Half a century since the mayhem of the Democratic National Convention; since barricades were raised and tires set aflame and paving stones hurled in the Latin Quarter of Paris; since the formation at the Sorbonne of the comité d’action pédérastique révolutionnaire and the only slightly more decent front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire . . . since Bill Ayers abandoned early-childhood education for terror; since “the youth” took to throwing the epithet “fascist” at their elders, many of whom had fought the real thing; since Stokely Carmichael and Michael Harrington and Tom Hayden and Herbert Marcuse and Huey Newton rode high . . . Half a century later, the long drama of 1968 is finally drawing to a close.
The 68ers haven’t disappeared, of course. Medical advances in the West mean that plenty are still kicking. Some were only 12 years old when they first tore the stars and stripes in protest against America’s wars in Asia—too young to access matches but old enough to appreciate the potency of gesture politics.1 Others, like the Communist politician Angela Davis, have been embraced by a new generation of activists seeking to bathe hashtag politics in the old radical’s sepia-toned aura of danger.
Yet as future French President François Mitterrand told student leaders at the time: “Being young doesn’t last very long. You spend a lot more time being old.” Today, 68ers are law partners, columnists, marketing directors and financiers, state ministers, and so on. And they teach. Nearly a fifth of 1960s American radicals were toiling in academe decades after the fact, according to one 1989 study. Pensions, home care, and the disposition of estates loom large for these erstwhile street fighters.
More important, the cultural and political clock is ticking. Though they imagine themselves forever locked in combat with authority, the 68ers have, in fact, wielded authority over Western culture for half a century. In that time, everything from advertising to family and sexual life to school discipline to even Christian theology has reflected 68er impulses, which have hardened into institutional orthodoxies.
The orthodoxies were, paradoxically, anti-tradition and anti-authority. But in practice, the 68ers were far more ruthless than the supposedly “authoritarian” generations they overthrew. One need only look to the transformation of the university during their reign to see that they viewed academe not as a refuge from conformity, but as the space where they could most fully enforce their own brand of conformity. The 68ers knew how to discipline and punish: not with tear gas and the cane, but with the administrative hearing and the speech code.
Now barbarians amass at the ramparts of the empire and barge in with alarming frequency. Voters across the West demand civilizational barriers. Particularism is back. Among the religious faithful, denominations and orders that dedicated themselves to projects of liberation are decaying, while the traditionalist and orthodox flourish. Students raised in secular milieus are attending religious services at the behest of Jordan Peterson, a psychologist who fiercely rejects sexual liberationism and talks a lot about order. Populist politicians wave rosaries at rallies.
If the opposition were limited to ballot-box uprisings and the religious sphere, the 68ers could perhaps cope. They were always suspicious of democratic majorities and the Church (notwithstanding the entreaties of those many leftish priests and monks, who, at the height of 1968, founded utopian communes and drafted speeches for Fidel Castro). But the rebellion has extended to the 68ers’ own roost—on the left.
While the New New Left culturally appropriates the icons of the Old New Left for branding purposes, it is, in fact, deeply restrictionist, even puritanical. It, too, seeks to erect barriers in its way, especially in matters sexual. #MeToo, for example, is decidedly not a 68er movement. If the wildest 68ers hadn’t succumbed to the wages of their wildness, they would be brought up on #MeToo charges, convicted, and sentenced in the online court of New New Left opinion—all in a matter of hours.
Worst of all for a movement that was obsessed with “owning its own story,” the eclipse of the 68ers means that the generation no longer exercises full control over the narrative of “1968.” The drama is open to interpretation to a degree that was unimaginable in preceding decades. Half a century later, we can render a verdict on 1968 without some aging and cranky radical, now ensconced in the dean’s office or the C-suite, breathing down our necks.
Any such assessment must grapple, foremost, with the following question: How did a movement that declared war on liberal affluence and technocracy, things it identified with fascism and even Nazism, come to be so thoroughly coopted by technocracy and affluence? Put another way, what was behind the dialectic of self-negation that saw the 68ers go from throwing stones (or, at least, praising stone-throwers) to occupying the glass towers of the affluent society?
That such a dialectic is at work in the 1968 experience is beyond doubt. I have already mentioned the campus. After 1968, it became de rigueur in the soft disciplines to master certain catechetical formulas of the cultural left. The university adapted itself to the 68ers, and they in turn buffeted the university with their anti-authority authority and anti-dogmatic dogma. Through it all, the university has remained a training ground for the technocratic elite. Only, it now produces more Sarah Jeongs than it does Robert McNamaras—more tech-savvy identitarians than weapons-hurling establishmentarians. The substance has shifted; the forms and instrumental functions have not.
Other examples are legion. Take the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, the Maoist filmmaker closely identified with 1968. Godard’s pioneering cut-and-paste techniques, mismatched music cues, and ironical subversion of Hollywood genre conventions were all meant to lay bare and ultimately dismantle the ideological structures supposedly undergirding cinema itself. Yet it was Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenue that had the last laugh. Today Godardian techniques and mashups are old hat in advertising and YouTube videos.
The most instructive case studies come from the lives of leading 68ers. It would have caused heads to explode among his peers in the German radical movements to learn that their comrade Joschka Fischer (pictured) would eventually serve as their nation’s foreign minister in the late ’90s and early aughts. And more, that he would emerge as the pudgy, amiable face of a muscular liberal internationalism that championed the use of force to right humanitarian wrongs.
That would be the same Fischer who, in 1969, attended a secret meeting in Algeria of the Palestine Liberation Organization, at which the PLO pledged to destroy the Jewish state. The same Fischer who, in 1973, was caught on camera viciously beating a police officer. The same Fischer who was jailed for his participation at another rally, in 1976, at which protesters threw a Molotov cocktail that burned an officer nearly to death.
In 2001, Germans greeted these revelations about their foreign minister with remarkable calm and good humor. As Paul Berman notes in his 2005 book, Power and the Idealists, the exposure of the cop-beating photos didn’t force Fischer’s resignation. Rather, they impelled numerous respectable Germans to say, in effect: Who among us didn’t beat up police officers in those days? Fischer, then, represented a generational norm among the activists, not an aberration. Beat and nearly kill two working-class men in the name of the proletariat, then go on to success in government, media, and the learned professions.
The case of French student activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit (pictured) was more shocking still. In the aftermath of May 1968, when he became the closest thing the global student movement had to a spokesman, “Danny the Red” resolved to remake Western education, starting with kindergarten. His big idea was to inoculate children against the habits of obedience and traditionalism, which were baked into Western family and sexual life and which he believed had created the conditions for Nazism and fascism in the first half of the 20th century.
By Cohn-Bendit’s own telling, anti-authoritarian education involved some unusual interactions between adults and kindergarteners. “It happened to me several times that certain kids opened my fly and began to stroke me,” he recounted in a memoir published in 1975 (some translations have this as “tickle me”). “I reacted differently according to circumstances, but their desire posed a problem to me. I asked them: ‘Why don’t you play together? Why have you chosen me, and not the other kids?’ But if they insisted, I caressed them even so.”
When the memoir re-emerged several years later, amid the Fischer affair, Cohn-Bendit vigorously denied accusations of pedophilia. The paragraph in question had been a “literary exaggeration,” he argued, intended to provoke and question bourgeois sexual mores. Then there was a television interview from 1982, in which Cohn-Bendit spoke of playing an “incredibly erotic game” with a five-year-old girl. That remark, too, was mere provocation, Cohn-Bendit and his defenders insisted. You uptight, middle-class Europeans would expect me, the militant 68er, to say something like that. That was the joke.
Or…something. After his colorful stint in early-childhood education, Cohn-Bendit shifted to the center, much as his friend and comrade Fischer had done. He went on to serve for a decade, from 2004 to 2014, as a member of the European Parliament. By then he was very much the conventional European green-liberal: for legalization of cannabis, for same-sex marriage, for “children’s rights” (caveat emptor), for ever-deeper European integration, and, of course, against “traditionalists.”
Somehow the forces of affluence and technocracy were able to turn most of these men and women—Fischer, Cohn-Bendit, and their comrades on both sides of the Atlantic—into spokesmen and operatives for a certain kind of, well, affluent technocracy. Neither Fischer’s radical cop-beatings nor Cohn-Bendit’s radical kiddie-play (whether it was real or a case of épater les bourgeois) was too much for the “system” to swallow.
In an interview published in May in the New York Review of Books, Cohn-Bendit raged against the French right’s image of him: “Whenever an immigrant misbehaves, it’s Cohn-Bendit’s fault. Cohn-Bendit told people to stop obeying and start destroying it all—the schools, the family, marriage, the Church.” But Cohn-Bendit did urge people to stop obeying and to start destroying the pillars of tradition. And it was . . . fine. He seamlessly morphed from Danny the Red into Danny the Mandarin, who did some wild things once, whose antics maybe pushed Western liberalism to liberalize a little faster than it might have otherwise.
How typical, Danny the Red would have said, and how boring.
Critics and historians of 1968 have proffered several accounts of this passage. One explanation is that the transformation of the 68ers attests to the elasticity, and durability, of affluent technocracy. For all the chaos of 1968, Western liberal democracies managed to absorb and turn into so much kitsch youth energies that would fell other systems—Iran’s monarchy, Soviet Communism—within a decade or two.A simpler explanation is that young idealists and ideologues grew up and learned the real ways of the world. They learned to compromise, set their sights on what was possible, chill out a bit. But this is superficial nonsense. The history of 1968—both the year and the broader cultural moment—is the story of the older generation compromising with all but the most violent and radical of the young people, not the other way around.
The parents of 68ers “did not necessarily share the particular views of their children,” notes Richard Viven in his book 1968. “However, parents supported their children’s right to protest even when they disagreed with the way they exercised that right.” Maybe the kids go a little too far, but their hearts are in the right place.
Taking a longer view, moreover, it is worth asking: Which if any of the cultural desires expressed in 1968 has gone unmet by the affluent society in the years and decades since? Which of the 1968 appetites for sexual liberation—save for pederasty and man-boy love, which existed at the margins of some of the radical groups—have gone unsated? Which restrictions remain? And which were already on the way to being abolished even before 1968?
As for the Marxist economic demands, the truth is that these were never as serious as the slogans suggested. In his history of the 68er rise to power, Berman points out that there were, in fact, three strands of Marxist thinking among them. There was a retro-Marxism that more or less sought to revive the 1930s, with its anti-fascist United Fronts; a “modern Marxism” that looked with admiration to various murderous mass movements in the Third World “mixed with a few doctrines of the Frankfurt School”; and, finally, a culturally anarchistic or libertarian Marxism that “spoke about freedom and personal autonomy and, at the same time, nodded respectfully at Che Guevara…an anarchist salt and a Marxist pepper shake together.”
It was the third strand—the autonomy-maximizing strand that equated all tradition, hierarchy, authority, moral order, and continuity with fascism—that ultimately won out and came to shape elite Western culture post-1968. Its political and cultural logic led to the kaleidoscopic multiculturalism, liberal fundamentalism, and doctrinaire transnationalism that are beginning to unravel today. And that libertarian strand couldn’t have dominated the culture for half a century if its energies were not already in sync with the liberalizing, autonomy-maximizing thrust of the affluent technocracy. Hence, the pre-1968 elders shook their heads in dismay at the radicalism and uncouthness of the rebels—then opened the gates to them.
The best that could be said for them is that the 68ers discovered a real void at the heart of Western modernity. That was the judgment of the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce (pictured) (1910–1989). Though little-known among Anglophone readers at the time and even today, Del Noce’s diagnosis of what went wrong with 1968, written as the historical moment unfolded, appears prophetic in retrospect.2
Hardly a fan of student radicalism, Del Noce nevertheless granted much to the students. The world the 68ers were born into, he agreed, was a spiritual desert. The universities were intellectually impoverished places, where students went in search of answers to the deep moral questions and came out with heads stuffed full of disjointed, technical knowledge. And beyond the campus, they encountered a world that shoehorned all human existence into two activities, namely technical mastery over nature and accumulation.
It was a world shorn of natural law, religion, metaphysics, permanent and absolute values—the classical and Judeo-Christian legacy of the West, in short. The 68ers thirsted for more, and, Del Noce argued, rightly so. The students, he wrote, “do not want to belong to the system as instruments, which incidentally would be unavoidable because the society of well-being knows only instruments. And they are perfectly right to reaffirm their humanity” against the totalizing claims of technocracy and well-being.
Only, under the bad guidance of their neo-Marxist gurus, the 68ers misunderstood the source of their problem. Marcuse and the like took it as “an axiom that the metaphysical and theological negations” of 19th-century materialism “can no longer be called into question.” Their students went along and therefore ended up absorbing the same materialist assumptions that had spiritually deracinated the West in the first place. This was the great tragedy of 1968.
Religion, tradition, and permanent values were thus out the window—indeed, these things were seen as expressions of authoritarianism and impediments to freedom. But so was revolutionary Marxism, which had already, by 1968, discredited itself. So what was the way forward for students who sought after a more meaningful life than technocracy afforded them? The answer they settled on, under the gurus’ influence, was to liberate the sexual appetites, to wage war even more ruthlessly against tradition.
Del Noce wrote: “The so-called ‘global’ rebellion becomes an absurd revolt against what exists. It becomes a form of ahistorical activism that cannot distinguish what is positive and what is negative in existing reality.” And further: “After the negation of every possible authority of values, all that is left is pure total negativism.” Pure nihilism, in other words.
Del Noce was writing in the moment, so he wasn’t in a position to see the ultimate outcome. But we can do that now. It turned out that the affluent, technocratic society was perfectly happy to accommodate—and, indeed, to commodify—sexual libertinism and nihilism and the further erosion of permanent values among Western publics. Hence why the libertarian-anarchic strand won out among 68ers. And hence how Danny the Red became Danny the libertine educator and, later, Danny the green-liberal member of the European Parliament.
For half a century, the West has suffered the consequences of this “absurd revolt,” this “pure total negativism,” which the 68ers enshrined in the institutions they stormed and occupied. Having utterly misunderstood the West and its dilemmas, they have tried to transmit their misunderstandings down the generations. In this, they have at least partially succeeded, judging by our contemporary cultural confusions. But for the first time in a long time, the West is no longer trembling (exclusively) with 1968 anxieties, no longer mouthing 1968’s stock slogans or proposing its stock solutions in response to every problem, no longer dreaming (exclusively) 1968 dreams. On left and right, and especially among religious believers, we are discovering that barriers have their place, that openness shouldn’t be made a fetish of, even that modernity is not, in itself, a value.
We have our own anxieties and problems, to be sure, and these are in many ways darker than those faced by the 68ers. We have our own stock slogans and solutions, too. But at least our anxieties and slogans and dreams aren’t (exclusively) hand-me-downs from one especially petulant and irresponsible generation. This is progress.
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1 I am indebted for this delicious detail, and many others throughout the essay, to Richard Vinen’s insightful new chronicle, 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (Harper, 2018).
2 See his The Age of Secularization, recently translated into English by Carlo Lancellotti (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).