the 60s


The Left Forum was replete with ’68. Some panels examined its legacy, others commemorated it. When I got back from the city I checked out Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years and The Autobiography of Angela Davis from the library. I have been meaning to read both for ages, the ’68 enthusiasm made it happen.

My interest in ’68 is not purely historical. The events are fascinating on their own. But, I am also interested in the legacy and the parallels ’68’s context has with today.

Tariq Ali’s article on the legacy of ’68 in today’s Guardian has an excellent discussion of its context and its repercussions. He has this to say about its legacy:

“Were the dreams and hopes of 1968 all idle fantasies? Or did cruel history abort something new that was about to be born? Revolutionaries – utopian anarchists, Fidelistas, Trotskyist allsorts, Maoists of every stripe – wanted the whole forest. Liberals and social democrats were fixated on individual trees. The forest, they warned us, was a distraction, far too vast and impossible to define, whereas a tree was a piece of wood that could be identified, improved and crafted into a chair or a table. Now the tree, too, has gone.

“You’re like fish that only see the bait, never the line,” we would mock in return. For we believed – and still do – that people should not be measured by material possessions but by their ability to transform the lives of others – the poor and underprivileged; that the economy needed to be reorganised in the interests of the many, not the few; and that socialism without democracy could never work. Above all, we believed in freedom of speech.

Much of this seems utopian now and some, for whom 1968 wasn’t radical enough at the time, have embraced the present and, like members of ancient sects who moved easily from ritual debauchery to chastity, now regard any form of socialism as the serpent that tempted Eve in paradise.

The collapse of “communism” in 1989 created the basis for a new social agreement, the Washington Consensus, whereby deregulation and the entry of private capital into hitherto hallowed domains of public provision would become the norm everywhere, making traditional social democracy redundant and threatening the democratic process itself.

Some, who once dreamed of a better future, have simply given up. Others espouse a bitter maxim: unless you relearn you won’t earn. The French intelligentsia, which had from the Enlightenment onwards made Paris the political workshop of the world, today leads the way with retreats on every front. Renegades occupy posts in every west European government defending exploitation, wars, state terror and neocolonial occupations; others now retired from the academy specialise in producing reactionary dross on the blogosphere, displaying the same zeal with which they once excoriated factional rivals on the far left.”

This grim picture sets the scene for addressing the parallels and speculating on why worldwide revolt hasn’t happened.

First and foremost the parallels center on Iraq. Ali’s article mentions the apt slogan Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam. Yet, in many ways the reaction is entirely different. There has been no mainstream anti-war movement that parallels the Vietnam anti-war movement, despite the fact that the majority of the American people now oppose the war. The lack of a mainstream anti-war movement must be influenced by the absence of a draft, which has removed the middle class from direct involvement in the war. There are also surely other important historical factors that mediate the different reaction. But, I also want to suggest that the legacy of ’68 and the neo-liberal context are profound influences. I think that both inform the legitimation crisis, which is left out of most discussions on resistance and opposition to the Iraq War etc.

This is unfortunate, because I believe the legitimation crisis and its mediating influences explain a lot. For, in addition to the counter-reactionary direction Ali discusses, it seems like one of the main legacies of ’68 is the belief that the American government, and perhaps government itself, is inherently illegitimate. This seems to be an unintended legacy of the 60’s when many people seem to have been motivated by the belief that the current American governments policies were illegtimate, but that the promise of the American government and the idealism of the American social contract were still legitimate and worth fighting for.

In addition, neoliberalism’s credos of the individual reifies any contextual affiliation. Thatcher’s famous notion that there is no such thing as society is the illustration of this. No society means no social ties; no solidarity; human interaction based on the business contract instead of the American social contract.

This is exacerbated by neo liberalism privatization of the government and stripping it of all but its coercive power. The government now solely consists of the illegitimate aspects the 60’s railed against. No wonder people view it as inherently illegimate.

The result then is the legitimation crisis form of anti-war opposition. Because nobody believes in society, the American social contract, inherently dismisses the American government and government in general, there is no point in political revolt. Instead of the outraged citizen, there is the apatetic “resistance” of the disaffected consumer. Yet, the neoliberal turn has also made us inhabitants of one world. There is unlimited potential in this. The task of revival lies in us all becoming citizens of utopia.

Herbert Marcuse is best known as a philosopher of the Frankfurt School and leading theorist of the New Left. Those interested in a biography or his works- like the classic One-Dimensional Man- should go to his official website.

The documentary “Herbert’s Hippopotamus” covers the short but controversial period when Marcuse was professor at UC San Diego and was attacked by governor Reagan and other nut jobs who depicted him as a radical communist threat to the American way.

The film is worth watching for several reasons;

A) it shows that even as governor Reagan mobilized support, and in fact won his reelection, by mobilizing support against constructed radical threats. This rhetoric of course continued when he was in office on the domestic front in his demonization of liberals, his racism against “welfare mothers” ( a code for black people), and on the international front with the constructed threat of the evil empire of the USSR, which in reality was disintegrating faster then the subprime mortage market.

Recently, this tactic was especially operative in those heady days of hubris in the Bush administration, when french fries were freedom fries and leftists were in league with the terrorists in hating America. So, you could say it is a good case study of one of the main narratives of American politics in a time when we are still fighting the war on terror against what Mccain mysteriously calls the “transcendental threat” of Islamo-Fascism.

B) In the figure of Marcuse, interviews with his students like Angela Davis and footage from the time, it shows what political activity looks like. Whether it is protesting, communicating, thinking, writing or simply standing up for what you believe in these examples are a reminder that widespread apathy is not the natural reaction to an unpopular war and a country going down the toilet. We can fight for what is right.

C) The archival footage of Marcuse and the interviews with the German professor are simply remarkable in their combination of moral intergrity and hilarity.

Watch it here