tended to relish sex, drugs
and rock 'n' roll. It cherished the virtue of youth against the
fossilized ideologies of the parental generation -- not least its
obsolete attachments to war and the heavy-handed state. And in the
end, its affirmations of a freer way of life prevailed, for the most
part, even as its explicitly political demands were mainly rebuffed.
Danny Cohn-Bendit -- "Danny the Red," once the young German leader of
the French revolt in May 1968 (in those days, a German Jewish student
could lead a French revolt) and now a member of the European
Parliament -- recently pointed out that before the cultural watershed
of 1968, a man such as Nicolas Sarkozy, with a Hungarian immigrant
for a father and a Greek Jewish rabbi for a great-great-grandfather,
with two marriages (and a subsequent third), could scarcely have been
elected president of France. As a conservative! In a race against a woman!
It seemed to many observers 40 years ago that the rebels everywhere
were virtually fused in their ideals -- and, according to naysayers,
in their excess. It was as if some unheard-of conspiracy were at work. As if.
And yet, the upheavals were linked. The world was thick with
reciprocal influences. Television was a bully amplification system;
so was the rebels' own underground press: inspiring rebels here with
images of rebellion there. But the closer you look, the more the
apparently unified picture dissolves. The animating spirit played
very differently depending on the local landscape and what it was up against.
The American movement marched against the war in Vietnam; "black
liberation" reached a boil. The German movement demonstrated against
elders who refused to come to grips with their Nazi past; the Czechs
against the Soviet overthrow of reform communists; Polish students in
behalf of freedom of speech, whereupon an anti-Semitic communist
ruling class cracked down. In France, radical students hurled
themselves against a stodgy Gaullist state and old-fashioned
education; in Italy too the rebels demanded government and university
reforms (and sometimes a Maoist revolution); in both nations,
students were joined by workers striking not only against a
conservative establishment but a stodgy Communist Party. In Mexico,
the movement's target was an encrusted one-party state.
Such moments of liberation, madness and recoil have to be rare,
because human beings are not infinitely adaptable, even for freedom's
sake or the sake of justice, and the collective nervous system can
only take so much. If upheaval took place everywhere for weeks and
months on end, the everyday world would grind to a halt.
As we've seen during the 2008 presidential campaign, it takes
generations to work through cultural changes -- from a pre-'68 world
where, in supposedly modern post-Enlightenment nations, interracial
marriage and homosexuality were illegal, and women could not open
bank accounts without their husbands' permission, to a world in which
the mayors of Paris, Berlin and Portland, Ore., are publicly gay, and
an African American narrowly defeats a woman for the Democratic
nomination for president of the United States.
For grizzled veterans, international conferences abound on the
"legacies" of 1968. So do nostalgia, wonderment, incomprehension and
all sorts of criticism of those times, much of it warranted, much of
it beside the point. Some celebrants still brandish abstracted
slogans not so different from the ones they shouted at the time. Some
embittered conservatives still smolder with unrelieved resentment,
though even they mainly do not dare propose to repeal the human
rights that were secured amid the 1960s upheavals.
"Forget '68, because we live in a different world," said Danny
Cohn-Bendit recently. His point was not that we have passed the
millennium. His point was that a prime reason why we live in a
different world is that '68 happened.
The changes, on balance, were more good than bad. The history, and
the wounds, are still raw because the conflicts that exploded in 1968
and the years immediately preceding and following went to the core of
modern identity. Ideas about how to live in the world collided --
sometimes in the same hearts and minds -- and sometimes they mixed
together, and the terms changed, but the forces unleashed four
decades ago are still rumbling down through the decades.
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia
University, is the author of several books on recent American
history, including "The Sixties" and "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent."