Dream Time

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

by Paul Berman
Norton, 351 pp., $24.00

The reader who glances at the title of Paul Berman’s vivid and interesting new book might wonder which were the two utopias whose tale he is telling. Reading further will bring as much bafflement as enlightenment. For what Paul Berman has written is not exactly a tale of two utopias. The book consists of four long essays: on the student radicals of the 1960s, on gay liberation, on Václav Havel’s enthusiasm for Frank Zappa, and—an appropriate finale—on the “end of history” thesis as understood by Francis Fukuyama and the French writer André Glucksmann. A suspicious critic might complain that accounts of the end of history in all their various forms, from Hegel onward, have always had as their purpose the suppression of whatever utopian aspirations their audience is supposed to have, and wonder what Berman is up to.

A quick, but partial, answer is that one of the tales is an account of the contrast between the wild, and wildly unsuccessful, revolutionaries of the late 1960s and the quieter but initially more successful revolutionaries of the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 came as a revelation to one middle-aged member of the class of ‘68:

Suddenly it was obvious that those long-ago utopian efforts to change the shape of the world were a young people’s rehearsal, preparatory to adult events that only came later. Suddenly it was obvious that the authentic political revolution of our era was now, not then; liberal and democratic, not radical leftist in the ‘68 style; real, not imaginary. Here and there the leaders of the revolutions of ‘89—a Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, an Adam Michnik in Poland—turned out to be the same heroic persons, now adult liberals, who as young radicals had helped lead the movements of ‘68, just to show the relation of one uprising to the next.

Is this the preface to a not unfamiliar tale: those who attempt to build utopia inevitably miss their aim, but moderate reform sometimes exceeds the hopes of the reformers? Is the moral that moderate ambitions can be realized, while immoderate ones lead to disaster? Apparently not. Berman wants to remind us of the way in which the modest hopes of 1989 turned out to be not quite so modest, and how they, too, were frustrated by events:

The old hope of reorganizing the world on a drastically new and infinitely more democratic basis, the universal project, the grand aspiration for the poor and the downtrodden, that hope, the forbidden utopian dream, once again seemed, in its newly liberal and anti-grandiose version—well, thinkable.

Once more, in too many countries, these hopes were dashed, in “a scarlet wave of spectacular disasters, the ethnic massacres and the gangster tyrannies.” Berman wonders whether the aspirations of liberals and radicals will always be doomed, whether the idea of progress is simply a bad joke, whether in the last resort there are any lessons at all to be drawn from the …

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