If a week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson observed, then half a century is a millennium. The firebrands of 1968 – Bill Clinton, then a Rhodes scholar, or Jack Straw, president of the students’ union at Leeds at the time – are now grey eminences. William Waldegrave, who fancied that he resembled Bob Dylan, boasted that he heard of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination early in 1968 while lolling in bed with a besotted conquest; the next year at Harvard, he was brutalised by the police during a demonstration by the Weathermen, and sported his wounds as badges of ideological honour. Fifty years later, Waldegrave is provost of Eton. As François Mitterrand sagely put it: “Being young doesn’t last very long. You spend a lot more time being old.”
Radicalism has either aged into affluent complacency, or spiralled off into apolitical fantasy. In 1968, the paramilitary Black Panthers were idolised and imitated because they strutted through US cities brandishing guns, with which one of their leaders shot a policeman. In 2018, Black Panther is a money-spinning movie about a Marvel comics superhero who performs mystical feats of valour in a futuristic African country ruled by a hereditary monarchy.
Richard Vinen’s study begins by noting that when the director Olivier Assayas was casting Après Mai, his film about the violent disruptions in Paris in May 1968 – which caused De Gaulle to flee the country briefly, and panicked his wife into permanently expatriating her jewellery – “the young actors were more interested in the clothes than the politics”.
I’d say that they understood the zeitgeist very well. I attended an anti-Vietnam rally in Hyde Park in October 1968 to take advantage of the free transport laid on from Oxford; I did a spot of chanting and banner-waving, then sloped off to the cinema for the rest of the afternoon before rejoining Clinton and the other bedraggled zealots to catch the bus home. The occasion was cosy rather than confrontational, and Vinen reports that it ended with the protesters joining arms with the police to sing Auld Lang Syne – a case of what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance”.
For me, the year’s great revelation happened in a theatre, not on the barricades: it was the sight of shaggy pubes and dangling privates on the West End stage, when the cast of the musical Hair undressed to establish their primal innocence. Others, I’m glad to say, were as frivolous as me. Vinen cites a number of protests that resembled futile exercises in conceptual art. A dissident student planned to denounce “the congealment of praxis” by gluing together the pages of sociology textbooks in the London School of Economics library, and the rock singer Grace Slick had a scheme to slip a hallucinogen into Nixon’s drink at a White House reception. Both stunts came to nothing, but Shirley Williams, while a Home Office minister, did manage what Vinen calls “a soixante-huitard experiment”: she spent a night in a women’s prison, bragging to the seasoned inmates that she had been nicked while “on the game”.
Given current events, many of the activists quoted by Vinen now sound crassly illiberal. Asked what the position of women would be in the revolution, the black power leader Stokely Carmichael answered “prone”, while his colleague Eldridge Cleaver once rejoiced in rape of white women as “an insurrectionary act”. When Margaret Thatcher visited Lancaster Polytechnic while she was education secretary, students hooted: “Fascist pig, get her knickers off!” My epiphany at Hair was typical of the times: why did we believe that the exposed pudenda were a fount of ideological rectitude?
Critics argued that 1968 was a riot incited by pampered baby boomers, “stifled in their aspirations to sexual liberty”. Although Vinen doesn’t say so, an unregenerate personification of the era’s self-indulgence is now installed in the White House. Trump began as a draft dodger, escaping military service because of spurious bone spurs on one of his feet; he later joked that his personal Vietnam was nocturnal New York, where he dodged STDs as if outwitting the Vietcong. The rest of us had our fun, after which we soberly grew up. Trump alone continues the fight – his own radical protest against truth, reality, and any obstacle to the instant gratification of the ego’s carnal or cupidinous whims.
The Long ’68 isn’t long-sighted enough to notice this ironic outcome. Vinen takes shorter views, and prefers crunching numbers: history for him is a Sahara of arid statistics. I smiled at his admission that he couldn’t compute how many French workers were on strike in May 1968 “because the official statistical services themselves broke down”; all the same, he fills the subsequent pages with tabulated figures from a Department of Employment gazette. It’s quite an achievement to make that heady year seem so dull.
• The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies by Richard Vinen is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99