Phil Cohen's Blog

‘1968’ and all that: Left legacies and the counter culture of remembrance

Originally published in Soundings
By Phil Cohen
June 2018

There is an old saw about the so-called swinging sixties: if you can remember it you weren’t there. This  has the rather interesting corollary that if you were’nt there, if you have to consult the archive  or rely on second hand accounts rather than your own experience, then you are more likely  to grasp  the events  in more detail, depth and  accuracy  than someone whose hippocampus and neural pathways have been irreversibly damaged by taking too much acid while ‘on the scene’ .  

We are living in a culture whose collective memory is no longer primarily conveyed  through to face to face story telling ,  but  is stored, retrieved and disseminated through  the prosthetic devices of digital technology and social media. Whatever we remember or don’t about 1968, whether we were there and actively involved or not, our sense of  this conjuncture and  what it represented,  is massively mediated  in a way that makes it difficult to re-capture, let alone re-kindle the immediacy of the intellectual and cultural ferment, the heady, contagious excitement of those days . This is especially  the case in these dark and dismal, not to say cynical times, when the optimism of  the will so much in evidence in 1968   is now so easily made to appear as hopelessly naïve youthful idealism which foundered against the brutal realpolitik of capitalism’s onwards march towards globalisation.  Especially on the Left, pessimism of the intellect  continues to thrive , a depressive position  split off from and counter-posed to the often manic enthusiasm of   those political activists who continue to believe that entrenched structures of power and inequality will somehow magically dissolve when confronted with the assertion of  their ‘counter-hegemonic’  demands .

From where we are now  it is much easier to imagine the future in dystopic terms, than to conjure up the spirit so famously evoked in  Wordsworth’s panegyric to the events of 1789:

    Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy! 
    For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood 
    Upon our side, we who were strong in love! 
    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, 
    But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times, 
    In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways 
    Of custom, law, and statute, took at once 
    The attraction of a country in romance! 

Interestingly, Wordsworth highlights the re-enchantment of the world that is brought about in the revolutionary conjuncture, only to  frame it with his pre((cautionary title : The French revolution as it appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement, already foreshadowing the  advent of Robespierre and the Jacobin Terror. If contemporary political memory conspicuously  lacks this kind of mythopoeic sentiment it is because it is always and already immersed in a frenetic (and often narcissistic) capture of transient moments in and against the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of neo-liberalism. At the same time ,courtesy of our digital devices, everyday memory work  has increasingly  become repetition work,  oscillating between moments of  rapt epiphany and  inertial foreclosure , at once the transcendence and immanence of the  mundane affordances delivered to our doors of perception via Instagram and Facebook.

Nevertheless  there has been no shortage of memoirs written by participants in 1968,  supplemented by an avalanche of commentary in this 50th anniversary year.  Why should something which pales into insignificance compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall or the AIDS crisis,   global warming  or the 2008 recession, continue to exercise such fascination?

Before we can pinpoint the exact sources of this interest we have to recognise  that ‘1968’ functions in two dimensions of discourse at once. It is a metonym that has come to stand for a whole gamut of  actions and attitudes  which directly or implicitly set out to disrupt the post war settlement between capital and labour and the cosy consensual  political culture based upon it. Just as importantly ‘1968’ is a powerful metaphor  of radical cultural and political change initiated by a younger generation who rise up against the old order they have inherited from their parents,  in the name of some principle of hope for a better future that is incommensurate with the status quo.

The paradox of ‘1968’ is that its legacy  has survived as a metaphorical statement of  intent to overthrow an ancien regime, while the events themselves  actually mark the end, or at least the supercession, of that revolutionary narrative in which this project has been embedded in Europe since 1789. Equally the transformative values and attitudes associated with the social  movements that came into  such spectacular existence in this period now appear to be either prefigurative or outmoded, but, for that very reason  continue to provide a focus point for debate on the Left .

There are some more local  reasons for the  present 68 notalgiafest. 1968 did not start in 1968, or even in  1965 but in 1945, in the sense that its genealogy lies in the long aftermath of the second world war and its austerity regimes  through the 1950’s and early 60’ and then their sudden collapse. And that evokes identification  with  today’s  ‘Generation  rent’ who must hope  against hope that the end of austerity politics is in sight.

Another  reason is that historical generations, demographic cohorts formed  around  a significant event or  singular conjuncture, are imagined communities  which create their own invented traditions, their own shared memoryscapes, their own vectors of meaning  centring on once- upon- a- time prospects or predicaments. There is a correspondingly strong  investment in  creating occasions of  commemoration  as a way re-uniting the faithful and  making a pre-emptive bid for posterity.

A  further reason, which I have already alluded to, is that ‘1968’ has become the site of fiercely contested readings of  the Left’s own recent history and future trajectory.  In one, mainly Marxist, reading it is a cautionary tale. It marks a historical turning point in which  the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial  working class auto-destructs; the onward march of labour is permanently  halted well this side of the New Jerusalem while capitalism goes  cultural as well as global, and becomes hip.  The so-called  ‘Youth Revolution’ creates a platform for disseminating  the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism  and makes  possessive  individualism – doing your own thing  – sexy,  addictive and above all cool.  In this optic, recreational  sex, drugs and rock’n’roll  may not exactly be the devil’s work, but they promote the  dispositions of creative self-invention, underpinned by a whole  culture of narcissism that post- Fordism, and the just- in-time production of the self requires. Playing it cool becomes the motto of a whole ‘post ’generation: post modernist, post Marxist, post feminist, post political. From this standpoint the ‘counter culture’ is well named, for it is precisely about the  merchandising of  pseudo-radical life styles, getting your highs from  what you can buy or sell across the counter in a way which lends itself to constant recycling and retro-chic.     
Another reading, which comes mainly from the libertarian Left, sees 1960’s counterculture as a great disseminator of a popular anti-authoritarian politics, a  generational  revolt  against  the patriarchal structures  of the family and the bureaucratic structures of  state and corporate culture,  and as such embarked on the quest for new and more directly democratic forms of collective self-organisation, based on a moral economy of  mutual aid. It is also about an aesthetic revolt against the dead weight of  elite bourgeois  literary and artistic canons and cultural tastes. A rejection then of  party  politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant-gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new counter-hegemonic visions, associated variously with  feminism, gay liberation,  anti-racism, the environmentalist movement,  community activism and do-it-yourself urbanism. It prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements of more recent years as well as radical identity politics.
Every interpretation of the counterculture tends to privilege some aspects over others as symptomatic. Culturalist interpretations emphasise the global impact on music, fashion and other creative industries.  Clothes, posters, record covers and other ephemeral artefacts provide a readymade archive for curating  such  a viewpoint, often drawn from the personal collections of the alternative glitterati. In contrast, political commentators focus on the student and anti-war movements and their often tense and tenuous relationship to  traditional Left and labour organisations .

Some of the more sophisticated analyses recognise that alternative life styles could have both progressive and reactionary aspects, could challenge  the patriarchal  bio-politics  of deferred gratification  and  be part of  what Marcuse called  the apparatus of repressive desublimation.  However, most of the personal accounts produced  about this period emphasise the positive, liberatory aspects, whether they concentrate on the cultural or the political  side of things.

Now clearly what we refer to rather glibly as the ‘60’s counterculture’ is a complicated affair: it is made up of many different strands and is  not homogeneous either ideologically or sociologically.The ‘alternative society’ in Britain mirrored the stratifications of so-called straight society. It had its aristocracy, some of them the rebellious offspring of  actual aristocrats or plutocrats, but mostly wealthy rock musicians and entrepreneurs who bankrolled its projects. It had its professional middle class who ran its organisations, like BIT, Release  and the underground press.  And then it had its foot soldiers, the young people  who flocked to its psychedelic colours and lived on the economic and  margins.

Although the  student movement is of central importance, especially in the USA , where it was closely linked to the anti-war movement ( many students  were, after all,  potential  draftees), and  although art colleges were at the forefront of  cultural  and aesthetic experimentation,  the  university and the creative  industries  were not the only site  of  ferment. The squatting movement and what was happening in youth subcultures and on the streets created their own platform of ideas and practices.  One of my aims in engaging with  the  current ‘1968’ debate  has been to rescue the street commune movement in which I was involved  from the vast condescension of  the official historians of the Left whose own formation  and sense of posterity is  confined  to the role of the  Dissenting  Academy.

Between 1968 and 1970 the London Street Commune  organised a series of  mass squats of young people  in Central and Inner London . It was made up of a rich mix of student drop outs, beats, hippies, Hells Angels, teenage runaways , street poets and musicians,  rent boys,drug dealers,   and a wild variety of people who defied easy sociological classifications but in their various ways subscribed to a few basic tenets of an alternative society and found semi-legit ways of eking out a living on the street . In Hardt and Negri’s terms  they could be considered to constitute a ‘multitude’  occupying the niches of a tourist and luxury economy  in  and around the West End.

The  street communes  hit the world headlines in 1969 when we occupied  a large mansion at 144 Piccadilly, which , it was rumoured ,had once belonged to the Royal Family. The  Marxist Left and the Tory Right joined forces to dismiss us a lumpen rabble. When we turned up at a conference of the Revolutionary  Socialist Student Federation (RSSF)  in the Roundhouse, to canvass their support for our campaign against police harassment, in particular the sus and obstruction laws   which were used to target  the Black community as well as ‘long hairs’ ,we were dismissed us a mob  of junkies and  physically ejected amidst cries of ‘What do you produce,syringes?’

Ironically we got better treatment  from a group of High Tory Ladies  whom we met in Piccadilly Circus when we were staging a sit in at the Pronto Bar, a coffee shop  we used as a hangout and which had barred anyone with long hair. We  handed out leaflets showing a bedraggled beat being refused service under the disarming slogan’ Every Englishman’s Right to have a Cup of Tea’. The ladies took one look at the guy behind the counter, who happened to be  a Pakistani, and decided that they had to support ancient native  rights against these ‘aliens  in our midst’ and , brandishing their copies of the Daily Mail promptly joined the  sit in,  much to our embarrassed astonishment.

Traditionally the Marxist  Left has only considered the street  as a place where barricades can be erected , and where marches and demonstrations can  be organised. It has regarded  people whose livelihoods or lifestyles actually depend on the street and its hidden economy,  as a threat , at  best  a colourful backdrop to their actions,  at worst a  source of scab labour. The libertarian Left in contrast has tended to romanticise the street as a site of authentic encounter, of social and cultural experimentation, direct action ,popular riot  and spontaneous  assembly, even a proletarian public realm.    The Situationists famously celebrated the  alliance of black and white street gangs in Chicago and Detroit during and after the riots as the emergence of a new revolutionary force. One of their slogans at the time  was ‘ For a street gang with an analysis’.   

Most of the young people who joined the squats were initially quite  apolitical – they  just wanted to be left alone to get on with their alternative life style without being continually harassed by the police. But  as the movement developed  and encountered  the full power of the State and the Corporate Media, many of them became radicalised.  

The  key  Street Commune slogan was ‘WE ARE THE WRITING ON YOUR WALL ‘  which we sprayed on buildings  all over central London.  It was a performative statement of intent, which, somewhat disingenuously,  evoked the fragility of purely symbolic action. No amount of graffito on the walls of the Bank of England  or Canary Wharf will ever bring  that fortress of finance capital  tumbling down.

The chant  nicely  captures the spirit of generational revolt , with its barely disguised oedipal  thematics  that characterised the mood of the time. In There have been echoes of this in some of discourse around ’generation rent’ ,

The street commune agenda  could be  summed up in its one sentence manifesto :‘From the streets to the streets through the institutions which keep us off the streets’.  The statement drew heavily on ideas circulating with the Libertarian Left at this time . Thus , the institutions in question were:

The family – the nucleated bourgeois /patriarchal family which either drove its members mad or turned them into monsters.  The commune was to become an alternative family.  
The school – compulsory schooling was part of the ideological state apparatus , and  was largely about  teaching work discipline to future  wage slaves .

The factory and the office , prime sites of capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic  control
The corporate media and the church : where the public mind was made up and dominant values inculcated.

The prison  and the mental hospital-  these furnished  the  model  for the repressive nature of all the other institutions. The family, the school, the workplace ,  the mass media, the church, all so many equivalent ways of imprisoning minds and bodies,  so many strategies to discipline and punish or, alternatively,  to seduce or  haunt  , so  with the phantoms of their own manufactured desires.

The long march of liberation through the institutions was supposed to  either replace them  entirely  with alternatives viz Free schools, the Anti-University, the Laingian asylum,  the Ashram or dissolve sclerotic forms of power into joyful assemblies,   co-operative forms of  collective self organisation.  

In the   street commune milieu   these ideas were not so much debated as enacted. For example the notion of ‘liberation’, borrowed from the lexicon of the  revolutionary Left, was transformed into a rationale for stealing  things we needed  but could not afford from West End  shops : food, clothes, sleeping bags. So’ liberating’ some milk from a supermarket was OK  , but stealing luxury goods to resell them was not , and anyone who nicked stuff off a fellow squatter was immediately barred from our company. In this way the values of a moral economy of mutual aid were  sustained, however tenuously.    

So much for the theory. In reality hanging out on the street was often cold, boring and ran the risk of being arbitrarily arrested and beaten up by the police.  So   Street Communards spent a lot of  time figuring out how  to get off the street and into places  of relative safety, if not peace and quiet. We occupied   large  empty and abandoned  public buildings,  a school, a nurses hostel, a hotel , a children’s home. And we organised  a form of  communal living where young  people also had some privacy. Decisions were made  collectively  in public meetings often lasting hours . Should we ban the press from the building? Should we accept everyone who arrived at our doors, or vet them to ensure that violent anti social nutters were kept out. 

Should there be    a curfew after midnight  so people could get some sleep or was this amount to  creeping authoritarianism .   So far so familiar, but what was unusual was that the people doing this  were  not political activists or students, were mostly not middle class, and  were widely regarded as failures,  drop outs or  delinquents. Certainly very few  had any experience of being listened to or being treated as if their young lives mattered.

So what about the legacy ?

Some of the street communards went on to become community activists , especially around housing and environmental issues, some became involved in  counter cultural activities of various kinds. Some resumed previous life trajectories ,  as factory workers, drug dealers, buskers ,odd jobbers and the like.

The law was changed to close a loop hole in civil property law , and to criminalise any illegal entry into a building, making squatting a much more dangerous business. More positively the street communes helped transform the squatting movement into  a form of do- it- yourself urbanism , often  linked it to wider environmental  and planning issues.

At  a deeper level this way of thinking about the street  and the institution as alternative centres of popular power aimed to make  an exemplary break from the ossified politics of both the social democratic and vanguard party. It privileged direct action over representative democracy, and the urban commons  over municipal  socialism. The right to the city , to lay claim to its material and cultural  resources ,  housing    and  public amenity   was to became an integral part of the Libertarian Left’s  programme  But  in retrospect  it is also possible to see that   the street communes, like so many other initiatives influenced by social anarchism,  were  symptomatic of  a more general failure on the Left  to engage  the  key urban question around which a more embedded social movement might  have mobilised :- the de-industrialisation of the working class city,  and the consequent destruction or gentrification of the  inner city labourhood.  

As soon as we shift the time frame  forward, a set of rather different questions opens up,   to do  with the role which the archive plays is disseminating political memoryscapes The question  was raised concretely for me when I was approached by the  MayDay Rooms, an archive devoted to documenting the history of  the counter culture and radical politics  in Britain since the 1960’s. They wanted me to deposit my collection of  material related to the Street Communes, posters, leaflets,  photographs, newspaper cuttings  and other ephemera. Rather than treat these materials as relics, as  ritual objects of commemoration, it seemed more to the point to regard them as agents provocateurs in an emergent network of possible interpretations, clues as to what their still-to-be-figured-out  significance  might be.

The inevitable narrative  re-framing that takes place in the act of consigning materials to an archive  ensures that whatever future posterity is achieved for them cannot be reduced to or approximate the significance they may have for their donor . The raw remains of the past may indeed be chaotic and condemned to insignificance, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that, by retrieving them for the archive , by cooking them into a palatable dish for contemporary consumption, they can be returned to  some aboriginal meaning. The question is how does the archive contextualise  the material  consigned to it, whether by placing a deliberate interpretative frame around it, or simply by its presence there?

There is also an  epistemological trap in trying to establish an autobiographic pact with an archive . In summoning up and reflecting on images and texts from the past which have a direct personal reference, it is all too easy to view them in  the  distorting mirror of self-regard.

The temptation is even greater when the remembered events evoke principles of hope that  have become  tenuous  or  unsustainable in a subsequent political conjuncture. It is not difficult today for  Sixties radicals like myself  to feel that things have gone backwards, that everything we fought for and sometimes achieved is in danger of being swept away and there will soon  be nothing left to mark  the impact they once had, except what is archived.  Hence the frantic attempts at revivalism, both in Britain and the USA.  To at last create a legacy from which there is no turning back!

The power of the archive to exorcise the demons of the past and to forge  putative links with the  present is intrinsic  to  such  projects. But it is a tricky operation. We have recently seen it   at work in the  retro-chic radicalism prevalent in some of the  50th anniversary events organised around ‘May 68’, providing a  platform for many an erstwhile  revolutionary to  misrecognise today’s ‘Generation Rent’  as the true inheritors of their own values and ideals.  

Projective – and retrospective – political identifications often skip a generation; it is always easier to be generous towards one’s grandparents achievements in and against adversity,  while blaming  one’s parents for the unfair  advantage which  circumstances  have bestowed on them, and which they have been unable to pass on as  opportunities for  their children.

Yet  we need to be careful  about imputing to the archive  a capacity  to transmit collective memory which it may usurp, but which exists independently of it.  Any  significant event, whether  archived or not,  casts a long shadow over those who have lived through it. For example, the scenes witnessed at 144, many of them undocumented,   left an indelible impression on many former street communards  and have  continued to shape the way they think about politics, culture and society. In the words of one of  them, a  factory worker and trade unionist  who dropped out and went on the road and eventually became a housing and community activist: ‘It was not a question of going with or against the tide of history:  for a brief  moment we were the tide’.

 It is clearly important  to document  the quality of such experiences and the forms of solidarity associated with them. At the same time we have to acknowledge  that activist cultures tend to iterate on a single polemical note, and lend themselves to tunnel visions. The real task for any Living Archive of the Left is not to resurrect  the past,   to re-animate the corpse of 1968 and all that,   nor to neatly pigeon hole   events and movements according to some a priori schema    but rather to  capture their  singularity, their divergence  from the historical context in which they were embedded, to restore to them their futurity, even their counter-factuality, which is also their potential to reconfigure the present.

Such questions  about the role of the archive are very much part of a present-tense debate about whether or not the Left has a future.    Has the Left the capacity to reclaim its political imagination of the future  from  recuperation and perversion by  corporate capitalism and its imagineers? Can  its  memoryscapes be more and other than an involuntary response to the ruin of  those dreams of a better world historically bound up with communism and the labour movement?  Is it possible to enunciate realistic principles of hope which articulate popular demands for  social justice  without falling back into   pragmatic opportunism or Utopian fantasies ?  

If the answer is no, then we only have a permanent nostalgia-fest to look forward to,  a prolonged mourning for a world of hopefulness we have lost.  We arrive at a negative historicism in which  1968 serves as a benchmark  against which  all subsequent  events and movements are judged  and found wanting.  What kind of legacy  is that to pass on to future generations?

The  critical  futurology  I am calling for,  whose revisionism of the past  a Living Left Archive might support, may be the only honest way to remain faithful to the zeitgeist of 1968. To return to the  Wordsworth poem with which I began:

We are called upon to exercise our skill
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, 
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! 
But in the very world, which is the world 
Of all of us,he place where in the end 
We find our happiness, or not at all!

Phil Cohen played a key role in the London counter culture scene of the 1960s. As “Dr John” he was the public face of the London street commune movement and the occupation of 144 Piccadilly in July 1969. He subsequently became an urban ethnographer, and for the past forty years he has been involved with working-class communities in East London documenting the impact of structural and demographic change on their livelihoods, lifestyles, and life stories. Currently he is research director of Livingmaps, a network of activists, artists, and academics developing a creative and critical approach to social mapping. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of East London and a research fellow of the Young Foundation. He is the author of the book: Archive That, Comrade! Left Legacies and the Counter Culture of Remembrance.

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