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“Beneath the cobblestones, the beach”: The slogans of 1968 have ironic parallels with the “red pill” rhetoric of the alt-Right (© Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images)



Exactly 50 years ago this month the streets of Paris were filled with barricades and tear gas as would-be student revolutionaries sought to overturn the very basis of their society. What started as protests against university reform gathered momentum and became the symbolic high point in a year of inchoate global disruption and revolutionary ferment. We might have expected this year to be a muted anniversary because with the notable exception of Jeremy Corbyn, the soixante-huitards are no longer engaged in frontline politics. Their revolutionary agenda has long been considered an object of historical study rather than an ongoing project. Despite this, “the Long 68” (as Richard Vinen’s recent history characterised it) exerts a more important role today than it ever did in the 1960s or 1970s. Unexpectedly the ideas of 1968 have morphed into principles that underpin the new populist politics of both the Left and the Right.

By the start of this century, the 1960s seemed a very long way away both in terms of memory and political realities. In Germany the link had been severed when the red-green coalition of Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schröder imploded, ending the long march of German ’68ers. In France’s 2007 Presidential election, Sarkozy successfully defined himself in opposition to the “spent force” of 1968. In the US, Hillary Clinton’s loss of the primaries to Barack Obama in 2008 appeared to have ended the powerful hold with which the baby boomers and their memories of ’68 shaped the political debate. In the UK, New Labour appeared to have introduced a new period of consensus politics around a common economic narrative.

Unexpectedly the 2010s saw the lengthy temporal gap between 1968 and the present rapidly collapse. In short order the socialist François Hollande became president of France, Jeremy Corbyn assumed control of the Labour Party in 2015 and the 2016 presidential race in the US pitted Hillary Clinton first against Bernie Sanders and ultimately against Donald Trump. They were all in the their sixties and seventies, a generation older than the fortysomething moderate politicians of the 1990s. France appeared to reverse this trend with the election of Emmanuel Macron, the first French president born after 1968 and notable for refusing to hold a presidential commemoration for May 1968. He now faces a battle to quell the simmering convergence des luttes that his left-wing opponents hope will reignite the spirit of 1968.

For those who can’t remember exactly what the “spirt of 68” was or the intricacies of the “Situationist International” and other social revolutionary movements, Vinen provides a useful overview: “It had several components: general rebellion of the young against the old, political rebellion against militarism, capitalism and the political power of the United States . . . These rebellions sometimes interacted, but they did not always do so.”

The year 1968 was an important milestone, the moment that the “New Left” departed from Marxist orthodoxy. By that point the contradictions of Marxism could no longer be ignored, not just in terms of repressive brutality behind the Iron Curtain but also the failure of the working class to fulfil Marxist theory in the form of revolution. Indeed, 1968 was largely a middle-class affair, seizing upon the cultural criticisms that the “Frankfurt School” directed both at capitalism and Soviet socialism.
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