Calendar years, decades, centuries are units of chronological time but not historical time. Eric Hobsbawm acknowledges this when he chooses to navigate the "short 20th century". Annual "state of the union" addresses are merely conventional, sometimes comic, ceremonies - not least when President de Gaulle declared, in a televised new year's eve address from the Elysée Palace, "I greet the year 1968 with serenity".
As Mark Kurlansky concedes rather late in the day, "there was 1967 and 1969 and all the earlier years that made 1968 what it was". China's Red Guards had started waving their little red books and "struggling" against "the black line of President Liu Shao Ch'I" in 1966. The traumatic student occupation at the London School of Economics occurred in March 1967, one month before 1,500 young Americans burned their draft cards and the Russell-Sartre Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal opened in Stockholm. The major black burn- ins of American cities belonged to 1967; likewise the Six Day War, the attempted hippie "levitation" of the Pentagon, the insurrectionary outbreak at Nanterre university in Paris, and the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia.
In short, 1967 was a hard act to follow, as I knew when I published 1968: the year of the barricades. Mea culpa. Kurlansky brashly hails 1968 as "the year that rocked the world" (his previous worldly titles include Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world, Salt: a world history and The Basque History of the World). Yet it is remarkable how rapidly the dominant values of the Sixties evaporated. By the end of 1968 itself, the Gaullists had been returned to power in France and Nixon elected president.
The aspirations so beguilingly incarnated by the posters of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and by the graffiti of the Sorbonne soon became chic collectors' items, like Soviet Five-Year Plan posters. Kurlansky's collection includes: "I am a Marxist of the Groucho persuasion", "Sex is good, Mao has said, but not too often", and "Rape your alma mater" - though perhaps the most interesting is: "The aggressor is not the person who revolts but the one who conforms".
By that definition, the students of 1988 were raging aggressors as they genuflected to the demands of curriculum and career, re-embracing what the Sixties rebels had loved to call "the system". But during the intervening years, another dramatic change had occurred: the transformation of the essentially non-violent, unarmed provocations of Rudi Dutschke, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Tom Hayden into the often murderous militancy of the Italian Red Brigades, the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhof gang. Cohn-Bendit may have "hijacked" Paris in 1968, but his only weapons were force of argument and personality. (However, this point is often allowed to obscure the affection of the New Left for Third-World armed struggle, with such heroes as Ho Chi Minh, Guevera, Fidel and, indeed, Pol Pot.)
The conversion of middle-class social reformers to armed struggle did not last long. Lethal violence aimed at Western civil society became and has remained the preserve of organisations representing ethnic, national and religious passions. Kurlansky is not greatly interested in political ideas and ideology, although they provided the champagne fountains of the insurgent Sixties. His description of the New Left does not adequately explain its libertarian distrust of the state, political parties and the electoral process, its antipathy to competitive norms (graded exams, for example), its distrust of academic hierarchies, its affection for small-scale self-management, and its failure to penetrate the unions and the working class - whether France's Communist-dominated CGT, or the George Wallace- and Enoch Powell-supporting sties where uniformed pigs plotted to smash the long-hairs.
Indeed, 1968 was the year of the pig. Kurlansky quotes William Burroughs: "And what is the phantom fuzz screaming from Chicago to Berlin, from Mexico City to Paris? 'We are REAL REAL REAL!!! As this NIGHTSTICK!' As they feel, in their dim animal way, that reality is slipping away from them'." That phrase "in their dim animal way" reminds us that the New Left was a product of unprecedented affluence, privilege, hedonism - and arrogance. The pigs felt the kids' scorn and the professors felt it too. Teaching at Columbia and NYU in 1967, I grew familiar with the large feet of SDS urban guerrillas, up on their desks as they scoffed at the visiting professor: "Man, you're really some boojwah." As Le Roi Jones of the Panthers put it: "Up against the wall motherfucker, this is a stickup."
Kurlansky extends his narrative to Africa and Asia, Poland and Prague, Madrid and Mexico (venue of a pre-Olympic massacre), writing with empathetic insight into urgent local agendas. Yet he is at his most confident when depicting New Left theatricality, personalities larger than life, and the un- precedented role of the media, of television, in creating the demonstration epidemic as well as reporting it - not least, when the Yippies got going and the cops ran riot during the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Later, Abbie Hoffman explained to the Walker Commission, "We wanted to fuck up their image on TV. It's all in terms of disrupting their image."
Cohn-Bendit recalled how most of the emergent leaders of the Paris revolt had never met, let alone conspired: "We met through television, through seeing pictures of each other on television." The Japanese students of the internationally influential Zengakuren (they deserve more attention from Kurlansky, the Biafran revolt rather less) discarded their anti-American fury when Walter Cronkite and his besieged CBS crew desperately linked arms with them and chanted "Banzai!" Satellite transmission had arrived; it was during the last quarter of the 20th century that politicians discovered their supreme deity, Prime Time.
Too often, Kurlansky prefers scrapbook overlaps to analysis: this baseball game was in progress, this film was being shown, this heart transplant was taking place, and this Apollo was photographing Earth from behind the moon, with London hemlines at record levels while this massacre was taking place in Biafra. Passages on culture and the arts tend to read like downloaded homework: "Peter Brook's inventive direction of Marat/ Sade was also influencing theatre around the world" is all we learn about that.
Kurlansky sees 1968 as "the beginning of the end of the Cold War", which is far from the case, and the dawn of a new geopolitical order dominated by style and image rather than substance. Clinton and Blair are cited as political leaders "of the 1968 generation", indebted to "the great prophet" Marshall McLuhan and displaying "an intuitive fluency with this concept of leadership". But how about the intuitive fluency of George W Bush?
David Caute's latest book is 'The Dancer Defects: the struggle for cultural supremacy in the Cold War' (Oxford University Press)Reuse content