The Past in Action: Memories of 1968 in the Italian and Spanish Student Movements

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018 0

Lorenzo Zamponi, Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, Italy

1968 was a crucial year in the history of student contention. Both in Italy and in Spain, the end of the 1960s was the apex of longer waves of mobilisation that marked the political upbringing of a whole generation. Nevertheless, the memory of 1968 is significantly different in the two countries, and this has considerable consequences on the capacity of contemporary student movements to appropriate it and use it.
In recent years, movement scholars have become increasingly interested in the role of collective memory in social movements [1], [2], [3]. In this context, memory studies and in particular the sociology of memory based on the seminal work of Maurice Halbwachs [4] have become fundamental tools in advancing our understanding of social movements. If memory, in the Halbwachsian tradition, is collective in so far as it is produced in “social frameworks”, in the context of social groups structured by social relationships, then a society composed of multiple groups and multiple belongings produces a plural, and often contested and contentious, memory of the past [5], [6], [7].  

Movements do remember the past. Activists live in a world that is populated by objects, images, symbols, but also stories, traditions, rituals and practices that come from the past and carry with them a certain heritage. The past is present in the environment in which they carry on their political activity, i.e. in the university or in the city, and it was present in the environment in which they were socialised, through films, TV shows, books, stories from their parents, and so on. They are equipped with a repertoire of memory that allows them to access different repositories of memory. Mostly, they rely on the mass media and on movement culture [8].
Which memory of 1968 is remembered by contemporary student activists and how are they able to appropriate it and use it? Here there are significant differences between the two countries: the memory of the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s in Spain is far weaker, less canonised, and less homogeneous than in Italy; due to the lack of centrality of 1968 in the mass media forum of the public sphere, Spanish activists tend to draw much more on movement cultures than their Italian counterparts. Nevertheless, the appropriation of the memory of 1968 by contemporary activists is extremely difficult in both countries. For different reasons, in both countries 1968 is represented as exceptional and contemporary students feel light-years away from it. In Italy, where the memory of 1968 is continuously represented in the media as the canonical archetype of student mobilisation, its myth sets the bar so high that contemporary students end up hating the comparison. In Spain, where the memory of the student protests of the 1960s and 1970s is scarcely reproduced, its identification with the opposition to Francoism and the consequent implication that protest is not as justified in democratic times as it was under the dictatorship makes the identification between contemporary students and their antecedents very difficult.
Furthermore, in both countries, the countercultural and generational traits of 1968, more related to cultural innovation and individual liberation than with collective political struggles, have been significantly amplified in time. This depoliticisation of the memory of 1968 has different outcomes in the two countries: while in Italy it ends up distancing the economic crisis-related protests of contemporary students from their 1960s (supposedly) flower-power counterparts, in Spain it reduces the identification of student protest to its link with the exceptional context of the dictatorship, making the past more relatable for those who are active in the present. It seems like Italian activists are overwhelmed by the memory of 1968 and try to escape the comparison, while Spanish students might benefit from being assimilated to the heroes of anti-Francoism, but they barely know their stories.

Finally, while explicit appropriation of 1968 is rare in contemporary student protest, student activists continuously refer to a set of practices and to knowledge that they claim to have inherited from their antecedents. There are canonical and routinised repertoires and “ways of doing things” that are embedded in the identities and practices of student activism and are continuously reproduced in movement areas. They almost constitute a “textbook of student mobilisation”, a set of unwritten rules that regulate activity in mobilised universities. Although explicit appropriations of the memory of 1968 were rare in the 2008-2011 cycle of student protest, contemporary student activists are far from being completely free to imagine their action from scratch without any link with the past: they act in a symbolic and material environment that has been structured by previous waves of mobilisation and with which they maintain a dialectic relationship, strategically or unconsciously balancing replication and innovation.

References
[1] Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Crage, Suzanna M. (2006) Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth. American Sociological Review 71 (5), pp. 724-51.
[2] Harris, Fredrick C. (2006) It Takes a Tragedy to Arouse Them: Collective Memory and Collective Action during the Civil Rights Movement. Social Movement Studies 5 (1) pp. 19-43.
[3] Jansen, Robert S. (2007) Resurrection and Appropriation: Reputational Trajectories, Memory Work, and the Political Use of Historical Figures. American Journal of Sociology 112 (4), pp. 953-1007.
[4] Halbwachs, Maurice (1992) On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[5] Olick, Jeffrey K., and Robbins, Joyce (1998) Social Memory Studies: From “Collective Memory” to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices. Annual Review of Sociology, pp. 105-40.
[6] Zelizer, Barbie (1995) Reading the Past against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 12 (2), pp. 214-39.
[7] Zerubavel, Eviatar (1996) Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past. Qualitative Sociology, 19 (3), pp. 283-299.
[8] Zamponi, Lorenzo (2018) Social Movements, Memory and Media, Narrative in Action in the Italian and Spanish Student Movements, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Authors