Forget it: ‘68 is over

So, revisit “‘68”? Yes, but Only in Order to Understand it, Grasp its Scope, And Retain What Still Makes Sense Today

Opinion | Daniel Cohn-Bendit | September 2008

A roudy demonstration of students on the streets in Berlin in 1968 (Photo: Barbara Klemm)

"Dany, you have been so successful. But don’t let yourself be manipulated by those far-left forces that would lead you to destroy everything that could arise from what you are creating." Forty years later, those words on March 22, 1968, by Jean Baudrillard – then an assistant professor at Nanterre University – still sound right.

I may disappoint my supporters and those enticed by "The Revolution," but I’m not the leader of a revolution that allegedly occurred in 1968. Forget it: "‘68" is over – buried under cobblestones, even if those cobblestones made history and triggered radical change in our societies!

At first it seems baffling. But, as I made clear at the time in my interview with Jean-Paul Sartre in Le Nouvel Observateur , I was only the loudspeaker for a rebellion. Thus, "‘68" symbolized the end of revolutionary myths – to the benefit of liberation movements extending from the 1970’s until now. After all, the world of the 1960’s – the first global movement broadcast live on radio and TV – was defined by a variety of inter-connected revolts.

The change wrought by "’68" affected, above all, traditional culture, hidebound moralism, and the principle of hierarchical authority. It altered social life, ways of being, ways of talking, ways of loving, and so on. But, despite its scope, the movement steered clear of violence in order to create a new mode of rebellion. Students, workers, and families – all had their legitimate demands, and all nonetheless converged on the same desire for emancipation.

The revolt was a form of political expression, but its aim was not to seize political power as such. Indeed, its existential essence rendered it "politically untranslatable." The desire for freedom that carried the movement forward necessarily eluded archaic modes of thinking. As a result, the sterile categories of political tradition could gain no purchase on events.

In France, conservatism was so entrenched on both the left and the right that both missed the movement’s meaning and could only fall back on stereotyped revolutionary interpretations. As for the anarchists, their utopia of widespread self-management – tied to outdated historical references – appeared entirely unsuitable. Starting from an initial rejection of political institutions and parliamentarism, we understood only later that the democratic challenge lies in occupying a politically "normalized" space.

Faced with the anarchists, with their confining minimalist political grammar – reflected in the famous slogan elections, piege à cons ("elections, a trap for idiots") – and with the Communist Party, whose revolutionary ideal was eventually linked to totalitarian types of society, the future of May 1968 could only shift to the right with the election victory of General de Gaulle.

It was, undeniably, a political failure. But just as undeniable was the huge tremor that shook our antediluvian conceptions of society, morals, and the state. Challenging authoritarianism, the revolt triggered an explosion at the heart of the typically French two-headed power structure, which combined a dominant Gaullism and a Communist Party managing the working class. Thus, the radicalism of the upheaval eventually liberated the pleasure to live.

With a new generation emerges a new political imagination and poetic mottos written on walls. The surrealist essence of the rebellion was somehow symbolized by Gilles Caron’s famous photograph, in which an insolent smile at a riot policeman subverts the frozen, established order to the point of making it ridiculous.

Of course, some people have never overcome the end of the ecstasy of those five weeks of craziness and joy, while others still wait for "’68" to culminate in God only knows what kind of "D-Day."

For my part, I accepted the "principle of reality" long ago, without nostalgia – and without minimizing the importance of what happened. For "’68" was, indeed, a rebellion joining two eras. It cracked the yoke of conservatism and totalitarian thought, enabling the desire for personal and collective autonomy and freedom to express itself. From the cultural point of view, we won.

So, revisit "’68"? Yes, but only in order to understand it, grasp its scope, and retain what still makes sense today. Knowing, for example, that 23 years after World War II, a multicolored France demonstrated against my deportation by claiming "We are all German Jews" provides food for thought.

But this does not justify the hasty comparison – and even less the identification – of every protest today with "’68." After 40 years, the context has changed radically. The world of the Cold War is gone, as are schools and factories organized like barracks, authoritarian trade unions, gay bashing, and women’s obligation to receive permission from their husbands before being able to work or open a bank account.

That world has been replaced by a multilateral world, which includes AIDS, unemployment, energy and climate crises, and so on. So let’s permit new generations to define their own battles and desires.

Demystifying "’68" also exposes the pretense of those who would blame it for all the wrongs of today’s world. Because the "’68 generation" wrote on the walls "It is forbidden to forbid," some hold it responsible for urban violence, extreme individualism, the crisis in education, executives’ "golden parachutes," the decline of authority, and – why not? – climate change.

In this way, such people hope that they can evade their duty to explain today’s problems. But hw can one not interpret this as a political trick aimed at sabotaging the moderniyation of expression, thereby closing off any space for rational debate?


Daniel Cohn-Bendit is co-president of the Greens/Free European Alliance Group in the European Parliament. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008

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