The abortive revolutions of half a century ago have had a long afterlife, resulting in an illiberal mutation of liberalism that undermines the West
“Beneath the cobblestones, the beach”: The slogans of 1968 have ironic parallels with the “red pill” rhetoric of the alt-Right (© Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images)
Exactly 50 years ago this month the streets of Paris were filled with barricades and tear gas as would-be student revolutionaries sought to overturn the very basis of their society. What started as protests against university reform gathered momentum and became the symbolic high point in a year of inchoate global disruption and revolutionary ferment. We might have expected this year to be a muted anniversary because with the notable exception of Jeremy Corbyn, the soixante-huitards are no longer engaged in frontline politics. Their revolutionary agenda has long been considered an object of historical study rather than an ongoing project. Despite this, “the Long 68” (as Richard Vinen’s recent history characterised it) exerts a more important role today than it ever did in the 1960s or 1970s. Unexpectedly the ideas of 1968 have morphed into principles that underpin the new populist politics of both the Left and the Right.
By the start of this century, the 1960s seemed a very long way away both in terms of memory and political realities. In Germany the link had been severed when the red-green coalition of Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schröder imploded, ending the long march of German ’68ers. In France’s 2007 Presidential election, Sarkozy successfully defined himself in opposition to the “spent force” of 1968. In the US, Hillary Clinton’s loss of the primaries to Barack Obama in 2008 appeared to have ended the powerful hold with which the baby boomers and their memories of ’68 shaped the political debate. In the UK, New Labour appeared to have introduced a new period of consensus politics around a common economic narrative.
Unexpectedly the 2010s saw the lengthy temporal gap between 1968 and the present rapidly collapse. In short order the socialist François Hollande became president of France, Jeremy Corbyn assumed control of the Labour Party in 2015 and the 2016 presidential race in the US pitted Hillary Clinton first against Bernie Sanders and ultimately against Donald Trump. They were all in the their sixties and seventies, a generation older than the fortysomething moderate politicians of the 1990s. France appeared to reverse this trend with the election of Emmanuel Macron, the first French president born after 1968 and notable for refusing to hold a presidential commemoration for May 1968. He now faces a battle to quell the simmering convergence des luttes that his left-wing opponents hope will reignite the spirit of 1968.
For those who can’t remember exactly what the “spirt of 68” was or the intricacies of the “Situationist International” and other social revolutionary movements, Vinen provides a useful overview: “It had several components: general rebellion of the young against the old, political rebellion against militarism, capitalism and the political power of the United States . . . These rebellions sometimes interacted, but they did not always do so.”
The year 1968 was an important milestone, the moment that the “New Left” departed from Marxist orthodoxy. By that point the contradictions of Marxism could no longer be ignored, not just in terms of repressive brutality behind the Iron Curtain but also the failure of the working class to fulfil Marxist theory in the form of revolution. Indeed, 1968 was largely a middle-class affair, seizing upon the cultural criticisms that the “Frankfurt School” directed both at capitalism and Soviet socialism.
In the US, 1968 was largely about opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. In France it was part student revolt, part disillusionment with contemporary life and part street party. The point is that the events of the “long 68” were chaotic, even deliberately evasive of concrete definition.
The multitude of ideas and organisations produced no unified body of political thought. This makes understanding what the demonstrators wanted hard to discern. Much of the discourse of 1968 was concerned with the idea of self-management. Implicit in this was a rejection of the norms of classical ideology and the rejection of role of intellectuals in forming that framework — perhaps best summarised as “we don’t believe the experts”. Ultimately it was a politics of refusal and individualism that remains most easily defined by what the 68ers were opposed to rather than a concrete programme of change. The result was, in the words of the political theorist Simon Tormey, “political paganism, a politics of the faithless, of those who move from one campaign against injustice to another”.
It is easy to dismiss the legacy of 1968. Despite important civil rights victories in the US, which should rightly be seen as an historic triumph, in the short term the protests were largely unsuccessful in fostering the sort of revolution many wanted. There was far greater mobilisation across Europe and the US in favour of the established order. Richard Nixon’s electoral triumph at the end of the year came from appealing to the “silent majority” about the breakdown in law and order that the demonstrations had symbolised. In France too, de Gaulle achieved electoral victory.
The afterlife of 1968 demonstrates that revolutions are rarely revolutionary. Ideological change is usually far more gradual and, for reasons of expediency, wears the clothes of mainstream political discussion. In both countries even if spontaneous revolution remained elusive, 1968 was the moment that the post-war grand narrative shattered and with it the liberal political consensus. Belief in politicians, intellectuals and political parties would never quite recover from the exhortations of the soixante-huitards to search for hidden strategies of repression.
The genuinely revolutionary and violent vanguard groups of those years, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Weather Underground in the US, were extinguished relatively quickly. Ten years later most of their members were dead, in jail or had returned to more conventional existences.
The more moderate members of that generation would reach their political and cultural high point over the next 30 years. Most surprisingly they would prove instrumental in creating and then destroying the next wave of political consensus. Ironically the 68ers’ cult of individuality, which co-existed with their nominal belief in collective economics, would pave the way for Thatcher, Reagan and ultimately the new “third way” consensus in the 1990s.
The deeper and more worrying legacy of 1968 which we face today has been the long-term mutation of liberalism. We are again witnessing the destruction of political consensus, but this time of the liberal world order that Fukuyama assured us was the ideological end point in the wake of the Cold War. Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher whom Fukuyama was attacking in his seminal essay, might have been closer in his vision of the end of history. For him, and others, the end of the Cold War was not so much an ideological victory as the destruction of the possibility of meaningful narratives about progress from either the Left or Right.
The confused politics of refusal and revision that fermented in the late 1960s have returned to haunt us. The response to Obama’s eight years of self-righteously progressive politics was predictably powerful but took an unexpectedly significant direction. Trump’s convention theme in 2016 — “make America safe again” — self-consciously channelled Nixon’s apocalyptic election platform of 1968. Nixon’s vision was of “Sirens in the night” and “Americans dying on distant battlefields”. He pledged to represent “the forgotten Americans”, “the non-demonstrators”, “the real voice of America”.
At a later point Trump substituted the word “great” for “safe”. Dismissed at the time by the media, Trump’s appeal to Nixon’s “silent majority” proved to be electoral dynamite. It remains to be seen if it will be matched with a comprehensive policy programme that fulfils its promises. Unlike those who voted for Nixon, Trump’s supporters were a generation also influenced by the countercultural strands of 1968 that questioned the very legitimacy of organised politics. A March 2016 Pew survey revealed that 50 per cent of Trump supporters described themselves as “angry with government”, compared with 30 per cent of those supporting rival Republican nominee Ted Cruz. The “government” in question clearly wasn’t just Obama’s administration nor a question of party politics. Nixon backed change designed to sustain the system. Trump’s message appealed to this base of supporters by promising to overturn it.
Referencing Nixon was a curious act of political revisionism for a conservative politician such as Trump. It chose to ignore the ideological innovation, optimism and free-market zeal of Reagan. In 2016 as in every election since 1980 potential Republican presidential candidates portrayed themselves as agents of optimism, except for Trump. Indeed, Trump’s split from Reagan and the Bushes couldn’t have been more pronounced. “The American dream is dead,” he declared in June 2015, the political system was “rigged”, Nato was “obsolete”. These sounded uncannily like the updated slogans of 1968. True to his word and bizarrely also true to the ideals of 1968, Trump is gradually overturning a bipartisan consensus on an international order based on free trade and the defence of democracy.
The alt-Right that claims to have helped propel Trump to power is infused with a logic of negation and inversion that must be all too familiar to students of 1968. One of the favoured internet memes of the movement is the “red pill” from the film The Matrix. If one swallows it, one is suddenly released from the illusion that one lives in a thriving, happy country to the hideous reality that one is deceived and exploited. The parallels with the Situationist exhortation “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“under the cobblestones, the beach”) are ironic but distinct.
The most acute legacy of 1968, undermining political programmes on both Left and Right, has been the transmission of a historically particular sense of what politics should be. Liberal commentator Mark Lilla was widely condemned by the Left for his rather acute observation that the “New Left” has been responsible for the bipartisan adoption of two core beliefs. First, that “movement politics was the only mode of engagement that changes things . . . The second was that political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, making compromise seem a self-betrayal (which renders ordinary politics impossible) . . . The lesson . . . was that if you want to be a political person, you should begin not by joining a broad-based party but by searching for a movement that has some deep personal meaning for you.”
No one better epitomises this ideologically vapid political platform than Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn offers reflexive hostility to the idea of the West, a left-liberal worldview which is inclusive of Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA and naked anti-Semitism but blind to Russian or Iranian neocolonialism in its highly selective call to pacifism. He has a strange relationship with the Marxist ideology he is supposed to represent as he is unable to offer a coherent ideological platform or anything resembling any form of socialism that might be expected to offer a critique of capitalism. Corbyn’s hypocrisy has been to appeal to the concerns of the middle classes over issues such as university tuition fees while trumpeting social equality. This has been twinned with an unpleasant form of identity politics that turns liberalism on its head.
There has been much talk of the post-liberal world but if anything the more worrying strand of thought is, as John Gray characterises it, “a hyper-liberal ideology . . . that aims to purge society of any traces of other views of the world”. Liberalism has always struggled with the balance between the commitment to liberty and a human need for collective identity. Now the acceptance of divergent opinion is being angrily denied as a form of oppression. Liberalism is being inverted into tyranny.
Witness the fury animating the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign at Oxford University which gained traction on campuses across the UK. The complex history of colonialism was not only ignored — it was suddenly placed beyond debate. There was no room for a nuanced understanding of the past.
It is all the more curious that the Labour Party has been embroiled in successive controversies linking prominent members to Holocaust deniers. Surely we might expect a similar passion to the anticolonial fury to be applied. It has not been. Indeed, Labour’s disputes chief Christine Shawcroft was grudgingly made to resign for supporting a Labour councillor embroiled in a Holocaust-denial row. We are left with the question of why legitimate debate on the interpretive history of one issue is suppressed, while denial of fact on another issue is tolerated to a point where it is almost indistinguishable from encouragement.
This is the ultimate legacy of 1968. As Gray suggests, this form of illiberal liberalism has been a tension present in Liberal thought ever since John Stuart Mill. The Corbynistas are suffused with the sense that “a new society will appear once we have been stripped of our historic identities, and switched to a system in which all are deemed different and yet somehow the same. In this view, all identities are equal in being cultural constructions. In practice some identities are more equal than others. Those of practitioners of historic nationalities and religions, for example, are marked out for deconstruction, while those of ethnic and sexual minorities that have been or are being oppressed are valorised . . . If human values are no more than social constructions, how can a society that is oppressive be distinguished from one that is not?”
Playing fast and loose with the boundary between social construction and denial of fact, indeed the belief that ideologically inconvenient facts are not objectively identifiable, is something that both the Momentum-infused Labour Party and the American alt-Right share. However, this truth decay is not limited to the UK or US. It has become a defining feature both of the Russian disinformation campaigns directed at the West and also of revisionist leaders across Europe. These attacks only serve to delegitimise systems of government, creating a decline in trust in institutions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a convergence between the critiques of 1968 and the “political technology” that Russia’s strategy of “active measures” uses to destabilise Western democracy. Both disrupt established Western political narratives and utilise outright subversion. By 1970 the Soviet Union was actively funding the Red Army Faction in Germany and other European revolutionary terrorists. Today Putin’s “active measures” are equally divisive. It seems likely that he has been supporting opposing political elements within the US with the aim of exacerbating social division, such as the spectacle of violence in Charlottesville that saw rival protests by white supremacists and their opponents. There is no end to the useful idiots he can find to do this work even without his direct prompting: he need only exacerbate existing tensions within Europe.
The Labour Party is ensuring that we re-enact the struggle of 1968. Where the soixante-huitards saw only repressive cultural hegemony, they forgot that less than 20 years earlier their parents’ generation had gone to war to protect a historically unique set of values. The millennial generation that give Labour’s Momentum movement much of its force appears equally blind, suffused with an unwarranted belief in the universality of its values. This obscures the historical specificity that led to Western society and the values which we uphold. The danger in such a viewpoint is that in mistakenly implying innate universality it overlooks the very real need to defend our values of freedom and tolerance.
This task becomes even more important in the face of historical revisionism across Europe. Poland’s rewriting of historical involvement in the Holocaust was an attempt to make the official narrative of the Second World War less complex and more heroic. In reality Poland’s war history is as blurred as any other country. Polish anti-Semitic complicity during the war is tempered by the heroism of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain. The attempt to deny the bloody contradictions of history is unforgivable. To do so in the service of anti-Semitism comes close to repeating the sins of the past. In Hungary the situation is perhaps even worse. Viktor Orban’s recent electoral success was based on an implicitly anti-Semitic campaign that was directed more at George Soros than the opposition.
That the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism problem should erupt against a backdrop of European anti-Semitism is even more disturbing. Corbyn is clearly not the man to find his way out of or even understand the labyrinth at the heart of modern liberal politics. It is hardly surprising that he is aggressively unwilling to root out anti-Semitism in any meaningful way, and he is equally unwilling, despite overwhelming evidence, to condemn Russia for enabling chemical attacks in the UK and Syria. What he cannot grasp is that the values he purports to uphold are part of the specific history of the West, the very society he attacks. Time and again he has chosen to ally himself with organisations and states antithetical to these values.
Corbyn would prefer all Western military action to be subject to UN approval, and with it the inevitable Russian veto. This serves to highlight the fragility of our norms of behaviour which if not protected will continually be violated. We should have learnt a valuable lesson from the years of inaction under the Obama administration. Successive failure to uphold these values has made it more dangerous to do so now. If Obama’s now infamous “red lines” had been upheld at the time, we would not be faced with the possibility that enforcement of the prohibition of chemical weapons now faces the real risk of escalation with Russia.
We may point the finger at newly illiberal regimes on the periphery of Europe as undermining our values. The more uncomfortable reality is that views undermining Western values exist far closer to home and have become determinedly mainstream. For that we can thank the ageing soixante-huitards and their legacy.