He reflects on his days as a student revolutionary and how history has revealed the ironies in his position. After discussing his experiences in the course of 1968, when he participated in various agitations from Cambridge to Paris to Goetttingen he wonders at he and his friends' blindness:
What does it say of the hermetically sealed world of cold war Western Europe that I—a well-educated student of history, of East European Jewish provenance, at ease in a number of foreign languages, and widely traveled in my half of the continent—was utterly ignorant of the cataclysmic events unraveling in contemporary Poland and Czechoslovakia? Attracted to revolution? Then why not go to Prague, unquestionably the most exciting place in Europe at that time? Or Warsaw, where my youthful contemporaries were risking expulsion, exile, and prison for their ideas and ideals?
Looking back, I can’t help feeling we missed the boat. Marxists? Then why weren’t we in Warsaw debating the last shards of Communist revisionism with the great Leszek Kolakowski and his students? Rebels? In what cause? At what price? Even those few brave souls of my acquaintance who were unfortunate enough to spend a night in jail were usually home in time for lunch. What did we know of the courage it took to withstand weeks of interrogation in Warsaw prisons, followed by jail sentences of one, two, or three years for students who had dared to demand the things we took for granted?
For all our grandstanding theories of history, then, we failed to notice one of its seminal turning points. It was in Prague and Warsaw, in those summer months of 1968, that Marxism ran itself into the ground. It was the student rebels of Central Europe who went on to undermine, discredit, and overthrow not just a couple of dilapidated Communist regimes but the very Communist idea itself. Had we cared a little more about the fate of ideas we tossed around so glibly, we might have paid greater attention to the actions and opinions of those who had been brought up in their shadow....
...In our own eyes at least, we were a revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.Reading this reminded me of Roger Scruton's account in his beautifully-judged memoir 'Gentle Regrets' of how the self-indulgent and futile événements of 1968 confirmed his conservative 'vocation'. However, even now, Judt wouldn't see things quite like that:
We [the revolutionary generation] protested the things we didn’t like, and we were right to do so.
'The things we didn't like' - is that really sufficient, I wonder, to throw cobblestones at heads and call for the overthrow of 'Fascist' Western governments?
And I'm inclined to deflect more implicit praise in Roger Scruton's direction. Also in 'Gentle Regrets' he recounts his experiences in the 1980s when, being a dedicated supporter, he made a number of contraband-smuggling and morale-boosting visits to Eastern European dissidents. This should surely justify him as a true and admirable revolutionary using Judt's measure.
It's really quite funny that history as written by a former soixante-huitard implicitly paints the High Tory Dr Scruton as the real revolutionary of the late-twentieth century. Clio does have a sense of humour.