Changing gear

[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published April 30, 2008.]


At the beginning of 1968, I was living in a communal house in Hackney musing on being, nothingness, confused love affairs and mounting piles of washing up, quite unaware of the turmoil the new year would bring.


Events took over; the Vietnamese National Liberation Front mounted the Tet offensive against the American forces, sending an unforgettable message around the world that resistance against overweening power was possible. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell’s "rivers of blood" attack on immigrants brought a sense of urgency. Rebellion seemed to be everywhere; students and workers erupted in Paris, in Prague, in Pakistan, the Philippines, Mexico, Kenya. In Britain, women marched for equal pay and in the United States they protested against beauty contests.


Insurgency brought an optimistic conviction that change was going to come and this encouraged a sense of empowerment. Before 1968 I had been a supporter of left causes but at 25 that spring, I felt a profound sense of responsibility to think and act. Nothing could be taken for granted.


Action brought a whirl of ideas in 1968 that seemed to challenge the scope of politics. Long after the music died, they left a mark on subsequent radical social movements. In 1968 learning and doing, theorising and experiencing appeared to come together. As boundaries went down, we contested the divide between personal life and politics. We imagined democracy permeating all aspects of living. This was the energy which would later stream into the first women’s liberation conference in Oxford in 1970 and into the early Gay Liberation Front meetings. Sex, pregnancy, mothering, fathering, housework and cultural identity were regarded as political as wages and welfare.


Already in the 1960s marginalised groups such as single mothers, the homeless, people with disabilities had been asserting their right to define their own problems and devise solutions. In America the civil rights movement and black power had been symbolically challenging segregated space and racial stereotyping. In 1968, these new political insights converged into a vision of human liberation that resisted cultural containment. In this utopian moment, it appeared possible to conceive new ways of relating, qualitatively different forms of living, even the transformed perceptions pursued by artists and mystics.


With hindsight, it is evident that these revelatory glimpses did not simply derive from the movements of rebellion. The structure of capitalist society was beginning to shift in a manner barely evident at the time. How could we have known that empowerment would be the adman’s dream ticket or that the market would zoom in so thoroughly on personal identity. Impossible to know how liberation’s potential would be muffled in contorted debates about competing claims of oppression and esoteric discussions about cultural representation that eclipsed basic recognitions of inequality and injustice.


Four decades on, we can see that the rebellions of 1968 coincided with capitalism changing gear. An opening and a recoupment emerged together. Over time, snags became evident in the dreams of liberation, transformation and participation. The hair of the 68ers grew white and they became less certain. Yet the memory had lodged: things were not immutable, even though change might not come in ways you expected.


During the 1990s, when capitalism seemed triumphant and all-pervasive, new movements of resistance appeared. Environmentalists and global networkers took up demands for qualitative transformation and a grassroots internationalism. Now another generation of activists worldwide are searching for an alternative to domination, greed and competition. Despite the differing contexts, they have rediscovered the capacity to hope which marked the rebellions of 1968.


For more comment and to join the debate on the legacy of May 1968, click here.


Read more on the year of revolt here.


Sheila Rowbotham is a British socialist feminist theorist and writer. She is currently Professor of Gender and Labour History, Sociology at the University of Manchester, England.



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