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Richard Vinen: The Long ’68 review - more impartial than impassioned | reviews, news & interviews

Richard Vinen: The Long ’68 review - more impartial than impassioned

Richard Vinen: The Long ’68 review - more impartial than impassioned

A study looks at Western Europe and the US on the edge of nervous breakdown 50 years on

Richard Vinen: lost in the foggy ruins of time

Born into the late 1950s, I was too young to be a 68er, though I remember watching it all on TV: the protests in Red Lion Square and Grosvenor Square, where Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave were the leading lights, demonstrating against Vietnam; Paris, where student protests, strikes and sit-ins quickly spread across the country, and General de Gaulle fled briefly to Germany; the riots across the United States that

followed Martin Luther King's death, and at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; and of course the Prague Spring, so brutally snuffed out by Soviet tanks. I was a student in the late 1970s, typing my dissertation – quite literally – to the results of the 1979 general election that ushered in a prime minister and a government we knew would be unspeakable but whose legacy, by virtue of Margaret Thatcher’s longevity in No 10, profoundly reshaped Britain and its society (of which there was of course no such thing) in ways we couldn’t have guessed at.

Viewed from amid the chaos of our post-Brexit dis-United Kingdom, the governments over which she presided appear a model of competence: Thatcher helped invent the Single Market and would not have presided over its break-up; nor, I suspect, would she have allowed Britain’s relationship with Russia get to this unpretty pass. As for Trump – well, he possesses none of Reagan’s folksy charm and it’s hard to imagine her cap-in-hand at the White House.

In The Long '68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies, Richard Vinen tells us that Thatcher’s first “major political speech”, given in October 1968, mocked student radicals, notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of their leaders, whose university paper had been praised by his professors. The speech is collected on the Thatcher Foundation website and I wonder why Vinen didn’t quote another sentence: “one of the effects of the rapid spread of higher education has been to equip people to criticise and question almost everything.” Marianne Faithfull says much the same thing in the Michael Caine documentary My Generation. Much of the 1960s (against which the Tories consistently inveigh) can be read as one long critique of our parents, the generation who had fought in World War Two. Hadn’t Bob Dylan, in one of his most famous songs, sung that their “old road was rapidly agin’” and advised them to “get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand”?

Vinen’s previous book was National Service: A Generation in Uniform, 1945-1963 so you can see that for this King’s College, London, Professor of History, and for his editor, a book on the Sixties was in some ways the next logical step. I was looking forward to it but turned the pages feeling disappointed. You just don’t feel his heart is in the project or that he’s really in command of his material – perhaps not truly engaged with the subject. The book is about “the radical movements and rebellions of the late 1960s and early ‘70s” – where they came from, where they went. Without what at least one previous historian of the decade has called “the days of rage”, the decades since would have been very different – mostly for ill, social justice and equality even more retarded than it currently is. Does Vinen believe that? I'm not sure. Many would agree that les evenements brought about a social revolution in France, while the 68ers came to power in the Czechoslovakia 20 years later - Alexander Dubcek waving from a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square in Prague following the Velvet Revolution of 1989 was the most emotive moment for me of that tumultuous year.

Richard VinenHe might argue that as an academic it’s his role to be impartial rather than impassioned – but a bit of enthusiasm would have gone a long way. Vinen’s style is dry and detached, with lots of cross-references and statistics, and a fractured narrative. As an attempt to “reconstruct the world that came and, largely, went in the late 1960s and early 70s”, it rather fails. The book is, he acknowledges, “primarily a synthesis of other people’s research”, with only a small amount of original research on Britain and France. Therein, I feel, lies the problem.

I have many of the books to which he refers, and some to which he doesn’t. The best among them is The Sixties by the late Arthur Marwick, which marked the 30th anniversary of 1968 and which takes a long (800 pages) and holistic view of the period. Marwick was the founding Professor of History at the Open University, a now endangered institution which is arguably (perhaps unarguably) the greatest British “invention” of the 1960s, for which Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee deserve unending credit. Sadly Marwick died in 2006 and with him the OU Sixties Research Group, of which I had the privilege of being a visiting fellow. What would he make of 1968 now, viewed through the prism of the last ghastly 10 years? It was Marwick who coined the idea of “the long Sixties”, beginning in 1959 and ending in 1974 or ’75 with the oil crisis or the fall of Saigon: Vinen has appropriated that idea with his title – credit is due but not, I think, given.

The Long ’68 is more political per se, and there’s a case for saying that the book would have been more interesting (and more relevant) if Vinen had posited some ideas about ’68 and its relationship to ’08 and ’18, a period which has once again seen a rise in radical movements, such as Occupy, and new political parties in Spain, Italy and Greece. He quotes in the book’s closing pages Sarkozy’s goal of “liquidating the legacy of May ‘68” which he believed had brought the unbridled and unscrupulous capitalism of “short-term, money, speculation and… golden parachutes” to France.

The legacy of 1968 will far outlast anything Sarko accomplished and he’ll probably have plenty of time to reflect on all that.

Liz Thomson's website

You just don’t feel his heart is in the project or that he’s really in command of his material – perhaps not truly engaged with the subject


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