During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, I spied an improvised poster in a Prague shop window. It showed “68” spun through 180 degrees to make “89,” with arrows indicating the rotation. Nineteen sixty-eight and 1989: a tale of two revolutions. Or at least, two waves of what many called revolution at the time. A fortieth anniversary this year, a twentieth next. Which of the two will be more memorialized? And which actually changed more?
Nineteen sixty-eight will be hard to beat in the commemoration stakes. Already, more ink has flowed recalling that year than did blood from the guillotines of Paris after 1789. Reportedly more than one hundred books have been published in France alone about the revolutionary theater of May 1968. Germany has had its own beer-fest of the intellectuals; Warsaw and Prague have revisited the bittersweet ambiguities of their respective springs; even Britain has managed a retrospective issue of Prospect magazine.
The causes of this publicistic orgy are not hard to find. The ’68ers are a uniquely well-defined generation all across Europe—probably the best defined since what one might call the ’39ers, those shaped for life by their youthful experience of the Second World War. Having been students in 1968, they now—at or around the age of 60—occupy the commanding heights of cultural production in most European countries. Think they’re going to pass up a chance to talk about their youth? You must be joking. Not important, moi?
There is no comparable class of 1989. The protagonists in that year of wonders were more diverse: seasoned dissidents, apparatchiks, church leaders, middle-aged working men and women standing patiently on the streets, finally insisting that enough was enough. Students played a role in a few places, and, twenty years on, some of them are now prominent in their countries’ public lives. But the leaders of 1989 were generally older, and many of them were, in fact, ’68ers. Even the Soviet “heroes of retreat” around Mikhail Gorbachev were shaped by memories of 1968.
It’s a general rule that the events we recall most intensely are those we experienced when young. The dawn you glimpsed when you were 20 may turn out to have been a false dawn; the one you witness at 50 may change the world forever. But memory, that artful shyster, will always privilege the first. Moreover, although 1968 happened in both the western and the eastern halves of Europe, in Paris and in Prague, 1989 really happened only in the eastern half.
Politically, 1989 changed far more. The Warsaw and Prague springs of 1968 ended in defeat; the Paris, Rome, and Berlin springs ended in partial restorations or only incremental change. Probably the largest street demo in Paris, on May 30, 1968, was a manifestation of the political Right, which the French electorate then returned to power for another decade. In West Germany, some of the spirit of May 30 flowed more successfully into Willy Brandt’s reformist social democracy. Everywhere in the West, capitalism survived, reformed itself, and prospered. The events of 1989, by contrast, ended communism in Europe, the Soviet empire, the division of Germany, and an ideological and geopolitical struggle—the Cold War—that had shaped world politics for half a century. It was, in its geopolitical results, as big as 1945 or 1914. By comparison, 1968 was a molehill.
Revisited today, much of the Marxist, Trotskyite, Maoist, or anarcholiberationist rhetoric of 1968 does look ridiculous, childish, and morally irresponsible. It was, to quote George Orwell, a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot. Evoking the beginning of a “cultural-revolutionary transitional period”—Chairman Mao’s brutal Cultural Revolution thus being held up as a model for emulation in Europe— and describing the Viet Cong as “revolutionary forces of liberation” against U.S. imperialism, Rudi Dutschke told the Vietnam Congress in West Berlin that these liberating truths had been discovered through “the specific relationship of production of the student producers.” Exactly what did they produce? At the London School of Economics they chanted: “What do we want? Everything. When do we want it? Now.” Narcissus with a red flag.
Those who in 1968 were so harsh on the way some of their parents’ generation (the ’39ers) had been fellow-travelers with the terrors of fascism and Stalinism might wish, on this anniversary, to make a small reckoning of conscience about their own lighthearted fellow-traveling with terror in faraway countries of which they knew little. But many leading representatives of the 1968 generation did go on to learn from these mistakes and frivolities. They engaged during subsequent decades in a more serious politics of liberal, social democratic, or green “new evolutionism” (to borrow a phrase from the Polish ’68er Adam Michnik), including the ending of a slew of European authoritarian regimes, from Portugal to Poland, and the promotion of human rights and democracy in faraway countries of which they learned to know more.
A balance sheet that describes 1968 only as frivolous, evanescent, and nonconsequential, by contrast with a serious and consequential 1989, is thus too simplistic. An essential point is made by that archetypical ’68er Daniel Cohn-Bendit: “We have won culturally and socially while, fortunately, losing politically.” Nineteen eighty-nine produced, with an astonishing lack of violence, a transformation of structures of domestic and international politics and economics. Culturally and socially, it has more the character of a restoration, or at least the reproduction or imitation, of existing Western consumer societies. Nineteen sixty-eight produced no comparable transformation of political and economic structures, but it did catalyze a profound cultural and social change, in eastern as well as western Europe (“1968” here really stands for a larger phenomenon, “the ’60s,” with the spread of the pill being more important than any demos or barricades).
No change of this scale is ever only for the better, and we see some negative effects today; but on balance, this was a step forward for human emancipation. In most of our societies, most of the time, the life chances of women and of people from many minorities and from social classes previously held back by stuffy hierarchies are much greater today than they were before 1968. Even critics of 1968 such as Nicolas Sarkozy are beneficiaries of this change. (Could the divorced son of migrants have become president in the pre-1968 conservative idyll of his imagining?)
Sharply contrasting though the two movements were, it is the combined effect of the utopian 1968 and the anti-utopian 1989 that has produced, across most of Europe and much of the world, a socially and culturally liberal, politically social democratic, globalized version of reformed capitalism. Yet in this anniversary year of 1968, we are seeing trouble in the engine-room of that reformed capitalism. What if the trouble gets worse next year, just in time for the anniversary of 1989? Now, that could be a revolution.