Saturday, 13 February 2010

They missed the Revolution

An attractively written and ingenuous post by Tony Judt at the New York Review site.

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.

12 comments:

Gadjo Dilo said...

At first I thought you were talking about the Renault Clio, but now I realise it was some Greek bird.

I know religion's not to everyone's taste in The Blogsphere, but I know people here who smuggled bibles and other literature into the country and risked stays in some of the worst prisons in Eastern Europe.

malty said...

In Europe all that they ever did was grab the headlines, a tiny minority of people, students, misfits, the rump of the old agitators. All good headline grabbing stuff. In reality the rest of us, the people who paid the subsidy's, thought they were silly misguided wretches.
The ordinary French people certainly did, in the end their patience ran out.

It was an age that showed up the difference between the Americans and the Europeans, in the States the anti Vietnam war movement was genuine, deep rooted and ultimately effective, its European equivalent was simply, especially the French version, a bunch of adolescents joining arms with communist trade unionists and pissing about. They have every reason, when reflecting, to blush.

Sean said...

I still have nightmares about visiting my relatives in Poland in 80 or 81 (cant remember) at the height of the cold war.

I remember my English teacher at school asking me in knowing, hushed terms "its not a bad as we are lead to believe is it?"

Its the closest I ever came to hitting a teacher, and double detention for my capitalist lackey attitude, and my grades were marked down in true comrade style for the coming year.

It still does not go down well in some circles, the "evel thatch" apparently.

All this shit about voting at 16! you know nothing at 16. 25 for females and 30 for males unless they serve in the forces or do some overseas voluntary work, then 23..but thats just the warmongering sexist I am

dearieme said...

"the self-indulgent and futile événements of 1968": at the time I laughed and jeered at the silly, self-regarding, frivolous self-indulgence of it all - it was fake to its fingertips. It was, in part, based on the Yankee kids whose motivation was an entirely non-frivolous and well-advised cowardice. They were keen not to risk their necks in such a foolish and ill-managed adventure as the JFK/LBJ war in Vietnam. The big hoot, though, was when De Gaulle scooted for the German border - too brave to give in to the Nazis, too yellow to stand up to the canaille. Very droll.

Vern said...

I've always liked Houellebecq's term for the 68ers - 'soixante retards'.

Hey Skipper said...

It was in Prague and Warsaw, in those summer months of 1968, that Marxism ran itself into the ground.

Marxism was run into the ground from the outset. Prague just made it readily apparent even to those with merely a casual grasp on reality.

Religion is as religion does.

It was, in part, based on the Yankee kids whose motivation was an entirely non-frivolous and well-advised cowardice. They were keen not to risk their necks in such a foolish and ill-managed adventure as the JFK/LBJ war in Vietnam.

Is that a moral or a strategic judgment?

As it turns out, the US did not need to be in Vietnam. That doesn't answer the question of whether the US should have been there.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: It's difficult to imagine how disturbing it must have been to try to uphold truth in those countries during this period. It's fascinating to hear the accounts of those who did.

Malty: My parents always say they missed out on the dropping-out part of the sixties as they were working too hard to keep a young family in nappies.

Sean: That must have been quite a time to visit. I remember at school the politically interested teachers being too wrapped up in CND to bother about those events. I agree about voting at 16: it would also be an awful injustice to inflict politics on them.

Dearieme: That's an interesting point about de Gaulle. In the context of the students describing him as The Old Fascist, Scruton recalls reading in de Gaulle's memoirs of the funeral of Valéry, his 'first public gesture on liberating Paris':

'The image of the cortège as it made its way to the cathedral of Notre Dame, the proud general first among the mourners, and here and there a German sniper still looking down from the rooftops, had made a vivid impression on me.'

Something obviously had changed.

Vern: I understand that term is a lively one over there at the moment! Is Houellebecq worth a try? His books sound excruciating.

Skip: To be fair, something that had run itself into the ground at its inception wouldn't have commanded (at least nominally) a good proportion of the world's population a hundred years later. For a great many people wisdom is experienced in hindsight and for a minority it's irrelevant.

I take this to indicate a great deal of scepticism and suspicion are warranted when faced by radical political projects justified with reference to new and unprecedented conditions (cf. Cheney's recent project).

Sean said...

My Gran married a Pole, but her sister married a Italian Prisoner of war, (apparently the Italians were so friendly they did not have to lock them up.)

The went to live in South Africa, and you can imagine the attitude having relatives living in apartheid South Africa. Especially myself living in the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.

And me being me, a cape apple was always on my desk waiting to be eaten, label facing the front.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Gaw, I'm not claining it was necessarily "truth", but that they were also heroes of a sort. It seems that while the dissenting mavericks in Poland were the trades unionists and in Czechoslovakia the artists, in Romania they were usually the priests amnd pastors.

Gaw said...

Good point. I generalised a little too much there.

Vern said...

I liked his first book, 'Whatever' and his second 'Atomized' is extremely funny and bang on the nail satirically, even if it is also stuffed full of porno. From that point on, MH is not as necessary.

Gaw said...

Thanks Vern, will try one of those two.