Kurlansky, Mark. 1968 : The Year That Rocked the World. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-345-45582-7.
In the hands of an author who can make an entire book about Salt (February 2005) fascinating, the epochal year of 1968 abounds with people, events, and cultural phenomena which make for a compelling narrative. Many watershed events in history: war, inventions, plague, geographical discoveries, natural disasters, economic booms and busts, etc. have causes which are reasonably easy to determine. But 1968, like the wave of revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 (January 2002), seems to have been driven by a zeitgeist—a spirit in the air which independently inspired people to act in a common way.

The nearly simultaneous “youthquake” which shook societies as widespread and diverse as France, Poland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and the United States, and manifested itself in radical social movements: antiwar, feminism, black power, anti-authoritarianism, psychedelic instant enlightenment, revolutionary and subversive music, and the emergence of “the whole world is watching” wired planetary culture of live satellite television, all of which continue to reverberate today, seemed so co-ordinated that politicians from Charles de Gaulle, Mexican el presidente Díaz Ordaz, and Leonid Brezhnev were convinced it must be the result of deliberate subversion by their enemies, and were motivated to repressive actions which, in the short term, only fed the fire. In fact, most of the leaders of the various youth movements (to the extent they can be called “leaders”—in those individualistic and anarchistic days, most disdained the title) had never met, and knew about the actions of one another only from what they saw on television. Radicals in the U.S. were largely unaware of the student movement in Mexico before it exploded into televised violence in October.

However the leaders of 1968 may have viewed themselves, in retrospect they were for the most part fascinating, intelligent, well-educated, motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, and optimistic that they could—nothing like the dour, hateful, contemptuous, intolerant, and historically and culturally ignorant people one so often finds today in collectivist movements which believe themselves descended from those of 1968. Consider Mark Rudd's famous letter to Grayson Kirk, president of Columbia University, which ended with the memorable sentence, “I'll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I'm sure you don't like a whole lot: ‘Up against the wall, mother****er, this is a stick-up.’” (p. 197), which shocked his contemporaries with the (quoted) profanity, but strikes readers today mostly for the grammatically correct use of “whom”. Who among present-day radicals has the eloquence of Mario Savio's “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop” (p. 92), yet had the politeness to remove his shoes to avoid damaging the paint before jumping on a police car to address a crowd. In the days of the Free Speech Movement, who would have imagined some of those student radicals, tenured professors four decades later, enacting campus speech codes and enforcing an intellectual monoculture on their own students?

It is remarkable to read on p. 149 how the French soixante-huitards were “dazzled” by their German contemporaries: “We went there and they had their banners and signs and their security forces and everything with militaristic tactics. It was new to me and the other French.” One suspects they weren't paying attention when their parents spoke of the spring of 1940! Some things haven't changed: when New Left leaders from ten countries finally had the opportunity to meet one another at a conference sponsored by the London School of Economics and the BBC (p. 353), the Americans dismissed the Europeans as all talk and no action, while the Europeans mocked the U.S. radicals' propensity for charging into battle without thinking through why, what the goal was supposed to be, or how it was to be achieved.

In the introduction, the author declares his sympathy for the radical movements of 1968 and says “fairness is possible but true objectivity is not”. And, indeed, the book is written from the phrasebook of the leftist legacy media: good guys are “progressives” and “activists”, while bad guys are “right wingers”, “bigots”, or “reactionaries”. (What's “progressive” ought to depend on your idea of progress. Was SNCC's expulsion of all its white members [p. 96] on racial grounds progress?) I do not recall a single observation which would be considered outside the box on the editorial page of the New York Times. While the book provides a thorough recounting of the events and acquaintance with the principal personalities involved, for me it failed to evoke the “anything goes”, “everything is possible” spirit of those days—maybe you just had to have been there. The summation is useful for correcting false memories of 1968, which ended with both Dubček and de Gaulle still in power; the only major world leader defeated in 1968 was Lyndon Johnson, and he was succeeded by Nixon. A “whatever became of” or “where are they now” section would be a useful addition; such information, when it's given, is scattered all over the text.

One wonders whether, in our increasingly interconnected world, something like 1968 could happen again. Certainly, that's the dream of greying radicals nostalgic for their days of glory and young firebrands regretful for having been born too late. Perhaps better channels of communication and the collapse of monolithic political structures have resulted in change becoming an incremental process which adapts to the evolving public consensus before a mass movement has time to develop. It could simply be that the major battles of “liberation” have all been won, and the next major conflict will be incited by those who wish to rein them in. Or maybe it's just that we're still trying to digest the consequences of 1968 and far from ready for another round.

April 2006 Permalink