In France, every eighth year of every decade, there is an outpouring of histories, memoirs and picture-books of the 1968 Parisian ‘events’, as they were and still are known. This will continue until the last bourgeois geriatric trying to relive the joys of his adolescence dies.
1968 was probably the only revolution in history, or attempted revolution, by spoilt brats. That they were spoilt brats is evident from the photographs of the times and films of their meetings, where it is evident that none of them ever forgot to pose. “Would they look well?” was a question that was never far from their minds.
These were no downtrodden peasants groaning under the yoke of heavy taxes that relieved them of too much of the product of their own hard physical labour. On the contrary, they were the privileged children of the elite of a country in full economic expansion — and those students who were not of this class were destined soon to join it.
So what were they rebelling against? The answer is simple: self-restraint, particularly in the sexual sphere. “It is forbidden to forbid” — them, at any rate.
For all their supposed concern for the poor and oppressed of the world, it was obvious that they had no interest in the poor and oppressed of the world. Though one of their slogans was “Imagination in power”, they were totally lacking in imagination because they were interested only in themselves. Who but people utterly without imagination or historical curiosity could have equated de Gaulle with Hitler, as was frequently done during the protests? Who but people utterly without imagination or historical curiosity could have equated the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) with the SS? And this in a country that had been occupied by the Nazis less than a quarter of a century before!
Nor was their Mao worship and Castrophilia anything deeper than a posture. They knew nothing of the real conditions existing in China and Cuba at the time and didn’t even think it necessary to know anything about them (not that, if they had known that the Cultural Revolution that they claimed to so admire had caused the deaths of more than a million people, their attitude would have changed much). For what are the deaths of a million Chinese to set against the applause of their peers in the usurped halls of the Sorbonne?
French society was in a weak position to call them to order. The Second World War was not a period that many of their elders and betters wished to recall, and the even more recent war in Algeria was still an open wound (which has not completely healed even now). Former French President François Mitterand, for example, had been a great signer of death warrants during the efforts to keep Algeria française, quite apart from his Vichyite past. Few were the cupboards that had no skeletons, and it is difficult for adults to reprehend youth when their own moral past has been sufficiently ambiguous for them not want it too closely examined.
It is, of course, difficult to say what are the long-lasting effects of the events of 1968. Would the world have been much different from what it is now if they had never taken place? Counterfactual arguments are impossible to avoid in historical assessment, but they are likewise impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
But it seems to me that the effects were to reinforce if not to originate certain tendencies. The first is the belief in adolescence and young adulthood as periods in life of generosity, selflessness, and idealism, rather than of ignorance, unwisdom, and self-obsession. Closely tied to this is the tendency to believe that to be young is very heaven, and therefore it is a worthy aim never to grow up or to change one’s tastes. Life for many is now precocity followed by arrested development. In a sense, the pathetic 70 year-old rock stars who comport themselves as if they were still 19 are the true children of Paris, 1968.
In addition, 1968 in Paris helped to inaugurate the cult of the present moment and an attitude to the past as nothing but an immemorial waste-paper basket of useless customs, traditions, and pedantry. But how far 1968 was a cause and how far an effect no one will ever finally be able to say. Perhaps the relationship was dialectical.