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May ‘68: An appreciation

Social Movements

The earth moved. It was one of those rare moments in history when all that had been solid (and stultifying) seemed to melt into air. As William Wordsworth wrote of the epoch of the French Revolution, in 1805 – verse that also captured something of the spirit of the ‘68: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!”

“Ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more…”

The aftermath of World War II had promised so much. Affluence supposedly eased the pinch of poverty. Unions and collective bargaining were recognized for the first time historically, and workers now seemingly had rights they had struggled to achieve for more than a century. Consumption massaged age-old discontents, doing this in ways that coerced conformity with subtleties previously unimagined. Capitalism proclaimed its great and decisive victory. It was, in the expanding Western academies of staid thought and banal conventionality, an age of consensus. For all right-thinking people, dissent stood in the stocks, publicly ridiculed as irrelevant when it was not criminalized or burned at the stake of the McCarthyites.

Yet historically unprecedented dangers loomed large and hardening oppositions marked the politics of global relations. A Cold War stasis froze the contending superpowers in a destructive contest. It locked a degenerated, Stalinist Communism and a voraciously accumulative Western capitalism – the Soviet Union versus the United States – in a lethal embrace. The arms race was its particular kiss of death; nuclear annihilation was a dark nightmare that awoke mass movements of fearful protest.

With campaigns for national liberation erupting in the colonized world – Africa and Indochina were especially volatile – China marched under Mao to a newly consolidated “peasant socialism.” Fidel Castro and Che Guevara brought Revolution to America’s backdoor in a 1959 rout of the corrupt and dictatorial Batista regime in Cuba.

It was no different behind the Iron Curtain. Dissidents in Hungary forced the Soviets to resort to armed suppression of a 1956 uprising. Communist parties around the world were thrown into a cauldron of debate and discussion; in Britain a mass exodus from the Party resulted in the formation of what was openly christened a New Left. The label would gain wider and wider credence. By 1968 it was a badge of self-identification, East and West.

Anti-Stalinist dissent blossomed in Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubchek, an unlikely Communist functionary, unleashed the appetite for reform and then could not put a lid on it. Students, artists and writers combined to demand the freedoms of the global cultural marketplace. May Day, 1968, was celebrated in raucous style. Bright banners screamed the slogans of a pan-European youth uprising: “Fewer monuments, more thoughts! Make love, not war! Democracy at all costs!”

The New York Times dubbed Prague the place to be if you were under thirty and in search of 1968’s summer freedoms. It underestimated Soviet authority.

Stalin’s heirs marshaled an army of occupation that eventually included 165,000 troops, 250 aircraft and over 5,000 armoured vehicles. In the West, three currents set a backdrop against which events would unfold in the United States as the 1960s dawned. First, Black Americans continued a decades-long struggle for civil rights that threatened a new and radical turn in the demand not for equality but for Black power. Second, in the land of economic opportunity and supposed consumer contentment, mass society was revealed as riddled with poverty. Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1963) publicized the plight of the poor and exposed a “culture of poverty,” which set the agenda for mainstream liberal reforms and welfare programs. It also nurtured an explosion of community organizing, tenant-rights mobilizations, local initiatives and assorted other projects of education and agitation. Third, students showed signs of awakening from a long and apathetic slumber.

The 1960 formation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan barely registered on anyone’s political radar. Two years later, Tom Hayden, an irrepressible 21-year-old who had assumed the presidency of SDS, played a key role in authoring student radicalism’s manifesto, the Port Huron Statement.

Students were now regarded as agents of change; the university was depicted as a nursery of social transformation. “If we appear to seek the unattainable,” declared the Port Huron Statement’s concluding sentence, “then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” Like Bob Dylan, poet laureate of the early American New Left, Hayden accented youth as a newly rebellious alienated subject:

Ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while you slave and I just get bored.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

“Head Full of Ideas…”

What would come to define New Left thought – in Dylan’s lyrics, “a head full of ideas/ That are drivin’ me insane” – was the necessity of overcoming “the memories, the certitudes and the promises” of past radicalisms that had failed to change the world.

One established thinker who helped the young find new political footing was C. Wright Mills. Mills, a maverick sociologist whose personal estrangement from the university within which he made his living was legendary, had little use for any conventional wisdom, be it radical, liberal, or conservative. The motorcycle-driving and leather-jacketed rebel academic rejected both vulgar Marxism (and its nation-state embodiment, the Soviet Union) and the shibboleths of liberalism (which shored up the military-industrial complex-driven United States). Mills placed no stock in the working class and its ossified leadership as the agent of social transformation. When he looked at who was waging war against “all the old crap” (he was quoting Marx) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before he succumbed to a stress-induced and hard-living-attributed heart attack, this Texas-born rebel with a cause saw only “the young intelligentsia.”

Supplementing Mills as a source of student activist ideas in the 1960s was Herbert Marcuse. The philosopher of praxis insisted that repressive rationality had conditioned one-dimensional men and suppressed “the sensuous power of the imagination.” He championed absolute breaks with all regressive constraints on personal liberation. This Marcusean demand that “new ways and forms of life” had to be struggled for, and that the “negation of the entire Establishment” would culminate in “the abolition of property and toil,” giving free rein to “the sensuous, the playful, the calm, and the beautiful,” resonated resoundingly with Sixties radicals.

To act was to think, and to think demanded activism. Mario Savio, catalyst of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, anticipated by 35 years (and rejected) the ideological posture of Francis Fukayama’s “end of history” response to the implosion of Soviet Communism in 1989: “Here is the real contradiction: the bureaucrats hold history as ended,” Savio declared in 1964. “As a result significant parts of the population on campus and off are dispossessed, and these dispossessed are not about to accept this a-historical point of view.”

Stepping back from the “sterilized, automated contentment” of the “chrome-plated consumers’ paradise” that America promoted itself as, Savio pointed to the wave of student and civil-rights protests in the United States as proof that men and women would not succumb to forces determined to make them “standardized, replaceable, and irrelevant.”

“Stay Awhile in the Street”

Of the activists of 1968, few gained the notoriety of Dany the Red, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. This quick-to-smile, red-headed student rode the wave of protests that convulsed Paris in 1968 out of Nanterre’s bleak campus onto an international stage. “There I was,” Cohn-Bendit remembered, “the leader of a little university, and in three weeks I was famous all over the world as Dany the Red.”

In his account of the May ‘68 uprisings, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (1968), Cohn-Bendit summarized the politics of the moment: “Get out into the streets, and peel off all the latest government proclamations until underneath you discover the message of the days of May and June. Stay awhile in the street. Look at the passersby and say to yourself: the last word has not been said. Then act. Act with others, not for them. Make the revolution here and now. It is your own.”

Cohn-Bendit proved a living embodiment of Marcuse’s analytic insistence that a practice of negating repression could springboard into political resistance. The media-savvy Cohn-Bendit managed to turn student discontent with dormitory restrictions curtailing their sex lives and antagonism to crowded classrooms into a far-reaching revolt. No one knew where it would end.

By mid-May, 1968, Cohn-Bendit and his fellow enragés had outsourced discontent. Nanterre’s beginnings were eclipsed by the shutting-down of the illustrious Sorbonne for the first time in its seven-hundred-year history. Universities were convulsed with the chaos of demonstrations, sit-ins, protests and rallies. As lecture halls were occupied and renamed – Leon Trotsky, Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung were favoured christenings – police swarmed onto campuses. Presidents of colleges ordered the library doors locked.

No longer were the concerns mundane matters of the right to visit a female student in her room or get a seat in your psychology lecture. Entire academic disciplines were assailed as bastions of capitalist thought. Workers and Marxist thinkers, like French intellectual icon Jean-Paul Sartre, were sought out as allies. Banners demanded an end to the imperialist carnage in Vietnam, where the National Liberation Front’s (NLF) Tet Offensive signaled that colonial resistance to U.S. imperialism was not going away.

The Paris unions, often led by Communists, were at first hostile to the currents of youth opposition. But each passing day saw the repression mount and the talk of revolution grow more animated. Alive with the graffiti of an almost incomprehensible politics of freedom’s festivity, the walls of the Latin Quarter’s narrow streets became an art gallery of revolutionary silkscreen posters, 350 different designs appearing daily. Workers and their leaders eventually joined in.

Demonstrations swelled to over 200,000. With protesters calling for President De Gaulle’s head, militants tried to burn the Bourse, the French stock exchange. A General Strike brought the country to a standstill. The forces of containment replied, sometimes with the mailed fist, sometimes with the opening of a wallet: Cohn-Bendit, a stateless son of German émigré Jews, was deported; the unions were offered wage concessions; and the last students left the occupied lecture halls of the Sorbonne in mid-June.

“Vietnam Opened Our Eyes”

In France, May ‘68 had an almost surreal quality. Germany’s equivalent of Cohn-Bendit, Red Rudi Dutschke, was more of a traditional leftist, albeit one immersed in the social gospel. The head of the West German Socialist Federation, Dutschke was a 26-year-old divinity student who charted the course of student radicalism at the University of West Berlin with a firm eye on the role of the United States military.

American soldiers still “protected” West Berlin from the feared Soviets as late as 1968. Demonstrations against U.S. imperialist aggression had long been banned. But Dutschke exhorted crowds and organized protest marches, defying threats by Berlin’s mayor to have him jailed. Soon, 300,000 students at over a hundred universities followed his lead. Red Rudi linked Vietnam to all of the repressive containment of late capitalist society, stressing how the military-industrial complex disfigured life and learning in the United States and around the world. Universities and their researchers were complicit in the war drive, refining the chemical weaponry used against the NLF. “Vietnam opened our eyes,” said Dutschke.

A massive, 100,000-strong February, 1968 rally thrust Dutschke into the anti-war limelight. But it drew the dark flies of violent retribution. On April 11, 1968, six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Dutschke, stalked by a copycat killer, was shot twice in the head and once in the chest while riding his bicycle.

Dutschke survived his attack; his supporters were enraged. In West Berlin, an army of student radicals attempted to invade City Hall. Dusseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich and other major cities were the sites of pitched battles between police and young demonstrators. Some paid with their lives. The “Internationale” rang out in streets and occupied buildings. “Rudi Dutschke! Nazi Swine!” was the chant of the hour. But when the trade unions refused to link arms with the rebels, the counter-revolution set in with a vengeance.

“Two, Three, Many Columbias”

Everywhere, 1968 exploded in anti-war protests. In Japan, students armed with sharpened sticks and bags of stones, outfitted with gas masks and motorcycle helmets, engaged in almost ritualistic combat with police. Britain’s Black Dwarf screamed determination in its headline: “We Shall Fight We Will Win – Paris London Rome Berlin.” As a March, 1968 demonstration surged threateningly towards the Grosvenor Street U.S. Embassy, only barely to be beaten back by the billy clubs of an unusually brutal phalanx of mounted “Bobbies,” Mick Jagger witnessed the scene. He would memorialize it in the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Italian “Red Guards” fused the usual mélange of radical student concerns with support for Fiat workers, Turin being a centre of agitation that congealed revolutionary syndicalism, anti-imperialism and a particularly vigourous fight to democratize the country’s hierarchical and understaffed universities. Ensconced parties of the Left – Stalinist and social-democratic – were repulsed. But with red and black flags waving, students and workers marched in tenuous alliances that seized streets and factories, and closed a score of institutions of higher learning.

At New York’s Columbia University, America’s Ivory Tower was also confronted with bullhorn-touting radicals and a tumultuous occupation. SDS had by 1968 hooked up with Vietnam Day committees across the country and with the national Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, or Mobe. Its agitation to stop imperialist aggression in far-off Asia was now an all-consuming political responsibility. Having grown to a respectable 8,000 student syndicalists in 1965, by 1968 SDS’s ranks had mushroomed to 100,000.

The anti-war mobilization peaked at the same time that young and militant African Americans moved away from the Gandhi-like civil-rights campaigns of Martin Luther King. “Burn, baby, burn,” was the cry of the times, as an outbreak of ghetto rebellions rocked American cities in 1967. The idea of armed self-defense had gained currency with the militant stand taken by Robert F. Williams against the Klan in Monroe, South Carolina, early in the decade. By the later 1960s it was a prominent plank in the program of the Black Panther Party of Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale.

Black and white students came together at Columbia, although the alliance never quite stuck. Opposition to military recruitment on campus galvanized the student body as a whole, and soon the Afro-American Society attacked Columbia’s plan to build a gymnasium on a derelict park site in Harlem.

Rallies denouncing Columbia as a colonizer linked together the corporate university; the military-industrial complex; wars of liberation in Angola and Mozambique; apartheid in South Africa; and the need to make common cause with the NLF in Viet Nam. Dean’s and president’s offices were occupied, along with five university buildings. The walls screamed out, “Create two, three, many Columbias,” echoing Che Guevara’s exhortation to “Create two, three, many Vietnams in Latin America.”

And it happened. Across North America, classrooms boiled over in heated discussion, and administration offices, lecture halls and dormitories became the sites of sit-ins and teach-ins. Mark Rudd, catapulted into leadership of the most radical of Columbia’s SDSers, was one of hundreds arrested as order was returned to the Ivy League campus in late May, 1968. For him, student power was no longer enough. Rudd wanted to push the nature of the struggle against capitalist society to a new and higher level, realizable “in revolution.”

Soon, SDS would splinter into rival factions, and one component, Weatherman, would draw heavily on veterans of Columbia’s April-May, 1968 occupation, including Rudd. Weatherman would lead a few hundred warriors into battle in the streets of Chicago in October, 1969, before it went underground and embraced the politics of exemplary violence. Something had ended, and something else had begun. The war had come home.

“There’s Something Happening Here”

Few musical groups – and there were many – captured the mood of the moment better than Buffalo Springfield:

There’s something
happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear …
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

Canada’s New Left groups and student protests never quite managed to rise to the international 1968 occasion. The country’s leading, early student radical body, the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA), modeled itself on SDS. Its causes, even some of its leaders, were steeped in the ideas and practices of participatory democracy, southern voter-registration drives and economic research and action projects pioneered in the U.S. But there was definitely Canadian content in the early-to-mid-1960s New Left happenings.

Student radicals worked on Aboriginal reserves and in northern Métis communities in Saskatchewan; they struggled to integrate their politics of pacifism with established Doukhobor communities in the interior of British Columbia; and they lived and laboured to improve everyday life in poor neighbourhoods like north-of-Princess-Street Kingston, Ontario.

Most significantly, Canadian New Leftists like Dimitri Roussopoulos, Cy Gonick and Bob Davis established important venues for publishing the radical thought of the era. Journals like Our Generation (1961-94) and the ongoing publications Canadian Dimension (1963-) and This Magazine (1966-) grew to international prominence in the 1960s. Few countries gave rise to such long-standing popular forums for the dissemination of radical ideas.

Canada had its share of campus revolt. Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal burned as black students, engaged in a 1969 fight against racism and provoked by police, trashed the institution’s computer centre. At McGill, Stan Gray led a mass mobilization that assailed the university as a bastion of Anglophone dominance within French Canada. He also organized support for both the beleaguered Black Panthers in the U.S. and the hounded revolutionary nationalists in the clandestine Quebec liberation movement. Simon Fraser’s “Red Base,” in its Political Science, Sociology, and Anthropology Department, was purged by university officials.

After a November, 1968 occupation of the SFU administration building culminating in 114 student arrests, and a six-week strike in September-October, 1969, the radical professors were summarily dismissed and denied tenure or contract renewals. The business of the university was brought back to being about business.

What happened in Canada differed, however, from events in Europe and the United States. To begin with, the intensity of the opposition to the war in Viet Nam was less in Canada, where being drafted into military service was no threat to students. Also, Canadian youth radicals had neither the tenuous but nonetheless invigorating connections to working-class circles mobilized by the Old Left (as in France and, to some extent, Italy) nor the potentially revolutionizing experience of close contact with the explosive politics of ghetto rebellion and Black Power that certainly framed a part of the experience of growing SDS militancy.

If the stick driving student radicalism in Canada was not wielded as brutally as it was elsewhere, the carrots of enticement and accommodation were correspondingly more alluring. On the one hand, the liberal state reacted in Canada much differently than it did in the United States. Trudeaumania swept some potentially radical youth into the net of “Just Society” patronage, a major vehicle of which was the Company of Young Canadians. On the other hand, Canadian political culture, with its third-party CCF/NDP moderately socialist option, provided more relatively mainstream outlets than were possible in the two-party United States. A Waffle-like movement, with its blend of socialism, radicalism and nationalism, was simply unimaginable in the U.S. Democratic Party.

Finally, there was no getting around the decisive Canadian circumstance of region. SUPA, for instance, never overcome the division between a somewhat bureaucratized Toronto “centre” and its critics in the hinterland – be they freewheeling, anarchistic, cosmopolitan Montrealers or maverick western populists in British Columbia and on the prairies. Quebec was, in effect, another country, and the revolutionary national-liberation movement that emerged in the 1960s had uses for Anglo-Canadian radicals – but not as key players in the revolutionary drama. Pierre Vallières’ White Niggers of America (1968) was nevertheless a quintessential New Left text, poised at the interface of a range of sixties sensibilities, including, of course, anti-colonialism. The FLQ would be Canada’s Weatherman. And, in the October Crisis of 1970, something of the 1960s ended.

“A Delicious Addiction”

Uniquely combative and irrevocably imaginative, the New Left in Canada and elsewhere rewrote the text of dissent for the twenty-first century. To have lived in its ornate calligraphy was, as one Canadian ‘68er, Ellie Kirzner of Toronto’s Now Magazine, recalled three decades later, “a delicious addiction.”

In the hearts and minds of all who truly abhor capitalist injustice and exploitation and imperialist war, the sixties will never die. The movement now associated with that month of revolt, May ‘68, had foibles and failures a-plenty. But they do not overshadow the boundless spirit of resistance that put its mark on a decade. Dimension put it well in a 1988 commemoration, when it declared defiantly: “We were brazen and brave and we shook them badly despite our mistakes. We’ll do it again.”

Bryan D. Palmer is a professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Canadian Studies at Trent University.

This article appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension (May Day!).


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