Liberation movements 50 years on: Has the spirit of ’68 been lost?

Caitlin Logan

Journalist Caitlin Logan explores the challenges and opportunities for social equalities movements today in the context of the legacy of ’68  

“THERE’S NO doubt that ’68 and the political generation before and after that was a very important moment in a lot of countries, setting up political struggles we are left with today. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for that time.”

Dr Catherine Eschle, a senior politics lecturer at Strathclyde University, has spent her career researching social movements in the context of international relations and globalisation, with a particular focus on feminist theory and practice.

While recognising the pivotal impact of ’68 and the surrounding social movements, Eschle warns of a “level of nostalgia” in looking backwards, which, if not combined with a strong sense of the activity taking place today, may well prevent us from understanding the value of movements in the present. 

The focal point of ‘1968’ – when a popular revolt took place in Paris and sparked protests around the world – has come to symbolise a period in history, more accurately spanning a decade, in which a myriad of interconnected movements for social change emerged, thrived and – perhaps most remarkably – achieved tangible results.  

From women’s liberation, to gay liberation, to the civil rights movement, to anti-capitalism, the ideals which underpinned these movements brought about a discernible shift in culture, through which traditional systems were challenged, and the rights and perspectives of marginalised groups were pushed on to the agenda.

Importantly, this era was characterised by an interconnectedness between these different strands, and a sense that by tackling each of these struggles together, the world could be revolutionised. Albeit never a seamless meshing of interests, there were clear links between anti-racist and workers’ rights campaigns through trade unions, between the Gay Liberation Front and Marxist groups, between the women’s movement and broader left wing campaigns.

Black Feminism formed out of the need to address both racism and women’s oppression, and in an oft-forgotten speech, co-founder of the Black Panthers Huey P. Newton said that the organisation should “try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups”.

COMMONSPACE FORUM: 50 years since May ’68 – Is the Left still revolutionary?

Fifty years on, and a raft of equalities legislation later, the impact of the ’68 generation can be felt. But with inequality far from a historical artefact, the structures of capitalism and neoliberalism still dominant, and a rise in the far-right in recent years, those looking back to the period are inclined to ask why progress hasn’t been greater, and whether the spirit of ’68 has been relegated to the past.

“I get that pang in my gut thinking ‘have we not learned from history?’ It definitely feels like that,” says Jemma Tracey, digital media officer for feminist charity The Young Women’s Movement and LGBTQ activist.

Speaking to historians, sociologists and activists of past and present, it becomes apparent that the answers to these questions are as complex and contradictory as the social movements themselves.

Neil Davidson, sociology lecturer at Glasgow University and co-author of No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland argues that, for many of the middle class people involved in ’68 and the surrounding movements, “things worked out quite well as it achieved the things they wanted”.

The result, he suggests, is that this generation has gone on to represent what might be termed “social neoliberalism”. “They embraced the social rhetoric, but held on to the economic model, so it’s still maintaining deep, fundamental inequality. You can see this with the second wave of neoliberals, like Blair, Clinton, Obama, and Macron,” he says.

This, he argues, has been a factor in the growth of the far right: “If you don’t have an answer to how that changes – the capitalist system itself – you look somewhere else, and unscrupulous parties make use of that to get elected and whip up hatred, as we’ve seen in Hungary, the US, and with Ukip here.”

Stephen Ashe, a sociological historian specialising in racism and anti-racism at the University of Manchester, suggests that the nature of “how removed our politics is from people” is also contributing to this problem.

Ashe conducted research in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham where the BNP had a brief rise to power, and found that the party’s efforts to connect with the community were key to its success, and the Labour Party’s success in regaining those community relationships – including working with grassroots anti-racist organisations – was key to the BNP’s downfall.

“These are the lessons we can learn from on a bigger scale,” Ashe argues.

READ MORE: Dreams in place of our slow-motion nightmares: Why May ’68 still matters

Vitally, Ashe warns against notions of an opposition between “the politics of identity and politics of redistribution”, describing this as “a false dichotomy”, given that the two facets are so firmly intermeshed. “We can’t talk about racism without talking about class, and we can’t talk about class without talking about gender,” he explains.

Dr Matthew Waites of the University of Glasgow, a senior lecturer and researcher in human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity in international contexts explains that, contrary to popular conceptions of LGBTQ issues as distinct from economic ones, the two can go hand in hand. “Trans people face higher levels of unemployment and mental health issues – economic inequalities are very interconnected with trans people’s lives,” he says.

In fact, Jemma Tracey argues that the rhetoric of opposition tends to be used by the right to foster division and distract from the real issues. “By targeting specific groups, like migrants or people on benefits, it carries on infighting instead of holding governments and the people in power to account,” she says.

This, Tracey adds, is indicative of a rise in “individualism”, whereby people are encouraged to think only of their own circumstances rather than the collective.

There is also a sense that “backlash” is a sign of progress in itself, as there is no conservative reaction without an initial forward motion.

“At any point in history when a woman speaks out on something, she has been ridiculed. You hear this from speaking to women, even those who aren’t directly involved in politics,” says Sarah Browne, author of The Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland and formerly the project coordinator of Scottish Women’s Aid’s ‘Speaking Out’ heritage project.

“It’s obvious why there’s a backlash – equality is a radical notion for some people, because it’s about changing things, and there likely will continue to be a backlash in the future,” she adds.

READ MORE: Scotland and 1968: Did a world in revolt pass us by?

Tim Hopkins, director of LGBTI rights charity Equality Network, who has been involved in equalities campaigns since the 1980s, remarks that “whenever anything big happens in the way of progress, there is a backlash”. Hopkins recalls that after a period of significant progress in LGB rights, sparked by the activism of the 1960s and 70s, there was a major pushback under prime minister Margaret Thatcher, further fuelled by the Aids epidemic which gave Conservatives “more excuse” to take this negative approach.

Indeed, Sarah Browne also refers to the 1980s as a period “hostile to anything progressive”, while Dr Catherine Eschle suggests that many of the gains of the 1960s and 70s “have been under sustained attack since the late 1970s”.

Social Attitudes Surveys on same-sex relationships saw increasingly negative attitudes from 1983-87, and 1988 saw the introduction of Section 28 which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. Similar waves of opposition have emerged over the years which, Hopkins says, “follow a similar pattern” in response to a forward motion towards progressive outcomes. “The biggest in recent years is around trans people and gender recognition,” he adds.

Within this ever-changing, yet consistently fraught social and political context, almost all of those who contributed to this article warn against direct comparisons between progressive movements of past and present – not least because neither period has been homogenous or neatly cohesive.

Dr Esther Breitenbach, a feminist historian at the University of Edinburgh explains that many of the issues being discussed today with regards to social movements existed in the 1960s and 70s.

“The women’s liberation movement was very diverse and there were certainly tensions, in particular around class, sexuality and separatism, and race. In London in particular, race was a real flash point,” she says.

Dr Matthew Waites explains that while the international movement of the Gay Liberation Front, which established a branch in London in 1970, was closely linked with radical politics, this co-existed alongside the more reformist, privacy-focussed Homosexual Law Reform Society, which played a pivotal role in securing the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967. Ultimately, the Gay Liberation Front in London ceased to exist in 1974 due to internal disagreements.

In the same vein, Waites says, LGBTQ politics today is “very diverse”. “There are very radical strands of it: for example, there are anarchist strands, and some trans politics at the moment is very radicalised,” he explains.

READ MORE: ‘Wild, heroic, brilliantly imaginative’: How students nearly inspired a revolution in May ’68

Differing perspectives on the nature and purpose of Pride marches, which have come to the fore in recent years with the formulation of Free Pride – an explicitly anti-capitalist, alternative Pride event – in Scotland, underline the political diversity of the movement.

Jemma Tracey explains: “There’s huge discussion about including more corporate organisations and the police in Pride marches. I think it’s pink-washing to involve corporations representing capitalist power structures and in particular having the police lead the Pride march [which happened in Glasgow last year] considering the history of police violence faced by LGBTQ people.”

Similarly, academics and activists alike were keen to stress that the important work taking place today should not be erased, with an understanding that all movements are relevant to their time and place.

“There is an argument in feminist discourse today that feminism is not only a shadow of its former self, but that it has been co-opted and used to prop up the neoliberal system,” Dr Eschle states. “I think the people arguing that, and people involved in certain types of politics, are not necessarily aware of the diverse and interesting work that is happening on the ground.”

Eschle has taught a class in Feminism and Politics for a number of years now, and says has observed a marked shift in awareness of the issues. “I used to begin the class by asking students to discuss the question ‘is feminism dead?’. Now I ask ‘has feminism been co-opted?’, because it has become pretty hard to argue that feminism is dead.

“Most students now are pretty switched on to feminism, for example through the Me Too movement.”

Dr Breitenbach says she shares this sense of optimism and perceives “a lot of energy and radicalism around right now”. Breitenbach was also keen to note that many of those involved in the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s continue to contribute to the feminist movement today through, for example, the violence against women organisations which emerged as a result of that period of activism.

For Breitenbach and fellow feminist historian Sarah Browne, the key to progress will be intergenerational conversations. “Ideas develop, but you have to look back to the past to understand where we’ve come from, and where we are,” Browne says.

READ MORE: 1968: How the Troubles still defines Northern Ireland 50 years after it began

Ashe adds that the emergence of various progressive groups and campaigns in recent years “should give us hope”, but stresses that progress will take “a lot of hard work” and direct engagement with communities.

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will,” he says, echoing the words of the late Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci.

Even Davidson, who emphasises the absence of a strong challenge to economic and political structures over the past few decades, is encouraged by the recent surge in mass protests, for example around women’s rights and gun control in America, and by the surge in support for the political left in the form of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Bernie Sanders in the US. Indeed, he says, we may well soon see an “explosion” like ’68, if activists can be awake to the developments and organise around them effectively.

Dr Eschle and Waites caution against the idea of a “revolution”, per se.

“I don’t subscribe to the revolutionary model as I think politics is more important and complicated than that,” Eschle says, arguing that setting up an opposition between revolution and reform tends to push marginalised struggles “out of the picture”.

“Revolutions can disrupt the social order, but that can create openings for the concentration of power in a few people’s hands, and minorities tend to fare badly in that situation”, Waites adds.

What is clear is that many of the debates, dilemmas and even divisions of the social movements of ‘68 continue to exist today, but nonetheless these movements are alive and well and facing up to the hard questions of their past and future.  

Perhaps Ashe articulates it best when, resisting linear comparisons, he says: “The past shapes the present, but it doesn’t determine it.”

Picture courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

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