The Reason Why Students All Over The World Took To The Streets In ’68

October 2, 2018

|Oliver G. Alvar
protests of 1968

There were many seemingly unrelated protests across the world in 1968. But it wasn't a coincidence: they all shared a whole generation’s outrage and a flag for social revolution.

1968 was a year of social upheaval throughout the western world. A surprising number of protests and demonstrations sprung up in many countries for so many reasons and in so different political circumstances that they appear, at first glance, to bear little relation to each other. In countries with predominantly capitalist leanings, socialist movements rose against political oppression coming from the elites; and non-capitalist likewise saw plenty of civil strife against civil rights violations, including lack of freedom of speech. How come?


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Just to give you an idea, in the United States the civil rights movement culminated, and protests against the Vietnam War flared up (with representatives even in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome). In France, civil unrest broke out during May as strikes were held and demonstrators took the streets to protest against capitalism, imperialism, consumerism, and traditional values of oppression in a series of events that almost overthrew the government. In Mexico, on October 2nd, hundreds of students gathered to peacefully protest against the government’s suppressive actions regarding political and social opposition; a move for which they were slaughtered in what is now known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. In Brazil, guerrilla warfare escalated against the military dictatorship then in power. In Northern Ireland, the ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles was taking place.


As for non-capitalists countries, Czechoslovakia’s movement for political liberation known as the Prague Spring started, for example. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was developing, generating conflicting feelings across the world. 


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That’s a lot of student conflicts in many countries for just one year. What was it that made it happen? As is usual with cultural movements, the reason behind these phenomena is extremely complex, involving an intractable mixture of political, economical, demographic, and ideological factors that began, roughly speaking, around the end of World War II. In short, the perfect conditions for worldwide indignation had been brewing for years.


All these protests have one common element: indignation and resentment against the many forms of oppression. That doesn't explain everything, though. Oppression has happened throughout history; but only in 1968, it seems, the conditions were perfectly coordinated to evoke protests without one unifying trigger. To explain why this occurred, we must look deeper. Here's but a glimpse at such depths.


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It’s important to note that after WWII ended, the birth rate around the world rose considerably. This new generation was born into a far more peaceful and stable world than the previous one, so society had new members that would be around their early twenties or late teens by 1968. And with no major conflict raging outside their frontiers, it was easier to note the social injustices within.


The most influential thinkers of the time, popular among the young protesters, were Marx, Freud, and Sartre (among others). Postmodernism was booming, and the feminist movement gained significant force since academia had been left with fewer men after WWII, so brilliant women had more room to be heard in the intellectual world. Figures such as Simone de Beauvoir became prominent among the youth, and the causes that these thinkers advocated became the banners for many college students across several countries.


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(Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre)


These causes, along with a sense of political and social connection, were especially effective at reaching out people all over the world. With help from increasingly accessible (and readily available) communication technologies such as television (found in almost every home for the first time in history), radio, and the printing press made communication more and more immediate, connecting people that would otherwise be geographically isolated.


This advance in communication meant causes and movements could influence all parts of the world almost immediately. This way, a rising protest in France could reach out the ears of people in America not after weeks, but only after a few hours. As such, movements could be better organized, and sentiments of indignation and rebellion were shared and promoted in a way never seen before. In 1968, the perfect culmination of all these factors was canalized by major political events across many countries.


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As a whole, the educated youth became disillusioned at best, and outraged at worst, with the political systems and values of the time. If we combine technology with such sentiment, one can see how worldwide strife brewed. A social revolution was needed, and indeed was to a great degree successful. Many of the values that were promoted back then have become universal standards; which is not to say that there's not much to be done still. In fact, their ultimate cause has now become more relevant than ever, and society must once again look to defend it.


The 1968 movements ultimately fought against imperialism, racism, sexism, and social, political, and economical oppression; and promoted equality, civil rights, feminism and environmentalism. But even if our current moral standards follow the student spirit of the 60s, we can still see the remnants of the other side very much alive. Xenophobia, intolerance, discrimination, inequality, and all the social ailments of previous centuries are strongly present today (and are exponentially more dangerous with contemporary technologies). In the end, the best way to commemorate those who fought against these afflictions back then is to keep up the fight today, in whatever way we can.


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Oliver G. Alvar

Oliver G. Alvar


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