Last Wednesday, Daniel Cohn-Bendit – a.k.a. Danny the Red – came and spoke in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The topic of his lecture was “Forget ’68,” in reference to his activities as a leader in the student uprisings in Paris during the spring of 1968. Ever since the turmoil of the Sixties, Cohn-Bendit has been an important figure on the Left in both France and Germany, and he has done everything from resisting arrest to serving as a member of the Green Party in the European Parliament. For more information, click here.
I came to this talk wanting to learn not just about Cohn-Bendit’s experiences, but what, given those experiences, the Left can learn about political and social change today. I wanted to know why we should “forget 1968.” But, even more so, a central question that always lingers in my mind: what is it that separates activism today from the 1960’s, and is there any way to bring back some of the spirit that led literally an entire generation to challenge and reject so much of the society that had been handed to them? Why is our generation so reluctant to do so? Are we better, or worse off, today?
These are tough questions, and I don’t expect that anyone will be able to answer them satisfactorily in the space of ninety minutes. However, Cohn-Bendit did not disappoint, and he managed to cover much of what interested me. I will now summarize most of his key points:
- First off, Cohn-Bendit stressed that he was not repudiating his activities in the Sixties. On the contrary, he declared: “Je ne regrette rien.” His intention in giving the speech was instead to change the context in which we frame the progress of the Left. By matching ourselves up against 1968, and by seeing in that one year all possibility, and all hope for victory, we limit ourselves. To live according to ’68 is to deny the last forty years, and to stew in nostalgia rather than face up to the realities we have to deal with today. If we don’t forget 1968, in this regard, the effect is self-defeating. (Cohn-Bendit noted, to make his point sink in, that the first time you make love, it is a wonderful experience, but if it is for the last time, then it is terrible).
- Next, he emphasized that the struggles of the Sixties were against an entirely different society that people of our generation cannot imagine. He explained that a woman in France could not open a bank account without the permission of her husband, and that homosexuality was outlawed in Germany. What people in ’68 were fighting for was ownership over their lives. Thus, the struggle was largely about individual privacy and personal autonomy.
- Cohn-Bendit then explained that the Left won their Sixties struggles in the realm of culture, but that they lost in the public sphere. The permissiveness and tolerance of contemporary society is a direct result of the activities of people like himself, but the political revolution that many demanded never happened.
- Cohn-Bendit, who during the Sixties was an anti-Soviet, anti-Marxist, left-wing libertarian anarchist, then said that in all honesty he “thanked God” that the Left failed to grab political power. He and others like himself were working to build a harmonious new society founded on the following principles: everything private is political; rational disorganization (no formal institutions); and complete egalitarianism (no hierarchical structure). Cohn-Bendit explained that he has grown to appreciate that, had these political ends been achieved, we would be in serious trouble. While his movement was reacting to totalitarian infringements on the rights of individuals, their myopic goals would indirectly open up the door to such violations by doing away with constitutional protections of the rights of minorities and by making all private matters the province of the public. As Cohn-Bendit noted, he and his comrades were reading too much Marcuse, and not enough Hannah Arendt.
- Cohn-Bendit then discussed the ugly side of Sixties student movements, condemning the militant views and actions of people who supported violent Third-World movements and leaders such as Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. In particular, Cohn-Bendit described an incident in which members of the Red Army faction in Germany kidnapped and murdered a member of the government in the mid-1970s. We (the Left) must answer for this element of the Sixties movement – the justification of violence – or else we have no moral legitimacy with which to defend and celebrate the legacy of ’68.
- After all, there is much that was beautiful about the Sixties movement. Cohn-Bendit discusses the centrality of debate and the restless pursuit of truth that drove people to talk into the wee hours of the morning. The streets of Paris were covered in poetry and art, with slogans like “l’imagination pouvoir.” Furthermore, when both the French Communist Party and the Right wing attacked Cohn-Bendit, mass demonstrations broke out in which people chanted “We are all German Jews” (in reference to his herie and the fact that his parents survived the Holocaust). This solidarity, as Cohn-Bendit noted, is something we all could learn from. In sum, people in the Sixties felt that they were consciously influencing the course of history, which was truly remarkable.
- He then explained that things are different today, and that in many ways, it is now much more difficult to be a young person. I found this discussion to be particularly relevant. He explained the impact that HIV/AIDS, global warming, unemployment, and globalization have had. Our future is much less secure, our self-confidence much less intact than that of those who demonstrated in ’68. Cohn-Bendit stated that today “we have a closed world,” rife with fear for the future and a discouraging lack of possibilities. Instead of demanding ownership over our own lives, as people were in the 1960s, we want to delegate that ownership. Moreover, the 1960s had other ideologies that dissidents could turn to for answers and for direction (such as Communist countries and Third World liberation movements), whereas today there is virtually no established alternative paradigm for us to adopt.
- Cohn-Bendit then once more reminded the audience that we must acknowledge and condemn the militant excesses of the Sixties, while also remembering and standing up for what was positive about that era and its legacy. We cannot only remember the good things, he explained; we must draw our lessons from both the good and the bad. Either way, it is important that we not continue to fight over the nature and legacy of 1968, try as our adversaries may to draw us into such contests. We should not forget the great and terrible things about that time, but we should not get caught up in making it the defining moment for the Left. As Cohn-Bendit aptly pointed out, France spent 200 years fighting its Revolution; we should not spend forty years fighting the same battles, especially not when so much remains to be done. In that sense, we are all obligated to forget ’68.
What I took away from this speech was the idea that there is an inherent fallacy in my incessant use of the Sixties as the measuring stick by which to judge the activism in which I participate today. When Cohn-Bendit illuminated the challenges specific to our generation and the ways in which the youth was generally more carefree forty years ago, I came to understand – more than ever before – that this is simply a different time. What’s done is done, and there is no point in romanticizing a set of events that we can never replicate to the extent that it overshadows all of our actions. We must not continue to sell ourselves short by being held captive to the memories of prior generations. We can learn a great deal from the past, but we can also stunt the growth of our future. We deny our own potential when we make these false historical analogies. I am more determined than ever to overcome this, because there is work to be done.
I hope that this recap and limited (I would say restrained) set of reflections has sparked some thought in you. Please respond, as I would like to have some dialogue going on regarding anything mentioned in this post.