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POLITICS: 1968 and the Birth of Diversity

Analysis by Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 13 2008 (IPS) - The year 1968 has become a symbol, but not necessarily one that is easy to sum up. High-profile violent events involving multitudes of people marked it as revolutionary, but it is hard to define the nature of that revolution. Endless enigmas and controversies still surround it.

Widening the focus to the 1960s is an aid to understanding the broader historical context of 1968, with the May student uprising in France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Tet offensive that sealed the fate of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Some French authors even refer to the period as “the 1968 years.”

Give or take a few years, it was in the 1960s that the revolt against psychiatric hospitals took place in Italy, the civil rights movement reached its peak in the United States, the gay liberation movement was born and feminism became more complex, extending its goals from simple equality to gender equity and reproductive rights.

The environmental movement took its first steps, as people became aware of the vital importance of biological diversity.

In fact, recognition of diversity in general as an essential value transformed the world that decade, and respect for ethnic, sexual, human, biological, ideological, religious and cultural diversity became the order of the day. In this regard, Brazilian “tropicalism” was more attuned to the new era than other artistic movements.

The industrialisation of societies had taken schematization to extremes in almost every area, in the name of productivity. Families should have a father, a mother and two children – everything, from the minimum wage to cars, was designed for four people – and schools were factories that produced qualified personnel.

Houses, clothes, food and careers were all as similar as possible, churned out on a production line.

The ideal of uniformity had no ideological foundation, so communism took it a leap further, with single parties in power trying to root out dissident ideas.

The trend is demonstrated by, for example, food. Over thousands of years of history, humanity had eaten some 10,000 plant species, but these are now reduced to barely 150, and more than half the volume eaten is made up of only four species: rice, potatoes, maize and wheat. In fact, this is a factor in today’s food crisis.

The improved prospects for the survival of indigenous peoples and their languages, cultures and identities are also a result of the “diversity revolution” which can be attributed to the 1960s, as are freedom of sexual preferences, full citizenship rights for people with disabilities and the idea of inclusion in general.

Being indigenous is no longer viewed, as it once was, as a prehistoric stage, which would be overcome either by extinction or assimilation.

Diversity is not only about recognising values or rights, but also about enriching humanity, increasing creativity, and very often, about our very survival. But these ideas take a long time to take root.

Only now are Bolivia and Ecuador seeking to define themselves as plurinational states, and in Brazil, there are still generals who regard indigenous territories on the borders as threats to national security.

Latin America attained its potential for political agitation, with the Cuban Revolution and Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s self-imposed mission to spread guerrilla warfare, until he was murdered in 1967 in Bolivia. Rebel groups became commonplace, even in prosperous Europe.

The unrest and tumult of 1968 became a pandemic, mainly driven by the student movement. Students in Brazil defied the dictatorship with the “Passeata dos Cem Mil” (March of the 100,000) in Rio de Janeiro, and in other street clashes with the police, until all their leaders were captured and imprisoned in October of that year.

In Mexico, protesting students were put down in the massacre of Tlatelolco Square, when dozens or hundreds were killed; exactly how many has never been known for sure. Germany, the United States, Italy, Japan and other rich, democratic states also cracked down violently on their young people.

May 1968 in France was emblematic because of the extent of the uprising and the social criticism voiced. The Paris barricades inflamed millions of workers who paralysed the country, occupying some 300 factories.

“It is Forbidden to Forbid”, “Down With the State”, “Empower the Imagination”, “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible” or “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” were among the demonstrators’ strident slogans.

The furious rejection of everything that stood for the establishment was the battle cry of freedom of a generation that could no longer tolerate the straitjackets imposed on them.

The contraceptive pill had been available since 1960, but the prevailing moral standards frowned on sex before marriage. Religions were omnipresent and castrating, and being an atheist was almost a crime. Long hair was a sign of delinquency.

Hierarchies were absolute, almost military in their rigidity, in families, the workplace, schools and between state and society.

Europe was prospering and had unprecedented social welfare programmes. But it was a fool’s paradise and in reality a repressive prison, at least in the view of the students.

Today it is hard to imagine that racial segregation was legal in many U.S. states until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed in response to the demands of the black movement which had been staging mass protests since 1955.

That year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, sparking a rebellion against the Jim Crow segregation law in Alabama. In 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated.

The intolerance that reigned was exacerbated by the Cold War, which terrorised the world with the prospect of a nuclear conflagration, and fenced in political activity and ideas within rigid “ideological frontiers.”

In Brazil, one either belonged to “Western, Christian, democratic civilisation” or was a communist, and therefore subject to imprisonment and torture from 1964 on.

Things were not so different on the other side of the “Iron Curtain”. The August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia strangled an attempt to make the regime more flexible and move towards “socialism with a human face.”

Many insurgent movements at the time were efforts to create a kind of socialism different to that of the Soviet Union, and in this the Cuban Revolution was a frustrated hope.

But it was also an extremely creative era. Not only did it give rise to movements of the most varied nature, but also to a great variety of new artistic ideas and creations. The great Brazilian popular music composers emerged in that period, as well as educationist Paulo Freire, the progressive church and liberation theology.

It was a time of utopias, hope and generous self-sacrifice. In Africa, newly independent countries were established, some following bloody anti-colonial wars, like Algeria, where one million people died. Some of their leaders made revolutionary promises. “Peaceful revolutions,” such as the 1970 election of Salvador Allende in Chile, were also being attempted.

But in most cases, these illusions were short-lived. Allende died in General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état. Self-proclaimed Marxist African governments were racked by civil wars and corruption.

Many demonstrators in France’s May revolution hailed the Chinese Cultural Revolution, not realising that it was a negation of the students’ libertarian spirit.

It is no coincidence that “chaos theory” or nonlinear dynamics were also developed in the 1960s. These studies showed that small disturbances in a system, previously thought to be negligible, could end up having a major effect on the outcome.

Called the “butterfly effect” because the flapping of an insect’s wings could create tiny modifications in the atmosphere that might ultimately alter the path of a tornado, it introduced a degree of uncertainty to sciences previously thought to be exact.

“We are all subjects!” was one of the rallying cries in 1968. Students were not “pre-citizens” still in the process of formation. Minorities and women were all relevant actors with their own causes.

Ties with the left were also broken. Revolution and the fight for social rights ceased to be the exclusive preserve of workers and trade unions, as the Marxists had postulated. Social movements multiplied and took to the streets, bringing about the fragmentation seen today.

The world was always a nonlinear mosaic, but until “the 1968 years,” it had not been recognised as such.

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