You Had to Be There | The Nation


You Had to Be There

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Old soldiers, they say, don't die, they just fade away. For some reason 1968 hasn't died, nor has it faded away. As Mark Kurlansky's book testifies, it is still with us, alive and kicking. Surely we don't need yet another book on the événements? Leftists and radicals can be encouraged that the writer of a best-seller, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, sees an audience for a new book on 1968. Unlike the last spate of books, which appeared in 1998, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World doesn't even mark an obvious anniversary. The fondness of publishers for such works comes, no doubt, from the power of demographics--1968 being the baptism of the first wave of baby boomers--and of their own memories. Sixties glamour can still make converts in surprising places--for instance, the authorities at Columbia University, who, in a film celebrating the institution's 250th anniversary, proudly cited its 1960s rebellions, so much deplored at the time, as one more proof that Columbia leads the way.

Robin Blackburn spent 1968 in Havana, Prague, Berlin and London.

About the Author

Robin Blackburn
Robin Blackburn, distinguished visiting professor at the New School for Social Research and former editor of New Left...

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"An attempt at objectivity on the subject of 1968 would be dishonest," writes Kurlansky, who was twenty that year, "of the generation that hated the Vietnam War, protested against it, and has a vision of authority shaped by the memory of the peppery taste of tear gas." He uses press reports, memoirs and interviews to put together a story that works its way through the calendar, from January to December, by way of demos, general strikes, insurrections, assassinations, manifestos and mass resistance, ranging from Saigon to Chicago, Paris to Prague, Berlin to Mexico City. By the end, the old order has been shaken but is still very much in place. Yet a new sensibility is evident and a new perspective glimpsed.

While 1968 was a remarkable year, the only way to make sense of it is to insert it into some larger narrative of the 1960s and the twentieth century as a whole. For Tom Nairn, 1968 announced The Beginning of the End, the title of a short book he published at the time. But the end of what? The postwar "Golden Age"? "Monopoly capitalism"? Stalinism? Patriarchal authority and bureaucracy? A Eurocentric world? A social order defined by material rather than mental production? These all hint at parts of the answer and help to explain why 1968 retains a hold on the imagination, notwithstanding such later turning points as 1989 and 2001. Like Nairn, Kurlansky stresses the centrality of communication in the "global village," as theorized by Marshall McLuhan. Major events in widely scattered regions--the Tet Offensive, the Paris barricades, the Democratic convention in Chicago, the invasion of Czechoslovakia--were seen around the world in real time, and became mixed up with one another.

In his conclusion, Kurlansky reproduces the photo of Earth spinning in space, with the Moon's curve in the foreground, transmitted from Apollo 8 in December 1968. "As the craft approached the moon, it turned around and from space sent back to earth the first astonishing photos of our little blue-and-white planet," he writes. "The television broadcast and photographs from Apollo 8 gave a sense, in this first global year that this, too, like so many other milestones that year, was an event the whole world was watching." As Kurlansky sees it, the sight of "this planet of blue seas, rich vegetation, and endless strife" prompted a sort of mirror-phase epiphany as humanity saw its abode from space (he compares this to Dante emerging from the underworld at the end of the Inferno). The astronaut Michael Collins later declared: "I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of...100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed.... The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions.... The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied."

Such yearnings were to be encountered in strange places that year, as a long process began that was eventually to transform conservatives into revolutionaries and revolutionaries into conservatives. In 1968 French students and workers put on a faithful, if almost bloodless, simulacrum of a revolution, but its target, de Gaulle's Fifth Republic, was an amalgam of neocapitalist modernity and political ancien régime. The revolt against it celebrated the small-scale and the artisan. The students complained that in the new age of mass higher education they never saw their professors, except occasionally on TV. The utopian slogans of the Situationists--"take your desires for reality," "under the paving stones lies the beach"--scorned high tech. They were scribbled on walls, or laboriously embossed using the silk-screen process.

The student rebels, defending a pastoral ideal of the past as much as a vision of the future, collided first with the university authorities, then with a police force hardened by the bloody suppression of Algerian demonstrators, and finally with TV cameras that carried images of the confrontation into every French home--and, before long, by satellite, around the globe. By chance, the clashes of May coincided with the first meeting between American and Vietnamese peace negotiators in Paris, so there was a particularly large gathering of international reporters on hand.

The students' aims combined the libertarian with aspirations to a visionary wholeness and the return of a lost age, articulated at its most radical in the famous Situationist pamphlet denouncing "the poverty of student life." The impoverishment was cultural as much as material. The state had decreed a rapid expansion of higher education but not the cash needed to sustain the ideal of the university: "Once upon a time, universities were respected: the student persists in the belief that he is lucky to be there. But he arrived too late.... A modern education system demands mass production of students who are not educated and have been rendered incapable of thinking."

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