The way we were radical

July 3, 1998

AT THE END of this semester I planned to throw myself into 19th-century American history, but two new books - 1968: Magnum Throughout the World, a collection of photographs introduced by Eric Hobsbawm and Marc Weitzmann, and 1968: Marching in the Streets, a well-illustrated narrative by Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins - stole my attention and took me back three decades.

I read slowly, savouring the radical-democratic dreams and possibilities that the images and words evoked, grasping the truly global character of the year's risings and repressions, and confronting anew the ensuing tragedies and disappointments.

When I asked my colleagues for their reminiscences of 1968, their reaction was to refer to where they had been, whether at grad school in Madison, Wisconsin or doing fieldwork in southern Italy. All jokingly recounted some personal, ahistorical experience, as if trying to evade reference to the public events of that year.

When pressed, they spoke of Vietnam and anti-war marches, political campaigns and assassinations, Yippies and Chicago "police riots", Prague Spring and Soviet occupation, May '68 in Paris, "Black Power" and Black Panthers, Mexico City Olympics and the Mexican government's suppression of popular protest.

Magazine articles - the best, Christopher Hitchens's "The Children of '68" in Vanity Fair - and retrospectives by the BBC World Service and National Public Radio further propelled my anamnesis.

On reflection, all my memories seemed those of a spectator and, with much more reason to feel regretful than Hitchens, I found myself repeating his words about "not having done enough".

For me, 1968 entailed a coming to consciousness more than a time of action. I entered Rutgers College in autumn 1967. Politically, I already leaned left. I had marched against conservative Republican Barry Goldwater with civil rights groups, but I was no radical. I imagined myself going on to law school and entering politics as a liberal Democrat.

My grandparents and parents were social democrats who had instilled in me an instinctive hostility to racism and oppression. But I was no "red-diaper baby". Nor was I a cultural radical.

Having spent time in Ecuador as an exchange student and seeing the poverty and oppression, I sympathised with Latin American revolutionaries. But, convinced that the Soviets were imperialists, I had been slow to oppose America's war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, by late 1967 I had to admit that the United States was pursuing a neo-colonial war and I withdrew my name from the roster of the Reserve Officers Training Command.

At Rutgers, talk would inevitably turn to US history and foreign policy, the morality and constitutionality of involvement in Vietnam, and how we might halt it or, at least, avoid serving in it. (Conservatives - many of whom successfully avoided the draft, as well - try to portray my generation as a bunch of shirkers and subversives, but besides trying to stay out of the army, we were also trying to resist imperialism, redeem an alternative vision of the US and cultivate an internationalism quite different from the corporate globalism that shapes our lives today.) Whenever I think back to those days, I feel ambivalent. I remember the aspirations and challenges, the urgency and excitement, and the fun, like the Country Joe and the Fish rock concert ("What are we fighting for?") my social fraternity organised, and serving as associate editor of the Rutgers humour magazine titled, in honour of the times, The Lemming. But memories of tragedy, loss and defeat quickly overwhelm the nostalgia.

My recollection of events repeatedly follows the same depressing trajectory. I see Lyndon Johnson on television announcing his withdrawal from the presidential campaign (March 31), and I recall how, even as we celebrated our share in bringing an end to his administration, I felt strangely sorry for the man who had responded to the struggle for racial justice and equality and pushed through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

I next remember the murder of Martin Luther King (April 4) and the sadness and anxiety of that night, not simply the fear that the city's black community would explode in rage, (we were advised to stay on campus, preferably in our dorms), but, even more, the fear that US race relations would deteriorate still further.

Then I recollect how, on arriving at my parents' home after exams, I went to bed the night of the California primary pleased that Bobby Kennedy had won (June 6), only to be awakened early next morning by my father with news of the assassination. In shock, I kept wondering "whither America"? From there my thoughts rush ahead to the debacle of the Chicago Democratic Convention in August and I hear again the news reports about violent confrontations between police and anti-war activists.

Finally, I see myself back on campus, the morning after the November elections, standing in the shower, emotionally chilled, trying to fathom what had happened and to comprehend the words "President Nixon". Recalling events elsewhere does not really help. Prague Spring inspired me, but I cannot forget the Soviet tanks (August 20).

I welcomed the apparent alliance of French students and workers, and lamented its absence in the US. Like Johnson, Charles de Gaulle eventually retired, but all too many radical aspirations went unrealised. In Mexico, democratic forces gathered in favour of revitalising the Mexican Revolution, but on the eve of the Olympics the government suppressed a rally and troops massacred almost 400 students and workers (October 2). In spite of talk of peace, Americans and Vietnamese continued to kill each other in the jungles of South-east Asia.

Dickens's opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities are: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going the other way . . ." But history did not stop. The struggles metamorphosed and, along with the continuing tragedies and ironies, change and, even, progress were achieved -inspired in part by the movements of 1968.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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