- The Long '68: Radical Protest and its Enemies by Richard Vinen
The topic of '68 is an elusive one, as this general, comparative approach to it demonstrates. Richard Vinen covers a wide variety of protest movements across the developed world during the 1960s and 1970s. In order to encompass the wide variation in dates (some twenty years) he cleverly proposes a two-dimensional '68: the short 'May '68' covers France; the 'long '68', the rest. This astute device enables him to perform a good deal of what political scientists call conceptual stretching, and in this way '68, long or short, embraces a multitude of movements and situations. The book consists of country studies, bracketed by a number of thematic chapters which help to recapitulate some of the evidence presented in the former; the chapter on generations shows just how elastic and unhelpful a focus on age groups can be. The author's wide scholarship and deft style, which manages to mix extensive statistical data and telling little anecdotes, make for an easy read. The different country chapters vary in quality, the strongest being on France (with a suggestive insight into the fundamental complicity between state elites and their revolutionary offspring, whose passage along the voie royale was merely delayed for a few years) and the US, which Vinen sees at the origin of much of what we perceive as European protest. Inevitably in a work which presents itself as a synthesis of existing studies (p. xvii) rather than a new piece of research, and which ranges so widely, there are a number of generalizations and value judgements that jar, particularly in the chapter on the UK, admittedly hardly an epicentre of protest. Thus on student protest, Warwick alumni will be disappointed not to have a mention of a protest which paralysed the university for weeks and actually led to the publication of a book by the activists, teachers and students alike. On trade-union activism, anyone involved in the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs union (ASTMS) will be surprised, to put it mildly, to see the late Clive Jenkins described as a '68ish figure' (p. 265). More serious is [End Page 339] the reductionist approach to protest in the north of Ireland, where the IRA is lined up alongside Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades under the heading of 'terrorism' (p. 281); one can see why the British still have problems with the Six Counties. Here perhaps lies a clue to the main problem with this book: namely, its sheer ambition. There was a vast amount of protest going on fifty years ago, but does it really help to shoehorn it all into the category of '68? What is there in common between, say, the Amsterdam Provos, the ultimate in cheeky cool (who get two short lines on p. 307), and their namesakes in South Armagh, fighting a land-and-culture war four centuries old? Or between African Americans battling racism in the US, and Paris students worried about degree inflation? Vinen mentions that many saw '68 as 'a spirit rather than an ideology' (p. 333). Another way of putting it is to say that many were angry but about very different issues; in many cases the differences are probably more significant than the similarities.