Talking 'Bout His Generation

Talking 'Bout His Generation

Talking 'Bout His Generation

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 13 1996 3:30 AM

Talking 'Bout His Generation

Paul Berman reconsiders 1968.

A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968

By Paul Berman

(Norton; 339 pages; $24)

In a logical world, the number of books written about a political movement would have some rough connection with its ultimate importance. The noisy crusades that became historical footnotes would all be literary footnotes as well.

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But we are living in a different sort of world, one in which it is possible, for example, to fill up the better part of a library with volumes written by, and about, the leftists in Manhattan in the 1930s. Anything you want to know about the sectarian ideological warfare of these quarrelsome people--Socialists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, Schactmanites, Lovestonites--you can find in masochistic detail.

That's not because their arcane disputes held any fascination for most Americans at the time. Nor is it because of their impact on the decades that followed. I have never heard anyone suggest that the key to understanding American postwar politics lay in the arguments among the competing factions at CCNY in 1937 or their subsequent recreations on Riverside Drive. The truth is that 1930s leftism became a literary genre because those who indulged in it enjoyed writing books, and were also willing to buy them.

It would be a mistake to conclude that, as those leftists depart from the scene, the tradition of political verbosity will die out. Rather, a new generation of aging leftists--the campus radicals of 1968--is emerging, and off to an appropriately windy start. If you happen to be interested in the internal factionalism of SDS in 1965 or Tom Hayden's Port Huron statement of 1962, a large collection of books is available to help you. Or you can purchase a two-volume account of the Sorbonne uprising in Paris, compressed into a tidy 1,311 pages.

Now there is another book, A Tale of Two Utopias, by Paul Berman, a veteran of the 1960s leftist wars who writes for The New Yorker, the NewRepublic, and other organs of the nonmilitant journalistic mainstream. The difference between Berman's volume and most others I have seen on the subject is that his is an entertaining book, readable and unpretentious, a little softhearted toward his old comrades, but more than willing to take them to task for their absurdities.

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O >f all those absurdities, one stands out in high relief, and also links the leftists of the 1960s to those of the Depression years. It is their consistent overestimation of their own significance. That the student activists of Berman's generation believed a political revolution to be within their grasp may seem a little puzzling from the vantage point of 30 years, but is perhaps understandable as a product of youthful exuberance: Berman himself lapses into a romantic nostalgia when he describes what it felt like to be in the vanguard of something new and magnificent--in politics, in culture, in the way human beings treat each other.

"A utopian exhilaration swept across the student universe," he writes on the first page. "Almost everyone in my own circle of friends and classmates was caught up in it. ... Partly it was a belief, hard to remember today, that a superior new society was already coming into existence. And it was the belief that we ourselves--the teenage revolutionaries, freaks, hippies and students--stood at the heart of a new society."

This was, as Berman readily concedes, an illusion. But what can it claim for its legacy, a generation later? A Tale of Two Utopias is a lucid, three-pronged attempt to answer that question.

The first of Berman's quests for a larger meaning--in the experiences of the Americans who led the Students for a Democratic Society and the other leftist political organizations of 1968--is not a pretty one. By the end of 1969, the idealism of the SDS had degenerated into personal bickering and a flirtation with Maoist terrorism that could be written off as mere goofiness had it not resulted in the loss of innocent lives on both sides of the Atlantic.

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That the radical enthusiasms of 1968 left no permanent political imprint upon the Western democracies is a conclusion that a simple electoral history of the ensuing decades, the decades of Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl, would seem sufficient to prove. Berman sadly acknowledges it. But the politics of the 1960s were a challenge to culture as well as politics. Berman locates his second search for meaning in the "gay awakening" that had its symbolic start in the 1969 protest at the Stonewall bar in Manhattan. The students who the year before had marched and chanted and proclaimed "it is forbidden to forbid" had been arguing for liberation of the oppressed of virtually every kind, and when it comes to the sexually oppressed, Berman says, the last two decades can be seen as a victory. "There is reason to think that on the matter of homosexuality," he writes, "some small but important aspect of human personality has begun to change."

That may be true, but the connection between the gay awakening and the student rebellion of 1968 is an oblique one. Gay liberation, like feminism, is central to the whole individualist ethos of the last two decades. But it doesn't exactly count as a trophy from the barricades. The world would have conceded the claims of both gays and women without the student occupation of a single lecture hall anywhere in the world.

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T >here is one more search for meaning, and it takes Berman across the ocean. Adam Michnik was arrested in a demonstration in Warsaw in February of 1968, went on to become the leading theorist of the Solidarity protest movement of the 1980s, and survived to take up a role as middle-aged statesman in the Polish political world that succeeded the collapse of communism in 1989. Václav Havel was in New York in the spring of 1968, participated in the student strike at Columbia, joined Alexander Dubcek in the short-lived liberal uprising in Prague that summer, and became the president of Czechoslovakia in 1990. Shortly after taking office, he entertained Frank Zappa on a state visit.

Perhaps, Berman speculates, Havel and Michnik represent the true legacy of the worldwide revolutionary sprouting of 1968. Unlike the students of Columbia or the Sorbonne, they persevered, and they won--something. But what?

The peaceful revolutions in eastern Europe in 1989 were indeed a defeat for the forces of illegitimate authority. That they were the incarnation of the dreams of 1968 seems a stretch, to say the least, even if some of the important players came out of the original cast. In the end, Berman does not make such a claim. He ponders the hopeful predictions of Francis Fukuyama that Western civilization is moving gradually, if fitfully, toward greater individual freedom. But he closes with the darker speculations of Andre Glucksmann, a leader of the Sorbonne rebels of 1968 and a later convert to conservatism, that the utopian enthusiasm of those years simply did not take sufficient account of the fundamental reality of evil in the human psyche.

And so, at the end of his odyssey, Berman finds a bit of meaning, but little reassurance. How does the world feel as the 20th century comes to a close? "The world feels this," Berman declares: "humble, skeptical, anxious, afraid, shaken."

Maybe so. On the other hand, it is an oddly grandiose conclusion to an appealingly modest book. Berman presents almost no evidence about the way the world is feeling. What he tells us is how the student rebels of his own generation are feeling, and that they are not feeling very well. In magnifying the global significance of their discontents, Berman ultimately succeeds in reinstating his lifetime membership in the class of 1968.