1968 in a nutshell
The year 1968 was supposed to herald a revolution against the establishment. Like all revolutions, 1968 had a noble objective, which was to instil a freer and fairer society. With hindsight, 1968 has been downgraded from a revolution to a series of revolts against patriarchy, social repression, capitalism and ordinary ways of life labelled ‘bourgeois’, as well as against imperialism and the Vietnam War. However, it left devastating consequences to society, as if it had been a revolution.
Ideological threads and mind-set
1968 was the pinnacle of the revolts of the 1960s. Its ideology had various intertwined threads that included Romanticism, Existentialism, Marxism, Old Left, New Left and Postmodernism, as well as a specific mind-set against wars and a fixation with the authentic life.
Romanticism or Romantic Movement was a 19th century revolt against the classical restraint in the arts and the rigours of science, with origins in the 17th and the 18th centuries, especially in religion. The quintessential 19th century romantic was Johan Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), the disseminator of the idea of the Volksgeist or ‘the people’s spirit’, a compelling notion that every nation has a natural culture which results from the inner necessity for meaning.
Existentialism or the philosophy of existence, is also a product of he 19th century, and revolves around the anxiety of being and the search for the essence of being. Its main founder was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who dwelled on the historical process of the self. Other articulators of Existentialism are: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).
Marxism refers to the socialist theory of Karl Marx (1818-1883), which was built over the tripartite dialectics of the philosophy of history of the German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831): thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In Marx’s socialist theory, the thesis is bourgeois society, which originated out of the disintegrating feudal regime; the antithesis is the proletariat, which originated through the development of modern industry, was cast off from modern society through specialization and debasement, and who must eventually turn against it; and the synthesis is the communist society which will result from the conflict between the working class and the owning and employing classes, namely the harmonization of all the interests of mankind after the working class takes over the industrial plants.
The Old Left and the New Left are both based on the socialist doctrine of Karl Marx (1818-1883), although the New Left incorporated the contributions of other socialists such as the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937).
The Old Left’s main objective was to support the workers’ revolution which Marx had prophesised; its adepts consisted mainly of pro-soviet communists, revisionist socialists, Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, etc. The New Left was a new take on the Marxist thought, where Marx’s revolutionary paradigm is replaced by a passive resistance of the establishment, which included accepting the bureaucratic routines as a means to the occupation of institutions. The movement of greatest significance to the New Left was the Frankfurt School, which in 1933 was transferred to Columbia University in New York. This link of Columbia with the Frankfurt School is significant, for Columbia became the American epicentre of 1968.
Postmodernism, whose main fathers are Michael Foucault (1926-1984), Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), and Richard Rorty (1931-2007), consists basically of a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies, as well as a reaction against modernity and the denial of progress. According with the postmodern doctrine, there is no such thing as ‘objective knowledge’ or ‘scientific knowledge’, or even a ‘best morality’, for everything is opinion, and each type of opinion is as good as another.
The intellectuals who inspired 1968
Like other all uprisings in history, 1968 had its intellectual stirrers. The most prominent intellectuals of 1968 came from France and Germany, the two most prominent ones being Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). What singled out Sartre and Marcuse was their connection with the university students and with the public at large who were anxious with the uncertainties of the Cold War. One could also argue that the reason of the strong connection was that the writings of both Sartre and Marcuse resonated well with the dominant mind-set of the time. Sartre popularised his own version of Existentialism, which included the notion that communism represented the people’s wish and offered an authentic way of life, as opposed to the inauthentic way of life found in capitalism. Marcuse popularised a kind of socialism that did not require wars, and which could be achieved by encroaching and occupying the established institutions. He also inculcated in the population the notion of free love.
Sartre disseminated a kind of Existentialism in which meaning and authenticity could be bound in communism. In 1960 he did a tour of Latin America, accompanied by his partner, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), who was also a towering figure among the French intellectuals. The couple visited Cuba, where they were received by Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara, then his Finance Minister. In Brazil, where he was received by the writer Jorge Amado (a former militant of the Brazilian Communist Party; 1912-2001), Sartre spoke at various universities, and one of his interpreters was the young Fernando Henrique Cardoso (born in 1931), a future president of Brazil. In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, which he turned down on the grounds that it was a Western institution and that his acceptance of it could be perceived as taking a side in the present East and West conflict.
Sartre’s take on Existentialism was focused on the notion of shame, or the way others saw him, to which he had no control; it is from this reflection that he came up with the phrase “hell is other people”. Sartre’s understanding of liberty was particularly unique, and to him the path to liberty was more important than liberty itself. Thus, when the French protesters took to the streets and the French police responded with force, Sartre preached a counter-violence to the violence of the police. Although Sartre’s books were highly regarded by the generation associated with 1968, he was mistaken regarding communism and the Soviet regime. His personal life was not exemplary, as revealed in his biographies.
Marcuse taught at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, which was re-established in Columbia University, New York, after its closure by the Nazis in 1933. At that time, he fled to Geneva and from there to the United States, along with his colleagues Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). During World War II he served as an intelligence officer and in the 1950s, when the Frankfurt Institute moved back to Europe, Marcuse chose to stay in the United States and to naturalize as an American citizen. In 1955 he published Eros and Civilisation, where he combined Freud and Marx to create a doctrine of sexual and political liberation at the same time, where he introduced the slogan “Make Love, Not War” at the centre of the 1960s revolts. Marcuse became a celebrity at age 66, with his 1962 book One-Dimensional Man, where the word ‘unidimensional’ in the title refers to the flattening of discourse, imagination, culture and politics in society. In it, Marcuse suggested a break away from the current system in order to make way for an alternative ‘two-dimensional existence’. Both Eros and Civilisation and One-Dimensional Man helped to promote the New Left with the student population. took Marcuse’s thoughts regarding creating an emancipated society without a socialist revolution are summarized in An Essay on Liberation, published in 1969, considered a snapshot of the revolutionary utopianism in the 1960s.
The type of socialism that Marcuse preached was a complete negation of the existing society and a rupture with previous history that would provide an alternative mode of free and happy existence with less work, more play, and the reduction of social repression. He used Marxist terminology to critique existing capitalist societies and insisted that socialist revolution was the most viable way to create an emancipated society. Marcuse was called an irresponsible hedonist by Erich Fromm (1900-1980), the American social philosopher and psychoanalyst who was also a German refugee. Marcuse`s ingratitude to the country that received him as a refugee comes through in his writing, where he described the United States as ‘preponderantly evil’.
The early critics of the 1960s revolts: Aron and Habermas
Among the first critics of the 1960s revolts ,the two most significant figures were Raymond Aron (1905-1983) and Jürgen Habermas (1929). Both Aron and Habermas had been socialists when young and both studied socialism and Karl Marx in depth. Both continued to describe themselves as members of the Left even after they became its main critics, saw the masses as a means to totalitarianism, and believed that an extensive university reform could be the solution to the student’s unrest. Last by not least, they were both hated by the students.
In 1969 Aron published La Revolution Introuvable, translated in the following year as The Elusive Revolution, in which he referred to the events of May 1968, as a “psychodrama” in which “everyone involved imitated their great ancestors and unearthed revolutionary models enshrined in the collective unconscious” – a reference to the French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror that it created. The book received negative criticism in France and in the United States.
Habermas, who has published dozens of books and essays, is Germany’s most important living philosopher. Although he studied at the Frankfurt Institute, he moved away from its Marxist influence and created his own school of thought. His criticism of the students’ revolts of the 1960s is shown in some of his essays such as ‘The Movement in Germany’. In his 1962 book Strukturwandel der Öffenlicheit, which appeared in English only in 1989, as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, he criticised many of the theories at the centre of the students’ revolts. Habermas pointed out the special role of universities as platforms of the public sphere debate, and that the most radical students were taking away the possibility of discussion. He also recognised the new environmental movements that stemmed from the 1960s revolts.
The ‘us and them’ of 1968: A strategy of identity
The talking heads of 1968 created an ‘us and them’ social division, in which the ‘us’, or ‘the partakers of 1968’ were the good guys who intended to create a better world, while the ‘them’ were the bad guys, labelled ‘counter-revolutionaries’ or ‘reactionaries’. In fact, the ‘them’ reactionaries were a minority, and a better description of them is ‘the silent majority’, ordinary people who were too busy living their ordinary lives.
The underlying reason for the ‘us and them’ split between the engaged and the disengaged was to create a group identity that could serve the political objective of gaining power through the occupation of institutions. The 1968 mind-set gave group identity to the once rebel students, and from such group identity they gained power, at least inside academia. The greatest evidence for this is the Cultural Wars of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States. Although there are indications of similar academic conflicts in Europe and in many Latin American countries, there are no significant critical studies available on the subject.
When the British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 he was ostracised by the academic establishment in Great Britain, who put pressure on Longman House, his publisher, to withdraw the books out of the bookstores. Realising that he would not get another academic job in Britain, Scruton decided to get a new training as a barrister, and continued his academic career outside Britain. During this time, Scruton reworked the original manuscript and added sections to it, coming up with Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, which was published in 2015. Only then Scruton was taken seriously. Finally, at the age when most people retire, Scruton became a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham, and in 2016 was knighted by the Prince of Wales at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, for services to Philosophy, Teaching and Public Education.
Social consequences of 1968
1968 is also referred to as ‘the long year’ because its spirit continued on. The revolts of 1968 intended to create a better society. However, in spite of its good intentions, 1968 had several unintended social consequences from stifling the debate in the public sphere and the increase in political populism, to the social fragmentation that resulted from multiculturalism minus interculturalism.
Populism refers to actions deliberately planned to attract the majority of people. Since the people are recognised as being sovereign in any democracy, populism appears to be a good thing. However, there is no single political will attributable to the people, and what a populist does is to trick people to believe otherwise. Populist political leaders are well trained in the art of persuasion. One example that occurs frequently is that of a candidate who persuades the people that he deserves to be trusted because he is one of them, when ‘being one of them’ simply means that he does not have the right skills of statesmanship. In campaigns for office, the populist candidate is the one who uses dishonest means to earn the voter’s sympathy, who lumps individual voters into lots of convenience and tailors his discourse to each. Another sign of the populist candidate is the use of emotional language to manipulate feelings.
Multiculturalism refers to the doctrine of regarding every individual, and every culture in which individuals participate, as being equally valuable. Although apparently this is a good thing, the acceptance of certain cultural practices could infringe on the human rights of individuals, as exemplified by female genital mutilation (FGM) and the marriage of children.
Social fragmentation is also a growing phenomenon in Western democracies. In his book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mark Lilla (born 1956) illustrates the problem in the United States, which can be inferred from the growing of identity politics, which refers to activisms based on a single unifying descriptor such as being a woman, black or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), created to solve the problem of social or political exclusion. To Lilla, by keeping minorities separated from the mainstream society, identity politics does not help the minorities to gain political power through gaining more seats in local government. Although Lilla’s book concerns itself with the situation in the United States, identity politics is also common in Latin America.
The students revolution of 1968 was a mass movement, and, like all mass movements, it consisted of instigating leaders and malts of followeres (the hoi polloi). Although many of the leaders of 1968 eventually understood the problems associated with idealizations of society, the malts of followers carried on dreaming about the ideal society and seeking social interventions of one kind of another. Examples of the latter are the armed groups of hard left-wingers in the African and Latin American bushes.
It has taken almost fifty years for 1968 to be properly understood. Sadly, too late to avoid its unintended social consequences.
Aron, Raymond. Thinking Politically: A Liberal in the Age of Ideology, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1997.
Habermas, Jürgen (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1992. Reprint of 2011.
Lilla, Mark. Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York, Harpers, 2017.
Marcuse, Herbert. An Essay on Liberation. Boston, Beacon Press, 1969.
Scruton, Roger (1985). Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.
 The Frankfurt School , a sociology movement inspired on Marxism also known as ‘Critical Theory’. The movement itself sprout from the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), which was attached to the Goethe University in Frankfurt, after it was founded in 1923 by Felix Weil. Other names associated with the Frankfurt School are Friedrich Pollock, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. After 1933, the Nazis forced its closure, and the Institute was moved to the United States where it found hospitality at Columbia University in New York City. After the War the Institute was re-established, and the most notorious member of this new generation was Jürgen Habermas, although he later abandoned both Marxism as well as Hegelianism.
 Here is a quote by Erich Fromm on the sexual liberation of the 1960s: “The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”
 Aron found recognition late in his life, especially after the publication of his memoirs, one month before his death, on 17 October 1983.