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The radical legacy of 1968 is under attack. We must defend it| David Edgar | Opinion


Fifty years ago today, the “night of the barricades” in Paris’s Left Bank saw riot police mounting a sustained assault on student protesters. The students responded by throwing paving stones and molotov cocktails. More than 350 people were injured and 450 arrested. Already, protests were spreading throughout France. On 13 May the French trade unions called a general strike.

Consciously Marxist in its politics, the May rebellion was dramatic but not the only insurrectionary moment of 1968. In February communist guerrillas invaded the American embassy in Saigon. In April the assassination of Martin Luther King provoked riots across America. In August, anti-Vietnam war protests led to pitched battles outside the Chicago Democratic convention, and the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague spring.

How odd, then, to be told that the most enduring legacy of 1968 was not the radicalism of the student and anti-war movement, but the neoliberalism of the 1980s. Yet this idea is becoming increasingly prevalent, and not just on the right. The 60s revolutionary Régis Debray claims that 1968 let loose the ultra-capitalism of the 80s and 90s. From the British left, Anthony Barnett argues (in his Brexit book The Lure of Greatness) that 1968 led to a renewal not of socialism, but of capitalism. In a Guardian article on the V&A museum’s 2016 exhibition about the late-60s counterculture, Polly Toynbee lamented that “out of all this revolution against ‘the system’ came a ‘me’ individualism that grew into neoliberalism”.

For me, this debate is particularly urgent: I am preparing a new version of Maydays, a play that I wrote in 1983 about the mixed trajectories of those who – like me – were radical students in 1968. I am also rehearsing an autobiographical one-person show about how that year feels to me now. To do this I have interviewed others who were and are still active in the movements that emerged from the left’s annus mirabilis. It has been a sobering but ultimately sustaining experience.





A protest about the Vietnam war outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago



A protest about the Vietnam war outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Certainly 1968 didn’t achieve its promise. As Tariq Ali points out, the only government to be actually overthrown by the people was that of Pakistan’s military dictator Ayub Khan. The French insurrection ended with President de Gaulle winning a general election landslide. Richard Nixon won the US presidency. But De Gaulle would not have needed his election without the uprising; and Nixon’s victory was the result of Lyndon Johnson’s de facto resignation, in the face of protests that threatened to make the war unwinnable and America ungovernable. And those protests fuelled the atmosphere of paranoia in Nixon’s White House that led to his fall six years later.

As the sociologist Stuart Hall argued, one should judge political events not just by their outcome, but by their impact: 1968 was the climax of a new politics that combined an anti-Stalinist re-reading of Marxism with avant-garde cultural expression, a general spirit of anti-authoritarian rebelliousness, and a politics of personal emancipation. The idea that all of this enabled Thatcherism would have been a particular surprise to the lady herself, who was vituperative about the 60s – blaming it for the 1981 riots in Brixton and Toxteth, precisely because of the “permissive claptrap” that denigrated “the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint”. When she set out to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers and the Greater London Council, she had the 60s in her sights. Indeed, as its economic adviser Hilary Wainwright points out, the GLC was the spirit of 1968 in office.





Egypt revolution - protesters celebrate as police car burns



‘The Egyptian revolution was planned on Facebook, but the inspiration lay in the poster art of May 1968.’ Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

One further, obvious example of 60s permissive claptrap was the women’s liberation movement, which proved (along with the green movement) to be 1968’s most powerful and enduring political legacy. It’s possible to define feminism in purely individual terms – certainly, it transformed the personal lives of millions of women. But it also transformed the political and legislative landscape: the 70s feminist campaigner Anna Coote co-authored a guide to women’s rights, which had to be quickly revised because so many of its demands had been won. The militant feminists who attacked the 1970 Miss World contest paved the way for #MeToo, as the 1969 Stonewall riots against police harassment of a New York gay bar helped to bring about gay marriage.

Far from dwindling into individualism, these movements provided an organisational vocabulary for the future. The uprisings of 2011 used technology developed by Silicon Valley capitalists: as Paul Mason points out, the Egyptian revolution was planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast on YouTube. But the inspiration lay in the silk-screened poster art of May 1968. From black power to Black Lives Matter, from Chicago’s Lincoln Park to the steps of London’s St Paul’s, the form and content of late-60s protest saw itself renewed nearly 50 years later.

There is another echo. The Egyptian revolution mobilised the unionised working class as well as the secular graduate young. The 1968 French évenéments started with demands by female and male students at the University of Nanterre for the right to sleep together. It ended with the largest strike in postwar European history. The British women’s liberation movement was inspired by Ford Dagenham machinists demanding equal pay. The industrial uprising against the 1970-74 Heath government drew on the tactics of student protest – the first major action was the occupation of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, to prevent its closure.

At its best, the left has fought for both economic equality and social emancipation. Sometimes these strands have become divided, or even seen as contradictory. But 1968 brought them back together, on a global scale, and with a vengeance.

David Edgar is a playwright. His one-person show, Trying It On, opens at Warwick Arts Centre on 7 June. His play Maydays is being revived at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Other Place in September



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