As student radicals who believed ‘Anything Is Possible’, we rattled our elders in the heady year of 1968. But looking back, it seems the real driving force of Sixties radicalism was the crisis and cowardice of the elite itself.
My 1968 began in November 1967, and it ended nine months later in August 1968 when the armies of the Warsaw Pact rolled into Prague.
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What I will never forget about those days was the unique sense of unbounded optimism that influenced my peers and me. It was a sensibility orientated towards the future, and which believed that anything was possible. Of course, our sense of immense possibilities proved to be something of an illusion – but at the time, it encouraged many of us to believe in ourselves and in our power to change the world for the better.
During those heady months, many of my friends used the expression: ‘Let’s make things happen.’ That turn of phrase, which expressed the idea that we could indeed have a profound impact on the world around us, encouraged some of us to develop very high expectations of what human action could achieve.
In October 1967, I returned to McGill University in Montreal for my third year of a political science undergraduate course. Compared with most student activists, I was not particularly radical. However, I had resolved to no longer put up with the tedious political lectures on offer in my course. At this time, political science seemed to have taken refuge in the lifeless, uninspiring models of ‘participation’ and ‘behaviour’. After two years of dull institutional analysis, I was ready for something a bit stronger, a bit more meaningful.
Without really knowing why, I found myself at the launch meeting of a student Political Science Association. Everyone was talking about the need for a major reorientation of our study programme. Students were demanding a more intellectually stimulating course of political science – one that was more radical and more engaged. Again, I don’t how or why I got up to speak in public for the first time in my life – but by the end of the meeting I found myself elected to the executive of the newly formed PSA. My short career as a student radical was about to begin.
Campus radicalisation appeared to develop effortlessly. Without very much exertion we organised a series of meetings, and in November 1967 we got the majority of political science students to vote for an occupation of the floor of the building where our teachers’ offices were based. The occupation successfully forced some concessions from the university, and left us all with the impression that taking this kind of direct action was the way forward. More importantly, everyone involved in the occupation experienced a real sense of elation, which further reinforced our conviction that ‘anything and everything is possible’. In the succeeding months, I was involved in a series of strikes and demonstrations, which won the support of large numbers of students and gained some quite considerable media coverage and publicity.
Yet, looking back, I am struck by the shallowness of Sixties radicalism. Our ideas were relatively incoherent and unformed. Most of my peers read Herbert Marcuse and Fanon, and on occasion the young Marx. Many student radicals adopted an eclectic mix of future-oriented radical ideals alongside some backward-looking, anti-modern and anti-technology romantic sentiments. And our talk of social emancipation quickly turned into an obsession with individual liberation – which was often another way of trying to transcend personal problems. But at least, unlike many people today, we were captivated by ideas that outwardly soared above everyday mundane reality.
In retrospect, it is tempting to dismiss the student radicals of the 1960s as immature, even narcissistic. However, to do so would be one-sided, and it would overlook the energy, idealism and seriousness with which many young people engaged with the world around them. What strikes me now, however, is the ease with which radicalism was able to proceed back in the late 1960s. The occupations and demonstrations we organised were part of what we labelled our ‘struggle’ – yet I can now see that very often it felt like we were kicking through an open door.
The university authorities, and other elders whom we confronted, tended to be deeply defensive and uncertain about their own authority. They certainly were not up for a struggle, and invariably they opted for delaying tactics and compromise with the radical student groups. At the time, I didn’t understand that the reason why it appeared to us that ‘anything is possible’ was because people in positions of power were estranged from their own authority. In any case, I was soon reminded that it was easier to talk about than to realise change. In August 1968, the so-called Prague Spring was brought to an end through the exercise of Soviet military power. The popular movement for democracy, which showed so much potential, was swiftly repressed. Anything was not possible, it seemed, in Eastern Europe – or in the West, either, as I would soon discover.
After Prague, I ceased to think of myself as a student radical. As a child, I lived through the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which means I experienced the crushing of the Prague experiment as an intensely familiar tragedy. All of a sudden, Sixties radicalism appeared empty of ideas, and I started to find its rhetoric extremely irritating. With the ascendancy of lifestyle politics, it was difficult to avoid noting the powerful anti-intellectual currents that sprung from the soul of Sixties radicalism. I wasn’t interested in ‘changing my head’ – I wanted to change the world around me. So at the end of the Sixties, I began to sense that rather than talk the talk, I had to sort out my ideas.
Of course, it is always tempting to write off the excesses of the past and to denigrate the youthful naiveté of the Sixties. But for all of its defects, the Sixties were a decade when many of us ceased to be indifferent to the world around us and really believed that we no longer had to conform. Sure, it is beyond doubt that a lot of potential was wasted during the action-heavy, lifestyle-oriented radicalism of the late Sixties, but at the same time many of us started to feel that we did not have to accept this world, which we did not make. Wordsworth wrote in a different historical context:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
Although many of us young radicals felt similarly in 1967 and 1968, in retrospect it is clear why we did not have our own Wordsworth.
1960s: myth and reality
Looking back, it is clear that probably the most significant feature of the late 1960s was not so much radicalism from below as the failure to affirm authority from above. It is sometimes said that revolutions occur when the prevailing order is no longer endurable to the masses, and when the ruling class is not prepared to continue ruling in the old way. During the Sixties, the masses were not nearly as interested in getting rid of the old order as the authorities were in distancing themselves from ‘ruling in the old way’. With hindsight, it appears that the most significant legacy of the 1960s was not so much radicalism as the estrangement of the Western establishment from its own authority. How else can we explain the extreme and at times hysterical reaction to 1960s radicalism?
During the Sixties, establishment values were ridiculed and rejected by an active minority of young people. This was a period when nothing appeared sacred. National traditions were mocked and hitherto influential institutions were put to question. However, the principal source of this erosion of institutional legitimacy was the fragmentation of traditional ideas. Sixties radicalism was, in many respects, the beneficiary of this process. At the time, of course, radicalisation, which was a consequence of the fragmentation of old ideas, was perceived as the cause of the crisis of authority and tradition.
Unable to come to terms with the decline of traditional ideas, conservative thinkers blamed ‘insidious’ influences for seducing young people and warping their minds. Others denounced the new prosperity for helping to undermine old values. ‘Life has ceased to be as difficult as it used to be but it has become pointless’, said Christie Davis in the 1975 book Permissive Britain. What many supporters of the status quo could not face was the manifest irrelevance of traditional conventions and values.
For the historian JH Plumb, the rejection of ‘hollow’ values was proof of what he called The Death of the Past. In a lecture given in 1968 he observed that ‘wherever we look, in all areas of social and personal life, the hold of the past is weakening’. This ‘weakening of the past’ alluded to by Plumb was the outcome of a severe moral and intellectual crisis, which caused the ruling elites to become dislocated from the traditional foundation of their authority. Today, we are well used to public figures and politicians constantly calling for ‘modernisation’ and ‘reform’. However, it was in the Sixties that their ancestors began systematically to distance themselves from their past and their traditions.
Much of what happened in the 1960s was indissolubly linked to a crisis of confidence amongst the ruling elites. It seemed almost incomprehensible that at a time of relative prosperity, Western societies could face such a barrage of criticism from sections of their own youth. According to conventional wisdom on the events of the 1960s, which was consolidated in the 1970s, insidious forces were at work seeking to undermine the stability and unity of Western societies. The finger of blame was pointed at radical agitators and unbridled hedonism. Some commentators emphasised the role of ‘ingratitude’ amongst the ‘spoiled children’ of the postwar years, and the ‘infantile regression’ of the radical protesters.
Gradually, darker forces were discovered behind the shifts of the Sixties. Some suggested that 1960s radicals were systematically destroying the Western way of life by later infiltrating the media and cultural and educational institutions. In what turned out to be a displacement activity of historic proportions, just about everything that went wrong in Western society was blamed on crafty radicals by an elite that could not face up to its own failure to assert and affirm its authority or values.
During the Seventies, numerous myths about the Sixties flourished. Blaming the Sixties for all manner of social problems became something of an institution in itself. The ‘anything goes’ attitude of the Sixties was held responsible for the breakdown of family life, the rise of sexual promiscuity, the rise of crime, and for the decline of education, discipline and moral standards. The durability of these Sixties legends shows that the elites are still unable to come to terms with their own internal incoherence: they blame everything on the Sixties as a way of dodging their traumatic memories of a period when the empty and meaningless character of traditional elite values stood exposed to all.
To an extent, these values were ‘modernised’ out of existence by an elite uncomfortable with its past. Yet the ruling stratum could not acknowledge its complicity in the devaluation of its own authority. So instead it looked for scapegoats. The elites’ unprecedented lack of confidence accounts for their hysterical representation of the events of the 1960s. The demonisation of the youth movement became more and more extravagant and unhinged. The chair of the Adenauer Foundation insisted that ‘the revolt of 1968 destroyed more values than did the Third Reich’. The 1960s were also depicted as the seedbed of terrorism. According to one account, the expansion of the university system provided the impetus for a major moral assault on free enterprise. Campus violence was portrayed as the precursor of a totalitarian movement that might engulf the whole of society.
This irrational reaction to the 1960s represented, in many ways, a semi-conscious awareness that the culture of ‘anything goes’ was actually an inevitable consequence of the breakdown of conventional authority. Once those in authority refused to hold the line on morals, values and politics, it was only a matter of time before all values would be questioned. This is what happened en masse in the 1960s. The erosion of tradition and authority was often experienced as the violent displacement of accepted roles. For many who were used to the exercise of unquestioned authority, the world appeared to have turned upside-down. It was difficult to face the bitter truth that the demise of bourgeois cultural values and conventions was responsible for much of the 1960s – and the fact that Sixties demonology survives to this day shows that the problem of authority that was exposed in the 1960s remains unresolved.
So, what should be our verdict on 1968? For better or worse, it was a year when many Western societies could no longer ignore the cultural revolution that threatened to undermine their traditional values. And in that sense, it represented an important historical moment. However, it is far from evident who bears responsibility for the events of the Sixties – the students marching on the streets of Paris, London and Berlin, or sections of the ruling elites who lost belief in the cultural legacy that underpinned their authority? Sadly, the decline of traditional authority has not been matched by the emergence of an enlightened, future-oriented alternative. Today, figures of authority rarely speak the language of human values. Instead they hide behind a cynical, technocratic worldview, and subject public life to the narrow instrumentalist logic of performance, delivery and best practice. Many of yesterday’s student radicals have been integrated by this new Establishment. They have opted for a small-minded, politically correct worldview that readily complements the political class’s ceaseless desire to ‘modernise’ and ‘reform’ its institutions.
That yesterday’s radicals became today’s unimaginative modernisers was far from inevitable. That is why I feel entitled to treasure some of the feelings and experiences of the late 1960s. And that is why we need to stop evading finding answers to the question of authority, which was raised with such force 40 years ago.
Frank Furedi is author of many books, including most recently Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.
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