Next May is the 50th anniversary of ‘May ’68’. ‘May ’68’, for those not old enough to have been around at the time, appeared to be a second French Revolution, gathering momentum before our very eyes. Paris, particularly the Left Bank, was in turmoil. Students at the universities had gone on strike. Both they and, often, their professors occupied universities, holding impromptu rallies and talks, discussing politics and feeling, in the euphoria of rejecting the status quo which had dominated French intellectual life for decades, that the political system would change forever. To add to the strength of student numbers, an estimated 11 million workers had also gone on strike and, in many cases, occupied factories and work-places throughout France. The two groups formed a loose coalition – or at least a force – that startled the authorities. Paving slabs and cobbles were torn up (‘Beneath the Pavement, the Beach’), cars became barricades, fires were lit. Slogans were generated, poetry was chanted, songs were bellowed into the night, exuberant pictures, graffiti and political statements were painted and posted on walls and trees. Famous notaries, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, showed their support on the streets.
Then, as must happen when populist movements frighten those in power, there were pitched battles between the ‘revolutionaries’ and the police that resulted in many injuries on both sides. President De Gaulle, a war hero in the eyes of many, and representative of the stiffest and most intransigent of the ‘old guard’, left briefly for Germany. The pro-activists thought the war was won: with De Gaulle gone, elections could be held and a left-wing government put in place.
Indeed, when De Gaulle came back, he not only dissolved the National Assembly, but initiated parliamentary elections, to be held on 23rd June. But the Gaullist party won. Made anxious, perhaps, by the idea that France might be run by Communists and anarchists, the voters returned them to power with an even stronger mandate. The ‘revolution’ was over.
As an eighteen-year-old just about to leave school for Art college, the events were breathtaking. I was still in school uniform, including blazer and tattered cap, and my years in education had culminated in stultifying boredom. To watch the news – Paris University at Nanterre shut down; Sorbonne University students join in protest; prolonged rioting and violence; a million people march through Paris – was intoxicating and inspiring. Freedom was already in the air: the doings (dope, communes, ‘free love’) in the nexus of hippiedom (San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district) were being imitated by the young folks of Britain, myself included. Instead of reading Jane Austin and John Buchan, I was into Russian authors, the Beats, Hesse, Charles Bukowski, Knut Hamsun, Chinese poetry. I truanted from school, changing out of my uniform in the public toilets and into a strange black blouson (the like of which I have not seen since), jeans that I rolled up past the ankle, sandals, a faded corduroy shirt and a blue-and-yellow neckerchief. I would make the bus-journey into Birmingham, where I would walk around for a bit then sit in a shop doorway eating bread pudding and reading Jack Kerouac. The ‘summer of love’ that was to come had not yet turned sour, though its leaves were beginning to curl a little at the edges. So far as we were concerned, the world (our world) was about to change forever, the old cast aside, the newly-reborn breathing fresh life into a moribund society.
The events in France, as astonishing and exciting to us, its close neighbours, as they were, had been prefaced by the news that, only a month earlier, on the 5th April, Alexander Dubček had initiated what became known as the Prague Spring.
Dubček had become First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, and began to put in place a programme of reform that would include amendments to its constitution. These amendments, increasing political democracy and recognising citizens’ rights to greater personal freedom, were astounding to everyone who had witnessed or read about the repressive measures that, up until then, had been a feature of Soviet rule. Censorship was to be abolished, Trades Unions were given greater powers, people were allowed to openly criticize the government, and farmers were encouraged to organize their own collectives, amongst other reforms. Of course, as with May ’68, the euphoria was short-lived. By the end of August, Warsaw-pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia and Dubcek’s reforms were overturned.
I remember 1968 as being a strange year, one of contrasts. There was I, about to leave school, heading for Art College, and elsewhere revolutionaries and reformers were changing the tenor of society. We would hear, in that same year, of a group that became known journalistically as the Baader-Meinhof gang, a group of extreme left-wing activists who were happy to translate their discontent with German society and capitalism into violence. As The Red Army Faction, they engaged in a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, and shoot-outs with police. On 2 April 1968, two of their members, joined by others, set fire to two department stores as a statement against the ‘imperialist’ Vietnam war, which itself was the focus for violent protests in the USA. Just over a week later, Rudi Dutschke, a spokesperson for burgeoning student protest in Germany, was shot in the head by a right-wing sympathizer.
Although no-one could have foreseen the extent to which the ‘love’ vibes of the hippies, their music, their ‘happenings’, their social freedoms, would change, the hard-edged political realities of power and its use of force to keep the lid on such potential – and threatening – upheavals were becoming evident. A matter of months after I had started at Wolverhampton College of Art, content to be a scruffy and experimental student, Charles Manson and his acolytes had murdered several people, including the pregnant film-star Sharon Tate. On December 6th of that year (1969), at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, California Hell’s Angels had brought violence into what was meant to have been a festival to rival that of the ‘Summer of Love’ in Woodstock. As it turned out, there was little love that day: a man was murdered, several festival-goers were badly beaten, and Mick Jagger’s appeals to the Hell’s Angels to ‘cool it’ were met with jeers and threats.
In the years following what many people had hoped would be a turning-point in the history of the (Western) world, so many internecine wars, religious conflicts, attempted revolutions have occurred, that the onlooker is left bemused and shell-shocked. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989, comes to mind: Chinese troops stormed this popular meeting-place, firing at students gathered there to support democracy, and running over their tents in tanks. Many people will have their own list of horrors, of famines, destruction, brutality and abuse, whether directly caused by the actions of governments or not.
Yet, even today, we still have tastes of that year, 1968. San Francisco Zen Centre still exists, communes are evident around the world. Recently, there has been a deluge of publicity concerning the attempts by Catalonians to be in charge of their own destiny. People danced, sang, smiled, waved banners, became intoxicated (again) by the prospect of Change. And then…
It is bound to happen, repeatedly, the call for a better system, a better life. The powerless, the disenfranchised, feeling the monolithic weight of entrenched government upon them, are bound to join together and protest, eventually. The hope might be that, as even older members of society, not just young students, feel that they are constantly being short-changed by those who are meant to work for their benefit, a quiet revolution will take place when the sheer weight of numbers, and votes, public opinion, activism in the streets and on line, will serve to at least modify some of the structures that allow for such inequality in our society, such squandering and pollution and destruction of our planet’s resources, such acquisitiveness and greed.
‘May ‘68’ will not occur again, but, half a century on, the disturbances in our world might yet lead to a mass movement of protest and positive alternatives. If not, while entertainment and consumerism are powerfully engaging our attention, the good things we take for granted might suddenly dissolve, and a charred and soundless wasteland be everyone’s inheritance.