Duncan Prowse considers the 40th anniversary of May ’68, 
supposedly the climax to all that the 1960s stood for.  

Writers and thinkers are casting back, comparing then and now. 
It may have been an age of innocence, suggests Duncan Prowse, but it also had its shadow side.


The late 1960s was such an age of innocence. In America and France young people were losing their political virginity, but most British students were still weighed down by their sexual virginity, while the Oxbridge types were still living in Evelyn Waugh novels and hoping to be Kenneth Tynan when they grew up. Sex, parties, pot, long hair, bare feet – these were already major revolutions. But very innocent ones compared to the assassinations, anti-war protests, general strikes and tear gas in France and the USA.

More mature friends went to demonstrate against the Vietnam War in Grosvenor Square and a few even went to throw pavés in the Quartier Latin. It sounded like a great adventure, especially as it seemed to come with free love. But for us innocents, even that was a failure as the nearest I got to the sexual revolution was almost making it with Mary-Ann in a meadow by the river at Oxford.

In that age of innocence the students at the new Paris Nanterre University formed the “Mouvement du 22 mars” in a rage against everything – from the Vietnam War to  lack of access by male students to the female halls of residence. This eventually became “Les Événements de Mai,” an almost-revolution that still resonates so strongly in France that Nicolas Sarkozy wants“liquider l’héritage de ‘68”. Sarkozy seems to have raised a spectre of general malaise that is remarkably similar to that of forty years ago – except that today the passion has gone out of it. Maybe it’s the lack of free love?

That history repeats itself because no one was listening the first time, is the kind of graffiti that might have originated in the wall-daubed slogans of Paris in May ’68:   “Il est interdit d’interdire!”  “Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible!”  “Les murs ont des oreilles. Vos oreilles ont des murs!”  “Ne vous emmerdez plus! Emmerdez les autres!”

We can still empathise with the slogans; we can see the parallels today in the political themes of forty years ago; but however serious the issues seemed then, they were child’s play in comparison to the complexity of what we face now. And the one thing we are not doing in 2008 is what 1968 did a lot of – challenging the established order. In this respect, 1968 was far from innocent – especially as every attempt to change the status quo was severely put down.

At the beginning of the year, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive against American forces, while surveys showed US opinion was turning strongly against the war. US forces responded at the Battle of Hue. Student anti-war demonstrations followed all over America. Robert Kennedy was assassinated; so, too, was Martin Luther King. Violence followed and Black Panther leader Bobby Hutton was killed. Mayor Daley of Chicago ordered police to shoot to kill “arsonists”. Nigerian armed forces suppressed Biafran rebels and the Igbo population starved while the West (and Britain in particular) stood by. Russian tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and put an end to “socialism with a human face” and the “Prague Spring”. In Paris, the street riots were quelled violently by the para-military CRS. Bourgeois provincial France stamped out the Paris revolution just as it had in 1794, 1848 and 1871.

Therein lie some of the big differences between 1968 and 2008. As befitted a simpler age, in the sixties there were two clear sides to everything – black and white literally in America, Communist and Capitalist, class divisions and haves and have-nots. Now in the Naughties issues are both more global and more shaded. Sure, the politicians if not the generals are still fighting the last war, attacking ideas with missiles, just as they fought Fascism and Communism with bombs. As in the late 60s, the political classes are increasingly out of joint with the people they say they represent. British anti-Europeans cite the democratic deficit in EU institutions, but ignore the fact that millions of people marched in London, Rome and American cities, yet failed to stop the Iraq War. Bush can still say in March 2008, “Because we acted [in Iraq], the world is better and the United States of America is safer.”  A remark that Henry Kissinger (or even Brezhnev) might have been proud of. The difference this time is that there was no attempted revolution; only a resigned shrug that our democratic system (which we are trying to impose on others) is so flawed and corrupted that PR managers and lobbyists have more effect on it than any Rousseauist notion of the General Will.

So, while history doesn’t repeat itself, we might be tempted to think that it has chosen the fortieth anniversary of May ‘68 to repeat certain lessons. There were lots of other ‘68 events that have parallels today. The USS Pueblo caused a dangerous confrontation between the US and North Korea. Before the Olympic Games in Mexico City, student demonstrators were massacred, and two African American medal winners gave the Black Power Salute on the podium. Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. A financial crisis saw the dollar and sterling fall and gold rise to record prices in spite of the central banks’ attempts to intervene. Jacques Cousteau launched his “Undersea World” TV series about the marine environment.

“Vous finirez par tous mourir de confort.” “J’ai quelque chose à dire, mais je ne sais pas quoi.” “Une révolution qui demande que l’on se sacrifie pour elle est une révolution à papa.” These also were slogans of Paris ‘68, and they seem nearer to today’s problems.  Instead of 1960s Formica-topped comfort, today we are dying of entertainment – bingeing on social networking, computer games, iPod music, satellite TV and of course recreational drugs and travel. Our demands are manufactured and our needs managed, as Chomsky has said. We lack the rage that impels action, even when the ice is melting and the oil running out. Maybe consumerism has given us such a dizzying array of choices that we cannot discern which are really important. Innocence had its advantages – its loss was sudden and dramatic. But maybe we are just being British – America-lite or France without the sauce – tolerant and slow, or smug and complacent – take your choice. We were like that in 1968. As Jean-Baptiste Karr wrote in the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolution, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”