1968, or: The Virtues of Disobedience 2

[This is part 2 of my essay on the meaning of ’68’. Enjoy. The photo is again from Pina Bausch’s production of Rites of Spring.]

Let’s attempt a brief interpretation of sorts, construct a meaning that seeks to do justice to this ephemeral wonder that was ‘68’. In Germany our generation is now known as the ‘68ers’. In retrospect ‘May 68’ in Paris symbolises the essence of it all, even if the movement takes on very different forms in different places. There is spontaneity, creativity, playfulness, and, yes, violence against things, a profoundly anti-authoritarian fusion of moral and aesthetic provocation transcending the tired old conventional notions of ‘politics’. This is a great upwelling as if from nowhere, a cultural revolution transcending the stifling old-leftist conceptions of bureaucratic party politics and class struggle reduced to meaningless slogans or getting a slightly bigger share of the capitalist consumer pie.

Sweepingly anti-authoritarian, it is, in essence, a spontaneously ‘anarchist’ upwelling without, however, making any very widespread use of that label. Moving beyond the strictly segregated confines of ‘old politics’, it is simultaneously and integrally political, moral and aesthetic. It is in that positive sense ‘utopian’. It is a merging of a provocative, anti-authoritarian (‘New Left’) politics and a new way of living, thinking, dressing, making music, moving the body.

It is an international, and consciously internationalist, youth revolt against the perceived materialist values of the older generation, the ‘establishment’, and the stifling, commodity-filled emptiness, ugliness and isolation of everyday life in consumer society , against sexual repression and the stifling constrictions of usual family life. It is an attempt at a counter-culture. It is a gut-level, moral, politically existentialist revolt against the nauseating hypocrisy, collusion and duplicity of war crimes and human rights abuses committed in the name of western freedom and democracy. It is a desire for the personal expansion of consciousness, for solidarity with the oppressed and with each other, for experimentation with alternative forms of living, feeling, thinking.

It is, in sum, that deeply utopian longing that a poet like Theodore Roethke or utopian philosopher like Ernst Bloch relate to the archetype of youth and youthful consciousness per se, ‘A longing for another place/another condition’ (Roethke), a consciousness that is not only desirous of the new and undiscovered but feels that very new and undiscovered as its own inner ferment, a consciousness particularly prevalent in times of social and cultural transformation (Bloch).

At its most conscious levels, the critique even moves (like, a little later, the radical ecological movement does) beyond ‘capitalism’ in its traditional, Old Left sense to encompass the alienation of industrial mass consumer society itself:

The revolution that has begun will confront not only capitalism but industrial society. Consumer society must die a violent death. The society of self-alienation must disappear from history. We are inventing a new and original world. The imagination has taken power. (From a wall poster at the Sorbonne).

At the same time, as a self-active response to, and spontaneous democratic transcendence of, this stifling, consumerist ‘society of self-alienation’, masses of people are for the first time speaking out, listening to each other and being heard in large popular assemblies. In France, this is not restricted to students and intellectuals. There are a few short weeks of ‘fraternity and active solidarity, when one spoke to anybody and everybody in the street without fear of being taken for a fool, when every driver would stop to give people a lift’ (Cornelius Castoriadis). Between the 19th and 31st of May there is a general strike all over the country, with, at its high point on May 23rd, 10 million people on strike and some of them occupying their places of work; the latter practice a reliable indication of how close France, in those two weeks, could have been to actual revolution:

The sit-ins and teach-ins of all sorts, in which professors and students, schoolteachers and pupils, and doctors, nurses and hospital staff, workers, engineers, foremen, business and administrative staff spent whole days and nights discussing their work, their mutual relations, the possibility of transforming the organization and the aims of firms […] in the packed Sorbonne lecture hall, ‘delegates’ from the most incongruous and improbable occupational categories – from the retired to the handicapped – rose up and asked finally to be heard and understood by society […] Within the May movement and through it took place a tremendous process of resocialization, even if it proved fleeting. (Castoriadis)

These active citizens ‒ in the submerged long democratic tradition of the tribe, the polis, the original soviets, the peasants’ and workers’ councils ‒ for the first time are creating and experiencing true (direct, participatory) democracy in action. An old worker speaks for thousands when he confesses in the Odeon Theatre assembly: ‘For the first time in my life I can express myself, state my opinion, and the people are listening to me.’

My own, considerably less dramatic, experience of this kind of thing is in a self-organised student study group on Wissenschaftstheorie (philosophy of science) at Munich University. Daunted by the academic German and lacking confidence, I had written well received essays, e.g. on Brecht’s love poetry, but remained almost completely silent in tutorials and seminars for about a year. I now take a deep breath and then make a theoretical contribution to a discussion of a text by Jürgen Habermas on ‘language, work and interaction’ and my new-found comrades complement me for breaking through into speech and for the contribution itself. It is the breakthrough into the ability to speak and discuss political and philosphical matters in public arenas.

A significant part of this loss of passivity, this great democratic speaking out are the anonymous poems that grace the walls or are handed out for free:

The Poets in the Streets

I still think
The place for poets right now
Is the streets
That we have to attack
The ivory towers, raze them
Proclaim a state of emergency

When I let it all hang out
Bawl about my own misery
If this misery isn’t yours
Hit me hard

So that that there is no more
Absent Poetry

Whatever the artistic merit of such ephemera, the liveliest, most significant literature, performance and art of the time takes place outside books, established magazines, galleries or theatres (and their ‘absent poetry’). It is on the streets, in mimeographed leaflets and alternative newspapers, in underground movies, in rock and protest songs, in the ubiquitous wall graffiti, happenings, street theatre, art labs, active strikes, occupations, sit-ins, go-ins, be-ins and teach-ins. In gradually forming highly diverse counter-institutions: free universities, radical book stores, pirate radio stations, legal aid groups, cooperatives and communes, grassroots councils and action committees (Basisgruppen) of many kinds. There is thus an expansion and democratization of the arts, often re-establishing the ‘direct audience relationships of the sort that prevailed at the very beginnings of literature.’

Yet what about the provocative nature of the revolt, the rule-breaking, the occasional violence against things, the sometimes shrill and in-your-face rather than quietly rational, democratically balanced debating style? This is double-edged, no doubt. But, for one, Oscar Wilde’s point about disobedience and rebellion being the source of all social progress seems irrefutable. For another, let not the stifling, anxiously conformist, social context of the times be forgotten, the post-war petty-bourgeois cages of everyday life that cramped and oppressed our youthful libidos and which it seemed our social prerogative to question and break open.

As writer Peter Schneider cogently explained the, initially very effective, direct action strategy of ‘limited rule-breaking’ (begrenzte Regelverletzung) at the time:

We have rationally and factually informed about the war in Vietnam although we have experienced that we can quote the most unimaginable details of American strategy in Vietnam without awakening the imagination of our neighbours, but that we just have to walk over grass that we are not supposed to walk over and there is an honest, general and ongoing outbreak of sheer horror (…) So we had the idea that we first had to destroy the grass before we could destroy the lies about Vietnam….

There was, for perhaps a year or so in 1968/69 , the strangest subtle sense that anything was possible, that society might radically change for the better, that the horizon of the immediate future was not just business as usual and more of the same but, in principle, radically open, unbounded. This was the case although the radical students and youth were always of course a minority of their generation, the creative ferment, no more, no less. There was definitely an indefinable excitement in the air, a sense of the ‘living’ rather than merely ‘existing’, the sense that Oscar Wilde saw as defining a post-capitalist future. With imagination au pouvoir, another world indeed seemed possible. Although the word was not explicitly used at the time, although the feeling was not manifestly conscious, it was, in retrospect, a time of great hope.

All this, all this fire, all this hope, is ‘in the air’ for you, in both senses of subtly present and, mostly, practically absent. Munich is not Berlin, Paris, London or Berkeley. You have still to find real friends, a lover. Amalienstrasse, Schellingstrasse, Türkenstrasse, Amalienstrasse defines your daily walk around your bricked-up little world thirsting for expansion, for some ‘other’, some unknown, sometimes fleetingly half-imagined, a dark long-haired, -necked, -tongued, -fingered and -legged ‘Beatrice’ with the deep dark eyes of ‘The Other’. A muse. As Liberty perhaps.

An die Freiheit

komm mal runter,
Freiheit, von der Barrikade
knüpf zu das Hemd
die Kameras gieren und
die Kleine lehnt ab
meine Flasche

To Liberty

Come down, Liberty,
from the barricades
button your blouse
cameras lecher and
the little one just
won’t take my bottle

However, you are far from any barricades, as a French movie title of the time puts it, ‘Loin de Vietnam’. In the summer of 68 you hitchhike alone around Britain from youth hostel to youth hostel. Nineteen, your first lone adventure. You read Plato’s Symposium in London’s St James Park and Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot in the youth hostel in Edinburgh. But still no magic ‘Beatrice’ appears, there is no mystical, erotic completion of the fragmented, you find no symposion of the like-minded, you ride no one’s fine chariot. You wanted to do the safely ‘Kerouacian’, ‘on the road’ thing, have Zen-like ‘epiphanies’ walking along quiet and hedge-rowed English country lanes, taste sweet solitude over warm English beer. Instead, you find your mind usually chatters away the here and now and worries ahead about the next meal and a bed for the night. Your loneliness at times has a bitter-sweet, almost surreal quality: enjoying an English breakfast of bacon and eggs and a cup of tea in a working man’s café or among the black rocks by the raging sea at Land’s End where you photograph your own foot held up against the sky. You long to fly but you are merely plodding.

Trying to leap out of this aloneness, still a virgin, you try to make some Australian girl you happen to meet in London. Unsuccessful, you spend the night alone, hot, cold and uncomfortable on her bed-sit sofa. In the grey morning on the spur of the moment you decide to go out to buy her flowers, return, are quietly shocked by the stark reality of her un-made-up morning face, hand over the flowers and leave. Outside a large street poster advertises the latest Rolling Stones LP. The closest you perhaps come to some ‘epiphany’ is a large black man on Camden High Street, shuffling along the grimy footpath barefoot, knowingly smiling and sardonically humming ‘civiliza-shun, civiliza-shun….’ to himself.

No epiphany, but insights there are, also related to ‘civilisation’. In London you buy and read a little red paperback copy of best-selling One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, your first introduction to contemporary critical social theory and the main philosopher of the international student revolt, next to Walter Benjamin the most activist representative of the first generation of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm). You’re not sure whether to hide the red cover while reading or, in an off-handed narcissism, display it as a fashion accessory signalling your belonging to the critical intelligentsia.

Marcuse’s core thesis is that of the successful integration and pacification of all systemic opposition, radical dissent and the working class itself. Capitalism has won out in the form of the ultimately repressive, or even subtly totalitarian (‘one-dimensional’), nature of affluent industrial society and its successful inculcation of consumerist ‘false needs’ in its subjects. This seems to tally with empirical reality as you perceive it and thus strikes deep chords. In contrast to Old Left economic and class struggle rhetoric and the hollow triumphalism of its musty belief in some imaginary working class, Marcuse’s perspectives seem to acknowledge the deep historical failure of the Old Left and the Russian Revolution. At the same time, he seems to succinctly express the difficult but exciting nexus of social liberation and necessary self-liberation that our generation is beginning to explore. This seems to succinctly define the historically new dimension of our ‘politics of 68’, the refreshing ‘subjectivism’ that may be one of the key distinguishing features of the New Left over the traditional power politics and moribund economism of the Old:

Thus the question must once again be faced: how can the administered individuals ‒ who have made their mutilation into their own liberties and satisfactions, and thus reproduced it on an enlarged scale – liberate themselves from themselves as well as from their masters? How is even thinkable that the vicious circle be broken?

In the summer of 68 the Soviet army invades and occupies Czechoslovakia and eradicates Dubcek’s attempt at a liberalised ‘communism’ or ‘socialism with a human face’. I am sitting in a café in Theatinerstrasse with a Munich girl from the Critical Society whom I don’t even really like and with whom I have not, despite ludicrous, fully clothed attempts, succeeded in losing my virginity, and now and again stealing glances of TV images of tanks occupying Prague reflected in the window from a shop window across the street. Flirting and bored eyes creating and avoiding images, reflections of reflections of crafted media images over-layering personal eye transactions, baring my chest to no-one as just a little over the border to the east brave people bare their chests to Soviet tanks. I buy a large paper Czech flag from a lone student’s stall between the neo-classical columns of Hitler’s Haus der Kunst and hang it over my desk in solidarity. My first political poster. No words, no idols. It is the first and last time a national flag means anything at all to me.


Steine, verhangener Himmel Abend
nachrichten Welt
fluss lautloser
vor Hausfrauen mit Besen


stones, clouded sky evening
news world
stream soundless
housewives with brooms

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 29, 2012.

6 Responses to “1968, or: The Virtues of Disobedience 2”

  1. Hi Peter,

    Thanks again for a wonderful post – so interesting; so inspiring. But I wonder, why do you think the 68 revolution failed? You description convey’s a joyful, exciting time, when the impossible suddenly seemed possible, and ordinary people started to imagine alternatives. Even if you were only a minority, why didn’t these attractive ideas spread? Was it, simply, as Marcuse argued, that consumer ‘citizens’ had been bought off? We need to know the answer to this, to inform our contemporary struggles for radical change (sorry I have not read enough about 68!)

    I still have hope that radical change is possible. Acieving such change is now, I believe, a survival imperative, so we must work hard for it even if things seem bleak. Thanks for describing a time when, even if for only a brief moment, real change seemed possible.


    • Hi Johnny, and many thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions. Like you, I also believe that radical, systemic change is necessary if we are going to survive into a livable futture on a functioning planet. We’re all doing what we can, but we seem to be very very few. Yet reality is inherently surprising, and in the 50s the 60s/70s would not have been considered possible, just as noone would have thought ‘communist’ totalitarianism could have fallen almost bloodlessly almost overnight even five years before it did so. As to why ‘the 68 revolution’ failed, I’d say it’s wrong to call it a revolution, because it wasn’t, although some aspects of it were something like a cultural revolution of sorts. I’ll have something to say about its psychological shadow sides in a further essay. At root, I guess my current working hypothesis is that humanity seen as a whole is not yet mentally and spiritually ready for radically democratic self-management, but we can all work to perhaps plant the seeds and prepare the ground for such a future ‘good society’, as well as learn from and enjoy the the odd attempts that are made by self-active, critical, humanly flawed but wonderful minorities throughout history now and again. Glad you enjoyed this essay.

  2. This is wonderful writing and takes me back to equally formative moments in my own life. I was still a highschool student in 68 living just outside of San Francisco and so very caught up in hippie culture and summer of love, psychedelics, while being politically radicalized through opposition to the war. I started reading Marcuse but knew nothing of the Paris slogans or Situationists till much later. I then traveled around Europe for four years to stay out of the draft, living much of the time in Wiesbaden (71-75)

    My explanation of why it was just a moment and not a revolution was that the counter-cultural expression ” tune in-drop out” was taken to mean become autonomous, start a commune and escape the responsibility of developing theory or action in the social sphere. Those experiments among the chickens and gardens mostly failed and the ruling class quickly absorbed counter-culturalism into it’s marketing schemes.(very short, simplistic version!)

    I see that happening once more in regard to climate change, people wishing to garden their way out of the crisis, afraid to confront power, and “green capitalism” absorbing all the progressive energy.

    By the way, this is Dave Jones from IOPS Earth project. Great blog, thanks.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dave and good to see ya here too. Wow, you were in Wiesbaden 71-75 and I was just down the Autobahn in Frankfurt (71-76, then 76-87 Hofheim am Taunus, then Australia). Could have seen each other at some demo or meeeting, who knows? Kleine Welt, nicht wahr?

      Don’t see personal change/gardening/permaculture etc and confronting power as either/or but as both/and. Either one on its own seems naive and wrong. I’ve written quite a bit here on why green lifestyles or changing lightbulbs don’t make it. Equally, I guess I don’t really believe politicos who don’t want to plant trees, grow some of their own food, make some concrete, practical, constructive difference socially or ecologically.

  3. Thanks Peter and Dave for comments. I am still thinking hard about the whole transition/strategy question, but Trainer is one who says we shouldn’t try to ‘confront power’ and, argues, that instead that we should just ‘ignore capitalism to death.’ In other words, start building localised co-operative economies (obviously tiny – maybe just a community garden – at first) in the towns and suburbs where we live, so that we can increasingly rely on it, rather than their consumer products. Trainer thinks aiming to take state power is a waste of time because a) the main problem is the dominant ideology and b) the state can’t organise those local economies to run well. That said, Saral Sarkar (and many others) disagree and argue that taking state power (democratically) will be essential for eco-socialism (or whatever good term you want to call it). Anyways, at this stage, there is probably no ‘right’ answer and us few radicals just gotta do what we can, in whatever fields we have access to, to raise awareness etc…

    • Hi Jonathan and again thanks for your comments. Seems your last sentences answer your own questions, and I’d agree with them: (a) acting less a question of hope and more one of a simple moral imperative, and (b) probably no ‘right’ answer but just doin’ what we gotta do wherever we can. I’ve known Ted for years, and been a great fan. Ted wrote ‘why permaculture is not enough’ back in the 80s. To my knowledge nowhere has there been any ‘local development coop’, not to mention any locally self-reliant economy built, in any affluent country by local people, nor any Transition ‘energy descent plan’ for their area made by the locally self-active citizenry themselves. A few community gardens, yes, a couple of LETS or local currency schemes etc etc. Nothing against these, good little things, but avoiding the big pic of confronting power, social inequality and keeping fossil fuels in the ground, i.e. any thinking about systemic social and economic change. Vice versa, focussing on the state ain’t the anarchist way at all, but confronting power certainly is. On the other hand, too much politicising without any concrete practical change, prefigurative models and self-change seems wrong too, another avoidance. So seems we need all of this, not just one-sided stuff? Personally I usually find myself between most stools, and dislike rigid camps and memes of any kind.

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