Paul Berman’s A Tale Of Two Utopias

It is my conviction that my generation is growing up within an elaborate experiment, whose parameters we did not choose, whose conclusions cannot be predicted. The authors of this experiment came of age in the 1960s – a decade which represents a decisive break with the past, and an embarkation into the new and unexplored. But though they themselves inaugurated the changes, the hold of the past proved strong enough to exert some influence still on the way they lived their lives; the full effects of their dramatic break with tradition would not be felt until they had children, and raised them in a culture even further removed from the past. Most of the young men and women of my generation do not perceive how radically different their culture is, how incomprehensible their standards of behaviour and ethics would be to their ancestors, and if they give these things a passing thought, it is to look upon the past with a mixture of suspicion and horror.

I cannot now consider the dominant culture of my society without giving this generation, and the 1960s that shaped it, due consideration, and that led me to Paul Berman’s history of the period, A Tale Of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of 1968. Berman’s book is an exhaustive study of the political factions that held the most power and influence throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, not only in America but in France, Mexico, Great Britain, Eastern Europe, and China. To be able to speak of all of these groups coherently necessarily involves taking a wide-angled approach, as their aims were not always identical and, in some matters, antithetical, but the picture that emerges is nonetheless a tidal wave of international student activism, coalescing on a few key issues. Perhaps never before or since has Marx’s dream of an international communist movement come so close to fruition, though it would rankle him to learn that its most ardent supporters were middle-class and upper-middle class university students, most of whom had never done manual labour.

Where did this movement come from, and what gave it its awesome power to disrupt national and international politics? It began, practically enough, with a dramatic increase in university enrolment – another sign that material conditions were improving rapidly.

All over the world during the sixties, the universities swelled in population but not necessarily in resources, which led to unhappy feelings and a lot of talk of “alienation.” To cite the three countries where the ’68 student movements were largest: In France, the student population increased by nearly 50 percent between 1960 and 1963. In Mexico, the student population tripled between 1964 and 1970. In the United States, the student population of the universities tripled between 1955 and 1970.

The leaders of these movements were even more idiosyncratic. In France, for example, with a large Catholic majority and a small Jewish minority, it was the Jewish minority that dominated the leadership positions of the student movement. “These were people with not very pleasant family histories. The parents of those students, some of them, had spent the Nazi era living like animals, fleeing from place to place, taking part in guerrilla actions when they could.” Among the wider student movement, memories of World War II, passed down to them from their parents, played a decisive role: here was an heroic past, a battle between good and evil – what, then, was left for them to do? Their parents often reinforced this sense of their children’s good fortune:

The old guerrilla heroes of the wartime Resistance who kept prattling to their children about Marxism and courage and the coming revolution and the feats of the past – these people had become, thanks to their own successes and the capitalist boom, middle-aged bourgeois who no longer meant a single word about revolutionary Marxism but did think the children ought to be grateful to have things so easy.

Berman quotes from Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, historians of the French student movements, authors of the book Génération, who coined the phrase “legitimacy complex” to describe these firebrand young students taught to view the world in Manichean terms, but unable to point to experiences in their own lives that showed anything but good fortune and rising opportunities. “So the young people embarked on a reverse passion for the ‘other’ – not a hatred for people who are different but a love for them, in eager acknowledgement of their difference.” The young people, in other words, went in search of victims, and found them everywhere: non-white people in Western countries; women; homosexuals; oppressed Third Worlders – anyone who could comfortably fit their mould of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the victimized, and for whom they could agitate.

What Berman documents, over the course of the book, is the steady transformation from firebrand radicalism – which manifested itself, at its worst, in a hatred for democracy, perceived as sclerotic and self-interested, and capitalism, perceived as an engine for inequality, and a love for total solutions and grand, sweeping claims – in other words, for communism. And at several key moments, Berman pulls back the curtain, revealing the motive force behind all of this agitation to be not a love for the oppressed but a hatred for the supposed oppressor.

The student movement today seems to me less overtly powerful but perhaps no less influential. And a close examination of the student governments of some of our largest and wealthiest universities will reveal a class of people very much at odds with the majority of the student body: politically extreme, enamoured of esoteric and unpopular causes, and disdainful of the slow approach of discussion and debate. To an incredible degree, the world young people live in today is the product of the radical agitations of the generation who came of age in the 1960s. Some of those causes were noble, and their victories to be cheered. Others were less noble, and the consequences of their victories are even now shaking the very bedrock of our civilization. No one seeking to understand our present moment can afford to overlook the influence of the 1960s student movements, and no one seeking to understand those should pass up Berman’s history.