Do Impossible Things: 1968 and its Legacies

By Sukhdev Sandhu

in-front-of-the-radio-headquarters-josef-koudelka.jpgIn Front of the Radio Headquarters, Josef Koudelka

1968, like 1956 or 1989, is a year whose convulsive, combustible energies are ill-served by the commemoration industry. Every decade the archives are raided for stock footage: French students hurling stones at the police; a young woman, scantily dressed and swaying in blissed-out reverie at a rock festival; a famous actor or singer in the front row of a public march in some unspecified European capital.

The images are well-known, in black and white, as reassuring as an old family album. They’re anniversary snaps, used as shorthand for a historical narrative that’s taken as read: the transition from repression to freedom, from censorious illiberalism to social permissiveness, from gerontocratic, post-war consensus to a new youthquake that ushered in a counter-cultural glasnost.

There’s an inevitability to the way that story is told that’s at odds with the fractured turbulence of which it speaks. In the process, history becomes defanged, its frictions planed, its conjecturals and ellipses replaced by definitive statements. What results is, if not entirely fiction, a too-easily rattled-off list of tropes and well-known figures – Danny the Red, Oz magazine, baby boomers – that curdles into nostalgia: the revolution, now being televised, is over. History is at an end.

It’s exactly that kind of coercive inertia against which the French farmers, workers and students who raised their voices in May 1968 were fighting. They were channelling and re-broadcasting a dissent that was global. Far from fashioning a version of rebellion that would later be exported to cities across the world, they were importing to and re-enacting in France the kinds of struggles already being waged by anti-colonialists and national-liberation revolutionaries in many different continents: in Cuba, Northern Ireland, even Mao Zedong’s China.

It’s crucial, now more than ever, to deprovincialise 1968. To look at what happened in that year through an international lens. To do so is to honour the ‘everything connects’, United-Front idealism that galvanised many of those placard-carriers and barricades-manners. For, as Kristin Ross argues convincingly in May ’68 and Its Afterlives (2002), 68-ism had been prefigured, or better still – incubated, by the protests that followed the slaughter by French police of hundreds of Algerians in 1961, a massacre in whose cover up the Government and the Press had colluded.

Equally catalytic was the war in Vietnam from which, almost daily, new reports emerged of the difficulties endured by American GIs in exerting their will there. Stories were being told, and images leaking, of villages being attacked and innocents maimed. Heroic and inspirational stories were also being told about the brave, canny strategies used by those villagers to evade and combat the enemy’s ballistic might. It was clear to all but the most myopic chauvinists that crude anti-communism was being used as a front for national self-interest and neo-imperial territorialism.

By May 1968, exactly half way through the Tet Offensive, people in France knew, as did those in many other countries already, that their sense of who they were – or who, in the future, they might become – was in part determined by American power, both soft and hard. It’s a lesson that, mired as we still are in an unpopular war in Iraq, as well as in the interminable War Against Terror, is just as bitter, just as important to grasp, and just as necessary to fight today.

“What is important is that the action took place, at a time when everyone judged it to be unthinkable. If it took place, then it can happen again.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, from Les Communistes Ont Peur de la Revolution, 1968

1968 is often seen as the high point of student activism, a glorious explosion of youthful fervour: the uprisings at Nanterre, Hornsey and Frankfurt have come to symbolize the decade’s will-to-action idealism. It’s vital to remind ourselves that those uprisings reflected a broader dynamic, an international movement in which young men and women, more of whom were entering higher education than ever before, had begun to discover that universities, far from being emancipatory spaces, were playing key roles within a global military-industrial complex. These students bridled at how their colleges peddled anachronistic forms of knowledge, operated according to patronisingly hierarchical principles, and embodied rather than challenged the status quo. Soon they learned to value campuses as theatres for the dramatisation of social turbulence.

1968 did not initiate an era of campus rebellion; rather it continued to fly the flag for the idea of campus rebellions, conflagratory instances of which had flared up in Mexico City, Dakar and Bogota throughout the 1960s. Students worldwide had been at the forefront of campaigns against police violence, state repression and racial segregation. At universities in the Dominican Republic and in Ecuador they were gunned down for protesting against dictatorial regimes. All across Japan they marched for curricular reform and against US imperialism in Vietnam. Even now, that insurgent spirit has yet to be snuffed out, and has been evident in recent global justice, eco-consciousness and anti-war campaigns. It’s present here and there, as a furtive rumour and a clarion call, as a physical presence and in digital form: in China, Iran, Kenya.

One of the most important ’60s uprisings was that in Pakistan where university radicals, with the help of the labour movement, played a pivotal role in toppling President Ayub Khan. It’s worth recalling that students haven’t always seen any connection between their plights and those of the workers in the towns and cities in which they live. Too often they have allowed themselves to indulge in the fantasy that higher education is a pre-adult playground, a rarified space for homo ludens. But those black students who campaigned against Columbia University’s real-estate incursions into public land occupied by low-paid Harlem residents, as well as those students in Turin who formed alliances with non-unionised migrant labourers at Fiat auto-assembly plants, were compelled by a very clear vision of the need for broader, non-sectarian coalitions, impelled by the belief that the struggle for better conditions and representation transcended flimsy student vs. worker factionalism.

Today that insight – and that commitment – is as important as it was 40 years ago. Since 1995, higher education has fallen under the General Agreement on Trade and Services, part of the liberalisation agenda of the World Trade Organisation, that, according to Andrew Ross in The University Against Itself (2008), seeks to impose “severe constraints on individual governments’ rights to regulate education within their borders.”

french-protest.jpgFrench protest

As more and more young people are shunted into a higher education system in which they are treated as consumers and clients rather than knowledge-seekers, in which the near-abolition of student grants forces them to take on a slew of low-paid jobs to subsidise their studies; in which they are taught by exhausted academics, a growing number of whom are on short-term contracts or who are forced to churn out desultory journal essays in order to placate the government’s banal Research Assessment Exercises; in which departments are funded by corporations and big business to an extent that would have staggered even EP Thompson back in 1971 when he wrote Warwick University Ltd – then it’s vital that they see themselves as cultural workers.

“Without a minimum of hope, we cannot so much as start the struggle. But without the struggle, hope dissipates, loses its bearings, and turns into hopelessness. And hopelessness can turn into tragic despair. Hence the need for a kind of education in hope.” – Paolo Freire, 1994

1968 was a battle over space. It sought to decolonize the imagination, to see existing topographies as both carceral and susceptible to being reimagined and constructed anew: “Sous les pavés la plage.” It formulated its own geography of struggle: the barricade, the commune, the squat. Fundamentally, it wanted to fashion new designs for living, autonomous zones for self– and collective determination; rock festivals, far from being solely about music, were visions, as fleeting but as important as chemically-induced dream-spaces, of an altered and sometimes sublime republic.

Adrian Henri’s poem Me, quoted by Jeff Nuttall in Bomb Culture (1968), captures the transformed landscapes of that era in which the gulfs separating past and present, high and pop culture, avant-seriousness and ludic caper, imperial certainty and subaltern fracture, student and worker, migrancy and indigeneity, rationality and spirituality no longer seemed quite as huge as they once had:

Stephane Mallarme and Alfred de Vigny
Ernest Mayakovsky and Nicolas de Stael
Hindemith Mick Jagger Durer and Schwitters, Garcia Lorca
and last of all me.”

In different ways, at different levels of intensity, what was being fought was apartheid – imaginative and cultural, as well as racial and economic. Landed privilege, blue-blooded entitlement, the plantocratic territorialisings of the cordoned-off classes: in their place a vision, no matter how hesitantly or contradictorily expressed, was being developed of a more democratic society, one characterised by public spaces dedicated to nurturing heterogeneity and conviviality, where historical memory was cherished, but not at the expense of a commitment to crafting a future for the benefit of the many rather than the few.

These days it often seems as if we are living through an era of mass urbicide. Governments have given free rein to speculators and developers to buy up and privatise public spaces such as allotments, squats, playgrounds and beaches. Big cities are turning into brandscapes on which the likes of Clear Channel and countless ad agencies tattoo their hideous corporate IDs. Surveillance technology, installed both inside and outside buildings, in order it is claimed to protect rather than to monitor local populations, are mutating our home cities into a ghastly hybrid of airport terminal and militarised holding pen.

Urbicide, of an altogether more vicious nature, was wreaked on Mostar where Serbian bombs targeted the bridges, churches, markets, cafes and public squares where people of different religions met and gossiped and fell in love. It’s been wreaked by the Israeli Defence Force on the West Bank where roads, olive groves and orchards have been bulldozed to make way for settler colonies; and for gated communities, a more extreme version of those found in Los Angeles or Mexico City, that are being used as tools of ethnic segregation.

All across the world, the battle for space – for a home to call one’s own, a future that’s worth imagining – goes on: in China, where brave activists try to delay the construction of dams that will lead to millions of people being uprooted; in Brazil, where members of the Landless Workers Movement try to establish cooperative farms and schools in a country nearly half of whose farmland is owned by less than 2% of the population.

Let there be no doubt – that battle is as dangerous as it is necessary: in Nandigram last year the West Bengal government expropriated 10,000 acres of peasant land and declared it a Special Economic Zone on which an Indonesian firm planned to build a chemical hub. Enraged local people declared their independence with the result that over 4000 armed police were sent in: at least fourteen villagers were killed, countless women were raped and men beaten.

“Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” – Walter Benjamin, 1939

The flyposter, the graffito, the pamphlet: 1968 was a triumph for alternative media and channels of expression. Samizdat or hand-circulated publications came into their own. Walls, fences and trees were almost as popular for those who had something to say as any radio programme or national broadsheet. And, beyond text, there was sound: the symphonics of subversion contained in public oratory and the roar of collective purpose. Perhaps each revolution requires its own, original form of sound poetry; a new world must be underscored by a new language, new timbres and rhythms.

That was happening in Addis Ababa where, for a dozen or so years before Mengistu’s military coup in 1974, there was a wonderful eruption of new music, a good deal of it by Mahmoud Ahmed and Alèmayèhu Eshèté, that represented a joyous and syncretic mixture of imported jazz and funk and Ethiopian melodies. That was happening in Brazil too where the likes of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, tiring of traditional bossa nova and influenced in equal measure by psychedelia, Concretist poetry and the anthropophagic philosophy of Oswaldo de Andrade, created the Tropicalia movement whose euphorically creolized and futuristic “universal sound” was reviled by the right-wing military regime and led to their imprisonment.

Much of this inspirational archive of the international underground – Tropicalia, Cinema Novo, site-specific art, cine tracts, revolutionary zines – has in recent years been recovered and made available in a new kind of space: that of the internet. There it exists as a resource and as a series of potential imaginative detonations for anyone who looks for or chances upon it. The speed and low cost of its digital distribution all across the world would have delighted many of those who were alive and active in 1968: the internet, and the ‘free culture’ that it enables, represents a creative commons that make good on the dreams of 40 years ago.

Hardly a surprise, then, that repressive governments, profit-motivated ISPs, copyright lawyers and big businesses have initiated firewalls, proprietary software and video-sharing-website buy-outs. The internet in 2008 allows us to know more about 1968 – its range, depth, complexity – than anybody did at the time. It allows us to hold the torch for it, to continue carrying out its promise. Will this be the case in 10 years time? Judge Alex Kozinski of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has stated: “Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity is impossible without a rich public domain”.

“This making of a new world is a serious business. If we can’t laugh, the world we make will be square, and we won’t be able to turn it.” – Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, 2000

Nostalgia, so easily lambasted, can be a form of political critique. A way of rupturing the tyranny of the present. Better nostalgia than cynicism, the bad faith and brutal sardonics of those who would dismiss the uprisings of 40 years ago as druggy, middle-class narcissism. But ultimately, to be nostalgic for 1968 is to betray 1968. The students, workers, nationalists, visionaries and free spirits who rose up then were committed to the future tense. They saw culture as something to be fashioned rather than consumed. They wanted a headstart to happiness. To fast-forward an end to imperialism, to racial and sexual apartheid, to calcification of the soul.

They did so with fire in their veins and joy in their hearts. And it’s that politics of joy that we need to hold on to today. The hackers, jammers, slashers, interventionists: all of them – all of us – passionate about championing the revolutionary spirit and collaborating for the goal of social change must remember the importance of pleasure, of gaiety, of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “collective effervescence”. 1968 a failure? It’s barely just begun. All power to the imagination!

All Power to the Imagination! 1968 and Its Legacies, a Season in London, takes place across the city from 11th April to 10 June. Visit

Sukhdev Sandhu is a writer, commentator, educator and multi-platform cultural and social activist. His books include London Calling, I’ll Get My Coat and Night Haunts.

Top image: © Joseph Koudelka/ Magnum Photos: Czechoslovakia, Prague, August 1968 - Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters. Taken from Josef Koudelka: Invasion Prague ’68 (Thames & Hudson, 12 May, 296pp, £29.95; Smuggled out of Czechoslovakia soon after the 1968 Soviet invasion, Koudelka’s stunning black-and-white pictures were widely published in the West, and remain the definitive images of those tumultuous days. Many thanks to Sophie Wright and Francesca Sears of Magnum.