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 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.

The effects of the attachment to participatory democracy were not entirely unpredictable. One was a passion for meetings called at all hours of the day and night; another was an increasing unwillingness to bring these meetings to any sort of conclusion. But the internal pressures to which this kind of idealistic movement was vulnerable were only partly responsible for its ultimate fate. That owed much more to the growing revolt against the Vietnam War, and to the widespread sense that the United States was invariably in league with oppressive right-wing dictatorships no matter whether the threat of communist insurgency was real or fantastic. Once American politics seemed to be merely the local manifestation of a global conflict between the downtrodden of all races and colors on the one hand and a white, capitalist, imperialist, and militarist conspiracy on the other, it ceased to matter as much as it once had whether one’s allies were impeccably anti-Communist, and indeed how strong their democratic credentials were at all. (One consequence of this was that the struggles of the East European anti-Communist democrats, from the late 1960s on, did not get much attention or sympathy from the radical American left.)

Paul Berman recalls how the student revolts of the 1960s came to a catastrophic end in Maoist riots on the streets of Paris and shoot-outs between American police forces and groups of Black Panthers. But what interests him more is the frame of mind that drove the revolt in its early stages. He notices that a disproportionate number of the participants in the early SDS were Jewish, many of them students who had begun to take part in the struggle for civil rights in the American South. A lot of them seemed to be driven by embarrassment at the comfort of their own lives, and those of their formerly radical parents, compared with the dangers endured by the black protesters in Alabama or Arkansas. The old passion of nineteenth-century Russian populists for “going to the people” took hold of them, as did the old delusion that if only the masses could see clearly just how they were oppressed and by whom, they would rise up and smash the system.

No doubt all of this is part of the story and it is a part that is particularly worth telling because it is often smoothed over. But it is scarcely the whole of it. Berman’s interest in the cultural manifestations of utopian leftism sometimes makes him seem a little insouciant about the evils young people were protesting. Throughout the 1950s, American admirals and air force generals were happily planning pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union; if you lived in Europe, you did not have to be a particularly neurotic child to wonder whether you would see your twenty-first birthday. A French teen-ager facing conscription and service in Algeria might well decide he did not want to serve his country by torturing Arabs—or being murdered by them. The prosperity of the long postwar boom surely raised a rational question in many people’s minds about the disparity between monetary measures of success and actual lives of citizens, particularly in the poorer parts of Europe and America. It is not a new observation that the puzzle in human affairs is not so much the revolutions that do break out as all the ones that don’t—there is rarely a shortage of irrationality, injustice, and oppression to rebel against.

The happiest of Paul Berman’s essays—the one in which his sympathies are most deeply and unequivocally engaged, and where he ends on a thoroughly upbeat note—is his account of the rise of the gay liberation movement. For a lot of it he relies heavily, and with due acknowledgment, on Martin Duberman, who created gay and lesbian studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY, and who was a participant in much of the history he describes. In the context of the search for utopia, the story has a number of interesting aspects. When we consider the “two utopias” of Paul Berman’s title, gay liberation perhaps provides one side of the contrast. On the one side lies political utopia, on the other a more private utopia. Both are skeptical of existing government, both look to a new freedom—but they look in very different places, and they are often at odds.

The twentieth-century left has had an ambivalent attitude not only toward homosexual sex but toward sex altogether. It is not that the left has ever been systematically hostile to copulation; but, as Orwell made so much of in 1984, the sexual passions people will not relinquish are likely to frustrate the state’s attempts to take over their lives. Sex breeds a desire for privacy, creates an intense interest in something to which the doings of the state are entirely irrelevant, makes one person care more for the fate of another person than for the fate of the collectivity. The pursuit of private happiness is likely to be an obstacle to social reconstruction.

But fears like these—even if they underlay the Soviet Union’s official puritanism—have coexisted with at least two other views. The first accepts the old left injunction to “seek first the political kingdom,” and expects sexual happiness as one of the many delayed gifts of a politically and economically unrepressed society. The second sees sex as intrinsically subversive of authority. The genius of Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, published in 1955 to a largely uncomprehending world, was to put all of these ideas together. On the one hand, sexual happiness can sabotage the search for a better world, just by diluting our discontent. On the other, the search for a truer, more real, and deeper sexual happiness than we experience in our repressive capitalist society is itself a radical urge. So the transition from the rebellions of 1968 to gay liberation is neither a matter of strict logic nor of obvious political necessity—but it has a certain coherence.

At all events, Berman regards gay liberation in an almost wholly benign light. The few doubts he entertains about the recent history of gay liberation are familiar liberal doubts about identity politics, and they are, after all, felt by many of the people he is writing about. Arlene Stein, the editor of a lesbian anthology, Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation, has ruefully noticed part of the problem in relation to the lesbian movement. “The paradox,” she writes, “is that if we don’t name our difference in explicitly sexual terms, we remain invisible as lesbians—but if we do name it we’re typecast as little more than sexual beings, and the vast complexity of our lives disappears.”

But the movement, Berman argues, has accomplished something that is not often noticed. It is a commonplace in discussions of homosexuality to observe that different cultures have such different attitudes toward sexuality that many of them have no term at all for homosexuality. Our own seems to have decided only in the nineteenth century that there was such a “thing” as homosexuality. Certainly, sailors in the British navy in the time of Nelson could be hanged at the yardarm for committing sodomy, but they weren’t hanged for being “homosexual.” All societies have strong views about how and with what sexual conduct is lawful or taboo; the urge to classify sexual attachments seems not to have afflicted most of them. That requires a particular scientific interest, and no doubt other interests, too.

But Berman turns these observations into a thoroughly happy thought. The Americanization of world culture means not only that Coca-Cola will rot the teeth and American pop music change the musical sensibilities of the rest of the globe, but that American aspirations for personal, sexual tolerance and happiness may also follow. Feminist demands for equality between the sexes are met with anger in many parts of the world, but they are making slow, steady headway nonetheless. Demands for tolerance for sexual minorities are following in their wake; and Berman thinks they, too, will make slow, steady headway until gay liberation movements will burst out in the unlikeliest places. “There is reason to think that on the matter of homosexuality, some small but important aspect of human personality has begun to change, not just in two or three cities, or in two or three countries, but, weird though it is to suggest such a possibility, everywhere.”

Readers with a taste for irony will notice that “everywhere” doesn’t seem to include the United States in an election year. Ever since it became clear that the Supreme Court of Hawaii was likely to legalize homosexual marriage in that state, American politicians have, with a few honorable exceptions, fallen over themselves to make the world safe for bigotry. And President Clinton has encouraged them by announcing ahead of time that when Congress sends him a bill to deny federal recognition of homosexual marriage, he will sign it. As usual, it is hard to know if this is the coarsest kind of electoral calculation, a frightened reaction to the forces that humiliated him over gays in the military, or a sincere expression of the cultural conservatism that makes him such an enthusiast for capital punishment.

Liberals may take some comfort from the fact that the Senate almost managed to vote for a bill to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace; they may on the other hand lament the absence of any serious discussion of whatever principles explain why homosexuals should not be put at a disadvantage in making contracts of employment, but may not make valid marriage contracts. It is at least curious that neither the President nor most other national politicians are embarrassed about the similarities between the way states now threaten not to recognize homosexual marriages contracted elsewhere and the way they all too recently refused to recognize interracial marriages.

Although it can’t be said that A Tale of Two Utopias goes downhill after his optimistic observations on homosexuality, neither the essay on Havel’s Czechoslovakia nor that on the “end of history” controversy has quite the sparkle of the first half of the book. It would be unfair to demand that they should. The student rebellion of the Sixties, after all, was in its nature dramatic: something that gathered force, had a brief, explosive, heady moment, and then fizzled out. Gay liberation makes steady progress, notwithstanding the grim experience of AIDS and the wilder shores of Acting Up. An essay on East-Central Europe’s liberation from the Soviet nightmare that hands everything on the figures of Frank Zappa and Václav Havel is likely to be either a series of bemused reflections on why it is that foreigners fall in love with aspects of America that liberal Americans tend to regard with suspicion or else a story about the way in which a revolution made by high-spirited poets is bound to turn into something grayer and more managerial. Berman’s account is both.

It has some wonderful moments, however, including the day Frank Zappa, arriving to confer with his longtime admirer, President Havel, coincided at Prague airport with Ambassador Shirley Temple Black. A Czech TV crew asked the ambassador to comment on Mr. Zappa’s visit. All Czechoslovakia saw her horrified reaction.

Head turned away from camera. Face buried itself in hands. Televised mortification!… The ambassador from the United States volunteered that she did know something about Mr. Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit. Czechoslovakia was aghast. People had no way to account for the United States ambassador’s boorish airport behavior, except to mark her down as a cultural ignoramus who lacked the aplomb to boast to all of Central Europe about one of America’s finest sons, the brilliant Zappa, a world figure in the field of popular music.

The thought that sustains Paul Berman is that Czechoslovakia was not so much suffering cultural envy of the United States as projecting onto it an image of pure human happiness. Since the Soviets had spent years and years forcing Czechs to see the world as containing only the two alternatives, submission to the Soviet Union or corruption by the United States, it was hardly to be wondered at that they very much wanted to be corrupted by the United States. I suspect that Berman’s more solemn and academic readers will feel that he has looked too much at the entertaining surface of what happened in Eastern Europe after 1989, when he ought to have written yet another anxious tract on the difficulties of reconstituting civil society. They will be quite wrong.

The lure of the United States, after all, is precisely that it was in its foundation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness as well as to the more basic rights of life and liberty. A utopian strain was part of the American project from the very beginning. It might well be true that the most important commitments of liberalism are essentially negative—above all, to avoid cruelty, and especially the cruelty that is driven by religious and political passions. They certainly do not exhaust liberal ambitions. And one of them has been to make everyday life for ordinary people happier and freer than any former society has done. The anarchic visions of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention are certainly not much help to anyone wondering how to privatize state-owned industries, or how to deal with the misdeeds of the previous regime’s secret police. But they surely tell us a bit about the pursuit of happiness.

If Paul Berman’s “two utopias” have multiplied, or perhaps revealed themselves rather as a cluster of paired utopias—political versus sexual, pro-American versus anti-American, socialist versus capitalist, violent versus peaceful—the obvious unity in his story is provided in his subtitle. This is the political journey of the generation of 1968. The odd thing, however, is that although it arrives at a destination labeled “the end of history,” the journey seems not to be over at all. The “end of history” thesis comes in many shapes and sizes. Daniel Bell’s essay “The End of Ideology” forty-three years ago was a distinctively American version of the thesis, but in content, if not in tone, it was not wholly unlike Marcuse’s broodings on the same subject, or those of Alexandre Kojève. It is a thesis that comes in two versions. One emphasizes the role of class conflict, the other the role of ideas. Each tries to incorporate at least part of the concerns of the other.

The thought is that either because class conflict has been eliminated in a society where the old distinctions between the owners of capital and the suppliers of labor have been blurred and muddled, or because all the great, heart-stopping stories about the point of human existence have lost their grip on our imaginations, we have had the last of the great transformations of human society. Some form of managed capitalism and a rather diluted, not very participatory liberal democracy is what history has in store for mankind, and that is that. As Berman observes, reaching back to Tocqueville’s view of America, this amounts to the triumph of mediocrity—and also of a conventional notion of happiness. It is, so to speak, what the class of ‘68 seems ready to settle for in its middle age.

Does it really mean “the end of history”? Obviously not, in the sense that unpredictable and alarming events will continue to happen. Iran will not settle for liberal democracy and an end to the utopian dreams of mullahs and ayatollahs in the near future; the Chechens will not give up their guns and lie down like lambs anytime soon. The world will be as messy as ever. The thought, rather, is that dreams of a leap into some radically new world have to be abandoned. Curiously enough, this is what Daniel Bell resisted all those years ago. He was content to see an end to ideology—in the sense of ideas whose prime function was to arm one side or the other in class conflict; but he wrote that he was exceedingly unhappy at the thought that utopian aspirations might vanish with them. Herbert Marcuse did not entirely despise the happiness of the consumer society that he thought had turned off the motor of historical change; but he thought that unless some coalition of wholly disaffected groups and individuals could be established, the utopian impulse would die.

Berman comments on all this from a considerable distance. In some ways, that makes him a good guide to the matters he writes about: he doesn’t write diatribes against those who betrayed the noble ideals of 1968 or 1989, doesn’t write as a disillusioned leftist, doesn’t complain. But it makes his account of Francis Fukuyama and André Glucksmann—the former a State Department official, the latter a disillusioned enragé from the Maoist left of 1970s Paris—oddly impersonal.

Glucksmann, to be sure, makes an excellent foil to Fukuyama. For his thesis is not that we have arrived at the end of ideology—anything but; rather, that we should arrive at the end of ideology, because utopian doctrines that claim possession of the one truth have been the great twentieth-century killers. Whether it is Islamic fundamentalism, or Stalinism, or the fascist conviction of the triumph of militant nationalism that he invokes, the armed prophet is a menace. Glucksmann is a familiar figure—the former zealot who is now zealous for the destruction of zealotry. But now comes the puzzle. Is Fukuyama right in seeing the remaining fundamentalisms as mere flickers of utopian aspiration in a world that has become safe for liberal democracy (and nothing else); or should we be really frightened by the adherents of their particular one truth?

Berman, it is not too much to say, has it both ways. “The messages from these two authors, Glucksmann and Fukuyama, are at odds with one another, but since I am a critic and not a philosopher, I see no reason not to say that both messages seem true enough.” It is tempting, but it would be unkind, to say that one of the legacies of 1968 has been the urge to think that two contradictory propositions can be true if only we truly want them to be. What Berman actually has in mind is something else: that Fukuyama may well be right about the long-run invulnerability of liberal-democratic capitalism, but many horrible things will happen in the meantime. I suspect that the second half of that proposition is truer than the first.