Street-Fighting Men: Gerard DeGroot Takes a Critical View of the Student Protests in Europe and the US in 1968, and the Subsequent Tendency of the Left to View the Events of Forty Years Ago through Rose-Tinted Shades

By DeGroot, Gerard | History Today, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Street-Fighting Men: Gerard DeGroot Takes a Critical View of the Student Protests in Europe and the US in 1968, and the Subsequent Tendency of the Left to View the Events of Forty Years Ago through Rose-Tinted Shades


DeGroot, Gerard, History Today


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Paris in the spring of 1968 was not what Cole Porter had in mind. 'The streets ... looked dismal', Anne McDermid, an American student recalled of the 'events'. She saw

   ... smouldering hulks of cars still left in the middle of the road
   ... street signs torn down to add to the barricades, most of the
   trees along the Champs Elysees cut down for similar reasons; piles
   of garbage bags torn by cats and dogs ... with their contents
   rotting.

Despite that ugliness, Paris of 1968 still evokes romance. Sentimental interpretations dominate recollection. The official version among '68ers' holds that youthful rebellion, though at times ferocious, smoothed France's transition to modernity. Shield oneself from the rosy glow of burning barricades, however, and the picture that emerges is one of anarchy and futility. The revolutionaries achieved nothing but a very big mess.

The same could be said for the other 'revolutions' of 1968. In New York, Chicago, Berlin and London, young radicals acted out absurd fantasies of revolt. The year was supposed to have been a turning point, a terrifyingly magnificent time of possibility. Forty years later, however, the dominant image of 1968 is regression, not progress. One is struck by a world which did not turn, or not in the direction many hoped. Everything may have seemed possible, but little in fact was.

Baby-boomers born after 1945 grew up in a world profoundly unlike that of their parents. Theirs was an affluent existence, even though not all of them enjoyed its riches. It was also generally peaceful. Conflict took the form of small wars fought in distant places. Nor was the economy a serious concern. 'We had no sense of the Depression', the American Steve McConnell, born in 1947, recalled. 'Parents talked about it, but it had no meaning.'

Abundance did not necessarily mean contentment. Parents who had lived through the 1930s and 1940s undoubtedly appreciated more secure times, but their children seldom shared their cosy satisfaction. To the young, the older generation's aspirations seemed prosaic; there was, surely, more to life than wall-to-wall carpets, central heating and fillet steaks. An angry seventeen-year-old German complained in 1963 about the 'disgusting economic miracle' that had given rise to an older generation unable to recognize its superficiality. Young existentialists had a hard time accepting that their parents were actually happy. 'Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity', asserted the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), written in 1962. 'But might it not better be called a glaze above deeply-held anxieties about their role in the new world?'

For many rebellion was short-lived, self-centred and tame, taking the form of growing sideburns, applying black eyeliner, wearing love beads, smoking pot or listening to Jimi Hendrix. Yet these gestures did not seem tame to the older generation. A worried journalist in Mexico labelled rebellious youths 'parricides'--symbolic killers of their parents.

For a small number of young people, however', rebellion was seriously political. The radical American feminist Wini Breines believed

   We could achieve an egalitarian, free and participatory, society
   ... we were going to make a revolution. We were convinced that we
   could transform America through our political activity and
   insights.

Similar ambitions were expressed by student leaders in Germany, France and Great Britain.

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Radicals looked to the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse (18981979) for inspiration. In One Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse argued that 'a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technological progress'. …

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