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Friday, June 13, 2008

It Was Forty Years Ago Today: Arendt in 1968

David Luban

This past year the news media have occasionally noted the fortieth anniversary of various momentous events of 1968. It was, in obvious ways, the most tumultuous year of the late 20th century. More about that in a moment.

On and off over the past few years I’ve been reading through the published correspondence of Hannah Arendt. I came upon this letter, written to Mary McCarthy forty years ago today:
"Do you happen to know Dani Cohn-Benditt? He happens to be the son of very close friends of ours and I wish I knew a way of contacting him....I just want him to know that the old Paris friends -- chiefly Channan and we -- are very willing to help if he needs it (money)."
For those too young to remember, Daniel Cohn-Bendit is “Danny the Red,” who was the mediagenic public face of the student uprising in May ’68 in France. (The nickname was a play on words based on his red hair. He was politically “red” only in an odd sense, because the uprising was a rejection of the French Communist Party as much as the Gaullist order – and Cohn-Bendit’s book about the uprising bore the title Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative. The most prominent themes of the May ’68 student movement were anarchism and personal (especially sexual) liberation. As the French students pried up cobblestones to make barricades, their slogan became “Under the pavement, the beach!”) Cohn-Bendit is now a Green member of the European parliament -- Danny the Green.

Arendt probably feared that Cohn-Bendit was on the lam and needed money to escape. She may have been thinking of her own youth – her eight-day interrogation by the Gestapo in 1933 and her 1940 escape from the French internment camp at Gurs. (McCarthy’s response, from Paris: “I didn’t meet Cohn-Bendit, though Stephen and I tried to….If he tries to get back into France again, I’m afraid the police will get him this time. The reaction is sinister, to say the least. They’re arresting and deporting all sorts of young foreigners—on mere suspicion.” Both letters are in Carol Brightman, ed., Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975.)

Two weeks later, on June 26, 1968, Arendt wrote to her philosophical mentor, Karl Jaspers:

"I could say a lot about politics. It seems to me that children in the next century will learn about the year 1968 the way we learned about the year 1848. I also have a personal interest. 'Danny the Red' Cohn-Bendit is the son of very good friends of ours from our Paris days, both of them dead now. I know the boy. He visited us here, and I've seen him in Germany, too. A thoroughly good sort." (Lotte Kohler & Hans Saner eds., Hannah Arendt-Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926-1969, p. 681)
And the following day she wrote to Cohn-Bendit himself: “Your parents . . . would be very pleased with you if they were alive now.”

It seems to me that children in the 21st century do NOT learn about the year 1968 the way that educated Europeans of Arendt’s vintage learned about 1848. This semester my colleague Richard Chused taught a course at Georgetown called “1968” (it was really about the 1960s more generally) and reports that his students were astonished to learn the history of the 1960s, which was mostly unknown to them.

Before speculating why, a quick recap of some of what made 1968 so astonishing.

In the U.S., the dominating events were:

- the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy;
- devastating urban riots following King’s assassination;
- the signing of the Civil Rights Act a week after King’s assassination;
- the anti-war presidential candidacy of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, which drove Lyndon Johnson out of office four years after his landslide victory;
- the third party candidacy of Alabama governor George Corley Wallace (remembered for his 1962 speech “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), who won five states and ten million votes campaigning on a law-and-order platform;
- the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago, which turned into a “police riot” as the Chicago police attacked demonstrators. (Commented Chicago Mayor Richard Daley: “The police aren’t here to create disorder. They’re here to preserve it.” In the spirit of the times, Esquire hired William Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Terry Southern to cover the convention. Burroughs wrote an article entitled “The Coming of the Purple Better One,” a surreal extravaganza about the Democrats nominating a behaviorally-controlled baboon for president; Genet’s was a sexual fantasy about the police, in their tall boots and tight pants; and Southern’s was first-person reportage about how he made a point of tagging along with Burroughs, who had an uncanny sixth sense for when the police were about to attack.)

Half a world away, 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam – a coordinated Vietnamese attack that lasted for months. Militarily, U.S. troops won, but the offensive marked the political turning point in the war: it showed Americans that their leaders had been lying to them that victory was around the corner. (Decades later, an American officer visiting his Vietnamese counterpart remarked, “You never beat us on the battlefield,” and got the reply, “That is true. It is also irrelevant.”)[UPDATE:  John Sifton points out to me that the My Lai massacre also occurred in 1968, although the news did not break until later.]

Elsewhere, besides the May ’68 uprising in France, there was a student uprising in Mexico, ending horrifically in the Tlatelolco Massacre, when soldiers gunned down hundreds of demonstrators in Mexico City. (Just two years ago, former Mexican President Luis Echeverria was indicted for the Tlatelolco Massacre – he had been minister of the interior in 1968, and had unleashed the troops – but was acquitted because the statute of limitations had run.) The October Olympics in Mexico City were marked by U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in an iconic black power salute from the medals podium. In Czechoslovakia, “Prague Spring” brought in the reformist government of Alexander Dubček, which the Soviet Union crushed in August as brutally as it had crushed the Hungarian Revolution 12 years before. In China, the Cultural Revolution rolled on, although Mao began to put the brakes on the Red Guards.

(You can’t sensibly review the year 1968 without mentioning the music: the Beatles’ White Album, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, the Band’s Music From Big Pink, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison, the Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet, Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay. On the now-less-remembered side, there was the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For the Money, Country Joe and the Fish’s I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die, the Kinks Village Green Preservation Society, and my personal favorite, the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, the pinnacle of psychedelic rock.)

None of these political events was minor, and some may have been historical turning points. (Just for the fun of sheer pointless speculation, had Kennedy lived, he would likely have defeated Nixon, ended the war years sooner and with less national trauma and division, and given us a far different Supreme Court.) At the time, tumbling down one after another, they gave an overwhelming sense of a world turning upside down. But it seems to me that they left no lasting political heritage the way that 1848 left Europe. For better or worse -- the European century after 1848 is not much to celebrate.

Partly, it was because the political movement was confined to students and other youth; partly, because the uprisings had energy but no coherence; partly, because over time conservatives have succeeded in painting the 1960s as a time of triviality, hypocrisy, and self-absorption, which was never even half true. (Ironically, the most lasting success may have been the Wallace campaign, which for the first time mobilized the social base for what became the right wing of the Republican Party - and not only in the South, as Wallace carried 10% of the Wisconsin primary vote. Today's conservatives have pretty much airbrushed George Wallace out of their official self-portrait.) Prague Spring turned out not to be a significant step in the fall of Communism; the Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe. May ’68 was culturally momentous, but a political blip. The deaths of King and Kennedy were more like the end of an era than the beginning.

Arendt was cautiously hopeful: in the letter to Jaspers I quoted from earlier, she goes on, “Things are in an extremely dangerous state here, too; but I sometimes think this is the only country where a republic at least still has a chance.” A month later (July 27) she writes again to Jaspers about the “student rebellion at Columbia” and adds: “I’m working in peace here—mainly on an essay on power and violence.” The essay was published in early 1969 as a special supplement to The New York Review of Books, and it appeared a year later as a slim book, On Violence. On Violence is one of Arendt’s most significant contributions to political philosophy. In it, she distinguishes sharply between political power, which arises when people deliberate and act in concert, and violence, which is fundamentally apolitical. Her basic argument cautions against confusing the two. King, Kennedy, the Prague reformists, and the student movement would have represented politics; the assassins, the Red Army, and the police who clubbed and kicked the Columbia demonstrators represent violence. Terrorists represent violence, and Arendt is scathing against romantic revolutionaries who glorify post-colonial violence.

The theorist who diametrically opposes Arendt is Carl Schmitt, who defines politics as the friend-enemy relationship and insists that its hallmark is the ever-present possibility of a fight to the death. As Scott Horton has written here and here, today we seem to live in a Schmittian moment. Politics as Arendt understood it – based in deliberation rather than violence – turns out to be fragile and evanescent. It emerges in the space between institutions, but unless it succeeds in building deliberative institutions it vanishes the way 1968 has vanished. (You had to be there.)


Comments:

The Mothers' We're Only In It For the Money "now-less-remembered"? Clearly, you don't care about beer. (See What's in Season? for April to June 2008.)
 

"For better or worse -- the European century after 1848 is not much to celebrate."

Is there a Hall of Fame for understatement?
 

I suspect that the folks who did not live in the 60's who were born after it or during it have little interest in it because of the way the folks who think they remember it have been at the center of American navel gazing since they started being born in the 1940's (i.e. the Baby Boomers).

I respect the younger person's sense of us as a terribly oppressive group that keeps warping culture from toys when we were kids to viagra today.

Possibly our grandkids will be more willing to listen to our stories of that period as they contemplate why grandpa or gramma is so strange.

On Dany the Red and Mai 68 the best slogan from that period I always thought was the

"Soyez Realiste, Demandez l'Impossible"

"Be a Realist, Ask for the Impossible"

Arendt and Schmitt are both somewhat arid bookends. Much better are the Grateful Dead, Martha and the Vandellas, and that Memphis Sound, Detroit Sound, Philly Sound, San Francisco Sound, and other efforts by so many citizens to change the world in the face of all that negativity.

THAT hopefulness for helping to build a better uncynical future is a hallmark of some of the 60's memories.

Of course, for what it's worth (Buffalo Springfield) serves as a caution against the politics and violence.

The important thing is that we stop, children, what's that sound, everyone look what's going down. Again and resist. If we do not, then we are acquiescing in evil.

Peace and love,
Ben
 

I think the comparison to 1848 is spot on. What's notable in each case is the reaction (anyone want to write a book called "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Richard Nixon"?).

In this country, at least, 1848 is not a notable year and nobody teaches it, best I can tell, not even in the context of mentioning Kossuth's tour of the US. As for 1968, it's rare for even high school history teachers to get much past WWII. Vietnam is apparently still too politically sensitive for most of them. Give it another 10-15 years; that brings it under my own personal rule of thumb that 40 years need to elapse before we can teach "history". Any earlier and it's still politics.

Helluva year to live through, though.
 

I'm not sure that 1848 and 1968 were sufficiently similar to be easily compared.

1848 Europe was largely a response to the conservative reaction after Napoleon was defeated, together with an abortive response to the excesses of the early industrial revolution. But the conservatives hadn't been able to bring feudalism back and the industrial revolution was still being created. All that really happened was that the European conservative governments were able to put the lid on social unrest until 1914 (often by Empire Building, and in Germany's case by creating social retirement and other safety-net programs along with mass public education) while the industrial age became a more powerful social force.

1968 was much more complicated. It was a reaction to the Pill and to the rapid increase in middle class wealth after WW II, as well as to the
Civil Rights movement that essentially laid out the criminal behavior of America towards Blacks even after the Civil War had freed them. Add to that the demographic changes caused by the baby boom. It was also a reaction to the unending purposeless war in Vietnam and to the equally unending Cold War. Then there was also television. The counter-reaction to 1968 was really the consumer society in which everyone individually stopped being social and tried to create their own private life by building little personal worlds out of what could be sold to them with the wealth that the 50's had shown them was their due just for being born.

We were frankly sold a bill of goods that said that our own individual decisions were all that mattered and any organization that disagreed with our individual decisions was a tyranny to be ignored, not changed. That left the only organizations that were legitimate as big business (because no one supposedly has to buy from them or sell to them) and for some, evangelist churches.

The conservatives and the Libertarians have hopped onto the consumption society and carried it past all reason, making it a mark of being unAmerican to believe or act as though there are social goals that required large scale cooperation with political action and government guidance. Since political action is not a market-transaction between two individuals, such political action became suspect as government "interference" or tyranny.

1968 was quite significant. It converted the government from being socially beneficial to an enemy of the individual. It led to Reagan's destruction of the union movement, to the self-isolation of the wealthy and the well-to-do in their gated communities, and to the lower middle class retreating into evangelist religion to find a non-government alternative to rational society.

1968 was also the high point of the Great Society, before it had had a chance to show what could be done. From then on it was dismantled piecemeal to be replaced by individuals who lived under a regime of social Darwinism.

I haven't had time to read Rick Perlstein's "NixonLand" yet, but from what I have heard that is the case he is making.

If I am correct, then 1968 is (for America) in many ways as important as 1848 as a time of change, but 1968 was a lot more diffuse than 1848 was. There were a lot more social threads coming together in 1968 than in 1848.

In Europe, 1968 did not lead to the counterrevolution that it has in America because Europe did not have to dig its way out of the American history of slavery - segregation - racism, and Europe has not been the kind of militarized and Imperialist society America has been. They let us fight the Cold War and hunkered down and worked to rebuild from the destruction of WW II. That was a bit easier since the (by their very nature conservative) wealthy families of Europe were destroyed in ways not true in America. Their societies could and did focus on building successful middle classes because the conservative and powerful wealthy families couldn't screw that up. We weren't as lucky.

Given those conditions, I'd say that 1968 was a greater turning point than 1848, but because it was a lot more diffuse, dealing with a lot more social forces, the nature of the changes simply are not yet clear.

One other point. 1848 was largely an after-effect of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, mixed with growing industrialism. A similarity was that 1968 was an after-effect of the extended WW I and its resulting WW II wars, again mixed with rapidly advancing industrialism and the (Enlightenment and industrialist society based) science that the twentieth century has been based on. Neither year was decisive, but each of them laid out and helped to organize the social forces that were going to be the source of conflict for the next half century or more.

This is, of course, entirely my opinion. I can't blame any historian if I am wrong, and since my formal training has been Economics, business and management (a branch of social psychology), I can't claim any certified expertise in history.
 

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