‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963,
Between the end of the Chatterley
ban and the Beatles’ first LP’.
‘The Revolution—we loved it so much’.
‘The rebellion of the repentant bourgeoisie against the complacent and
oppressive proletariat is one of the queerer phenomena of our time’.
Sir Isaiah Berlin
‘Now all the journalists of the world are licking your arses . . . but not me,
my dears. You have the faces of spoilt brats, and I hate you, like I hate your
fathers . . . When yesterday at Valle Giulia you beat up the police, I
sympathized with the police because they are the sons of the poor’.
Pier Paolo Pasolini (June 1968)
‘We are not with Dubček. We are with Mao’.
(Italian student slogan, 1968)
Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own times—and their own selves—was one of the special features of the age. A significant part of the Sixties was spent, in the words of The Who, ‘talking about My Generation’. As we shall see, this was not a wholly unreasonable preoccupation; but it led, predictably, to some distortions of perspective. The 1960s were indeed a decade of extraordinary consequence for modern Europe, but not everything that seemed important at the time has left its mark upon History. The self-congratulatory, iconoclastic impulse—in clothing or ideas—dated very fast; conversely, it would be some years before the truly revolutionary shift in politics and public affairs that began in the late 1960s could take full effect. And the political geography of the Sixties can be misleading—the most important developments were not always in the best-known places.
By the middle of the 1960s, the social impact of the post-war demographic explosion was being felt everywhere. Europe, as it seemed, was full of young people—in France, by 1968, the student-age cohort, of persons aged 16 to 24, was eight million strong, constituting 16.1 percent of the national total. In earlier times such a population explosion would have placed huge strains upon a country’s food supply; and even if people could be fed, their job prospects would have been grim. But in a time of economic growth and prosperity, the chief problem facing European states was not how to feed, clothe, house and eventually employ the growing number of young people, but how to educate them.
Until the 1950s, most children in Europe left school after completing their primary education, usually between the ages of 12 and 14. In many places compulsory primary education itself, introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, was only weakly enforced—the children of peasants in Spain, Italy, Ireland and pre-Communist eastern Europe typically dropped out of school during the spring, summer and early fall. Secondary education was still a privilege confined to the middle and upper classes. In post-war Italy, less than 5 percent of the population had completed secondary school.
In anticipation of future numbers, and as part of the broader cycle of social reforms, governments in post-war Europe introduced a series of major educational changes. In the UK the school-leaving age was raised to 15 in 1947 (and later to 16 in 1972). In Italy, where in practice most children in the early-post war years still left school at 11, it was raised to 14 in 1962. The number of children in full-time schooling in Italy doubled in the course of the decade 1959-1969. In France, which boasted a mere 32,000 bacheliers(high-school graduates) in 1950, the numbers would increase more than five-fold over the next twenty years: by 1970, bacheliers represented 20 percent of their age cohort.
These educational changes carried disruptive implications. Hitherto, the cultural fault-line in most European societies had fallen between those—the overwhelming majority—who had left school after learning to read, write, do basic arithmetic and recite the outlines of national history; and a privileged minority who had remained in school until 17 or 18, been awarded the highly-valued secondary-school leaving certificate, and gone on to professional training or employment. The grammar schools, lycées andGymnasiums of Europe had been the preserve of a ruling élite. Heirs to a classical curriculum once closed to the children of the rural and urban poor, they were now opened to an ever-expanding pool of young people from every social milieu. As more and more children entered and passed through the secondary school systems, a breach opened up between their world and the one their parents had known.
This new and wholly unprecedented generation gap constituted a de facto social revolution in its own right—albeit one whose implications were still confined to the realm of the family. But as tens of thousands of children poured into hastily constructed secondary schools, placing great strain upon the physical and financial fabric of an education system designed for a very different age, planners were already becoming concerned at the implications of these changes for what had until then been the preserve of an even tinier élite: the universities.
If most Europeans before 1960 never saw the inside of a secondary school, fewer still could even have dreamed of attending university. There had been some expansion of traditional universities in the course of the nineteenth century, and an increase in the number of other establishments of tertiary education, mostly for technical training. But higher education in Europe in the 1950s was still closed to all but a privileged few, whose families could forgo the earnings of their children to keep them in school until 18, and who could afford the fees charged by secondary schools and universities alike. There were, of course, scholarships, open to children of the poor and middling sort. But except in the admirably meritocratic and egalitarian institutions of the French Third and Fourth Republics, these scholarships rarely covered the formal costs of additional schooling; nowhere did they compensate for lost income.
Despite the best intentions of an earlier generation of reformers, Oxford, Cambridge, the École Normale Supérieure, the Universities of Bologna or Heidelberg and the rest of Europe’s ancient establishments of learning remained off-limits to almost everyone. In 1949 there were 15,000 university students in Sweden, in Belgium 20,000. There were just 50,000 university students in all of Spain, less than double that number in the United Kingdom (in a population of 49 million). The French student population that year barely exceeded 130,000. But with Europe now on the cusp of mass secondary education there would soon be irresistible pressure to expand higher education too. A lot would have to change.
In the first place, Europe was going to need many more universities. In many places there was no ‘system’ of tertiary education as such. Most countries had inherited a randomly configured network of individual institutions: an infrastructure of small, ancient, nominally independent establishments designed to admit at most a few hundred entrants each year and frequently situated in provincial towns with little or no public infrastructure. They had no space for expansion and their lecture halls, laboratories, libraries and residential buildings (if any) were quite incapable of accommodating thousands more young people.
The typical European university town—Padua, Montpellier, Bonn, Leuven, Fribourg, Cambridge, Uppsala—was small and often some distance from major urban centers (and deliberately chosen many centuries before for just this reason): the University of Paris was an exception, albeit an important one. Most European universities lacked campuses in the American sense (here it was the British universities, Oxford and Cambridge above all, that were the obvious exception) and were physically integrated into their urban surroundings: their students lived in the town and depended upon its residents for lodging and services. Above all, and despite being hundreds of years old in many cases, the universities of Europe had almost no material resources of their own. They were utterly dependent on city or state for funding.
If higher education in Europe was to respond in time to the ominous demographic bulge pushing up through the primary and secondary schools, the initiative would thus have to come from the center. In Britain and to a lesser extent in Scandinavia, the problem was addressed by building new universities on ‘greenfield’ sites outside provincial cities and county towns: Colchester or Lancaster in England, Aarhus in Denmark. By the time the first post-secondary cohort began to arrive, these new universities, however architecturally soulless, were at least in place to meet the increased demand for places—and create job openings for an expanding pool of post-graduate students seeking teaching posts.
Rather than open these new universities to a mass constituency, British educational planners chose to integrate them into the older, elite system. British universities thus preserved their right to select or refuse students at the point of admission: only candidates who performed above a certain level in national high school-leaving exams could hope to gain entry to university and each university was free to offer places to whomsoever it wished—and to admit only as many students as it could handle. Students in the UK remained something of a privileged minority (no more than 6 percent of their age group in 1968) and the long-term implications were unquestionably socially regressive. But for the fortunate few, the system worked very smoothly—and insulated them from almost all the problems faced by their peers elsewhere in Europe.
For on the Continent, higher education moved in a very different direction. In the majority of Western European states there had never been any impediment to movement from secondary to higher education: if you took and passed the national school-leaving exams you were automatically entitled to attend university. Until the end of the 1950s this had posed no difficulties: the numbers involved were small and universities had no cause to fear being overwhelmed with students. In any case, academic study in most continental universities was by ancient convention more than a little detached and unstructured. Haughty and unapproachable professors offered formal lectures to halls full of anonymous students who felt little pressure to complete their degrees by a deadline, and for whom being a student was as much a social rite of passage as a means to an education.152
Rather than construct new universities, most central planners in Europe simply decreed the expansion of existing ones. At the same time they imposed no additional impediments or system of pre-selection. On the contrary, and for the best of reasons, they frequently set about removing those that remained—in 1965 the Italian Ministry of Education abolished all university entrance examinations and fixed subject quotas. Higher education, once a privilege, would now be a right. The result was catastrophic. By 1968 the University of Bari, for example, which traditionally enrolled about 5,000 people, was trying to cope with a student body in excess of 30,000. The University of Naples in the same year had 50,000 students, the University of Rome 60,000. Those three universities alone were enrolling between them more than the total student population of Italy a mere eighteen years earlier; many of their students would never graduate.153
By the end of the 1960s, one young person in seven in Italy was attending university (compared to one in twenty ten years before). In Belgium the figure was one in six. In West Germany, where there had been 108,000 students in 1950, and where the traditional universities were already beginning to suffer from overcrowding, there were nearly 400,000 by the end of the Sixties. In France, by 1967, there were as many university students as there had been lycéens in 1956. All over Europe there were vastly more students than ever before—and the quality of their academic experience was deteriorating fast. Everything was crowded—the libraries, the dormitories, the lecture halls, the refectories—and in distinctly poor condition (even, indeed especially, if it was new). Post-war government spending on education, which had everywhere risen very steeply, had concentrated upon the provision of primary and secondary schools, equipment and teachers. This was surely the right choice, and in any case one dictated by electoral politics. But it carried a price.
At this juncture it is worth recalling that even by 1968 most young people in every European country were not students (a detail that tends to be overlooked in accounts of this period), especially if their parents were peasants, workers, unskilled or immigrants, whether from peripheral provinces or abroad. Of necessity, this non-student majority experienced the Sixties rather differently: particularly the later Sixties, when so much seemed to turn on events in and around universities. Their opinions, and especially their politics, should not be inferred from those of their student contemporaries. In other respects, however, young people shared what was already a distinctive—and common—culture.
Every generation sees the world as new. The Sixties generation saw the world as new and young. Most young people in history have entered a world full of older people, where it is their seniors who occupy positions of influence and example. For the generation of the mid-1960s, however, things were different. The cultural eco-system was evolving much faster than in the past. The gap separating a large, prosperous, pampered, self-confident and culturally autonomous generation from the unusually small, insecure, Depression-scarred and war-ravaged generation of its parents was greater than the conventional distance between age groups. At the very least, it seemed to many young people as though they had been born into a society reluctantly transforming itself—its values, its style, its rules—before their very eyes and at their behest. Popular music, cinema and television were full of young people and increasingly appealed to them as its audience and market. By 1965 there were radio and television programs, magazines, shops, products and whole industries that existed exclusively for the young and depended upon their patronage.
Although each national youth culture had its distinctive icons and institutions, its exclusively local reference points (the June 22nd 1963 Fête des Copains in Paris’s Place de la Nation was the founding event of Sixties youth culture in France, yet it passed virtually unnoticed elsewhere), many of the popular cultural forms of the age flowed with unprecedented ease across national boundaries. Mass culture was becoming international as a matter of definition. A trend (in music, or clothing) would begin in the English-speaking world, often in England itself, and would then move south and east: facilitated by an increasingly visual (and therefore cross-border) culture and only occasionally impeded by locally generated alternatives or, more often, by political intervention.154
The new fashions were perforce addressed to the more prosperous young: the children of Europe’s white middle-class, who could afford records, concerts, shoes, clothes, make-up and modish hair-styling. But the presentation of these wares cut ostentatiously athwart conventional lines. The most successful musicians of the time—the Beatles and their imitators—took the rhythms of American blues guitarists (most of them black) and paired them with material drawn directly from the language and experience of the British working class.155 This highly original combination then became the indigenous, trans-national culture of European youth.
The content of popular music mattered quite a lot, but its form counted for more. In the 1960s people paid particular attention to style. This, it might be thought, was hardly new. But it was perhaps a peculiarity of the age that style could substitute so directly for substance. The popular music of the 1960s was insubordinate in tone, in the manner of its performance—whereas its lyrics were frequently anodyne and anyway at best half-understood by foreign audiences. In Austria, to perform or listen to British or American pop music was to cock a snoot at one’s shocked parents, the generation of Hitler; the same applied, mutatis mutandis, just across the border in Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The music, so to speak, protested on your behalf.
If much of the mainstream musical culture of the Sixties seemed to be about sex—at least until it shifted, briefly, into drugs and politics—this, too, was largely a matter of style. More young people lived away from their parents, and at a younger age than hitherto. And contraceptives were becoming safer, easier and legal.156 Public displays of flesh and representations of unconstrained sexual abandon on film and in literature became more common, at least in north-west Europe. For all these reasons, the older generation was convinced that sexual restraints had completely collapsed—and it pleased their children to nourish the nightmare.
In fact, the ‘sexual revolution’ of the Sixties was almost certainly a mirage for the overwhelming majority of people, young and old alike. So far as we can know, the sexual interests and practices of most young Europeans did not change nearly as rapidly or as radically as contemporaries liked to claim. On the evidence of contemporary surveys, even the sex lives of students were not very different from those of earlier generations. The liberated sexual style of the Sixties was typically contrasted with the Fifties, depicted (somewhat unfairly) as an age of moral rectitude and constipated emotional restraint. But when compared with the 1920s, or the European fin-de-siècle, or the demi-monde of 1860s Paris, the ‘Swinging Sixties’ were quite tame.
In keeping with the emphasis upon style, the generation of the Sixties placed unusual insistence upon looking different. Clothing, hair, make-up and what were still called ‘fashion accessories’ became vital generational and political identification tags. London was the source of such trends: European taste in clothing, music, photography, modeling, advertising and even mass-market magazines all took their cues from there. In view of the already-established British reputation for drab design and shoddy construction this was an unlikely development, a youthful inversion of the traditional order of such things, and it proved short-lived. But the false dawn of ‘Swinging London’—as Time magazine dubbed it in April 1966—cast a distinctive light upon the age.
By 1967 there were over 2,000 shops in the British capital describing themselves as ‘boutiques’. Most of them were shameless imitations of the clothing stores that had sprung up along Carnaby Street, a long-time haunt of male homosexuals now recycled as the epicentre of ‘mod’ fashion for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. In Paris the clothing boutique ‘New Man’, the first French intimation of the sartorial revolution, opened in the rue de l’Ancienne Comédie on April 13th 1965. Within a year it was followed by a trail of imitators, all of them dubbed with fashionably British-sounding names—‘Dean’, ‘Twenty’, ‘Cardiff ’, etc.
The Carnaby Street style—cloned all across Western Europe (though less markedly in Italy than elsewhere)—emphasized colorful, contoured outfits tending to the androgynous and deliberately mal-adapted to anyone over thirty. Tight red corduroy pants and fitted black shirts from ‘New Man’ became the staple uniform of Parisian street demonstrators for the next three years and were widely copied everywhere. Like everything else about the Sixties they were made by men, for men; but young women could wear them too and increasingly did so. Even the mainstream fashion houses of Paris were affected: from 1965, the city’s couturiers turned out more slacks than skirts.
They also cut back on their output of hats. It was symptomatic of the primacy of the juvenile market that hair replaced headgear as the ultimate self-expression, with traditional hats confined to formal occasions for the ‘elderly’.157 Hats did not by any means disappear, though. In a second stage of the sartorial transition, the cheerful, primary colors of ‘mod gear’ (inherited from the late-Fifties) were displaced by more ‘serious’ outer garments, reflecting a similar shift in music. Young people’s clothing was now cut and marketed with more than half an eye to the ‘proletarian’ and ‘radical’ sources of its inspiration: not only blue jeans and ‘work shirts’, but also boots, dark jackets and leather ‘Lenin’ caps (or felt-covered variants, echoing the ‘Kossuth caps’ of 19th-century Hungarian insurgents). This more self-consciously political fashion never really caught on in Britain, but by the end of the decade it was quasi-official uniform for German and Italian radicals and their student followers.158
Overlapping with both sets of fashions were the gypsy-like drapes of the hippies. In contrast to the ‘Carnaby Street’ and ‘Street-fighting Man’ looks, which were indigenously European in origin, the hippie look—obscurely ‘utopian’ in its non-western, ‘counter-cultural’, asexual ethic of conspicuous under-consumption—was an American import. Its commercial utility was obvious, and many of the outlets that had sprung up to service the demand for skin-tight, sharply cut fashions in the mid-sixties were soon working hard to adapt their stock accordingly. They even tried, briefly, to market the ‘Mao look’. A shapeless jacket with a sharply tailored collar, paired with the ubiquitous ‘proletarian’ cap, the Mao look neatly combined aspects of all three styles, particularly when ‘accessorized’ by the Chinese dictator’s Little Red Book of revolutionary insights. But despite Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise , in which a group of French students dutifully study Mao and try to follow his example, the ‘Mao look’ remained a minority taste—even among ‘Maoists’.
Counter-cultural politics and their symbols took on a harder edge after 1967, by association with romanticized accounts of ‘Third World’ guerrilla insurgents. But even so, they never fully caught on in Europe. We should not be misled by Che Guevara’s remarkable after-life as the martyred, Christ-like poster-boy for disaffected Western adolescents: the European Sixties were always Eurocentric. Even the ‘hippy revolution’ never quite crossed the Atlantic. At most it washed up on the shores of Great Britain and Holland, leaving behind some sedimentary evidence in the form of a more developed drug culture than elsewhere—and one spectacularly original long-playing record.
The frivolous side of the Sixties—fashion, pop culture, sex—should not be dismissed as mere froth and show. It was a new generation’s way of breaking with the age of the grandpas—the gerontocracy (Adenauer, De Gaulle, Macmillan—and Khrushchev) still running the continent’s affairs. To be sure, the attention-catching, poseur aspects of the Sixties—the narcissistic self-indulgence that will forever be associated with the era—ring false when taken all at once. But in their day, and to their constituency, they seemed new and fresh. Even the cold, harsh sheen of contemporary art, or the cynical films of the later Sixties, appeared refreshing and authentic after the cozy bourgeois artifice of the recent past. The solipsistic conceit of the age—that the young would change the world by ‘doing their own thing’, ‘letting it all hang out’ and ‘making love, not war’—was always an illusion, and it has not worn well. But it was not the only illusion of the time, and by no means the most foolish.
The 1960s were the great age of Theory. It is important to be clear what this means: it certainly does not refer to the truly path-breaking work then being undertaken in biochemistry, astrophysics or genetics, since this was largely ignored by non-specialists. Nor does it describe a renaissance in European social thought: the mid-twentieth century produced no social theorists comparable to Hegel, Comte, Marx, Mill, Weber or Durkheim. ‘Theory’ did not mean philosophy, either: the best-known western European philosophers of the time—Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Benedetto Croce, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre—were either dead, old or otherwise engaged, and the leading thinkers of eastern Europe—Jan Patočka or Leszek Kołakowski—were still mostly unknown outside their own countries. As for the sparkling cohort of economists, philosophers and social theorists who had flourished in Central Europe before 1934: most of the survivors had gone into permanent exile in the US, Great Britain or the Antipodes, where they formed the intellectual core of modern ‘Anglo-Saxon’ scholarship in their fields.
In its newly fashionable usage, ‘Theory’ meant something quite different. It was largely taken up with ‘interrogating’ (a contemporary term of art) the method and objectives of academic disciplines: above all the social sciences—history, sociology, anthropology—but also the humanities and even, in later years, the laboratory sciences themselves. In an age of vastly expanded universities, with periodicals, journals and lecturers urgently seeking ‘copy’, there emerged a market for ‘theories’ of every kind—fuelled not by improved intellectual supply but rather by insatiable consumer demand.
At the forefront of the theory revolution were the academic disciplines of History and the softer social sciences. The renewal of historical study in Europe had begun a generation before: the Economic History Review and Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilizations were both founded in 1929, their revisionist projects implicit in their titles. In the 1950s had come the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the influential social history journal Past & Present; the Cultural Studies unit at England’s Birmingham University, inspired by the work of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams; and, a little later, the Social History school centered around Hans-Ulrich Wehler at Bielefeld University in West Germany.
The scholarship produced by the men and women associated with these groups and institutions was not necessarily iconoclastic; indeed, though usually of very high quality, it was often quite methodologically conventional. But it was self-consciously interpretive, typically from a non-dogmatic but unmistakably left-leaning position. Here was history informed by social theory, and by an insistence upon the importance of class, particularly the lower classes. The point was not just to narrate or even explain a given historical moment; the point was to reveal its deeper meaning. Historical writing in this vein seemed to bridge the gap between past and present, between scholarly speculation and contemporary engagement, and a new generation of students read (and, not infrequently, mis-read) it in this light.
But for all its political applications, History is a discipline peculiarly impervious to high theoretical speculation: the more Theory intrudes, the farther History recedes. Although one or two of the leading historians of the Sixties went on to achieve iconic status in old age none of them—however subversive his scholarship—quite emerged as a cultural guru. Other disciplines fared better—or worse, depending on one’s point of view. Borrowing from an earlier vein of speculation in the field of linguistics, cultural anthropologists—led by Claude Lévi-Strauss—proposed a comprehensive new explanation for variations and differences across societies. What counted was not surface social practices or cultural symptoms but the inner essences, the deep structures of human affairs.
‘Structuralism’, as it came to be called, was intensely seductive. As a way of sorting human experience it bore a family resemblance to the Annales school of history—whose best-known contemporary exponent, Fernand Braudel, had built his reputation on the study of the longue durée, a bird’s-eye view of history describing slowly shifting geographical and social structures across long periods—and thus fitted comfortably into the academic style of the time. But of greater relevance was structuralism’s immediate accessibility to intellectuals and non-specialists. As explicated by Lévi-Strauss’s admirers in cognate disciplines, structuralism was not even a representational theory: the social codes, or ‘signs’, that it described related not to any particular people or places or events but merely to other signs, in a closed system. It was thus not subject to empirical testing or disproof—there was no sense in which structuralism could ever be demonstrated to be wrong—and the iconoclastic ambition of its assertions, allied to this impermeability to contradiction, guaranteed it a wide audience. Anything and everything could be explained as a combination of ‘structures’: as Pierre Boulez noted when labeling one of his compositions Structures, ‘it is the key word of our time.’
In the course of the 1960s there emerged a plethora of applied structuralisms: in anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, political science and of course literature. The best-known practitioners—usually those who combined in the right doses scholarly audacity with a natural talent for self-promotion—became international celebrities, having had the good fortune to enter the intellectual limelight just as television was becoming a mass medium. In an earlier age Michel Foucault might have been a drawing-room favourite, a star of the Parisian lecture circuit, like Henri Bergson fifty years earlier. But when Les Mots et les Choses sold 20,000 copies in just four months after it appeared in 1966 he acquired celebrity status almost overnight.
Foucault himself foreswore the label ‘structuralist, much as Albert Camus always insisted he had never been an ‘existentialist’ and didn’t really know what that was.159 But as Foucault at least would have been constrained to concede, it didn’t really matter what he thought. ‘Structuralism’ was now shorthand for any ostensibly subversive account of past or present, in which conventional linear explanations and categories were shaken up and their assumptions questioned. More importantly, ‘structuralists’ were people who minimized or even denied the role of individuals and individual initiative in human affairs.160
But for all its protean applications, the idea that everything is ‘structured’ left something vital unexplained. For Fernand Braudel, or Claude Lévi-Strauss, or even Michel Foucault, the goal was to uncover the deep workings of a cultural system. This might or might not be a subversive scholarly impulse—it certainly was not in Braudel’s case—but it does gloss over or minimize change and transition. Decisive political events in particular proved resistant to this approach: you could explain why things had to change at a given stage, but it wasn’t clear just how they did so, or why individual social actors opted to facilitate the process. As an interpretation of human experience, any theory dependent on an arrangement of structures from which human choice had been eliminated was thus hobbled by its own assumptions. Intellectually subversive, structuralism was politically passive.
The youthful impulse of the Sixties was not about understanding the world; in the words of Karl Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, written when Marx himself was just 26 years old and much cited in these years: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ When it came to changing the world there was still only one grand theory purporting to relate an interpretation of the world to an all-embracing project of change; only one Master Narrative offering to make sense of everything while leaving open a place for human initiative: the political project of Marxism itself.
The intellectual affinities and political obsessions of the Sixties in Europe only make sense in the light of this continuing fascination with Marx and Marxism. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it in 1960, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason: ‘I consider Marxism to be the unsurpassable philosophy of our time.’ Sartre’s unshaken faith was not universally shared, but there was general agreement across the political spectrum that anyone wishing to understand the world must take Marxism and its political legacy very seriously. Raymond Aron—Sartre’s contemporary, erstwhile friend and intellectual nemesis—was a lifelong anti-Communist. But he, too, freely acknowledged (with a mixture of regret and fascination) that Marxism was the dominant idea of the age: the secular religion of its epoch.
Between 1956 and 1968 Marxism in Europe lived—and, as it were, thrived—in a state of suspended animation. Stalinist Communism was in disgrace, thanks to the revelations and events of 1956. The Communist parties of the West were either politically irrelevant (in Scandinavia, Britain, West Germany and the Low Countries); in slow but unmistakable decline (France); or else, as in the Italian case, striving to distance themselves from their Muscovite inheritance. Official Marxism, as incarnated in the history and teachings of Leninist parties, was largely discredited—especially in the territories over which it continued to rule. Even those in the West who chose to vote Communist evinced little interest in the subject.
At the same time there was widespread intellectual and academic interest in those parts of the Marxist inheritance that could be distinguished from the Soviet version and salvaged from its moral shipwreck. Ever since the Founder’s death, there had always been Marxist and marxisant sects and splinter groups—well before 1914 there were already tiny political parties claiming the True Inheritance. A handful of these, like the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), were still in existence: vaunting their political virginity and asserting their uniquely correct interpretation of the original Marxist texts.161 But most late-nineteenth-century Socialist movements,circles, clubs and societies had been absorbed into the general-purpose Socialist and Labour parties that coalesced in the years 1900-1910. Modern Marxist disputes have their roots in the Leninist schism that was to follow.
It was the factional struggles of the early Soviet years that gave rise to the most enduring Marxist ‘heresy’, that of Trotsky and his followers. A quarter century after Trotsky’s death in Mexico at the hands of a Stalinist assassin (and in no small measure because of it), Trotskyist parties could be found in every European state that did not explicitly ban them. They were typically small and led, in the image of their eponymous founder, by a charismatic, authoritarian chief who dictated doctrine and tactics. Their characteristic strategy was ‘entryism’: working inside larger left-wing organizations (parties, trade unions, academic societies) to colonize them or nudge their policies and political alliances in directions dictated by Trotskyist theory.
To the outsider, Trotskyist parties—and the evanescent Fourth (Workers’) International to which they were affiliated—appeared curiously indistinguishable from Communists, sharing a similar allegiance to Lenin and separated only by the bloody history of the power struggle between Trotsky and Stalin. There was a crucial distinguishing point of dogma—Trotskyists continued to speak of ‘permanent revolution’ and to accuse official Communists of having aborted the workers’ revolution by confining it to a single country—but in other respects the only obvious difference was that Stalinism had been a political success, whereas the Trotskyist record was one of unblemished failure.
It was that very failure, of course, which Trotsky’s latter-day followers found so appealing. The past might look grim, but their analysis of what had gone wrong—the Soviet revolution had been hi-jacked by a bureaucratic reaction analogous to the Thermidorian coup that put paid to the Jacobins in 1794—would, they felt, assure them success in the years ahead. Yet even Trotsky carried the whiff of power—he had, after all, played a crucial role in the first years of the Soviet regime and bore some responsibility for its deviations. To a new and politically innocent generation, the truly appealing failures were European Communism’s lost leaders, the men and women who never had a chance to exercise any political responsibilities at all.
Thus the 1960s saw the rediscovery of Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-Jewish Socialist assassinated by German Frei Korps soldiers in the doomed Berlin revolution of January 1919; György Lukacs, the Hungarian Communist thinker whose political writings of the 1920s briefly suggested an alternative to official Communist interpretations of history and literature before he was forced publicly to abjure them; and above all Antonio Gramsci, co-founder of the Italian Communist Party and author of a cycle of brilliant, unpublished papers on revolutionary politics and Italian history, most of them written in the Fascist prisons where he languished from 1926 until his death, at the age of 46, in April 1937.
In the course of the 1960s all three were copiously re-published, or published for the first time, in many languages. They had little in common, and most of what they did share was negative: none had exercised power (except in Lukacs’s case as the Commissar for Culture in Béla Kun’s brief Communist dictatorship in Budapest, from March to August 1919); all of them had at one time disagreed with Leninist practices (in Luxemburg’s case even before the Bolsheviks took power); and all three, like so many others, had fallen into long neglect under the shadow of official Communist theory and practice.
The exhumation of the writings of Luxemburg, Lukacs, Gramsci and other forgotten early-twentieth century Marxists162 was accompanied by the rediscovery of Marx himself. Indeed, the unearthing of a new and ostensibly very different Marx was crucial to the attraction of Marxism in these years. The ‘old’ Marx was the Marx of Lenin and Stalin: the Victorian social scientist whose neo-positivist writings anticipated and authorized democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship. Even if this Marx could not be held directly responsible for the uses to which his mature writings had been put, he was irrevocably associated with them. Whether in the service of Communism or Social Democracy, they were of the old Left.
The new Left, as it was starting to call itself by 1965, sought out new texts—and found them in the writings of the young Karl Marx, in the metaphysical essays and notes written in the early 1840s when Marx was barely out of his teens, a young German philosopher steeped in Hegelian historicism and the Romantic dream of ultimate Freedom. Marx himself had chosen not to publish some of these writings; indeed, in the aftermath of the failed revolutions of 1848 he had turned decisively away from them and towards the study of political economy and contemporary politics with which he was henceforth to be associated.
Accordingly, many of the writings of the early Marx were not widely known even to scholars. When they were first published in full, under the auspices of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in 1932, they attracted little attention. The revival of interest in them—notably the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology—came thirty years later. Suddenly it was possible to be a Marxist while jettisoning the heavy, soiled baggage of the traditional Western Left. The Young Marx was seemingly preoccupied with strikingly modern problems: how to transform ‘alienated’ consciousness and liberate human beings from ignorance of their true condition and capacities; how to reverse the order of priorities in capitalist society and place human beings at the center of their own existence; in short, how to change the world.
To an older generation of Marx scholars, and to the established Marxist parties, this perverse insistence upon the very writings that Marx himself had chosen not to publish seemed deeply unserious. But it was also implicitly subversive: if anyone could just go to the texts themselves and interpret Marx at will, then the authority of the Communist (and in this case also the Trotskyist) leadership must crumble, and with it much of the justification for mainstream revolutionary politics as then understood. Not surprisingly, the Marxist Establishment fought back. Louis Althusser—the French Communist Party’s leading theoretician, an internationally known expert on Marxism and a teacher at France’s École Normale Supérieure—built his professional reputation and passing fame upon the claim to have constructed a firewall between a ‘young’, Hegelian Marx and the ‘mature’, materialist Marx. Only the later writings, he insisted, were scientific and thus properly Marxist.163
What Communists and other conservative Marxists rightly foresaw was how easily this new, humanist Marx could be adapted to contemporary tastes and fashions. The complaints of an early-nineteenth-century Romantic like Marx against capitalist modernity and the dehumanizing impact of industrial society were well adapted to contemporary protests against the ‘repressive tolerance’ of post-industrial Western Europe. The prosperous, liberal West’s apparently infinite flexibility, its sponge-like capacity to absorb passions and differences, infuriated its critics. Repression, they insisted, was endemic in bourgeois society. It could not just evaporate. The repression that was missing on the streets must perforce have gone somewhere: it had moved into people’s very souls—and, above all, their bodies.
Herbert Marcuse, a Weimar-era intellectual who had ended up in Southern California—where he handily adapted his old epistemology to his new environment—offered a helpful conflation of all these strands of thought. Western consumer society, he explained, no longer rested upon the straightforwardly economic exploitation of a class of property-less proletarians. Instead it diverted human energy away from the search for fulfillment (notably sexual fulfillment) and into the consumption of goods and illusions. Real needs—sexual, social, civic—are displaced by false ones, whose fulfillment is the purpose of a consumer-centered culture. This was pushing even the very young Marx further than he might have wished to go, but it attracted a broad audience: not just for the few who read Marcuse’s essays, but for many more who picked up the language and the general drift of the argument as it acquired broad cultural currency.
The emphasis upon sexual fulfillment as a radical goal was quite offensive to an older generation of Left-wingers. Free love in a free society was not a new idea—some early nineteenth-century Socialist sects had espoused it, and the first years of the Soviet Union had been distinctly morally relaxed—but the mainstream tradition of European radicalism was one of moral and domestic rectitude. The Old Left had never been culturally dissident or sexually adventurous even when it was young: that had been the affair of bohemians, aesthetes and artists, often of an individualistic or even politically reactionary bent.
But however discomfiting, the conflation of sex and politics presented no real threat—indeed, as more than one Communist intellectual took pains to point out, the new emphasis on private desires over collective struggles was objectively reactionary. 164 The truly subversive implications of the New Left’s adaptation of Marx lay elsewhere. Communists and others could dismiss talk of sexual liberation. They were not even bothered by the anti-authoritarian aesthetic of a younger generation, with its demands for self-government in the bedroom, the lecture hall and the shop floor; allthat they perhaps imprudently dismissed as a passing disturbance in the natural order of things. What caused far deeper offence was the emerging tendency of young radicals to identify Marxist theory with revolutionary practices in exotic lands, where none of the established categories and authorities seemed to apply.
The core claim of the historical Left in Europe was that it represented, indeed in Communism’s case incarnated, the proletariat: the blue-collar industrial working class. This close identification of Socialism with urban labor was more than just an elective affinity. It was the distinguishing mark of the ideological Left, separating it from well-intentioned liberal or Catholic social reformers. The working-class vote, especially the male working-class vote, was the foundation of the power and influence of the British Labour Party, the Dutch and Belgian workers’ parties, the Communist parties of France and Italy and the Social Democratic parties of German-speaking central Europe.
Except in Scandinavia, the majority of the working population had never been Socialist or Communist—its allegiances were spread right across the political spectrum. Traditional Left-wing parties were nonetheless heavily dependent on the votes of the working class and thus identified closely with it. But by the mid-1960s this class was disappearing. In the developed countries of Western Europe miners, steelworkers, shipbuilders, metalworkers, textile hands, railway men and manual workers of every sort were retiring in large numbers. In the coming age of the service industry their place was being taken by a very different sort of working population.
This ought to have been a source of some anxiety to the conventional Left: trade union and party memberships and funds depended heavily on this mass base. But even though the incipient disappearance of the classical European proletariat was widely announced in contemporary social surveys, the older Left continued to insist upon its working-class ‘base’. Communists especially remained intransigent. There was only one revolutionary class: the proletariat; only one party that could represent and advance the interests of that class: the Communists; and only one correct outcome to the workers’ struggle under Communist direction: the Revolution, as patented in Russia fifty years before.
But for anyone not wedded to this version of European history, the proletariat was no longer the only available vehicle of radical social transformation. In what was now increasingly referred to as the ‘Third’ world, there were alternative candidates: anti-colonial nationalists in North Africa and the Middle East; black radicals in the US (hardly the third world but closely identified with it); and peasant guerillas everywhere, from Central America to the South China Sea. Together with ‘students’ and even simply the young, these constituted a far larger and more readily mobilized constituency for revolutionary hopes than the staid and satisfied working masses of the prosperous West. In the wake of 1956, young west European radicals turned away from the dispiriting Communist record in Europe’s east and looked further afield for inspiration.
This new taste for the exotic was fuelled in part by contemporary decolonization and the aspirations of national liberation movements, in part by the projection on to others of Europe’s own lost illusions. It rested on remarkably little local knowledge, despite an emerging academic cottage industry in ‘peasant studies’. The revolutions in Cuba and China especially were invested with all the qualities and achievements so disappointingly lacking in Europe. The Italian Marxist writer Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi waxed lyrical over the contrast between the miserable condition of contemporary Europe and the post-revolutionary utopia of Mao’s China, then at the height of the Cultural Revolution: ‘In China there are no signs of alienation, nervous disorders or of the fragmentation within the individual that you find in a consumer society. The world of the Chinese is compact, integrated and absolutely whole.’
The peasant revolutions in the non-European world had a further attribute that appealed to West European intellectuals and students at the time: they were violent. There was, of course, no shortage of violence just a few hours to the east, in the Soviet Union and its satellites. But that was the violence of the state, of official Communism. The violence of third-world revolts was a liberating violence. As Jean-Paul Sartre famously explained, in his 1961 preface to the French edition of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the violence of anti-colonial revolutions was ‘man recreating himself . . . to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels a national soil under his foot.’
This self-abnegating admiration for alien models was not new in Europe—Tocqueville had long ago remarked upon its attractions for the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia of eighteenth-century France, and it had once played a part in the appeal of the Soviet Revolution itself. But in the 1960s the example of the Far East, or the far south, was now being held up for European emulation. Student radicals in Milan and Berlin were urged to imitate successful oriental stratagems: in a revealing combination of Maoist rhetoric and Trotskyist tactics, the German student leader Rudi Dutschke urged his followers in 1968 to undertake ‘a long march through the institutions.’
For their conservative elders, this casual invocation of extraneous models illustrated the undisciplined ease with which the venerable revolutionary syntax of old Europe was unraveling into an ideological Babel. When Italian students proposed that, in the new service economy, universities constituted the epicenters of knowledge production and students were thus the new working class, they were stretching the terms of Marxist exchange to the limit. But at least they had dialectical precedent on their side and were playing within the accepted rules. A few years later, when Re Nudo, a Milanese student paper, proclaimed ‘Proletarian Youth of Europe, Jimi Hendrix unites us!’, dialectics had descended into parody. As their critics had insisted from the outset, the boys and girls of the Sixties just weren’t serious.
And yet—the Sixties were also an intensely significant decade. The third world was in turmoil, from Bolivia to South-East Asia. The ‘Second’ world of Soviet Communism was stable only in appearance, and even then not for long, as we shall see. And the leading power of the West, shaken by assassinations and race riots, was embarking on a full-scale war in Vietnam. American defense expenditure rose steadily through the mid-sixties, peaking in 1968. The Vietnam War was not a divisive issue in Europe—it found disfavor all across the political spectrum—but it served as a catalyst for mobilization across the continent: even in Britain, where the largest demonstrations of the decade were organized explicitly to oppose US policy. In 1968 the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign marched many tens of thousands of students through the streets of London to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, angrily demanding an end to the war in Vietnam (and the British Labour government’s half-hearted support of it).
It says something about the peculiar circumstances of the Sixties, and the social background of the most prominent public activists, that so many of the disputes and demands of the time were constructed around a political agenda and not an economic one. Like 1848, the Sixties was a Revolution of the Intellectuals. But there was an economic dimension to the discontents of the hour, even if many of the participants were still oblivious to it. Though the prosperity of the post-war decades had not yet run its course and unemployment in Western Europe was at a historic low, a cycle of labor disputes throughout Western Europe in the early sixties hinted at troubles ahead.
Behind these strikes, and those that were to come in 1968-69, was some discontent at declining real wages, as the post-war growth wave passed its peak; but the real source of complaint was working conditions; and in particular relations between employees and their bosses. Except in the distinctive cases of Austria, Germany and Scandinavia, management-worker relations in European factories and offices were not good: on a typical shop floor in Milan—or Birmingham, or the Paris industrial belt—resentful, militant workers were overseen by intransigently autocratic employers, with very little communication between them. ‘Industrial relations’ in parts of Western Europe was an oxymoron.
Much the same was true in parts of the service and professional world too: France’s national Radio and Television organization, the ORTF, and the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique, to take just two prominent cases, seethed with resentful technical staff, from journalists to engineers. Traditional styles of authority, discipline and address (or, indeed, dress) had failed to keep pace with the rapid social and cultural transformations of the past decade. Factories and offices were run from the top down with no input from below. Managers could discipline, humiliate or fire their staff at will. Employees were often accorded little respect, their opinions unheeded. There were widespread calls for greater worker initiative, more professional autonomy, even ‘self-management’ (autogestion in French).
These were issues that had not featured prominently in European industrial conflicts since the Popular Front occupations of 1936. They had largely escaped the attention of unions and political parties, focused as they were on more traditional and easily manipulated demands: higher wages, shorter hours. But they overlapped readily enough with the rhetoric of the student radicals (with whom shop-floor militants had little else in common) who voiced similar complaints about their overcrowded, poorly managed universities.
The sense of exclusion, from decision-making and thus from power, reflected another dimension of the Sixties whose implications were not fully appreciated at the time. Thanks to the system of two-round legislative elections and presidential election by universal suffrage, political life in France had coalesced by the mid-Sixties into a stable system of electoral and parliamentary coalitions built around two political families: Communist and Socialists on the Left, centrists and Gaullists on the Right. By tacit agreement across the spectrum, smaller parties and fringe groups were forced either to merge with one of the four big units or else be squeezed out of mainstream politics.
For different reasons, the same thing was happening in Italy and Germany. From 1963, a broad Center-Left coalition in Italy occupied most of the national political space, with only Communist and ex-Fascist parties excluded. The Federal Republic of Germany was governed from 1966 by a ‘Grand Coalition’ of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats who, together with the Free Democrats, monopolized the Bundestag. These arrangements ensured political stability and continuity; but as a consequence, in the three major democracies of western Europe, radical opposition was pushed not just to the fringes but out of parliament altogether. ‘The system’ seemed indeed to be run exclusively by ‘them’, as the New Left had for some time been insisting. Making a virtue of necessity, radical students declared themselves the ‘extra-parliamentary’ opposition, and politics moved into the streets instead.
The best-known instance of this, in France during the spring of 1968, was also the shortest-lived. It owes its prominence more to shock value, and to the special symbolism of insurgency in the streets of Paris, than to any enduring effects. The May ‘Events’ began in the autumn of 1967 in Nanterre, a dreary inner suburb of western Paris and the site of one of the hastily constructed extensions to the ancient University of Paris. The student dormitories at Nanterre had for some time been home to a floating population of legitimate students, ‘clandestine’ radicals and a small number of drug-sellers and users. Rent passed unpaid. There was also considerable nocturnal movement to and fro between the male and female dormitories, in spite of strict official prohibitions.165
The academic administration at Nanterre had been reluctant to provoke trouble by enforcing the rules, but in January 1968 they expelled one ‘squatter’ and threatened disciplinary measures against a legitimate student, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, for insulting a visiting government minister.166 Further demonstrations followed, and on March 22nd, following the arrest of student radicals who attacked the American Express building in central Paris, a Movement was formed, with Cohn-Bendit among its leaders. Two weeks later the Nanterre campus was closed down following further student clashes with police, and the Movement—and the action—shifted to the venerable university buildings in and around the Sorbonne, in central Paris.
It is worth insisting upon the parochial and distinctly self-regarding issues that sparked the May Events, lest the ideologically charged language and ambitious programs of the following weeks mislead us. The student occupation of the Sorbonne and subsequent street barricades and clashes with the police, notably on the nights of May 10th-11th and May 24th-25th, were led by representatives of the (Trotskyist) Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, as well as officials from established student and junior lecturer unions. But the accompanying Marxist rhetoric, while familiar enough, masked an essentially anarchist spirit whose immediate objective was the removal and humiliation of authority.
In this sense, as the disdainful French Communist Party leadership rightly insisted, this was a party, not a revolution. It had all the symbolism of a traditional French revolt—armed demonstrators, street barricades, the occupation of strategic buildings and intersections, political demands and counter-demands—but none of the substance. The young men and women in the student crowds were overwhelmingly middle-class—indeed, many of them were from the Parisian bourgeoisie itself: ‘fils à papa’ (‘daddy’s boys’), as the PCF leader Georges Marchais derisively called them. It was their own parents, aunts and grandmothers who looked down upon them from the windows of comfortable bourgeois apartment buildings as they lined up in the streets to challenge the armed power of the French state.
Georges Pompidou, the Gaullist Prime Minister, rapidly took the measure of the troubles. After the initial confrontations he withdrew the police, despite criticism from within his own party and government, leaving the students of Paris in de facto control of their university and the surroundingquartier. Pompidou—and his President, De Gaulle—were embarrassed by the well-publicized activities of the students. But, except very briefly at the outset when they were taken by surprise, they did not feel threatened by them. When the time came the police, especially the riot police—recruited from the sons of poor provincial peasants and never reluctant to crack the heads of privileged Parisian youth—could be counted on to restore order. What troubled Pompidou was something far more serious.
The student riots and occupations had set the spark to a nationwide series of strikes and workplace occupations that brought France to a near-standstill by the end of May. Some of the first protests—by reporters at French Television and Radio, for example—were directed at their political chiefs for censoring coverage of the student movement and, in particular, the excessive brutality of some riot policemen. But as the general strike spread, through the aircraft manufacturing plants of Toulouse and the electricity and petro-chemical industries and, most ominously, to the huge Renault factories on the edge of Paris itself, it became clear that something more than a few thousand agitated students was at stake.
The strikes, sit-ins, office occupations and accompanying demonstrations and marches were the greatest movement of social protest in modern France, far more extensive than those of June 1936. Even in retrospect it is difficult to say with confidence exactly what they were about. The Communist-led trade union organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was at first at a loss: when union organizers tried to take over the Renault strike they were shouted down, and an agreement reached between government, unions and employers was decisively rejected by the Renault workers, despite its promise of improved wages, shorter hours and more consultation.
The millions of men and women who had stopped work had one thing at least in common with the students. Whatever their particular local grievances, they were above all frustrated with their conditions of existence. They did not so much want to get a better deal at work as to change something about their way of life; pamphlets and manifestos and speeches explicitly said as much. This was good news for the public authorities in that it diluted the mood of the strikers and directed their attention away from political targets; but it suggested a general malaise that would be hard to address.
France was prosperous and secure and some conservative commentators concluded that the wave of protest was thus driven not by discontent but by simple boredom. But there was genuine frustration, not only in factories like those of Renault where working conditions had long been unsatisfactory, but everywhere. The Fifth Republic had accentuated the longstanding French habit of concentrating power in one place and a handful of institutions. France was run, and was seen to be run, by a tiny Parisian élite: socially exclusive, culturally privileged, haughty, hierarchical and unapproachable. Even some of its own members (and especially their children) found it stifling.
The ageing De Gaulle himself failed, for the first time since 1958, to understand the drift of events. His initial response had been to make an ineffective televised speech and then to disappear from sight.167 When he did try to turn what he took to be the anti-authoritarian national mood to his advantage in a referendum the following year, and proposed a series of measures designed to decentralize government and decision-making in France, he was decisively and humiliatingly defeated; whereupon he resigned, retired and retreated to his country home, to die there a few months later.
Pompidou, meanwhile, had proven right to wait out the student demonstrations. At the height of the student sit-ins and the accelerating strike movement some student leaders and a handful of senior politicians who should have known better (including former premier Pierre Mendès-France and future president François Mitterrand) declared that the authorities were helpless: power was now there for the taking. This was dangerous talk, and foolish: as Raymond Aron noted at the time, ‘to expel a President elected by universal suffrage is not the same thing as expelling a king.’ De Gaulle and Pompidou were quick to take advantage of the Left’s mistakes. The country, they warned, was threatened with a Communist coup.168 At the end of May De Gaulle announced a snap election, calling upon the French to choose between legitimate government and revolutionary anarchy.
To kick off its election campaign the Right staged a huge counter-demonstration. Far larger even than the student manifestations of two weeks before, the massed crowds marching down the Champs Elysées on May 30th gave the lie to the Left’s assertion that the authorities had lost control. The police were given instructions to re-occupy university buildings, factories and offices. In the ensuing parliamentary elections, the ruling Gaullist parties won a crushing victory, increasing their vote by more than a fifth and securing an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The workers returned to work. The students went on vacation.
The May Events in France had a psychological impact out of all proportion to their true significance. Here was a revolution apparently unfolding in real time and before an international television audience. Its leaders were marvelously telegenic; attractive and articulate young men leading the youth of France through the historical boulevards of Left Bank Paris.169 Their demands—whether for a more democratic academic environment, an end to moral censorship, or simply a nicer world—were accessible and, despite the clenched fists and revolutionary rhetoric, quite unthreatening. The national strike movement, while mysterious and unsettling, merely added to the aura of the students’ own actions: having quite by accident detonated the explosion of social resentment, they were retrospectively credited with anticipating and even articulating it.
Above all, the May Events in France were curiously peaceful by the standards of revolutionary turbulence elsewhere, or in France’s own past. There was quite a lot of violence to property, and a number of students and policemen had to be hospitalized following the ‘Night of the Barricades’ on May 24th. But both sides held back. No students were killed in May 1968; the political representatives of the Republic were not assaulted; and its institutions were never seriously questioned (except the French university system, where it all began, which suffered sustained internal disruption and discredit without undergoing any significant reforms).
The radicals of 1968 mimicked to the point of caricature the style and the props of past revolutions—they were, after all, performing on the same stage. But they foreswore to repeat their violence. As a consequence, the French ‘psychodrama’ (Aron) of 1968 entered popular mythology almost immediately as an object of nostalgia, a stylized struggle in which the forces of Life and Energy and Freedom were ranged against the numbing, gray dullness of the men of the past. Some of the prominent crowd pleasers of May went on to conventional political careers: Alain Krivine, the charismatic graduate leader of the Trotskyist students is today, forty years on, the sexagenarian leader of France’s oldest Trotskyist party. Dany Cohn-Bendit, expelled from France in May, went on to become a respected municipal councilor in Frankfurt and thence a Green Party representative in the European Parliament.
But it is symptomatic of the fundamentally apolitical mood of May 1968 that the best-selling French books on the subject a generation later are not serious works of historical analysis, much less the earnest doctrinal tracts of the time, but collections of contemporary graffiti and slogans. Culled from the walls, noticeboardsand streets of the city, these witty one-liners encourage young people to make love, have fun, mock those in authority, generally do what feels good—and change the world almost as a by-product. Sous le pavé, as the slogan went, la plage. (‘Under the paving stones—the beach’). What the slogan writers of May 1968 never do is invite their readers to do anyone serious harm. Even the attacks on De Gaulle treat him as a superannuated impediment rather than as a political foe. They bespeak irritation and frustration, but remarkably little anger. This was to be a victimless revolution, which in the end meant that it was no sort of revolution at all.
The situation was very different in Italy, despite superficial similarities in the rhetoric of the student movements. In the first place, the social background to Italy’s conflicts was quite distinctive. The extensive migration from south to north in the course of the first half of the decade had generated, in Milan, Turin and other industrial towns of the north, a demand for transport, services, education and above all housing that the governments of the country had never managed to address. The Italian ‘economic miracle’ arrived later than elsewhere, and the transition out of an agrarian society had been more abrupt.
As a consequence, the disruptions of first-generation industrialization overlapped and collided with the discontents of modernity. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers—typically from the south, many of them women—were never absorbed into the established unions of skilled male workers in the industrialized north. Traditional worker/employer tensions were now multiplied by disputes between skilled and unskilled, unionized and unorganized workers. The better-paid, better-protected, skilled employees in the factories of FIAT, or the Pirelli Rubber Company, demanded a greater say in management decisions—over shift hours, wage differentials and disciplinary measures. Unskilled workers sought some of these goals and opposed others. Their main objection was to exhausting piece rates, the unrelenting pace of mechanized mass production lines, and unsafe working conditions.
Italy’s post-war economy was transformed by hundreds of small engineering, textile and chemical firms, most of whose employees had no legal or institutional recourse against their bosses’ demands. The Italian welfare state in the 1960s was still a rather rough-and-ready edifice that would not reach maturity until the following decade (in large part thanks to the social upheavals of the Sixties), and many unskilled workers and their families were still without workplace rights or access to family benefits (in March 1968 there was a nationwide strike to demand a comprehensive national pension scheme). These were not issues that the traditional parties and unions of the Left were equipped to address. On the contrary, their main concern at the time was the dilution of the old labor institutions by this new and undisciplined workforce. When semi-skilled women workers sought backing from the Communist trade union in their complaints about accelerated work-rates they were encouraged instead to demand higher compensation.
In these circumstances, the chief beneficiaries of Italy’s social tensions were not the established organizations of the Left, but a handful of informal networks of the ‘extra-parliamentary’ Left. Their leaders—dissident Communists, academic theoreticians of worker autonomy, and spokesmen for student organizations—were quicker to identify the new sources of discontent at the industrial workplace and absorb them into their projects. Moreover, the universities themselves offered an irresistible analogy. There, too, a new and unorganized workforce (the massive influx of first-generation students) faced conditions of life and work that were deeply unsatisfactory. There, too, an old élite exercised untrammeled decision-making power over the student masses, imposing workload, tests, grades and penalties at will.
From this perspective, administrators and established unions and other professional organizations in schools and universities—no less than in factories and workshops—shared a vested, ‘objective’ interest in the status quo. The fact that Italy’s student population was drawn overwhelmingly from the urban middle class was no impediment to such reasoning—as producers and consumers of knowledge, they represented (in their own eyes) an even greater threat to power and authority than the traditional forces of the proletariat. In the thinking of the New Left it was not the social origin of a group that counted, but rather its capacity to disrupt the institutions and structures of authority. A lecture hall was as good a place to begin as a machine shop.
The protean adaptability of Italian radical politics in these years is well captured in the following set of demands circulated in a liceo (secondary school) in Milan: the goals of the student movement, it declared, were ‘the control and eventual elimination of marks and failures, and therefore the abolition of selection in school; the right of everyone to an education and to a guaranteed student grant; freedom to hold meetings; a general meeting in the morning; accountability of teachers to students; removal of all reactionary and authoritarian teachers; setting of the curriculum from below’.170
The late-Sixties cycle of protests and disruptions in Italy began in Turin in 1968 with student objections to plans to move part of the university (the science faculty) to the suburbs—an echo of the protests taking place in suburban Nanterre at exactly the same time. There was a parallel, too, in the subsequent closure, in March 1968, of the University of Rome following student riots there in protest of a parliamentary bill to reform the universities. But unlike the French student movements, the Italian student organizers’ interest in the reform of academic institutions was always secondary to their identification with the workers’ movement, as the names of their organizations—Avanguardia Operaia or Potere Operaio (‘Workers’ Vanguard’, ‘Workers’ Power’)—suggest.
The labor disputes that began in the Pirelli company’s Milan factories in September 1968 and lasted through November 1969 (when the government pressured Pirelli into conceding the strikers’ main demands) furnished an industrial counterpoint and encouragement to the student protesters. The strike movement of 1969 was the largest in Italian history, and had a mobilizing and politicizing impact upon young Italian radicals out of all proportion to France’s brief, month-long protests of the previous year. The ‘hot autumn’ of that year, with its wildcat strikes and spontaneous occupations by small groups of workers demanding a say in the way factories were run, led a generation of Italian student theorists and their followers to conclude that their root and branch rejection of the ‘bourgeois state’ was the right tactic. Workers’ autonomy—as tactic and as objective—was the path of the future. Not only were reforms—in schools and factories alike—unattainable, they were undesirable. Compromise was defeat.
Just why ‘unofficial’ Italian Marxists should have taken this turn remains a matter of debate. The traditionally subtle and accommodating strategy of the Italian Communist Party left it exposed to the charge of working inside ‘the system’, of having a vested interest in stability and thus being, as its left-wing critics charged, ‘objectively reactionary’. And the Italian political system itself was both corrupt and seemingly impermeable to change: in the parliamentary elections of 1968 the Christian Democrats and Communists both increased their vote, and every other party came nowhere. But while this might account for the disaffection of the extra-parliamentary Left, it cannot fully explain their turn to violence.
‘Maoism’—or at any rate, an uncritical fascination with the Chinese Cultural Revolution then in full swing—was more extensive in Italy than anywhere else in Europe. Parties, groups and journals of a Maoist persuasion, recognizable by their insistence upon the adjective ‘Marxist-Leninist’ (to distinguish them from the despised official Communists), sprung up in quick succession in these years, inspired by China’s Red Guards and emphasizing the identity of interests binding workers and intellectuals. Student theorists in Rome and Bologna even mimicked the rhetoric of the Beijing doctrinaires, dividing academic subjects into ‘pre-bourgeois remnants’ (Greek and Latin), the ‘purely ideological’ (e.g. history) and the ‘indirectly ideological’ (physics, chemistry, mathematics).
The putatively Maoist combination of revolutionary romanticism and workerist dogma was incarnated in the journal (and movement) Lotta Continua (‘Continuous Struggle’)—whose name, as was often the case, encapsulates its project. Lotta Continua first appeared in the autumn of 1969, by which time the turn to violence was well under way. Among the slogans of the Turin student demonstrations of June 1968 were ‘No to social peace in the factories!’ and ‘Only violence helps where violence reigns.’ In the months that followed, university and factory demonstrations saw an accentuation of the taste for violence, both rhetorical (‘Smash the state, don’t change it!’) and real. The most popular song of the Italian student movement in these months was, appropriately enough, La Violenza.
The ironies of all this were not lost on contemporaries. As the film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini remarked in the wake of student confrontations with the police in Rome’s Villa Borghese gardens, the class roles were now reversed: the privileged children of the bourgeoisie were screaming revolutionary slogans and beating up the underpaid sons of southern sharecroppers charged with preserving civic order. For anyone with an adult memory of the recent Italian past, this turn to violence could only end badly. Whereas French students had played with the idea that public authority might prove vulnerable to disruption from below, a caprice that Gaullism’s firmly-grounded institutions allowed them to indulge with impunity, Italy’s radicals had good reason to believe that they might actually succeed in rending the fabric of the post-Fascist Republic—and they were keen to try. On April 24th 1969, bombs were planted at the Milan Trade Fair and the central railway station. Eight months later, after the Pirelli conflicts had been settled and the strike movement ended, the Agricultural Bank on the Piazza Fontana in Milan was blown up. The ‘strategy of tension’ that underlay the lead years of the Seventies had begun.
Italian radicals in the Sixties could be accused of having forgotten their country’s recent past. In West Germany, the opposite was true. Until 1961, a post-war generation had been raised to see Nazism as responsible for war and defeat; but its truly awful aspects were consistently downplayed. The trial that year in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, followed from 1963 to 1965 by the so-called ‘Auschwitz trials’ in Frankfurt, belatedly brought to German public attention the evils of the Nazi regime. In Frankfurt, 273 witnesses attested to the scale and depth of German crimes against humanity, reaching far beyond the 23 men (22 SS and 1 camp kapo) on charge. In 1967, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich published their hugely influential study of Die Unfähigkeit zu trauen (‘The Inability to Mourn’), arguing that the official West German recognition of Nazi evil had never been accompanied by genuine individual recognition of responsibility.
West German intellectuals vigorously took up this idea. Established writers, playwrights and film-makers—Günter Grass, Martin Walser, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Jürgen Habermas, Rolf Hochhuth, Edgar Reitz, all born between 1927 and 1932—now focused their work increasingly upon Nazism and the failure to come to terms with it. But a younger cohort of intellectuals, born during or just after World War Two, took a harsher stance. Lacking direct knowledge of what had gone before, they saw all Germany’s faults through the prism of the failings not so much of Nazism as of the Bonn Republic. Thus for Rudi Dutschke (born in 1940), Peter Schneider (1940), Gudrun Ensslin (1940) or the slightly younger Andreas Baader (born in 1943) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945), West Germany’s post-war democracy was not the solution; it was the problem. The apolitical, consumerist, American-protected cocoon of the Bundesrepublik was not just imperfect and amnesiac; it had actively conspired with its Western masters to deny the German past, to bury it in material goods and anti-Communist propaganda. Even its constitutional attributes were inauthentic: as Fassbinder put it, ‘Our democracy was decreed for the Western occupation zone, we didn’t fight for it ourselves.’
The youthful radical intelligentsia of the German Sixties accused the Bonn Republic of covering up the crimes of its founding generation. Many of the men and women born in Germany during the war and immediate post-war years never knew their fathers: who they were, what they had done. In school they were taught nothing about German history post-1933 (and not much more about the Weimar era either). As Peter Schneider and others would later explain, they lived in a vacuum constructed over a void: even at home—indeed, especially at home—no-one would talk about ‘it’.
Their parents, the cohort of Germans born between 1910 and 1930, did not just refuse to discuss the past. Skeptical of political promises and grand ideas, their attention was relentlessly and a trifle uneasily focused on material well-being, stability and respectability. As Adenauer had understood, their identification with America and ‘the West’ derived in no small measure from a wish to avoid association with all the baggage of ‘Germanness’. As a result, in the eyes of their sons and daughters they stood fornothing. Their material achievements were tainted by their moral inheritance. If ever there was a generation whose rebellion really was grounded in the rejection of everything their parents represented—everything: national pride, Nazism, money, the West, peace, stability, law and democracy—it was ‘Hitler’s children’, the West German radicals of the Sixties.
In their eyes the Federal Republic exuded self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. First there was the Spiegel Affair. In 1962 Germany’s leading weekly news magazine had published a series of articles investigating West German defense policy that hinted at shady dealings by Adenauer’s Bavarian defense minister, Franz-Josef Strauss. With Adenauer’s authorization and at Strauss’s behest, the government harassed the paper, arrested its publisher and ransacked its offices. This shameless abuse of police powers to suppress unwelcome reporting attracted universal condemnation—even the impeccably conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung observed that ‘this is an embarrassment to our democracy, which cannot live without a free press, without indivisible freedom of the press.’
Then, four years later in December 1966, the ruling Christian Democrats selected as Chancellor in succession to Ludwig Erhard the former Nazi Kurt-Georg Kiesinger. The new Chancellor had been a paid-up Party member for twelve years, and his appointment was taken by many as conclusive evidence of the Bonn Republic’s unrepentant cynicism. If the head of the government was not embarrassed to have supported Hitler for twelve years, who could take seriously West German professions of repentance or commitment to liberal values at a time when neo-Nazi organizations were once again surfacing at the political fringe? As Grass expressed it in an open letter to Kiesinger at a moment of neo-Nazi resurgence:
‘How are young people in our country to find arguments against the Party that died two decades ago but is being resurrected as the NPD if you burden the Chancellorship with the still very considerable weight of your own past?’
Kiesinger headed the government for three years, from 1966-1969. In those years the German Extra-Parliamentary Left (as it had taken to describing itself) moved into the universities with dramatic success. Some of the causes taken up by the SDS, the Socialist Students Union, were by now commonplace across continental Western Europe: overcrowded dormitories and classes; remote and inaccessible professors; dull and unimaginative teaching. But the burning issues of these years were peculiar to West Germany. The liveliest campus was at the Free University of Berlin (founded in 1948 to compensate for the imprisonment of the established Humboldt University campus in the Communist Zone), where many students had gone to avoid conscription.171
Anti-militarism had a special place in German student protest as a tidy way to condemn both the Federal Republic and its Nazi predecessor. With the growth of opposition to the Vietnam War this conflation between past and present extended to West Germany’s military mentor. America, always ‘fascist’ in the rhetoric of a minority of radicals, now became the enemy for a far broader constituency. Indeed, attacking ‘Amerika’ (sic) for its criminal war in Vietnam served almost as a surrogate for discussion of Germany’s own war crimes. In Peter Weiss’s 1968 play Vietnam-Discourse the parallel between the United States and the Nazis is explicitly drawn.
If America was no better than the Hitler regime—if, in a slogan of the time, US=SS—then it was but a short step to treating Germany itself as Vietnam: both countries were divided by foreign occupiers, both were helplessly caught up in other people’s conflicts. This way of talking allowed West German radicals to despise the Bonn Republic both for its present imperialist-capitalist associations and for its past fascist ones. More ominously, it authorized the radical Left to recycle the claim that it was Germans themselves who were the true victims—an assertion hitherto identified with the far Right.172
We should not, then, be surprised to learn that for all their anger at the ‘Auschwitz generation’, young Germans of the Sixties were not really much concerned with the Jewish Holocaust. Indeed, like their parents, they were uncomfortable with the ‘Jewish Question’. They preferred to subsume it in academic demands for classes on ‘Faschismustheorie’, obscuring the racist dimension of Nazism and emphasizing instead its links to capitalist production and imperial power—and thence forward to Washington and Bonn. The truly ‘repressive state apparatus’ was the imperial lackeys in Bonn; their victims were those who opposed America’s war in Vietnam. In this peculiar logic the populist, down-market tabloid Bild Zeitung, with its withering criticisms of student politics, was a revived Der Stürmer; students were the new ‘Jews’; and Nazi concentration camps were just a serviceable metaphor for the crimes of imperialism. In the words of a slogan graffitoed across the walls of Dachau in 1966 by a group of radicals: ‘Vietnam is the Auschwitz of America’.
The German extra-parliamentary Left thus lost touch with its roots in the anti-Nazi mainstream. Furious with Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic Party for entering a governing coalition with Kiesinger, the erstwhile Social Democratic student organizations moved rapidly to the fringes. More ostentatiously anti-Western than Sixties movements elsewhere in Europe, their constituent sects adopted deliberately third world names: Maoists, of course, but also ‘Indians’, ‘Mescaleros’ and the like. This anti-Western emphasis in turn nourished a counter-culture that was self-consciously exotic and more than a little bizarre, even by the standards of the time.
One distinctively German variant of Sixties cultural confusion saw sex and politics more closely entangled than elsewhere. Following Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich and other twentieth-century German theorists of sexual and political repression, radical circles in Germany ( and Austria, or at least Vienna) sung the praises of nudity, free love and anti-authoritarian childrearing. Hitler’s much advertised sexual neuroses were freely adduced to account for Nazism. And once again, a bizarre, chilling analogy was drawn in certain quarters between Hitler’s Jewish victims and the youth of the 1960s, martyrs to the sexually repressive regime of their parents.
‘Kommune 1’, a Maoist micro-sect that aggressively promoted sexual promiscuity - as-liberation, circulated a self-portrait in 1966: seven nude young men and women splayed against a wall—‘Naked Maoists Before a Naked Wall’ as the caption read when the photo ran in Der Spiegel in June 1967. The emphasis on nudity was explicitly designed to recall pictures of helpless, naked concentration camp bodies. Look, it said: first came Hitler’s victims, now the rebelliously unclothed bodies of Maoist revolutionaries. If Germans can look at the truth about our bodies, they will be able to face other truths as well.
The ‘message’—that adolescent promiscuity would force the older generation to be open about sex, and thence about Hitler and everything else—provoked SDS leader Rudi Dutschke (in such matters a conventional Left moralist of the older sort) to condemn the ‘Kommunards’ as ‘neurotics’. As no doubt they were. But their aggressively anachronistic narcissism, casually conflating mass murder and sexual exhibitionism in order to titillate and shock the bourgeoisie, was not without consequences: one member of ‘Kommune 1’, who proudly declared his orgasm to be of greater revolutionary consequence than Vietnam, would resurface in the 1970s in a guerrilla training camp in the Middle East. The path from self-indulgence to violence was even shorter in Germany than elsewhere.
In June 1967, at a Berlin demonstration against the Shah of Iran, police shot and killed Benno Ohnesorg, a student. Dutschke declared Ohnesorg’s death a ‘political murder’ and called for a mass response; within days, 100,000 students demonstrated across West Germany. Jürgen Habermas, hitherto a prominent critic of the Bonn authorities, warned Dutschke and his friends a few days later of the risk of playing with fire. ‘Left Fascism’, he reminded the SDS leader, is as lethal as the right-wing kind. Those who talked loosely of the ‘hidden violence’ and ‘repressive tolerance’ of the peaceful Bonn regime—and who set out deliberately to provoke the authorities into repression by voluntaristic acts of real violence—did not know what they were doing.
In March of the following year, as radical student leaders called repeatedly for confrontation with the Bonn ‘regime’ and the government threatened to retaliate against violent provocation in West Berlin and elsewhere, Habermas—joined by Grass, Walser, Enzensberger and Hochhuth—again appealed for democratic reason to prevail, calling upon students and government alike to respect republican legality. The following month Dutschke himself would pay the price of the violent polarization he had encouraged, when he was shot in Berlin by a neo-Nazi sympathizer, on April 11th 1968. In the angry weeks that followed, two people were killed and four hundred wounded in Berlin alone. The Kiesinger government passed Emergency Laws (by 384 votes to 100, with backing from many Social Democrats) authorizing Bonn to rule by decree if necessary—and arousing widespread fear that the Bonn Republic was on the verge of collapse, like Weimar just thirty-five years earlier.
The increasingly violent fringe sects of German student politics—K-Gruppen, the Autonome, the sharp end of the SDS—were all ostensibly ‘Marxist’, usually Marxist-Leninist (i.e., Maoist). Many of them were quietly financed from East Germany or Moscow, though this was not common knowledge at the time. Indeed, in Germany as elsewhere, the New Left kept its distance from official Communism—which in West Germany was in any case a political irrelevance. But like much of the West German Left (and not only the Left), the radicals had an ambiguous relationship with the German Democratic Republic to their East.
Quite a few of them had been born in what was now East Germany, or else in other lands to the east from which their ethnic German families had been expelled: East Prussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia. Perhaps not surprisingly, their parents’ nostalgia for a lost German past was unconsciously echoed in their own dreams of an alternative, better Germany to the East. East Germany, despite (because of?) its repressive, censorious authoritarianism, had a special attraction for hard-core young radicals: it was everything Bonn was not and it did not pretend otherwise.
Thus the radicals’ hatred for the ‘hypocrisies’ of the Federal Republic made them uniquely susceptible to the claims of East Germany’s Communists to have faced up to German history and purged their Germany of its fascist past. Moreover, the anti-Communism that bound West Germany into the Atlantic Alliance and that constituted its core political doctrine was itself a target for the New Left, particularly in the years of the Vietnam War, and helps account for their anti-anti-Communism. Emphasis upon the crimes of Communism was just a diversion from the crimes of capitalism. Communists, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit had expressed it in Paris, might be ‘Stalinist scoundrels’; but liberal democrats were no better.
Thus the German Left turned a deaf ear to rumblings of discontent in Warsaw or Prague. The face of the Sixties in West Germany, as in Western Europe at large, was turned resolutely inwards. The cultural revolution of the era was remarkably parochial: if Western youth looked beyond their borders at all, it was to exotic lands whose image floated free of the irritating constraints of familiarity or information. Of alien cultures closer to home, the Western Sixties knew little. When Rudi Dutschke paid a fraternal visit to Prague, at the height of the Czech reform movement in the spring of 1968, local students were taken aback at his insistence that pluralist democracy was the real enemy. For them, it was the goal.