The year 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of 1968. On account of the Paris May and the Prague Spring, not to mention major demonstrations that took place in Bonn, Rome, Warsaw, and beyond, that year has come to be considered the high-water mark of postwar social activism in Europe. But that high point did not last long; instead, 1968 was quickly cast as the swansong of traditional social movement mobilization. That is, in addition to all else, the year came to stand for the breakdown of politics defined through conventional categories of class and ideology. The West German case is informative: Already in September 1968, West German women formally challenged the misogynist male leadership of the main student movement organization, the Socialist German Student League (SDS). By 1970, the SDS had dissolved itself altogether, as outside pressures exacerbated internal fissures. Social scientists sorted the activist groups that succeeded it into a handful of categories, ranging from “armed resistance” cells like the Red Army Faction (RAF) and dogmatic Communist sects or “K-Groups,” to “Citizens’ Initiatives” concerned “only” with local issues or environmental matters, and other “lifestyle” movements. This emphasis on categorization reinforces the idea that society splintered into smaller groups otherwise so narrowly focused as to lose any larger vision. It also suggests that the unitary model of mass social movement organization established by the labor movement in the late nineteenth century had, in the end, given way to myriad smaller groupings that appeared far more difficult to understand.
In their efforts to understand these movements, social scientists created a number of new interpretative frameworks. They effectively proposed that activism after 1968 was quite different from what had come before. Five of these frameworks have remained particularly influential in the study of social movements after 1968: the “New Social Movements” (NSM) model, the ideas of “single issue” activism and “identity politics,” the notion of discrete national movements, and the concept of a political spectrum divided between Left and Right. While these frameworks have been applied most notably to particular subsets of the wide spectrum of 1970s activism, they have also been used collectively to distinguish social movements after 1968 from their predecessors. Taken together, in fact, these ways of seeing post-1968 social movements account for the widespread perception that they were decentered, disorganized, and ultimately less powerful and less meaningful than their predecessors.
NSM theory, which was popularized already in the 1980s by sociologists like Dieter Rucht and Alain Touraine, has long been the foremost framework for the interpretation of these movements. In line with Ronald Inglehart’s “value change” hypothesis, NSM theory posits that in economically thriving capitalist societies, social movements after the 1960s focused on post-material concerns linked with “quality of life” issues. Though it helps to emphasize the distinct focal points of some more recent protest movements, the NSM approach also contributes to the idea that protest was no longer as important or meaningful after 1968, since activists focused on “boutique” issues. Thus, the idea of “single issue” activism, which proposes that activists sought to isolate particular issues rather than dealing with society as a whole, is closely linked with NSM theory. “Identity politics,” which has recently come to be seen as a damning epithet, goes a step further, proposing that the particular issues taken up by individual movements relate only to those movements’ own protagonists. Likewise, these movements have been studied as discrete national cases in a way that downplays the significance of transnational communication networks and ways of thinking beyond the nation, and thus emphasizes the movements’ lack of power in national parliaments. Finally, the Left/Right political spectrum has been used on the one hand to split movement organizations with similar goals apart from one another, and on the other hand to further discount the actions of groups without a clear enough position on this arguably inadequate interpretative framework. Not least on account of the Prague Spring, 1968 is an important milestone in the narrative of a declining difference between Left and Right since real existing socialism was seen ever more critically by Leftists in the capitalist world and dissidents East of the iron curtain.
The upswing in protest and social movements in recent years—from across the political spectrum—gives further reasons to reconsider the usefulness of these interpretive frameworks. In fact, given observers’ difficulties locating the leaders, the programs, and even the organizations that underpin these new movements, a reconsideration of our assumptions about how social movements work—which seem to be based on a certain mythologized model of activism before 1968—is crucial. Hence, this conference will use both the current political situation, but also the fiftieth anniversary of 1968 as an impetus to reconsider the workings of social movements by studying what happened after that supposed pinnacle of postwar protest. We will focus particularly on our changing understanding of popular politics and social change in Europe during the second half of the twentieth century. Thus, we will organize our discussions at the conference around the following sets of questions:
1. New movement structures, new models of leadership: What sorts of organizational structures were used in social movements and protest campaigns after 1968? What role have individual leaders played in these structures, which are commonly considered informal and bottom-up? What has “leadership” meant in such contexts? What in turn have been the historical effects and implications for social change of the “deinstitutionalization” this activism represented?
2. Changing forms of activism: What sorts of concerns and issues motivated protest after 1968? To what extent did these concerns and issues differ from earlier sources of protest? How do “single issue” movements work, and to what extent do they also address a wider set of interrelated issues? How can we best relate the “kitchen table” activism or “front porch” politics of the 1970s and 1980s to earlier forms of political activism? How important were transnational ideas and actions for activists after 1968, and how did activists think and operate across borders amidst the Cold War?
3. Effecting change after 1968: What were the hopes and goals of activists in the 1970s and early 1980s? To what extent did these goals depart from those of the period up to 1968? How did activists understand and relate to socialism as a political project in the 1970s and 1980s? Has there been a transformation in activists’ vision of social and political change and how it can be realized? What sorts of changes did social movements after 1968 effect in society, politics, and democracy?
We invite contributions that address these questions on the basis of historical research into particular post-1968 social movements. We welcome papers that span the gamut of 1970s and 1980s activism, from environmentalists, women’s groups, and gay rights movements to squatters, communist organizations, youth movements, autonomists, and “armed resistance” cells. We are particularly interested in contributions that will help us to think past the interpretative frameworks typically applied to post-1968 protest movements. Thus, while we expect participants will use concrete cases to study the characteristics, structures, and goals of these movements, our interest lies not in covering all possible movements in encyclopedic fashion, but rather in working together to produce a new, historical framework for thinking about the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s.
We invite interested scholars to send a one-page paper proposal, along with a short biographical statement or one-page c.v. to the organizers: Friederike Brühöfener (firstname.lastname@example.org), Belinda Davis (Bedavis@history.Rutgers.Edu), and Stephen Milder (email@example.com) by 1 May 2018. We hope to be able to cover all travel and accommodations costs for conference participants.