When resistance didn’t seem futile: by Sheila Rowbotham (1999)

An article by Sheila Rowbotham for the Irish Times (1999):

The reputation of the 1960s as the “revolutionary decade” is based on the extraordinary May events in Paris in 1968. Images of the French students’ uprising which led to a general strike and came near to toppling de Gaulle have acquired an iconographic quality akin to photographs of Che Guevara and the Beatles.

In fact, the geography of student rebellions during 1968-69 was to be global. Countries such as the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia, where students remained quiet, were the exceptions. Elsewhere – from Pakistan to the Philippines, from Mexico to Czechoslovakia, from Kenya to the US – they were in revolt.

Higher education was expanding in this period. Moreover, students, being mainly the children of the educated and vociferous middle classes, could make an impact beyond their actual numbers. Indeed, in poor countries students were often from the governing elite and intended for the very military-industrial complex they despised. Articulate revolutionaries, they were inclined to demonstrate in large cities, which meant of course that they were in easy reach of journalists and inquiring academics.

When asked why they were defying their privileged destinies, they spoke at length about how they opposed imperialism and the US war in Vietnam; they were against both the state and capital, wanting democracy at work and in everyday life. They adamantly rejected exams.

Universities should not be “knowledge factories”. They were bored with what the French called “Metro-work-sleep”; they desired a society in which work was art, and art was life, and life was always sexy. Sociologists at the time were unable to decide whether it was the antipode of politics or a new way of seeing politics.

The student rebels of the late 1960s appeared to come out of nowhere. But though they were, indeed, responding to the hereand-now of young people’s lives, the intellectual roots of their politics predated the 1960s.

Among their influences were French thinkers such as Jean Paul Sartre, whose writing linked subjective experience and working-class consciousness, and Andre Gorz, who questioned the idealisation of labour in conventional socialism and argued that modern technology could enable everyone to enjoy more leisure. In the US, the philosopher refugees from Germany such as Herbert Marcuse, who scorned the values of mass consumption, were particularly revered by young, middle-class revolutionaries.

Retrospective looks at the 1960s have tended to focus on 1968. Yet the events of that year came out of many differing contexts. For instance, Mexico – where 50 demonstrators were killed in October 1968 – had, like many other Latin American countries, a bitter history of arbitrary political rule. And Prague, where Russian tanks crushed “socialism with a human face” in August 1968, possessed a longstanding, left-wing tradition of anti-Stalinism.

The tactics and forms of protest which surfaced in 1968 actually drew on precedents. The Parisian students repeated lessons learned during the manifestations of the early 1960s against the Algerian war. In Britain, the memories of direct action in the peace movement of the early 1960s acquired a new resonance. “Don’t demand, Occupy,” declared the cover of the British left-wing paper Black Dwarf in 1968. Taking space through direct action, creating alternative visible symbols about how life could be lived, were persistent themes in 1960s radicalism. They came from many different sources, including artistic avantgardes, but their political inspiration was undoubtedly the civil rights movement.

A historic challenge to spatial power occurred in February 1960 at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four freshmen from an all-black college asked for a coffee. “I’m sorry but we don’t serve coloreds here,” the waitress told them. Franklin McCain, who had just bought some toothpaste, argued back. “I beg your pardon, but you just served me at a counter two feet away.” The sit-ins at lunch counters which were to provoke such violence from white Southerners and transform the Constitution of the United States, started from the action of four brave young men.

The African-American singer and radical activist, Berenice Reagon has described the civil rights movement as the “borning struggle”. It gave birth to the black movement, the radical student movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, to women’s liberation and to gay liberation. It also fed into community activism, the mobilisation of poor women around welfare rights and trade union struggles in the public sector which linked workers with people in the community. Martin Luther King launched the Poor People’s Campaign just before he was assassinated in 1968.

Civil rights was also internationally influential. Newspapers and television flashed unforgettable images of resistance around the world. Pete Seeger’s protest songs were sung on the Aldermaston march in England and those black Americans – along with the Mexican demonstrators far away – inspired young civil rights activists to march in Northern Ireland in 1968.

Moreover, the civil rights movement contributed not simply forms of political action but ideas about politics. The Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) developed an anti-authoritarian strategy and philosophy which was crucially shaped by a veteran from grassroots community politics in the 1930s and 1940s called Ella Josephine Baker. She believed “strong people don’t need strong leaders”, a radical faith in collective leadership which profoundly influenced both the black students in SNCC and the American “new left” as a whole.

Unlike either social democracy or Leninist Marxism, civil rights activists used Utopian language. John Lewis, for instance, said SNCC’s aim was “the beloved community, the open society, the society that was at peace with itself”. The American new left and the early women’s liberation groups which grew out of the radical student movement tried to connect means with ends. They sought to prefigure the society they desired in how they organised.

“Participatory democracy begins at home,” declared an angry Pat Mainardi in an early pamphlet called The Politics of Housework. The student movement’s slogan, “The personal is political”, carried particular meaning for young women, who, while surrounded by talk of equality and freedom, found themselves cleaning up during university occupations or washing nappies at home in the commune. Women’s liberation consciousness-raising meetings created a means of translating personal grievances into politics. The effect was electric and all-encompassing; everything from orgasms to imperialism were to be transformed.

Like the student movement, news of women’s liberation spread fast. Groups started in Europe, Canada and Australia in 1969. This was the first generation of young women to move into higher education in large numbers, and no appropriate rules existed about how to be women in such unique circumstances. Politicised by intense radical activity, many of us began to ask about our own position as women. “Liberation” meant both changing society and changing oneself.

In repressive regimes the consequences could be personally tragic. In the Philippines Lorena Barros, leader of Makibaku, the women’s liberation group which formed out of the student movement in the late 1960s, was forced underground and later shot by government troops in 1976.

Francoise Picq observes how the French movement “shared May ’68’s overwhelming desire to change the world, to liberate speech; it shared in the massive political awareness that was developing outside traditional political structures”. The gay bar, Stonewall, in Greenwich Village, New York, had been quite outside politics until June 1969 when the police raided it, and the unthinkable happened. Gay men, drag queens and butch lesbians stood together and fought back. Gay liberation had begun.

While the 1960s saw the emergence of a new kind of social movement based on sexual politics, the break between the new radicalism and older forms of left-wing protest was not complete. In the US, many of the founders of women’s liberation had been involved in civil rights, and the early groups supported welfare mothers’ demonstrations and trade union organising. The British women’s liberation movement campaigned with trade union women for equal rights at work and quickly turned towards community organising in working-class neighbourhoods.

Working-class women, too, were on the move. “Petticoat Pickets” declared the London newstands, when Ford’s sewing machinists took a historic stand for equal pay in the summer of 1968. Towards the end of 1969, women bus conductors occupied the Transport and General Workers’ head quarters demanding the right to drive buses.

Indeed, one of the great misunderstandings of the 1960s is that the only rebels were middle-class. In 1967, well before the Paris students’ revolt, the workers at Rhodiaceta in Besancon had occupied their factory, demanding time for leisure and culture, creating a permanent carnival in the workplace. When the Parisian students invited workers to join them, the Citroën workers, many of whom were immigrants, produced a leaflet saying they were on strike “for the respect of the human person and for more dignity”.

A group of British new left intellectuals, which included historian E.P. Thompson and cultural theorists Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, produced a book called The May Day Manifesto in 1968, which tried to make sense of the changes behind the new movements. They noted how the drive for profitability was creating more shift-work and generating health and ecological hazards. They analysed the impact of technology, the spread of education and the significance of communications in the new global economy. The May Day Manifesto argued it was time for socialists to question the meaning of work and reject an uncritical acceptance of “modernisation” which “fatally short circuits the formation of social goals”.

One of the great strengths of radical politics in the 1960s was a sense that it was possible to shape new social goals – the beloved community. There was a widespread feeling of hope that a new left-wing politics could create an alternative to Stalinism and social democracy. It was thought that this “new politics” would democratise relationships in education, at work, in the state, in everyday life and at home. These were assumed to be inward as well as external changes. Reflecting on joining New York’s first women’s liberation group in 1967, Rosalyn Baxandall writes in The Feminist Memoir Project, edited by Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Ann Snitow: “We were, we believed, poised on the trembling edge of a transformation. All the walls and boundaries inside and outside us might be knocked down.”

A similar feeling of movement, flux and possibility was there in the culture. This was the era of happenings and simultaneous spontaneity. Nothing was fixed anymore; there was “Living Sculpture”, “Living Theatre”. Boundaries were dissolving; between popular and avant-garde art, between various forms of art, between art and everyday life, between fantasy and reality. The message was broadcast to millions by The Beatles. “I am the Walrus,” John Lennon sang.

It was not just an acid-induced sense of experience without precedent. The young rebels of the 1960s, regardless of whether it was outward or inward change they held to be most important, were indeed on the “edge of transformation”. A future they could not see held new technologies able to span time and space, along with a vast expansion of world markets, the restructuring of consumption, production and state policies.

The urgency, the impatience, the arrogance of the radical young seemed disproportionate to the older generation at the time. Looking back, it becomes comprehensible as a kind of prescience that a much harsher capitalism was in the offing. The irony was that the faith in flexibility and contempt for the rigidity of institutions which was part of the spirit of the 1960s, proved to be quite adaptable to the new world of international business.

The times were indeed “achanging”, but the beloved community proved more elusive, more complicated and a much longer haul than the enthusiastic radicals of the 1960s had imagined. They did not revolutionise the course of history, but they were to profoundly mark the culture of the new era – though not necessarily in the ways that they had intended.

1 thought on “When resistance didn’t seem futile: by Sheila Rowbotham (1999)”

  1. She does not make enough space for the triumph of social democracy. We were the first generation in Britain to be pretty much born, nourished and educated under a welfare state. Many of the students involved were the first ever from their families and neighbourhoods ever to get higher education, and one suspects some selection, kids from activist backgrounds were more likely to be motivated and supported by parents to jump the hurdles necessary – and to question the assumptions they found, like that vice-chancellors are always right!
    Of course, some of us came from more traditional backgrounds, but I am sure the nouveaux riches (academically) element helped considerably.

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