'1968' and all that: Left legacies and the counter culture of remembrance
Originally published in Soundings
By Phil Cohen
There is an old saw about the so-called swinging sixties: if you can remember it you weren’t there. This has the rather interesting corollary that if you were’nt there, if you have to consult the archive or rely on second hand accounts rather than your own experience, then you are more likely to grasp the events in more detail, depth and accuracy than someone whose hippocampus and neural pathways have been irreversibly damaged by taking too much acid while ‘on the scene’ .
We are living in a culture whose collective memory is no longer primarily conveyed through to face to face story telling , but is stored, retrieved and disseminated through the prosthetic devices of digital technology and social media. Whatever we remember or don’t about 1968, whether we were there and actively involved or not, our sense of this conjuncture and what it represented, is massively mediated in a way that makes it difficult to re-capture, let alone re-kindle the immediacy of the intellectual and cultural ferment, the heady, contagious excitement of those days . This is especially the case in these dark and dismal, not to say cynical times, when the optimism of the will so much in evidence in 1968 is now so easily made to appear as hopelessly naïve youthful idealism which foundered against the brutal realpolitik of capitalism’s onwards march towards globalisation. Especially on the Left, pessimism of the intellect continues to thrive , a depressive position split off from and counter-posed to the often manic enthusiasm of those political activists who continue to believe that entrenched structures of power and inequality will somehow magically dissolve when confronted with the assertion of their ‘counter-hegemonic’ demands .
From where we are now it is much easier to imagine the future in dystopic terms, than to conjure up the spirit so famously evoked in Wordsworth’s panegyric to the events of 1789:
Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
Interestingly, Wordsworth highlights the re-enchantment of the world that is brought about in the revolutionary conjuncture, only to frame it with his pre((cautionary title : The French revolution as it appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement, already foreshadowing the advent of Robespierre and the Jacobin Terror. If contemporary political memory conspicuously lacks this kind of mythopoeic sentiment it is because it is always and already immersed in a frenetic (and often narcissistic) capture of transient moments in and against the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of neo-liberalism. At the same time ,courtesy of our digital devices, everyday memory work has increasingly become repetition work, oscillating between moments of rapt epiphany and inertial foreclosure , at once the transcendence and immanence of the mundane affordances delivered to our doors of perception via Instagram and Facebook.
Nevertheless there has been no shortage of memoirs written by participants in 1968, supplemented by an avalanche of commentary in this 50th anniversary year. Why should something which pales into insignificance compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall or the AIDS crisis, global warming or the 2008 recession, continue to exercise such fascination?
Before we can pinpoint the exact sources of this interest we have to recognise that ‘1968’ functions in two dimensions of discourse at once. It is a metonym that has come to stand for a whole gamut of actions and attitudes which directly or implicitly set out to disrupt the post war settlement between capital and labour and the cosy consensual political culture based upon it. Just as importantly ‘1968’ is a powerful metaphor of radical cultural and political change initiated by a younger generation who rise up against the old order they have inherited from their parents, in the name of some principle of hope for a better future that is incommensurate with the status quo.
The paradox of ‘1968’ is that its legacy has survived as a metaphorical statement of intent to overthrow an ancien regime, while the events themselves actually mark the end, or at least the supercession, of that revolutionary narrative in which this project has been embedded in Europe since 1789. Equally the transformative values and attitudes associated with the social movements that came into such spectacular existence in this period now appear to be either prefigurative or outmoded, but, for that very reason continue to provide a focus point for debate on the Left .
There are some more local reasons for the present 68 notalgiafest. 1968 did not start in 1968, or even in 1965 but in 1945, in the sense that its genealogy lies in the long aftermath of the second world war and its austerity regimes through the 1950’s and early 60’ and then their sudden collapse. And that evokes identification with today’s ‘Generation rent’ who must hope against hope that the end of austerity politics is in sight.
Another reason is that historical generations, demographic cohorts formed around a significant event or singular conjuncture, are imagined communities which create their own invented traditions, their own shared memoryscapes, their own vectors of meaning centring on once- upon- a- time prospects or predicaments. There is a correspondingly strong investment in creating occasions of commemoration as a way re-uniting the faithful and making a pre-emptive bid for posterity.
A further reason, which I have already alluded to, is that ‘1968’ has become the site of fiercely contested readings of the Left’s own recent history and future trajectory. In one, mainly Marxist, reading it is a cautionary tale. It marks a historical turning point in which the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial working class auto-destructs; the onward march of labour is permanently halted well this side of the New Jerusalem while capitalism goes cultural as well as global, and becomes hip. The so-called ‘Youth Revolution’ creates a platform for disseminating the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism and makes possessive individualism – doing your own thing - sexy, addictive and above all cool. In this optic, recreational sex, drugs and rock’n’roll may not exactly be the devil’s work, but they promote the dispositions of creative self-invention, underpinned by a whole culture of narcissism that post- Fordism, and the just- in-time production of the self requires. Playing it cool becomes the motto of a whole ‘post ’generation: post modernist, post Marxist, post feminist, post political. From this standpoint the ‘counter culture’ is well named, for it is precisely about the merchandising of pseudo-radical life styles, getting your highs from what you can buy or sell across the counter in a way which lends itself to constant recycling and retro-chic.
Another reading, which comes mainly from the libertarian Left, sees 1960’s counterculture as a great disseminator of a popular anti-authoritarian politics, a generational revolt against the patriarchal structures of the family and the bureaucratic structures of state and corporate culture, and as such embarked on the quest for new and more directly democratic forms of collective self-organisation, based on a moral economy of mutual aid. It is also about an aesthetic revolt against the dead weight of elite bourgeois literary and artistic canons and cultural tastes. A rejection then of party politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant-gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new counter-hegemonic visions, associated variously with feminism, gay liberation, anti-racism, the environmentalist movement, community activism and do-it-yourself urbanism. It prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements of more recent years as well as radical identity politics.
Every interpretation of the counterculture tends to privilege some aspects over others as symptomatic. Culturalist interpretations emphasise the global impact on music, fashion and other creative industries. Clothes, posters, record covers and other ephemeral artefacts provide a readymade archive for curating such a viewpoint, often drawn from the personal collections of the alternative glitterati. In contrast, political commentators focus on the student and anti-war movements and their often tense and tenuous relationship to traditional Left and labour organisations .
Some of the more sophisticated analyses recognise that alternative life styles could have both progressive and reactionary aspects, could challenge the patriarchal bio-politics of deferred gratification and be part of what Marcuse called the apparatus of repressive desublimation. However, most of the personal accounts produced about this period emphasise the positive, liberatory aspects, whether they concentrate on the cultural or the political side of things.
Now clearly what we refer to rather glibly as the ‘60’s counterculture’ is a complicated affair: it is made up of many different strands and is not homogeneous either ideologically or sociologically.The ‘alternative society’ in Britain mirrored the stratifications of so-called straight society. It had its aristocracy, some of them the rebellious offspring of actual aristocrats or plutocrats, but mostly wealthy rock musicians and entrepreneurs who bankrolled its projects. It had its professional middle class who ran its organisations, like BIT, Release and the underground press. And then it had its foot soldiers, the young people who flocked to its psychedelic colours and lived on the economic and margins.
Although the student movement is of central importance, especially in the USA , where it was closely linked to the anti-war movement ( many students were, after all, potential draftees), and although art colleges were at the forefront of cultural and aesthetic experimentation, the university and the creative industries were not the only site of ferment. The squatting movement and what was happening in youth subcultures and on the streets created their own platform of ideas and practices. One of my aims in engaging with the current ‘1968’ debate has been to rescue the street commune movement in which I was involved from the vast condescension of the official historians of the Left whose own formation and sense of posterity is confined to the role of the Dissenting Academy.
Between 1968 and 1970 the London Street Commune organised a series of mass squats of young people in Central and Inner London . It was made up of a rich mix of student drop outs, beats, hippies, Hells Angels, teenage runaways , street poets and musicians, rent boys,drug dealers, and a wild variety of people who defied easy sociological classifications but in their various ways subscribed to a few basic tenets of an alternative society and found semi-legit ways of eking out a living on the street . In Hardt and Negri’s terms they could be considered to constitute a ‘multitude’ occupying the niches of a tourist and luxury economy in and around the West End.
The street communes hit the world headlines in 1969 when we occupied a large mansion at 144 Piccadilly, which , it was rumoured ,had once belonged to the Royal Family. The Marxist Left and the Tory Right joined forces to dismiss us a lumpen rabble. When we turned up at a conference of the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation (RSSF) in the Roundhouse, to canvass their support for our campaign against police harassment, in particular the sus and obstruction laws which were used to target the Black community as well as ‘long hairs’ ,we were dismissed us a mob of junkies and physically ejected amidst cries of ‘What do you produce,syringes?’
Ironically we got better treatment from a group of High Tory Ladies whom we met in Piccadilly Circus when we were staging a sit in at the Pronto Bar, a coffee shop we used as a hangout and which had barred anyone with long hair. We handed out leaflets showing a bedraggled beat being refused service under the disarming slogan’ Every Englishman’s Right to have a Cup of Tea’. The ladies took one look at the guy behind the counter, who happened to be a Pakistani, and decided that they had to support ancient native rights against these ‘aliens in our midst’ and , brandishing their copies of the Daily Mail promptly joined the sit in, much to our embarrassed astonishment.
Traditionally the Marxist Left has only considered the street as a place where barricades can be erected , and where marches and demonstrations can be organised. It has regarded people whose livelihoods or lifestyles actually depend on the street and its hidden economy, as a threat , at best a colourful backdrop to their actions, at worst a source of scab labour. The libertarian Left in contrast has tended to romanticise the street as a site of authentic encounter, of social and cultural experimentation, direct action ,popular riot and spontaneous assembly, even a proletarian public realm. The Situationists famously celebrated the alliance of black and white street gangs in Chicago and Detroit during and after the riots as the emergence of a new revolutionary force. One of their slogans at the time was ‘ For a street gang with an analysis’.
Most of the young people who joined the squats were initially quite apolitical - they just wanted to be left alone to get on with their alternative life style without being continually harassed by the police. But as the movement developed and encountered the full power of the State and the Corporate Media, many of them became radicalised.
The key Street Commune slogan was ‘WE ARE THE WRITING ON YOUR WALL ‘ which we sprayed on buildings all over central London. It was a performative statement of intent, which, somewhat disingenuously, evoked the fragility of purely symbolic action. No amount of graffito on the walls of the Bank of England or Canary Wharf will ever bring that fortress of finance capital tumbling down.
The chant nicely captures the spirit of generational revolt , with its barely disguised oedipal thematics that characterised the mood of the time. In There have been echoes of this in some of discourse around ’generation rent’ ,
The street commune agenda could be summed up in its one sentence manifesto :‘From the streets to the streets through the institutions which keep us off the streets’. The statement drew heavily on ideas circulating with the Libertarian Left at this time . Thus , the institutions in question were:
The family – the nucleated bourgeois /patriarchal family which either drove its members mad or turned them into monsters. The commune was to become an alternative family.
The school – compulsory schooling was part of the ideological state apparatus , and was largely about teaching work discipline to future wage slaves .
The factory and the office , prime sites of capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic control
The corporate media and the church : where the public mind was made up and dominant values inculcated.
The prison and the mental hospital- these furnished the model for the repressive nature of all the other institutions. The family, the school, the workplace , the mass media, the church, all so many equivalent ways of imprisoning minds and bodies, so many strategies to discipline and punish or, alternatively, to seduce or haunt , so with the phantoms of their own manufactured desires.
The long march of liberation through the institutions was supposed to either replace them entirely with alternatives viz Free schools, the Anti-University, the Laingian asylum, the Ashram or dissolve sclerotic forms of power into joyful assemblies, co-operative forms of collective self organisation.
In the street commune milieu these ideas were not so much debated as enacted. For example the notion of ‘liberation’, borrowed from the lexicon of the revolutionary Left, was transformed into a rationale for stealing things we needed but could not afford from West End shops : food, clothes, sleeping bags. So’ liberating’ some milk from a supermarket was OK , but stealing luxury goods to resell them was not , and anyone who nicked stuff off a fellow squatter was immediately barred from our company. In this way the values of a moral economy of mutual aid were sustained, however tenuously.
So much for the theory. In reality hanging out on the street was often cold, boring and ran the risk of being arbitrarily arrested and beaten up by the police. So Street Communards spent a lot of time figuring out how to get off the street and into places of relative safety, if not peace and quiet. We occupied large empty and abandoned public buildings, a school, a nurses hostel, a hotel , a children’s home. And we organised a form of communal living where young people also had some privacy. Decisions were made collectively in public meetings often lasting hours . Should we ban the press from the building? Should we accept everyone who arrived at our doors, or vet them to ensure that violent anti social nutters were kept out.
Should there be a curfew after midnight so people could get some sleep or was this amount to creeping authoritarianism . So far so familiar, but what was unusual was that the people doing this were not political activists or students, were mostly not middle class, and were widely regarded as failures, drop outs or delinquents. Certainly very few had any experience of being listened to or being treated as if their young lives mattered.
So what about the legacy ?
Some of the street communards went on to become community activists , especially around housing and environmental issues, some became involved in counter cultural activities of various kinds. Some resumed previous life trajectories , as factory workers, drug dealers, buskers ,odd jobbers and the like.
The law was changed to close a loop hole in civil property law , and to criminalise any illegal entry into a building, making squatting a much more dangerous business. More positively the street communes helped transform the squatting movement into a form of do- it- yourself urbanism , often linked it to wider environmental and planning issues.
At a deeper level this way of thinking about the street and the institution as alternative centres of popular power aimed to make an exemplary break from the ossified politics of both the social democratic and vanguard party. It privileged direct action over representative democracy, and the urban commons over municipal socialism. The right to the city , to lay claim to its material and cultural resources , housing and public amenity was to became an integral part of the Libertarian Left’s programme But in retrospect it is also possible to see that the street communes, like so many other initiatives influenced by social anarchism, were symptomatic of a more general failure on the Left to engage the key urban question around which a more embedded social movement might have mobilised :- the de-industrialisation of the working class city, and the consequent destruction or gentrification of the inner city labourhood.
As soon as we shift the time frame forward, a set of rather different questions opens up, to do with the role which the archive plays is disseminating political memoryscapes The question was raised concretely for me when I was approached by the MayDay Rooms, an archive devoted to documenting the history of the counter culture and radical politics in Britain since the 1960’s. They wanted me to deposit my collection of material related to the Street Communes, posters, leaflets, photographs, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera. Rather than treat these materials as relics, as ritual objects of commemoration, it seemed more to the point to regard them as agents provocateurs in an emergent network of possible interpretations, clues as to what their still-to-be-figured-out significance might be.
The inevitable narrative re-framing that takes place in the act of consigning materials to an archive ensures that whatever future posterity is achieved for them cannot be reduced to or approximate the significance they may have for their donor . The raw remains of the past may indeed be chaotic and condemned to insignificance, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that, by retrieving them for the archive , by cooking them into a palatable dish for contemporary consumption, they can be returned to some aboriginal meaning. The question is how does the archive contextualise the material consigned to it, whether by placing a deliberate interpretative frame around it, or simply by its presence there?
There is also an epistemological trap in trying to establish an autobiographic pact with an archive . In summoning up and reflecting on images and texts from the past which have a direct personal reference, it is all too easy to view them in the distorting mirror of self-regard.
The temptation is even greater when the remembered events evoke principles of hope that have become tenuous or unsustainable in a subsequent political conjuncture. It is not difficult today for Sixties radicals like myself to feel that things have gone backwards, that everything we fought for and sometimes achieved is in danger of being swept away and there will soon be nothing left to mark the impact they once had, except what is archived. Hence the frantic attempts at revivalism, both in Britain and the USA. To at last create a legacy from which there is no turning back!
The power of the archive to exorcise the demons of the past and to forge putative links with the present is intrinsic to such projects. But it is a tricky operation. We have recently seen it at work in the retro-chic radicalism prevalent in some of the 50th anniversary events organised around ‘May 68’, providing a platform for many an erstwhile revolutionary to misrecognise today’s ‘Generation Rent’ as the true inheritors of their own values and ideals.
Projective – and retrospective – political identifications often skip a generation; it is always easier to be generous towards one’s grandparents achievements in and against adversity, while blaming one’s parents for the unfair advantage which circumstances have bestowed on them, and which they have been unable to pass on as opportunities for their children.
Yet we need to be careful about imputing to the archive a capacity to transmit collective memory which it may usurp, but which exists independently of it. Any significant event, whether archived or not, casts a long shadow over those who have lived through it. For example, the scenes witnessed at 144, many of them undocumented, left an indelible impression on many former street communards and have continued to shape the way they think about politics, culture and society. In the words of one of them, a factory worker and trade unionist who dropped out and went on the road and eventually became a housing and community activist: 'It was not a question of going with or against the tide of history: for a brief moment we were the tide’.
It is clearly important to document the quality of such experiences and the forms of solidarity associated with them. At the same time we have to acknowledge that activist cultures tend to iterate on a single polemical note, and lend themselves to tunnel visions. The real task for any Living Archive of the Left is not to resurrect the past, to re-animate the corpse of 1968 and all that, nor to neatly pigeon hole events and movements according to some a priori schema but rather to capture their singularity, their divergence from the historical context in which they were embedded, to restore to them their futurity, even their counter-factuality, which is also their potential to reconfigure the present.
Such questions about the role of the archive are very much part of a present-tense debate about whether or not the Left has a future. Has the Left the capacity to reclaim its political imagination of the future from recuperation and perversion by corporate capitalism and its imagineers? Can its memoryscapes be more and other than an involuntary response to the ruin of those dreams of a better world historically bound up with communism and the labour movement? Is it possible to enunciate realistic principles of hope which articulate popular demands for social justice without falling back into pragmatic opportunism or Utopian fantasies ?
If the answer is no, then we only have a permanent nostalgia-fest to look forward to, a prolonged mourning for a world of hopefulness we have lost. We arrive at a negative historicism in which 1968 serves as a benchmark against which all subsequent events and movements are judged and found wanting. What kind of legacy is that to pass on to future generations?
The critical futurology I am calling for, whose revisionism of the past a Living Left Archive might support, may be the only honest way to remain faithful to the zeitgeist of 1968. To return to the Wordsworth poem with which I began:
We are called upon to exercise our skill
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,he place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
Phil Cohen played a key role in the London counter culture scene of the 1960s. As “Dr John” he was the public face of the London street commune movement and the occupation of 144 Piccadilly in July 1969. He subsequently became an urban ethnographer, and for the past forty years he has been involved with working-class communities in East London documenting the impact of structural and demographic change on their livelihoods, lifestyles, and life stories. Currently he is research director of Livingmaps, a network of activists, artists, and academics developing a creative and critical approach to social mapping. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of East London and a research fellow of the Young Foundation. He is the author of the book: Archive That, Comrade! Left Legacies and the Counter Culture of Remembrance.