16 JANUARY 1988, Page 26


A revolt not a revolution

Geoffrey Wheatcroft


Hamish Hamilton, £14.95

1968: A STUDENT GENERATION IN REVOLT by Ronald Fraser et al. Hell it was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very bloody. Or so it seemed to Philip Toynbee, looking back at the 1930s with the rueful hindsight of a former revolutionary. He meant that although the dawn had sometimes seemed sweet (perhaps by way of 'false conscious- ness', in the phrase of a later generation of Marxists) there was always a presentiment of failure. The revolution never came.

Nor did it in 1968. There was riot and rebellion, with a minority of a generation of students (to be precise, rather than 'a student generation in revolt') making a great deal of noise and for a moment seeming to threaten established authority. A spectre was haunting Europe, in Mr Paul Johnson's famous phrase, 'the spectre of student power.' Spectral it proved to be; a courtier reporting back to de Gaulle might have reversed de la Rochefoucauld- Liancourt's words of 1789. This wasn't a revolution, 'C'est une grande revoke.' The barricades came down, intoxicating bliss turned to crapulous hell. What had hap- pened?

On the face of things 1968 was an unlikely year for a revolution. The West had just experienced enormously the most prosperous two decades in history. Des- titution and unemployment, the scourges of preceding generations, seemed to have been banished for ever. A generation of women had grown up spared by machine from the drudgery of household work. Television numbed the senses. The pro- letariat, or the workers — who were ceasing in any strict sense to be proleta- rian, and who had never had to work so little — had small reason to revolt. And of course they did not do so. The revolu- tionaires of 1968, from Berkeley to the Sorbonne to Milan to Essex and the LSE were anything buy horny-handed toilers.

In itself this was not new. Students had taken to the streets before, in particular 120 years before. In 1848, the great year of revolutions, they had been prominent in the uprisings in several German cities; especially in Vienna where, in Mr A. J. P. Taylor's words, the revolution lacked lead- ers of its own 'and found them — sure sign of economic and political backwardness — in the students of the university'. There the resemblance between the two years ends. Or rather, the comparison matches if ever one did Marx's famous saying about his- tory repeating itself as farce.

There were some serious rather than farcical upheavals. Some of those who protested — black Americans, Ulster Catholics — had real grievances, as well as imaginary ones, although the blacks' last

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legal oppressions were being lifted. This discrete struggle was already producing neurotic symtoms: the absurdity of Black Islam and Black Panthers, straightforward racism — 'the major enemy's the honky' — and anti-Semitism, the brutal oafishness of some self-appointed black leaders. Mr Fraser recounts the time when Mr Stokely Carmichael was asked what was the posi- tion of women in this movement, and shocked feminists in the audience by re- plying, 'prone'. (He presumably meant supine, though there is no accounting for tastes.) The struggle in Northern Ireland was different again from the other events of 1968, and indeed from anything else. What that separate tale illustrates is, once more, the doctrine of unintended consequences. The Ulster Catholics really were ill-used and quite righly wanted their condition bettered. What few of them wanted, as the Civil Rights movement began, was what they were to get: 20 years of violence, increasing bitterness between Protestant and Catholic, and the emergence of a new and venomously powerful IRA.

Otherwise, the Left was united by one cause: Vietnam. Like those other anti-war campaigners of 70 years earlier the pro- Boers, whom they closely resembled, the Movement of 1968 was right about the war but wrong about the enemy. The Vietcong, like the Boers, were rustic patriots fighting for national freedom. They were also fighting for something else, as is witnessed today respectively in Soweto and in the 're-education camps' outside Saigon. One of several palinodes in the two books comes from Mr Tariq Ali who is an amiable fathead but not a crook: the Vietcong or NLF had been 'committed to holding free elections, to freedom of the press, of trade unions, of political parties, of creed, of demonstration. All of this was unambiguously stated by the NLF. But it didn't happen. All the talk about "demo- cracy" turns out to be a subterfuge, a manoeuvre to obtain mass support. No- thing more.' You don't say.

All the same, they were right about the war. It was once said that the question asked by the Boer war was not whether Afrikanerdom had any moral purpose but whether the British Empire had. And so in Vietnam. What moral purpose had the United States? Whatever the rights and wrongs of the war in its origins, the means by which it was waged were indefensible. As Mr Colin Welch — no rabid anti- American — remarked on this page not long ago, the comparison between the very large numbers of Vietnamese killed in the war and the very small number of Amer- icans is not creditable.

Besides GIs in the field or people living in Harlem or the Falls Road, Californian or Parisian students had few hardships to bear, even if in Mr Caute's phrase they were many of them 'suffering from acute alienation'. Being translated, they weren't opressed, just bored. Were they genuine revolutionaries or spoilt posturing brats? asks Mr Caute (though the two need not be mutually exclusive.) Spoilt they certainly were, the privileged existence of university life now extended far more widely than ever before. Bored, laden with alienation, angst and anomie, they expressed their frustration on the barricades rather as an Oxford hearty might once have thrown a gin bottle through a stained-glass window.

Both these historians of 1968 sense this. Both are men of the Left, although Mr Fraser's tone is relentlessly neutral. That and his style of oral history (i.e. the author, his eight assistants and their tape recor- ders, one quotation after another), become wearisome at times, and Mr Caute's is the more entertaining book. With the best will he cannot be called a naturally gifted writer, but he is not a fool and he more clearly expresses the ironies and contradic- tions of 1968 and its aftermath.

He admires the New Left but recognises its failure. And he perceives the essential frivolitiy of the 1968 generation, as frivo- lous in their politics as in their sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. 'Blake rather than Marx' was appealing; it was no way to make a revolution. Mr Jeff Nuttall's plea that the Movement should 'reinstate a sense of health and beauty pertaining to the genitals and the arsehole' may have been more characteristic of 1968 than any speeches from the dock by Boston Two, Baltimore Four, Chicago Seven and Catonsville Nine; it certainly caught the year's silliness.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s which has now turned sour one way or another was certainly frivolous. Still it provides the two books with some of their much-needed moments of light relief: 'He said he was going to introduce me to a famous director with whom he was working to get me a part because I was very beautiful. Then he took me to his bedroom. The first thing he asked me was what I thought of the class struggle.' I bet it was. To a traditional revolutionary all of this was a distraction from the task in hand. Well might Profes- sor Hobsbawm — who bridges the gap between Old and New Left — once have written an article called 'Is the revolution puritan?', and answered his question in the affirmative.

If the failed revolution in the West was frivolous farce, another was not. There was nothing farcical or in any way funny about the Prague Spring — immediately followed by Winter — or the turmoil and purges in Poland. Mr Caute does not shirk this point. The revolting students in the West splut- tered and muttered about fake bourgeois democracy, sham freedom and, in Mar- cuse's phrase, repressive tolerance. But the Czechs longed for 'precisely the freedoms which Western radicals were rejecting as bogus and manipulative'. To Czechs and Poles, the antics of Nanterre and the LSE Yippies and 'that jovial young Robespierre with his flaming red hair and piercing blue eyes' (as Mr Johnson described Mr Daniel Cohn-Bendit) must have seemed only half- way amusing. Nor did they amuse many in the West. Hornsey art college was occupied by the students. A thunderous blast followed from the Wood Green, Southgate and Palmers Green Weekly Herald: ' . . a bunch of crackpots, here in Haringey, or in Grosvenor Square, or in Paris, or Berlin, or Mexico, can never overthrow an estab- lished system ... They may dislike having to conform to a system in which they are required to study, and follow set program- mes, and take examinations ... The system is ours. We the ordinary people, the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, semi- detached suburban wage-earners, we are the system. We are not victims of it. We are not slaves to it. We are it, and we like it. Does any bunch of twopenny-halfpenny kids think they can turn us upside down? They'll learn.' They learned. The year of the barricades and the 20 years since have taught no end of a lesson. It is unnecessary to laugh at the Spoilt posturing brats for being so out of touch with life; they found that out painful- ly for themselves. The single most striking aspect of '68' is the contrast between students and intelligentsia on the one hand and on the other the workers with whom they emotionally identified and whose interests they claimed to represent.

In France, Communist-led workers shut the factory gates on the students. In England that summer there was just one spontaneious proletarian emeute — the dockers marching in favour of Mr Powell and against the blacks. In America, the workers ignored Berkeley and Chicago and went on working (or fighting if they were 19). And so it continued politically through the Seventies and Eighties. The last word in Mr Caute's book is 'Thatcher'.

This is the heart of the matter, and here is a great subject waiting for its historian. To say that we are witnessing the death of socialism is hackneyed and effortless, but true. All over the West the Left is political- ly in retreat and, to judge from our own Opposition, politically bankrupt too. All over the East, come to that. In the 'bourgeois democracies' Marx's prophecies — notably the inexorable immiseration of the proletariat leading inexorably to pro- letarian revolution — have long since been decisively falsified. In election after elec- tion, in country after country, Marx has been rejected by the class to which he claimed to speak.

But not by another class. Despite every- thing, a signficiant section of the educated bourgeoisie clings sentimentally but tena- ciously to 'the Left'. Before last summer's general election, the Guardian and the Observer asked the opinions of a large number of literary intellectuals, I am sure untendentiously chosen, many of them children of '68. To judge from those pages, the election should have been a landslide for Labour, followed by the Alliance. Last Sunday's Telegraph carried a fascinating piece by Mr Graham Turner in which he interviewed various members of our lumpen-intelligentsia, who expressed their obsessive, uncontrollable hatred of the Prime Minister. I do not say that the British masses love Mrs Thatcher in an emotional sense, but they like what she has done for them and they go on voting for her. In other places and in other ages there has been a divergence between clerisy and common people; never can it have been quite so sharp as here and now.