Raewyn Connell on nineteen sixty-eight and all that.
What was the moment?
Nineteen sixty-eight – in everyone’s memory the political peak of the sixties – was the year the Institutional Revolutionary Party government shot down a student demonstration in Tlatelolco Square, in the lead-up to the Mexico City Olympic Games, leaving between 100 and 300 people dead. (The exact number killed was never established.)
Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year that a generation of radicals in southern Vietnam went out to die in the Tet offensive, one of the most terrifying displays of raw courage in modern history. Torn to shreds by US firepower, the local resistance coalition was more or less destroyed. But Tet also destroyed the American capacity to sustain the war. The regular troops of the dictatorship in Hanoi eventually filled the vacuum.
Nineteen sixty-eight wasn’t entirely a moment of violence. In 1967 the ‘Eastern Demonstrations’ began in Turkey, a peaceful movement for autonomy and social change in the Kurdish districts – before repression turned Kurdish nationalism towards the use of force. In Czechoslovakia, the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’ also represented a peaceful challenge to power, in the name of socialist humanism; that was crushed by the Russian military.
Nineteen sixty-eight also saw the second congress of UNCTAD, the UN Commission on Trade and Development, in which the G-77 group of developing countries challenged the industrial countries’ stranglehold on global economic policy. That challenge was fought off by diplomatic and economic pressure, and the G-77 soon splintered, opening the way for the neoliberal world order of the 1980s.
In Australia, the movement for Aboriginal self-determination was gaining strength. In 1963 the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land sent the ‘bark petition’ to parliament to try to stop a land seizure, and in 1970 a group of elders went to court in Darwin in the same cause, launching a spreading land rights legal struggle. Similar movements were emerging in Canada and other parts of the colonised world.
Also in 1968 a group of young US women launched the first demonstration against the ‘Miss America’ pageant in the name of Women’s Liberation. And there were the all-too-famous ‘May Days’ strikes and demonstrations in Paris, the struggle at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, and a surge of anti-war activism in other rich countries from Sweden to Australia.
What happened in the late sixties, then, wasn’t only about the student movement and industrial militancy, the contradictions in advanced capitalism, the revolt at the heart of affluence. There was a spreading contestation of power structures that leapt over national boundaries and leapt over the conventional boundaries of ‘politics’. Some of the most significant struggles were over questions that had simply not been seen as political issues in the previous generation: colonised land; women’s role; the way people lived in their bodies.
This was a moment, I think, when simmering contradictions in gender relations, in class relations, in race relations and in neo-colonialism all came to a head at more or less the same time. New fields of social struggle opened up, which the dominant powers did their imperfect best to close down. I will mainly talk about the movement in urban Australia and the United States (the two places where I was part of it), but the fact that new kinds of struggle and change seemed to be emerging across the world was crucial to what happened locally. CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE.