Photographer Harry Benson called 1968 "the year America had a nervous breakdown." There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, protesters clubbed at the Democratic National Convention and a civil rights movement that exploded into marches against the Vietnam War.
Book Excerpt: '1968'
by Richard Vinen
This book is about ‘68’, by which I mean the radical movements and rebellion of the late 1960s and early 70s, rather than about the year 1968. 68 is both ubiquitous and remote. The songs of the era can be heard playing in the background at supermarkets, the slogans pop up in advertisements and yet the militants of the late 1960s and early 70s are now past retirement age: pensions are a frequent concern among those who spent years outside the conventional economic system. The ‘veterans’ (a term that no longer seems as ironical as it once did) are painfully conscious of how the world has changed. Casting his 2012 film on 68, Après Mai, Olivier Assayas was struck by the fact that young actors were more interested in the clothes than the politics. Those undergoing his screen tests were mainly united by a common enthusiasm for hair gel.
Whole mountain ranges have disappeared from the political landscape. The image of Chairman Mao is now mainly diffused on banknotes. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an earthquake for orthodox Communists but also for the Trotskyist factions that distinguished themselves from each other by the different grounds on which they denounced the USSR. The kind of working class that once interested parts of the student left has changed beyond recognition. Daniel Rondeau, revisiting his Maoist past in the 1980s, met an old friend who said that returning to Paris in the mid-1970s, after their political group had dissolved itself, felt like coming to a ‘museum’. Rondeau himself went back to Lorraine, the industrial area in which he had gone to work as a political missionary in the early 1970s, but it was unrecognizable. The factories had all been dynamited. Anyone visiting the University of Kent near Canterbury in England will still see a university of the 1960s, complete with a college named after Keynes, but who now would believe that there were once coal mines in the English home counties and that the Kent miners were particularly radical in the strikes of the early 1970s?
Sometimes the period from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s seems like a dream, or nightmare, from which the participants eventually woke up. Eleanor Stein was born in 1946. She was the daughter of Communists and her parents were under FBI surveillance from the early 1940s, but the style of her early life was relatively conventional. When she married Jonah Raskin in 1964, he wore a suit and the couple twisted on the dance floor as the band mangled a Beatles song. Five years later, Eleanor was photographed with an Afro haircut giving a clenched fist salute. Five years further on, Jonah Raskin did not even know where his wife was. Their marriage had been pulled apart by the cross currents of sexual and political liberation. She was on the run with the Weather Underground – holed up in New York apartments, living on rice and a Vietnamese fish sauce that radicals affected to like. She had an affair with Jeff Jones but broke up with him and gave birth to their son Thai – named after a Viet-cong leader – on her own. However, by the time the FBI tracked them down in 1981, Jeff Jones and Eleanor were back together – living under false names but raising their child in the way that a young couple of fifteen years earlier might have regarded as normal. When Eleanor got out of prison, she went back to law school and became an adjunct judge specializing in administrative law.
This book is an attempt to reconstruct the world that came and, largely, went in the late 1960s and early 70s. Defining ‘68’ is difficult and the next chapter is devoted to the various ways in which one might do this. It would be useful, however, to begin with some simple points. First, I have distinguished between ‘1968’, by which I mean a single eventful year, and ‘68’ or ‘the long 68’, by which I mean the variety of movements that became associated with, and sometimes reached their climax in, 1968 but that cannot be understood with exclusive reference to that year. In chronological terms, I have not set precise frontiers. Most of my account concerns events in the late 1960s and early 70s but I have sometimes gone back further in time, especially with regard to America. As for when 68 ends, in the obvious sense that many who were most active in it are still alive, and that a small but significant minority of them reached the apogee of their influence around the end of the twentieth century, 68 goes on for several decades.
Excerpted from the book 1968: RADICAL PROTEST AND ITS ENEMIES by Richard Vinen. Copyright © 2018 by Richard Vinen. Republished with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
This segment aired on July 17, 2018.