1968 and the need for nu­ance

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

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.

David Evans


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.

An­thony Bar­nett

Bot­ley, Ox­ford­shire

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


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