Thursday, 10 April 2008

Hey 1968, it’s time for a break

Well, that year is back.

You know the one – 1968. We have a new round of newspaper articles rehearsing all the old arguments. The slogans and the demonstrations were youthful posturing and an embarrassment, says Tom Stoppard. No, we really made a difference, replies Magnus Linklater. Every day, BBC Radio 4 tells us what was happening exactly forty years ago. The BFI has a mini season of films about May ’68.

I have read and watched a lot about 1968 over the years. (I “wasn’t there”, to coin a phrase, being six years old at the time and living in New Zealand). I appreciate that a lot happened: the Tet offensive, the student and other upheavals in Paris, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Soviet tanks rolling over the Prague Spring, the Democrats’ disastrous Chicago convention and Nixon’s election, to name a few.

But I can’t get too excited about this anniversary. First, there were many important events but other years had a big long-term impact, arguably more momentous than that of 1968. 1973 saw the first oil shock and marked the ending of the “west’s” economic dominance. 1979 brought the Iranian revolution and showed the emerging political power of Islam. Margaret Thatcher’s election signalled the end of the Keynesian consensus on economic policy. In 1989, the Berlin Wall went down. In 2001 . . . you get the picture.

As for all the argument about the evenements, I find the combination of the British media's fixation with the past and some baby boomers’ narcissistic efforts to celebrate themselves a little hard to take.

Most importantly, much of the legacy of the 1968 demonstrations has not been very happy for liberals, especially the “social liberal” baby boomers who came of age at that time. E.J. Dionne jr. argues that King’s murder and the ensuing riots that engulfed Washington DC and major American cities signalled the collapse of liberal hopes and the beginning of a conservative dominance of U.S. politics. Robert Reich, former U.S. labor secretary (and a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton in 1968) has made very similar observations.

And “the system” – western capitalism – didn’t just survive. Over the past twenty five years or more, the market has been untamed, becoming much stronger and more powerful than nearly anyone in 1968 would have imagined. That wasn’t what liberals of 1968 or the radicals who took to the streets forty years ago had in mind.

Tariq Ali, who was on the London barricades, recently reflected that the hopes of revolutionaries, liberals and social democrats have all been cruelly dashed by the triumph of the “Washington consensus”, combining economic deregulation and the entry of private capital into the areas of public provision. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s revolution is now the conventional wisdom, shared by the main parties and the establishment and consolidated by her successors. As her brilliant (Liberal Democrat) biographer John Campbell concluded a few years ago, Britain today is Thatcher’s theme park.

So is there any reason to revere 1968? Tariq Ali points to sexual liberation as a major legacy of the sixties generation. I agree that feminism is one of the most important things we have from that time. Feminist historians might tell us, however, that the women’s liberation movement was born at least in part from a reaction to the sexist attitudes and approaches of many New Left leaders. This is relevant to the states, where it took off rather more quickly than in Britain or elsewhere. I am quite sure there weren’t too many feminist slogans in the 1968 demonstrations.

Magnus Linklater argues that the exact aims of the demonstrations were hard to pin down. He may be nearer the mark than his contemporaries when he identifies a challenge to authoritarianism and totalitarianism as the unifying, lasting theme from those times. The interesting point is, from whom and at what this has been channelled over the last forty years?

The American liberal writer Paul Berman has shown how some ‘68ers later became important political figures. Adam Michnik was arrested in a demonstration in Warsaw in February of 1968 and went on to become the leading theorist of the Solidarity protest movement of the 1980s. Václav Havel was in New York in the spring of 1968, took part in the student strike at Columbia and joined Alexander Dubcek in the short-lived liberal uprising in Prague that summer.

It didn’t stop there. After 1989, Michnik became a supporter of Poland’s first non-communist government, editor-in-chief of the leading daily newspaper and has been dubbed “the Sisyphus of democracy.” Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia and, later, the Czech Republic. He is a hero of many liberals, including Nick Clegg.

Still, it is very hard to draw a straight line from the 1968 demonstrations to the post-communist politics of the former eastern bloc and Paul Berman has not tried to do so.

Berman has written of another stand against authoritarianism: by the prominent German 1968 barricadier Joschka Fischer, who became a Green Party politician and foreign minister and became a leader of Europe’s fight against Serbian ultra-nationalism. Conservative and social democrat presidents and prime ministers from older generations didn’t want to know. But this came some time after Fischer had an epiphany. Some of his so-called revolutionary comrades from 1968 and after turned out to hold anti-semitic views. When it came to the crunch, the comrades seemed to be imitating the Nazis whom they were meant to revile. Fischer concluded that it was fascism in all it forms, including the fascism of the “New Left”, that had to be stopped.

There are, however, other anti-authoritarians from 1968: France’s nouveaux philosophes. One is Andre Glucksmann, who led the Sorbonne demonstrations and later arguedthat the old Soviet bloc represented the worst sort of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Glucksmann’s anti-totalitarianism has led him to back Chechnyan independence -- and the Iraq war (like Berman, but unlike Fischer). He supported Nicolas Sarkozy, a scourge of the 68 generation, in last year’s presidential elections.

Another is Bernard Henri Levy, who became a strong critic of socialist and communist responses to 1968, as well as of the Soviet Union. He called for intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s and now campaigns against Islamic totalitarianism.

The nouveaux philosophes may not be neo-conservatives in the American mould because they have not embraced capitalist ideologies in the same way. Some UK liberals may agree with them on some issues but not on others. My point is that their views underline how strained are the connections between the evenements of 1968 and the politics of today.

I can’t accept the conservative sneer that 1968 was about little more than youthful indulgence. But that one year wasn’t the start of a revolution either. While it may not be worth all the fuss, that year unleashed some baby boomers as important political forces. It’s just that the forces ended up looking and acting very differently from where they were in 1968. And, lest we forget, like characters in a play by Chekhov, the boomers’ time is passing.


Tristan said...

Liberals should celebrate the market though. Unless you're the American style liberal which, that is social democrat.

What liberals should decry is not the market, but the state interference in the market to push it in the direction of favoured groups - that is of course what so many 'liberals' do themselves.

Neil Stockley said...

That's too simplistic Tristan. Liberals should celebrate the market but merely as a means to an end: increased economic prosperity and wider personal opportunities.

We should also recognise its limitations, particularly in respect of social inequality and environmental damage and support well targeted interventions (no, not just regulations) to make sure those don't happen and/or to mitigate their effects. At the same time, we should oppose unnecessary or costly regulations and interventions and make sure that the ones that are in place are achieving their original objectives.

The Liberal Democrat approach to these matters is set out in a well drafted section of "It's About Freedom", the most recent exposition of our party philosophy.