Hanging on to the “Spirit of 1968”

Posted on: October 4th, 2018 by Nick Mecikalski

Actress Vanessa Redgrave at the 1968 Grosvenor Square protest. Photo by Frank Habicht.

A Protest Turns Violent
In Apologia, Kristin Miller recounts her participation in London’s Grosvenor Square demonstration against American involvement in the Vietnam War. The Grosvenor Square demonstration, which became the most infamous British protest of the decade, took place on March 17, 1968. It began peacefully in London’s Trafalgar Square with a speech from actress Vanessa Redgrave, who then led the crowd of about 15,000 people to the U.S. Embassy at Grosvenor Square. There, demonstrators confronted police who were restricting access to the part of the square closest to the embassy. The encounter turned violent; protesters attacked officers with stones and firecrackers, and officers charged police horses into the crowd. All told, 246 people were arrested by the end of the demonstration, and over 150 people, police and demonstrators alike, reported injuries.

Anti-Vietnam War protestors gather in Whitehall before the march to Grosvenor Square on March 17, 1968. Photo: beedlebumble.

The “Spirit of 1968”
The Grosvenor Square demonstration, though perhaps the most violent event of its kind in the United Kingdom that year, epitomized what would become known as the “Spirit of 1968” -- the counterculture of anti-authoritarian protest that took hold internationally in 1968 and the surrounding years. While the “radicals” who organized and were present at these kinds of events -- of whom Kristin Miller would have counted herself one -- only comprised a small percentage of their generation, their actions defined the political climate of the decade. Underpinning their anti-establishment and anti-war demonstrations were ideals and goals positioned to the left (occasionally far left) of the political spectrum: women’s liberation, abortion rights, anti-imperialism, organized labor, gay rights, demilitarization, and anti-capitalism, to name a few.

The New Left
In the United Kingdom and other countries around the world, these philosophies coalesced into a political movement known as the New Left. In general, the New Left based their positions on the philosophies of 19th-century German political theorist Karl Marx, who was known for the books he co-authored with businessman Friedrich Engels -- The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital -- that launched the far-left political ideology of communism. Drawing from the communist school of thought, those who made up the New Left sought to eliminate the economic inequality created by capitalism. They strove to create a society based on common ownership of resources, rather than one in which economic and political power is possessed by a few. As indicated by its name, however, the New Left was composed of thinkers and activists who supported various revised forms of Marxism that did not wholly agree with Marx’s original writings but acknowledged the economic, political, and colonial realities of the post-World War II era. While not all political activists of the 1960s and ‘70s necessarily identified with the New Left, the resurgence of Marxist ideologies during that time fueled much of the era’s antiwar fervor.

A baby boomer protestor at the 2018 Women’s March at the Iowa State Capitol. Photo: Phil Roeder

A Generation of Sellouts?
Kristin Miller has retained the progressive ideologies of her youth throughout her middle age -- as her guests mention in Apologia, she has a portrait of Karl Marx hanging in her bathroom, decades after her days of protesting against the Vietnam War. But did the “Spirit of 1968” remain alive in the rest of Kristin’s generation as it grew older, as it did in her? Kristin’s generation, the baby boomers, includes individuals born between the years of 1946 and 1964, and it has been widely criticized as a demographic that “sold out.” Much has been written about the generation of young, liberal idealists in the 1960s and ‘70s who grew up to forget their leftist roots, become capitalists, create an economy of vast inequality, and destroy the environment. Whether the baby boomers are, as some claim, a “Me Generation” who rigged the system for their own gain is a larger question. But it can safely be said that by 2009, when Apologia takes place, Kristin is in the minority of her generation both in terms of political outlook and activist behavior.

Boomer Politics and Activism

Socialism is a leftist ideology that, in seeking an equitable distribution of wealth among the citizenry, is more moderate a political theory than communism but a more radical one than the liberalism practiced by America’s Democratic Party. Kristin’s far-leftism is unusual for her age.

Kristin’s activism, too, is unusual. Studies have shown that, across the board, activist behavior declines as people age out of college and into the workforce, and this trend has held true for the Baby Boomers in the decades since the Vietnam era. Activist behavior tends to rise again around age 65 as people retire and have more time for political engagement, but, for a number of reasons, it does not reach the same degree of participation as in any given group’s younger years. The Baby Boomers in particular did not return to their activist heyday; a large and heterogeneous group, Boomers in their old age tend to have fewer common causes around which to rally, especially considering the generation’s relative economic prosperity as their careers come to an end.

The story of Boomer politics and activism, then, is a more nuanced one than some contemporary narratives might have us believe. But by any account, Kristin, a radical leftist who has retained a “Spirit of 1968” into her sixties, is an outlier.

Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Apologia

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