1968: there were assassinations, street fighting in London and Paris, students occupations from Hull and Leeds to New York and San Francisco – and revolutionaries treated like rock stars

Hero image

It has been compared with 1789, France’s historic Year of Revolution, and to 1917 in Russia when the Bolsheviks brutally overthrew the old order. In 1968, though, it was a revolution that came with a soundtrack supplied by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and many of its foot soldiers were students who went home at night to watch themselves on TV news.

The focal point for street demonstrations was the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square

Everywhere you looked across Europe and North America there were protests against authority. Even the Olympics didn’t escape, with Black Power demonstrations staged on the medals podium. In Mexico City, 100,000 students marched to demand an end to government corruption, unemployment and rural misery but the army was called in, thousands were arrested and soldiers were photographed gleefully shaving their prisoners’ heads. To have long hair was to be an enemy of the state.

Reactionaries poured petrol on the flames with the assassination in Memphis of the most famous black American, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, followed by the shooting dead in Los Angeles of the leading Democrat candidate in that year’s US presidential election, Robert Kennedy. By the spring of 1968, a tipping point in history seemed to be on the cards.

Focal point for much of the dissent was the Vietnam War being waged by US forces in South East Asia. As it reached its height in 1968 huge anti-war demonstrations were held in every western democracy. In Eastern Europe though the main concern was suppression by the Soviet Union. When the Czechoslovakian government tried to implement liberal reforms the Kremlin sent tanks into the centre of Prague.

The year also saw a revolution in the world of arts and media. Underground newspapers like the International Times and Oz in London confronted censorship with images of sexual sadism and stories extolling drug use. Pop music began the transition to rock, with the confections and frippery of psychedelia swept away by heavier songs inspired by black American blues. Taking their cues from the times, The Rolling Stones’ hard-edged Beggars Banquet and The Beatles’ White Album bore little resemblance to the groups’ blissed-out 1967 recordings.

Students in New York and San Francisco reduced their campuses to states of protracted anarchy. The revolutionary fever soon spread to the UK with demonstrations beginning at Essex University and escalating to other campuses. Sit-ins were widespread in support of demands for student membership of governing bodies and student control of halls of residence. In Hull, 200 students occupied the university’s administration block. At the London School of Economics, 800 students seized control of the main faculty.

The focal point for street demonstrations in Britain was the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, scene of two huge protests against the Vietnam War in which hundreds were arrested and scores injured. But they were not without moments of farce. At the first protest in March, among the 8,000 demonstrators was a group armed with chemical sprays to attack trees in front of the embassy as a protest at the US’s use of the defoliant known as Agent Orange in the Vietnamese jungle. They had brought the right chemicals, it turned out, but being early spring they discovered that the trees weren’t even in bud, never mind leaf.

Mick Jagger went along to show his support, but The Rolling Stones frontman was soon recognised and surrounded by demonstrators demanding his autograph. He fled. It was more embarrassing for John Lennon, whose reputation as a radical took a battering because of the lyrics to his song Revolution, inspired by Grosvenor Square. “But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out,” he sang. Stung by criticism of the line, he tried to make amends by adding the word “in” when a different version appeared on the White Album two months later.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Suddenly, revolutionaries were being treated like rock stars. The most fashionable poster in bedsits was one of Che Guevara, the guerrilla leader who had led the Cuban Revolution and become a symbol of rebellion. There were also posters of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a sociology student who was the public face of French activism that led to the huge May 1968 student protests against capitalism, consumerism and American imperialism, and street battles with tear gas-armed police in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Rudi Dutschke, the German student leader who survived an assassination attempt in 1968, was another poster boy. In Britain the face of revolution was Tariq Ali, a flamboyant young British-Pakistani who had been president of the Oxford Union in 1965. He was highly visible at the Grosvenor Square demonstrations, and TV’s go-to radical for discussions about Vietnam and far-left politics.

There was outrage at a speech in April 1968 by the senior Conservative politician Enoch Powell in which he argued that immigration from Commonwealth countries would create racial strife. “I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood,” he said in his so-called Rivers of Blood speech, sparking the first large-scale UK protests against racial discrimination.

Beckett views 1968 as a battle between radicalism and conservatism

But by the end of 1968 had anything changed? More than 550,000 US troops still remained in Vietnam, and the war would continue until the US finally withdrew in 1975. Nor did the growing political consciousness of young people deliver a new era of left-leaning governments. Quite the opposite. In France, the street battles may have forced the president, Charles De Gaulle, into calling an early general election but a month later his right-wing party returned with a sweeping victory. In the US, the year of civil unrest ended with the emergence of the right-wing Richard Nixon, who until Donald Trump was the most divisive president in US history. He was later forced from office because of the Watergate scandal.

In his book about the events of 1968 historian David Caute wonders who the student activists really were. “Courageous visionaries or romantic utopians? Genuine revolutionaries or posturing spoilt brats? An authentic resistance movement or a frivolous carnival by kids who had never known poverty and the fear of unemployment?” The revolutionary fervour of the year did not, on the whole, extend to the working class, he points out.

Andy Beckett, the British historian and journalist, believes television played an important part in what he describes as the “globalisation of protest” that year, with the same modes of demonstrating being adopted all over the world. “So in Mexico City, in Paris, in Italy, and in the UK there were the same sorts of sit-ins and occupations. Ways of dealing with tear gas and the police became common knowledge amongst student radicals. By 1968 there was a kind of self-consciousness on campuses. People knew that what they were doing at the London School of Economics, for example, was in the spirit of Paris or vice versa. They could copy what people wore on the barricades in Paris, thanks to TV, and see themselves as part of an international movement.”

Beckett views 1968 as a battle between radicalism and conservatism that was won by the latter, as shown by the strengthening of De Gaulle in France, the victory by Nixon and, later, the election of the Conservative government under Edward Heath in Britain.

“But I think what’s sometimes missed is there was a second radical surge in the early 1970s, when the counterculture reached its largest extent in Britain and America in terms of numbers of squats and communes and people involved in radical action and terrorism, as well as peaceful activism related to the environment, women’s rights and gay rights. I’d argue that in many ways the 1970s was a more radical period.”

For Jagger, his experience in Grosvenor Square had, at least, one positive outcome. After being pursued by autograph hunters he went home and wrote Street Fighting Man, lamenting: “Summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, but what can a poor boy do except sing for a rock ’n’ roll band.” Widely banned by radio stations in 1968 – the song now regularly appears in polls of the top 10 best Rolling Stones songs of all time.

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Demo recording

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.