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In the US, 1968 was largely about opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. In France it was part student revolt, part disillusionment with contemporary life and part street party. The point is that the events of the “long 68” were chaotic, even deliberately evasive of concrete definition.

The multitude of ideas and organisations produced no unified body of political thought. This makes understanding what the demonstrators wanted hard to discern. Much of the discourse of 1968 was concerned with the idea of self-management. Implicit in this was a rejection of the norms of classical ideology and the rejection of role of intellectuals in forming that framework — perhaps best summarised as “we don’t believe the experts”. Ultimately it was a politics of refusal and individualism that remains most easily defined by what the 68ers were opposed to rather than a concrete programme of change. The result was, in the words of the political theorist Simon Tormey, “political paganism, a politics of the faithless, of those who move from one campaign against injustice to another”.

It is easy to dismiss the legacy of 1968. Despite important civil rights victories in the US, which should rightly be seen as an historic triumph, in the short term the protests were largely unsuccessful in fostering the sort of revolution many wanted. There was far greater mobilisation across Europe and the US in favour of the established order. Richard Nixon’s electoral triumph at the end of the year came from appealing to the “silent majority” about the breakdown in law and order that the demonstrations had symbolised. In France too, de Gaulle achieved electoral victory.

The afterlife of 1968 demonstrates that revolutions are rarely revolutionary. Ideological change is usually far more gradual and, for reasons of expediency, wears the clothes of mainstream political discussion. In both countries even if spontaneous revolution remained elusive, 1968 was the moment that the post-war grand narrative shattered and with it the liberal political consensus. Belief in politicians, intellectuals and political parties would never quite recover from the exhortations of the soixante-huitards to search for hidden strategies of repression.

The genuinely revolutionary and violent vanguard groups of those years, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Weather Underground in the US, were extinguished relatively quickly. Ten years later most of their members were dead, in jail or had returned to more conventional existences.

The more moderate members of that generation would reach their political and cultural high point over the next 30 years. Most surprisingly they would prove instrumental in creating and then destroying the next wave of political consensus. Ironically the 68ers’ cult of individuality, which co-existed with their nominal belief in collective economics, would pave the way for Thatcher, Reagan and ultimately the new “third way” consensus in the 1990s.
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