1968 – 2008: From Vietnam to Concordia

For many of those who are 40 and older, 1968 stands out as an emblematic year for the transnational politics of dissent, for the development of countercultures and various avant gardes, for the emergence of non-class social movements, and the appearance of what some call the “revolution of the forgotten peoples” in the social sciences which turned more of their attention to African Americans, native peoples, women, gays, and a host of non-state actors. In almost every continent something happened that was tumultuous: Black Power, Red Power, Flower Power, and the anti-war movement in the United States; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that marked a turnaround and the impending defeat of a superpower, falling into economic disarray and a hard bitten view of itself thereafter. At my university, Concordia, there were so-called “Black power riots” in the very building in which my office is located, which had international consequences that led to the Black Power Revolution of 1970 in Trinidad and Tobago, and one of the Concordia leaders, Rosie Douglas, would end up becoming the Prime Minister of Dominica. Admittedly, most of the discussions of 1968 focus almost exclusively on movements in Europe.

Previously I had commented on this blog that we seem to be living through a rewind of 1968, which in many ways misses out on what is distinctive about where we are 40 years later, what the alignment of social forces looks like, and what matters most on both orthodox and heterodox political agendas. A number of recent articles, books, and symposia have appeared seeking to assess the legacies of 1968, from a 2008 standpoint, and the assessments are, as can be expected, mixed. The points that are raised are very interesting nonetheless. This post comes in three parts below.


Fred Halliday, writing in Open Democracy in an article titled “1968: the global legacy” (13 June, 2008), presents us with the perspective of someone who was active and inspired by the global movements of protest and new movements in art, music, and public debate, but was nevertheless a failure in transformational terms. He notes that in no western European country, which in many analyses is the centre of what Wallerstein called the World Revolution of 1968, were the politics modified. Not only that, there was a right wing shift in Britain and France. If anything, the legacy of 1968 was an ambiguous one, he argues. Halliday is not militating against the ideas, perspectives and movements that marked 1968, rather he wishes to see more sober evaluations of its consequences: “The events were indeed extraordinary, and remain indelible. What is wrong in the memorialisation is the fetishism of the moment, and associated loss of perspective and overall judgment, which leads to three kinds of distortion of focus.”

The first of these distortions caused by celebrations of 1968 was what he claims was the absence of feminism, coming only with second-generation feminism of 1969. When Halliday says 1968, he means to be very precise and calendrical about it, whereas others might see it as more of an emblematic, umbrella-like period that encompasses 1969 for certain. Nor is it universally true that feminism was absent from the movements of 1968. Halliday sees the second distortion coming in the indulgence of violence by certain sectors, whether urban guerrilla warfare or what would later be called terrorism. Finally, the third distortion in his view is the absence of “political realism” — “the ability to match aspiration and imagination with a cool assessment of the balance of existing political forces.”

Rather than a “world revolution,” Halliday argues, 1968 ought to be seen as the start of an international/ “tricontinental” counterrevolution (I am not sure why these two cannot go together, since the latter seems to be premised on the former). Halliday takes us through a series of deadly anti-revolutionary transformations that occurred across the globe in the period, especially in the Soviet bloc and in China, and notes that the results led to the collapse of socialism as a viable alternative:

It is clear in retrospect that 1968 did not bury European capitalist democracy or American imperialism. It did, however, set in train the death and burial of the Russian and Chinese revolutions and of communism in western Europe. A fine example, indeed, of the cunning of history.

Unfortunately, what Halliday does not do is to present us with reasons why others instead celebrate 1968, and the transformations that they can point to. Moreover, many even on the left would not mourn the passing of either Soviet socialism or China’s last serious attempt to claim that its revolution was a communist one.



A book edited by Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth, 1968 in Europe: A History of Protest and Activism, 1956-1977 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) presents a range of assessments that, while not the opposite of Halliday’s, certainly present different angles of understanding. As the subtitle of the book suggests, 1968 stands not for a year of events but for two decades of events.

In the introduction, the editors begin by highlighting the degree to which students were focused on by the mass media as agents of protest, some even referring to a “student class” emerging that echoed the emergence of the nineteenth century working class in Europe. The protesters emphasized what they rightly saw as the lack of participatory democracy in their societies and their growing alienation from their societies. Capitalism was the target of critiques of authoritarianism and technocracy. Universities were to become the centres of revolutionary protest — indeed, in my own memories of the transformation of the University of Rome’s campus, into professor-less open air classes, mural paintings, and wine fueled meetings of communist youth, these were not the kind of shopping mall environments of today. The Vietnam war weighed heavily worldwide, and inspired revolutionary movements across the globe, not to mention celebratory songs, poems, novels, paintings, etc. Interestingly, while today’s Iraq war has been protested across the globe, in virtually every country, there seems to be far less of the romance surrounding these insurgents — no Jane Fondas ready to pose in photographs with them. Dictatorship was also clearly within the sights of protesters, whether Soviet-aligned regimes in the eastern half of the continent, or the military dictatorships of Portugal, Spain, and Greece.

For the editors of this volume one of the most outstanding features of “1968” (which they place in quotes), was that, “it transgressed the ideological fronts of the Cold War.” The focus of their volume is on the transnational dimensions of “1968.”

The roots of the movements associated with 1968 are to be found in what the editors calls the “long 1960s.” As they say, “1968” stands as a metaphor (whereas for Halliday, it was a single year) for a history beginning with the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the climax of political violence in Germany and Italy in 1977. Part of this transformation has to do with the emergence of the transnational New Left and the international peace movement. There was a departure from Marxist orthodoxy and its focus on the working class. Nonetheless, capitalism, materialism, and apathy were still targeted by these new movements.

Also of especial interest is the volume’s discussion of counterculture. As the editors encapsulate it:

The youths’ belief that they were more sentient than their parents’ generation, and the hope of building a new society founded on tenderness met with the search for the “new man” in psychedelic music and drug experiences, in “free” sexuality, and in new forms of living and communication. The synaesthetic nature of rock music served as the colorful display and global transmitter of these new symbolic forms of living and communication. Portraits of musicians like Jimi Hendrix promised the same freedom as the images of Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh, the only difference being that their freedom could be gained in the here and now. Meanwhile, these new symbolic forms of living and communication often provoked conflicts with both conservative elements in societies and state authorities and thus acquired a political dimension. Concerts by the Rolling Stones or Jimmie Hendrix often ended in outbreaks of violence.

The editors assert that, “nobody today seriously doubts that European societies were fundamentally transformed as a result of the events of 1968″ — even if we just finished reading Halliday to the contrary. As they argue, 1968 has had many afterlives and has been virtually canonized in popular memory, at least in Europe if not elsewhere. Let’s not forget that a sizable portion of our current population lived through, and often took part in the events of 1968. Finally, as the editors remind us, Hannah Arendt (whose work will also be discussed on this blog) once wrote that “the children of the next century will once learn about 1968 the way we learned about 1848.”

One of those youth was Tom Hayden. In a chapter titled, The Future of 1968’s ‘Restless Youth’ recounts how he came to be involved:

I was 27 years old as the year 1968 unfolded. When the decade began, I was the first in my family to attend a university, and my non-conformist instincts led me to the campus paper and the sociology department at the University of Michigan. While pursuing an institutional career, I was a follower of Jack Kerouac as well, whose On The Road was published in my senior year, 1957. During that same year, black high school students integrated a high school in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock, Arkansas, amidst beatings, insults and federal military protection. Two years later, after I directly encountered black students risking their lives in the South, I became a committed activist.

Incidentally, he also outlines the extent to which the Johnson administration was worried by student protest movements and plans for spying on American students. Tom Hayden wonders why the CIA should have concerned itself — when he helped draft the 1962 manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society, he says it was “hardly the Communist Manifesto” and more of a “statement of middle class anxiety.” The main foci of his concern were racism and the nuclear arms race. As he says in the piece, their prophets were not Marx and Lenin, but John Dewey, C. Wright Mills, and J.D. Salinger.

Hayden is not euphoric, even when he highlights the energy, hope and promise of 1968. As he himself writes:

Then, as it reached its peak of frenzy, about 1969-70, one could feel the tide begin to turn. The movements themselves were convulsed by division. The Marxist sectarians were not dead at all, merely hatching in the garbage we left unattended. After factions ripped its body apart, SDS was closed down as “too bourgeois.” No one could transcend the inevitability of the women’s movement as it shredded the male hierarchies. The counterculture was shocked by Altamont and Manson. Drug euphoria devolved into the dark trips of paranoia, depression, and schizophrenia. Thousands of veterans came home with bad papers and strung out. Richard Nixon – wasn’t he the man we thought we dumped in 1960, the year it all began? – soon became president of the United States.

And yet, he emphasizes, there were lasting transformations and immediate changes that occurred as a result of the long 1960s. Hayden lists these as follows:

  • The Vietnam War began to end in 1969 and imploded in the years 1973-75; Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, were driven from office;
  • The compulsory military draft was ended;
  • The War Powers Act was passed as a curb on the imperial presidency;
  • The Democratic Party and national election rules were radically reformed;
  • Earth Day arose apparently from nowhere, historical environmental laws were passed, and the planet Earth was seen in a photo for the very first time;
  • After 25 years of failing passage, the 18-year-old vote became law;
  • Black studies, Latino studies, women’s studies, and environmental studies were integrated into the curriculum of high schools and universities;
  • Everyone was humming The Yellow Submarine and quoting Allen Ginsberg;
  • Several national blue-ribbon commissions (the Kerner report on the ghettos, the Scranton report on the campuses, the Walker report on Chicago) seemed to vindicate the New Left analysis of causes and solutions.

This does not mean that the 1968 protests were not eventually appropriated by the state, for as Hayden notes, “when order was reformed, order was restored.”

Hayden also argues that the 1960s are “far from over.” He cites Bill Clinton as the one to outline the basic dividing line in American politics being “between those with a generally favorable view of the Sixties phenomenon (who tend to be Democrats) and those who are still attempting to erase the achievements of the Sixties altogether (the neo-conservatives, for example).” Hillary Clinton was also at least an observer at the Chicago protests of 1968. It is ironic then that one side of 1968, the rise of African Americans in the national political panorama, should clash head on with another side, women’s rights, in 2008.

Nonetheless, he is hopeful, and notes that one of the main blocs of anti-war supporters today are those ranging from the late 40s to the late 60s in age. Che Guevara has achieved a kind of global martyrdom. And as Hayden believes, “sooner or later, the new generations will question and resist the programmed future of counter-terrorism, economic privatization, environmental chaos, and sordid alliances justified in the name of this War [on Terror].”

Hayden hopes for a peaceful transition away from imperialism and empire, and that there can be an improved quality of life after empire. Unfortunately, he thinks Canadians may be among those to show Americans the way — perhaps Hayden has been down so long that it all looks like up to him.



This last item brings us right here to Montreal, to Concordia University, and I am very much looking forward to this and will try to present a report after the event has concluded. An international conference, In English and French, is to be held at Concordia on November 3, 2008, titled “1968, Societies in Crisis: A Global Perspective.”

The conference description is as follows:

1968-2008: forty years later, the crisis of 1968 are still a source of nostalgia, pride or resentment to those who took part in them. By virtue of their impact and their scope, they continue to attract the attention of scholars. The ongoing interest in the events of “1968” may be explained by their many dimensions: they may be seen as periods of challenge to political power and authority, and as movements of student and trade union revolt. The ‘crisis of 68′ represent the apogee of the aspiration to freedom and change in societies exasperated by the status quo and respect for social and ethical codes considered obsolete. These general protest movements also found an echo because of their global dimension: they swept Quebec, the United States, Europe, Africa and Latin America. In the framework of the fortieth anniversary of the events of 1968, the Lucienne Cnockaert Chair in the history of Europe and Africa (Université de Sherbrooke and Bishop’s University), the Concordia University Chair in the study of Quebec (Sociology and Anthropology department of Concordia University), the Groupe de recherche interuniversitaire sur le Québec et ses relations internationales (GRIQUERE) (Interuniversity research group on Quebec and its international relations) and the Groupement interuniversitaire sur l’histoire des relations internationales contemporaines (GIHRIC) (Interuniversity group for the history of contemporary international relations) are organizing a conference entitled 1968, Societies in Crisis : a global perspective. The conference will seek, on the one hand, to analyze the interconnections, influences or distinctive characteristics of the crisis associated with 1968 and on the other, to compare these crisis by placing them in the sociopolitical perspective of the Sixties (decolonization in Africa, thaw in the Cold War, Vietnam War and, in Quebec, Quiet Revolution, among other factors). The object is to undertake a comprehensive, comparative and interlinked rereading of the ‘springtimes’ of 1968 in order to understand the social, economic and political origins of the different movements, observe the issues involved as well as the development and outcome of the crisis, and finally, determine the significance and impact of the events of 1968 and their place in the collective memories of Europeans, Africans and Americans.

What is noteworthy is not just that my colleague, Jean-Philippe Warren is one of the organizers (a prolific writer who publishes a book a year, and if he blogged would probably blog me right off the Internet), but that unlike the first two items in this post, this conference promises a less Eurocentric focus on 1968.