Writers reflect on the political events of 1968 and their legacy fifty years on.
The familiar collages of 1968’s collisions do evoke the churning surfaces of events, reproducing the uncanny, off-balance feeling of 1968. But they fail to illuminate the meaning of events. If the texture of 1968 was chaos, underneath was a structure that today can be—and needs to be—seen more clearly. The left was wildly guilty of misrecognition. What haunted America was not the misty specter of revolution but the solidifying specter of reaction.
Once it lost the Communist Party (PCF) as the mediating force to represent its grievances, the French working class fulfilled Herbert Marcuse’s 1972 warning that “The immediate expression of the opinion and will of the workers, farmers, neighbors—in brief, the people—is not, per se, progressive and a force of social change: it may be the opposite.” The PCF understood this latent conservatism in the working class of 1968. Not so the New Left student movement. In the end, it had only ouvriérisme sans ouvriers.
My father felt that the British, with their faux politeness—polite to the point of rudeness—were hypocrites. “Give the American what him due,” Bageye would say approvingly, “not like the Englishman, he will tell you to your face how much he hate you.” But then, on April 20, 1968, just before my seventh birthday, a stern politician from the upper echelons of British society named Enoch Powell delivered with extraordinary intensity an anti-immigration speech that shocked the nation by articulating what the black population had suspected all along: we were feared and despised.