Mark Steel: There was more to 1968 than hippies and festivals

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The Independent Online

The spirit of 1968 was lost on me, because at the time I was in an all-white junior school in Kent. I wish I could remember the headmaster bawling in assembly, "Whoever it was who used fuzzy felt to make surrealist graffiti will be severely punished," but I don't think it happened.

Somehow the atmosphere found its way through, though. Most of us loved Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, although we can't have known anything about civil rights. And even if we'd been told about segregation we'd have gone "Wow – they get to sit at the back of the bus all the time – can we be negroes, miss?"

Clearly something big and exciting was happening, yet the most common appraisal of the time now is to dismiss it as a frivolous episode involving a few hippies and students. Partly this is because many of the articles are written by posh ex-radicals, who fill magazines with pompous drivel like, "For I and my fellow compatriots of the Harrovian Order of Revolutionary Iguanas, it was a time of infinite mental universalness. We'd read Pitkin's essays on biscuitology, we staged a production of The Tempest in which all the characters were spring onions and debated 'This House supports Woldemort's theories of elongatable pugnocity' with such vivacity we had to capture the cleaner and bury him alive in the forest to calm ourselves down."

Another problem is that some figures from the time are now prominent members of the establishment. And they try to claim they're still pursuing the egalitarian ideals of their youth, but in a modern globalised setting, which is why they're thrilled to have landed the contract for selling land mines to the military police in Burma.

And then there's the image of the whole period as revolving around hippies and rock festivals. But they were only one side of a movement that shook dozens of governments, undermined wars and threatened both major superpowers. It would be like saying the period between 1939 and 1945 mostly involved a concert in Oldham by George Formby.

For example, in May 1968 the French general strike was the biggest to have ever taken place in the world, and started with a mass meeting of car workers. Or maybe the union meeting began, "Brothers, sisters, dudes, hey look at the colours on this carburettor. Those in favour raise your hand." And the strike's demands were five vibes an hour, rising to seven and three-quarters for overtime. Similarly, in the United States the anti-war campaign involved more than the festival at Woodstock. By 1968 the most prominent characters were ex-soldiers who'd been in the war, and the Black Panthers, which eventually caused such disarray in the US army, as one third of soldiers were black and were unenthusiastic about fighting for a country that didn't let them eat at the same table as whites.

The sense of revolt spread to almost every country, so hundreds of Mexicans were gunned down for opposing the regime, and a civil rights movement began in Northern Ireland to challenge the discrimination against Catholics. Then in Czechoslovakia a reforming government was crushed by Russian tanks, and protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers' guns. Even this, while sounding hippyish, would be an ideal way to protest in today's busy time-conscious world, because even if you were too rushed to demonstrate you could send your protest by Interflora.

Yet all this courage and imagination is dismissed by so many, such as one columnist who recently derided the whole movement as "self-loathing twaddle." So Martin Luther King and the protesters in Prague and the French strikers could have stopped themselves getting so worked up if they'd just learned to enjoy a little "me" time. And then the Viet Cong could be laid out one by one, while a shrink said gently, "So when your family owned half an acre of a rice field and shared a mule, and then the mule was napalmed – did this make you angry in any way?"

Another writer complained that 1968 was a vile year because it had saddled us ever since with "horrid anti-authoritarianism." Because life's so much less horrid if people just put up with having tanks roll over them or with being made to wait for a blacks-only ambulance without making a fuss.

The other accusation made against 1968 is that it made no difference. But in one regard it must have done, because from the anti-war movement and gay liberation campaigns to its wildest hippiest forms, the events of that year suggested to a generation that if you're unhappy with the unfairness of the world, the best thing to do is something yourself. Alternatively you could hope it's put right by Gordon Brown, or David Cameron, or that other one.

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