The contradictions of the 1960s – A failure or a revolution ? (1)

Revolution-68-001

The 1960’s movement, which culminated in 1968, was a revolution that took place in a multitude of countries and that expressed itself through different means and aspects. Arguably the most important aspect of the movement, and perhaps the greatest legacy it left behind, was a collective consciousness, and the fact that people were feeling, for the very first time, generational. Thanks to the perspective we have today, it is clear that there are some aspects that we can highlight from the failures, victories and the heritage that the movement has left behind and it is with these terms that we will discuss the consequences of the 1960’s worldwide phenomenon.

Firstly, we can safely say that the most important failure of the 1968 movement is that it was never truly able to transform itself into a movement represented by a political party or by some kind of institution. The main reason why the movement and the ideas that were fueling it never actually became political or were translated into political reforms or laws (with just a few exceptions which we will see later) is that, simply, the movement was not meant to be a purely political one. The ideas which were taken in by the movement were often inspired by sociologists, philosophers and third world revolutionaries and were generally misunderstood or less known to the vast majority of the people who participated in the movement (Kurlansky); the people who marched down on the streets during the events of 1968 were students, most of them belonging to the bourgeoisie, or workers. Let’s not forget that many of the participants to the movement were fighting, not only against the Vietnam war, for a better scholastic institution, or for better civil rights, but also for the liberalization of sex and drugs, a subject that doesn’t promptly touch political institutions especially since these individuals were still a minority. The fact that these protests were made for such a wide array of reasons and values that were expressed in a chaotic way, without the help of any strong institutional power that could channel all the voices, made it so that even though the movement was loud it was never at any moment both “loud” and “clear”. That undoubtedly played in favor of the political parties that held power at the time, as it was clear to them that, in the end, they would have the upper hand: they used the frenetic energies of the protests to their own advantage. As their beloved Marcuse stated himself along with Mannheim and Mills “utopian ideals must reflect what are practically possible, if not they remain simple ideologies” (Kurlansky). The general perception was that these ideals were unrealistic and therefore could not really find any foothold inside the main political issues and problems. This went against the movement in a major way, although some political victories were, as we said earlier, recorded even if indirectly. The consequence of this failure can be seen rather clearly in most of the countries which have participated. In France, where the people were afraid on a new communist uprising, the Gaullists managed to hold power until 1981 when François Mitterrand (leftist) was elected.

The same situation practically repeated itself and in the United States of America with the election of Nixon, Ford’s successive presidency and then Reaganism in the 1980’s, which practically buried any chance of having the ideals posed twenty years prior by the movement. In the United Kingdom, where the movement was already widely regarded as a “largely apolitical efflorescence of musical and youth culture”, the advent of Thatcherism had the same effect of Reaganism in the US.

Italy, however, was the only country in which the 1960’s revolution turned into something political but it was, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons, as Terrorism took center stage with extremist groups such as the “Brigate Rosse”.

This, therefore, is what was left of the 1968 movement in the major actors of the so called “First World”, but what about what happened in the Third World countries?

Most of the major Third World countries at that time were under the rule of communist leaders or figures and adopted a political ideology that has been dubbed “Third World Marxism”. Consistent parts of the Third World Marxist, however, were the students that protested in the United States itself. The principle of this ideology “saw national liberation in the global South as the cutting edge of the worldwide progressive movement, and it put opposition to racism and military interventionism at the very center of activist vision. Although it gained considerable popularity in the early 1970’s, the year 1973 marked the beginning of its downfall, and the ideas and hopes of the participants, which based themselves on a series of premature assumptions and predictions which did not come through in the end, started to fade away. This important period in Asian history, however, was not a complete failure as the victories of the national liberation front in the early 1970’s proved to be effective in the obtainment of the last few independences in Asian communist countries.

Rodolfo Zontini

References

Hitchcock William, The Struggle for Europe, Doubleday, February 2003

O’ Hagan Sean Everyone to the barricades, The Observer, January 2008

Jones B. and O’Donnell Michael Resurgence? The legacies of the sixties to contemporary social movements” in “Sixties radicalism and social movements activism: retreat or resurgence?, Anthem Press, 2010

Elbaum Max “What legacy from the radical internationalism of 1968?”, http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/elbaum.html

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