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The Revolution of '68
- it Has Bequeathed Very Little




March 7, 2001

LONDON - The revolutionary past of Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister may be about to catch up with him if it turns out it is true that he lied about some aspects of it during the recent trial of an old friend/ terrorist from that turbulent period of 1968 to the mid 1970s. If it does it should not be just the end of an interesting period of German government but perhaps a time to ask what did all that turbulence do for the Western world? Is the only mark it left a black one?

Has it bequeathed, as the great commentator on the era, Mel Lasky, asked many years ago in his journal de combat, Encounter, "powerful, moving, and possibly profound ideas"? It seems not. The only memorable and lasting hand-me-down of that era was not the "revolution" itself, but what was its trigger, the American black civil rights movement.

It was Martin Luther King's southern marches in the early 1960s that made protest respectable, and helped inspire the new post-war generation both in North America and in Europe with not just high ideals but the urge to get out on the street and confront the authorities. Yet the legacy turned bad, became often violent, as it did in America with the white middle class Weathermen and the ghetto-bred, gun-toting Black Panthers, and with the stone throwers of Danny Cohn-Bendit in Paris and his long-time friend Joschka Fischer in Frankfurt.

At the same time it was all wrapped up in the anti-Vietnam war movement. While this was a universal phenomenon throughout the Western world, it obviously reached its apotheosis is the U.S. where the fear of being drafted was an active recruiter for the street protestors. Indeed, it can be said with some surety, there would have been no mass movement of protest in America if there had not been the fear of being killed in some far away place in Asia. The whole protest movement, with its pot smoking and sexual impermissivness was entirely of the body and the spirit, not of the mind. The American intellectuals of that age- Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Charles Reich, Noam Chomsky, Allen Ginsberg and C. Wright Mills, just rode the tiger. The revolt would have happened if they had never written a word.

In continental Europe it was different. There was no fear of the draft and the ideas that moved the young were all written down by others before they lifted a paving stone or marched a step. The brilliance of Sartre and Fanon, of Adorno and Habermas, of Marcuse and Gramsci more than rubbed off on the youthful middle class masses, it helped propel them forward. John-Paul Sartre, the then ageing philosopher, was nothing less than the pied piper of the children's crusade of '68. Sartre, who inspired Picasso's dove of peace, was the same man who had blessed the plastiqueurs who delivered bombs to the Algerian terrorists.

And the Left Bank activists of the mid 1970s were intellectual enough to change their mind once again under the onslaught of ideas, leaving their German counterparts in splendid- but violent prone- isolation. It was the publication of three volumes of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, which coincided with the re-discovery by the new wave philosophers, Andre Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Levy, of the power and worth of the Sorbonne intellectual, Raymond Aron. Aron pointed out to the students that they had merely indulged in "the theatre of revolution". No revolutionary changes could be discerned: either in the university or in the economy; neither in class structure nor in private life. The age of permissiveness owed itself mainly to a pharmacological breakthrough, not to street protests. And the expansion of women's rights was partly a corollary of the pill and partly a sociological accompaniment of the expanding manpower needs of industrial society.What is left when the left is quiet? Has there been, as some charge, "a long march through the institutions" that brought the likes of former protestors Bill Clinton, Joschka Fischer and others to the pinnacle of power? It is said by academics that have studied these aging rebels that by and large they have carried their ideas with them. But the practice belies that. We see no indication that they are or have been seriously out of step with the conventional wisdom. They took to power politics like ducks to water. With Clinton we had eight years of that. Fischer cut his realpolitik teeth with the bombing of Belgrade.

The residue of '68 can hardly be measured. There were no great ideas and few great thoughts, other than of the most fleeting variety, especially on the core issues of alternatives to war and alternatives to capitalism. We can still take inspiration from Martin Luther King, pay our dues to Amnesty International and shop at organic food shops. But all of this was before or after '68. From '68 itself we take nothing and this is the reality that the friends and admirers of Joschka Fischer now have to face up to.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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