Forty years on, it seems everyone these days has an opinion on May 1968 — on its causes, what it meant at the time, what it’s legacy is, etc. — with more essays appearing each day. I was tempted to write a recent Maclean’s column on the topic but was (wisely, very wisely) waved off by my excellent editor, Sarmishta Subramanian.
For the record, I see the inherent promise of 1968 as being almost entirely fulfilled, through an extremely useful division social labour. On the one hand, the aestheticization of protest that found its expression in the dadaist/situationist/happenings has been reduced to what it always was, namely, kids fighting for their right to party. It has been stripped of any political implication whatsoever, and manifests itself in the inert and wholly idiotic pillow fights and flash mobs and silent dances and all the other distractions of contemporary hipsterdom, as celebrated by the Torontoist and the good folks at BoingBoing. On the other hand, the genuine political energies of the day have finally been effectively channeled into the appropriate institutions of change (by, e.g., men like Bernard Kouchner, Daniel Cohn-Bendit).
All in all, a very happy result: The culture has gone its way, politics the other, and the original theory that mistook the first for the second has been exposed as a myth.
On my desk today landed the latest issue of Dissent, which features a round-table discussion (featuring Michael Walzer, Marshall Berman, and other big hitters) on the Lessons Learned from 1968. I took it home, figuring I was professionally obliged to read it. Then I happened across this essay by Rachel Donadio from yesterday’s NYTimes, arguing that 1958 was arguably the more important year, not least because it was the moment when the nascent hippies joined forces with the cultural elitists and agreed to hate the masses. It’s a nice short essay, a useful reminder that most of the important theoretical developments that gave rise to what we call “the sixties” actually happened a decade or two earlier.