There’s little that academia loves more than an anniversary. Pull the annals for the common fractions of any centennial, and you’ll find a plethora of essays, conferences, journal articles, and roundtables dedicated to reflections on the significance of that historic moment. The year 1968 is no exception, and the fiftieth anniversary of this momentous date did not pass by without numerous commemorations, reminiscences, and reflections.1 This kind of historical remembrance is more than thematic opportunism or melancholic nostalgia, however. The fiftieth anniversary of 1968 presented a timely opportunity to revive discussions of this rich and complex period of global transformation and to seriously reconsider how we understand its scope and significance, as well as its legacies and relevance for the Left today. Rather than allowing this reflection to lapse until the next major anniversary, this issue offers a more sustained interrogation of the questions raised by the semicentennial through wrestling with the overlooked, divergent, and sometimes contradictory legacies of what has been called the long 1968 or, more broadly, the long 1960s.
As evidence of the contested meaning of 1968, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (1990: 34–38) identify eight categories of historical interpretation of the period that range from conspiracy to adolescent rebellion to a crisis of civilization. By the twentieth anniversary, interpretations highlighting hedonistic excess had come to dominate, working, as Peter Foot (1988) argues, to reduce the period to one of youthful antiauthoritarian intemperance. Thus, as the cultural excesses of the youth movements—hippie fashions, avant-garde art, drugs, free love, esoteric spiritualism—came to dominate the popular imagination, any understanding of the radicalism of these cultural forms was obscured. Thus, the political and economic foundations of the long 1968—its sophisticated critiques of capitalism, Soviet-style communism, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and racism—were all but erased. These caricatures of 1968, rehearsed with each anniversary, have come to overtake what the long 1960s actually signify: nearly two decades of struggle that transformed the postwar global order. Commencing in the 1950s with events like the Cuban revolution, the Battle of Algiers, and the Montgomery bus boycotts, the long 1960s included not only students, but also Black Power, gay liberation, and workers, women’s, and peasant movements that endured through the 1970s across the globe (Denning 2004: 8). The mainstream focus on the counterculture also obscures what was a genuine cultural revolution in which antiauthoritarian, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist politics were used to critique everyday life while simultaneously creating profoundly new epistemologies.
Given that the narrative of failure cast its shadow over 1968 almost as soon as the decade ended, critics and scholars have found themselves in the position of fighting to reclaim the revolutionary aims and transformative energies of the long 1960s. Perhaps the first major attempt to reassert the radicalism of the period, however, is the Social Text special issue, “The Sixties without Apology,” which presented the decade as a “great historical upsurge” in which “the global domination of capital was challenged from within on a more serious scale than ever before” (Sayres et al. 1984: 2, 7). For the editors, this reassertion responded to the New Right’s increasingly powerful grip on culture and their erasure of political and economic radicalisms from historical consciousness, thus effectively burying that which had once threatened such control. Fifty years later, we find ourselves in an eerily similar epoch of conservative rebirth in which the same right-wing touchstones that the Social Text editors saw themselves responding to have come to once again dominate the political and cultural landscape,2 while the neoliberal agenda set in play during Ronald Reagan’s administration has come home to roost with the current corporate presidency, the ascendency of finance capitalism, and the revival of white ethnonationalism. Thus current right-wing campaigns rest on once again burying the 1960s to assert their hegemonic authority. Witness the media response to the physical attack on Silvio Berlusconi in 2009 when Il giornale attempted to link the mentally ill suspect to the cattivi maestri to curry favor with the beleaguered prime minister (Samuel 2007), or Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments during his 2007 presidential campaign when he stated that les soixante-huitards were the root cause of all of France’s current ills, and the only way forward was to “liquidat[e] once and for all” the legacy of 1968 (Hooper 2009). Once again, it seems, any challenge to the current conservative hegemony rests, at least in part, on reviving the long 1968 as a period of radical anticapitalist, anti-imperial, and antiauthoritarian revolt.
Running across all the contributions to this issue, then, is a shared commitment to contesting historical revisionism that would reduce the 1960s to a self-indulgent adolescent rebellion whose only legacy has been to produce the “snowflake generation.” Nor is the issue invested in affirming the narrative of failure that has come to dominate leftist accounts of 1968, mummifying it as a lost moment that can only be consumed nostalgically as the root of Wendy Brown’s left melancholia. Rather, it takes up the projects of 1968 radicalism as genuine and profound challenges to the economic, political, social, and cultural structures of the time that have had significant and lasting impacts on contemporary thought and experience. Particularly, it focuses on genealogies that examine the coconstitution of thought and struggle, teasing out the untapped possibilities of 1968’s legacy. As such, this special issue revisits not only how the histories and geographies of 1968 are framed and remembered by scholars but also how legacies of critical thought that survive from this era impact our orientation to the world today.
This is not, however, to uncritically celebrate the long 1968 or to ignore its limitations or aporias. Indeed, as several essays in this issue make clear, both the philosophy and praxis of 1968 suffered for their inadequacies, while their progressive ends have fallen to the inevitable forces of co-optation and deradicalization that accompany their institutionalization. As such, following Kristen Ross (2002), we are not necessarily concerned with the “lessons” of 1968, to revive its politics wholesale or elucidate its failures to map out a contemporary radical agenda. Rather, this issue reopens the discussion around 1968 to present new arguments concerning its historical significance and cultural and epistemological legacies from the vantage point of contemporary politics. As such, it examines the manifold and contradictory ways that 1968 continues to shape political, cultural, and social discourse. To this end, “Legacies of ’68: Histories, Geographies, Epistemologies” takes up two interrelated sets of questions concerning the memory and legacy of 1968:
Histories and Geographies: What does 1968 typically refer to as a periodizing term? What is at stake in our historiographic approaches to its periodization? What movements, histories, and philosophies have been left out of this history? What are the links between the various global movements of the long 1968 that have been occluded by dominant historical accounts? What does it mean to think 1968 transnationally or globally? How does this alter our understanding of 1968 and its historical, cultural, and political significance?
Epistemologies and Legacies: How did the politics and philosophies of 1968 shape the methodologies of critical inquiry? How do the epistemological frameworks of the period continue to impact contemporary cultural analysis? What’s at stake in the continued comparison to 1968 for contemporary oppositional movements? What lines can we draw between 1968 and our neoliberal present, and what existent lines might be erased? What, if any, relevance does 1968 carry for revolutionary strategy today?
Histories and Geographies
Over the past fifty years, the long 1968 has undergone a series of contractions. What was once a decade-long wave of uprisings and insurgencies the world over has since been reduced to a month of student protests in Paris and New York. In popular culture, the fiftieth anniversary seemed to further consolidate this version of 1968 with remembrances that atomized moments of upheaval and contained them within discrete historical narratives about events long past.3 Not only are the Third World and the Eastern Bloc most often erased from these histories, but the interconnections between the nationalist liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America, and Indochina; the fight against bureaucratic communism in the Soviet Bloc; and the myriad radical movements that opposed capitalism, authoritarianism, and the military-industrial complex across Western Europe, the United States, and Japan are similarly obscured. Thus what was truly a moment of global revolutionary possibility has since been repackaged as a set of disconnected uprisings.
These atomistic narratives have shaped the legacy of 1968, at times eclipsing its global scope and diminishing its historical significance. Pushing back against this reductive impulse, scholars have traced the global connections between the various national movements that collectively constitute the long 1968. Perhaps the most well-known articulation of this kind of global engagement with the politics of the 1960s is once again found in “The Sixties without Apology.” In his seminal essay for that special issue, Fredric Jameson (1984: 180) claims that the origins of revolution in the West can be traced back to the Third World. Put simply, Jameson argues that this relationship can be seen in the adoption of non-Western revolutionary ideology taken from wars being fought in the Third World.
Thus for the editors of the issue of Social Text in which Jameson’s influential essay appears, the 1960s are defined by a burgeoning global perspective in which the various calls for liberation were “something more than political and economic independence: while stressing international solidarity, [they were] simultaneously a denunciation of homogeneity as such” (Sayres et al. 1984: 7). In this light, the tenets of 1968 take on a fundamentally international dimension that runs through both the proliferation of protests across the globe and the global nature of the systems against which these various rebellions mobilized, while also marking the desire, in the West at least, to find in the Third World other models of social and political organization that would spread revolution in the First.
Building on Jameson’s work, the most recent wave of engagement in the long 1968 expands the global scope of the period by focusing on geographical contexts eclipsed by the typical over emphasis on France and America. Memories of 1968: International Perspectives (Cornils and Waters 2010) engages Mexico alongside discussions of France, Germany, the United States, and Italy; The Third World in the Global 1960s (Christiansen and Scarlett 2013) focuses on student movements in China, India, Brazil, Zimbabwe, (then) Zaire, Indonesia, and Mexico; and 1968: Memories and Legacies of a Global Revolt (Gassert and Klimke 2009) and The Global Imagination of 1968: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Katsiaficas 2018) each have chapters on revolutionary events in over thirty countries. “Legacies of ’68: Histories, Geographies, Epistemologies” continues in this vein by further dislocating the West, even in Western struggles. As such, it attempts to break what the editors of The Long 1968 refer to as the “canonical treatment” of the period that is “quite alien to the spirit of the age” (Sherman et al. 2013: 2).
However, this special issue aims to do more than expand the geographical boundaries of 1968 by including essays on different national contexts as the works above do. Important as this kind of specific nationally bounded analysis is, “Legacies of ’68” is invested in tracing the international connections between these various geographical centers, charting new historiographic connections and alliances as well as mapping the transnational circulation of ideas across the period. To this end, Michael E. Gardiner examines the “politics of boredom” in the long 1960s through a comparative approach that tracks the consequences of the different deployments of the term in France and Italy. Similarly, Isaac Kamola explores how struggles in African universities—particularly Makerere University and the University of Dar es Salaam—allow us to articulate a Third World–centered narrative of international student movements in France and elsewhere. Looking at struggles around internal colonization in the United States, Morgan Adamson also examines how decolonial movements in the Third World inspired the remapping of struggles for racial liberation in the United States, while Eli Meyerhoff charts the influence of liberation struggles in Africa and Asia on the development of the Experimental College and the subsequent Ethnic Studies School and Black Studies Department at San Francisco State. In these and other examples, “Legacies of ’68” takes seriously the influence of Third World politics and ideology on First World rebellion to highlight the fundamental processes of exchange—of philosophies, strategies, figureheads, and materials—that structure the long 1968. As Michel Foucault (1991: 136) himself commented, “It wasn’t May of 68 in France that changed me; it was March of 68 in a third world country.”4 This special issue thus positions the long 1968 as a truly interconnected global web of uprisings, at once foregrounding the connections and exchanges between these movements/moments to affirm the internationalist frameworks that have always been central to leftist revolutionary thinking and are all the more pressing today in the face of finance capitalism and the declining power of the state.
More than just expand the nature of global engagement with the 1960s that the Social Text issue began, “Legacies of ’68” at the same time works to complicate some of the periodizing frameworks that Social Text launched. To do so entails contesting some of the fundamental historiographical narratives that surround 1968, especially those that would paint it as a singular rupture or event. To this end, Evan Calder Williams and Alberto Toscano challenge both predominant historical narratives and Jameson’s periodization by foregrounding the Italian experience of the long 1960s, often referred to as the “creeping May,” which lasted well into the 1970s. Arguing for a more nuanced temporal framework in relation to the Italian case, Williams and Toscano call attention to the political stakes of revisiting accepted historical accounts and attending to the local contexts and themes that run throughout the issue.
Epistemologies and Legacies
While conservative historical narratives have sought to diminish both the geographical scope and revolutionary significance of 1968, the political and academic discourses from which these narratives emerge are themselves, somewhat ironically, rooted in the political upheavals of the long 1960s. Seeing 1968 as more than a series of historical events, this issue is invested in understanding how the 1960s articulated new ways of knowing the world, fundamentally shifting the political inclinations of the postwar global order to contend with emergent subjectivities that arose in and through struggle, what George Katsiaficas (1987: 3) calls the New Left’s “expanded base of revolution.” Arguably, the long 1960s fundamentally enlarged the concept of the political, as well as what constitutes valid academic inquiry. Attending to forms of academic and artistic knowledge production that were forged in this period—including feminist, utopian, Black Power, and Third Worldist—this issue highlights how the 1960s brought into being new categories of political thought that intersected with and disrupted, in important and lasting ways, the traditional categories of marxist critique and that still reverberate today on both the left and the right.
The specter of 1968 continues to haunt not only our political imaginations but also the epistemological frameworks that structure our modes of analysis as thinkers of culture. In fact, the discipline of cultural studies itself is arguably unimaginable without the critiques of culture and the everyday that emerged from 1968 (Denning 2004). The same could be said for affiliated disciplines, including gender studies, ethnic studies, film and media studies, and a host of related interdisciplinary methodologies that have at their roots the social movements of the long 1960s and have transformed the terrain of academic discourse in their wake. 1968 has often been described as a moment that put thought into crisis, a period in which anticolonial, student, Black Power, and women’s movements, among others, challenged unstated assumptions about center and periphery, teleology, truth, power, labor, and subjectivity. Indeed, the cultural turn is fundamentally bound up with the political and social transformations that characterized the decade, while the theoretical discourses of poststructuralism, semiotics, critical race theory, feminist theory, radical historiography, and the political economies of desire that so fundamentally shaped the epistemological frameworks of cultural analysis over the last fifty years owe a debt to the politics and philosophy of a global 1968. Moreover, as these theoretical and critical maneuvers became standard modes of analysis across the political spectrum, the relationship between contemporary modes of inquiry and the politics of 1968 has been lost. Much like its global scope and revolutionary significance, the broader epistemological legacies of 1968 have been occluded.
Thus, while the dominant discourses of the long 1968 may work to diminish its epistemological importance, “Legacies of ’68” highlights how, on a fundamental level, 1968 continues to think through us. To this end, Meyerhoff examines how the Third World students’ strike at San Francisco State College opened up a new orientation toward study, arguing that the student movement’s inclusivity ultimately challenged liberal understandings of education that resonate today, while Kamola shows how African anticolonial movements were crucial to redefining knowledge in the context of higher education and beyond. Similarly, Gardiner’s essay demonstrates how contemporary investigations into the aesthetic and political functions of what Sianne Ngai (2005) terms “ugly feelings” are operative in the revolutionary logics of 1968 via Situationist and autonomist engagements with boredom. Moving in a different direction to highlight the continuing relevance of 1968’s conceptual legacy, several of the essays call for a reexamination of essential texts and concepts from the period, such as Madeline Lane-McKinley’s reevaluation of Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, in which she argues for the persistent value of second-wave feminism beyond its caricatures in both popular culture and academia. At the same time, Adamson revisits the internal colonization thesis so essential to the Third Worldism of the United States to argue that, despite being discounted by scholars in recent decades, it provides a critical political perspective that resonates with contemporary social movements against extractivism and financialization. Through these articles, the issue takes up the recent claims by Couze Venn (2018) regarding the significance of 1968’s intellectual legacy. For Venn, the intellectual and theoretical work that 1968 inspired is one of its principle inheritances, as the diverse range of journals and magazines that it birthed became the principal sites for the development of the major concepts of political and theoretical inquiry that have determined the course of radical thought ever since. Like Venn, we affirm the importance of this history at a time when the very ideas and institutions that such thinking engendered find themselves under attack by the ascendency of the New Right and the neoliberalization of education.
While some of the essays collected here argue for the revitalization of key ideas from 1968 that have fallen out of favor in contemporary critical theory, others challenge the persistence of certain concepts, given the significant economic and political transformations of the last fifty years. Indeed, in the decades since, colonialism has given way to neoimperialism, actually existing communism has been replaced by an even more pervasive and pernicious capitalism, and globalization and neoliberalism have strengthened free market logic to intensify inequality and increase precarity on a global scale. Despite these major shifts, 1968 still looms large in the radical imaginary, remembered at once as both the height and the limit of leftist opposition. Indeed, any subsequent uprising—the Seattle WTO protests, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Nuit Debout—is inevitably compared to the 1960s such that 1968 functions as a nostalgic benchmark against which contemporary anticapitalist movements are measured.5 While the essays that make up this issue are collectively at pains to reject the understanding of 1968 as nothing more than a credulous flash of youthful innocence, at the same time they are wary of nostalgia and oppose reaffirming 1968 as the pinnacle of opposition. Rather, they are invested in critically examining the concepts of 1960s radicalism that continue to dominate the political landscape and evaluating their relevance for contemporary leftist struggle. This critical engagement leads Sarah Hamblin to examine the impact of finance capitalism on the efficacy of montage and its attendant mode of active spectatorship as a radical film aesthetic. Recognizing its centrality to the radical cinema of the long 1960s, Hamblin argues that its political potential is exhausted in the current neoliberal context, thus calling into question its continued status as the exemplar of radical film style. Similarly, while Adamson argues that the concept of the internal colony still maintains some political value today, this rests on the fundamental caveat that any contemporary engagement with the concept must address the elision of the dynamics of settler colonialism that characterized its use in 1960s antiracist activism.
At the same time, this more critical engagement with the legacies of 1968 means unraveling the relationship between the New Left and the New Right to explore how neoliberalism finds its roots in an era marked by the profound opposition to such conservative economic and social politics. Indeed, the New Right consolidated in reaction to the movements of 1968, its rhetoric and analytical frameworks often appropriating the cultural turn, while its tactics borrow from the social movements and counterculture of the long 1960s (Lyons 1996; Turner 2006). As Rebecca Klatch (1999) has shown in her comparison of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Young Americans for Freedom, Reagan-era conservatives came of age during the 1960s too, forming a cultural faction that ossified as the neoliberal counterrevolution took hold. Following this imbrication of the New Right and New Left, Hamblin traces how finance capitalism’s emphasis on risk fundamentally transforms the political function of the interpretative freedom that 1960s political modernist cinema was invested in, rendering its use today a contemporary form of neoliberal pattern hunting, while Quinn Slobodian unpacks the origins of neoliberal conservatism in opposition to the struggles of the 1960s. In his critical genealogy of the Alt Right, Slobodian underscores the ways that 1968 was a time of both revolution and inchoate counterrevolution, examining how the attendant cultural turn shaped the trajectory of neoliberal discourse in the last half century and demonstrating further the impact of the epistemological challenges brought by New Left social movements on the reactionary ideas of the present. While acknowledging the radical legacies of 1968, Hamblin’s and Slobodian’s essays in particular complicate this narrative by addressing the ways its epistemological and tactical impulses have been exhausted, distorted, and co-opted by reactionary forces in the neoliberal era.
Taking up the complicated legacies of 1968, then, and the ways it continues to shape contemporary cultural life and political thought, this special issue foregrounds areas of education, aesthetics, feminism, political economy, critical approaches to race, utopian imaginaries, and political conservatism. Though differing in their object and approach, each of the contributions offers a fresh perspective on long-debated topics that helps us reframe the histories of 1968 and better understand how they continue to shape and are reshaped by the present.
Several recent books take up the long 1968 explicitly, including 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (Vinen 2018), The Global Imagination of 1968: Revolution and Counter Revolution (Katsiaficas 2018), 1968: The Rise and Fall of the New American Revolution (Cottrell and Browne 2018), and the edited collection 1968 and Global Cinema (Gerhardt and Saljoughi 2018). There have also been notable conferences at Stanford University (“Global 1968 in 2018”), Middlebury College (“1968, Fifty Years of Struggles”), Indiana University at Bloomington (“Wounded Galaxies: 1968 Paris, Prague, Chicago”), University of South Carolina (“1968 in Global Perspectives”), University of Notre Dame (“1968 in Europe and Latin America”), Columbia University (“New Perspectives on 1968: Fifty Years after ‘The Revolution’ ”), and Texas A&M (“Global 1968”), not to mention multiple events across Europe and beyond.
The Social Text editors position their reading of the 1960s against “attacks on ‘permissiveness,’ the defense of the old-fashioned nuclear family (‘haven in a heartless world’), the return of ‘excellence’ in the schools (the old structured curriculum and authoritarian teaching), short hair and a general turn away from the cultural ‘styles’ of the 60s, strident antifeminism and anti-gay backlash, the rise of an ‘intellectual’ racism with the new Klan, the almost uncontested acceptance of slogans about ‘fiscal responsibility’ which signify the dismantlement of the welfare state, the financial ‘realism’ brandished in order to bring, by persuasion and menace alike, labor to the appropriate ‘givebacks’ ” (Sayres et al. 1984: 8). All of these things are achingly familiar and arguably more intense in the current tide of intensified neoliberal economics and Alt-Right fascism.
The Jacobin fought against this tendency by dedicating its spring 2018 issue and its online content to an exploration of 1968 as a global phenomenon. This is in sharp contrast, however, to coverage in more mainstream publications like the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR, which all focused solely on the US and French contexts.
Foucault is referring to the Tunisian student protests, strikes, and riots in March–June 1968 that he witnessed while a guest professor at the Tunis Faculty of Letters. However, as several commentators have shown, despite this statement about the centrality of Third World radicalism to the development of his own political thought, little trace of this is found in his writings, which instead tend to privilege a Western perspective (see Lazreg 2017 for a detailed engagement with Foucault’s relationship to non-Western culture and thought).
In his coverage for the Guardian, Pierre Haski (2016) compares the Nuit Debout protestors to the 1968 uprisings; Immanuel Wallerstein (2011) describes the Arab Spring as “the heir of the world-revolution of 1968”; Venn (2018) finds echoes of the “spirit of 68” in Occupy, Podemos, and Black Lives Matter; and Christian Garland (2012: 13) positions the WTO protests in Seattle as part of a “constellation” of moments after 1968 that were nevertheless “animated” by its spirit.