According to Geert Buelens we shouldn’t commemorate May ‘68, but rather learn from our mistakes and act accordingly. The issue today, isn’t the past, but the future.
History has remembered “May ‘68”, but this period was in reality nothing more than the apotheosis of protest movements which, for more than a decade, went out of their way to give a voice to those who didn’t conform to society. Thus, May ‘68 didn’t start on the French campus of Nanterre, in the buildings of Columbia University in New York or on the cobblestones of Leuven, but in the United States in the mid-1950s. This is where Rosa Parks refused to go and sit at the back of a bus in Alabama, an American state that was in the grip of racial segregation, and it was also there that the parents of Linda Brown insisted that their daughter go to the school they had chosen for her. So it was on the other side of the Atlantic that these forms of protest first manifested themselves, supported by the Civil Rights Movement, of which Martin Luther King became the symbol. These black activists demanded to benefit from the same rights as everyone else and their often highly mediatised interventions inspired civic movements which turned half the world upside down in the 1960s. At the heart of these movements: insubordination, union and intransigence. “We Shall Overcome” is the song which sums it all up perfectly.
In 1960, black students settled at the counter of a Whites-only bar in Northern Carolina. They weren’t served, but they stayed there, seated, until closing time. They came back the next day, and the next. Many Whites were furious, asking why these people couldn’t simply respect the law... But in reality, what they were asking was “why don’t these people stay in their place?”
That was the common denominator of the protest movements that were to follow: they involved people who didn’t know their place, or rather people who were all too aware of their place but refused to stay in it.
The fact that the students were going to revolt was no surprise. The generation which began university in the second half of the 1960s was, from a demographic point of view, the biggest ever seen. It included numerous baby-boomers who, in the first half of the 1960s, had already realised that what they did had a tendency to irritate the media and the older generation. In 1964 they were the ones who brought about Beatlemania through the mass purchase of Beatles singles. Magnates of the entertainment industry soon realised that they had access to an enormous group of consumers. Sustained economic growth at this time and the resulting increase in wellbeing gave these young people purchasing power meaning they could go out and buy what they wanted...but they still didn’t have a say in what went on. In most countries, young people couldn’t vote until they were 21 years of age. So, from a democratic point of view, they had zero power and influence. And they were often confronted with authority (be it at school, church, in the army or even within their own family) which, by definition, thought it knew best; which is why they decided to invade the streets singing, walking and protesting. From time to time, a paving stone got thrown or a barricade was erected (you couldn’t expect any less in Paris), but the majority of the protests were peaceful. Peace did this generation a lot of good. These young people saw to what extent their parents and grandparents had been traumatised by the two world wars, they saw their older brothers and sisters getting involved in the anti-nuclear movement at the end of the 1950s and at the start of the 1960s or being affected by the war in Algeria, while in the United States, they risked their lives in the Vietnam War. So many reasons to protest and yet, for another section of this generation (the hippies), so many reasons to take a step back from this violent society: to turn on, tune in and drop out…
In 1967 the hippies were at the origin of the “Summer of Love”, a rather surprising name for a summer during which the Six-Day War (between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria) formed the basis for a conflict which still divides the world today and which resulted in black ghettos being devoured by flames in no less than 159 American cities. Proof that this generation of students was rather short-sighted...If they claimed to be inspired by the peaceful protests of the Blacks and Afro-American culture (Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin), they didn’t display any profound solidarity nor any desire to join forces with the Afro-Americans.
Western Europe also had its ghettos: districts inhabited by Algerian refugees or Greek, Turkish or Moroccan immigrants. Yet, protesting students rarely showed that they were aware that a new section of the population had been marginalised.
Even in their own ranks there was no sign of equality. Some small groups, in spite of their slogans advocating peace, were in favour of violence. The terrorism of the red army and the Red Brigades, which aroused fear and emotion in the 1970s, was also a consequence of the revolution of ’68. Women were also being systematically put down. In the new student population, for the first time ever they were largely represented, as was the working class, but their essential contribution to student culture and the counter-culture was rarely recognised. The spokesperson was almost always a man (with the exception of the Yugoslav Dragana Stavije, originally from the communist party of Europe, where women’s emancipation had already made a lot of headway) and the tendency towards action, favouring confrontation and transgression, was clearly masculine.
Even though the student protest was always centred on a local event (constraint upon freedom of expression in Berkeley, the arrogance of the Belgian Bishops in Leuven, overpopulated campuses in Paris, etc.), the feeling that these young people had already experienced during Beatlemania meant they soon realised that they were part of an international movement. And that’s what they wanted. “We Shall Overcome” was increasingly replaced by the socialist “International” and the slogan “Rome… Berlin… Madrid… Warsaw…” The May revolution in France was thus placed within an international context.
But this enumeration of cities is surprising...Where is Prague which, at the time, was the dramatic centre of “socialism with a human face”? And what did Berlin, which was supporting Stalin in North Vietnam, have to do with Polish students who were rebuffed each time they advocated any kind of liberalisation? The author Carlos Fuentes, ambassador of Mexico in France, was no less impressed, during discussions with young people in Paris, London, Milan, Bari, Rome and Essex, by the wisdom of this generation. When the Jewish Franco-German student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was expelled from France, his supporters chanted “We’re all German Jews”. Daniel Cohn-Bendit recently declared in The New York Review of Books that, in his opinion, this was when multiculturalism was born.
Whether or not this is true is less important than the link that Cohn-Bendit is trying to establish with the present day. In the current political climate, in which nationalists, nativists and xenophobes seem to be all the rage and in which internationalism is considered to be a betrayal and cosmopolitism an insult, this declaration is not devoid of meaning. If there was ever a perilous moment for the legacy of May ‘68, now is it! From Budapest to Washington, authoritarian heads of state are re-establishing a style of government that many believe belongs to a bygone age. In recent years, the fact that students, young blacks and women have been involved in mass protests, on the streets or on social networks, against racism, male chauvinism and a ruling class which hasn’t been able to ensure their physical security doesn’t bode well. The events of 1968 came to an end following the electoral victory of De Gaulle and Nixon, and the restoration of the administration. The struggle for peace, for rights and respect for minorities nonetheless continued, with varying degrees of success. In this era marked by the politics of Orban and Trump, it is maybe not May ‘68 per se that needs to be commemorated, but the great political commitment of those who kept the dream alive in the years that followed. And above all, we need to come up with an inclusive vision for the future, which concentrates on the challenges and assets of our highly diversified society and which includes a rescue plan for our endangered planet. Demonstrations, slogans and popular culture can contribute to the movement, but only sustained political action and organisation can save us.
Geert Buelens is a poet and professor of Modern Dutch Literature at the University of Utrecht. He is the author of De jaren zestig. Een cultuurgeschiedenis (Ambo Anthos, 2018); on 28 May he will launch the Dutch-speaking study day Oproer in de Nederlandse letteren in BOZAR. He will be in conversation with Tariq Ali on 30 May.