Over the decades we’ve seen the slow burial of 1968. And with the fiftieth anniversary we have arrived at something like a triumphal state funeral. Some of the gravediggers are even people who played a leading role in the movement.
With its importance and meaning diminished, it’s now hard to explain why the rebellion came to involve a whole generation across all continents within such a short time. Today, the mainstream remembers a few advances from ’68, but only the weakest and most painless — an individualistic libertarianism — and cancels out everything in the movement that was really challenging and dangerous to the system. In Italy, ’68 is just remembered as drugs, sex, and rock and roll — a revolt against our parents and teachers.
We can understand, then, why the fiftieth anniversary is not all that interesting to today’s youth. After all, in terms of freedom of personal mores, they have already got what they wanted.
But this is not the real history. The novelty of ’68 was precisely the attempt to liberate freedom from bourgeois libertarianism; the struggle to root it in social relations, which is to say, in a collective context. What was everywhere challenged was not just the teachers and parents but the system itself — the capitalist system.
Mao, Marcuse, Marx
In 1968, orthodox Marxism was able to cross paths with American sociology, the Frankfurt School, and the British New Left, as well as the thought that came from the Third World.
Today one could mock the joint appearance of Mao, Marcuse, and Marx on our placards. But we should recognize that this did have some sense: Mao, because notwithstanding the turmoil produced by the Cultural Revolution (which we knew little about) we really did need to bombard the headquarters, which were deaf to what we were saying. Marcuse, because in bringing to politics the new and indispensable dimension of happiness and the personal — beyond power and money — he greatly enriched the idea of freedom. And Marx, because what we desired seemed materially possible, but was politically impossible within the ambit of capitalism.
One of the documents most useful for understanding how the problem of the relation between one’s own freedom and the freedom of all cut absolutely right across the movement is a June 13, 1968 BBC TV program. Presented by the channel’s foreign-politics correspondent Robert McKenzie, it featured newly prominent leaders from across the world.
One was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who had been active in Paris: “We criticize any society in which individuals are passive and lack the power to change what they are forced to do.” For Lewis Cole, from New York’s Columbia University, “The students no longer believe that present-day society can guarantee them a real right to make the social choices that will guarantee their freedom.” For Yasuo Ishii in Tokyo, “We are above all fighting for a society in which democracy is not a formality, in which the abstract individual is considered equal to other individuals, as against the reality of socioeconomic differences.” For Karl Dietrich Wolff in Berlin: “You are mistaken if you think this is just a student movement, which is not at all true. The fact that Western societies continually squander wealth and keep afloat with repressive methods in the factories and the schools, concerns everyone.” For Jan Kavan in Prague: “We do not think this is the socialist society it claims to be. This is not a question of intellectual freedom, we call for the fundamental freedoms of not only intellectuals but also workers.” For Dragana Stavijel in Belgrade: “We demand not only our rights, but the rights of all those, students and workers, who set as their goal socialism, the democracy that we need.” For Ekkehart Krippendorff, from Berlin: “The socialist societies have resolved some of the basic contradictions inherent in capitalist societies, they have expropriated private property and the means of production, now we have to fight for their socialization.” For Luca Meldolesi in Rome: “All the university students are in revolt, but you are mistaken to speak of a student class. So long as the universities were founded on the privileges of the class in command there were no problems, but now many more students are accepted, divided, differentiated, selected. This created a new potential for revolt.” For Tariq Ali, a Pakistani in London, “What unites us … is our feeling that capitalism is inhumane and unjust.”
Another participant was the Spaniard, Luca Martin de Hijas, who limited himself to noting that in his country the movement was clandestine and that the essential priority was thus freedom itself.
Italy’s Two ’68s
The perception that the greater well-being produced by capitalism’s successes had not rendered the challenge to the system obsolete, but rather enriched it with new contents, was the true point of friction with the traditional parties of the Left, notably the Italian (PCI) and French (PCF) Communist Parties. They were convinced of the need to stay within the limits of the postwar social compromise but to stimulate the development of production, and most importantly they were still intent on seeking broad alliances.
The parties didn’t see that new and different social subjects had entered the stage, becoming active in relation to new needs and contradictions: first and foremost, the students — who Communists for a long time continued to dismiss as “rich kids,” irresponsible revolutionaries with a tenuous relationship to the working class. This attitude came at some cost, because they lost the opportunity to capture the new spirit that had now emerged.
Despite this common kernel, ’68 did not play out in the same way everywhere. In Italy, for example, there was a divisive debate within the PCI already before 1968, precisely on the question of what historical phase we were going through. Was Italy still a backward country that thus needed to complete its bourgeois revolution, or were the contradictions of advanced capitalism already dominant, if interwoven with older ones? This gave rise to the conflict between the right of the PCI and the left led by Pietro Ingrao. The group which took this debate beyond the bounds of “legitimacy” was pushed out of the PCI. This group then gave rise to Il Manifesto, which was first a magazine and then a daily newspaper, and ultimately also led to the creation of the Proletarian Unity Party (PDUP). I joined it together with a large chunk of the ’68 movement.
In Italy the first demonstrations began already in 1967, when a series of universities were occupied by the students protesting a bill — the infamous Law 2314, pushed by the Christian-Democratic minister Luigi Gui, which made an underhand bid to subordinate study to business. First to move was the Catholic University in Milan. This was significant because it was driven by young people who had grown up in religious organizations marked by the influence of Vatican II. Not just the schools but also the cathedrals were occupied.
While the agitation was at its height, a delegation from the PCF came to Rome for one of its ritual meetings with the (not much-loved) PCI. Stunned by what was happening, the French delegation criticized their PCI “brothers,” saying “Nothing like this could happen in our back yard, for we are fully in control of the movements.”
Just a few months later came the famous French May. The PCF was caught unaware and reacted in the worst possible fashion. First of all, it acted under the pretense of being the only representative of the working class, to the point that the Communist-controlled CGT union refused to meet with the student organization unef, which had asked for such a meeting in order to coordinate joint actions against the government. Even to the point that it gave its own backing to the expulsion from France of the “German anarchist” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most famous leader of the Parisian ’68.
In Italy as in France, there were clashes between students and an infuriated trade union just outside the gates of the big factories. But things played out differently in Italy, for there was a different Communist Party and trade unions, ones more open to the new currents. It was precisely this stance that allowed the new forms of struggle and the new demands indicated by the students to be carried forth by a wider movement.
In 1969, when we saw the extraordinary mobilization around the renewal of the engineering workers’ national contract — what was called the “Hot Autumn” — the two forces had clearly been welded together. This was the phase that gave rise to new forms of representation — political representation, and no longer just through the unions. In ’69 there were factory committees, zone committees, a whole series of formations that lasted over time, helping to get technicians and intellectuals involved. This sparked major cultural and organizational shifts: there was democratic psychiatry, democratic medicine, democratic judiciary, and even a democratic police. At first it also had an important reflection in parliament, leading to the passing of historic reforms: the Workers’ Statute, the introduction of a national public health system, and the revision of the pension system. A few years later, driven by a feminist movement triggered by ’68, would come the legalization of first divorce and then abortion.
While the Italian ’68 made rather less of a splash than the French one, it lasted much longer, including in the organizations of the New Left. These latter had established themselves already by the early 1970s, and in 1976 they would also send a small group into parliament as a unitary list, Proletarian Democracy.
Yet this was also the beginning of the decline, for the PCI — which had ended up riding the left-wing turn which ’68 had imposed on Italian society generally — now chose the grievous route of the “historic compromise.” This was an attempt at a deal with Christian Democracy, from a position of weakness, and by the end of the 1970s it ended badly. The disappointment — and, for many, the anger at what was considered the betrayal of the Left — was one of the causes, though certainly not the only one, that encouraged the tragic turn to terrorism.
Some have considered 1977 as a sort of second ’68 in Italy. It did, indeed, lead to a new wave of demonstrations in the universities. But the contents of the protest and the forms of struggle had changed, and this was the beginning of decline and then defeat. On the one hand was the so-called “workers’ autonomy” current, whose slogan was “not for work, but against work.” This led to violent clashes and the cutting-off of any real relationship with the factories. On the other hand were the so-called “Metropolitan Indians,” a response to the further proletarianization of the students, who took refuge in an existential protest that was increasingly less political.
Prague, Europe, Il Manifesto
Of course, given the context, ’68 in Eastern Europe was quite different. The outlier was Yugoslavia, where there was similarity between the occupation of Belgrade University — re-christened “Red Karl Marx University” — and the movements in countries like Italy, France, Germany, and Japan. Elsewhere in the Communist world there was a generalized youth insurgency, reviving the spirit and the force of a democratic, anti-bureaucratic popular protest which had been silenced since 1956. It all began in January 1968 when Alexander Dubček took over the reins of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and government, embarking on a new course which stirred enthusiasm not only in that country but across the Warsaw Pact.
Czechoslovakia saw the opening of unprecedented spaces of freedom which allowed the music, clothes, and literature of the ’68ers on the other side of the Iron Curtain to have a “contagion” effect also in this country. This blossoming of hope was brutally destroyed by the Soviet tanks which invaded Prague on August 21. As Umberto Eco recalled in a memorable correspondence from the Czech capital, the tanks were held up by the long-haired kids of Prague, who surrounded the Soviet soldiers and invited them to dance with them. They sarcastically shouted “Wake up Lenin, Brezhnev’s gone mad!”
The target of Moscow’s invasion was not just — as a fair few Communist organizations, including the Cuban cp asserted — counterrevolutionary forces, but Dubček’s Communist Party itself. On August 22, the party was forced to hold a special congress underground.
The theses that came out of that extraordinary meeting, held in a factory on the periphery of the occupied capital, made it to us over the subsequent months, and they were published in the first issue of Il Manifesto. This magazine directly resulted from what happened in Prague. It was the outcome of the rupture that took place in the PCI: there were other reasons for the divide, of course, but it was these events that aggravated it.
Unlike its “brother” parties, the PCI did sharply condemn the invasion, but it accused the Soviet Communist Party of having made a “mistake,” while Il Manifesto reached the conclusion that this system could no longer be reformed. The group at the heart of the magazine was pushed out of the PCI, and from 1969 onward it was fully part of the movement emerging from ’68, which was now taking the form of a variety of political groups.
Yet I still remember how in the days following the invasion of Prague we were amazed by the lack of reaction among a large share of the young ‘68ers. The communists were shocked, but for most the clamorous Soviet action seemed something distant, almost as if it did not concern them. At most they took an equidistant position between Dubček and Brezhnev, suspicious of the new course in Czechoslovakia which looked to them like a dangerous turn to the right.
Rudi Dutschke was the only ’68er leader who took an interest in the reform initiative, and in April he even went to Prague, soon before being gravely injured by the attempt on his life during a demonstration in Berlin. But he also observed that there was the “risk of a temporary exaltation of bourgeois-democratic forces” and an “infiltration of anti-socialist ideas.”
None of the New Left in Italy, from the more distinguished publications like Quaderni Piacentini, Classe e Stato, and Nuovo Impegno to the Trotskyist ones, or indeed the Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio groups, grasped the enormity of what had happened. A document by the Pisa Potere Operaio group immediately after Jan Palak’s suicide held that the analyses of Prague’s new technocrats’ (the economists behind Dubček’s new course) “unscrupulously plundered Western neo-capitalist models.” This above all alluded to the Czechoslovak reformers’ move away from strictly egalitarian models, the very thing that the movement in the factories in Italy was working to achieve.
In France there was the same distrust and, largely, indifference, as indeed in the powerful ’68 movement at Columbia University, which was harshly repressed (with more than 800 students arrested). In the middle of the Tet Offensive, they were above all interested in what was happening in Vietnam and attacking the Department of Defense in their own country, which was using Columbia researchers for the imperialist war.
Their distance from the Czechoslovak drama didn’t mean sympathy for the USSR. But the challenge to the Moscow regime took place on another terrain, in the name of other peoples: the peoples of the Third World. Sixty-eight saw another fresh explosion of consciousness: after the Cuban Missile Crisis the world seemed to have shifted toward a relatively peaceful coexistence under the aegis of the two superpowers, a balance within a neo-capitalist framework. But this was not the case: the newly decolonized Third World did not fit into this picture, and the Vietnamese resistance was but the spearhead of a more general upsurge.
To the ’68ers the USSR looked like one of the two gendarmes that sought to save “peace” by fighting any upheaval that risked disturbing this picture. To think of containing this tumult within the meager framework of the traditional left’s reformism had become impossible. In this sense it is true that ’68, which almost everywhere challenged the status quo imposed by the two great powers’ conception of coexistence, was “Chinese.” It was a critique different from the one that the previous generations trained in Communist thinking had made, as they now themselves lived the dramatic, irreversible crisis of the Soviet social model.
I should mention that in this summary of ’68 I have not talked about feminism. Contrary to what the hagiographical official celebrations tell us, ’68 was not feminist. Rather, it was still very sexist. Few women spoke in the assemblies, and they were often set to lowlier tasks, even to the point of being called the “angels of the copy machines.” That is not to deny that the movement had an impact on feminism, but that was something that had emerged earlier, if in the form of small groups, and it made its own silent, parallel advance only to explode four or five years later.
This was an effect of ’68, in the sense that this movement — which rose on the wave of an outbreak of collective subjectivity — did give women the courage to take hold of the microphone. Yet when they spoke out this was directed against the organizations that had emerged from ’68. This happened in Italy when women made their clamorous exit from Lotta Continua, the organization that had been most deaf to their message. But it also had some effect on a group like Il Manifesto-PDUP, which had early on given space in the magazine to the first steps of this feminist wave. In the mid-1970s, many women’s collectives chose the path of separate political activity.
The Joy of Struggle
A few weeks ago, the lecture hall in the Faculty of Letters at Rome University saw the beginning of the ’68 anniversary celebrations in the Italian capital. Paolo Mieli — in that era a militant in Lotta Continua and later president of the most powerful Italian publishing group, which publishes the newspaper Corriere della Sera — made a sharp observation. Remembering that period, he spoke above all of how important it was for the young people of the time that the movement allowed them to break out of solitude, of the individual dimension. It offered the happiness that comes with discovering the other, of making up part of a collective, of becoming protagonists.
This meant the discovery of both politics and the subjectivity necessary to practice politics. I would say that the heaviest loss we have suffered since the gains of ’68 is that politics is no longer considered a source of happiness. Its meaning has changed, for it has been impoverished by a grave crisis of democracy.
Rita di Leo, an Italian sociologist, has just written a book for the centenary of the October Revolution entitled From Lenin to Zuckerberg. She concludes that after thousands of years in which we tried to build political, social man, thanks to the “Khomeiniites of the algorithm” we have returned to a primitive, asocial man. All that remains is to prepare ourselves for barbarism. I am less apocalyptic than her — but I am worried.