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The Legacy of the Soixante-Huitards

The May 1968 protests in Paris marked a turning point in the history of the West, and one that continues to have an impact today. Nearly eleven million students and workers were involved as France ground to a halt. The universities were closed, as was the Renault car factory and much else besides.

The formal aims of the protests ranged from higher wages to student self-government, from a change of administration to the complete overthrow of the state. Less articulate desires were for a society more free, more fun, less focussed on work, and more expressive; simply less bourgeois. While the change in social mores in favour of more freedom was overdue, the attack on bourgeois values later became institutionalised and has done great damage to educational and cultural systems and values in France and across the West.

During that fateful month of May 1968, some of the protests had become violent and the hardcore radicals involved—as well as many members of the government—believed it might end in actual revolution. Even the President, Charles De Gaulle, the fearless leader of the Free French during World War II, became spooked and took temporary refuge in Germany before being coaxed back.

Eventually De Gaulle’s government promised an election and pay rises, the strike ended, and the radicals were left stranded. The election secured an even bigger majority for De Gaulle’s parties, re-legitimising the Fifth Republic in the process. But, while the revolution never came, it ultimately led to a massive change in the universities and the cultural institutions of the West, which were colonised by former activists and ideas produced by what conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton later dubbed the “Parisian nonsense machine,” made up of postmodernist writers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan.

Those involved in the protests were approvingly dubbed soixante-huitards, forever associated with that epochal year. There were similar protests in cities across the West but only in Prague on the other side of the Iron Curtain was there an uprising of similar import, as the Czechs sought to escape the Stalinist clutches of Moscow.

The failure of the revolutionary moment ultimately validated the slower but surer strategy of the ‘long march through the institutions’ recommended by German activist Rudi Dutschke, who in turn drew on the theories of Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci. In his 1972 pamphlet Counterrevolution and Revolt, Herbert Marcuse, by then a patriarch and prophet of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, wrote approvingly:

Rudi Dutschke has proposed the strategy of the long march through the institutions: working against the established institutions while working within them, but not simply by ‘boring from within,’ rather by ‘doing the job,’ learning how to program and read computers, how to teach at all levels of education, how to use the mass media, how to organize production.

The original spark owed little to Marxist dogma. The students marching in the streets were of the Baby Boom generation, born after the war, who had known nothing but economic growth and the benefits of the burgeoning consumer society. In France, as in many Western countries, this generation was looking for a loosening of the restrictive social mores their parents had been happy to embrace after the trauma of World War II.

Protest in Toulouse, June 1968.

Thus, the original protest led by prominent soixante-huitard Daniel Cohn-Bendit had been for an end to the prohibition on male students entering the dormitories of the women at the University of Paris in Nanterres. A Marxist and a Christian, Cohn-Bendit believed that sexual oppression was a symbol of political and spiritual oppression. In a stunning reversal, we now have student activists across the West demanding universities regulate and police relations between men and women, a switch noted with disbelief by Camille Paglia and other veterans of ‘60s activism. Cohn-Bendit, meanwhile, is safely ensconced in the EU Parliament, leading a group seeking to convert Europe into a single federated state.

The evidence of revolts on both sides of the Iron Curtain—especially in Czechoslovakia—also meant that Stalinist orthodoxy and the dictates of communist HQ in Moscow no longer carried weight even with the Marxist Left; and so Maoism, Trotskyism, and the cult of Che gained ground. Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre, a founder of Existentialism, had been merely critical when the Hungarian uprising was crushed in 1956. But when the tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, he finally broke with Moscow. Thereafter, he pinned his hopes on the new student movements, but by then the students had moved on from Satrean angst to postmodern relativism.

There was a further fork in the road as soixante-huitards debated moving on from baiting police at protests to participating in terrorism. To be sure, the violence had been a two-way street: Dutschke was himself shot in the head by an anti-communist would-be assassin and, as historian Niall Ferguson recalled when watching the video of the riots at the Democratic party’s 1968 National Convention:

The most impressive thing is the obvious relish of the riot police and National Guardsmen as they whack the hippies into submission. Everywhere, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Prague to Peking (as we then called it), the story was the same: the plebeian police always sided with authority against the students, their despised social superiors.

But violence was a massive turnoff for the mainstream citizenry in France and across the West. That mood was captured by John Lennon of the Beatles, in the band’s 1968 track, Revolution:

You say you want a revolution,
Well, you know,
We all want to change the world…
But when you talk about destruction,
Don’t you know that you can count me out.

Meanwhile, the most hardcore elements of the student revolt were planning to escalate and formalise a violent stance. Student activists in the US formed the Weather Underground and began a program of bombings. In Germany, the Baader-Meinhof gang practised terrorism with an appalling body count, aided and abetted (as was proved years later) by the East German Stasi.

Sir Roger Scruton was in Paris during the riots and marked them as the moment when he began his journey to conservatism. He was appalled by the activists’ hatred for all things ‘bourgeois,’ and challenged a friend:

What, I asked, do you propose to put in the place of this ‘bourgeoisie’ whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enable you to play on your toy barricades?

His friend responded with Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966) which became “the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat.” In his 2006 memoir, Gentle Regrets, Scruton recalled that he had been horrified by Foucault’s thesis that:

‘truth’ requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the ‘episteme,’ imposed by the class which profits from its propagation … Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy.

Fifty years on at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, and the most popular elective for undergraduates in Arts is (naturally) called ‘Power,’ enabling students to “grasp the character of social relations” which will “tell us about who is in control and who may benefit from such arrangements.” The postmodern ideology of identity politics—which combines Foucault’s theories of power with Marxist dogma (and generous servings of Edward Said and Kate Millett) to produce a cultural kind of Marxism obsessed with race, class and gender—has colonised the humanities at universities across the West.

Meanwhile, the founders have occupied the commanding heights. Bill Ayers, a co-founder of the Weather Underground who spent time on the run from the FBI, rose to become a Professor of Education in Chicago with advisory roles to government, and was a friend and mentor to then State Senator, Barack Obama. As late as 1973, the German soixante-huitard Joschka Fischer was photographed beating and kicking a policeman, but 30 years later he was representing Germany as Leader of the Greens and Foreign Minister.

Clearly, the true heirs of May ‘68 are those who followed Rudi Dutschke’s advice and took the long march through the institutions. Maybe their revolutionary fervour faded as they enjoyed their tenured positions and generous institutional pension schemes, but the changes in culture and education they wrought have been profound in the 50 years since those heady days of spring ‘68. A better legacy would have been to recapture the spirit of freedom and self-expression that animated so many of those marching in the protests in 1968, whilst leaving behind the neo- Marxist models of change.

That would be a social revolution worth supporting, achievement of which is a task that now falls to the next generation.


Scott Hargreaves is Executive General Manager and Editor of the IPA Review at the Institute of Public Affairs, Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @scottyargreaves

This is a slightly edited version of an article which will appear in the May issue of IPA Review.


  1. casebash says

    Fascinating, I’d never heard of Soixante-Huitards before. I’d love to learn more about the “long march through the institutions” strategy. If we want to change things, we ultimately need to develop an understanding of Theories of Change.

    • ga gamba says

      Plenty of info online about Dutschke’s long march. You ought to dig into Gramsci’s War of Position and War of Manoeuvre, as a well as cultural hegemony. In the former, the ‘intellectuals’ take the influential positions of sense making in the academe, journalism, entertainment, etc. – all those with cultural capital. Then, using the authority of their positions, they continuously attack the status quo, i.e. the cultural hegemony, by manoeuvring the public.

      Whilst everyone is in a tizzy about those who make burritos and high school girls wearing Chinese dresses to a dance, the long marchers further subvert private employment, the judiciary, etc. Keep people distracted by less meaningful things whilst the important things are undermined.

  2. The “we-tards” who took over control of most of the western world in the wake of 1968 actually got their revolution underway in 1967 when Ronald Reagan, the star of Bedtime for Bonzo, was elected Governor of California.

    The tendency to conflate May 68 in Paris with what happened in the United States in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and in response to the Vietnam War serves the ideological purpose of people on both the right and the left and is so often repeated that people who lack the capacity for critical thought accept it as conventional wisdom.

    It’s amazing how many of the articles and comments on this website evince the very “ideological possession” that Jordan Peterson warns against.

    Identity politics and its ruinous effects on both political and academic discourse in “the west” flow from a variety of backlashes against the broad antiwar movement and what became known as The New Left, not from that movement itself.

    As Patrick Deneen argues in Why Liberalism Failed, both the neoliberal right and the identitarian left are nothing more than the working out of the internal logic of liberalism. What is downstream of Ronnie in 67 and Jerry in 68 is all just the inevitable working out of what liberalism means to folks who cling to slightly different definitions of individual freedom.

    The frenzied masturbatorial outburst of a bunch of provincial 19-year-olds stuck in primitive slum-like dormitories in Nanterre in 1968 is nothing compared to that.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      ‘The most impressive thing is the obvious relish of the riot police and National Guardsmen as they whack the hippies into submission. Everywhere, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Prague to Peking (as we then called it), the story was the same: the plebeian police always sided with authority against the students, their despised social superiors.’

      What Niall Ferguson remembers watching and what actually happened in Chicago in August 1968 are two different things. And Hargreaves’s lumping of the anti-war protests in the US with the European protests of the same era simplifies things to the point of nonsense.

      Here are a few points from [note especially the section ‘Myths of ’68’]:

      Six thousand of Illinois national guardsmen WERE in Chicago in August 1968 but they were armed with 30-cal machine guns and grenade launchers [!], not billy clubs. The Nat. Guard mostly blocked off streets and didn’t engage with the protestors. Would YOU taunt someone armed with a machine gun? All of the clubbing came from the Chicago PD.

      Also, 5000 regular Army troops from three US Forts were deployed to Chicago but never left their barracks. From the above website: ‘At Fort Hood, Texas 3,000 soldiers are mobilized for riot-control duty in Chicago; about one hundred soldiers hold an all-night demonstration and pledge to refuse the deployment. On Saturday morning forty-three soldiers—all of them African American—are arrested.’

      Some of the marchers were pacifists, clergymen and/or ‘Quakers.’ There was also a civil rights march during the convention led by Rev. R. Abernathy. These peaceful demonstrations have been lost in most histories of Chicago ’68. They also distinguish the events in the US from the events in Europe.

      No one was killed on either side during the ’68 Dem. Convention. A few of the protestors were armed with rocks or bags of human excrement, which they used to provoke and incite the police. From the above website: ‘The arrest count for Convention Week disturbances stands at 668. An undetermined number of demonstrators sustained injuries, with hospitals reporting that they treated 111 demonstrators. The on-the-street medical teams from the Medical Committee for Human Rights estimated that their medics treated over 1,000 demonstrators at the scene. The police department reported that 192 officers were injured, with 49 officers seeking hospital treatment.’

      Largely because of draft deferments offered to college students, there WAS a class dimension to the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era. That’s just another way that events in the US unfolded differently from those in Europe.

    • Daniel says

      Interesting thoughts. I’m curious to read Deneen now.

      You mentioned Regan becoming governor of California, and then the tendency to conflate the 68tards with the American Civil Rights movement, and how it benefits both sides. Good thoughts, but I’d like to hear more. Can you explain further?

  3. dirk says

    The controversies police force-students is an easy one. Why should somebody (lower class, non academic) join the police, and why should a critical youngster go to university( and living on its own without mum and dad around)? In Amsterdam you had the the provo’s( a dutch version of the french 1968, revolution for them was something new, unlike, of course, in France). Once, the police hacked in on provos simply where they distributed raisins among a cheering, anti-bourgeois crowd. Now, it often happens that the bourgeois assault dutch police. Before provo and 1968, youngsters had little or nothing to say in politics and society, now it seems like the adults have to shut up, thanks to the soixante-huitards and allies.

  4. Alistair says

    It is easy to agree that Identity politics is indeed utterly ruinous and came out of the left.

    Respectfully, contrary to your assertions, Identity politics stands in absolute opposition to liberalism. The latter is founded on individual (not group) rights and freedoms. It has a pedigree of Mill, Hayek, Popper, Friedman, and even Rorty, Rawls, Sen, etc, The intellectual pedigree of Identity politics is lumpen Marxism; a group-based theory of oppression with none of the elegance of Marx. It was developed mostly by Ex-Marxists of various types who were looking for new home once the mask of horror slipped on the Soviet Face.

    The movements have no history in common. They have no figures in common. It is absurd to treat them both as inspired by what it “means to folks who cling to slightly different definitions of individual freedoms”.

    • Alistair: Read Deneen’s book, then get back to me with your silly idea that women’s rights-gay rights-trans rights etc. do not flow forth from liberalism’s exaltation of individual rights & freedoms.

    • Daniel says

      They might not have a history, or intellectual figures in common, but the charlatans of Identity Politics wouldn’t have balked at appropriating classic liberalism’s emphasis on individual rights for their own purposes.

  5. Matthew Smith says

    Shocked [not] to learn that one of the main instigators of the French protests was a degenerate Hebrew who wanted to be able to fornicate with college girls more easily. And people wonder why anti-semitism is a thing.

    • Aleph says

      Your disgraceful comment about the horrible Cohn-Bendit is an unbelievable shame when it lays the emphasis on his jewish ascent. His ethnic background or the jewish religion has nothing to do with his paedophilia (not college girls, underage girls). Nothing justifies antisemisitm, be it in general, or yours.

    • yandoodan says

      The idea that an infant can be burdened by unforgivable guilt merely be being born to the wrong parents is horrible, and that is what you are claiming when you assert that all Jews are guilty of — something, maybe killing Jesus, whatever.

      It gets worse. God or Science didn’t define the guilty group; you did, and you shoved those babies into it.After all, it is those babies, according to you, that grow up to be adults burdened by the unatonable guilt. And then you shoved criminals into the same group and said, “See? There are guilty people in that group.”

      And anyway, how have you defined that group? How much “Jewish blood” do you think a baby needs? Hitler thought you needed three out of four grandparents before you qualified for gassing ( This was generous compared to Louisiana’s definition of black: you need only be one thirty-second black to qualify for state-sponsored discrimination. ( Then again, Louisiana wouldn’t murder you for picking a wrong great-great-great grandparent.

      Group guilt is an evil concept and people who believe it are evil, be they anti-Semites, racists, or identitarians.

  6. Emmanuel says

    The French Soixante-Huitards were probably the most “privileged” (I know I sound like a left-wing sociology student when I say that) generation ever : unlike almost all the previous generations of French people before them since the Fall of the Roman Empire they never experienced war, they lived in a country and a time where criminality was ridiculously low by comparison with the the current situation, and they enjoyed a booming economy, once again without comparison with the current situation. Rather than be thankful for what the previous generations had achieved and try to do even better for the following ones, they rioted out of boredom and under the influence of the dubious intellectual figures they followed blindly.

    May 68 was a revolt of spoiled brats against the society and the institutions they benefitted from. From a political point of view May 68 was a defeat for the Left but from a cultural point of view a major victory. Anyone can see the consequences right now and they ain’t pretty.

  7. Justin Notley says

    I once worked with a former soixante-huitard. He said it was all about getting drunk and getting laid.

  8. dirk says

    @Justin: ask that old one whether he operated at the vanguard, or somewhere at the tail end of the movement, and whether he reads books. The movement was a strange concoction of academics and worker class people, with completely different identities, and, also, quite different aims, the workers just fought for 10% extra wage (in fact for more, but that was what de Gaulle allowed in the end).

    • The hippies and the leftists of the mid-sixties, occasionally overlapping but separate ‘tribes’, were constantly trying to hook up with groups that were less middle class and less white.

      The attempt to get motorcycle gangs onside with the hippie thing ended in the murder at Altamont and the gangs taking control of the drug business. The attempt to get black nationalists and SDS-types together as a revolutionary vanguard never quite gelled and, as was evident in Paris, the workers sense of socialism and communism was at odds with the students who kept digging for the beach beneath the streets of the Latin Quarter.

      The idea that it was all about getting laid and drunk is just silly.

      I was in Amsterdam for the Dam Square occupation in late August 1970. The Dutch police were amazingly efficient in their brutality and pretty impressive wielding billy clubs from white BMW motorcycles. The highlight for me was getting smacked into a storefront by water canon. The hippie chick who’d talked me into going down to “see the riots” against my better instincts picked me up and dusted me off then talked me into taking her to the Isle of Wight Festival.

      Getting laid and totally zonked on purple microdot is really not the same thing.

      A large contingent of anarchists, which we joined upon arrival, forced the festival to let everyone in for free, even though most of us had tickets already. So the spirit of 68 carried on.

  9. dirk says

    These occupations and anti bourgeois meetings in A’dam were called, with a typical -dutch- word ” happenings”, a very good description indeed, because the important thing for the youngsters was that something, it did not matter what, happened, broke boredom and traditional, uneasy hierarchy. The last time in programs on dutch TV on youth care and education, quite often the new insight is stressed that the brains of young adults, although fully biologically developed, still don’t function adequately, because risk and responsibility keenness is not yet there, this seems to have been the case with the 60-we-tards and provos, but, of course, for the all too senior of us, it’s all too easy to judge the movements of that time, how would the grown-ups and sensible ones in early 19th century France have judged and looked back on the great French Revolution?? There was an impact after all, and not even a small insignificant one! Maybe, social progression has to be started by fools and childish individuals.

  10. Peter says

    The German Radio Deutschlandfunk Kultur aired a very interesting (and rather old) piece on 1968 in Germany:
    (April 28, 5:05). (From the archives.) These are some of the highlights:
    In 1967 police brutally suppressed a demonstration against the Shah of Iran. One of the students was shot in the head in cold blood and afterwards, the police lied and manipulated the evidence. (Had they known that the killer was in fact an agent of the East German Secret Service, who infiltrated the W. German police, history might be somewhat different). This killing radicalized the students and paralyzed subsequent police actions.
    The student movement was led by the Socialist German Student Union (SDS), with several hundred members, almost exclusively students of Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, and Journalism, with very poor chances for employment. Twenty among them were secretly members of the forbidden KP. The whole Union was heavily influenced by communism, particularly Maoism. The Union gathered sympathies among the students by attacking the rigid existing structure of the higher education, but quickly brought other demands, calling for more and more freedoms, basic income for students, and tearing down the parliamentary democracy, since the students had no say in it. As an analyst noted later, on one of the schools that were hotbeds of the 68 revolution, 60 percent of incoming students came from broken families, looking for some meaning and guidance in their life.
    The three branches of government and the universities tried to appease this very small vocal group, supported by maybe 5 percent of the students. The fiery leaders of 68 had good access to mass media. On the other side, workers and older citizens more or less hated the radical student movement.
    One of the students vandalized a truck (of a “fascist” publisher) and then asked police (who were not keen on arresting him) for protection from the workers.
    The next episode is on May 26.

  11. dirk says

    I think, everybody above 60 has some personal experience, and, feelings about the ’68 movements and the like, I wonder how my parents looked at it, I wonder….., I wonder……, because they are both dead now, but I am sure, they abhorred it, and could not bring up any sympathy for it, unlike our generation of course, my relatives and friends, ever since that time, it was a great happening, and I miss it even now. But, I also wonder, how is it programmed and framed in the history books and in the education programs for youngsters as of now? Not the slightest idea, because I never had children.

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