Sins of ’68

Reviewed by Benjamin Kerstein

Power and the Idealists
by Paul Berman
Soft Skull Press, 2005, 311 pages.


In the past year, France has exploded into yet another of the periodic cycles of riot and mayhem which have marked the modern history of that country of perpetual divisions. There is irony in all this, as Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists is in many ways a chronicle of a generation whose own capacity for riot and mayhem, as well as for extraordinary idealism and even utopianism, in many ways set the scene, and composed the first iteration, of the upheavals that are now shaking the country, the continent, and, for the most ambitious among them, the world they hoped to unite.
The major figures that Berman undertakes to chronicle are nearly all French, or deeply influenced, as is Berman himself, by the legacy of French intellectualism and the particularly French talent for generating both political theory and political action. The failure, the disillusionment, the slowly dying dreams of that generation, seen in the context of Paris burning once again, and burning at the hands of those who are equally children of the European radicalism of Berman’s onetime revolutionaries and of the Islamic apocalyptics who make up the secondary subject of Berman’s chronicle, demand from us a measure of reckoning between the two; and we may take from Berman the charge of drawing unities that cross the obvious distinctions and looking fearlessly upon what we will find, be it riot, revolution, emptiness, or collapse.
Power and the Idealists is the work of an extraordinary writer. Berman is comfortable being both a voice in the wilderness and the child of an ideology. Indisputably a man of the Left, and a child of the upheavals of 1968, he has nonetheless, from his perch among the lonely social-democrats of Dissent magazine and in his own books, A Tale of Two Utopias and Terror and Liberalism, shown himself unafraid, like George Orwell, to assail his own brethren for their transgressions of reason, rectitude, and simple human decency.
His new book is well in keeping with his earlier works. It is, as the author himself announces, a follow-up to A Tale of Two Utopias, a chronicle of the various iterations of the ’68 generation’s political journey from youthful rebellion and revolution of the days of rage to the quiet and uncertain calm of the post-Cold War decade. Berman extends his chronicle to include the Bosnian intervention and, ultimately, 9/11, Afghanistan, and the second war in Iraq. Power and the Idealists could easily be subtitled “the soixante-huitards contemplate the war on terror.”
As such, Power and the Idealists is less a sequel than a synthesis of A Tale of Two Utopias and Berman’s finest work, Terror and Liberalism. Written shortly after 9/11, and deeply influenced by the political analyses of Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus, Terror and Liberalism was a gloriously heretical and willfully controversial piece of political theory. It proposed a view of radical Islam which placed the latter squarely within the tradition of European totalitarianism, rejecting the fashionable progressivist conception of Islamic terror as a product of economic and political injustice, or as a righteous vengeance upon the oppressions of Zionism, globalization, or American imperialism. While remaining squarely within the left-wing tradition of political theory, Terror and Liberalism nonetheless cut a furious swath through some of the Left’s most cherished fields, unafraid of condemning icons like Noam Chomsky and Jose Saramago as, at best, reckless apologists and, at worst, nothing less than enablers of totalitarianism and murder. While Berman stood accused of capitulation to imperialism, descent into crypto-neo-conservatism, and an unhealthy affection for Israel, he nonetheless maintained that his book was nothing more than a call for liberals to hew to their ancient ideals; and, moreover, that if Islamic totalitarianism was to be defeated, then it was the liberals who should, indeed must, be the leaders of the resistance to it. Only they, Berman maintained, with their history of opposition to all forms of oppression and inequality, could adequately make the stand against this new permutation of their oldest enemy. To leave the resistance to the Right was to invite inevitable defeat.
But Terror and Liberalism was more than a simple call to arms. It was also an extension of Hannah Arendt’s theories of totalitarianism. The great revolution of Arendt’s work was to perceive a broader nature to totalitarianism than the specific nature that a Nazi, Fascist, or Communist regime might immediately display. Totalitarianism, she proposed, was a form of political utopianism gone mad, a delusion of total control, universalism taken to its utmost extreme, and thus a phenomenon which crossed political parties, ideologies, and geographical coincidence. Berman’s intention in Terror and Liberalism was to extend the boundaries of Arendt’s thesis, to expand upon her unified theory of totalitarianism to include new permutations, permutations which reached beyond the border of Europe into the Arab and Muslim worlds, and thus begat a different but nonetheless eerily related form of the same phenomenon.
Terror and Liberalism is therefore a study in theory. Power and the Idealists is a study in practicalities, an analysis of why the generation of which Berman has appointed himself the chronicler—his own generation—now faces the challenge of totalitarianism, initially in the Bosnian conflict, and finally in the form of Islamic terror and Arab fascism. Power and the Idealists is thus perfectly titled. It is a tale of the meeting between the intangible ideals of a generation that lived most fully in its ideals, and the harsh practicalities of political power.
It is also a tale of disillusionment, and perhaps of tragedy. As Berman relates it, it is an Icarus myth, the tragedy of a generation that sought, perhaps, to fly too high ever to realize its aspirations.
Berman relates his tale through a series of characters, a dramatis personae worthy of the finest bildungsroman, and he introduces them—as befits a generation that cherished provocation—with a scandal. The affair, which first broke in January 2001, involved two of the most famous and successful scions of the spirit of 1968: Joschka Fischer, then the Green Party foreign minister of Germany; and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the infamous “Danny the Red” of the Paris student revolt. The scandal, which began with the publication of a series of pictures showing the now eminently respectable Fischer in his revolutionary days assisting in the beating of a policeman, grew to encompass charges of fraternizing with terrorists, collaboration with the likes of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the PLO at its most tenaciously genocidal, and, finally, accusations of child molestation against Cohn-Bendit. As Berman relates, the scandal eventually took the form of a cultural phenomenon, named by the European press “the trial of the generation of 1968.” As Berman tells it, this was nothing less than an effort to discredit the achievements of the entire revolution of 1968, an effort crystallized most explicitly in the writings of French literary provocateur Michel Houellebecq, whose novels present the ’68 generation as a legion of sadistic hedonists whose eventual legacy, as related in the scintillating final pages of Houellebecq’s masterpiece, The Elementary Particles, consists of nothing more or less than the destruction of the entire human race.
Berman connects the scandal to the simultaneous European debate over the intervention in Bosnia. And here he gives us his distillation of the ethos of ’68 at its best. He describes it, early on in his book, as follows:
It was a fear, in sum, that in World War II, fascism, and more specifically Nazism, had not been defeated after all—a fear that Nazism, by mutating, had continued to thrive into the nineteen-fifties and sixties and onward, always in new disguises…. A Nazism of racial superstitions committing the same massacres as in the past, a Nazism declaiming a language of democracy and freedom…
What was New Leftism, then? It was—it pictured itself as—Nazism’s opposite and nemesis: the enemy of the real Nazism, the Nazism that had survived Nazism, the Nazism that was built into the foundations of Western life.
The Bosnian intervention, of which Fischer was among the most fervent supporters, was in Berman’s telling the product of precisely this ethos: The desire to confront and resist Nazism in whatever guise it might take. Whatever their excesses, the scions of ’68 had brought this necessity to the forefront of world politics, and the result had been the slow but ultimately successful defeat of the crypto-Nazism, complete with genocide and concentration camps, of Slobodan Milosevic. This victory for human rights and human decency was, as Berman relates it, a victory which would only have been possible through the moral lexicon of 1968, which judged according to a simple maxim, born of the Manichean question posed by the Vichy regime, as Berman puts it: “Would you have been a resistant? Or a collabo?” Resister or collaborator. The ’68ers’ greatest accomplishment was to insist on not being a collaborator, on the necessity of being a resistant.

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