- IntroductionLegacies of '68: Histories, Geographies, Epistemologies
There's little that academia loves more than an anniversary. Pull the annals for the common fractions of any centennial, and you'll find a plethora of essays, conferences, journal articles, and roundtables dedicated to reflections on the significance of that historic moment. The year 1968 is no exception, and the fiftieth anniversary of this momentous date did not pass by without numerous commemorations, reminiscences, and reflections.1 This kind of historical remembrance is more than thematic opportunism or melancholic nostalgia, however. The fiftieth anniversary of 1968 presented a timely opportunity to revive discussions of this rich and complex period of global transformation and to seriously reconsider how we understand its scope and significance, as well as its legacies and relevance for the Left today. Rather than allowing this reflection to lapse until the next major anniversary, this issue offers a more sustained interrogation of the questions raised by the semi-centennial through wrestling with the overlooked, divergent, and sometimes contradictory legacies of what has been called the long 1968 or, more broadly, the long 1960s.
As evidence of the contested meaning of 1968, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (1990: 34–38) identify eight categories of historical interpretation of the period that range from conspiracy to adolescent rebellion to a crisis of civilization. By the twentieth anniversary, interpretations highlighting hedonistic excess had come to dominate, working, as Peter Foot (1988) argues, to reduce the period to one of youthful antiauthoritarian [End Page 263] intemperance. Thus, as the cultural excesses of the youth movements—hippie fashions, avant-garde art, drugs, free love, esoteric spiritualism—came to dominate the popular imagination, any understanding of the radicalism of these cultural forms was obscured. Thus, the political and economic foundations of the long 1968—its sophisticated critiques of capitalism, Soviet-style communism, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and racism—were all but erased. These caricatures of 1968, rehearsed with each anniversary, have come to overtake what the long 1960s actually signify: nearly two decades of struggle that transformed the postwar global order. Commencing in the 1950s with events like the Cuban revolution, the Battle of Algiers, and the Montgomery bus boycotts, the long 1960s included not only students, but also Black Power, gay liberation, and workers, women's, and peasant movements that endured through the 1970s across the globe (Denning 2004: 8). The mainstream focus on the counterculture also obscures what was a genuine cultural revolution in which antiauthoritarian, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist politics were used to critique everyday life while simultaneously creating profoundly new epistemologies.
Given that the narrative of failure cast its shadow over 1968 almost as soon as the decade ended, critics and scholars have found themselves in the position of fighting to reclaim the revolutionary aims and transformative energies of the long 1960s. Perhaps the first major attempt to reassert the radicalism of the period, however, is the Social Text special issue, "The Sixties without Apology," which presented the decade as a "great historical upsurge" in which "the global domination of capital was challenged from within on a more serious scale than ever before" (Sayres et al. 1984: 2, 7). For the editors, this reassertion responded to the New Right's increasingly powerful grip on culture and their erasure of political and economic radicalisms from historical consciousness, thus effectively burying that which had once threatened such control. Fifty years later, we find ourselves in an eerily similar epoch of conservative rebirth in which the same right-wing touchstones that the Social Text editors saw themselves responding to have come to once again dominate the political and cultural landscape,2 while the neoliberal agenda set in play during Ronald Reagan's administration has come home to roost with the current corporate presidency, the ascendency of finance capitalism, and the revival of white ethnonationalism. Thus current right-wing campaigns rest on once again burying the 1960s to assert their hegemonic authority. Witness the media response to the physical attack on Silvio Berlusconi in 2009 when Il giornale attempted to link the mentally ill suspect to the cattivi maestri to curry favor with the beleaguered prime minister (Samuel 2007), or Nicolas...