Wednesday, 30 April 2008

1968 and all that

Prospect has a load of pieces from various folks reflecting on the impact (good and bad) of 1968. I was drawn to two from very different perspectives. The first one, the more conservative/skeptical view, comes from economist Paul Ormerod:

I observed the events of May 1968 from my council estate in Rochdale. They seemed to have no relevance to us. We saw on our television screens self-indulgent children of the bourgeoisie calling for the overthrow of the system... Public schoolboys, with glittering careers awaiting in finance, the media and the law, occupied buildings and pontificated about revolution. It was hard to treat it seriously, as anything other than some live street version of Footlights.

40 years later you can still see the same thing. You can’t help but wonder why – in the face of complete indifference from the class they claim to want to liberate – comfortably-off young peeps continue to get involved in ‘revolutionary’ politics. It can’t be any kind of rational response to the society they see, which is wealthier than it has ever been and within which a revolution would appeal to very few. Maybe it is, like Ormerod suggests, simply a bit of play-acting, albeit one the participants don’t even realize (yet) they are indulging in.

Anyway, coming at 1968 from the shamelessly 'it was a brilliant laugh' perspective is none other than Denis MacShane:

Before 1968 all was grey, conservative, male and old. After 1968, it got a lot better. I was 20 in 1968, and I cannot think of a better year in the last 200 to have been 20 in. The 1968 generation gave up economics for sociology. Capitalism won as most 1968ers morphed into Richard Bransons with greater or lesser success, and 1968 produced no enduring reformist politics. But to be young in 1968 was very heaven, and today’s Blimpish attacks prove just what a great moment in history it was.

He must have read Roger Scruton’s piece just before he wrote the line about ‘Blimpish attacks’, since Scruton sounds like the sort of bloke who turns up to a party and can’t understand why people are enjoying themselves.

Meanwhile 1968 also got a mention in the FT yesterday. I am sure the Jonathan Guthrie is far too young to remember 1968, but he sounds like he ingested some similar substances to the 68ers, how else do we explain his missing decade:

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the anti-establishment rioting of 1968.

Don’t they say if you can remember the 60s you weren’t there?


Charlie Marks said...

I love your mention of "comfortably-off young peeps". How I wish I was one of those...

My idea of revolution is much like that formerly espoused by the Labour party - "To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service."

Read Mark Steel's piece in the Independent ( for a counter-balance:

"in May 1968 the French general strike was the biggest to have ever taken place in the world, and started with a mass meeting of car workers. Or maybe the union meeting began, "Brothers, sisters, dudes, hey look at the colours on this carburettor. Those in favour raise your hand." And the strike's demands were five vibes an hour, rising to seven and three-quarters for overtime. Similarly, in the United States the anti-war campaign involved more than the festival at Woodstock. By 1968 the most prominent characters were ex-soldiers who'd been in the war, and the Black Panthers, which eventually caused such disarray in the US army, as one third of soldiers were black and were unenthusiastic about fighting for a country that didn't let them eat at the same table as whites.

"The sense of revolt spread to almost every country, so hundreds of Mexicans were gunned down for opposing the regime, and a civil rights movement began in Northern Ireland to challenge the discrimination against Catholics. Then in Czechoslovakia a reforming government was crushed by Russian tanks, and protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers' guns. Even this, while sounding hippyish, would be an ideal way to protest in today's busy time-conscious world, because even if you were too rushed to demonstrate you could send your protest by Interflora.

"Yet all this courage and imagination is dismissed by so many, such as one columnist who recently derided the whole movement as "self-loathing twaddle." So Martin Luther King and the protesters in Prague and the French strikers could have stopped themselves getting so worked up if they'd just learned to enjoy a little "me" time. And then the Viet Cong could be laid out one by one, while a shrink said gently, "So when your family owned half an acre of a rice field and shared a mule, and then the mule was napalmed – did this make you angry in any way?""

Tom P said...

I think you might be in a small minority of the far left though Charlie. Most of the Trots I have met down the years have hardly come to the branch meeting straight from the pit head!

I don't get the need for a revolution. Why not just convince the punters of your political programme and get them to vote you in? Also who, apart from the few thousand far left activists, thinks a revolution is a proportinate response to the issues facing the UK? It seems about 100 years out of date.

Charlie Marks said...

Don't worry Tom, I'm not talking about armed insurrection!

A "shift in the balance of wealth and power towards working people and their families" of the kind historically fought for by people within the Labour party would be regarded as revolutionary - and is the kind of change that is would be an entirely proportional response to the current crises we face.