Historian Richard Vinen Connects Our Agitated Era to ‘1968’

Remembering when America provided a model for protest around the globe.

Protesters battle with police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

We tend to think of late-1960s activism in terms of high-minded values. But in his new study 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies, British historian Richard Vinen notes that the demands of university students at that time weren’t always shaped by lofty ideals. Some protests, he reminds us, originated as “mundane complaints about the quality of menus in university refectories.”

Reading this, I flashed back to a student uprising of sorts that I myself was involved with in 1967 and 1968 — one that involved a specific institutional policy. I imagine that I and my fellow 13- and 14-year-olds would have considered our struggle more valiant than the ones that protested cruddy cafeteria cuisine.

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That fall, a new principal had arrived at our rural Oregon elementary school. At first, things went smoothly. Then we learned that there would be a change at year’s end. Our Fearless Leaderess (as we derisively dubbed her — “FL” for short) informed us that she didn’t believe in the spectacle of a grade-school graduation ceremony. She wished to replace it with something more modest, which she called “Achievement Day.” This was not acceptable to us. We had been looking forward for years to the whole shebang: diplomas and mortarboards, “Pomp and Circumstance.” We were being denied a rite of passage.

So we spoke our truth to power. We ridiculed the very idea of Achievement Day (OK, behind FL’s back, but still). We enlisted the support of the music teacher, who was fond of the strains of Edward Elgar’s scholastic march. And, when June came, we were victorious. We donned our caps and gowns. We had our Elgar. And we chose for our class motto not “Moving Onward” or “Scanning the Horizon” but “United We Stand.” (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” had not yet entered our consciousness.)

Richard Vinen is a professor of history at London’s King’s College.

Maybe we would have been the selfsame little militants if we’d been the Class of 1963 or 1965, but maybe not. The scent of protest had wafted pungently through the culture all that season. We’d caught a whiff of it from TV shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, not to mention the nightly news. Vinen notes that TV had a curious relationship with “68” (which, along with “the long 68,” is how he refers to the spirit of the time, as opposed to the tumultuous calendar year itself). “[T]he ubiquity of television sets,” he explains, helped link up different movements and fostered a, sometimes false, sense that people across the world were involved in the same kind of struggle.

Vinen describes the book’s scope in his earliest chapters. His goal is to “construct the world that came and, largely, went in the late 1960s and early 70s.” He limits his discussion to Western democracies of the industrialized world, which means we get little to nothing on such episodes as the upheaval in Prague in spring of 1968. He includes individual chapters on protests in the US, France, West Germany and Britain, in that order — a descending order that seems to reflect the relative importance he places on the role of protest in each of the four nations.

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America, Vinen suggests, provided a model for protest around the globe. (Aboriginal activists of Australia, for instance, were inspired by the experiences of Black Panthers in the US.) Americans had two huge issues to deal with at the time, of course: the Vietnam conflict (and the military draft that went with it) and the fight for civil rights by African Americans. In France, meanwhile, dissent flared briefly but dramatically with huge strikes that involved both university students and workers, beginning in May of 1968. Vinen devotes considerably less ink to Germany and England, which for various reasons experienced fewer anti-government skirmishes. West Germany’s internal politics took a backseat to the pervading reality of the division from East Germany. In Britain, the considerably smaller percentage of university students accounted in part for the relative quiescence there. (The fight for civil rights by Catholics in Northern Ireland was a different story, however.)

1968‘s later chapters focus on progressive movements that sprang up across borders, including those centered on struggles for women’s rights and gay rights, along with labor-related activism. Vinen also covers such subjects as the role of violence within radical movements and the issue of “selling out” by once-revolutionary firebrands. “In the short term,” he concludes, “the protest movements of 68 were largely defeated.”

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What can we, 50 years later, glean from this era as we mount our own resistance against regimes powerful and unjust? Vinen has no simple advice. In fact, his overriding message seems to be that for every sweeping statement one makes about 68, flocks of caveats appear. He writes about how misogyny suffused many radical movements of the time, leaving women within the ranks feeling only partially liberated by their dissent. But, immediately after, he adds that women arguably played a larger role within radical organizations than they did within the mainstream politics of the time.

Vinen doesn’t mention Donald Trump or Brexit in his book. But a point he makes repeatedly may seem especially relevant to 2018-ers. He notes “a curious symbiosis between 68 and its enemies”:

Both defined themselves in terms of what they opposed, or what opposed them, more than what they proposed.

Vinen describes, for example, how California governor Ronald Reagan bolstered his popularity by evoking “Berkeley” not just as a university located in the Bay Area but as “a symbol of a wider malaise than his supporters discerned in universities.” Clearly, our Nemesis-in-Chief has a similarly insidious talent for feeding off his opponents’ reputations and rhetoric in order to enliven his base.

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The idea that much of 68 was an apparent failure may leave us discomfited (as if we weren’t already there). But then, in a late chapter, Vinen puts things in clarifying perspective:

[T]here is a danger that 68 is dismissed precisely because its achievements are judged against the most extravagant ambitions of its most flamboyant protagonists — those who said that they would transform society and levitate the Pentagon.

Gains were made by the progressives of 68. And not every 68-er became a sellout. Many, Vinen points out, carried the spirit of those years with them into succeeding decades, allowing it to shape the ways they raised their families and conducted their careers.

1968 provides a broad overview, sprinkled with salient details. It relies on other people’s primary research, not Vinen’s own. Its subchapters cover in a few paragraphs subjects about which entire volumes have been or could be devoted. The book nonetheless provides a good starting point for people wanting to learn more about the struggles so frequently cited as analogous to the ones playing out now.