May 68 -May 2018

It’s 50 years since the Paris protests of May 1968 which rocked the world and came to be emblematic of an era of counter culture, radical protest and revolutionary fervour. If the individuals of that time have been derided as sell-outs and the moment analysed to death it still holds a powerful place in collective memory. If it’s a cliche to “know your history” its essential to know your social history.

It’s important to weigh up victories and losses over time.

As George Kerevan has written:

“One anti-war demonstration in San Francisco was joined by hundreds of serving US soldiers in uniform, heralding an internal mutiny slowly crippling the American war effort. That year Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world boxing title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. And in April, America’s inner cities burned as black Americans (many Vietnam veterans) rebelled in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King. In France, come May, a student uprising was met with extreme police brutality. To the shock of President de Gaulle and the cosy French establishment (which included the conservative Stalinist trades unions), the students were supported by young factory workers infected by the promise of revolution and a new society not bounded by consumerism and dehumanising assembly line jobs. A spontaneous general strike across France was followed by factory occupations and demands for workers’ control of production. This was not nihilistic, populist protest as we know it today. Rather it was a veritable rising aimed at creating a new society from the bottom up.”

But the year was not just about France in May. June 1968 saw the famous strike for equal pay by women workers at the Ford plant in Dagenham, which eventually led to the Equal Pay Act. July saw the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, which triggered the modern Gay rights movement.

Scotland was not immune from the politics of the era as some have suggested, somehow posted missing, a non-place existing in the frozen north, excluded from sexual or political revolution. Not only did the Malcolm Muggeridge affair act as a landmark for feminism in Scotland, but RD Laing, Kenneth White, Tom McGrath and Alexander Trocchi would be at the heart of the counter culture movement of Project Sigma and the ‘Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’ and of course Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was formed in February of 68 and would lead to the work-in of 1971.

In this issue Neil Cooper explores the Scottish dimension and influences from Lulu and the Proclaimers via Mary Hopkin and the Velvet Underground (among other diversions). Chloé Farand explodes the myths of Macronism as the ZAD protest community is smashed with the biggest display of state violence since – you guessed – May 68. Stuart Cosgrove takes us to the highs and lows of America that year, a year that brought us James Brown’s ‘Say it Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud’ and Sly and the family Stone’s ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’. It was a year of soaring vision and innocence was well as a year of brutal state violence. It was of course the year that Martin Luther King was gunned down. Finally Layla-Roxanne Hill takes us over the shameful politics of Windrush and the institutional racism that haunts British policymaking today.

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Comments (9)

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  1. Welsh Sion says:

    Je suis né en mai ’68 !

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I can remember sneers abut the supposed inaction of Glasgow students, when universities in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin were all being occupied. Most of us lived at home and our mammies had tellt us, ‘Yer tea will be oan the table at 6 o’clock, an wance ye’ve hud that, yese kin overthrow the capitalist system’.

    Full bellies and revolutions are not very compatible.

    But, yes, as the article implies, 1968 brought actions in Scotland, too.

    1. John S Warren says:

      I was a philosophy student in Glasgow University in 1968. I recall that a young, radical and in Glasgow unusual lecturer (I do not recall his name), in I think the Department of French, left for Paris, and – as far as I can recall – promptly disappeared; certainly I never saw him again.

      It was not Paris, however but the ‘Prague Spring’, the fall of Dubcek that left the greatest impression on me. A young philosophy student at Charles University, Jan Palach, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square (?), following the fall of Dubcek and the intervention of the Soviet Union. The fact that he was a philosophy student left a deep impression on me, which I have never forgotten. That kind of situation was difficult for a Scottish student to ‘compute’, at least from the relative ‘innocence’ or callow naivety of a Scottish cultural perspective. The closest comparison in Scotland would be Thomas Aikenhead, hanged for blasphemy (reading Spinoza, and declaiming his merits), in 1697; and Aikenhead probably never realised the consequences of his actions, until it was too late.

      1. John S Warren says:

        I do think this article is perhaps a little ‘romantic’ about Scotland in 1968; at least that is my perspective. Oh, and I knew RD Laing in Glasgow slightly; he was, originally, a philosophy student rather than a psychiatrist, and perhaps a loss to philosophy.

        What was happening in Europe in 1968 had an effect on Scotland, but I feel quite a superficial effect. In some ways this was not entirely a bad judgement, because there was not necessarily a great deal of real political substance to much of the upheaval, at least in Western Europe.

        1. This was not so mud an article as an editorial to the content we’re publishing tonight and tomorrow – with a larger feature to follow…

      2. Mathew says:

        John – the lecturer you referred to may be Kenneth White who, I think, taught at Glasgow University until ’67. But he didn’t disappear, he has had many works published in French and English.

          1. John S Warren says:

            Mathew, Editor,

            Thank you both so much for that relevatory information; I had no idea! I think you are right: Kenneth White (I still do not remember his name). I must read some of his work (I see from the link the Editor provided, he indulges in writing ‘Haiku’; I think that followed Zen as a Scottish fashion in poetry of the 1970s?). I recall him – from the perspective of a student of the time – as unusually young, brilliant and energised, beyond the “typical” academic: full of fresh ideas, and open to debate. I seem to remember being told he had gone to Paris; and that he was last seen on the barricades. Now there is the over-romanticising of Paris 1968, as seen from the douce irrelevance of the West End of Glasgow. I was simply sorry to see him go; we needed people like him – in Scotland.

            And there folks, is the value of the community of Bella Caledonia. We learn something, sometimes unexpectedly. Perhaps Bella Caledonia could ask him to write something on Paris ’68, from his perspective (of both Paris, and the Scotland of the time)?

  3. Tom Hubbard says:

    Anent Dubcek, the Prague Spring, and its aftermath, please take a look at my book SLAVONIC DANCES (Grace Note Publications, 2017), a set of three stories, one of which ‘The Kilt’ is about a Scottish visiting student in Prague over 1967/68 and who gets involved with a Czech girl at the Charles University. During the protests following the invasion, they become separated in the crowd, she is bundled into a police van, he has no choice but to return to Scotland (his visa would expire) and the two are reunited only after the Velvet Revolution; by then it’s all too late.

    I have a Glaswegian friend who really was in Prague when the Velvet Revolution started and she recalls the re-emergence of Dubcek on the balcony, beside Vaclav Havel, in Wenceslas Square. I would like to help her place her account of this somewhere – could Bella be interested? Suggestions for possible outlets welcome.

    During a writers’ residency in Switzerland, I met the journalist / translator writer who became Dubcek’s press secretary in 1989 (Dubcek became President of the National Assembly). He’s an engaging guy who is a virtuoso pianist (Beethoven sonatas are his favourite, but he can play anything) and has a taste for Talisker.

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