POWER AND PROTEST IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY:
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND POLITICS
(7) Beats, Hippies, and the Movements of the “Sixties”.
NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENTS OF THE 'SIXTIES: Youth and Counter-culture…
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A. Introduction: Discussion of the nature of “New Social Movements” in relation to the ‘sixties’:
2. "Newness" (unexpected, different from previous movements: not primarily political, but for new “symbolic” social meanings, and for autonomy).
3. Not so new?
4. A note on autonomy
5. The need for a new definition of the political.
B. Two cases/examples, to be dealt with in more depth:
NB. The social movements I want to examine reached their most dramatic peak in the 1960s, but several started in the 1950s or even immediately after the Second World War. For “short-hand” I will refer to them as movements of the ‘sixties.
There are three theoretical questions that I would like to explore:
(i) the second half of the twentieth century saw the birth of a number of apparently new social movements, (see next section: 1) and they varied in their preoccupations and purposes – but did they have enough in common to justify their being identified together as New Social Movements i.e. as a new type of movement?
(ii) how different were they from traditional/previous movements? Again, different enough to warrant the label “New Social Movements”?
(iii) “New Social Movements” are most often defined as non-political – is this justified?
The movement on the part of
blacks for civil rights in
The movement against
the Vietnam War caused upheavals – not just in
The socialist and communist movement
had undergone splits, especially after the events of the 1950s (Soviet
As explored below, in the
1960s youth for the first time had its own culture, and the means to
enjoy it (rock/pop music, record-players etc). However, the older generation
(one that had experienced National Service, and believed it had “done them
good”) still clung to attitudes that restricted the young (e.g. over
haircuts!). As James Buchan pointed out in a review of a book (Sandbrook 2006) on the Sixties (Guardian 23.09.06), the
Wilson government in Britain, whilst hailing the “white heat” of a
technological revolution, was faced with a large number of crises: over the unions
(who rejected Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife” proposals); and in Northern Ireland (riots on Bogside etc); and in ex-colonies
(e.g. Aden and Rhodesia); but especially in the area of public finances: the country “could not … indulge both imperial
fantasies and the consumer boom that has come down to the present as the legend
of Swinging London.” (Buchan lays the blame for this squarely with the previous
Tory government whose Chancellor Reginald Maudling said to the incoming James
Callaghan: “Good luck, old cock. Sorry to leave it in such a mess.” Eventually,
restrictions on wage rises, imposed partly because
The “sexual revolution” also led to a clash of the generations, as well as clashes with groups of Christians (e.g. Mary Whitehouse). Little wonder that youth felt the need to break out! Fashions were designed to be strikingly different to what had gone before: colourful, exotic, sexy… New mind-expanding drugs were taken up. A whole crop of “small magazines” emerged to cater for the new “swinging” market (International Times, Oz, Frendz) and attempts were made to censor and prosecute them for their “pornography” or their advocacy of drugs. (Rosie Boycott, later editor of a national newspaper, was involved in Frendz and then IT, and later in Spare Rib, the feminist magazine). R.D. Laing’s existential theories on the causes of schizophrenia (he said it arose because of certain kinds of relationships in the family) had political repercussions. Mass poetry readings were held in the Albert Hall, involving radical and provocative poets such as Allen Ginsberg.
In other words, this was a
period of profound change in social
attitudes – the end of “deference” – and what some would call “teenage
rebellion” moved from being a purely psychological phenomenon, experienced
mainly in families, to a movement that affected society at large. The paradox
was, as some would argue, that the new values being promoted by the left were
taken up later by Thatcher (individual freedom, mistrust of the state). In
Curiously, youth were “on the
move” during this time not only in the USA, Britain and Europe, but even in China,
where the Maoist “Red Guards” turned on their elders, with appalling
consequences. The so-called Cultural Revolution involved the persecution of
anyone who practiced or represented “western” culture; young Red Guards,
encouraged by Mao (in fact, some would say, to rid him of opponents) set out to
build the “new man”. People were forbidden to play “western” music, and were
attacked (sometimes physically) for anything that suggested they were
“capitalist-roaders” – many were jailed, some
committed suicide, and the psychological effect of this repression was deep and
long-lasting. All this was supposed to help
Though the youth movement was
broad and cut across social class, it was probably a factor in the rise of the student
movements of the 1960s. Also, elements of the anti-American feeling generated
by the Vietnam war fused with New Left ideas of democracy (and some Maoist
ones!), with the result that students didn’t simply “drop out” but questioned
the “top-down” pedagogy of university
teaching, and even the content of the courses they were being taught
(was the curriculum a tool for strengthening American hegemony?) The most
dramatic manifestation (mot juste! – the word manifestation
in French means demonstration) of this movement was in
Last on the scene perhaps, but also perhaps the most radical was “second wave” feminism. Women felt that existing political and social movements – even the New Left – were caught up in the “patriarchy” that underlay the rest of society. “Second wave” feminism went beyond asking for enfranchisement: having the vote had not freed women from male domination. The focus had to be on cultural and political dimensions.
In many areas, there was not so much a broad social movement as a current that resulted in the setting up of organisations and pressure-groups. Groups like
this are discussed in the book: The Unsung Sixties: Memoirs of Social Innovation, by Helene Curtis and Mimi Sanderson.
organisations include: Crisis, Centrepoint, Shelter, CPAG, Claimants
the early ‘60s for the homeless. “Squatting” grew out of this, and was as he says a “do-it-yourself” kind of politics. These examples are taken from articles in
the Guardian (SocietyGuardian) 11.02.04.
Polly Toynbee, in the above articles, argues that many of the individuals involved were social entrepreneurs (see CSR chapter8 (inequality): social enterprise).
and social movements – pressure-groups have a more narrow focus and, as the name implies, expect to get change by putting pressure on government or
business etc. Social movements are not only more broad and complex, but their “aims” are less clearly focused, it seems to me. Certainly social movements do
not restrict themselves to pressurizing government, and many – like those examined in this section – are autonomous and aim to gain more power for social
also the ‘60s are remembered as a period of sexual liberation, but before then gay rights organisations had been set up in the 1950s in
Mattachine Society (www.xanga.com/themattachinesociety) and the Daughters of Bilitis for lesbians and their supporters; their membership was not restricted to
gays/lesbians, and, as was the case with a number of organisations mentioned here, their social base was largely middle-class. In the case of gay rights, after
raided the Stonewall
Stonewall, of course.) The Campaign for
Homosexual Equality was set up in
practices were no longer illegal. The Pregnancy Advisory Service grew out of a concern for women’s reproductive rights in the time of sexual liberation.
So, the various social movements of the ‘60s do seem to be different from each other. To demand the end to a war is not the same thing as to demand rights for blacks. Civil rights for blacks are not the same thing as respect for youth, or freedom for youth to practice its own culture of rebellion. Students’ and women’s demands were different again. From my perspective, as noted, “New Left” ideas permeated most of the movements, but as I also stress, women had their criticisms of New Left movements (which were led by men, whilst the women organised the crèche, or sold newspapers!).
On the other hand some writers (e.g. Melucci 1989) point out that they had similarities (see the rest of this introduction) such as their emphasis on “culture”, their antipathy to traditional forms of (top-down) organisation, and their generally middle-class social basis (contrast the civil rights movement with “black power”). As Melucci puts it, their “social location” was similar, and they had “structural similarities”, although they were heterogeneous. I will expand on their common demands for liberation, solidarity, self-determination and radical social change in the next section.
One argument for the use of the term “new” is that these movements arose unexpectedly and spontaneously. A related idea is that they were distinct from previous movements. Here are some points relating to the view that they were new:
(i) New Movements. We can question whether these movements were new, or simply variants or extensions of already existing movements. For example, as suggested above, youth have always “rebelled” (and no doubt Freud has something to say about this!), but this had not appeared as a wide social movement before. The newness of the phenomenon is reflected in the new terms - Hippy and Beatnik - created to describe the youth. It is also worth pointing out that the word beat originated as far back as 1948, according to Ann Charters (ed. Charters, 1992). In her book (Introduction to The Penguin Book of the Beats, p xix) she quotes the novelist Jack Kerouac saying that the word beat represented “a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world… so I guess you might say we’re a beat generation”.
The word hip, or hipster, was
derived from black culture and from jazz (see op cit p xxi, and see Norman Mailer below) – also in the late ‘50s. The
beats and hipsters were alienated by the Cold War and the Korean War, as well
as the growing consumer society (see consumer
society 1 and consumer society 2 below). So
I would argue that the youth movement, in
(ii) New Demands. The demands of blacks (against discrimination and for full civil rights – e.g. to higher education) were shockingly new to many Americans at this time! Later, the same shock, lack of comprehension and hostility would be directed at women who dared to suggest that they were not going to be satisfied with cooking, shopping and having babies! What exactly the youth and hippy movements wanted was not so clear! Students wanted to run their own educational establishments, and this was too much for most academics!
(iii) New Forms of Organisation. In regard to the youth movement, a significant contrast lay in the fact that previous protest movements had, on the whole, been disciplined and organised (take the workers’ movement as a good example). Many said that Hippies and Beats were simply protesting, and they themselves argued for “dropping out” (“Tune in, Turn on, Drop out,” as Leary said). Workers had clear demands, the youth simply wanted freedom to enjoy themselves. Later, the women’s movement began “consciousness-raising” groups, and then “separatism”, based on the view that women had to organise separately to men because whenever men were involved in a movement or an organisation they would come to dominate it. Students developed the “teach-in” (modeled on the hippy “love-in”?) when they stopped going to lectures.
(iv) The search for New
“Meanings.” Some saw a significant aspect of all the New Social Movements (NSMs) in this change of emphasis from traditional political
demands to demanding a right to a new “life-style”, and from reformist demands
to the deeper desire to change the way people think (i.e. the meanings attached
to roles and to institutions). Women challenged the definition of a woman – and
blacks declared that “black is beautiful”. It could be argued that these moves
to change consciousness were outside the political arena. Charles Reich, in his
book “The Greening of America” (1970) identified three forms of consciousness
(v) Anti-authority: another feature that several of these movements had was their anti-authoritarian outlook – and again, the radically democratic (often “leaderless”) nature of these movements seemed to mark them as new. These movements were more sophisticated, too, in their awareness of the dangers of “incorporation” (demands being watered down and weakened by apparent concessions) or “institutionalisation” (bureaucratic solutions and laws do not immediately - if at all - change underlying patterns of discrimination). These lessons had no doubt been learned by the experiences of the workers’ movement.
(vi) Autonomy: for the first time in history whole categories or groups of people were demanding the right to control their own lives (see further below).
(i) New Movements? I would agree with (Scott 1990) however: as I have
already suggested, many "new social movements" were in fact revivals
of earlier movements, especially the black civil rights, women’s liberation and
peace movements. Moreover, in the
The youth movement seems the least derivative of previous movements, and yet it has also been argued that many key ideas went back to William Blake (1757 – 1827).
Blake was a complex writer, but what the hippies and others seem to have latched on to was his argument that we should trust our natural imagination and our
emotions and not repress them. As W.H. Stevenson puts it in his introduction to Blake’s Selected Poetry (1988): Blake lived in revolutionary times - the impact
of industrialisation especially, but also the time of the French revolution of 1789 which he supported, and the American Revolution. At first he associated with
other radicals of the time - such as Mary Wollstonecraft – and supported the drive for political change. Later he became convinced (as Stevenson puts it) “that
art, the works of the imagination, not political revolution, were the key to [the world’s] renovation.” In his own words, in 1809 (from Raine, 1970, p 52): “I am
really sorry to see my countrymen trouble themselves about politics… If men were wise, the most arbitrary princes could not hurt them; if they are not wise, the
freest government is compelled to be a tyranny.”
In his early writings, as Stevenson puts it, he “presents his case: the indestructibility of innocence. The soul that freely follows its imaginative instincts will be
innocent and virtuous; nature protects this innocence, and the only sin is to allow one’s nature to be perverted by law and custom. Free love is the only true
love; law destroys both love and freedom… Freedom could not come about except through the imagination.” Such sayings of Blake as the following were no
doubt influential on the hippies and others:
“Everything that lives is holy” (compare Ginsberg’s Footnote to Howl, which starts: “Holy! Holy! Holy!... The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is
holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!”)
“The hours of folly are measured by the
clock; but the hours of wisdom no clock can measure.” Blake attacked
universe, and wrote that he saw, in the “Schools
and Universities of
“… the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as
Wheel within wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.” (ed. Stevenson, 1988, p 209)
One of his most famous, and beautiful poems is:
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of our hand
And eternity in an hour.”
“Energy is eternal delight.” The energy of life should be allowed to flow freely – if impeded or suppressed it will become violent and destructive: a subtle
explanation of the origins of evil…
“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” He opposed the institutionalised church and its restrictive moralizing.
For Blake, the Bible (especially the Old Testament), and other myths, taught something different, i.e. the imposition of law. Consequently, Blake rejected all this
and worked out his own elaborate mythology. Later he came to believe that original humans had a harmonious balance to their natures – after the Fall (which
Blake saw as meaning the failure of human imagination) our natures became fragmented – reason, the imagination, the spirit; our good and our bad sides.
Eventually he returned to themes of a more religious tone, arguing that (as Stevenson puts it) “the solution to the disintegration of man is reconciliation through
forgiveness”, and Christ represents the “Eternal Human” (i.e. the integrated, whole person). For Raine, “Jesus, the Imagination” is opposed in Blake’s
scheme to “Reason… call’d Satan.” And: “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules” (Raine op cit p 57). Return to B 1 (a).
(ii) New demands? Once the previous point is conceded, it can be argued that the demands of these movements were not so much new as an extension or development from previous demands. This may be where the movements’ originality comes in… Thus we can see movements from: black slaves to liberated blacks, who nevertheless are disenfranchised and second-class citizens, towards blacks as fully empowered and equal citizens. Women gained the vote, but then still had (have!) to fight for equal treatment by employers, the legal establishment, etc. At one time there was no such thing as a “teenager”, and children were “seen but not heard” – after gaining recognition as a group with particular needs, it was perhaps natural for youth to want to be treated as adults. However, the anti-establishment views of the Hippies and others clearly went much further than this!
(iii) New Forms of Organisation? With regard to non-hierarchical forms of organisation, I would argue that this was not in itself new, since anarchists, libertarian socialists, and radical workers have practiced communal living, direct democracy, co-operative ownership etc. perhaps what was new was the spread of these ideas beyond the political left and the radical workers’ spheres.
(iv) Non-political movements for new “meanings”? The argument that these movements
were primarily social or cultural, and only secondarily political is highly
debatable. They (especially the youth movement and the women’s movement) were
“non-political” only if by this is meant that their demands were not aimed
directly at political institutions, or that they did not challenge the state directly (Offe 1980). From this point
of view the emphasis is put on the idea that these movements were located in,
or occupying, “civil society”. It is said that their aim was the mobilisation
of civil society, not the seizure of power (Feher and
Heller 1983), or even that their aim was to defend civil society from the state
For the writers just cited, a common feature of the NSMs was their reaction to broad social or political developments, especially the growth of an over-intrusive state. In the mid-20th century, it is said, many western countries were controlled by a state which did not like opposition, and which did not “see” certain groups (perhaps this is still true?). I have some sympathy with this view, since I believe that it is part of our make-up to resist control by others, and to want collective autonomy (see next point, and my notes on Castoriadis: Recommencing Revolution).
If it is true, both that the state used a subtle kind of authoritarian control (what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance”), and that most people will naturally tend to resist this, then this might go some way to explaining the growth of the NSMs, and (paradoxically) the popularity of the “New Right,” which wanted to “roll back the state.” I would want to argue, however, that the latter was not a “social movement” (even less so than the New Left!). It originated in economists (Hayek, Friedman) and politicians (Thatcher, Reagan) whose interest lay in finding ways for capitalism to free itself from the constraints of social-democratic state control. As pointed out recently in a discussion over points made by George Monbiot, although it professed to want a “minimal state” the new right nevertheless needed the state to act to ensure that the market worked in the way they wanted.
However, as I argue below, any form of resistance to manipulation by the state (or by large corporations!) – by the New Right or the New Left (which was also libertarian) or by a social movement is by definition “political”!
It is less controversial to say that the demands of these movements were expressed in terms that attempted to challenge and change existing meanings. Sassoon (1984) puts it that they formed “new relational networks between individuals, opposing the atomised mass, [and] re-defining symbolic relations”. (In this they were also surely different from the New Right?) I would go so far as to suggest that in fact they had more in common with the (left-wing) situationists, especially in their emphasis on the value of the creative arts (by definition based on “symbols”) to bring together those who oppose the state and the dominant capitalist society.
It is perhaps also fair to say that this cultural orientation explains, for some observers, why these movements were not connected with the working-class (were in fact distinctly middle-class!): they were not concerned with “bread and butter” issues, and in some respects were anti-consumerism; they were concerned with poetry, theatre, etc, and only those with leisure can spend time worrying and intellectualizing over the cultural manifestations of our social outlook!
“as artists we were oppressed and indeed the people of the nation were oppressed… We knew we were poets and we had to speak out as poets. We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead – killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.” (Ed. Charters, 1992: Penguin Book of the Beats, Intro. p xxviii: Michael McClure, describing the feelings at a poetry reading in San Francisco, October 1955). See further on this idea below: poetry 2.
“ [we were] refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least fancy new cars… and general junk you always see a week later in the garbage anyway.” (Spoken by a character called Japhy, in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, 1958, quoted in Charters, op cit p xxix).
See also below: consumer society 2
See, of course, also the May ’68 slogans quoted below.
(v) Anti-authority. The newest feature of the “New Social Movements” – especially the youth movement, and in Paris in 1968, but also later in feminism, was an anti-authoritarianism and, taken further, an awareness of the need to resist” incorporation” or” institutionalisation”. The most radical expression of this was, I believe, was in the demand for autonomy (see Scott 1990). However, (again!) this was not entirely new: autonomy, self-rule, collective freedom from the state and from powerful organisations (including religion) has been the hallmark of the anarchist/libertarian socialist tradition for a good long time. See my Notes on anarchism.
A 4. A note on autonomy: (return to previous mention: autonomy 1).
What is interesting to me is that demands for autonomy were made, in most of these movements – for autonomy, that is, at several levels, though these levels were not always clearly distinguished from each other, and indeed it is difficult to separate them from each other!
(a) Personal autonomy i.e. for youth especially, the desire for freedom from traditional social constraints, which with the use of drugs became the desire to expand one’s consciousness. For the women’s movement, consciousness-raising was a practice that aimed to remove internalized patriarchal values.
(b) Inter-personal, or intra-group autonomy: for women, the patriarchal values referred to above were so deeply-imbued, and constantly reinforced (consciously or not) by men, that women also needed their own space to work on their consciousness. With other movements, autonomy meant challenges to restrictions on freedom of a group, and demands for rights for groups that had not been recognised before (women, blacks, youth, students, gays).
(c) Inter-group autonomy: for each movement, autonomy of struggle was essential. There must be no interference from other groups, as each saw their own struggle as needing separate thought and action. This – as noted below – had its dangers, for if it was a feature of society that led to the oppression of both blacks, say, and women – shouldn’t both groups work together? Of course, there were those who tried to do this, so we have always had “blends” such as socialist-feminism, or green socialism, eco-feminism, etc.
(d) And, as above: autonomy from the state… Given the failure of communism, and of social democracy, to address such issues as disaffection among youth, women’s and black’s rights, it is perhaps no surprise that these movements by-passed the state. Some, moreover, saw the state as part of “the problem”: a society that has grown accustomed to leaving important issues to politicians is not going to even see problems that don’t immediately cause the politicians to lose votes!
There is one important practical problem, I feel, with the demand for autonomy, and this is from the point of view of making changes to society as a whole: isn’t there a danger of different “autonomous” social movements becoming separate from each other. If this happens then movements will not learn from each other, not co-operate, and may even come into conflict. On the other hand, if, like some of those mentioned above, we regard such movements as reactions to a common experience of oppressive social and political structures, provided there is an awareness of this, then maybe they are less likely to become separated from each other and fragmented.
The point I would make is that for any social movement to bring about change, links have to be made between the different levels of autonomy described above: the individual needs to be able to work within the group, and groups need to find solidarity with each other to fight the over-arching social/political structure.
Of course, for those who see politics as only to do with the state, political parties, leadership etc, then radical demands, such as the demand for autonomy, are not “political”! If we take a broad definition of politics as to do with power, then this is a political demand: in fact it is surely a demand for a new way of doing politics!
It is said, too, that the emphasis on cultural issues meant that these movements were not political. However, the significance of these movements’ emphasis on cultural/life-style aspects needs to be expressed carefully. I put myself in the tradition of the English “utopian” socialists (Owen, Ruskin, and especially William Morris) for whom a fulfilling cultural life is a human need, and inseparable – in their philosophies – from socialism. Hence culture is inseparable from politics. Gramsci, too, saw the importance of education and culture in building a new society. These approaches take “politics” to mean much more than the interplay of political parties.
Another way of arguing that politics must be re-defined, and that issues such as who does the housework are not non-political is to use the feminist idea: the personal is the political. The liberal argument, that politics must leave a personal space for each of us – that governments must not control every aspect of our lives – whilst serving as a warning against totalitarianism, is nevertheless two-edged: if the lives of half the population are controlled within the family, then putting the family beyond politics does nothing about this. There are even arguments for re-examining political philosophy in the light of this: the classical liberal idea of a “social contract” between citizens and government can be criticised as patriarchal, since when it was formulated only men had the right to draw up contracts, as only men had property and rights that could be “exchanged” in the contract. Women were therefore excluded from politics right from the start by the underlying philosophy – even by those trying to protect individual rights! (See forthcoming notes on Feminism…)
There has been, I feel, a marked tendency – especially on the right – to reduce the scope of politics. I would argue that any movements concerned with rights (for blacks, women, youth, gays etc) are obviously political: but perhaps this is why many voices on the right try to undermine the whole notion of rights. Others discuss politics purely in terms of “citizenship” – but the features of citizenship that are discussed are voting, joining political parties etc, and this is, again, only part of the business of politics (cf. Scott 1990).
In conclusion, the “New
Social Movements” were an extension
of politics rather than retreat from it, and, to me, those who argue that NSMs are non-political have a narrow (conservative?)
definition of the political… I have to admit that for me there are strong links
between the all the movements of the ‘60s (and not just the student movement, or the May ’68 movement) and
the political “left” (see especially
B. Further notes on two cases/examples of New Social Movements:
The politics of post-war
With the growth of large
corporations at the time it seemed that the individual entrepreneur (Henry
Ford, Rockefeller) had become less important, (because no-one could run such
large businesses single-handed). Instead there was what Galbraith
called the “technostructure” (see CSR
Ch 5: technostructure), that is, teams of experts who managed different
aspects of the corporation (finance, legal, personnel, production, marketing),
and whose goals included the long-term survival of the company rather than just
short-term profit. These managers, Galbraith argued, would even become
“socially responsible”. Also in
Of course, this is too simple
a picture: although there might have been a fear of extreme ideology, which was
seen as the cause of much suffering (i.e. not only the war, but also the
widespread repression in the USSR), nevertheless there was not an absence of
ideology (let alone the “end of ideology” that Daniel Bell described in his
book of that title (1960)). The Marshall Plan was used to suppress militant
workers’ movements, and to boost the kind of apparatus and ideology that was
favourable to a “mixed economy” managed by “representative democracy”. That is,
the values and political preferences of the “victors” were spread throughout
It is worth noting also, that whilst the theoreticians describing the post-war period stressed its rationality, as opposed to the emotional appeal of ideologies, the youth and student movements (like Blake, see above) rejected the narrow application of “reason” and instead emphasised the imagination; and the feminist movement moved on to question male forms of “rationality” (see forthcoming notes on Feminism). See also below: rationality.
Consequently, eventually the
It is fascinating, and to me deeply significant, that despite all this there was dissatisfaction. There are many dimensions to this, but I would note:
The political consensus was in fact flawed: there was an undercurrent of
(socialist) opposition, both “native” and under the influence of Soviet
“Communism”. Industrial disputes did not disappear, and a powerful indicator of
the anxiety and fear felt about this in ruling circles was the rise of
McCarthyism in the
(ii) Of course, power
corrupts, especially where there is little opposition: in the UK, after the
Labour landslide following the War, Labour local authorities became more remote
(some would say “even more remote” – since when have Councilors, as politicians
caught up in bureaucratic machinations, not been remote from ordinary people!)
from the people they were supposed to be serving. Though slums were cleared,
they were replaced by tower-blocks, designed by architects who were not going
to live in them, and without any participation by their future inhabitants in
their design. Corruption was rife (see CSR
Ch 3: tower blocks). In the
(iii) The “security” of peace
was superficial, since a “hot war” had been replaced by the Cold War. There was
always the possibility of (nuclear) annihilation, as Norman Mailer argued (see below). See also my notes on the anti-war movement…
Nor could anyone be sure that there would be no resurgence of Nazism. For
Mailer this insecure and anxious (angst-filled!) mood was reflected in a
philosophy that became very influential in post-war
Another way of putting this is to say that the “death of God” as Nietzsche put it, at the end of the 19th century, was replaced by a soulless consumer culture; for consuming material goods (or even mass-produced cultural artifacts) cannot satisfy people’s deepest longings nor soothe their deepest anxieties… (see the quote from Kerouac above). It is hardly surprising then, that social movements grew up around demands for love and honesty, for poetry (see the quote above: poetry 1 and see my review: When Poetry Ruled the Streets), as well as for justice and democracy… Return to previous mention: consumer society.
A particular poet who expresses much of the essence of the movement, for me, is Allen Ginsberg:
“The weight of the world
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
See Charters op cit p 98
There are also extracts from Ginsberg’s HOWL below.
This questioning of “rationality” is well expressed when Ann Charters (op cit p 4) quotes John Clellon Holmes writing (in 1988?) in Nothing to Declare:
“the burden of my generation was the knowledge that something rational had caused all this (the feeling that something had gotten dreadfully, dangerously out of hand in our world – this vast maelstrom of death… the concentration camps that proved too real) and that nothing rational could end it… The bombs had gotten bigger, but the politics had stayed the same. The burden of my generation was to carry this in utter helplessness - the genocide, the overkill - and still seek love in the underground where all living things hide if they are to survive our century.”
As touched on above, the youth/counter-culture movement was imbued with new values, taken from the anti-war movement (peace), from Buddhism (love), and from the Gandhian tradition as practiced by the civil rights movement (non-violent direct action). In addition, various drugs (marijuana at first, later LSD or acid, a “mind-expanding” drug) gave their users a sense of freedom and creativity as well as knowing that they were doing something disapproved of by their elders, the establishment, the powers-that-be. And it has to be said that these were in many ways new ideas and new practices:
“flower power” - there are pictures of young demonstrators putting flowers into the barrels of the rifles held by soldiers,
“teach-ins” - an extension of the direct action “sit-in” (workers would sit in their places of work, in an attempt to take over; black civil rights demonstrators would sit in areas reserved for whites) where students took over their university buildings and discussed issues (especially the Vietnam War) themselves, sometimes with invited speakers, but usually excluding their regular tutors
“love-ins” and “be-ins” - where the participants not only took over a particular space but put it to better use by meditating or even making love in it!!
The poet Gary Snyder, writing in Liberation magazine in 1959 (and as quoted in Charters op cit p 306), noted a “religiosity” (compare Norman Mailer below) which “is primarily one of practice and personal experience, rather than theory.” He then identified the following “three things going on [within the Beat Generation]:
1. Vision and illumination-seeking. This is most easily done by systematic experimentation with narcotics… Although a good deal of personal insight can be obtained by intelligent use of drugs, being high al the time leads nowhere because it lacks intellect, will, and compassion; and a personal drug kick is of no use to anyone else in the world…
2. Love, respect for life, abandon, Whitman, pacifism, anarchism, etc. This comes out of various traditions including Quakers, Shinsu, Buddhism, Sufism. And from a loving and open heart. At its best this state of mind has led people to actively resist war, start communities, and try to love one another…
3. Discipline, aesthetics, and tradition. … What this bit often lacks is what 2 and 3 have [sic: probably means 1 and 2?] i.e. real commitment to the stew-pot of the world and real insight into the vision-land of the unconscious.”
It may be using the benefit of hindsight, but to me there was some conflict within the youth/counter-culture movement, concerning its basic purpose or goal. Many participants sought personal or individual liberation, especially those taking drugs: despite the claims of marijuana users that this was a drug that brought a sense of fellow-feeling, and was most effective when taken with other people, it is clear that the main purpose was for the user to feel “high” – and despite the element of “rebelliousness” this is not a political activity! On the other hand, a strong strand was influenced by anti-war and pacifist sentiment and therefore was strongly political.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
cities contemplating jazz….
who were expelled from the academies for crazy and publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull..
who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued
along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! [Moloch was an idol to whom children were sacrificed
…..Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!...
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!...
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! Gone down the American river!....” [from “HOWL” 1955 - 6, in The Beat Poets, pp 62, ].
Return to SONG:
My own view is that the hippy/beat/counter-culture/youth movement (or should that be movements?!) originated in a reaction against a number of features of life in the mid-20th century: as such, the movement had links with other more focused movements (civil rights, anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam etc). The opposition to Vietnam war, and the consciousness of non-violent struggle in the civil rights movement, gave the hippy etc movement its pacifism, its emphasis on love and its hostility to power, together with and some socialist colouring.
As noted above, the very name used by part of the movement (“hip”) was borrowed from blacks and from jazz. This suggests to me some important influences, and this idea is powerfully expressed (if in over-blown language!) by Norman Mailer in “The White Negro” (first published as a pamphlet, later included in “Advertisements for Myself”, 1959 – and quoted in Charters op cit, p 582):
Mailer begins by quoting an article in Harper’s Bazaar, Feb 1957, by Caroline Bird, which says that the hipster’s main goal is “to keep out of a society which, he thinks, is trying to make everyone over in its image. He takes marijuana because it supplies him with experiences that can’t be shared with “squares.” … It is tempting to describe the hipster in psychiatric terms as infantile, but the style of his infantilism is a sign of the times. He does not try to enforce his will on others, Napoleon-fashion, but contents himself with a magical omnipotence never disproved because never tested…”
Mailer then comments: “Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that… we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked… and so if in the midst of civilization – that civilization founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect – …. Our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop”.
He goes on to argue that “the Second World War… presented a mirror to the human condition” – and it was obvious that the societies that had led to mass murder were our “collective creation,” “and if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature?” Moreover, this crisis had made individuals frightened to stand out, to dissent: “No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve.”
“It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist – the hipster, the man who knows… that the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self… to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present… [where] new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception; and defeats… attack the body and imprison one’s energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and mute self-destroying rage. One is Hip or one is Square… one is a rebel or one conforms… trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.”
Some of the remainder of the essay falls into the trap of stereotyping the situation of blacks: “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white – mother and home, job and the family – are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible.” Mailer even talks of Negroes and Hippies getting in touch with the “psychopath” inside themselves… This overstatement is then in danger of weakening his otherwise convincing case that, like the Negro, the Hipster must live “in the enormous present.” The Hipster was attracted to jazz, for “jazz is orgasm, the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad” and it communicates “across a nation” because it says “I feel this, and now you do too.”
But his portrayal of the way that the Hip movement synthesized different strands (the bohemian, the juvenile delinquent and the Negro) rings true to me, as does his picture of the social and political context, where the Hip and others share “a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things” which led to their rejection of other conventions such as monogamy, “the solid family and the respectable love life.”
Mailer also notes the “intellectual antecedents of this generation”: D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Wilhelm Reich – and especially Ernest Hemingway, whose philosophy of life led him to the conclusion that “what made him feel good became therefore The Good.”
Finally, and more positively, “To be an existentialist, one must be able to feel oneself – one must know one’s desires, one’s rages, one’s anguish; one must be aware of the character of one’s frustration and know what would satisfy it.” “… one must have one’s sense of the ‘purpose’ – whatever the purpose may be.” Like Gary Snyder quoted above, Mailer believes this is a “religious” outlook.
(*) There were similar conflicts and protests in universities in other countries. There is not space for detail here, but I make a few brief comments on these
The war in
None of the major political parties expected such an uprising: the French Communist Party (PCF) initially ridiculed it, then tried to hold it back. Only a few rather obscure and small left-wing groups were ready and involved: the Internationale Situationiste (I.S., or Situationist International – not to be confused with the British I.S. or International Socialists, an altogether different organisation!), whose best known member was Guy Debord, the author of an influential pamphlet: The Society of the Spectacle… Also Socialisme ou Barbarie, whose members included Pierre Cardan (Cornelius Castoriadis), Claude Lefort, and others, and from whom the organisation Solidarity was derived. For an eye-witness account of some of the events by someone associated with these groups, see May68: Solidarity Account.
That such groups, united in their
hostility to modern capitalism and the consumer society should gain such
support was unexpected in France: in America the Hippies and others were, as
shown above, hostile to consumer society; but France was relatively
"behind" in the production of consumer goods. On other hand, as we saw, the
The Roots of the Crisis:
(Main source: Seale and McConville1968)
(i) the French education system:
There had been rapid growth
of the student population in a short period of time: in 1961 there were 202,000
university students in
French Higher Education had
an “open door policy” at the time. One third to half of the students who
enrolled failed to get a degree, whilst in the
Moreover, the new buildings
were in juxtaposition with poor immigrant areas, while they drew on the
middle-class to recruit their students. French HE was more dominated by the
middle classes than
The universities suffered
from bureaucratised control: the state had central control over admin
decisions, budgetary allocations, even staff appointments!!! University
education in France regarded as conveying high status, but students and staff
felt powerless in their universities, and many (especially sociology students)
felt their studies were not a preparation for work (many went into unemployment
because too many were being educated in relation to suitable jobs being
available). It was said that "A French University is like a factory in
Thus, student grievances built up: there was overcrowding, poor amenities and poor transport; there were regulations inherited from boarding schools: no posters in students’ rooms, no discussion of politics, segregation in accommodation of women and men (i.e. they were not allowed into each others' rooms except during the day!!) (See Seale and McConville, 1968, p 28 -9.)
has to be said that some of these grievances were felt in the
(ii) in the wider society, bureaucracy (and hence alienation!)
could be found throughout French professions, - science, even football…
According to Philip French, the film critic (Observer 08.02.04), the actual
origin of the May Events was a demonstration against the dismissal by the
Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, of the creator of
Cinemateque Francaise. The
Seale and McConville say that “The situation inside many French factories is positively medieval by British or American standards. Riot police had been called in by managers at Peugeot, and two strikers were killed. Most management is “secretive and paternalistic.” Part of the blame for this (say Seale and McConville, op cit p 156) lies with the communist-led group of unions the CGT: they kept demands to wage levels and avoided any discussions on corporate affairs in case this should appear to be co-operating with management. On the other hand, the CFDT, which is permeated with the radical philosophy of French left-wing Catholicism, was more prepared to listen to workers’ grievances and to seek a share in management for the workers.
A split then developed between the reformist majority, concerned about jobs etc, and the militant minority which “denounced the concept of the university as servant of the technocratic state.” As the committee was getting nowhere, the militant students, drawing on their understanding of sociology, together with an input of Marxism - for there were many “far left” groups at this time, in France, Britain America and Germany (see groupuscules below) - realized they would have to “contest” the university and its place in society rather than just try to push for reforms. By early 1968, contact between staff and students had broken down. The radical minority called themselves the enragés, after the French revolutionaries in the 18th century, and they grew more and more provocative.
When the Minister of Youth
and Sports came to
Rumours then spread that Cohn-Bendit was going to be expelled, and this led to demonstrations. As the students suspected that the police had been photographing them, they countered by taking photos of the police, which they then enlarged and paraded up and down! The number of students demonstrating was growing (though it was only 50 or so) and Dean Grappin called the police: eventually armed police arrived, but this was just at the moment when 1,000 students were coming out of lectures for their mid-day break… When the students saw the police they rioted and pelted them and drove them out of the university. The tactic of a small group using direct action to create a situation that would then escalate had worked. The massed students were very hostile to the police and the Dean from then on! At this stage there was no further “trouble” but the students’ awareness of the nature of the “system” had been heightened.
Escalation followed: there were threats from the Dean to shut down Nanterre, the continued presence and aggressive behaviour of the police, the absence from France of Prime Minister Pompidou, and the remoteness of President de Gaulle, the arrest of a small number of students, and all this led to the setting-up of barricades, skirmishes in which cobblestones were torn up and thrown, rioting, the use of tear-gas, and police brutality (witnesses spoke of students taken into vans and emerging with bloody faces). Such was the hatred of the police on the part of the students that slogans began to appear equating the riot police with the SS: “CRS = SS”.
At first, the students’ demands were moderate (to get the police out of the university, to release the arrested students) and they were prepared to talk. But they met with intransigence, and suspected that any moderate academic staff were being undermined by intervention from government. At this stage they also had the support of much of the French population: middle-class parents were horrified at the police violence, and intellectuals such as Sartre and de Beauvoir were sympathetic.
As no progress was being made to solve the conflict, strikes broke out at other universities. The conflict united students and the more radical among their teachers.
But de Gaulle and the Minister for education Peyrefitte saw it all as the work of a minority, and demanded order – Mitterand (future President) was one of the few members of the government who said they must listen to the youth: “youth is not always right, but to mock, misunderstand, and strike at it is always wrong” (Seale and McConville, 1968 p 80).
The university was closed. When the Dean offered to open it the students protested that they wanted those arrested freed, and police removed. The government insisted (probably over the head of the Dean) that the university could not be opened under the conditions of student rioting and occupation. This interference simply meant that the more radical students gained influence.
A crucial development was the forging of links with workers, which was urged by those whose ultimate goal was a socialist revolution. As noted below, there were many different Marxist, Trotskyist and Maoist groups, and key figures from the international socialist movement such as Ernest Mandel took part in the meetings. In the country, discontented workers had begun to strike, and at the height of the action up to 10 million workers were on strike. Often the strikes were “active”: that is, the workers stayed in the factories and managed them by themselves. Now the situation was to all intents a prelude to revolution.
Finally Prime Minister Pompidou took the initiative from President de Gaulle, and declared that the imprisoned students would be released and the Sorbonne opened, implying that the police would withdraw. But it was too late: by now the demonstrations were up to 800,000 strong, and the Sorbonne was occupied. Under the influence of radical students there had been an escalation of the scale of the demands: now the students wanted autonomy, and the resignation of ministers.
The students set up a “Soviet” which lasted for 34 days until the 16 June when they were expelled.
For some, these events were an example of the kind of popular revolution, practicing democratic socialism, that they saw as the alternative to the Marxist “capture of state power” and hoped would spread in a revolutionary wave. Link to Solidarity account of the May Days.
From mid-May to mid-June
Pompidou began to placate the workers by negotiating, at Grenelles, an increase in minimum wages, and plotting starts among politicians to remove de Gaulle.
De Gaulle flew to Germany, possibly to prepare the armed forces to intervene if necessary; it is known that he met with General Massu, (who died recently - see the obituary at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/france/story/0,11882,820598,00.html). Alternatively, it was seen as a convenient vanishing trick on the part of de Gaulle, who wanted to heighten the tension before returning to take control. Others, including Massu, say that de Gaulle was considering resigning, but that he (Massu) persuaded him to stay on. Then de Gaulle returned to make a TV announcement that there would be a general election. He said that he had a mandate and would fight to carry on. He hinted at his preparedness to use “other means” i.e. the armed forces, who were known to be loyal to him after his leadership of the Free French during World War II.
Finally, the whole “near revolution” ended with de Gaulle getting an increased vote of support in the general election!
Reasons for de Gaulle’s success:
The main explanation lies in the divisions among students and workers and between the two groups.
As noted above,
the CGT and the CFDT had taken up different positions: the larger CGT stuck to
purely economic demands, while the (smaller) CFDT saw the problem as a need for
more democracy at work. This meant that when more money was offered, the sting
was taken out of the dispute for the majority of workers. The students demands
were even more radical than those of the more radical workers, and the two
groups never really presented a united front (given the short time-scale involved
this is hardly surprising!) There was a short-lived administration in
As regards the politicians, the opposition to the government was also split: the Socialists (e.g. Mitterand) and Communists could not form a viable alliance.
De Gaulle treated the workers separately to the students and offered an industry-wide settlement involving round-table talks with government, employers and unions, and a referendum on his (vague) plan for more “participation.”
Whilst Pompidou had appeared more amenable, he had nevertheless been maneuvering the communists against the radicals in his talks with the workers.
General de Gaulle had a different style of approach, and different views about the solution: his TV speech only sought more power for himself (through a “mandate of renewal”), and offered “participation” with the aim of “adapting our economy to national and international necessities.” Nevertheless, crucially, he identified the uprising with the communists and scared ordinary French voters back into their traditional conservative role.
See especially Seale and McConville 1968, chapter two.
As noted, the students saw themselves as part of the “tradition” of revolution
The Revolution itself ended up “devouring its own” with a new repression and the use of the notorious guillotine. The revolutionary movement was also – as so often – split into many factions. Some of the students “borrowed” the name of one of these groups, the enragés: these were also known as the “sans-culottes” and were led by Jacques Roux. He became a member of the Paris Commune, but was condemned to death by a revolutionary tribunal in 1794 – he stabbed himself on hearing the sentence, according to Seale and McConville (op cit p 32).
The Commune, set up in 1791, was a dramatic instance of direct democracy in action, and its ideas and methods also inspired the ’68-ers: the city was taken over by its inhabitants, who then ran it by means of assemblies and recallable delegates.
(ii) To understand the
strength of left-wing thought – and its revolutionary intentions – we need to
look briefly at the history of the labour movement in the first half of the 20th
century, (see also SM 1 The
Labour Movement). By the ‘60s, there was widespread disillusion over the
politics of the
Trotskyism and Maoism were alternatives for those who were not entirely disillusioned with parties based on orthodox Marxism. Other currents, such as “council communism” and anarchism also gained support during this time.
Some looked to
Finally, and crucial as a
catalyst to protests throughout
Militant students thrown out
of the UEC formed the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR), a Trotskyist
group that was central to the May Day activities. Alain Krivine
was a key figure in the JCR, which believed that a revolutionary leadership was
needed. Another Trotskyist group was the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), the French branch of the
Fourth International. This is where Ernest Mandel (of
The pro-Chinese students were represented by the UJC(M-L), many of whom were influenced by Louis Althusser.
Similar groups and factions
Finally, mention has already been made of Socialisme ou Barbarie (see my notes on Castoriadis) and the Situationniste Internationale (S.I.), whose imaginative slogans were one of the most striking features of the May Days. (See below: slogans).
Return to B 2 (b) (outline of events).
In conclusion, however, it must be said that there was a general malaise among students over their position: as future academics and intellectuals themselves, they could not accept the old-fashioned teaching methods which required a passive respect for “authority” and which gave them no say in what they were to be taught.
(See ed. Cockburn and Blackburn 1969), in particular the David Triesman article on the CIA infiltration of the International Students Association… Triesman went on to become general Secretary of the Lecturers’ Union NATFHE, then General Secretary of the Labour Party and is now a Labour Peer!!.
What conclusions can we draw from the May Days? Here are a few views, taken mainly from pamphlets produced at the time. The first two represent viewpoints that one might expect to be most sympathetic to the aims of the May participants, since the authors were participants themselves:
(i) The authors of the Solidarity pamphlet written by an observer of the events conclude:
“…this most modern movement should allow real revolutionaries to shed a number of the ideological encumbrances which in the past had hampered revolutionary activity”: after all, despite Marxist predictions about the worsening of the conditions of the working class being the trigger for revolution, these upheavals were not a response to hunger, there was no economic crisis, nor was it anything to do with “under-consumption or over-production.” Contrary to Marxist orthodoxy (and no doubt this is why many on the left dismiss the Events) the uprising was not based on economic demands.
The Solidarity argument is that the Events showed that there is still (i.e. as Marx suggested) a “contradiction” in modern capitalism, but that it was not to do with the “forces or relations of production” – not basically to do with the economy in fact. Students, and some workers, were reacting against the social, political and economic division between “order-givers” and “order-takers.” The “problem” for modern capitalism is that whilst bureaucrats of various sorts try to turn people into objects, people (being people and not robots!) refuse… Thus the functioning of bureaucratic capitalism of itself creates the conditions within which revolutionary consciousness may appear. This revolutionary consciousness would lead to demands for the abolition of the divide between order-givers and order-takers, through workers’ self-management.
However, it was clear that there was not a real revolutionary movement: the students did not outwit the bureaucracy (and the politicians), they did not adequately expose the “left” leadership (not just the CP, but Maoists and Trotskyists were stuck in a traditional mind-set and could not go so far as to demand self-management), there should have been more attempts to propagate autonomous workers activity, workers management of production etc.
Link to: May '68 Solidarity Account
(ii) Another observer/participant, Sebastian Hayes, writing in the anarchist publication Raven (No. 38, summer 1998 – which also includes a 1968 interview with Danny Cohn-Bendit) is more dismissive:
“What were the overall consequences of May ’68?
Not a lot, I would say, on a national level. The 10% wage increase was whittled away by a devaluation of the franc that winter. It was to be some years before Mitterand and the Socialists came to power, and conceivably May ’68 may have delayed rather than accelerated their victory.
On a personal level, however, May ’68 was pretty catastrophic, especially for the younger generation. Activists in the factories were weeded out once things had quietened down a bit… [and there was continued infighting between Communists, Maoists et al]
May ’68 just ante-dated the
massive arrival of pop music, drugs, long hair, Eastern mysticism, feminism and
so on from
Many ex-militants turned to drugs or petty crime after the collapse of their hopes…
The trouble with an experience like May ’68 is that, having lived a kind of dream for a while, one finds it almost impossible to re-adjust to normality… [You] spend the rest of [your] life simultaneously regretting the experience and wishing it had never happened.”
But why were the Events cut short of revolutionary change?
(iii) In a pamphlet produced by the International Socialists, late in 1868, Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall conclude by arguing, as Trotsky did (and with extensive quotes from Trotsky) that whilst revolutions might start spontaneously (as the May Events did) they cannot move on unless there is a well-organised revolutionary party to raise the level of consciousness of the participants (because the party will have learned the lessons of history, as well as being thoroughly versed in the appropriate theory!) and to take the leadership. “Revolutionaries must try and unite the workers on the soil of economic resistance to the bosses, as well as on the soil of political resistance to the state.”
Needless to say (but I’ll say it!) this is the usual IS/SWP line – only perhaps spelled out more bluntly than in more recent writings – in terms of the emphasis put on the workers, on economic struggle, and on “vanguard” leadership. The line is even more typical in the final section of the pamphlet, dealing with “Lessons for British Revolutionaries”:
We cannot be sure of the rhythm of events, but there can be no doubt that there will be an acceleration. One thing has been made abundantly clear by the French crisis… the immediacy of revolution… We cannot gauge the timing, duration and sweep of the coming revolutionary crisis in British capitalism, but it is not far off”.
(iv) In a pamphlet produced by Roger Gregoire and Freddy Perlman (later reprinted by Black and Red), a number of points are made:
- whilst the students recognised that the universities should be “social property” they only went part of the way to transforming the university – they did invite anyone who wanted top join the “occupation”, and they did reject the student union leaders as being out of touch, but they did not then go on to replace the administration, either of the union, or of the university itself. Moreover, the authors argue, if they were to completely “socialize” the university, they needed to stop regarding it as “their property.”
- as regards factories, there was also a failure of imagination, though this was the result of good intentions: the students did not want to antagonise the workers, so they made it clear that they supported the workers’ rights and the workers’ unions (though they had rejected their own student union…); they also regarded the factories as somehow the workers’ property, and urged the workers to occupy. The better strategy, given the revolutionary nature of the students’ demands for self-management and an end to bureaucracy, would have been to demand the socialization of the factories. (After all, the aim of a communist revolution is that the people should “expropriate the expropriators”! – my comment.)
- the authors make the point that it is very easy to fall into the trap of becoming passive spectators, expecting others to act before we will follow. But this is just the mentality that a bureaucratic/modern capitalist/technocratic state (to me the terms are pretty well interchangeable) wishes its citizens to have! This should have been the lesson drawn from the Situationist notion of a “spectacular society..”
(v) A more positive assessment of the Events - though an ambiguous one - is given in the book by Feenberg and Freedman (2001, p 68):
“While the May Events did not succeed in overthrowing the state… they transformed resistance to technocratic authority and consumer society from the notion of a few disgruntled literary intellectuals into a basis for a new kind of mass politics that continues to live in a variety of forms to this day. … the May Events set in motion a process of cultural change that transformed the image of the left, shifted the focus of opposition from economic exploitation to social and cultural alienation, and prepared the rejection of Stalinist authoritarianism in the new social movements.”
The feminist and environmental movements show the influence, for these authors, of the change to “more modest but realizable reforms” rather than “ambitious goals formulated in absolute revolutionary terms in the 1960s.” Yet, they also quote Sartre, who said of the May Events that they “enlarged the field of the possible.”
(vi) In terms of academic
discourse, the May Events were very fruitful! A list of French intellectuals
who were involved, or observed the events closely, reads like a roll-call of
influential writers on social, political and philosophical issues:
Other views are to be found in the works by Castoriadis and Brown cited below.
Did the student/youth movements achieve anything?
(i) as regards the Beats and Hippies:
- an “opening out” of cultural styles, and in particular the rise of small, independent publishers and record producers
- freeing of the content of poetry etc (though the religious right still tried to censor poems or plays or TV broadcast that it regarded as obscene or (even) blasphemous; this in turn led to a debate on the notion of blasphemy and the dominance of the Christian church in British life (a debate still going on, with a focus now on the need for equal treatment of other religions, the issue of faith schools etc)
- skepticism towards religion – but at the same time a growth of fringe religious sects and alternative life-styles (a “mixed blessing” !?)
- perhaps an over-emphasis on individual therapy to deal with issues that might rather have an underlying social cause
- as noted above, the individualism was taken up by the political right: because of the lack of firm links between the arts and “left” politics (despite Bob Dylan, the French cinema avant-guard et al)? To my mind, many of the left groups failed to see the need for a broader approach to the whole culture of capitalism (see the comments by Fred Perlman, in Gregoire and Perlman 1969)
(ii) as regards students and higher education:
noted, there were similar events in
- there had been demonstrations since 1967; in the words of Martin Tomkinson, as reported by John Mair, (Guardian 10.07.03): students accused the college of “pedagogic gerontocracy” – it was, as in France, a protest against “the world our elders had bequeathed us – Vietnam, the prevalent class system in education, plus a smug and unmerited feeling of academic superiority (“objectivity”)…” After a long period of conflict, and with the students threatening to occupy the college, the authorities locked the gates (January 1969). Some students broke the gates down, and the authorities closed the School. Injunctions were issued against the “ringleaders” including Martin Shaw and Martin Tomkinson.
It must be remembered that
the LSE housed mainly social science students (as at
- in the long term, demands for student participation, to my mind, came to nothing. Although students did gain places on Academic Boards or Boards of Governors, they soon found themselves to be ineffectual – mainly because they were acting within an agenda set by “the authorities”
- the tactic of “occupying” colleges was taken up for a number of issues subsequently, and in particular when cuts began to eat into the universities and to affect especially badly the ex-Polytechnics, which had never been as well funded as universities were, and which did not have the massive endowments that the top universities have, to fall back on. Often, however, the same pattern of events occurred as in France: a left leadership nudged a reluctant student body and an often even more reluctant Student Union into action – where the left had its own agenda, but “rode on the back” of issues that the students could be made to feel strongly about
was a lot of optimism (*) amongst students in ’68: take for example the LSE
(*) for example, Paul Hoch and
Vic Schoenbach, in the contemporaneous account of the
events at LSE (p 204): “the movement was
but grew back at the Pentagon in ’66; it was
Thus John Mair, (in the article cited from the Guardian 10.07.03) was reporting on a reunion at LSE, 35 years after the occupation. He noted that former activists were now professors, authors, teachers, and journalists; and there was even a member of the House of Lords, and two MPs, one a Conservative!
So for example:
Martin Shaw: is now Professor
of International Relations at the
Colin Crouch: is Head of the
Department of Social and Political science at the European Institute,
Tom Bower and Martin Tomkinson are established as a writer and a journalist respectively
Two assessments made by leading participants of the LSE dispute reveal different conclusions:
- Martin Shaw, interviewed at the reunion, says that the students turned to a politics that was well to the left of Labour, but eventually returned, because they realized this was a dead end, and now some are behind the New Labour project
- on the other hand, Colin Crouch concludes: “In a curious way, it is neo-liberalism and capitalism that have made the main gains… There has been a shift from authority as such towards the use of market forces as the means through which power is exercised.”
(iii) more general social change:
- there was a revolution in sexual mores: public attitudes to sex before marriage, divorce, abortion, sexual orientation have all now become much more liberal. Eventually the women’s movement challenged remaining reactionary attitudes in the field of inter-gender relations.
- I have already noted the point made in the book “Unsung Sixties” (Curtis, H and Sanderson, M (2004)) – that there were “offshoots” of the events in the form of pressure-groups, and entrepreneurial activities. Ironically, perhaps, “small-scale” or “socially responsible” capitalism could be seen to be the main beneficiaries
noted, there is a City Lights bookshop in
(v) more desperate protestors:
- It has to be stressed once
more that the student upheavals, and the beats and Hippies, were all
non-violent. Although the extreme left groups talked of revolution, none (to my
knowledge!) were preparing to carry out violent struggle. With the collapse of
the protests, some “left” activists (I use the “ …” because I do not regard
them as socialist myself!) took to bombs, kidnapping and other more violent
(vi) “velvet revolutions”:
- It can be argued that one
inheritance of the ‘60s movements can be found in the way that youth
participated in the overthrow of communist regimes in
(vii) and finally:
I do believe that the youth movements marked a number of major social and political changes: the old authoritarian capitalism had to give way and become more responsive; social deference was weakened; cultural styles were opened up and freed from historical taboos; direct action and non-violence became much more widely adopted as a legitimate means of struggle (in the Green movement especially); youth are –despite the cynics, and, as Gary Younge pointed out (Guardian 12.06.06), despite the “asbo culture” (ironically promoted by some who were themselves young in the ‘60s…) – more politically aware and involved in trying to bring about a better world.
On the fortieth anniversary (!):
John Harris, G 210308: there
are exhibitions etc in
Perhaps the ’68 slogan was right: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraint – such people have a corpse in their mouth.” [more slogans below!]
A Poem by Pablo Neruda:
“Tyranny cuts off the singer’s head
But the voice from the bottom of the well
Returns to the secret springs of the earth.”
(Quoted by Duncan Campbell, Guardian
Défense d'interdire. It is forbidden to forbid
Ce que nous voulons - tout. What do we want? Everything!
La révolution sera une fête, ou ne sera pas. The revolution will be a rave-up, or it will not be a revolution.
Vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entraves. For life without a wasted moment, and uninhibited pleasure.
Contestation permanente. Permanent opposition.
Violez votre Alma Mater! Rape your alma mater!
Je suis marxiste tendance graucho. I am a Graucho-tendency Marxist.
L’anarchie c’est je. Anarchy = I.
La société est une fleur carnivore. Society is a carnivorous flower.
L'imagination au pouvoir. All power to the imagination.
Be realistic, demand the impossible!
They are buying your happiness – steal it back.
The alarm clock rings – first humiliation of the day.
You will all finish up dying from comfort.
Forests came before men – the desert comes afterwards.
NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENTS OF THE 'SIXTIES
"New Social Movements":
Melucci, A (1989): Nomads of the Present: social movements and individual needs in contemporary
Scott, Alan (1990): Ideology and the New Social Movements, Unwin Hyman.
Beats and Hippies:
Charters, A (Ed.) (1992): The Penguin Book of the Beats, Penguin.
Holmes, J C (1988):
Johnson, Joyce (2007): Minor
Characters: a Beat Memoir,
Youth and counter culture:
Reich, Charles (1970): The Greening of America, Penguin.
Roszak, Theodor (1969): The Making of a Counter Culture, Faber.
Raine, Kathleen (1970): William Blake, Thames and Hudson (with plates in colour and black & white).
Stevenson, W.H. (1988): William Blake: Selected Poetry, Pelican.
May '68 and student rebellions:
Astin, A W et al (1975): The power of Protest, Jossey-Bass.
Bouclier, D (1978): Idealism and Revolution: new ideas of liberation in Britain and the United States, Arnold.
Brown, B E (1974): Protest in Paris, General Learning Press. (See esp. pp 36 and 58 - 60)
Castoriadis, C (1987): The Movements of the Sixties, Thesis Eleven No 18/19, 1987.
Cliff, T and Birchall, I (1968): France, the struggle goes on, International Socialism Publication.
Cockburn, A & Blackburn, R, (Ed.) (1969): Student Power, Penguin.
Feenberg A, and Freedman, J (2001): When Poetry Ruled the Streets, Albany (NY).
Reviewed by Ian Pirie in “Democratisation” vol 8 no. 2, 2002: When Poetry....
Gregoire, R and Perlman, F (1969):
Worker-Student Action Committees in France, May ’68, (reprinted 1970 by) Black
Hoch P, and Schoenbach V (1969): LSE the Natives are Restless, Sheed and Ward.
"The Raven" (anarchist quarterly) No. 38, Freedom Press, summer 1998.
Seale P, McConville M (1968): French Revolution 1968, Penguin.
Philosophical issues surrounding civil disobedience and rebellion/revolution:
Held, V et al (Ed.) (1972): Philosophy and Political Action, OUP 1972 - see part 2 on "defiance of the state."
Zashin, T (1972): Civil Disobedience and Democracy, The Free Press.
Alleg, H (first published 1958): La Question (on the use of torture in Algeria; with preface by Sartre). Published in English as: The Question, translated by John Calder,
Binns, D. (1992), Administration, Domination and Organisation Theory: the Political Foundations of Surveillance at Work,
UEL, ELBS Occasional Papers No. 4
Bizot, F (2006): 200 Trips from the Counter-Culture, Thames and Hudson (illustrations of posters, magazine covers etc)
Curtis, H and Sanderson, M (2004): The Unsung Sixties: Memoirs of Social Innovation, Whiting and Birch
Marcuse H (1964): One Dimensional Man, Sphere.
Sandbrook, D (2006): White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Little, Brown.