May Belongs to Us


Illustration by Emily Haasch

For most Americans today, 1968 is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Depending on your views of such things, it was either a triumph of liberation or a period of moral decay.

When thinking more politically, most liberal commentators regard 1968 as a brief interlude on the road to the “end of history.” Paul Berman sees the “radical exhilaration” of the year as the first phase in a process of maturation, an “awkward modulation,” that in 1989 would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of liberal democracy.

At Jacobin, we remember the student and worker revolts of 1968 as part of a radical movement for democracy. In the United States, they were shaped by the decline of postwar anticommunist repression, by the war in Vietnam, and by the civil rights struggle against Jim Crow segregation.

In Western Europe, where the socialist left was much stronger, radicals viewed the dominant social-democratic and Communist parties as barriers to their agenda. And yet these parties also influenced the course of the movements that emerged during these years. Where social democracy was strongest, the movements tended to be more restricted to student milieus, and produced less dramatic confrontations in the workplace. Where the Left was dominated by official Communism rather than social democracy, as in France and Italy, the student mobilizations triggered more dramatic explosions in the working class.

In many places, the movements of  ’68 continued to reverberate in the years that followed — in parts of Europe, for instance, it took another decade for the Left’s rising fortunes at the polls and in the workplace to crest. And yet,in the long run, all of these movements were defeated, with devastating consequences.

Could another outcome have been possible? This question, which has been a source of controversy on the Left, is, of course, unanswerable. It’s clear that in the United States and Western Europe, hopes that revolution might soon be in the cards were always misplaced. Not even in France did the Left pose an immediate threat to the capitalist state.

But we could have gotten a better present. The circumstances faced by the Left varied from place to place, but in general we can say that it might have emerged in a stronger position had it entered ’68 with greater clarity and organization. In the United States, that might have looked like a radical social-democratic reform movement of the sort advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. In Western Europe and Latin America, it could have meant a revived socialist movement that avoided the twin pitfalls of bureaucratic conservatism and radical self-marginalization.

Whatever the failures of 1968, this anniversary should remind us that even under conditions of democratic capitalism, the possibility remains for explosive challenges to the existing order.