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You Had to Be There | The Nation

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You Had to Be There

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What were the '68 rebellions really about? The Prague Spring had its 2,000-word statement. The French movement of May, triggered by police brutality, escalated to a frontal assault on Gaullist capitalism. The Situationist slogans spoke the movement's dreams but the attack on the "personal power" embodied by the Fifth Republic's presidential system probably evoked the widest popular response. Campus revolts throughout the West attacked US militarism but also sought to achieve "student power" and "participatory democracy." In the 1960s there was a lot of mileage to be obtained by denouncing the established order for not living up to its own ideals. Just as American SDS stood for Students for a Democratic Society, Czechoslovakia's Dubcek called for "socialism with a human face."

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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The year was experienced very differently in the East, West and Third World, and from country to country, but the convulsions soon became mixed up in people's minds, and produced unexpected reverberations. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev involuntarily helped Nixon win the election by invading Czechoslovakia. In France, the Communist-led trade unions briefly backed the student uprising, despite the movement's anti-Stalinism. Allen Ginsberg and Fidel Castro, who had thrown the poet out of Cuba in 1965 for protesting his government's treatment of homosexuals, made common cause against the war in Vietnam. Kurlansky notes these ironies, but not the curious fact that in 1968 the Communists in France and Czechoslovakia successfully practiced nonviolent direct action, even as some members of the student left were rejecting nonviolence. In France the Communists extracted huge concessions from de Gaulle, while 95 percent of Czechoslovak Communists came out in favor of Dubcek, forcing the Soviets to bring him back for a year. Despite the leverage they had obtained, the French and Czech Communists chose to settle for a paltry compromise.

Of course, 1968 was fueled by powerful utopian and antinomian impulses. As authority was discredited and crumbled, it was necessary to make the world anew. Kurlansky assumes that this was limited to the student rebels, but he underplays the undercurrent of worker radicalism that was important in Europe. When the workers at Berliet, a French truck company, occupied their factory, they rearranged the letters in the sign outside to read Liberté. John Lennon's "Imagine," composed shortly after the decade's end, also memorably captured this 1960s spirit. In previous epochs revolutionaries not only aimed to overthrow capitalism but brandished "nationalization" and socialist plans as pathways to the goal. The revolutionaries of the 1960s were too busy demonstrating against war and imperialism, occupying schools and factories, discovering the fragility of the planet or contesting gender identity to worry much about the specific program of anticapitalism. On the tenth anniversary of 1968, Régis Debray--a Guevarist radical in his youth, now an iconoclastic left-nationalist--complained that the rebels of 1968 had turned out to be as deluded about their real destination as Christopher Columbus, when he famously mistook the Americas for the Indies. Setting sail for Mao's China, the '60s revolutionaries had instead landed on the beaches of California, where many succumbed to New Age fancies, exalting individual subjectivity to the point where nothing else counted, neither the constraints of capitalism nor the forms of collectivity needed to allow individuals to flourish. Debray was concerned not just with individual sellouts but a larger impasse.

The uncomfortable element of truth in Debray's analysis stemmed in part from the eventual defeat of the project of the "self-managed society," as it had been conceived up to that time. Students and workers could exercise pressure on the authorities by occupying colleges and workplaces, but these turned out not to be society's commanding heights. And, in a modern economy, polity and media regime, to occupy was not to control. Calling for the abolition of property and money as abstract entities didn't help when what was needed was to grasp the way they worked and how they could be changed.

It is a weakness of Kurlansky's book, as it was of the movements of the time, that too little attention is paid to the power-holders, who contained the challenges of 1968 and subsequently launched offensives of their own. In the aftermath of the 1960s, it was to be the right, not the left, that reinvigorated capitalism and the urgency of an ideological struggle to defend and extend it. From their positions on the frontlines against campus revolt, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, and Margaret Thatcher, education minister in 1970, saw the need to rediscover the virtues of the market and roll back a welfare state and an organized capitalism that had both enabled the postwar boom and spawned the 1960s revolts. The neoliberals and neoconservatives were not above stealing the watchwords of their antagonists. The calls for "power to the people," or for citizens to control their own lives, were adapted to become war cries of the right, by means of the privatization of all aspiration.

The right-wing think tanks were to prove more powerful than the tanks of the Warsaw Pact. Kurlansky quotes Jacek Kuron, the Polish revolutionary of 1989 as well as 1968, as saying, "near tears":

The one thing I regret is participating in the first government [postcommunist]. My participation helped people accept capitalism...I thought capitalism was self-reforming. It's not. It's like Russia--controlled by only a small group because capitalism needs capital. Here now [in Poland] half the population is on the edge of hunger and the other half feels successful.
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