What Has Student Politics Ever Done For Us?: 1968, Fifty Years On

What Has Student Politics Ever Done For Us?: 1968, Fifty Years On
by Darcy Cornwallis 


On the 15th of June, 1968, The Guardian reported the founding of the British Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation. Hundreds of students – among them notable revolutionaries such as Tariq Ali – were present at what education correspondent Richard Bourne described as a “jungle of revolutionary ideology.” The aims of the new body were at once unequivocal and vague: “opposition to the control of education by the ruling class, support of all anti-imperialist struggles and solidarity with national liberation movements, opposition to racialism and immigration control, and workers’ power as the only alternative to capitalism.” This diverse, almost ramshackle statement stands as a useful testament to the nature of the student rebellions sweeping Western Europe (the focus of this essay, as opposed to groups working within the communist bloc) in the late sixties: youthful, contradictory, but most importantly, defined overwhelmingly in negative rather than positive terms. The revolutionaries may not have known precisely what they stood for, but they knew what they stood against. This essay will argue that rather than examining the 1968 revolutions in terms of blessings or curses it is more useful  to understand the situation in France and West Germany as the inevitable backlash against traditional western cultural attitudes. The horrors of the twentieth-century were dissected by a new student class and found to be lingering in the institutions of the continent. Ultimately this paper argues that in Germany and France the 1968 revolutions can only really be appreciated as the cultural maturation of European societies living in the shadow of Nazism, and that value-judgements regarding blessings or curses are unhelpful.

There are two primary factors at the heart of the student rebellions in France and Germany: the shadow of fascism and the creation of the student class. As has been well documented, the 1960s saw an unprecedented growth in tertiary student enrolments following the post-war boom years. In France, to take one example, the student population rose from 150,000 in 1955 to 600,000 in 1968, with similar rapid increases found across Europe. Not only were there more students but there were students who, perhaps for the first time since the French Revolution, felt themselves to be swept up in a shared historical moment which transcended national boundaries: “In the late 1960s, international youth movements, in the sense of both mobility and activism, crossed national borders repeatedly. Young people were increasingly viewing the world in international terms and participating in it in international ways.” Travel between European countries, and particularly between those which shared antagonistic histories, was promoted and encouraged by governments through exchange programs; Richard Ivan Jobs quotes a multi-national report from 1960 which stresses the role of exchange programs in promoting a “pluralistic view of the world” and “intercultural understanding.” As Jobs points out, this backfired spectacularly for the French and German Governments in the events of 1968. This creation of something resembling a pan-European youth identity was facilitated by technological progress. This could be in communications technology – for example, the controversial BBC discussion panel featuring student activists from around the world, on which revolutionary Karl Dietrich Wolff spoke of this new, loosely bound student collective. However, print technology also had an impact. The precise impact of the mass production of cheap paper-backs in Europe in the sixties on revolutionary thought is highly debateable; what is evident, however, is that they were being consumed at a remarkable rate by students and young people. In West Germany at the end of the 1950s, for example, 35% of pocket-book sales were to people under the age of 25%. While it is difficult to pinpoint the precise effects of any one of these phenomena, they do all point to the development of an international youth culture based on shared interests and experiences. By the late 1960s, Europe had its rebels. So what was the cause?

As intimated above, this new student class in France and Germany must be understood in the context of the Second World War. The shadow of nationalism was a persistent concern of activists in France and Germany alike; in West Germany, however, it was of course particularly visceral. “No one can fully comprehend the student revolt of 1967–68 in Germany without setting it in the context of its attempt to come to terms with the Nazi past,” writes Jay Winter. For the radical student consciousness awakening in West Germany, the uncomfortable relationship between their parents’ generation and the horrors of Nazism was ever present; in a speech delivered in March of 1968 student leader Rudi Dutschke used the language of Nazism to describe the regime in West Berlin. A “new fascism”, he argued, had manifested itself in “organised authoritarian institutions in all parts of the advanced capitalist society.” Fascinatingly, Dutschke stressed that the new fascism was not “structured and organised in one party or one person.” Although there were undoubtedly individuals in France and Germany who were explicitly linked to the fascism of the past, in this speech Dutschke touches on what this paper argues was the crux of Western European revolutionary thought. Individual thinkers or even ideologies played their part, but radical rage was directed primarily against a vast, vaguely defined but entirely pervasive sense of the past. Something deep in the cultural psyche of Western Europe, according to Dutshcke and others like him, was rotten. The conflation of West German governance, American imperialism and Germany’s fascist past would appear later in German radical thought; the Red Army Faction in the 1970s was perhaps motivated to an extent by an intense paranoia of pre-emptive state repression which harked back to the days of brutal suppression of dissidence, and stories abounded in the radical press of “Auschwitz style” tortures meted out against political agitators. On one level, of course, the linkage between the West German state and Hitler’s death camps is quite absurd. However, moving back to the events of the late sixties, the spectre of far-right extremism was not entirely imaginary. At a protest in 1967 against a visit to Germany by the Shah of Iran, a student activist was shot by a plain-clothes police officer, and Dutschke himself was gunned down (non-fatally) in April of 1968 by a far-right extremist. Further, during Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s expulsion from Paris in May 1968 as a dangerous “foreign agent” (in reality, he was born in France to German-Jewish refugee parents), he was supported by protestors crying “Cohn-Bendit à Paris!” They were met with shouts of “Cohn-Bendit à Dachau!” The events of 1968 were clearly part of a wider cultural shift, pitting young radicals against what they perceived to be the assembled evils of Western culture. The remainder of this essay will focus not on the riots and marches of 1968, which were notoriously unsuccessful in political terms, but rather on the cultural rebellion of the era which I argue was the true legacy of 1968.

The dichotomy of 1968 is neatly laid out by Nelson Lichtenstein. Although “the ebullient spirits unleashed in 1968 could not transcend the political sociology of the various states” in which the revolutions occurred, 1968 nevertheless “created, or at the very least, marked a generation.” To put this statement in perspective: this essay has argued that the parents of the ‘68ers had endured or even participated in nationalist extremism, terror, fascism and total war as their formative experiences. By contrast, the next generation took a spirit of international revolution which arguably has not been seen since as their defining experience. So what precisely made the revolutions of 1968 such a particularly cultural, rather than political, experience? The answer can be partially found by returning to Rudi Dutschke. In the speech examined above he lays a particular emphasis on the debilitating effects of fascism on the self: “[E]very day people are being moulded to organise their lives not with independence but as useful objects.” The personal realm was indistinguishable from the political. Consequently non-conformity – simply to be in a manner not mandated by the rest of society – was a political move. The sixties and seventies saw “the rise of alternative lifestyles and countercultures as additional forms of dissent,” and this close relationship between personal freedom and the utopian visions provided by radical leftist groups grew increasingly indistinguishable; or to put it another way, “Portraits of musicians like Jimi Hendrix promised the same freedom as the images of Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh [.]” In much the same way that occasional flashes of repression lends a degree of credibility to the claims of the ‘68ers, it is also worth noting that the spread of counterculture in the form of casual sexual relations, recreational drug use, and of course musical experience did seem to pose a genuine political threat to the powers that were; in 1968 the CIA produced a nervous report claiming that various powerful allies had been “undermined” by the unprecedented spread of youth culture. The “peace and love” cliché of sixties counterculture as little more than a rabble of stoned hippies may have a grain of truth to it, but it would be foolish in the extreme to dismiss the cultural legacy of 1968 out of hand. The platitudes about peace and love emerged in an era of brutal war in Vietnam, and, as Jay Winter reminds us, the decade of 1961 – 1971 saw the creation of both Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders.

The 1968 revolutions in France and Germany are best understood in a broad cultural sense. By moving the focus from the precise ideological tenets extolled by revolutionaries, and from the actual events on the streets of Paris in May 1968, this paper has attempted to position 1968 as a seismic shift in cultural and social attitudes as created by factors such as increased tertiary education, technological development and the need to come to terms with a horrific and painfully recent history of totalitarianism and Nazism. As such, comparing the negative and positive consequences of 1968 is not particularly helpful; a string of very powerful factors were at play in Western European society, and the revolutions of 1968 were their necessary outlet. In 1968, we see the emergence of the liberation of the self as a viable alternative to the narratives of race, religion and nationalism which defined what it is to be European for so many centuries before.






Featured image: Demonstration in Helsinki against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia (August 1968).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s