Forty years ago The Frost Report was the most popular satire on British television. It featured a famous sketch about class.
The tall bowler-hatted figure of John Cleese represented the upper class.The shorter and more rotund figure of Ronnie Barker, clad in a trilby, represented the middle classes. Beneath him the tiny cloth-capped Ronnie Corbett spoke for working class people. His catchphrase? “I know my place.”
Few people today outside the correspondents to the Daily Telegraph’s letters page will be nostalgic for the stultifying conservatism of post-war British society that The Frost Report sketch was mocking.
Today life in Britain and across the world is very different. The past 40 years have seen extraordinary social changes that all but a tiny minority would see as for the better.
Access to divorce, the right to abortion, equal pay legislation, the legalisation of gay sex, the outlawing of racial discrimination and much more – all these changes were won off the backs of great struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There is still a long way to go towards achieving liberation – but these social changes were all real gains.
Today we even see a US ruling class that apparently finds it acceptable that a woman or a black man might achieve election to the White House this year.
There is more than a grain of truth to the argument that this is only possible because of the impact of the black power and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet despite all this, the “legacy of 1968” has lately come under sustained attack by the right. One of the most extreme statements came from France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently called for the 1968 legacy to be “liquidated” once and for all.
For him 1968 spawned “those who said that anything goes; that authority, good manners and respect were out of fashion; that nothing was sacred, nothing admirable; that there were no rules and no standards; and that nothing was forbidden”.
And it’s not just politicians that have been attacking 1968. Gerard DeGroot, a professor of modern history at St Andrews university who considers himself a liberal, recently joined the attacks on the 1960s.
“The decade brought flowers, music, love and good times,” he wrote. “It also brought hatred, murder, greed, dangerous drugs, needless deaths, ethnic cleansing... Bearing all that in mind, the decade should seem neither unfamiliar nor all that wonderful.”
So the legacy of 1968 is highly contested territory, with the right continually decrying the impact of the 1960s on our society. But the social changes that decade ushered in are not the prime reason why the right hate 1968. They hate it because they can recall a sense of fear.
Louis Malle’s 1990 film “Milou in May” centres on an upper class weekend party at a country house in southern France during May 1968.
Listening to reports of strikes and occupations sweeping the country, the partygoers become convinced that the lower orders are set to rise up and butcher them.
They run to the woods for safety, only to return shamefacedly once they realise the revolution has been postponed.
The right understands that the events of 1968 unleashed years of mass struggle. These lasted until 1975, inflicting substantial defeats on the ruling class and raising the spectre of revolution.
They recall that in May 1968 they were faced with the biggest general strike in history in France. The factory occupations all over the country forced its president Charles de Gaulle to flee secretly to Germany to discover if the armed forces remained loyal to him.
They did, but only at a price – an amnesty for those officers who had unleashed a terrorist offensive seven years before to try and prevent him from granting independence to Algeria.
The US ruling class recalls that 1968 saw an uprising by black people that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Troops had to be diverted from flying to Vietnam to pacify Detroit. Machine guns were needed to secure the White House as riots spread to within a few blocks of the president’s residence.
Even worse was to come when in 1975 the US ambassador to South Vietnam had to climb into a helicopter from the roof of the embassy, flying to a waiting aircraft carrier.
The Vietnamese liberation forces surged into the city of Saigon, marking the US’s greatest ever military and political defeat, the legacy of which still remains.
Italy saw a “May in slow motion”. The mass strikes which swept the country in the “hot autumn” of 1969 opened up ten years of mass struggles. These involved not just workers, but also tenants, school students, commuters, women, conscript soldiers and students.
The era also threw up mass revolutionary organisations across Italy. The country’s ruling class responded by playing up the threat of a military coup and giving licence to fascist gangs to attack and kill the left.
Uprisings also rocked Portugal, after the overthrow of the military junta that had been ruling there.
A friend of mine recently spoke of a relative who worked in the British embassy in the Portuguese capital Lisbon during the revolution that followed the fall of fascism in April 1974. He was terrified by the sight of daily demonstrations by workers and soldiers – complete with tanks.
Here in Britain, the first national miners’ strike in half a century rocked the establishment to the core.
John Davies, a cabinet minister in Edward Heath’s Tory government, was convinced that communists were about to take over. He gathered his children in the Christmas of 1973 telling them to enjoy it – because it might be the last one they would have.
All of this provides only a snapshot of those stormy years. But the fear they induced in ruling circles resounds today. That is why they attack the legacy of 1968 – and that is why they distort history by blaming the left for the violence that has spread globally over the last four decades.
Yet it is worth recalling that death was not introduced by student protesters or workers on strike. They were protesting against the mass bombing and napalming of Vietnam by the US armed forces. The FBI undertook an extermination programme against the leadership of the radical Black Panther Party that arose from the black civil rights movement.
The 1968 Olympics saw student protesters gunned down in their hundreds on the streets of Mexico City. In Spain the fascist dictator General Franco’s final years were marked by repression with mass arrests beginning in 1969.
It is true that a small minority on the left made a mistaken turn to “armed struggle” terror tactics in response to this repression. The best known example was Italy’s Red Brigades, who 30 years ago this month killed the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro.
Yet the violence of the Red Brigades pales before the extent of fascist violence directed at the Italian left. This began on 12 December 1969 with a bomb that exploded in a bank at Milan’s Piazza Fontana. Sixteen people died and 105 were wounded.
The bombing was initially blamed on the left. It eventually came out that this was a fascist attack carried out with the compliance of sections of the Italian secret service.
Similar bombings continued for over a decade, reaching a terrible crescendo with the 2 August 1980 massacre at Bologna train station, where 85 innocent people were killed by a fascist bomb.
Yet although repression certainly was unleashed by the ruling class, it was not their primary means for bringing the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s to a halt and restoring “normal” rule.
In France in 1968, de Gaulle eventually recovered from his panic and returned to negotiate with the Communist-led trade unions.
He offered a series of economic concessions in return for them urging an end to the strikes and occupations. Having secured the support of the Communist and Socialist parties, De Gaulle then called national elections.
The collective assemblies which had organised the strikes, occupations and student protests of May 1968 were loathed by left wing parliamentary politicians and trade union officials because they undermined their positions. They backed the “common sense” argument that the ballot box was the correct way to remove de Gaulle.
But elections rely on individual choice, and individually we are much more likely to succumb not just to the media’s arguments, but also to other “common sense” beliefs in society.
Militants and revolutionaries who had been at the centre of the May events found themselves sidelined in the following month’s elections – which de Gaulle comfortably won.
In the mid-1970s governments across Europe and North America followed this example.
Faced with an international economic crisis, they sat down with trade union leaders to negotiate packages which gave the unions a very limited say in how the country was administered – providing they accepted limits on pay and reductions in public spending.
In Spain, the Communists and Socialists both agreed that, after Franco’s death, the ruling fascists could remove their blackshirts and become respectable politicians with no purges and no retribution.
Of course, once the mass struggles were contained and dispersed, all the concessions were dumped.
Margaret Thatcher secured election in Britain in 1979. Ronald Reagan became US president a year later. Both moved to introduce full-blooded free market policies – and to take on and break the unions.
So there are lessons to be learnt as to how the upsurge which followed May 1968 was contained and dissipated.
The ruling class relied on the networks of support controlled by the centre left and the union leaders. They used these networks to win a strategic argument in the working class.
Those revolutionaries who opposed this process won a substantial minority of workers, but were hampered by their own weakness.
The revolutionary left counted in their hundreds in 1968. But even as they grew to thousands in the 1970s, they were unable to overcome the arguments of hundreds of thousands of Labour, Socialist and Communist Party members arguing for compromise in the “national interest”.
But the barrage of hate and vitriol directed at 1968 as we mark the 40th anniversary of the French May events should remind us how working class power terrified the ruling class.
They remain only too aware that a repeat of such events is all too possible. Speed the day!