The Lessons of 1968

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Although the usual custom is to celebrate 50-year and not 40-year anniversaries, 1968 was such an important year that it would be a shame to postpone discussing it for another decade. And it is not surprising that throughout 2008, there will be many conferences and seminars that will analyze the revolutionary events of that year.

1968 was truly a momentous year. Polish students staged protests, and the communist intellectuals of Czechoslovakia, who led the reform movement called the Prague Spring, attempted to build "socialism with a human face." With U.S. forces bogged down in the Vietnam War, Americans began to realize that the military and political objectives in Southeast Asia would never be achieved. Speeches by radical youth had far-reaching effect, and anti-war demonstrations gained increasing force with each day.

In addition, General Juan Velasco Alvarado came to power in Peru. Although the reforms he initiated did not go beyond the social sphere, they were perceived as revolutionary against the backdrop of Latin America's conservative politics of the time. The Peruvian experiment has been forgotten for the large part, although Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, interestingly enough, refers to it from time to time.

The demonstrations by Parisian students in May were the climax of 1968. We saw the unarmed uprising with its barricade of the Sorbonne, revolutionary banners in the Latin Quarter and President Charles de Gaulle's hasty exodus from the city. These events were romanticized and turned into legends, and they inspired left-wing movements for decades to come. The cultural innovations of 1968 later became the norm of the "counterculture" movement, and the ideas of the new left were reflected in films, music and literature.

Unfortunately, the political outcome of this remarkable year turned out to be less substantial than might have been expected, given the scope of events of that period. A column of Soviet tanks brought the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia to an abrupt halt. Afterward, the East European intelligentsia, which had so enthusiastically supported the communist reformers, quickly switched its political views. Among other things, it found a new hero in Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who persecuted all supporters of socialism -- whether it had "a human face" or not.

People who had glorified the student revolts in France now returned to their bourgeois lives. They were determined to pursue new careers, armed with new ideals. Many became government deputies, ministers and university professors. Thirty years later, a new generation started the next wave of rebellion -- this time, it was aimed at those who led the 1968 revolutionary movements.

Commercial interests and marketing created a popular "culture of protest." The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were classic examples of this. Twenty years later, we saw the emergence of MTV, which would not have been possible without the youth uprising of 1968.

Europe not only survived the 1968 revolutions, it walked away from it in a much stronger position. It was able to reform itself fundamentally thanks to the infusion of new ideas and novel approaches to old problems. But if you look at today's world from the point of view of the 1968 protesters, it would be hard to imagine anything more at odds with their original hopes and expectations.

Does that necessarily mean that the events of 1968 hold no value or meaning for us today? No -- the valuable experiences that the world gained from 1968 serves as a lesson to which we will return time and time again. As Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher of the French Resistance, once said in an interview, "The progress of mankind moves forward from defeat to defeat."

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.