Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68
by Gilles d'Aymery
(Swans - June 2, 2008) The fortieth anniversary of 1968 is all over the place, from Paris to New York, from Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! to Swans Commentary and the corporate media. Yawn! To this observer, Chicago '68, while having some interest in light of the forthcoming Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado, seems blown out of proportion with respect to all the much more violent -- and genuine -- events that took place worldwide in those years and in tumultuous 1968. Violence undoubtedly occurred with the helping hands of the police, national guard, and army -- the famous "police riots" -- but it was relatively trivial compared to the February 1968 civil rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina (three dead students), the riots in over 100 American cities following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of that year, and the brutality that culminated in 1970 at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. Beyond the Flower Power Revolution, the antiwar protests driven by the middle classes, the young baby-boomer rebellion against authority, consumerism, and capitalism in the Western world, there were movements of far more significance and bloodshed galore all over the world -- movements of liberation that are by and large ignored by an aging baby-boomer generation, which, enthralled with its own vanity, is celebrating the good old days, all the while overlooking its disastrous failings, which were much worse than the preceding generation's that the rebellious youngsters so loathed with such innocent abandon.
The year 1968 began with two significant events, the beginning of the Prague Spring in early January and the Tet Offensive at the end of that same month. Both lasted until August 1968, the first one crushed by Soviet tanks, and the second ending in military defeat but political victory. Both the political liberation movement in what was then Czechoslovakia, led by Alexander Dubcek, which endeavored to break the yoke of the Soviet Union and build a "socialism with a human face," and the national liberation movement in Vietnam that was repelling the American invaders and occupiers (it would take another devastating seven years to send the Yankees home), suffered infinitely more in life and treasure than the kids in Chicago, or daddy's children rebelling in Paris. The same can be said of the Mexican uprising and the massacre of student demonstrators at Tlatelolco Plaza, or of the November 1968 insurrection in Pakistan that eventually toppled the US-backed military dictatorship in March of the following year. The folks in Chicago and the kids in the Quartier Latin had it real sweet and easy in spite of the teargas and big sticks.
Ignored too in the current reminiscences is the immense suffering that our black brothers and sisters were subjugated to as they fought their battle for civil liberation. Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving a black power salute from the Mexico City Olympic games podium in solidarity with the plight of all the downtrodden was the symbol of an important distinction: that between the oppressed (all over the world) and the white hedonistic generation that was struggling to avoid the draft in America. The young in places like Chicago were fighting a generational war for a different world from the one their parents had built with the intention of giving them a more prosperous future.
There is irony in the fact that the Western protests of 1968 took place toward the end of the "thirty glorious years" of unprecedented economic growth. The privileged youngsters were battling consumerism, paternalism, the Vietnam War, the "Americanization" of European capitalism. They advocated freedom to the tune of empty slogans like "it's forbidden to forbid," but without offering any constructive alternative. "There's something happening here," they were claiming with creative chants, but "what it is ain't exactly clear..."
That "something" certainly was not clear and little emerged of it that was not already in the making (women's liberation movement, civil rights, etc.). Yet it is remembered and often lauded today by that aging generation as their own 1776, or 1789, or 1917 -- their "Revolution," to be embraced and vaunted with sweetness of being. The French bourgeoisie, meanwhile, got scared -- not by the students (the chienlit as General de Gaulle called them), but by the 10 million workers that went on strike and paralyzed the entire country -- and gave in to workers' demands. Daddy threw a few crumbs to the unleashed crowds and managed to put the genie of revolutionary fervor back into the bottle.
The kids got tired and went on vacation. The following year, universities were filled to the brim with the old class and new applicants. Nixon got elected; de Gaulle survived the onslaught; Pompidou took over. The long materialistic march resumed. Life went on and the kids entered the "marketplace." And the world we see around us is what they achieved.
Louis Proyect draws attention to Chicago '68 leaders who traded their revolutionary wars for the golden goose. The same happened in Europe, and indeed to the entire baby-boomer generation. They moved on and happily embraced "Americanization," capitalism, and consumerism. The first baby-boomer US president, Bill Clinton, a staunch opponent of the war in Vietnam and a non-inhaler of the green stuff, launched multiple wars and military interventions. (No need to mention Mr. Bush, Jr.'s deeds, another baby boomer.) In France, Mr. Sarkozy is the first baby boomer to come to power with a lust for vulgarity, expensive yachts, trophy wives, and love of money and war.
For the past 40 years, the social justice gains have been eroded and nibbled at by the 1968 generation that is so proud of its past, from Chicago '68 to the streets of Paris. There is no war ("humanitarian" or preemptive), no McMansion, no environmental destruction, no country to interfere with, no people to destroy, no navel-gazing congratulatory rants, that they do not embrace. They have become what they objected to in their daddies and worse: A hypocritical bunch that only tends to its own materialistic interest.
One hopes that the new generation will do a better job, though they will be handicapped by their parents' debts and the economic and moral ruin they are inheriting. Perhaps with less Chicago and Paris '68 nostalgia in the future, and more forward-thinking activism, as Martin Murie advocates, they shall overcome.