In 1968, fury at the Vietnam war sparked protests and uprisings across the world: from Paris and Prague to Mexico. Tariq Ali considers the legacy 40 years on
A decade before the French Revolution, Voltaire remarked that "History is the lies we agree on". Afterwards there was little agreement on anything. The debate on 1968 was recently revived by Nicolas Sarkozy, who boasted that his victory in last year's presidential elections was the final nail in the '68 coffin. The philosopher Alain Badiou's tart response was to compare the new president of the republic to the Bourbons of 1815 and Marshal Pétain during the war. They, too, had talked about nails and coffins.
"May 1968 imposed intellectual and moral relaivism on us all," Sarkozy declared. "The heirs of May '68 imposed the idea that there was no longer any difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness. The heritage of May 1968 introduced cynicism into society and politics."
He even blamed the legacy of May '68 for greedy and seedy business practices. The May '68 attack on ethical standards helped to "weaken the morality of capitalism, to prepare the ground for the unscrupulous capitalism of golden parachutes for rogue bosses". So the 60s generation is held responsible for Enron, Conrad Black, the subprime mortgage crisis, Northern Rock, corrupt politicians, deregulation, the dictatorship of the "free market", a culture strangled by brazen opportunism.
The struggle against the Vietnam war lasted 10 years. In 2003 people came out again in Europe and America, in even larger numbers, to try to stop the Iraq war. The pre-emptive strike failed. The movement lacked the stamina and the resonance of its predecessors. Within 48 hours it had virtually disappeared, highlighting the changed times.
Were the dreams and hopes of 1968 all idle fantasies? Or did cruel history abort something new that was about to be born? Revolutionaries - utopian anarchists, Fidelistas, Trotskyist allsorts, Maoists of every stripe - wanted the whole forest. Liberals and social democrats were fixated on individual trees. The forest, they warned us, was a distraction, far too vast and impossible to define, whereas a tree was a piece of wood that could be identified, improved and crafted into a chair or a table. Now the tree, too, has gone.