It seems​ no more than a moment since the recent commemorations of May 1968 – fifty up – were superseded by the anniversary of the June Days in Paris in 1848. No celebrations or hand-wringings for that brief, explosive insurrection, a few days after the summer solstice 170 years ago. The uprising was triggered by the closure of a job-creation scheme set up under the provisional government of the day. It was put down by an assortment of army, police and state paramilitaries, who lost 1500 men in the process. Between three and four thousand insurgents were killed; similar numbers were rounded up and sent to penal camps in Algeria. At least seven million workers came out on strike in 1968: that’s a first and a last in Western Europe. In its wake there were tangible gains for the majority of French citizens. Two militants at a Peugeot assembly plant in Franche-Comté were killed by security forces in the aftermath, when the workforce decided to stay on strike – one was shot, the other forced to jump off a bridge, or some say a wall – but no one much remembers them.

The mid-century revolutions in Europe were part of our history syllabus at school: we were learning about them around the time May ’68 kicked off. I was a 15-year-old with no political sensibility. Music and reading kept me toiling industriously inside my own head. ‘Tout est politique’ – it’s all political – was one of the slogans that did the rounds in May. That wouldn’t have made sense to me: I was an aspiring hippie. But I’d been in Paris with a schoolfriend in April, on the eve of the upheaval. We trudged the city and prowled the art galleries. In the evenings we went back to the hosts that my schoolfriend’s aunt had found for us: a young architect and his partner living frugally in an apartment in Porte d’Orléans with their small child, a record player and music that was a revelation to us: Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy.

A day or two before we were due to leave, we stumbled on a crowd of young people, maybe a couple of hundred, near the Place Saint-Michel. The traffic was backed up; in the distance we heard the sound of martial clanking and boots on pavement. The riot police appeared, to clear the demonstrators off the road and get the traffic moving. We had no idea that angry students had taken over the management offices on the Nanterre campus in March, and no sense of what this augured. We invested the last of our spending money in a 33 r.p.m. vinyl record: Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix. It was a French pressing on the Barclay label. When we played it on our host’s record player I recoiled from the fuzzy density of the music – an uncool discovery about myself that nagged me on the journey home.

Home at that time was mostly school. We spent roughly 35 weeks a year away from our parents, not that I was complaining. In exchange for a king’s ransom, which mine struggled to raise, I was educated and boarded at Wellington College, a boys-only private school in Berkshire. Sandhurst still took a tranche of sixth-formers from the school, with grants from the Ministry of Defence covering the fees. A wave of cultural liberalism had already broken by my second year and many pupils now shuffled off to university or jobs in the City, rather than careers in the army. Even so, it was an isolated place with a military tradition, founded in memory of the vanquisher of Bonaparte and cloistered by large gates and musty Berkshire woodland.

But none of the private schools was hermetically sealed and ours included a small, influential coterie of boys, a year or two older than me, who were already restless. When they got wind of events in Paris they were obscurely stirred. Lindsay Anderson’s if … . – in production that spring and released at the end of the year – caught their mood well: the thought that they might cause mayhem was never far away, but it was only a thought. ‘L’imagination au pouvoir!’ was the word in Paris. For my precocious seniors the imagination was hardly a candidate for office – more a lair full of semi-obscene clutter where they scowled together, counting the days till the end of term. Their politics, as I came to see later, was a kind of eclectic hip. Their extra-mural education had led to odd reading habits (Aleister Crowley, Hermann Hesse); they had been to obscure movies (Herostratus by Don Levy, Black God, White Devil by Glauber Rocha) and customised their TV intake with the ease of any digital-era couch potato.

They also had conspicuous specialisms which anticipated the age of identity management and served them well in later life: they hung on, by and large, to the privileges of their parents – money well spent. Some were Guevarists, with a woozy expertise about Che’s Bolivian campaign: they pinned photos of his corpse in Vallegrande on the walls of their cells. (We slept twenty or thirty to a corridor in little stalls, like stabled horses, that stopped a few feet short of the ceiling.) Others were preoccupied with the US, alert to Vietnam and the growing anti-war movement. Others invoked William Blake and Rimbaud (‘the disordering of all the senses’), Allen Ginsberg and the scary William Burroughs. All exchanged their expertise freely as they strode the fields of cool together; they were mostly kind to younger students and I admired them. I was starting to like my Jimi Hendrix album after all: my unwitting mentors were steeped in rock and roll, folk revival, blues by white and black musicians, and jazz. One had a compilation album, Electronic Music, with work by Berio and Cage, and the Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroğlu. All this fell under the perplexing heading ‘progressive music’. The school even had a Progressive Music Society.

Early in May 1968 its members were allowed out to a gig at the 100 Club on Oxford Street. We got into London around 4.30 with a rendezvous outside the club set for six. We didn’t know it at the time, but a handful of boys made their way to the offices of the ‘underground’ fortnightly paper International Times off Endell Street and placed a small ad. It was a forlorn bid to do something disruptive. I don’t recall which band we were supposed to see at the 100 Club. We were herded back on the bus at 9.30, having spent most of the evening watching long-haired men blundering about on the stage with yards of cable, mumbling ‘one two, one two’ into a microphone.

May was nearly done and the worst day of the school year – field day – was approaching. My school took its military traditions all the more seriously for the fact that they were slowly eroding under the liberal tide of the ‘permissive society’. As a rule, field day began with a flurry of officious anxiety and stentorian shouting. Then, as we gathered in our hundreds, we were ordered this way and that by a group of dislikeable senior pupils and dreary teachers, until we came to rest like a swarm of stunned bees on one of the playing-fields. The high point of this fatuous exercise was marked by the arrival of a top brass from Sandhurst in a helicopter – five minutes by car – to inspect the troops. Field day in 1968 was set for 15 June.

Recently I dug into the International Times archive and found the ad that my adventurous seniors had placed in the third May issue under the rubric ‘In the Sticks’:

Saturday June 15. An exhibition of fluorescent art, with sound effects and a light show, Wellington CROWTHORNE: Gathering of the communes in wooded park. Free food. Light shows, films etc. 11 a.m. ‘The College’, Crowthorne, Berks.

Liquid light shows were fashionable, disordering and reordering the visual field as hallucinogens were said to do. Communes were a summons to reason: a movement known as the Hyde Park Diggers was beginning to size up the countryside after a phase of urban squatting, and now imagined sanctuaries of rustic dissidence: free food, free love, free thinking, home-grown marijuana. Like Fourier’s phalansteries, they were going to nudge society organically towards a revolution that would take it beyond war, sexual repression, A-levels and the combined cadet force. Two hundred hippies smoking pungent joints and waving joss sticks on parade would have exposed our ritual to the ridicule it deserved. But staff at ‘The College’, Crowthorne quickly got wind of the ad and IT printed a correction in June: ‘CROWTHORNE: The events advertised in previous issues of IT will not take place.’

By the time this little jest fell on its face, the insubordinate mood in the school was becoming difficult to patrol. The same was true for much of the world beyond the gates. IT, which was launched at the Roundhouse in 1966, caught something of the moment. The paper’s archive, now online, is a gory mish-mash of psychedelia, drugs, the occult, squatting, flower power, music, libertarian sexual politics – softly pornographic while staunchly pro-gay, with a smattering of second-wave feminism – and a contempt for the establishment that occasionally strays into serious politics. IT had been quicker to respond to ‘les événements’ in Paris than OZ, the other widely read underground paper, largely because OZ was monthly. IT was also ahead of the Black Dwarf, whose editors were still putting together their first issue when Paris erupted in the second week of May. IT ran an interview with Jacques Tarnero, a member of the 22 March Movement, the radical student coalition in Nanterre that had led the student occupation and served as the catalyst in Paris. Tarnero was elated: the working class, he explained, had decided to join the students, despite the advice of the Communist Party, which had denounced the students ‘as petit bourgeois playing at revolution, as Trotskyists and as Maoists. In fact,’ he said, ‘we are all those things.’ (I understand this language much better, half a century on.) One side of the interview was bullet-point background matter, along with touching calls for help that foreshadow appeals from the Jungle in Calais. ‘MED FAC: Three litho machines need printers.’ There were tips for tourists of the revolution – ‘Are you going to Paris? Nanterre HQ Mar 22 movement. Tell you how to contact it [sic]’ – and even a hint of revolutionary R&R for hippie fellow travellers: ‘Sorbonne/Continuous Music/Love Making.’

The June issue of OZ included an interview with the thirty-something poet, Jean-Jacques Lebel, apparently in jail in France at the time. Fifteen pages of educational material followed under the heading Agit-OZ, including a genealogy of world revolution that beginners could pull out and pin on the wall. It starts with Cromwell and the Diggers (heroes for back-to-the-earth hippies and the young left) and tumbles through the 18th century to get to Marx. A short glide from there brings us to Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lenin, whereupon the family broadens out: on the one hand, Mao and Stalin (bad ‘state capitalism’); on the other – and who would have guessed? – ‘Attlee, CND, Ben Bella’. At length we arrive at the authentic heir to the tradition, destined to dispel all error and vindicate three centuries of struggle: ‘International Socialism, 36 Gilden Road, London NW5’.

The brilliant young Trotskyist David Widgery may have had a hand in that family tree. He had recently joined the International Socialists, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party. (He went on to become part of the editorial team of OZ, at the time of the famous obscenity trial over its ‘Schoolkids issue’ in 1971.) The Agit-OZ section included a polemic by Widgery asking good questions about Britain’s thriving counterculture, with its preference for drugs and music over political commitment. In Europe, he felt, it was different: students were building the ‘invisible international that the great revolutionary Victor Serge wrote of’. Widgery had spotted the promiscuous exchanges of icons and rallying cries going on in the UK that undermined the ‘revolution’ by assimilating it to lifestyle changes. ‘Acid hippies, progressive bohemians and bored pop entrepreneurs,’ Widgery wrote in scathing terms, ‘all like the language of total liberation and look of Che Guevara (and some can even spell this name right) … The club called Revolution where the young ruling class whinnies under portraits of Mao and Che is only typical of this radical dishonesty.’ He might have found the angry children of toffs, parvenus and soldiers at my school quite useful at the barricades (he and the comrades could have dispensed with them later). Even disobedient boys had a working knowledge of small arms: what else were those compulsory sessions on the rifle range and gun-cleaning duties in the armoury good for? They would have enjoyed turning their weapons on the class to which they belonged. Widgery understood all that, but he didn’t buy it – he had an unwavering stake in the proletariat.

OZ’s top reporter from Paris in the June issue was the Italian anarchist Angelo Quattrocchi, also recruited by the Black Dwarf. ‘Everything in the melting pot,’ he wrote. ‘Students take over the universities. Workers take over the factories. Students want to run the universities. Workers want to run the factories. To each according to his dreams.’ (Quattrocchi’s gripping eye-witness commentaries from Paris in 1968 – one of them written, it was said, in London, as he watched a 31 bus go by – are now available from Verso.) No one I knew in those days would have caught the allusion to Marx’s aphorism from The Critique of the Gotha Programme – to each according to his needs – but they would have got the point that dreaming might be a revolutionary impulse, even if other dreamers stalking the pages of IT and OZ – hippies, mystics, sexual libertarians, music lovers, UFO-spotters – were off-message. Josef Koudelka’s photos from Prague at the end of August are proof that there was an epidemic of utopian hope in the depths of the Cold War. The French woke to see some of their dreams enacted in law, but the Czechs, like the Palestinians in this resonant anniversary year, had been dreaming the wrong dream.

The June 1968 issue of OZ ended with a review by the young Tom Nairn of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nairn did his best to like the film but couldn’t hack it. It led back, he decided, ‘into the heart of the oldest, stalest kind of despair with the human state. The message was always false. In this year of our Revolution, it is absurd, too.’ Reading that, I remembered that ‘false’ was a bravura adjective in the 1960s, a bit like the word ‘fake’ now. Until 1968 it was still doing the passeggiatta, under the watchful eye of British leftists and the counter-cultural not-so-left, who agreed for different reasons that their lived experience was at odds with the expectations of ‘society’. Many people I knew, my age or a few years older, felt this way. But where was the noun that would be agreeable to all parties? ‘Consciousness’ was a plausible suitor, always doffing its hat as ‘false’ walked by, and when the two eventually came together, there was a rousing cheer for ‘false consciousness’. It had a hint of Existentialist ‘mauvaise foi’ – refusing to admit that we might be stuck with a version of ourselves that wasn’t us – while referring directly to Engels’s shorthand for ‘ideology’, which appeared in a letter he wrote from a gently swinging London of the 1890s, pitching to the left with the Housing of the Working Classes Act, the publication of News from Nowhere, and an election victory in West Ham South for Keir Hardie. The 1960s, like the 1890s, seemed to offer a promising utopian synthesis: on the one hand, hippies, heads and radical psychiatrists who wanted to change the world by starting with the eye of the beholder; on the other, anarchists and a revolutionary left who proposed to overturn the system: justice, creativity and sanity would follow.

How the crucial sense that we were all trying to break free of a collective self-deception played out still puzzles me. Among people I knew after I left school, there was a buzzing convergence between those on the left, with clear-minded things to say about false consciousness, and those who had come down the winding road of the consciousness-changers (mushrooms and synthetic hallucinogens; visionary poetry; adventurous, hypnotic music; an othered, vaguely neocolonial infatuation with Eastern religions). On this tortuous route were some admirable pioneers: many of the musicians of the day, including jazz figures such as Alice Coltrane; poets and writers, among them Alan Watts, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman. Travellers on this path thought they were shredding a veil of illusion: ‘Maya’ was a word in common use, on loan from Indian philosophy to sub-prime borrowers in the West, with its hip suggestion that the real is an illusion worked by a deity, in which we’re strung along, part puppets, part bots, by ‘consumer society’. The left would have agreed with the hippies that shopping was bad karma, but its utopian hopes still depended on real descriptions, while we, the hippies, shoved everything into the rucksack: UFOs and Yeats, Grace Slick and Maud Gonne, ley lines, Timothy Leary and R.D. Laing, as we struck camp and pitched it a few metres down the road the following evening. It didn’t matter that we were still in the same place: the point was to see it – and ourselves – differently, to change the people we were and the place we were in by reimagining the self and ignoring the geo-localisation.

This dangerous rummaging in the realms of consciousness to root out assumptions that might be ‘false’ took its toll – mental illness and unemployability were waiting in the shadows for some of us – but even the most exasperating hippies (and surely I qualified) were committed to a degree of self-scrutiny. The greater difficulty arose when older people at a remove from a middle-class youth movement were told that they were deluded. Young anarchists and revolutionaries had a hard time explaining to the trade union movement in the 1960s that it was trying to feather its members’ nests at the expense of a grandiose world-historical struggle whose outcome was certain. The labour rank and file in those days could be as entrenched as the youth were intransigent. In Street-Fighting Years (1987) Tariq Ali remembers having to flee from a group of Smithfield meat porters and Tilbury dockers marching in support of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968. A contemptuous tone characterised other kinds of rebel sensibility around the world: you only have to think of Bob Dylan’s Mr Jones in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ to know how easy it was to sneer at people on the outside – a journalist in Dylan’s case – who just didn’t get it.

It’s obvious from old issues of OZ and IT that Britain wasn’t about to go through anything comparable to what happened in France, even though young Britons and an older left shared the disgust for Vietnam expressed in France, the US and Germany. The war in Vietnam lay at the root of these protests. Even in Nanterre, where there was festering anger at segregated boarding for men and women, the students’ occupation was triggered by the arrest of Vietnam Committee militants who had attacked the American Express offices in Paris. France’s universities, unlike those in the UK, were oversubscribed, straining to cope with numbers and budgets. French undergraduates were chafing at the prospect of a monotonous future in the structured economy of the trente glorieuses. ‘Métro, boulot, dodo’ – ‘subway, work, bed’ – is a memorable phrase from May ’68, drawn from a 1950s poem about working-class life, whose appeal to students was irresistible. Elite establishments, too, had their share of radicals at the grandes écoles, as they did in prestigious US universities like Berkeley, or Columbia, where the SAS (Students’ Afro-American Society) and the New Left SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) mounted a serious protest in April. It ended with a raw display of police violence.

As a US satrapy, Britain was whisked into flower power, while France remained a bastion of exiled African-American and homegrown jazz with no rock music to speak of. Its avant-garde cinema was on a roll: in Chronique d’un été (1961), Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin were already fielding answers from young interviewees about how to live differently, possibly better, that became the battle cries of May ’68. Yet in France no lifestyle alternatives led away from politics: no ‘turn on, tune in, drop out,’ as Timothy Leary had proposed in 1966; no chanting the Hare Krishna mantra; no George Harrisons learning the sitar; no up-to-date media and advertising industries that could repackage and commodify protest. And so, when frustration at the stultifying mood of the Fifth Republic boiled over, it took to the streets. The moment was propitious because so many smaller groups had formed to the left of the Communist Party, often in a tedious chain of expulsions: not just the Parti Socialiste Unifié (roughly thirty thousand members) but several Trotskyist parties, including the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire – numbers unknown but a driving force in Nanterre – plus at least two extreme-sports parties of the Maoist persuasion. What was astonishing was the way the student protest found an echo in the factories. Days after the students abandoned the lecture theatres, workers were walking off the shop floor. Everyone downed tools. Less surprising is the fact that the two groups never really fraternised – the gendered word seems right: 80 per cent of the French workforce were male – and failed to see eye-to-eye on the purpose of the uprising: the students were dismissive of labour’s wish to draw the line at higher wages; working people looked for gains in pay and conditions. Yet both groups would take something away.

Amerika, as we used to call it, had more cultural penetration in Britain than in France but the fiery opposition to the war in Vietnam was unsustainable in the UK after the confrontation in March 1968 at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which spoke out for a North Vietnamese victory, staged an exemplary call to arms, but a crossover into the mainstream left and the ‘Legalise Marijuana’ movement – a large libertarian grouping, far more influential than the dedicated weed-heads, who were often too stoned to get behind it – turned out to be impossible. There was no draft to pull disparate groups together, as there was in the US: the young left, exotic hippies, and oppressed minorities whose leaders had been murdered (Malcolm X in 1965, King in 1968). Big US record labels were drawn into lucrative complicity with the tide of opposition, which reaffirmed the interest of the heads and music fans. Viewed from Britain, this seemed to be a movement with energy and commitment, whatever the factional disputes, no matter the carping retrospectives of SDS elders. Documentary footage of protest and repression in the US was sobering – including the material that Haskell Wexler shot for Medium Cool (1969) at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which showed young Americans leading by example: a far cry from their elders or the British officers whose medals tinkled as I stood to attention as a 15-year-old in my spotless, post-imperial boots.

Britain had no recent hard-nosed tradition of dissent, unlike France – Algeria and earlier the Resistance – or the US, where anti-war protest followed fluently in the wake of Civil Rights. The nearest it had come before Vietnam to a mobilising precedent was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Ban the Bomb symbol was important for both hippies and the left in the 1960s. But CND had lost its purchase after the Cuban Missile Crisis – one in the eye for Khrushchev – and the test ban treaty the following year. Having failed to make a difference on the streets, the youth in Britain fell back to defend a revolution of attitudes: a tussle about representation and – as the hippies had proclaimed – a kind of altered consciousness. A free-booting hedonist spirit, from the pages of OZ and IT to the fringes of BBC arts programming, allowed dissent an honorary foothold in the public imagination, and by then it was well on the way to becoming a consumer choice. The left dug in and prepared to clean up after the hippies: we had left our dreams strewn about like debris the morning after a festival.

By the 1970s the left (of Labour, that is) were making headway in Britain and engaging in tactical attitude wars, frontlined by Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. A new theatre of operations had opened in the field of gender assumptions: these battles were fought inch by inch from the kitchen and the bedroom to the workplace (‘Revolutions are made about little things,’ Sheila Rowbotham had said in 1969). Children of the ruling class now whinnied over The Golden Notebook and Bob Marley’s ‘Burnin’ and Lootin’’. I was living in Leeds, playing the pubs and dowdier hotels as second guitar in a band put together by a local singer-songwriter. I lived on the dole most of the year; in the summers I worked in a children’s project on a low-rise estate in Leeds.

Then my partner and I moved to Paris to work as English-language teachers and eventually translators. Seven, eight years after May 1968, it was a tense city and our French contemporaries were restive, even though the 1960s had turned out well in a modest way. More universities were being built and the haughty habits of faculty droning on to students had undergone a welcome change. Workers forced into long hours in the name of postwar reconstruction had won a 43-hour week (and then 40) as well as a 7 per cent salary rise. The minimum hourly wage had gone from 2.22 francs to three and was being adjusted upwards. Employees could now choose to learn a skill – a foreign language for instance – on courses paid for by their bosses. In 1968 health insurance contributions had fallen by 5 per cent and the minimum allowance for the elderly had risen. Inequality between the highest and lowest paid had narrowed. Labour had seen an increase in its share of the national income as capital conceded ground. Even the Communist Party, the bête noire of the far left and the centre-right, saw a brief rise in membership. There was now a Women’s Liberation Movement, founded in 1970; the road to legal abortion had opened in 1975. Why were our friends complaining? If there had been a revolution in May 1968, the oil crisis of 1973 would have driven it into a cul de sac. But there wasn’t. In June the French electorate returned De Gaulle’s party with a swingeing victory. Still, significant concessions had been made, and the uprising had forced the general off the stage.

Day by day Paris was a sombre city during the liberal modernising presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. I wasn’t a member of any party or movement, and regrettably I was no longer the hippie I’d wanted to be. Love and peace had worn thin. Our flat – two couples with a cat – was often more of a hostel. We received shaken young exiles from the Italian left (we began Italian lessons) and troubled souls from Britain. One of our guests from the UK laboured for weeks over a document entitled ‘Why I am leaving the International Marxist Group’, and dug in at the dinner table with a ferocity that put our own manners to the test. Perhaps there was a link.

By then the hippie movement, late to arrive in France, had taken a political turn, with many young people moving to the countryside to found radical communes. A shoal of Maoists, too, were heading into peasant farming communities, in search of a sea to swim in. Those who remained in Paris included the luminaries of the review Tel Quel, committed to a recondite struggle over the nature of the linguistic sign: they were sure that the Chinese ideogram was a revolutionary instance. But in 1976, the year of Mao’s death, the editors had begun rowing back from the faith. We were relieved: we’d been puzzling over the programme and wondering where to muster. With Tel Quel reconsidering and others leaving for la France profonde, Paris might have seemed off-season for a street-fighting man of the kind I never was. But an impatient mass of citizens had it in for Giscard and his prime minister, Raymond Barre, who were foundering as the price of oil went through the roof.

Turning out to demonstrate peacefully in our tens of thousands against the expansion of a military base on the Larzac plateau, for instance, or in support of steelworkers facing ‘restructuring’ and job losses, meant preparing for the worst: tear gas in abundance, chaos and flight, lavish police violence, heritage-style barricades and Molotov cocktails, more beatings, and eventually dispersal. Most of these confrontations were orchestrated by stylish, messianic ‘autonomous’ agitators in crash helmets and trainers, who would smash a few shop windows, run at the police cordon with crowbars and set the security forces on the crowd. Autonomists were opposed, above all, to the benighted elements of civil society as they saw it: trade unions and left-wing parties who had convened big demonstrations but weren’t prepared to double down and overthrow the state. Some autonomist groups were versed in the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, and the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri. This, like Tel Quel’s, was work in the domain of representation, designed to show the dark side of the Republic under pressure. Truth in the Chinese ideogram? Truth in ambient violence? Even I knew better.

But I find the confident dismissals of 1960s culture to which we’re treated every ten years unconvincing. This was the moment, apparently, when patience was traded in for instant gratification, a sense of ‘us’ for a sense of ‘me’, as Western societies were broken on the wheel of self-indulgence. Really? What about the people who opted for public service – health, education, social work – as opposed to the media, where these opinions are aired like rotten socks? Were exasperated Northern Irish youth who rallied to civil rights in the autumn of 1968 more self-regarding than the men of Whitehall who looked on in dismay before they took the fight to the enemy on Bloody Sunday? Were the young in the GDR who spoke up for reform in Czechoslovakia and went to jail when they refused to sign the Willenserklärungen – a legal document that urged them to recant – really more callow than the elderly men who tell us now that the 1960s were a terrible mistake? What of others, in the UK, who worked in the cramped offices of support committees for internationalist causes: world development, anti-apartheid, Latin American solidarity campaigns, relief and emergency deployments, often in former outposts of empire? Pundits who denounce the period and the people it produced as self-regarding are among the most narcissistic and me-ist of that generation still standing: performing curmudgeons drawn by the merest glimmer of limelight to mount the podium and make fools of themselves in front of young people, whose patience won’t last for ever.

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Vol. 40 No. 15 · 2 August 2018

In his excellent defence of 1968 Jeremy Harding writes of a gulf between radicalised students and the organised working class in both Britain and France (LRB, 19 July). Doubtless true in general, but the gap was sometimes bridged. Here I will recall just two individuals usually forgotten in accounts of 1968. Harding mentions the London dockers who marched in support of Enoch Powell. But not all dockers backed Powell. Terry Barrett was a London docker and, like David Widgery, a member of the International Socialists. He had worked closely with LSE students in IS during the 1967 dock strike; I recall seeing him at one of the LSE occupations. When the dockers voted to march for Powell, Barrett, with incredible personal courage (he was totally isolated and other dockers threw coins at him), gave out a leaflet, written by Paul Foot, which inquired: ‘Who is Enoch Powell? … He lives in Belgravia … Again and again he has argued that the docks are “grossly overmanned".’

Harding says that in France ‘student protest found an echo in the factories.’ But it was not some spontaneous contagion; it required leadership. Not many have heard the name Yvon Rocton. Rocton had been a conscript in Algeria and was sent to a punishment battalion for opposing torture. On returning to France he joined the Trotskyist Organisation Communiste Internationaliste, where he doubtless met many student activists, and returned to work at the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes, where on 14 May he led the first factory occupation, which sparked off the whole wave of occupations.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Vol. 40 No. 16 · 30 August 2018

I got the date – and the occasion – wrong in trying to remember the botched challenge to the traditions of Wellington College by a group of seditious pupils in 1968 (LRB, 19 July). Their idea, I wrote, was to invite hundreds of hippies – via a small ad placed in International Times – to ‘field day’, a combined cadet force ritual scheduled for May. According to the historian David Kynaston, the ad announced the invitation to something called ‘speech day’, in June. That was a civilian affair, with hundreds of fee-paying parents milling about and weighing up the value they were getting for their investment. All the same, if the hippies, anarchists and diggers had shown up, speech day would have turned into a kind of field day, as parents shouldered their parasols and shooting-sticks and marched on the enemy.

Jeremy Harding
St Michel de Rivière, France

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