A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968
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 fate of the 1968 revolutionaries and of their successors two decades later.
It can’t be said that Berman’s four essays suggest the most obvious way of finding an answer to large questions such as these. The relevance of the gay liberation movement to the intractable movement for, say, Chechen separatism may not be absolutely nil—one might say they both illustrate the perils of “identity politics”—but it is surely close to being so. President Havel’s affection for the music of Frank Zappa sheds an interesting light on Havel’s humanism; it may suggest something about the way in which resistance to politically repressive regimes flows into cultural channels when direct political resistance is impossible. But it casts rather little light on the question of which of the countries of East-Central Europe will most easily acquire the institutions and the habits of mind of their Western European peers. Moreover, the things that make Berman’s book a pleasure to read—among them, his wisecracking criticisms of the high style in social theory, his racy account of the Stonewall Riot and its antecedents, and his eye for particular individuals and their quirks—also leave the reader to supply a good deal of the structure that is needed to turn these perceptions into a linked argument.
It is, however, work worth undertaking. Berman is up to several interesting things, some of them undeclared, and some rather deeply buried. One of these more deeply buried themes supplies perhaps more of the structure of the book than Mr. Berman supposes. One sense in which the 1960s produced two utopias is that while both the left and the right lost their faith in government, some preserved a confidence that a benign anarchy was possible—that human beings might be both free and happy if they got government off their backs. The rise of neoconservatism mirrored the rise of the utopian left in more than one way, of course. One conservative impulse was simply to oppose all talk of liberation. When young people on the left decided that they had had enough of sexual propriety, this upset people like Irving Kristol and helped to prepare the way for the current, strange alliance between Jewish, highly educated, urban exliberals and the very different supporters of the Christian Coalition.
What is more interesting is the degree to which the libertarian, or Hayekian, defense of free markets, laissez-faire, and much-reduced government intervention appealed to the same distrust of centralized authority and bureaucratic regulation that the 1968 left had expressed. East-Central Europe’s love affair with “the market” was no doubt partly a simple matter of deprived people hankering for a prosperity they had glimpsed at a distance; but part of it was an expression of disgust with authority as they had known it. The intellectual leap from utopian socialism to utopian capitalism is not so very great. “L’imagination au pouvoir” was the cry of Parisian students in 1968. But Hayek and his followers pointed out that it is in the marketplace that hopes become realized; according to them, investors, entrepreneurs, and ordinary consumers alike are busily imagining a world of useful services and objects and bringing it into existence. Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia showed the kind of libertarian conclusions, including criticism of some forms of inherited wealth, that could be drawn from that argument, once a clever thinker got hold of it.
On the whole, though, American conservatives have been uneasy about the libertarian case. Libertarians tend to be skeptical about the Pentagon, to urge the decriminalization of drug use, and to be rather relaxed about prostitution and pornography. Conservatives notoriously want weak government control of business and finance; but they tend to favor strong police and military power on the one hand and to be culturally authoritarian on the other. Nor is that an incoherent position; the government of Singapore defends it with some vigor. Still it suggests a slightly different take on the tale of two utopias. In 1968 American radicals used the name Amerika to stand for the fascist, racist, imperialist nightmarestate that they thought the United States had become; to their Eastern European successors of 1989, the United States was the favored model of a liberal-capitalist civil society. The first utopia was essentially negative: whatever Amerika was, utopia must not be. The second was more nearly, but not wholly, positive: what was wanted was American capitalism without America’s racial tensions, urban blight, and inadequate welfare state. To students of sociological theory, it was the United States described in the first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. But the deeper truth was that it was the fantasy of America captured in Oklahoma! or On the Town—friendly, high-spirited, resourceful, and self-reliant—that the class of 1989 had fallen for.
Although Berman says, and rightly, that 1968 was astonishing because it was the year of the worldwide student rebellion, he writes mainly about the American student movement. This is not to say that he belittles what went on elsewhere. In particular, he emphasizes the seriousness of the Mexican student movement, and reminds us that when we deplore such outrages as the killing of four students at Kent State University by incompetent and panicky national guardsmen, we should also remember the deliberate massacre of protesting students in Mexico City, in which to this day it remains unclear whether the numbers killed were in the tens, the scores, or the hundreds.
His essay on the movements of the 1960s is largely devoted to the rise and fall of the American student movement in the form of the Students for a Democratic Society. As he tells it, it is a story of conflict between generations, and one initially caused by mutual incomprehension rather than clearsighted political disagreement. When the members of SDS met with older radicals, they often felt snubbed. This, however, seems to be one of the few common factors in every country where the student left made an impact.
In one country after another, the split made its first appearance in the early and mid-1960s, as a fairly obscure argument deep within the ranks of the old working-class parties of the left. No more than a handful of people were ever involved. The brightest young people in the old left-wing parties or their youth affiliates somehow got into a dispute with the adult leaders of their own organization. The arguments grew testy. Finally the irritated adults grabbed a few of the uncooperative young people by the hair and grandly expelled them from the organized ranks of the international left—only to gaze out the window a few years later, circa 1968, to see those same uncooperative young troublemakers marching through the streets with fists in the air and several hundred thousand followers marching behind.
Those of Berman’s readers who remember 1968 in the frame of mind in which Wordsworth recalled 1789—“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven”—may be surprised by his brief history of the SDS. The movement’s origins lay in the anti-Communist left of the 1950s, specifically in the youth wing of the League for Industrial Democracy. The League for Industrial Democracy was an impeccably anti-Communist, organization. Although its origins lay in Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America, the LID advocated the sort of “guild socialism” associated in Britain with G.D.H. Cole. John Dewey was its president for many years, and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers was a major supporter. It was a small, sober society, and some very distinguished people passed through it.
Many who watched Mark Rudd and the Columbia SDS close down the campus in the spring of 1968 would have been surprised to learn that SDS was born in the form of the John Dewey Discussion Society at the University of Michigan, which had a counterpart at Columbia. But so it was. “L’imagination au pouvoir” was something Dewey himself demanded, but the degeneration of the politics of imagination into the politics of ecstatic self-deception would have driven him wild with irritation. All that, however, was in the far future when SDS produced its retort to the Communist Manifesto and to the American party system in the shape of the Port Huron Statement of 1962. The statement was a very American and, more specifically, a rather Deweyan piece of work. Its guiding concept was that of “participatory democracy,” the wistful hope that a modern industrial society might somehow engage the allegiances and enlarge the sympathies of all its citizens in something of the way that the idealized town meeting or Quaker assembly once did.