The events of 1968 are intimately connected to the student and worker protests in France in May of that year. But the 1968 movement had greater long-term impact elsewhere, notably in Italy and the United States, argues Sidney Tarrow.
French intellectuals of a certain age tend to divide their lives into two parts – ‘before May’ and ‘after May’. Philosopher Jacques Rancière defined May 1968 as a political moment which ‘signals the very essence of politics.’ Twenty years later, Jacques Capdeveille and René Mouriaux saw these ‘events’ as ‘L’entre-deux de la modernité.’ But what does 1968 mean? Zhou Enlai, when he was asked a few years after 1968 about the French Revolution, mistakenly thought was he was being queried about 1968, and responded: ‘It is too soon to tell!’ Observers continue to puzzle over it: three decades later, an American author, Kristin Ross, threw up her hands, writing that ‘Un discours a été produit, certes, mais avec pour conséquence de liquider (pour reprendre une formule de l’époque), d’effacer ou, au mieux, de brouiller l’histoire de Mai 68.’
Americans have a mixed memory of 1968 but that year retains a certain magic in this country: search for ‘1968’ in Google and you will find over 40 million links. The year began with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, leading to widespread race riots, followed by the clash between anti-war protesters and the Chicago police at the Democratic party convention. Those events, and the war over which the 1968 presidential election was fought, split that party, leading to the election of Richard Nixon.
As for Italy, an echo of the French May remains here too. Though contestation began the year before and continued long afterward (in a 1981 article, political scientist Michele Salvati referred to Italy’s as a ‘sliding May’1), many Italians still refer to militants of that period as ‘sessantottini.’ Google.it produces only 264,000 results for 1968 in Italy – far less than in France or the United States – but ‘il sesssantotto’ remains a vivid memory for the generation that came of age in the 1960s. The year was marked by the notorious ‘battaglia di Valle Giulia’ in Rome in March, when the police drove into an assembly of protesting students, and by highly visible student protests in Pisa, Milan and Trento.
In all three countries, each decade since 1968 has produced mountains of books claiming to decipher its meaning. But these works tell us more about the political and cultural conditions at the time of writing than about the year being commemorated. It is only by looking at how the ‘seed’ that was planted by 1968 grew that we can judge whether that year constituted a true historical turning point, or was merely a shock whose influence declined soon afterwards. Using the metaphor suggested by the title of this article: when a ‘seed’ is planted by a political shock, its ‘harvest’ may be either rich or poor. Much depends on the nature of the soil in which it is planted, on the climatic conditions during which it grows, and by its cultivation within the country’s institutions.
As in 1848, France set the terms for the memory of 1968. Not only were the events that paralyzed the country concentrated into a few weeks; they spread like wildfire across the territory, investing social and professional groups who are seldom seen in the streets as well as ‘the usual suspects’ of students and workers. May paralyzed the French economy; it produced a major improvement in the wages of lower-paid workers and to a major university reform; it led the towering founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, to seek the support of the army; and it was largely responsible for his resignation the following year, following an ill-judged referendum that he lost.
But the intensity of a shock does not automatically translate into a long-term historical turning point... read more: