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Some of the older tent-dwellers outside St. Paul's Cathedral may remember the anti-capitalist protests that swept through European cities in May 1968.  Others may have read about those protests and been inspired.  Indeed, there is plenty on the web about the similarities and links between the two events.

Occupy's supporters would no doubt like to dwell on the radicalism, energy and momentum that characterised the 1968 protests.  But they would do well also to reflect on the fact that 1968 was an utter failure.  The protests fizzled out after a few weeks and despite the popular chant of the day being "Paris, London, Rome, Berlin: we will fight, we will win", right-wing parties triumphed in elections in the two or three years after 1968 in the UK, France and Italy. Only Germany elected a moderate social democratic government.  And,of course, the hard right Richard Nixon was elected President of the USA in 1968 and was re-elected in 1972 despite similar radical protest movements in America.

The truth is the politics of the 1968 protests were far too radical for the vast majority of European and American populations.  Their disruptive style of protest alienated many including, in France, striking workers. They were ill-focused, bringing together a wide variety of single issue concerns with much broader and vaguer campaigns for social change .  And, most fundamentally, they were wrong being overly influenced by radical, utopian outlooks which offered a better life for all by removing supposedly corrupt or foolish authority figures.  Their answers were too comforting and easy and failed to recognise that there are plenty of uncontrollable social and economic pressures, which are the fault of no-one, but which make it very difficult to bring about the step changes we'd all like to see in living standards and lifestyles. 

All features which, it seems to me, are weaknesses of the Occupy movement.

In fact, the real legacy of 1968 was not felt until three or four years later when those who had participated in the protests formed new movements to campaign for the liberation and rights of women, gay people, disabled people, against racism and in defence of the environment.  These were all movements that, over a number of years, really did radically change the way we live and view ourselves.  But unlike 1968, they had a clear focus, they mobilised very specific social groups, and they were more about liberating oneself than changing the whole world and bringing down governments.

So, even if Occupy grows in size and momentum, their greatest day will probably be yet to come.  But just as your average student protester on the streets of Paris in 1968 could never have predicted that in a few years time she might have been fighting for something as novel as women's or gay liberation, so  today it is impossible to know where the anger and mobilisation unleashed by Occupy might lead.


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