BLISS it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! Thus William Wordsworth writing about the French Revolution of 1789. But these words are equally attributable to my generation in that other Year of Revolutions, 1968. So it comes as something of a shock to these old bones to wake up on Ner’day and find it is a full half century since that epic year when capitalism trembled and the world’s youth dreamed not of a mortgage and a pension but of revolution, an end to exploitation and (of course) free love.

For those of you who weren’t there (which is most of you), the year 1968 was the moment when everything seemed possible. It opened with the Tet offensive in Vietnam, 20,000 American soldiers dead after three years of war, and the Viet Cong flag hanging over the US embassy in Saigon. Che Guevara had just been executed in Bolivia but his call to “create two, three, many Vietnams” was already being taken up in Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Guatemala, Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe.

In the West, America’s youth were in open revolt against their government, chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

One anti-war demonstration in San Francisco was joined by hundreds of serving US soldiers in uniform, heralding an internal mutiny slowly crippling the American war effort. That year Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world boxing title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. And in April, America’s inner cities burned as black Americans (many Vietnam veterans) rebelled in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King. In France, come May, a student uprising was met with extreme police brutality. To the shock of President de Gaulle and the cosy French establishment (which included the conservative Stalinist trades unions), the students were supported by young factory workers infected by the promise of revolution and a new society not bounded by consumerism and dehumanising assembly line jobs. A spontaneous general strike across France was followed by factory occupations and demands for workers’ control of production. This was not nihilistic, populist protest as we know it today. Rather it was a veritable rising aimed at creating a new society from the bottom up.

The French strikes and occupations were ended only through the manipulation of the trade union leaders (fearful of a military coup) and the bribe of massive wage increases. But similar spontaneous factory insurrections by young workers took place over the next few years in other parts of Europe, especially Italy. The wave of change also lapped over the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe. Liberalisation of the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia — led from within the Communist Party by Alexander Dubcek — was only thwarted by Soviet tanks, in August of 1968.

It is convenient now, after the triumph of neo-liberalism, to dismiss 1968 as a childish, petulant outburst by privileged students who then grew up and got well-paid careers. The truth is very different. In the wake of the Second World War, Western capitalism rebooted with a massive shift technologically towards mass production and automation. This required a huge new factory workforce and expanded universities to supply identikit teachers, engineers and scientists. It was this generation of young workers and students who rebelled against regimentation, consumerism and exploitation. They may have failed to bring down the system, but they made their mark.

At its crudest, the revolt of young workers in the 1960s and 1970s won a huge increase in the share of income from GDP going to wage earners. The genuine impoverishment of workers in recent decades stands as proof that 1968 delivered in material terms, even if not in dreams. But 1968 did bring major social gains, particularly for women. The radicalisation of the 1960s triggered demands for the social and economic liberation of women and for gay rights. June 1968 saw the famous strike for equal pay by women workers at the Ford plant in Dagenham, which eventually led to the Equal Pay Act. That year also saw the emergence of the Wages for Housework movement and, in America, the first demonstrations against the Miss America “pageant”. The Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, which triggered the modern Gay movement, took place in July 1969.

And what of 1968 in Scotland? According to the historian Richard Finlay, “the swinging sixties passed Scotland by” completely. I would challenge that. True, Scottish society and culture in this period were still in thrall to the local petty bourgeois institutions of the Unionist state: Presbyterian Kirk, reactionary legal profession and authoritarian Scottish education. Yet it was because Scottish middle-class society was so relentlessly conformist, dull and sexless that our intellectuals were some of the first in the post-war era to imagine a different world. In so doing, Scottish thinkers became the avant-garde of the youth revolt of 1968.

Glasgow-born novelist Alexander Trocchi built an international reputation in the 1950s and 1960s, challenging conventional sexual mores. Always one to defy convention brazenly, he claimed sodomy as a basis for his writing. In a 1962 essay, Trocchi proposed a “spontaneous university” – an attack on conventional university teaching which was hugely influential in France. RD Laing, the radical psychiatrist and sixties cult figure, argued that much mental illness is a social and political construct resulting from an authoritarian capitalist society (his ideas are due a revisit). Like Trocchi, Laing had an infamously liberal attitude to recreational drugs. Then there is AS Neill and his pioneering work in child-centred education.

TROCCHI, Laing and Neill were all exiles from Scotland. But that’s important in itself. They fled what they saw as the epitome of post-war, repressive bourgeois culture, as represented by the Unionist Scotland of the 1950s. In analysing their experience and promoting radically alternative ways of organising society, this trio gave voice to the youth counter-culture that exploded in 1968. Whatever criticisms we can make of their work in historical retrospect, it is simply wrong to say that Scotland was not part of the ‘68 revolution.

Certainly, during 1968 itself, Scotland hardly exhibited the revolutionary militancy of Paris. But neither were things entirely quiescent. I remember my first day at Glasgow University, in October 1968. That bastion of reaction, the Men’s Union, had been “occupied” as an impromptu venue for a teach-in on the Vietnam War. There I heard a hirsute Tariq Ali urge us all to attend the great anti-war demo in London, which took place later that month.

The street revolt did finally arrive in Scotland in the early 1970s, as the ’68 generation graduated from university and entered work. In the autumn of 1974, 30,000 of Scotland’s young teachers – many of whom had been influenced by the Paris events of May 1968, me included – launched a series of unofficial strikes that lasted a year. The dispute was ostensibly about wages but it was in reality a protest about conservative educational practices and the subordination of young teachers, especially women.

I don’t write this out of nostalgia. The events of 1968 are only worth recalling as a dress rehearsal for the future. As they said in Paris in May ’68: be realistic – demand the impossible.