1968 and the Discovery of Politics

April 13, 2008
By Ralf Fücks
By Ralf Fücks

Nineteen-sixty-eight has become a political myth that will not go away. The debate on its interpretation continues and continues. The year marks a historical break, comparable to the beginning of the Cold War or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Making this connection may seem to be an exaggeration at first glance, but the cultural and political upheavals that resulted from “1968” have been truly revolutionary.

It is true that the protest movement of that year did not lead to a dramatic overturn of the political order like the French or Russian revolutions. The extent of violence and counter-violence of 1968 is not comparable to the excesses of past wars and civil wars. It was the Prague Spring – an event that is often ignored when we speak of 1968 – that came closest to being the revolutionary overthrow of a regime. A peaceful revolution began in Czechoslovakia, and it shook “really-existing socialism” to its foundations. The revolution was destroyed by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact. The tragic gravity of the Prague events went far beyond the symbolic actions and theatrical stage-managing of student protests in the West. The Soviet invasion buried hopes for “socialism with a human face.” In fact, communist hegemony in Eastern Europe was doomed from that moment. It was only a matter of time until a system incapable of reform collapsed. If there is an inherent link between 1968 and 1989 it is that the defeat of the Prague Spring would lead one day to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Prague Spring meets Chinese Cultural Revolution

In the West, things were different. The superiority of the capitalist democracies was demonstrated by their ability to absorb the momentum created by “1968,” even against the will of the ruling elites who feared this would lead to the decline of the West. Open systems transform opposition into innovation. In other words, “1968” ended up giving Western societies powerful innovative momentum, extending from the triumph of popular culture and social emancipation of women to the emergence of new forms of political participation. The ideological recourse to Marxism, the admiration for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and solidarity with the “anti-imperialist liberation movements” in Vietnam and Palestine disguised the fact that “1968” was actually reformist in character. As is often the case, there was great distance between the self-understanding of the historical protagonists and their impact on society. If the revolutionary rhetoric of the movement’s spokespersons is the benchmark, the ’68 generation failed. However, in terms of the cultural and political changes set in motion by the movement, it was highly successful.

Expansion of the political public

Among the fundamental changes was an expansion of the political public. The protest movements were precursors of a new global public. New media and new forms of action expanded the public sphere. Even if extra-parliamentary oppositions in France, Italy, Germany, and America were all characterised by national contexts, they still constituted a cosmopolitan movement. The Vietnam War, the American civil rights movement, the struggle against the colonial system in Southern Africa, the events in Czechoslovakia, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution outraged or inspired hundreds of thousands of activists and moved them to action. Left-wing groups saw themselves as part of a worldwide revolutionary development. Although this was fiction, it was also rousing. A flood of publications studied international questions, links were forged across borders, international congresses were held.

We can see a direct link between 1968’s counter-public, with its pamphlets, alternative newspapers and radio stations and publishers, and today’s “Internet 2.0,” which basically enables everyone to play an active part in global communication. Visual media, such as photography and television, played decisive roles in spreading the protest movement. Images of war from around the globe fuelled campaigns at home; all while ’68ers created their own images to put political messages across and promote collective awareness: sit-ins, demonstrations, blockades, happenings, and open-air festivals.

From authoritarianism to grass-roots

There was a second long-term wave of change initiated by the 1960s: the expansion of democracy. While American democracy was premised on a self-aware civil society and republicanism, Europe faced a legacy left by absolutist states. The post-war democratic order was conceived as resting on state institutions whose democratic authority came from elections. But in the 1960s, calls arose for democratisation of schools and universities, for co-determination in industry, and for a deeper citizen involvement in the political process. The aim was to implant democracy more deeply into society. Above all, “1968” stands for a new political culture of democracy in practice, which also includes numerous self-administered projects and a plethora of non-governmental organisations that have changed the political landscape.

Democratic virtues were, of course, not invented in 1968. But it was only after 1968 that European political culture became more defined by grass-roots involvement, by the activism of citizen groups and the idea of self-determination. The American civil rights movement and its culture of non-violent opposition had immense influence, as did new forms of political action that spread to Europe from the United States. A new political direction emerged in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and it played a decisive role in forming a more self-confident civil society that looked the state “in the eye.”

"The personal is political"

A third far-reaching change lies in the politicisation of the private sphere. “The personal is political” was a principal slogan of 1968. Relationships between children and adults, men and women became public issues, as did questions of sexuality, consumption, life forms, and lifestyles. In short, individual emancipation now had vast new potentials. Domestic violence was no longer a taboo issue, patriarchy was pushed aside, paths opened for diverse personal approaches to life, and sexual minorities won equality. The year was a catalyst of the new women’s movement and gay rights.

But all this led also to unpredictable developments. Media focus on the private life of politicians is one consequence of blurring the difference between public and private persons. Another is the emergence of “identity politics.” Demands for equal treatment now feature claims based on ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Taken to an extreme, this tendency implies that everything in politics must be particularised. In this sense, identity politics conflicts with the idea of a republic of equal and free citizens, who formulate and express their political will in open debate.

From protest to radicalism

Anyone who defends the emancipatory and democratic aspects of 1968 must also address its problems. A protest movement can lose its way, and this did happen. If the premise of ’68 had been to call for realisation of the ideals of democracy in the face of repressive reality, the radical groupings within the movement committed themselves to an anti-imperialism that itself took on authoritarian traits. Radicalisation often came with a distancing from libertarian and emancipatory politics. This probably holds truer for Europe than the United States. It is perhaps not a coincidence that SDS in German meant Sozialistischer Studentenbund Deutschlands (Socialist Students’ Association of Germany), while in the United States. it stood for Students for a Democratic Society.

Anti-capitalism became more important than democracy for large sections of the European protest movement. Advocacy of socialism often came with all sorts of theoretical misconceptions, such as equating capitalism with war and fascism. In fact, the idea of liberal democracy was still in its infancy on continental Europe. There were democratic revolutions in 1848, but they ended in the restoration of authoritarian states, particularly in German lands. Constitutional democracy was established following the collapse of old orders in 1918, but lacked a stable foundation. The political landscape of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was filled with antidemocratic movements and totalitarian ideologies. Socialist movements countered them (but lost in the end). The emancipation movement of industrial workers was socialist in nature as was the opposition to World War I. Most anti-colonial movements adopted socialist ideologies, too, after 1945. The intellectual beacons for student protesters in the 1960s – Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernst Bloch – were grandmasters of anti-capitalist capitalism. So too were political icons like Rosa Luxemburg or Che Guevara or Salvador Allende. Liberal theorists, such as Karl Popper and Friedrich A. Hayek, were mostly beyond their purview. The left radicals of 1968 often created an unholy brew out of all this, one that worked against the best modern values of the West.

1968 - a mixed bag

The protest movement of 1968 was never a uniform phenomenon, and its members went off in all directions. These ranged from hippies and spiritualists, Maoists and orthodox Marxists, to citizens’ action groups, feminist projects, third-worldists, pacifists, and those engaged in diverse forms of militancy. Part of the movement drifted into a conspiratorial world of armed struggle and left a trail of blood. Imagining that a new form of fascism threatened, all means were justified. The most virulent forms of “armed struggle” were in two post-fascist states. Neither Germany nor Italy had any adequate tradition of a civic political culture; militant leftists in both of them were suspicious of political institutions and imagined themselves as descendants of the “anti-fascist resistance.”

There was no “Chinese Wall” between such “red terror” and other groups of the radical left at the time. Even so, it is false and absurd to brand the ’68 movement as a whole as the precursor of left-wing terrorism. This is bad teleology. While some did opt for revolutionary violence, the vast majority set up anti-authoritarian children’s day care centres; reformed schools; published alternative newspapers; founded free theatres, human rights groups, women’s shelters, and citizens’ action groups; concerned themselves with alternative medicine; or embarked on the long march through parties and parliaments.

The discovery of politics in everyday practice, the practical improvement of society from within and below, a cosmopolitan attitude, a passion for open politics, sustained social commitments, an insistence on self-determination and democratic participation. These, too, are legacy of 1968 – it is a lot.

This article was first published in Dissent.

Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books.