You Had to Be There | The Nation


You Had to Be There

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The national narratives of 1968 have to be understood in a global and epochal context. Africa's decolonization meant that battles over civil rights in the American South--and the riots erupting in Northern slums--were far more embarrassing to Washington than ever before. The new women's movement first gained some public notice in the United States in the 1960s with the founding of NOW, though this was only a hint of the wider horizon of "women's liberation" that was to come. If the French took the 1968 Oscar for reviving political revolution, then the second-wave feminists of North America undoubtedly carried off the prize for carrying forward what Juliet Mitchell called "the longest revolution," the emancipation of women.

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

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

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Kurlansky furnishes thumbnail sketches of several of the countries that witnessed upheaval in 1968; Czechoslovakia, Mexico and the United States, in addition to France, are given a chapter or more. The impact of China and Mao's Cultural Revolution is seriously underplayed, but Cuba is brought in because of Che Guevara (killed in 1967, of course, but swiftly adopted as a left-wing martyr and international icon of revolutionary virtue). Guevara's concept of a new "Socialist Man" depicted an ideal that had unexpected points of contact with the sentiments quoted earlier from Bobby Kennedy. Kurlansky also brings in Cuba because of the significant gatherings there, notably the January International Cultural Congress. He doesn't seem to know that when some of the American delegates met with Castro, the Cuban leader took out a large map of Chicago and quizzed them on what was likely to happen at the Democratic Party convention.

While acknowledging that the official position of Students for a Democratic Society, the main US New Left organization of the time, was "critical support" for the Cuban Revolution, Kurlansky claims that many SDS members were seduced by the revolution's social achievements, to the point of justifying Castro's dictatorship as a necessary evil given the US siege against the island. In fact, while visitors pointed to Cuba's successes, they were often rather critical of the Cuban government, of its voluntarism and military model of organization--K.S. Karol's widely read Guerrillas in Power being a case in point. Somehow those who fell under the influence of China and Maoism found it more difficult to mix support and criticism, opting instead for starry-eyed praise and myth-making. While there was a Mao cult inside and outside China, this was not true of Castro.

Cuba was both culturally and geographically accessible; China was not. (Cuba also had good music and film and great beaches, another contrast with austere Maoist China.) Cuba's successes and failures were not difficult to identify. Education, healthcare, housing and telephone calls were free, and there was only a nominal charge for public transport. On the other hand, its political system was an emergency affair, with the Constitution of 1940 still supposedly in place. In the first months of 1968 Castro denounced a "micro-faction" of former Cuban Communist cadres and called for the abandonment of slavish attempts to imitate the Soviet model. But by the end of the year, the Cuban leader had endorsed the occupation of Czechoslovakia, souring relations with many New Left supporters. Within a couple of years, many who had attended the 1968 Congress of Intellectuals addressed a public protest to Castro when the Cuban authorities detained the poet Heberto Padilla for a month for "counterrevolutionary" views. For some reason, the extraordinary mayhem of China's Cultural Revolution--vividly evoked in the recent movie Morning Sun--prompted no such solemn and collective censure from foreign sympathizers of the Chinese revolution.

Kurlansky is not much interested in the intragroup dynamics that gave rise, in some revolutionary subcultures, to the phenomenon of "political correctness." This was something that perhaps owed a little to the idiom of an older left, but PC now targeted deeply embedded racial and gender assumptions. Young revolutionaries invented a new vocabulary, etiquette and sensibility. I recall talking to a young woman at a Washington gathering addressed by Bill Ayers, a leader of the Weather Underground, who mentioned that she had met a compatriot of mine at a demo the previous day. "What's his name?" I asked. "Why do you assume that I'm speaking about a man?" she replied, covering me in confusion. (My interlocutor later became a feminist therapist, said to number Princess Diana among her clients.)

The ability of a secretive elite of "stupid white men" to run the world was first exposed to mockery in 1968. By adopting a pro-war plank and anointing Hubert Humphrey as its champion, the Democratic Party furnished the perfect target for a Yippie put-on in Chicago. At a press conference they nominated Pigasus the pig as their candidate. Kurlansky explains that there were really two rival pigs and that, in a further twist, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman could not agree which was the best contender. To those who saw it on TV, Yippie drollery rendered even more incomprehensible the viciousness of Mayor Daley's club-wielding policemen. The demonstrators chanted "The world is watching you," but there was no letup.

Kurlansky is too inclined to celebrate American radicals' weakness for expletives of the "Off the pigs" variety. A movement that fails to express its aims better than this has a problem. The language of European radical leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit in Paris and Rudi Dutschke in West Berlin was different. Of course, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. showed that eloquent leadership carried its own risks. And if European revolutionary thought was more theoretically ambitious, American activists had a stiffer fight on their hands, from the early battles of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in which life and limb were at stake, to the later exertions of a many-sided--and ultimately successful--antiwar movement.

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