One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This month, to mark the 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we ask:
How Should We Remember 1968?
With responses from: Lewis Gordon; Rachel Harrison; Françoise Vergès; Daniel A Gordon; Max Elbaum; Robyn C Spencer; Gabriel Rockhill; Stephen Milder; Sarah Lincoln; Eric Mann; Ron Jacobs; Nadia Yala Kisukidi; R A Judy; Leo Zeilig; Catherine Samary; Stephen D’arcy.
Philosopher, musician, and global political intellectual. He is Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs. His recent books include What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (NY: Fordham UP; London: Hurst, 2016) and the forthcoming Fear of a Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Books in the UK).
We should combat the hegemonic, whitewashed historical misrepresentation of 1968. That year was one of upheavals across the globe, yet dominant discussions are of white college students taking over universities and mostly white people protesting against the Vietnam War.
Understanding 1968 as part of a period from 1966 whose arc reached into the mid-1970s, we should remember Indigenous people’s struggles, new formulations of Black Power, poor people’s campaigns, women’s liberation and queer movements, and, beyond North America and Europe, we should remember uprisings and ongoing practices of decolonisation across the African continent, Asia, Australasia, and Latin America.
It is significant that 1968 and now 2018 call for reflections on the lives of freedom fighters. This year Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx would have been 200. Nelson Mandela would have been 100. We lost such fighters as Mamma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of Azania/South Africa, the Black Liberation Theologian James Cone, the great physicist Stephen Hawking, the Corsican liberationist Ghjuvan’Teramu Rocchi, the revolutionary jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, and so many more in the first half of 2018.
We should reflect on the global demand for freedom, marked by struggles for liberation and social justice. This requires also thinking through mistakes of what is generally called ‘the left’. While ‘the right’ unabashedly pursued power in their counter-revolutionary endeavours, an unfortunate development since the late 1960s is the left’s seeming allergy to power. This has had a catastrophic effect of the right seeking and acquiring rule with the left locked in a pattern of reaction in the form of protest as the primary expression of political life.
Power is the ability with access to the means to make things happen. It is crucial to understand that protest without power is ineffective. A both-and approach is needed. Disempowering fascism, new forms of colonisation, and unbridled capitalism, whose reach now threatens the ecological welfare of life on our planet, requires embracing positive power – empowering – through the building of institutions conducive to dignity, intelligence, and material conditions of freedom.
Professor of Thai Cultural Studies at SOAS, University of London. In addition to her co-edited volume (with Peter A. Jackson) on The Ambiguous Allure of the West (Hong Kong University, 2010), she has edited a volume of chapters by Thai authors on the question of Western theoretical approaches to Thai literary analysis, entitled Disturbing Conventions: Decentring Thai Literary Cultures (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2014).
1968 was clearly a turbulent year of protest across many parts of the world, most widely documented in Western Europe and the United States. A significant element of that civil unrest was driven by what is referred to in the West as the Vietnam War – though from the Vietnamese perspective it is, unsurprisingly, known as the American War. ‘Events’ such as the Tet Offensive (Vietnamese, Sự kiện Tết Mậu Thân 1968) – which took place at the Vietnamese lunar new year (Tet) in January ‘68 – and the subsequent My Lai Massacre (the Sơn Mỹ Massacre in Vietnam) some six weeks later, have become shorthand for Western radical understandings of that war; and were triggers for the outrage sparked against it in 1968.
In the US, one of the key effects of the American involvement in Vietnam was to necessarily reinvigorate protest against the appalling depths of racial inequality exemplified by the draft. In cinematic representations of the war, such as Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) or Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) one of the principle themes pertains to race relations between black and white GIs. Typical of the genre, however, little is said of relations, hostile or otherwise, between the Americans and the Vietnamese. In this regard Coppola’s assertion that the film ‘IS Vietnam’ can only be so in the sense that it is America’s ‘experience’ of Vietnam.
But what of the Vietnamese experience of the Vietnam War? When we remember 1968 we must also take heed not only of the pointless deaths of American troops, but also of the extensive suffering of the Vietnamese military and civilian population. Women such as the award-winning novelist Dương Thu Hương, born in 1947, volunteered to join a North Vietnamese women’s youth brigade at the age of 21. Her experience on the front line against the Americans became the basis of her 1991 work Novel without a Name. Her contemporary, Bảo Ninh, has become world renowned as a result of the translation of The Sorrow of War which laid bare the extent of the trauma soldiers such as he experienced. Serving in Glorious 27th Youth Brigade that joined the war effort in 1969 with 500 troops, he was one of only ten who survived. Our voices of protest have a moral obligation to acknowledge their pain and to listen to their voices.
A long-time antiracist feminist activist. She is currently Global South(s) Chair at Fondation maison des sciences de l’homme in the Collège d’études mondiales, Paris.
In 1968, I was still a high school student in Reunion Island. From that French colony in the Indian Ocean, 1968 was The Hour of the Furnaces to borrow Fernando Solanas’ title of his film that year. Solanas was borrowing from José Marti ‘Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen’, and this was how 1968 looked to me and still does. This is how I think we should remember 1968: as a series of furnaces being lit up around the globe against imperialism, capitalism, sexism and racism. The long 1950s culminated in 1968 with the hope that two, three, many Vietnams would weaken the US imperialism that was bringing destruction worldwide: the era of decolonization, of Bandung in 1955, of the creation of the Tricontinental. Only four years before, the victory of the Algerian people against French colonialism had galvanized peoples still living under colonialism.
In the following years however, the French Left proceeded to betray the promises of 1968. The role of decolonization and of migrant workers in the radicalisation of anti-capitalist and antiracist politics was erased. Movements like the Women’s Liberation Movement or the Gay movement embraced the false narrative that French colonialism had disappeared with the end of the war in Algeria. They chose to ignore the struggles that were going in the so-called ‘overseas departments’ (for instance the insurrection of May 1967 in Guadeloupe), the racial coloniality of the republican regime and its mutilated cartography. They planted the seeds of femo-nationalism and homo-imperialism. Forgetting how anti-imperialism (and consequently antiracism and antisexism) had been the ferment of 1968 fed a revisionist narrative that re-situated the changes brought by 1968 in Europe within the frame of individual freedom rather than collective liberation.
I interpret a sentence in Solanas’ film, ‘the risk we take to be humanized’, as embodying the long struggle against the colonial idea of being human that denies humanity to a vast majority of people, that rests on a racial division between the lives that matter and the lives that do not matter. Remembering 1968 today is keeping the furnaces alive, especially as women’s rights have become the last card of imperialism. Feminism must be without hesitation antiracist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, and must take into account queer and trans analysis. The struggle is ongoing.
Daniel A Gordon
Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University. Author of Immigrants and Intellectuals: May ’68 and the Rise of Anti-Racism in France (Merlin Press, 2012) and numerous other writings on 1968, including on recent historiography, on Jacques Sauvageot and on Olivier Assayas.
1968 was a kind of mass collective refusal of authority. What makes the May events in France such an enduring story is their sheer high drama, reminiscent of the unity of time and place in a classic French play. The collection of contrasting characters who enter and leave the stage of May – from the liberal police chief Maurice Grimaud to the paratroop commander Jacques Massu, from the young Jacques Chirac in his first ministerial post to Henri Krasucki the tough Communist trade union negotiator, from the cheeky student Dany Cohn-Bendit to the elder statesman Pierre Mendès-France – is all rather spellbinding.
Yet we should never forget that this was a movement made by millions of anonymous women and men. One of the most important tasks of recent historiography has been to try and rescue the rank-and-file participants of ‘68 from historical oblivion. Rather than fetishising young student radicals, we should remember that not everyone aged 20 was radical, and not every radical was aged 20, or a student. It was the multinational workforce of France whose collective withdrawal of labour disturbed the apparent stability of advanced industrial capitalism. It was the sewing machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham who brought to the forefront the demand for equal pay in the UK.
So the French May was only the best known part of a much broader and longer transnational historical moment that historians now call the ‘1968 years’, becoming a kind of template for modern revolutionary possibility across Europe and far beyond. Different ways of thinking about how to live were invented or revived, expanding people’s sense of what was possible. Links of international solidarity were forged from Tehran to Berlin, from Tunis to Dakar, from Paris to Istanbul.
Nevertheless, radical internationalism was not shared by everyone: immediate and concrete concerns were important too. The received idea that ‘68 left no legacy beyond cultural liberalisation is questionable. Not every demand was unrealistically utopian: the workers of France achieved a 35% increase in the minimum wage, opening up a 15 year period of redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. ‘68 was also one of the causes of the democratic transitions in Spain, Portugal and Greece.
Across the world today, many former ‘68 participants still lead more modest existences in grassroots activism than the ‘memory barons’ who dominate much of the conversation. In France the subversive spectre of ‘68 never really went away, resurfacing whenever revivals of protest occur, although the ubiquity in modern memory of a certain clichéd version of May can be a poisoned chalice.
Has been involved in peace, anti-racist and radical movements since joining Students for a Democratic Society in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s. The third edition of his book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, with a new foreword by Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Alicia Garza, was just released as part of Verso Books 1968 Series.
In 1968, millions poured into the streets across the globe inspired by dreams of a better world. The U.S. was no exception.
In the first four months of that tumultuous year, the Vietnamese Tet offensive ended Washington’s hopes of victory in Southeast Asia and forced incumbent President Lyndon Johnson to abandon his re-election bid. Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated and Black uprisings erupted in more than 100 cities. Flames reached within six blocks of the White House; 70,000 troops had to be called up across the country to restore order.
These jolts punctuated a decade of Civil Rights organizing, anti-war protests, cultural ferment and youth rebellion that opened up the sharpest racial political polarization in the country since the Civil War. That polarization centred on injustices woven into the underlying structure of U.S. society:
- The pattern of expansion through violence and war stretching from the genocide of Native peoples, through ‘manifest destiny’ to the imperial project then bogged down in the jungles of Vietnam.
- The embedding of racism into the political economy of the U.S., from the ‘original sin’ of racial slavery through Jim Crow to the violent opposition to racial equality symbolized by the murder of Dr King.
The massive scale of the 1968 upsurge against war, racism and the system in which they were entrenched indicated that there was hope of achieving the ‘Revolution of Values’ that Dr King called for. That the oppressive structures of a racist imperial power were not the only strands of U.S. history: there was a democratic counter-tradition stretching back to the period of abolitionism and Reconstruction which showed its power once again in the Black-led Second Reconstruction that defeated McCarthyism, ended Jim Crow, and opened up the space for freedom movements in every community of colour, Second Wave Feminism and Gay Liberation.
The backlash against these gains has held the initiative in U.S. politics since that hope-filled time. But a look back at 1968 from the vantage point of today’s moment of Trump-led racist authoritarianism tells us that this country urgently needs another Reconstruction – and we can make it happen if people of conscience pick up the 1968 torch.
Robyn C Spencer
Associate Professor in History at Lehman College, New York. She is the author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Duke University Press, 2016). For more info see: www.robyncspencer.com.
1968 should be remembered as year of political possibility. By 1968, Black American radicals in organisations like the Black Panther Party, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Republic of New Afrika set their sights on attacking structural racism, poverty, colonialism and US imperialism. The TET offensive in January had challenged the US war machine in Vietnam and Black activists were at the forefront of the growing anti-war movement in the US and around the world. Kwame Toure (born Stokely Carmichael) would popularize the phrase ‘hell no, we won’t go’, a rallying cry to those resisting the draft.
1968 also should be remembered as a time of counterrevolution. This same year, the FBI would further sharpen the fangs of COINTELPRO, a program of raids, arrests, infiltration, harassment, surveillance, wiretapping, and fomenting violence aimed at Black radical organizations. The counterrevolution of the state reached its height as people power was taking root. Founded in 1966 in Oakland, California the Panthers spread nationwide by 1968 with a membership of thousands and began a campaign to seek international alliances in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. A 1968 FBI memo dubbed the Panthers ‘the most violence-prone organization of all the extremist groups operating in the United States.’ Attorney General John Mitchell defined the Panther threat in terms of the linkages between its domestic and international activities. Eventually, the CIA would join the FBI and local police to restrain the power and potential of the organizations like the Black Panther Party. However, this legacy of resistance continues to motivate a new generation of activists who fifty years later, are reaching across borders to solidify new movements.
Philosopher, cultural critic and activist who teaches at Villanova University, directs the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne, and is a member of the autonomous collective RED: Radical Education Department. His recent books include Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (Duke University, 2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (Edinburgh University, 2016) and Radical History & the Politics of Art (Columbia University, 2014). For more information: https://gabrielrockhill.com
1968 was a year of global insurrections that arose like a tidal wave out of the vast and profound historical ocean that is anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics. Far from being circumscribed in a delimited period of time or cordoned off in specific spaces, it is thus best understood as a symbolic high water mark for insurgent revolutionary politics in the post-war era.
The remembrance of 1968 should be first and foremost a rejuvenation and radicalization. Rather than indulging in the time-honoured burial rituals of commemoration, by which an event only takes on its full meaning by endlessly restaging its public inhumation, we should recognize that 1968 is only what it will have become in its future perfect iterations. By rejuvenating and radicalizing what it stands for, its history can literally come back to life by being rewritten as a preliminary step in a global insurrection in the name of an egalitarian politics of liberation. We can thereby honour the past by radically transforming its very meaning and place in history.
Such active historical resuscitation, in which it is recognized that the past is only truly alive in the future that it will have become, can also serve as an antidote to the rampant mythologisation surrounding 1968. For, in engaging with this historical legacy and learning from its material struggles, we can also pry it loose from its rote interpretations.
To take but one example that is particularly philosophically salient, the myth of the ‘thinkers of 68’ is in dire need of correction. On the one hand, many of the intellectuals who were actually directly involved in preparing or acting in it – including Henri Lefebvre, Cornelius Castoriadis and Guy Debord – have been side-lined or excluded from the transnational, blockbuster phenomenon known as ‘French theory.’ On the other hand, those who were not involved or openly critical of it – such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan – are frequently marketed under its banner. This signals the need for not only a rejuvenation and radicalization of the politics of ‘68, but also of the traditions of truly radical critique that directly contributed to it.
Teaches in the Department of European Languages and Cultures at the University of Groningen. His book Greening Democracy (Cambridge University, 2017) appeared in 2017 and was recently featured on When People Rise Podcast.
‘I can tell it to you short and sweet,’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit recently told an interviewer: ‘Forget 1968!’ It was a ‘wonderful time’ for those who lived it, he explained, but today’s problems are different. Looking back on 1968 ‘makes no sense.’* Cohn-Bendit’s quip was more than a simple provocation or an attempt to avoid answering stale questions once again. As Cohn-Bendit himself has remarked elsewhere, 1968 has become a veritable lightning rod in important contemporary debates, on the future of Europe, migration, feminism, young people’s participation in politics, and many more besides.
In many of these debates, 1968 has become little more than a cypher. On the one hand, Europe’s resurgent radical right equates 1968 with the continent’s decline. Markus Willinger’s Declaration of War on the ‘68ers, considered the manifesto of the Identitarian movement, holds the 68er generation responsible for destroying Europe through its acceptance of multiculturalism. On the other hand, the Night of the Barricades and the General Strike have become the stuff of legend for progressives. From their perspective, 1968 represents a pinnacle of democratic participation that is impossible to recreate. For both sides, then, 1968 is mythologized in a way that makes it, as Wesley Hogan has written of the US Civil Rights Movement, ‘a kind of sacred ground…beyond reach, beyond analysis.’
Cohn-Bendit may be right that we would be better off forgetting 1968 than using it only as a shorthand for all that is wrong the world, or as a shining example of a different time when change was possible. But we need not ‘Forget 1968!’ to stop seeing it so simplistically. Let’s take 1968 off its pedestal and see it neither as bogeyman nor myth. Rather than separating that year from the rest of history, let’s remember it as a particular moment in a long process by which real people – not just some radical fringe – changed Europe.
* I would like to thank Emilio Dogliani, who drew my attention to this interview.
Associate professor of English at Portland State University, where she teaches postcolonial and other global literatures, ecocriticism, and literary theory. She has published on oil and magical realism in Nigeria; consumerism in Senegalese film; space and the politics of hope in Martinican fiction; precarity and transition in South Africa; and gardening as resistance. Her current book project, The Idea of Gardening: Postcolonial Literature and the Ethics of Cultivation, studies the political, cultural, and environmental stakes of gardening in contemporary literature.
Though the May ’68 uprisings in France, and the subsequent global demonstrations and protests, are not often remembered as environmental movements, these events also marked the emergence of ecological consciousness as an element of a broader anti-capitalist protest, with anti-nuclear activists joining anti-war demonstrators in condemning the destructive environmental and human effects of industrial consumerism. Though the famous Situationist slogan ‘Sous les pavés, la plage’ – ‘beneath the paving stones, the beach!’ – expressed an affirmation of leisure and freedom over the restrictive, deadening effects of modern civilization, we can also see the invocation of ‘la plage’ as a demand for access to sand, soil, or nature more generally. Indeed, the events of ‘68 inspired a range of environmentalist, ecological and eco-anarchist movements, including the Street Farm Collective in London and similar urban cultivation projects.
1968 is also often seen as the first time that the planet as a living entity first comes to public consciousness. Snapped from the Apollo 8 spacecraft on December 24, 1968, the image now known as ‘Earthrise’ has often been credited with inspiring the contemporary environmental movement. Some have called it ‘one of the most influential environmental photographs ever taken’. By bringing to popular consciousness the concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’, with all the fragility, beauty, and responsibility this connoted, ‘Earthrise’ offered a view of our planet from, precisely, a planetary point of view. If many scientists propose 1950, the beginning of the ‘Great Acceleration’ in global industrial development, as one start date for the Anthropocene, then we might consider this 1968 photograph as one of the points of origin for human attempts to represent it – what Rob Nixon calls the ‘public Anthropocene’.
Like the planet itself, we come to the Anthropocene ‘from a distance’: striving to understand the phenomenon in its totality, but unable, as Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, to experience it ontologically. 1968 marks a key moment in the evolution of contemporary environmental thinking, writing, and activism – the moment we start thinking of ourselves as a species.
Veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, the Newark Community Union Project, and the United Auto Workers. He is director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer (Beacon,2011), and host of KPFK/Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
Today in Los Angeles I still try to channel the great anti-racist, anti-colonial achievements of 1968. My organization, the Labor/Community Strategy Center works in Black and Latino communities and operates Strategy and Soul Movement Center. We show Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers in our film theatre, and our bookstore feature’s General Giap’s History of the great Tet Offensive of January 1968 and Clay Carson’s history of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – as we try to imagine an international movement to stand up to Israeli and U.S. genocide against the Palestinian people today. Dr. King called the U.S. ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world’, and on April 4, 1968 he was assassinated as urban centres exploded. Today, he could not have imagined the U.S. would imprison 1 million Black people as we still await the urban rebellions and white solidarity in response.
In 1968, as an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society, I helped lead the Great Battle against Columbia University where a Black united front in Harlem, Students’ Afro-American Society, and SDS forced Columbia to stop construction of a racist gym project in Harlem and end its participation in the Institute for Defense Analyses, a centre for war crimes research. The Great Slave Rebellions and victories of The Third World in 1968 were met by the most systematic, fierce counter-revolution of U.S. imperialism – white backlash, COINTELPRO, and an ideological anti-communism – as many left academics today critique The Movement’s great achievements to advance their own careers.
I saw a beautiful revolution with my own eyes and our achievements far outweighed our errors – we could not have imagined the barbarism and brutality of U.S. imperialism and its insatiable need for revenge and reaction. Today, an international united front against U.S. imperialism is still the only viable strategy for racial, social, and climate justice. Defending the great revolutionary achievements of 1968 and working in the Black community are two elements of my resistance and hope.
Writer, worker and activist. He is the author of the The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso, 1997), Daydream Sunset: The 60s Counterculture in the 70s (Counterpunch, 2015), and three novels, among other works. He writes for Counterpunch and other journals. Ron was 13 years old in 1968.
1968 was a year when it seemed like the revolutionary forces had the upper hand. Looking back, I believe it can be argued that there were moments when they truly did. In terms of liberation, lots of things changed for the better. Obvious forms of racial and gender bondage were loosened and even torn apart in many places. Unfortunately, other things only got worse. Of the latter, one can put the economic system of capitalism at the top of the list. Its grip on the world is the number one cause of our current situation. It is why an ever diminishing percentage of the world’s population controls an ever growing percentage of the world’s assets, leaving growing numbers of the rest of us in an economy where debt impoverishes many and controls the destinies of most everyone.
The events of 1968 changed the world. Hopes were born and hopes were crushed. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam signalled a decisive turn towards liberation. So did the events of May in France. The murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of protesters killed in the rebellion after his murder showed how far the powerful were willing to go to keep their power; so did the murders of protesters in Mexico City and other places around the globe. So did the repression by the police in Chicago during the Democratic convention and by the military in Prague. I remember it personally as the time my understanding of the world and how certain men and institutions manipulated it deepened. I also believe that millions of humans remember it as a moment when the potential power of people intent on liberation, social justice, and democracy was revealed. I hope I live to see another such historic juncture.
Nadia Yala Kisukidi
Born in Belgium, Nadia Yala Kisukidi studied philosophy and theology in France and Switzerland. Specialist in French philosophy and Africana philosophy, she is associate professor in Paris 8 Vincennes Saint Denis University and member of the Collège International de Philosophie (Paris).
If we have to remember May ‘68, it is to underline all the political solidarities that linked in the same period workers, immigrants, youths, students in many countries. The celebration of solidarities, crossing race, class and gender: this how we have to remember May ‘68; this riot was a material expression of a concrete utopia. With the slogan ‘convergence of struggles’ that was at the core of the movement in France for example, May ‘68 embodies an anti-capitalist revolutionary fight for equality.
In that sense, the remembering of May ‘68 does not need to focus on May ‘68 itself. There were many May ‘68s before and after ’68! May ‘68 is also not rooted in a western geography. Congo, June ‘69, Dakar, May ‘68, Guadeloupe, May ‘67 … The ‘spirit of May’ is re-enacted in all the political struggles that try to build solidarities – that is to say, alliances between groups and people that do not face, necessarily, the same oppressions, but decide to gather to fulfil their dream of equality.
Aimé Césaire, in many texts (Discourse on colonialism, the book prefaces of Victor Schœlcher’s writings), draws a useful theory of memory. Acts of remembrance are not exclusively needed to recall pains and traumas. They are not needed, also, to bind people and to attach them to an identity. They are useful when their aim is to rebuild new paths for hope, to sustain new imaginaries for the future. So if we have to commemorate May ‘68, we should celebrate it in the way theorized by Césaire: remembering the past not to promote conservatism or to nurture a feeling of nostalgia, but to open new political horizons for a revolutionary praxis.
R A Judy
Professor of Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of (Dis)forming the American Canon: The Vernacular of African Arabic American Slave Narrative (University of Minnesota, 1992), and has edited numerous special issues and dossiers for boundary 2, among which are two important dossiers on Tunisia: Some Notes on the Status of Global English in Tunisia (2000), and The Tunisian Revolution Dignity (2012).
15 January 2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the culmination of five-days of demonstrations by students in Tunisia in 1968. Organized by members of Perspectives Tunisiens, those demonstrations were part of ongoing student concerns with issues of academic freedom, forced military service, increasing cost of education, and employment. The arrest of the Perspectives student leader, Mohammad Ben Jennet, following a series of student demonstrations in June 1967, and his being sentenced to 20 years hard labour, became a rallying point for the student movement of 68.
The demonstrations of January were also prompted by the visit to Tunisia of United States Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, resulting in attacks on both the US and British embassies. Among the Perspectivistes organizers were members of the Comité de Solidarité avec le Peuple Vietnamien, who also organized demonstrations against the visit of the South Vietnamese minister of foreign affairs, Tran Van Do. That solidarity for the North Vietnamese in their struggle against US imperialism was aligned with solidarity for the Palestinian Cause.
In short, those Tunisian events of 1968, occurring five months before the French uprising, were pronouncedly Third Worldist. These were the events of ‘68 Michel Foucault spoke of as incredibly violent, manifesting, he thought, ‘a dissatisfaction that came from the way in which a kind of permanent oppression in daily life was being put into effect by the state and by other institutions and oppressive groups’, and which informed his subsequent work on power. They were events that underscored the ant-imperialist liberatory aspect of what we now refer to as the Global 68.
They are important to us now not only because the need for such resistance is as great as it was then, perhaps even greater, but also because the spirit driving them is still alive. On 14 January 2018, there were demonstrations across Tunisia, even though they expressly commemorated the fall of Ben Ali resulting from the uprising of 2010, 2011, they coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 demonstrations. Once again, the students are playing a key role. So, the answer to the question, ‘How Should We Remember 1968?’ is: as a continuing viable struggle in which global solidarity is key.
Researcher, writer and novelist. His recent biography, Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of Third World Liberation (2015) was published by I B Tauris. Zeilig’s latest novel, An Ounce of Practice (2017), is set in Zimbabwe and published by Hoperoad.
The year 1968 was the high-point of student unrest and politics for more than one continent. Despite a few honourable exceptions, one of the problems with the huge amount of material that poured out of the social movements in the late 1960s and 1970s was its extraordinary Eurocentrism. The decade was as important for student activists in Africa as it was in Europe and North America.
Similarly, 1968 was a crucial year for student revolutionaries on the continent. In Senegal, in events that predated the upheavals in France, students were central to the worst political crisis the President, Leopold Senghor, had faced since independence eight years previously. Forcing him to flee the capital and call in the French army to restore order, after only eight years of independence. As one witness describing the impact of the events on Senegalese society wrote: ‘May 1968 was the midwife of the “democratic opening”… Activists trained in radical politics judiciously exploited the weakness in the government and gave to the movement a radical orientation.’ Senegal now entered a period of political turmoil. There was a proliferation of left-wing Maoist and communist groups.
The nature of the student and workers’ revolt in Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s transformed the continent and the radical left, helping to shape the following four decades. Students on the continent at the time of independence in 1960 were pampered members of a privileged group who could expect state employment in the formal sectors after graduation, but quickly the conditions of higher education changed and so did their activism. Activism in Africa from 1968 shaped the continent and for a moment seemed to offer a future of radical pro-poor governments in different countries.
Economist, Researcher on former socialist and Yugoslav experience and European systemic transformations (http://csamary.free.fr), involved in May 1968 in France as student and political activist, member of the Fourth International and French radical left. Active in Alter-global, feminist and anti-racist movements.
We should remember what the dominant forces of the existing world order try to hide. They implement Gorge Orwell’s maxim: ‘Those who control the present, control the past; those who control the past control the future’.
The ‘present’ they try to control is the historical turn that was named the ‘neo-liberal’ capitalist phase, globalised and radicalized after 1989-1991. In fact, it was revealed to be an ‘ordo-liberalism’, without ‘free’ choices, after the financial crisis of 2008, demonstrating the role of strong states, international treaties and financial institutions in imposing ‘market rule’ against labour and the collective rights of the past. This ideological and ‘social war’ began in what we can call ‘the 1968 years’ – this term expresses both the diversity of 1968 in the world, and stresses 1968 as the symbolic climax of a broader period of increasing contest against the world order in the 1960s and up to the 1980s.
It was indeed a universal phase of youth radicalisation. But it was triggered by the extension of revolutions helping anti-colonial resistances in the 1960s. The centrality of anti-war mobilisations against US war in Vietnam was obvious in Che Guevara’s globally popular slogans, and in particular within the core countries themselves (from France to USA, from Germany to Italy) after the mid-1960s. Within a deep cultural youth movement, there was a radical politicisation against imperialist and colonial wars. But the subversive content of 1968 came from the interrelations between that youth internationalist radicalisation and the massive worker protests. Far from being reduced to a demand for higher wages and more consumption, those protests, embodied in the impressive general strike of millions of workers (in France and Italy), raised the issue of the ‘dignity’ of being human against the ‘status’ and social exploitation imposed on them by market competition for profit.
All this is to be hidden because it is more than ever at stake, locally and globally. In 1968, the anti-capitalist and internationalist dynamics were a potentially lethal threat to the capitalist world order, because they also began to be linked with radical criticisms against bureaucratic and oppressive relations within the ‘Socialist systems’. It was possible to reject the false dilemma: ‘either capitalism or the “Soviet model” of socialism’. From the Prague Spring to the Autumn of workers councils against soviet tanks, including the June 1968 youth Yugoslav movement for ‘self-management from bottom to top’, the dominant trend (up to 1980 in Poland with Solidarnos’s program for a ‘self-managed Republic’) was to reduce the gap between socialist claims and the oppressive reality of the single party regimes ruling on behalf of the workers. This aspiration for a real egalitarian and democratic society expressed in 1968 is more than ever a ‘concrete utopia’ (not yet existing but expressed in many struggles) that dominant forces aim to destroy.
Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Huron University College, in London, Ontario, Canada. He is author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy (Zed, 2014), and co-editor of A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice (PM Press, 2014).
In politics, memory is always about the future. We care about what happened because we care about what is possible, about what we could do to change things, to be freer, less helpless, more happy. Accordingly, if 1968 is remembered as a milestone year in the history of democratic politics, it is not because of what was accomplished in those months. It is because of what was shown to be possible. The year 1968 survives, in spite of so many attempts to bury it, as a confirmation that alternatives are always at hand, like the beach beneath the cobblestones, as it was put in one of that year’s most memorable slogans.
It’s important to recall that the 1968 protest upsurge was global in scope. It began when the people of Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive in January, after months of assurances from US generals that such a thing was impossible. After that, wave upon wave of ‘impossible’ revolt swept the planet. Here I can only cite a few examples: a historic Irish civil rights march in occupied Derry; a massive student revolt in Mexico City; five days of indignation during the Democratic Party’s convention in Chicago; a 7,000-strong protest encampment, Resurrection City, set up on the Washington Mall; and in France, the convergence of an unprecedented student rebellion with the largest general strike in European history, leading President Charles de Gaulle to flee the country in panic.
From the point of view of my discipline, democratic theory, what was crucial to the movements of 1968 was their repudiation of the official political process, and the many attempts in that year – however halting and imperfect they were – to improvise provisional self-governance structures outside of and against the state. The setting up of deliberative assemblies in the schools and workplaces of France, in May, was the most famous expression of this, but by no means the only one. The revitalization of the idea that democracy could be broadly participatory, and that it could invite inclusive and wide-ranging deliberation about the trajectory of social development, is what gave France in particular its first look in almost a century (since the Commune of 1871) at what an authentically, not hypocritically republican politics could be. The republic of the streets sought to embody an association of self-governing equals, bypassing the politicians and technocrats and rejecting the elite consensus about what is or isn’t possible to transform for the sake of the common good and the requirements of justice.
It is notable that the defeat of the May movement in France, an unmitigated disaster for French democracy, coincided with the channelling of the movement’s energies into the official political process, in the June elections. Does this cautionary instance offer a hint that might help us navigate the challenges that confront democratic politics in our own time? Faced with politicians like Trump, it is tempting to think that the outcome of elections is the most important thing in politics. But what the ‘68 example shows is that often the hope for democracy lies precisely in the attempt to extricate democratic politics from the stranglehold of the ‘political process’. Maybe the alternative to Trump is not some zombie politician trotted out by the Democratic Party establishment as an imaginary alternative, but something with an authentically transformative potential: a republic of the streets and the social movements.