In Buddhist astrology the spirit of the monkey is infused with wit, quick-thinking, strategic nous and a taste for making mischief. And 1968, the year of global rebellion in the Year of the Monkey, was marked by a much deeper sense of mischief than that performed by barricades and Molotov cocktails.
It was also a moment of exuberance, creativity and startling new ideas worked out in the heat of battle that left the old men of the left and right reeling before the onslaught of a new generation from Prague to Chicago and on to Paris and Mexico City.
The start of 1968 saw the beginning of the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Tết Mậu Thân means Year of the Monkey in Vietnamese and the surprise attacks launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnam on the United States and South Vietnam on January 30, 1968 displayed plenty of the simian traits.
Launched under the cover of innocuous cultural practices it would turn the tide of the war and inspire a generation with a vision of, in Che Guevara’s famous words, “two, three, many Vietnams”, that could do to imperialism what the previous generation had done to colonialism.
Even though the war would not end for another seven years the Tet offensive took the determination and strength of the Viet Cong into American living rooms. It irrevocably shook the faith of both South Vietnamese and American citizens in the ability of their respective states to win the war.
Thousands of young Americans took to the streets in protest against the war and as more and more American soldiers came home in coffins the movement against the war steeled itself and joined forces with the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle against racism at home.
As the year wore on the political temperature soared as young people stuck it to the man with growing confidence.
In Prague radical young Czechoslovakians, many of them writers, were planning their own astute mischief. Antonín Novotnỳ’s various attempts to de-Stalinize the country since the 1950s hadn’t cut the mustard with the “Young Turks” and they had started building pressure for more far-reaching reforms.
But Novotnỳ lost his nerve and in July 1967 he began to repress the young writers leading the charge against Stalinism. The state seized control of the publications and publishing houses that had been fermenting dissent and action was taken against the leading figures in a generation of virtuosic writers including Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik and Pavel Kohout.
An economic downtown compounded tensions and on January 5, 1968 Novotnỳ was replaced by Alexander Dubček. Dubček announced a series of changes under the Action Programme, which despite its bland as beige name, ushered in the Prague Spring.
The freedom he granted to the press opened political and artistic space and there was a flourishing of cultural life that included a remarkable period of innovation and experimentation in writing, music and film. Like the uprising in Budapest in 1956 the Prague Spring seemed to promise a democratic alternative to the cold weight of Stalinism.
On the other side of the iron curtain the youth of Western Europe also seemed to be seized by the spirit of the monkey. In London Tariq Ali, the young Pakistani firebrand who inspired the Rolling Stone’s Street Fighting Man, lead students into Grosvenor Square in protest at the war in Vietnam.
In Berlin student’s staged massive sit-ins. But it was the events in Paris in May that came to mark the high point of the European leg of this year of international rebellion.
On May 2, 1968, after months of conflict, students at the University of Nanterre rebelled against the irreconcilable class differences that had marked French life under General Charles de Gaulle.
The old left, stolid and often authoritarian, had made a few attempts to contest the Gaullist regime, but they were entirely unsuccessful and the youth of Paris, perhaps channelling something of the spirit of the Communards from 1871, decided to take matters into their own hands.
Teaming up with ten million workers in the largest wildcat strike in French history the students and the workers almost toppled the French government.
This was a revolt against the unions and the established left as much as it was a revolt against capital and the state. The students and workers were fed-up with the piece-meal deals and accommodations that the unions and left parties had made with the establishment and called for the overthrow of the government.
De Gaulle had to flee the citizens of Paris in a manner that was reminiscent of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette’s flight to Varennes in 1791. And for a month the streets of Paris were, as they had been in 1792 and 1871, controlled by Parisians.
But unlike the royal family De Gaulle could call an election to stave off a revolution. He announced a new election on May 30, 1968 and the Communist Party supported the turn from the barricades to the polls. The revolutionary spirit faltered and after De Gaulle was returned to the presidency on June 23 with the largest margin in French parliamentary history, it faded away altogether.
Just as the desire for liberation had jumped from place to place, from the Third World to the first and across the Iron Curtain, so too did the desire to beat the rebellious youth back into their place.
But elsewhere the quick witted simian spirit racing around the globe ran into altogether more brutal responses than in France.
The Viet Cong lost more than 45 000 soldiers in the Tet offensive. And on April 4 shots rang out in the Memphis sky and Martin Luther King Jr. bled to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
In August Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and although the last flicker of the mischievous spirit of the monkey managed to repaint enough street signs to get a good number of Soviet tanks lost on their way to Prague, they eventually arrived and the time of the writers was over.
In October students were gunned down in the Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City and in the same month protestors were shot dead in what came to be known as the Rodney Riots in Kingston.
The last act of rebellion, of astute mischief, to attain iconic status in the Year of the Monkey was when John Wesley Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at Mexico Olympics podium in a black power salute to protest against segregation in the United States.
The Year of the Rooster, of an overbearing demand to dominate, was at hand and we wouldn’t see the same spirit of global rebellion again until 2011.
But the global mischief making in the Year of the Monkey wasn’t in vain. The US were driven out of Vietnam, a decisive blow was delivered against American apartheid and the stifling, disciplined social norms of post-war society in Western Europe were never fully restored.
And the radical imagination, which had escaped the bureaucrats of the Left and found its way into art, music and new thinking about everyday life would never be corralled in the same way again.