ISJ review: Memories of 1968: International Perspectives

Ingo Cornils and Sarah Waters (eds) Memories of 1968: International Perspectives, Peter Lang, 2010), £51.00

To say that 1968 is a contested history is an understatement. Its also bloody obvious; a truism badly disguised as analysis.

Its inevitable that any movement that challenges the status quo gets targeted with attempts to write out its revolutionary core. However the right’s attempts to undermine 1968 can lead to the left responding by reifying it. Hence the event itself becomes what was special rather than the movement of social forces that produced it.

So in lockstep with the 20th, 30th, 40th anniversary of the period new ways of repeating the same arguments manage to get published. The only difference becomes the changing flavour of trends in historical academia.

This collection of essays is broadly assembled under the remit of studying memories of 1968. This is complicated by the fact that many of the memories aren’t from 1968 itself, events take place in several dozen countries and many of the essays aren’t really about memories. So what does it contribute to the argument?

The debate within the left over the political lessons of 1968 can be divided roughly into 3 camps. Firstly there are those who have moved to the right, for whom 1968 was a youthful flush and a cultural explosion but ultimately a failure; represented by the ‘grown-up’ Dany Cohn-Bendit, a leading anarchist in ’68, now a Green MEP.

The second camp are those who saw the period as a spontaneous and transformative moment. What prevented 1968 from being truly revolutionary was an adherence to the ‘traditional’ leftist modes of organisation, and therefore not enough spontaneity. This group would include not only a young Cohn-Bendit but also, arguably, people like Antonio Negri and social movement theorists like Charles Tilly and Sydney Tarrow.

The 3rd, and probably minority, position is that of Daniel Bensaïd, Chris Harman and the IS tradition: that 1968 and the period around it was one which demonstrated the possibility of European revolution in the 20th century and which was held back not by too much organisation but by a lack of self-organising revolutionary parties.

The choice of the authors to use, as their means of analysis, personal and collective memories begs the question; what use does memory have in a historical materialist interpretation of 1968? Whilst oral history has become a talisman of authenticity for postmodern historians like Hayden White and Keith Jenkins its ascendancy into the toolbox of historical methodology is due to Marxists. Social history wanted to write the history of the oppressed and exploited and therefore started on the voices of those who had previously been portrayed as objects. On that basis there’s a lot to like about an attempt to understand the significance of 1968 in terms of the way that working class or ‘ordinary’ people remember it.

However, from the outset, there is little clarity on the means by which that is actually going to be achieved. The introduction, by Waters, emphasises the difference between ‘objective historicism’ and ‘subjective memorialisation’, and puts the former process in the hands of the right. For Waters any attempts to historicise the events represent attempts to sever links with that past – to undermine their political potential.

There isn’t space here to deal with every article but the following, as the strongest, are the best to explore the success of the collection.

John Foot focuses on Italy’s “Long ’68” and is perhaps the most serious attempt to use public and private memories as his schema for the period in question. He moves away from the idea of 1968 as an impressionistic series of events. Instead attempts to identify turning points, something closer to the idea of social forces on the move. He is one of the few writers in the collection to tease out the way in which material circumstances may shape consciousness, identifying that ‘the dialectic between defeat and rose-tinted nostalgia produced a number of silences’. This is accompanied with a recognition of the limitations inherent in using memories (perhaps surprising that this receives praise but it is unusual in this collection) and the way in which they are subject to changing interpretations with time and political developments. He exemplifies this with the account of Luigi Bobbio, a student militant who founded Lutta Continua but shifted away from revolutionary politics after LC’s implosion. Bobbio now finds it impossible to even think of the period and doesn’t recognise his past self and his actions, including the famous denunciation of his father as a fascist.

However Foot’s analysis, from this point on, makes a sharp turn away from drawing out the significance and dynamics of memories in relation to the movement of social forces. Instead he moves to present memorialisation as a process wherein all social forces ignore the ‘dark side’ of their past. To demonstrate Foot compares the memorials and plaques of fascist martyrs against those of the left and concludes that they reflect parallel behaviour, one aspect of which is their mutual ‘victimisation’ of the police. He goes on to outline the sexism of the movements, the contradictions of which meant that women could be terrorists but not leaders for example.

The effect of presenting the ‘dark side’ as the key question of memorialisation is to lift those social formations out of their context and to evaluate their significance through timeless values. The ‘fact’ that the movements contained contradictions on questions of oppression and violence becomes a substitute for analysis of how memories develop. What matters more? That the narratives of memorialisation between fascists and socialists was similar, or that the police, the state and the CIA provided support for the fascists as a means to undermine the gains made by the revolutionary left?

Whilst Foot recognises the effect of competing narratives on individual, public and private memory, he doesn’t place this within a schema of class consciousness. In doing so, the relationship between ideas and changing material circumstances gets neglected, replaced instead with what come across as comments on the subject of the movements’ purity.

Ingo Cornils’ piece, on the ‘memory culture and cultural memory of the German student movement’, sets out with the assertion that 1968 represented the triumph of the ‘minor utopians’. The continued interest in Germany’s 1968 is due, according to Cornils, to the ‘romantic, nostalgic, almost palpable sense of loss that many former participants feel for those ‘magic moments’, which he sees as ‘ignored’ in the ‘struggle for interpretation. He argues that such a subjective exploration requires a withdrawal from the ideological debate in order to avoid the individual memories being used simply as ‘pawns’. Instead, by looking at the ‘memory texts’ and emphasising the ‘human factor’ Cornils claims to avoid ‘the inexorable pull of historicisation and add a hitherto unacknowledged element to the cultural memory of the German Student Movement’. The texts he chooses portray 1968 as events that are significant for the role they have played in the authors’ emotional development. Cornils concludes that ‘as far as the utopian dream of an alternative reality is concerned, it lives on because these writers refuse to let it die’. Yet the writers he cites directly contradict this! They talk about their past selves as ‘deluded’ and ‘augmenting myths’. The attempts by those authors to distance themselves from the emancipatory projects of 1968 leads instead to the conclusion that those events were not historically significant but merely the expression of many individuals’ emotional development.

Several of the articles revolve entirely or partially around the premise that 1968’s importance was as an event or a moment, rather than a process of change and upheaval with historical significance. They either choose to omit the historicisation because it detracts from the power of the 1968-as-event or, presumably, because the history is a given. This seems problematic. Actually the omission of history in favour of event abdicates the argument in favour of those who present it as artifice. There is a thin line that separates those exalting the vibrancy of the events, and those who understand it as a cultural and youthful rebellion. So, arguably, those who celebrate 1968-as-event strengthen the attempts, by bourgeois historians, to write out the political and historical significance of millions of students and workers confronting the state and the ruling class.

Actually the contributions that fail to do so allow those myths to take on a life of their own, and by removing them from historical context, end up echoing the right in validating the idea of natural laws of equivalence – anti-fascists memorialisation being no different from fascist memorialisation.

In this sense very little in this collection competes with Daniel Bensaïd’s piece and is fettered by an incoherent aim and an absence of honest debate between pieces. Neither clarifying the relationship of memory to class consciousness in relation to mass movements, nor demonstrating the historical development of memories it regrettably contributes little to an understanding of 1968 as a moment in a continuing social process. This is a shame because at points it gives us glimpses of the kind of work that could be powerful; a critique of neoliberal attempts to appropriate the history of mass movements, for example. Perhaps the greatest contradiction is that Waters sets up the collection as a study, not of historicisation (indeed, history seems to be a slur to many of the authors), but of subjective myth-making. In practice, the strongest analyses are so because they place those subjective myths within a historical framework.

In their distaste towards reconciling 1968 with history these writers begin to reflect what the Marxist historian Geörgy Lukácsz identified as the ‘unhistorical and antihistorical character of bourgeois thought’ in their neglect of ‘the problem of the present as a historical problem‘. That is, they create an artificial divide between political moments and historical narratives that mystify the meaning of both.

It is Bensaïd, one of the few French 68ers to stay a revolutionary, who cuts through this mystification and reconciles fluid memories with history when he writes:

‘Memory still haunts history’s sleep. Because ‘if there is a sense of the real, and nobody would doubt that it has a right to exist, then there should also be something which might be called a sense of the possible’. What is still interesting is not the ashes of May ’68 but its embers, the resurgence of defeated and repressed possibilities. Forty years is not enough to make us bow down and lower our heads before this fait accompli. And we don’t have bruised knees from a continued genuflection before the fleeting verdicts of a ventriloquist history. As Louis Auguste Blanqui insisted during the bitter aftermath of the Commune, ‘the parting of ways still holds the promise of hope’.

Movements may rise and fall in a matter of months. But the collective memory of the power expressed through those ‘moments of madness’ become deeply embedded points of reference for class consciousness. Moreover they remain embedded because the immediacy and possibility of the complete transformation of society continues as long as capitalism remains on its feet. Being able to evoke the patterns of those ‘moments of madness’ and use them to draw together mass movements towards action, being able to reflect the lessons of those memories without reflecting the demoralisation associated with their failures; that is the historical task for revolutionaries.

Given the criticism oral and memory history receives from the right (Niall Ferguson’s diatribes are a case in point) it deserves defending. At the same time that defence has to incorporate a recognition that its greatest strength comes when it uses oral testimonies, dialectically, within the totality of historical and social forces. The fetishisation of understanding historical details in and for themselves is a blind alley – a trajectory of ever-decreasing circles – yet it occupies a large pagecount of counter-hegemonic history. With the death of the best writer in this collection, the need for a new wave of historical materialist historians who are able to vigorously re-capture that space from the postmodernists is abundantly clear.


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