• Remembering 1968

  • Por Luciana Castellina | 19 Apr 19
  • When people remember ’68 it always seems that they are not celebrating the same event. Memory is dominated either by nostalgia or repression, both having a distorting effect. But this is not always due to the fleeting nature of memory. There is also, on the part of the institutions of power, a willed forgetting, such that, from decade to decade, instead of celebrations we see the staging of burials. Now, at the fiftieth anniversary we are being invited to a triumphal entombment. Occasionally, some of the very protagonists of the movement can be seen among the gravediggers.
       Gradually, the scope of the insurgency has been reduced, and its significance impoverished, to the point that it becomes hard to understand how it could have been so generalised and have involved an entire generation in all continents in the same very brief time span.
       It is an intentional, a selective operation. The dominant hegemonic power knows how to manage what Gramsci would have called a ‘passive revolution’ (like others that have occurred in history), which absorbs certain innovations coming out of ’68, but only the painless ones, its most meagre side – individualist libertarianism – erasing everything in the movement that was really alternative to the system, and thus dangerous. (In Italy we nowadays mockingly say that ’68 has come to mean ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’, a revolt against parents and teachers.)
       It is easy to understand why today’s youth has little interest in the anniversary – for if this is the image transmitted by the media then this history matters little to them, seeing as, at least in terms of freedom of behaviour, they have already gotten what they wanted.
       But this is not the real history. Instead, the novelty of ’68 was the attempt to liberate freedom from bourgeois libertarianism’s reductive version of it, the effort to plant its roots in the social relations of production and thus in a collective context.
       Indeed, we cannot forget that this rebellion originated everywhere in the great uprisings against the arrogance of power – against inequality, the Vietnam War, and racism in the US – and that the western students’ movement was spurred on by the Cuban Revolution and the figure of Che, the symbolic hero of total challenge. This also applies to the US’s early ’68: the movement born in Berkeley that occurred already in 1964-65. And even the big gathering at Woodstock that followed was not just a concert, although it is true that in the US there was no relation to the working class, not even in 1968 in the occupation of Columbia University. The relationship to the factories, which the students immediately sought in Europe, was thinkable only here where workers were very politicised and dialogue was therefore possible.
       Everywhere, it was not only parents and professors that were being discussed but the system as a whole (the capitalist system, a term that has by now disappeared from every commemoration), making it clear that being truly free required a much more radically alternative horizon.
       Certainly, ’68 varied from country to country, and the currents that crossed with it were different in each case. Nevertheless, there was a strong common nucleus: the idea – even if more perceived than fully developed – of having arrived at the beginning of a new era, the end of a phase of productive development that, in the West, had offered material goods and a significant expansion of education, and, in the Third Word, decolonisation. But there was also the consciousness that precisely this type of development appeared from then on incapable of responding to new qualitative needs that it had made possible. And, at the same time, another form of oppression loomed over the new independent nations: neo-colonialism.
       If ’68 primarily mobilised the students, then its importance is precisely this awareness, albeit embryonic, in social subjects other than those who had traditionally animated anti-capitalist contestation: the working class. For the students, the material basis of the uprising was the discovery of the contradiction between a vastly expanded educational coverage everywhere and the fact that this now only led to a social location well below the hoped- for status, and that the result of education ended by being privatised. With this a new figure stepped onto the stage – the proletarianised intellectual, the product of an expanded public education system whose social inequities rather than being evened out as hoped were multiplied thanks to new non- codified exclusions.
       Movements, precisely because they are in motion, have antennae that the large traditional political organisations do not have, paralysed as they are by their obesity. And so ’68 was able to anticipate issues that are now obvious but were then still invisible to the left parties, which in fact met them with obtuse deafness – issues of the social and ecological waste produced by consumerism, the alienation of labour, social maladies, the privatisation of knowledge, an exaggerated meritocracy, the emptying out of democracy, etc.
       It involved an incipient critique of modernity, of progress, which within the horizon of capitalism began to show all of its ugliness, the insight that these problems were not due to a delay of development but to the very development itself.
       In this sense we can well say that ’68 was not at all an unrealistic movement but rather realistically anticipatory. It emerged in the context of the marvellous 1960s, which were everywhere characterised by new and rich cultural discoveries which de-provincialised the knowledge up to then dominant, when orthodox Marxism was able to encounter US sociology, the Frankfurt School, the British New Left, along with Frantz Fanon and the thinking that arrived from the Third World. In this sense it did not at all involve purely spontaneous motion but was the fruit of an unprecedented process of learning. – ’68 was a learned movement.
       Today we can make light of the three Ms written on signs carried in demonstrations – Marx, Mao, Marcuse – but we should understand that they had a sense: Mao because beyond the mess created by the Cultural Revolution (about which, however, the movement knew little or nothing) it was in fact necessary to bombard the deaf headquarters of one’s own home; Marcuse because bringing to politics a new and indispensable dimension beyond the power of money – the personal, happiness – he brought greater richness to the idea of freedom. Marx because what the movement wanted now appeared possible but impossible within capitalism. (I remember a comment by Marcuse, much cited then, on a passage of Marx from the German Ideology in which he speaks of the world to build and says of it that there will be the time and capacity to decorate one’s own house, cook good meals, and make beautiful music. The old philosopher of Frankfurt commented that the new technologies had freed Marx’s dream from any utopian aspect because a new fully human life was now possible but only blocked by the existing social relations of production.)
       One of the useful documents for understanding how the problem of the relation between one’s own freedom and that of everyone, therefore the problem of the system, crossed through absolutely all of the movement, as its common core, is the recording of a television programme broadcast by the BBC on 13 June 1968 at the very beginning of the events. Moderated by Robert McKenzie, the network’s commentator on foreign affairs, and with the presence of leaders who had just then come to the fore, in almost all of the countries involved. Here are some of their statements: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Paris: ‘We criticise any society in which individuals are passive, in which they do not have the power to change anything they are obliged to do.’ Lewis Cole, Columbia University: ‘The students do not believe that the current society can guarantee them an effective right of social choices that would ensure a certain level of freedom.’ Yasuo Ishii, Tokyo: ‘We are struggling above all for a society in which democracy is not formal, not a society in which the individual is considered abstractly equal to other individuals while this is not the reality, due to economic and social differences.’ Karl Dietrich Wolff, Berlin: ‘You are wrong if you think that ours is only a student movement because this is not what it is at all; it involves the fact that in our western societies there is a continuous waste of wealth and that they maintain themselves with repressive measures in the factories and schools.’ Jan Kavan, Prague: ‘From our point of view it was not at all the proclaimed socialist society that we had; it is not a question of the freedom of intellectuals; we are asking for a guarantee of fundamental freedoms not only of the intellectuals but also of the workers.’ Dragana Stavijel, Belgrade: ‘We are not only demanding our own rights but those rights of everyone, whether students or workers, which are put forward as the goals of socialism, the democracy that we need.’ Ekkehart Krippendorff, Berlin: ‘The socialist societies have resolved certain basic contradictions inherent in capitalist societies; they have expropriated private property and the means of production; now we have to struggle for their socialisation.’ Luca Meldolesi, Rome: ‘All university students are rebelling, but you would be wrong if you speak of the student class. When universities were based on the privileges of the class that rules there were no problems, but now many more students are being admitted, and they are being divided, separated, selected. In the universities and in capitalist society this has created a new potential of revolt.’ Tariq Ali, London/Pakistan: ‘What unites us is the conviction that capitalism is inhuman and unjust.’
       Among the participants there was a Spaniard, Luca Martín de Hijas, who limited himself to reminding people that in his country the movement was clandestine, and the ‘essential and prioritised problem is thus freedom’.
       The analysis – or, if you will, perception – according to which the greater prosperity produced by the successes of neocapitalism had not at all made protest obsolete but enriched it with new content, was in reality, in Europe, the real point of conflict with the traditional left parties, notably the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the French Communist Party (PCF), still convinced as they were that productive development had to be stimulated within the limits of the social compromise that had been wrested after the war, and above all still intent on seeking front-like alliances, without seeing that new and diverse social subjects had stepped onto the political stage who had become active in terms of new needs and contradictions. Above all the students, who for quite a while were condescendingly called ‘papa’s children’, that is, impromptu and irresponsible revolutionaries whose relations with the working class the parties tried to block. It was an attitude for which they paid dearly, having thrown away the opportunity to gather up the great alternative impulse that had arisen.
       Certainly, although we can find this common core everywhere, the ’68 phenomenon did not occur everywhere in the same way, not even in Europe.
       In Italy, for example, the assessment of the historic phase – that is, whether the country was still backward and had to complete the bourgeois revolution or the contradictions of advanced capitalism were already dominant and intertwined with the older contradictions – had been a very divisive issue inside the PCI already before 1968. It gave rise to the conflict between the PCI’s right-wing current and its left, led by Pietro Ingrao, which in the end led to the expulsion from the party of the group that, carrying the debate beyond what was considered ‘acceptable’, founded Il Manifesto (first, as a journal, then a daily newspaper, and then also as a party, the Party of Proletarian Unity (PdUP), with which, not coincidentally, a large part of the ’68 movement merged).
       In Italy, the first demonstrations had already begun in 1967 when, one after another, a series of universities were occupied by students contesting a draft reform law – the infamous Law 2314 (which attempted an underhand subordination of university studies to the needs of corporations ) – presented by the then Christian Democratic Minister of Education Luigi Gui. The first institution to make a move was the Catholic University of Milan, which was significant because the participation of young people who had grown up in the religious organisations marked by the influence of the Second Vatican Council was quite substantial; in fact, beyond the schools the cathedrals were also occupied.
       It happened that while this revolt was at its height, a delegation of the PCF came to Rome for one of the ritualistic meetings with the (disliked) PCI. The delegation, shocked by what was happening, reproached their Italian ‘brothers’; ‘In our country such a thing could not happen because we have full control of the movements.’ This was only a few months before the famous ‘French May’, which took the PCF by surprise and to which it reacted in the worst possible way – first of all, in the name of its claim to be the only title holder of worker representation, to the point that the CGT, the Communist trade union, refused to meet with the National Union of French Students (UNEF), the organisation that had requested the meeting to agree on common action against the government. The CGT went as far as to endorse the expulsion from France of the ‘German anarchist’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most famous leader of the Parisian ’68.
       Despite the clashes between students and an infuriated trade union, which could be immediately witnessed at the gates of large factories, in Italy as well, the events developed differently in our country. This was because there was another kind of Communist Party and thus also trade union, which in the end opened themselves to the contagion, and it was precisely this reciprocal contamination that allowed the transmission of new forms of struggle and new kinds of demands proposed by the students. In the ‘Hot Autumn’ of ’69, on the occasion of the extraordinary mobilisation triggered by the renewal of the metal workers’ national contract, a connection was established. Out of the Hot Autumn there emerged new forms of political, and not only trade- union, representation: the Factory Councils, and the Zone Councils, as well as a series of formations that had staying power and involved technicians and intellectuals, introducing important cultural and organisational changes: Democratic Psychiatry, Democratic Medicine, Democratic Judiciary, and even Democratic Police. And at the beginning there was also a significant parliamentary reflection, which led to the approval of historic reforms: the Workers’ Statute, the introduction of a national public healthcare system, the revising of the pension system, and some years later, under the influence of the new feminist movement triggered in ’68, divorce and then abortion were legalised.
       Italy’s ’68, less striking than that of France whose capital was paralysed for weeks, lasted much longer, partly because of the organisations of the new left in which it was consolidated already in the beginning of the 1970s and which even entered parliament in 1976, although with a small squad, with the unitary list, Democrazia Proletaria.
       But this was also the beginning of its decline because the PCI, which had finished by benefitting from the leftward shift that ’68 had imprinted on all of Italian society, chose the deplorable path of the ‘historic compromise’, an attempt at a subaltern agreement with the Christian Democratic Party, which ended disastrously at the end of the decade. The disillusion, for many the rage, at what was considered the betrayal of this historic left, was one of the causes, certainly not the only one, leading to the dramatic terrorist reaction.
       1977, which in Italy was considered by some to be a sort of second ’68, led in fact to a new wave of demonstrations in the universities. But the content of protest and forms of struggle had changed – this was the beginning of the decline and then defeat. On the one side there was the wing of the so-called ‘workers’ autonomy’, whose slogan was ‘not for work but against work’, which led to very violent clashes and the destruction of any real relationship with the factories. On the other hand, the component of the so- called ‘Metropolitan Indians’, as the response to further proletarianisation of the students, sought refuge in an existential protest becoming continuously less political.
       In France, moreover, it was not only the PCF that was caught by surprise by the movement. Right after the explosion of the University of Nanterre, Le Monde wrote that what was involved was a ‘new atypical and marginal phenomeon’. Instead, the explosion arrived at the Sorbonne, which paralysed the city for a month – the famous May. Paris was blocked by barricades erected by the students to defend themselves from the brutal attacks of the police. Unexpectedly, a significant part of the population sympathised with the insurgents.
       It is still difficult to explain how the French ’68 could have spread so quickly and with such force, to the point of also igniting a workers’ protest, which the trade union was in the end compelled, despite its mistrust, to legitimise, proclaiming the great general strike of 13 May. Then, one after the other, the occupation of factories located throughout the country began, with assemblies that had several features in common with those held in the occupied universities, irresistibly going beyond the limits within which the CGT would have hoped to keep them. What linked the worker eruption to that of the students was a libertarian component and the idea that the revolution is not only an economic and political matter but also a cultural and moral one, which needs to produce a new conception of work, consumption, and family, which has to generate a new type of relation between human beings. At the centre was the – unprecedented – goal: happiness, made impossible by the system’s incivility.
       What is characteristic of the French ’68 is not only the virulence of the protests (and also its brief duration); rather it is the extraordinary involvement of intellectuals and artists. This existed to some extent everywhere but nowhere to the extent it did in France. In addition, in France, while the student and worker protest was quickly extinguished, with the institutions recovering within a few months, the revolt continued for a long time to animate the political-cultural scene, even if it produced conflicts of no little account among its protagonists: Sartre and the existentialists on the one side, Althusser and the structuralists on the other, to cite sonly the most preeminent names (Foucault, who was in Tunisia at the time, came onto the scene much later).
          Completely different, but enormously important, were the effects of the German ’68. It also began earlier, initially due to the reflection launched by many intellectuals gathered around the journal Kursbuch, directed by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and soon enlivened by the SDS student group and by the Jusos, the SPD’s restless youth organisation. In this country, anti- authoritarianism was charged with particular meaning because the theme could not but call into question the specific Prussian tradition, militarism, and Nazism. This was the vehicle that led the new generation of Germans to tear away the veil that for two decades had been placed over the shame of the past and to trigger a true, belated but powerful democratisation of the country.
       Also different was Japan’s ’68. It is spoken of very little, although it was a very strong movement. I had occasion to meet with the leaders of the Zengakuren in Tokyo in 1969, being able, with the aid of a password given to me in Rome, to penetrate the universities occupied and defended by handfuls of students armed with bamboo pipes on which barbed blades were fixed. They already knew everything about Il Manifesto, although only a few issues of the review had been published, and in the long talks we had they tried to convince me that their country was living through a very particular historic condition. It was an ancient society that had been modernised thanks to an American rape (this was the exact term used) and thus only superficially. For this reason, they said, it was very fragile: An act of violence – a word that they, as dedicated readers of Marx, said in German, ‘Gewalt’ – would have the effect of a finger tap on a crystal glass: the system would crumble.

    Tokyo was under the tragic mantle of the nearby Vietnam War; from the US radio station one heard ceaseless coded announcements for the troops at the front; in the city there were many US soldiers authorised to spend a weekend of rest every month, coming from the frontline, from where corpses also arrived, which were embalmed here and sent home. ‘What do you want from us’, the Zengakuren asked me, ‘that we now start to go along the same road you travelled for a hundred years, first the eight-hour day, then the abolition of piece work, and so on?’
       The illusion of having found a shortcut led many of them to embark on the path of terrorism (well before what occurred at the end of the 1970s in some fringes of the movement in Germany and Italy). I was able to participate in some clandestine meetings with the first nuclei of Japan’s Red Army and the US Weathermen who were recruiting deserters in Tokyo and who also ended by taking the route of a disastrous and short-lived terrorism in their own country.

       In Japan, the foolish adventure of the Red Army was of brief duration; the last band was wiped out only a few years ago when the few survivors were flushed out of a hidden cabin in the mountains. For their part, the workers were untouched by the movement, and I remember that for a long time, when they wanted to protest, they continued to wear a red armband (I still have one) with the words: ‘we are very angry’. It was their substitute for strikes.
       And then there was the very different ’68 in Eastern Europe. It was less different only in Yugoslavia, where there was some similarity with the West in the occupation of the University of Belgrade, in those days rebaptised ‘The Red Karl Marx University’. Elsewhere in the Soviet world the only analogy – and given the different context it could not be otherwise – was a generalised youth insurgence, which gave spirit and strength to a popular protest – silenced after 1956 – against a bureaucratised and anti-democratic power. As we know, everything began in January 1968 when Dubcek took over the reins of the Communist Party and government in Czechoslovakia, launching a new course that stirred enthusiasm not only there but in all countries of the Warsaw Pact. Immediately in Czechoslovakia unprecedented spaces of freedom opened up, which allowed for the contamination with the music, the ethos, and the literature of the ‘68ers in the West. It was an explosion of hope brutally dashed by the incursion of armed tanks of four Warsaw Pact countries in Prague on 21 August. Effectively stopped by long-haired Prague youth who surrounded the military inviting them to dance with them (Umberto Eco recounts this in a memorable dispatch from Prague), lightheartedly shouting ‘Lenin wake up, Brezhnev has gone mad’ – partly in disbelief at what was happening, partly because that was the youth culture that reached them.
       The target of the invasion was not – as was to be declared by not a few other communist organisations (including the Cuban) – the counterrevolutionary forces but Dubcek’s Czechoslovak Communist Party, which in fact already on 22 August held an extraordinary congress, clandestinely.
       The theses decided on by that extraordinary assembly, which took place in a factory on the outskirts of the occupied capital, and which luckily reached us in the following months, was published in the first issue of the journal, Il Manifesto – founded just a few months after the congress, and precisely because of what happened in Prague. The journal was the result of a division that opened up in the PCI, and which also had other motivations, but was deepened exactly around this issue. The PCI did, it is true, take a position of vigorous condemnation, in contrast to other ‘fraternal’ parties, but the CPSU was accused ‘for the error’ committed, while Il Manifesto came to the conclusion that the Soviet system was no longer reformable. The group promoting the journal was expelled from the party and from 1969 was fully involved in the ’68 movement – a movement which was very uninterested in what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It is disconcerting, but it was true in Italy as in the rest of Western Europe. I still remember, already in the days immediately following the Prague invasion, our astonishment at the absence of reactions, which we observed among a large part of the ’68 youth. We communists were upset, but to them the resounding Soviet bankruptcy that took place appeared distant, almost as if it had nothing to do with them. At best, they took up a position equidistant between Dubcek and Brezhnev, suspicious as they were of the new Czechoslovak course, which seemed to them a dangerous rightward shift.

       Rudi Dutschke is the only ’68 leader who was interested in Dubcek’s reform attempt, and in fact he went to Prague in April, a short time before he was gravely wounded by the shots fired at him during a demonstration in Berlin, nevertheless observing that ‘there was the risk of a temporary exaltation of bourgeois democratic forces’ and of an ‘infiltration of anti- socialist ideas’. The position taken after August by SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) was similarly hesitant in a document regarding which Daniel Cohn-Bendit was to express self-criticism twenty years later. In Italy, none of the publications of the new left, including the most astute, from Quaderni Piacentini, Classe e Stato, to Nuovo Impegno, to Trotskyist publications, as well as the groups Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio, grasped the enormity of what had happened. (A document of Potere Operaio Pisano, right after the suicide of Jan Pallach, reaffirms that ‘Prague’s new technocrats ‘ (the economists of Dubcek’s new course) ‘are ruthlessly ransacking western neocapitalist models’. The allusion is above all to anti-egalitarian proposals of the Czechoslovak reformers, while in Italy the movement was committed to the egalitarian struggle in the factories.) As Jiří Pelikán, one of the most famous Czech exiles, recounts, in Rome he was welcomed and helped only by the Manifesto group.
       In France there was the same mistrust and substantial indifference, which was true of the very strong ’68 of Columbia University in New York, heavily suppressed with ca. 800 arrests. In the midst of the Tet Offensive, the Columbia students were primarily interested in Vietnam and in denouncing the Secretary of Defense of their own country, who was using research done at Columbia for an imperialist war. This does not mean that this distance taken from the Prague drama implied sympathy for the Soviet Union. On the contrary. But criticism of Moscow’s regime was taking place on another terrain and in the name of other peoples, those of the Third World. With ’68 another new consciousness burst into the foreground – after the Missile Crisis in Cuba the world seemed headed for a relatively tranquil coexistence under the aegis of the Soviet Union and the US, an equilibrium within a capitalist framework. But that was not the reality. Just decolonised, the Third World did not fit this framework, as the Vietnamese resistance was only the most advanced point of a more general upheaval. And to the ‘68ers the Soviet Union appeared to be one of the two gendarmes that claimed to be maintaining the peace while fighting off any tremor that risked disturbing the framework. Thinking that this tremor could be contained within the meagre framework of the mild reformism of the traditional left became impossible. In this sense it is true that ’68 – which almost everywhere contested the status quo imposed by the conception that the two major powers had of coexistence – was ‘Chinese’, a critique different from that of the preceding generations formed by communist thinking and which traumatically experienced the irreversible crisis of the Soviet model of society.
       In this schematic reconstruction of ’68 I have not spoken of feminism. This is because, in contrast to what is said in the hagiographic official celebrations, ’68 was not feminist. On the contrary, it was still very male- oriented; there were very few women who spoke in the assemblies, and they were usually assigned the more humble tasks, such that they were called ‘mimeograph angels’. This does not mean that the movement had no impact on feminism, which had emerged previously although in the context of small groups and grew almost everywhere in parallel and silently, to then explode only four or five years later – through the effect of ’68 in the sense that ’68, which was born on the wave of a sudden surge of collective subjectivity, gave women the courage to speak up. And yet this speaking up was directed against the organisations that originated in ’68, opposing to them the feminist problematic that had remained invisible, up to the point, in many cases, of making these organisations fall apart. It happened in Italy with women’s resounding abandonment of Lotta Continua, which was the most deaf to their message; but it also had some effect on Manifesto-PdUP, although it had very early on, already in 1969, given space in the journal to feminism’s first steps. In the mid-1970s, many women’s collectives, even if without rancour, chose the path of a separate political practice.
       Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of ’68 in the Aula Magna of the University of Rome’s Faculty of Literature, historic cradle of the Roman movement, Paolo Mieli, an activist of Lotta Continua at the time who then became president of the most powerful publishing group in Italy, which publishes Corriere della Sera, said something that is very true. Turning his memory back to that season he spoke above all of how important it was for adolescents to exit from solitude, from the individual dimension, which the movement allowed them to do, and of the joy of discovering the other, of being a collective, of becoming protagonists. Of putting oneself on the line or, as they said then, of ‘bringing Vietnam inside oneself’. An existential fact that was one of the common and essential features of ’68.
       At bottom it was a matter of discovering politics and, with it, the subjectivity needed to practice it. If I were to speak of what remains alive today of ’68 and what has died, what remains and what does not remain, then it is precisely that discovery that seems to me to be the most serious loss. Politics is no longer considered happiness. Its meaning has changed, impoverished by a terribly grave crisis of democracy. I think this loss is the worst defeat suffered by ’68 – we did not foresee it.
       Rita di Leo, an important Italian sociologist, has just written a book for the centenary of the October Revolution, with the subtitle ‘From Lenin to Zuckerberg’.[1] Her conclusion is that after millennia of the attempt to construct the political – that is, social – human being we have returned, by way of the ‘Khomeinists of algorithm’ to primitive man, asocial man – and that nothing is left but to prepare for barbarism. I am less apocalyptic than she is, and moreover I do not hold Zuckerberg to be the sole person responsible. But I am worried.



    1. Rita di Leo, Cento anni dopo: 1917 – 2017 Da Lenin a Zuckerberg, Rome: Ediesse, 2017.