Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (Vintage, 2005; ISBN 978-0099429623; 464pp; £8.99)

IssueMay 2008
Comment by Ian Sinclair

Published four years ago, Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: the year that rocked the world is an engrossing and stimulating general history of a time “when significant segments of population all over the globe refused to be silent about the many things that were wrong with the world.”
Kurlansky, 20 years old in 1968 and heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam war protests in the US, uses an impressive range of primary and secondary sources, including interviews with key participants and illuminating posters and photographs from the period. In addition he provides extensive footnotes, a thorough index and a useful bibliography for those interested in further research.
For Kurlansky four factors combined to produce the year’s “spontaneous combustion” of rebellions: the example of the civil rights movement; a generation that rejected all forms of authority; the universally unpopular Vietnam war; and the coming of age of television. As Grayson Kirk, the president of Columbia University, fearfully noted, “Our young people, in disturbing numbers, appear to reject all forms of authority… I know of no time in our history when the gap between generations has been wider or more potentially dangerous.”
While the majority of the book is concerned with activist developments in the United States, Kurlansky also looks at the movements in France, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the United Kingdom and Mexico. In all these protests, what surprised many was the violence of the establishment response, which was particularly severe against the lesser-known uprisings in the Global South. So while the protestors clubbed at the Democratic Convention in Chicago gained media attention, hundreds of students were massacred in Mexico City on the eve of the Olympic Games in relative silence.
Kurlansky has written an informative, fast-paced narrative, though at times there is perhaps a little too much description and not enough analysis. And even the inclusion of a chapter on the emerging feminist movement can’t hide the fact that 1968 - and therefore this book - was very much a man’s world, where the popular Students for Democratic Change could get away with arguing in a brochure, “The system is like a woman” - you have to have sex with it to make it change.
These, though, are minor quibbles in an otherwise superb study that has much to interest activists of all colours, from those who were alive at the time to younger people eager to be inspired into action.

Topics: History