Lessons of History: Politics of pressure that took root in May 1968: David Caute reassesses the impact of the youthful insurrections 25 years ago

'PAPA, what did you do in 1968?' So runs the caption of a celebrated French cartoon.

But what, Papa, was so special about that annus mirabilis? Why, 25 years later, do middle-aged German executives or Brussels Commission functionaries with swelling paunches still speak of 'Sixty-eight' in tones of awe, as if Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Rolling Stones had been reincarnations of Byron, Shelley and Walt Whitman walking the streets of London, Amsterdam and San Francisco?

To understand this romantic nostalgia, one may quote the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, addressing the young revolutionaries of Paris: 'Your movement is interesting because it puts imagination in power . . . You have been able to create something which astonishes, something which jolts, something which repudiates all that has made our society what it is today.'

This was indeed an era when the civic spirit was reborn, although swaddled in romantic illusions; the year when American boys burnt their draft cards and American girls thrust flowers up the gun barrels of petrified soldiers. It was the year when the youth of Paris and Prague claimed the spring as their own.

But it is easy to forget the darker side of 1968. This was also the year in which Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the year when the German student leader, Rudi Dutschke, barely survived the bullets in his brain, the year when a devasted Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson, the year when US troops - ordinary men like today's Serbian militiamen - massacred 450 or 500 villagers in My Lai. 1968 was the year which brought Soviet tanks to crush Czechoslovak democracy, the year which witnessed the massacre of students in Mexico City only weeks before the city hosted the Olympic Games, the year whose upsurge of hope and idealism culminated in the election of that least idealistic of US presidents, Richard Nixon.

Indeed, 1968 was the 'Year of the Police'. Who can forget the tear-gas grenades launched, night after night, by the CRS in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the beatings of 'foreign' students in the cells, the violence of the New York police when they invaded Columbia University, the batons of the enraged Chicago cops during the Democratic Convention?

It was the most turbulent year since the Second World War. The entire post-war order was challenged by youthful insurrections - electronically joined by world-wide television - from California to Czechoslovakia. This is not to forget the Red Guards of China, who became cult figures for sects of Western students, nor the romantic appeal of 'Venceremos' in Cuba: the photographic image of the dead Che Guevara was the Turin Shroud of the New Left. The guerrillas of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Black Panther gunmen of Los Angeles, the students who took the Dean of Columbia University hostage were the archetypical - and entirely masculine - heroes of the day.

The most distinctive and peculiar feature of 1968 - a break with history - was the confinement of the revolt to the sons and daughters of affluence and privilege. The university or art college was almost universally the theatre for the apocalypse. The working class remained unmoved at best: in France the great general strike of May 1968 was tightly disciplined by a Communist Party within the familiar contours of Cold War politics.

Only in Italy and Spain, where student turbulence was on a truly spectacular scale, did it achieve a nascent symbiosis with working-class action. There was no sign of this in the 'Protestant' countries. Opinion polls in Germany showed a low level of working-class support for the street demos staged by the SDS and a high level of sympathy for the police. The more outrageously bohemian antics of the drug culture, with its half-baked equation of true liberty with promiscuity and pornography, merely confirmed the hostility of respectable working people. In Los Angeles and Chicago, the white working class remained resolutely racist and hostile to flower-kids, hippies and Yippies. In London, dockers applauded the doomsday warnings on race by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell.

So, however one analyses 1968, it was scarcely the classic Marxist scenario. The New Left presented a challenge not only to Presidents Johnson and de Gaulle, but to power itself. In essence it was an anarchist movement dedicated to 'auto-gestion' - self-management. The spiritual mother of the SDS in Germany was perhaps Rosa Luxemburg. In the US, the gurus of the New Left included C Wright Mills, who had exposed the 'power elite' which commanded the engine-room of American democracy, and Herbert Marcuse, who had revealed the fraudulent nature of liberal democracy ('repressive tolerance'). In Europe, the Situationists offered their own, neo-anarchist, rejection of the beguiling signal broadcast by a consumer-hungry capitalism: 'The Revolution is on the Columbia Label'.

No single doctrine united the insurrectionary New Left factions of Europe, Japan and America. They quarrelled noisily among themselves. Doctrinaire groups like the editors of London's New Left Review, or the Trotskyists, Maoists and Jeunesse Communistes of Paris, blended fairly incoherently with the mass of Vietnam-inflamed kids, who called for 'participatory democracy', occupied campus buildings and demanded an end to competitive exams by laying their photogenic bodies across doorways. What 'participatory democracy' meant in practice - at least according to its outraged opponents among the professors - was prime-time television for flamboyant young demagogues like Mario Savio (Berkeley), Mark Rudd (Columbia) and Tariq Ali (Oxford and London).

To mention the professors is to remind ourselves how narrow was the common ground between the Old Left and the New. Distinguished academics of the Old Left, like Irving Howe and H Stuart Hughes, soon ran out of sympathy for the flag-burning, Pentagon-invading tactics of Tom Hayden and the American SDS. The widespread use by young people of the word 'fuck' in almost every language symbolised the divorce between the generations. I recall an incident in 1966 when I was invited by the BBC's Third Programme to review Norman Mailer's novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, which liberally employs the proscribed word in order to demonstrate the political charge of obscene language. But the BBC Controller would not allow me to say 'fuck' on the air and the talk was cancelled. I mention this trivial incident because the constant cultural battles of the Sixties were probably as consequential as the famous mass demos. It was in 1968 that Britain abolished its theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain. Amsterdam was the spiritual capital of porn-pol in the era of the Provos, Kabouters, the White Plans and municipal white bicycles. The Provo of Amsterdam was Homo ludgens, revelling in play, magic and provocative disruption: his message was mainly directed at the 'Provotariat', the alienated youth and squatters of the asphalt jungle. Even in Prague I witnessed an outbreak of porn art at the apex of the Spring, but few of the Czechoslovak students had the money or the inclination to indulge themselves in theatrical fantasias. Theirs was a sober, respectable, institutional liberal programme. The response of students at the Charles University was one of bemused indifference: when you have liberty you can afford to play games.

So to Paris. The most dramatic political event of 1968 in western Europe, les evenements of May, started with relatively isolated campus revolts at Nanterre, in Paris's western suburbs, spread to the Sorbonne, converted itself into a national general strike - and threatened the Fifth Republic headed by President Charles de Gaulle. And yet, only one month later, de Gaulle gained a renewed conservative mandate in a national election.

The intellectual and political debt which the French students owed to their German comrades of the SDS is not widely understood - although of course the bilingual Daniel Cohn-Bendit, that cheeky, copper-headed firebrand, was the bridge between Berlin, Frankfurt and Paris. Expelled from France at the height of the troubles, he was smuggled back in disguise. But 1968 constituted the climax to post-war German youth's rejection of the Nazi legacy and the Cold War politics pursued by Adenauer and the Grand Coalition government which took office in 1966. In spite of the later terrorist phase - the Red Army Faction - of the 1970s, and the conservative reaction - the McCarthyite Berufsverbot - the 1960s witnessed the emergence of a new generation of German adults committed to liberal democracy and a greener world.

So what was the long-term legacy of the New Left? During the Reagan-Thatcher era it was tempting to answer nil. The hegemony of the godhead market and of the profit motive went virtually unchallenged. The former American Yippie leader, Jerry Rubin, explained to Cohn-Bendit in 1987 that burning money was the thing to do in the Sixties - whereas making money was the thing to do in the Eighties. It was all 'in the head' (somehow). There were other causes for despondency. The Christian message of the Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, remained more revered than practised. The 'burn baby, burn' of the Black Panthers, the calls for racial separatism, have scarcely advanced the economic or educational life of the ghettoes. Twenty-eight years after the assassination of Malcolm X, blacks are still the losers.

Far from challenging their curricula and the authority of their professors, US and European students were now bent over their books and competing for jobs in an age of graduate unemployment. The groaning volumes of regulations issued by the European Commission, with its manic passion for 'pure competition', are far removed from the ideal European destiny imagined by the anarchist dreamers of 1968. Jacques Delors, whom we may crown as the last hope of the Left, is scarcely the guerrilla-hero of the days of Che.

The most obvious long-term legacy of the 1960s is the emergence of high-profile, single-issue campaigns: feminism, ecology, nuclear disarmament, gay rights, 'politically correct' language. Danny Cohn-Bendit moved on from Red to Green. 'For me,' he says, 'politics is the fight for more autonomy and decision-making in the hands of society. On this I remain on the same point as in '68.' A radical feminist movement had begun to emerge in the late 1960s, directing its anger at the chauvinism of the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, but few anticipated that women would emerge as the mainstream radical 'class' of the past 25 years.

The political explosion of the late 1960s, while not destroying the old system of political parties, transferred political initiative to pressure groups of citizens, the real pace-setters of our time. Professor Alain Touraine has argued that all the curves changed direction in France after 1968: justice, medicine, the women's movement, the first strikes of immigrant workers, the politicisation of private relationships. These are our consolation prizes. The power elites and party machines retain control: the dream of strangling the last capitalist with the guts of the last bureaucrat, daubed on the walls of the Sorbonne, is no longer on the agenda. (It never was.) The best we can do is not to take our defeats for granted.

David Caute is a historian and novelist. His book, Sixty-Eight: the Year of the Barricades, is published by Paladin.

(Photographs omitted)