40 Years After 1968: 'Where Has All the Rage Gone?'
Tariq Ali, in an excellent piece in this weekend's Guardian, offers some well-crafted insights into the legacy of the 1968 uprisings and the dissipation of formerly held revolutionary sentiment.
A storm swept the world in 1968. It started in Vietnam, then blew across Asia, crossing the sea and the mountains to Europe and beyond. A brutal war waged by the US against a poor south-east Asian country was seen every night on television. The cumulative impact of watching the bombs drop, villages on fire and a country being doused with napalm and Agent Orange triggered a wave of global revolts not seen on such a scale before or since.
If the Vietnamese were defeating the world's most powerful state, surely we, too, could defeat our own rulers: that was the dominant mood among the more radical of the 60s generation.
The struggle against the Vietnam war lasted 10 years. In 2003 people came out again in Europe and America, in even larger numbers, to try to stop the Iraq war. The pre-emptive strike failed. The movement lacked the stamina and the resonance of its predecessors. Within 48 hours it had virtually disappeared, highlighting the changed times.
Were the dreams and hopes of 1968 all idle fantasies? Or did cruel history abort something new that was about to be born? Revolutionaries - utopian anarchists, Fidelistas, Trotskyist allsorts, Maoists of every stripe - wanted the whole forest. Liberals and social democrats were fixated on individual trees. The forest, they warned us, was a distraction, far too vast and impossible to define, whereas a tree was a piece of wood that could be identified, improved and crafted into a chair or a table. Now the tree, too, has gone.
Some, who once dreamed of a better future, have simply given up. Others espouse a bitter maxim: unless you relearn you won't earn. The French intelligentsia, which had from the Enlightenment onwards made Paris the political workshop of the world, today leads the way with retreats on every front. Renegades occupy posts in every west European government defending exploitation, wars, state terror and neocolonial occupations; others now retired from the academy specialise in producing reactionary dross on the blogosphere, displaying the same zeal with which they once excoriated factional rivals on the far left.
So where does that leave us?