The Young in Prague

It would be nice to think of the protesting students as a kind of parliament of the young, a World Court, an International, judging their parents’ worlds by values of life (youth equals life—age equals death?) which are more important than property, power, establishments. But although the revolt is, notoriously, world-wide, and although there are meetings between students of different nations, the closer one looks, the more one realizes that the students have differences rooted in national circumstances. Moreover they are much influenced by whether they come from America, Western Europe, or the communist Peoples’ Democracies. They may of course hate the side which they happen to be on, the American students being anti-American, the East European students verging on anti-communism; and yet they have often a very chauvinistic way of indulging these views.

For them to agree about aims, they would have to look into the situations that separate them, analyze the circumstances which cause their disagreements; and seek below the surface for common, agreed-on values—I mean, those they attach to life, which they do agree about. But to do this they would need all the “imagination” of the French students, and the power of intellectual analysis of the German students. The French and Germans would have to understand what they have in common, and both understand what they have in common with the Czechs.

In Germany I found the students critical of the French for their weakness in political theory, contemptuous of the English for their inability to exploit causes to fight about. “We would give a million dollars to have the English racial issue in Berlin,” one of their leaders said. And he added: “Why does the London School of Economics have such a reputation for revolutionary politics? I didn’t notice any.” I found it difficult in Berlin to express sympathy with the Czech students without condemning myself out of my own mouth as a bourgeois reactionary. In Berlin, some students of the ASTA (Algemeine Studentenausschuss) said that they feared that the Czech students “admired the West.”

YET if one goes to Czechoslovakia, it does not take long to understand that the Czech students live in a situation in which it would be difficult to want to do away with consumer goods. They have so few of them. To buy a car in Prague, I was told, you have to put half the price into a bank and then wait for three years, at the end of which you pay the second half, and, if you are lucky, get your car. If, during the interval, you run short of cash and draw on the money you have set aside, then you are back at scratch, having to start all over again. Families, my informant said, go without meals in order to save up for a car. To students in Paris and West Berlin, to save up for the car that they gladly offer up as a Consumer Good’s Sacrifice aflame on some barricade …

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