1968 and the need for nuance
We are 50 years on from “les événements” in France of 1968. As evidence of how much that year did not achieve there is very little being made of this half-centenary.
If it had been a year that had shaped our futures there would have been a mass of academic reflection on its significance. Instead, what we have had this week is Joan Bakewell on BBC2 reminiscing about a year when she was a young television personality fronting Late Night Line-up, John Harris making a neat summary of what happened (Revolution in the air, 12 May) and David Edgar challenging us to defend the legacy (The legacy of 1968 is under attack. We must defend it, 11 May). What legacy? Between 1968 and 1979 I was in a state of grief for the year in which every political hope was aroused and then dowsed within a few fleeting weeks. I waited for us to get back on track again before a decade of Thatcherism brought home to me that, at 20, I had deceived myself into believing that 1968 had represented the true path and not a brief if inspiring and elating deviation.
Everyone can feel that the world is crumbling and that another ‘68 might be on its way. It’s vital therefore not to indulge what happened then with a nostalgia for its desires, which were too often taken for reality. Or dismiss it as “froth” (as some did on the recent BBC Jeremy Vine show I was on). David Edgar suggests I’m guilty of a different simplification: “From the British left, Anthony Barnett argues (in his Brexit book The Lure of Greatness) that 1968 led to a renewal not of socialism, but of capitalism.” Not so. I think the spirit and hopes of ‘68 were defeated, which is quite different. My book’s first chapter opens by saluting ‘68 as a year of revolution. 1968 was beaten by “the 60s”, to use shorthand. Yes, it was a decade of wonderful, emancipating energy. But Edgar can hardly deny that a renewed capitalism exploited this freedom to the hilt. Feminism, the greatest progressive achievement of that moment, was also a reaction against 68, its macho sexism, vanguard groups and indulgence of violence. We need some complexity here. Where he and I agree is that any politics of the left worth having must embrace a spirit of radicalism and connectedness, to breathe life into politics and free it from confinement in establishment routines.
We’re delighted to hear that David Edgar is updating Maydays – a great play. Post-1968, for some of us, was a time of “small deeds communism”. We hoped change could be achieved via creating exemplary pockets of a better lifestyle inside the rubbery and unexpectedly resilient fabric of capitalism. The word “alternative” was heard in the land. It was a time of interregnum between that revolutionary, beautiful, but doomed spring and summer of ‘68 and the political amnesia instigated by Thatcher and continued by governments of both right and centreleft. Our contribution was to found an educational community in an abandoned terrace of railwaymen’s houses in the Yorkshire moors. Lots of work and lots of fun! Going into the communal stewpot was respect for the environment, organic farming, shared use of energy, transport and childcare, home-schooling, work and money sharing as well as concern for the individual psyche. It’s still there today, 44 years later, and thriving.
Hylda Sims and Freer Spreckley