The students in Prague, not Paris, were the true heroes of 1968

Nostalgia of the Left

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OLD MEN forget. Middle aged ones, when it comes to the anniversary of May 1968, remember the bits that suit them. Fond reminiscences of the eruptions of that year are been served up with all the trendy nostalgia of a veteran describing VE day. A reverential colour supplement piece in The Guardian at the weekend presented its key image in a sepia-tint, the effect being to suggest an ancient and dignified struggle. The iconography of 1968 is as seductive, potent and evasive as Robert Doisneau's photographs of lovers kissing in the street after the Liberation. In this case, the key image is an artfully fuzzy one of a youth throwing a stone in a balletic arch. We don't see what happens when it hits someone.

I wasn't there - in Paris, Berlin or Grosvenor Square, being three years old at the time and otherwise occupied with inflicting violence on my toys. Perhaps that is why these hallowed reminiscences leave me cold. The soixante-huitards were bored and frustrated by the intellectual and moral constraints of the war generation. Now listening to those former scourges of the bourgeoisie remembering every joint they smoked and every scrawled slogan as if it were a major event in the history of mankind, I catch a whiff of the same mawkish, self-justifying sentimentality that they once attacked in the complacent societies of the post-war "golden age".

Paris remains the star turn of 1968, its place unassailable in the folk- memory of a generation of the radical left. The Prague Spring and its suppression in the autumn by the Soviet invasion is accorded mere supplementary status. Peter Lennon, the filmmaker, describes the reaction to the Czechoslovak uprising among the demonstrators of the Left Bank thus: "When we heard on the 1st May that Czech students had entered Wenceslaus Square carrying banners reading, 'Of our own free will for the first time', the assumption in Paris was that they were at one with the rebellious students of France - that youth's growing global stand against the discredited adult world had taken hold."

There is a sort of comic misunderstanding here which reveals the limitations and self-absorption of the western revolutionaries. French students, steeped in Situationalism, read the slogans of the Prague revolutionaries as a dreamy philosophical statement. The students in Wenceslaus Square, on the other hand, meant quite literally that they were demonstrating freely on 1 May for the first time and not, as previously, as part of a show of strength organised by the Communist Party.

While the French revolutionaries played with artful slogans, "Be realistic, demand the impossible," the Manifesto of Prague Youth demanded the old, thoroughly realistic rights - freedom of speech and assembly. The exhilarations of Paris certainly cross-fertilised with those of Prague. In both countries, the demonstrators hailed the triumph of the imagination. There is the instinctive link of Zeitgeist between the French students' rejection of the staid conformism of de Gaulle's bureaucratic state and the youthful Vaclav Havel and his friends seeking to lift the deadening blanket of Soviet hegemony from his homeland.

We have still not reversed the order of precedence here: Prague was more important than Paris. It deserves the main slot in our memories, because its aims were nobler and because its protesters understood, as only those who have lived under a dictatorship do, what is really important. In Prague, the simple revolutionary demand of Schiller's Don Carlos was made flesh: "Grant us freedom of thought." French students, diffuse in their aims, unsettled in their beliefs, were self-consciously enacting the street dramas of the revolutionary tradition of 1789, seen through a romanticised prism of the Russian Revolution. Czech students asked for the stable, constitutional rights which would guarantee a liberal order - the very civil framework that was being broken apart on the streets of Paris.

In the end, Prague got far more violence from the Soviet invasion than the protesters in the West wrung out of the "repressive tolerance" of capitalism. The great moral failure of the Western left was its reluctance to extend its demands for freedom to the countries that needed it most. The revolutionaries of Paris and Berlin and the civil rights and Vietnam- protest movements in the US could not rouse themselves to march on Soviet embassies. It wasn't accidental that the key ideological figure for the French students and intellectuals was Mao - he was too far away for them to be confronted with the destruction the Chairman had wreaked on his country. The flight of imagination became a flight from reality.

The nostalgie de la rue about 1968 is largely a guy thing. Tariq Ali, Dany Cohn-Bendit, Allen Ginsberg, Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre - the starring roles were held by men. Nineteen sixty-eight changed the roles of women in the West all right - before then, men did the politics while women were responsible for the housework. Now men made the anti-politics while the women were responsible for providing sex - lots of it, as freely as men desired. Cohn-Bendit, who has moved from New Left to new man, now admits that it was "an enormously sexist time - it took the concerted feminism of the 1970s to make us realise that."

The equal and opposite reaction to the reverential assessments of 1968 is the outright rejection of it doing any good at all. Eldridge Cleaver, the "minister of information" in the Black Panther movement, whose 1968 Soul on Ice moved white intellectuals to join the campaign for black liberation, died last week recanting his radicalism in favour of born-again Christianity and Republicanism. "I'm renouncing civil and human rights and fighting for creation rights," he said in a last interview.

But I would not want to live in a society untouched by 1968. The realisation that the parameters of the possible is not something fixed by your elders and betters, that there are alternatives - to a government, a way of life, a career ladder, a war - come quite naturally to us now. The mourners, in the wake of Diana's death and the be-Barboured Countryside marchers were using the same tactic as the students of 30 years ago - telling the powers that be by the sheer weight of their numbers on the street that they will not be ignored.

It was the time that the young staked their claim to live a life different from their parents. That needed to happen. But it also needs to be kept in proportion and viewed with greater discrimination and a touch more self-criticism than the keepers of the flame allow. The lazy, hazy recollections are unanimously light on the fascination with violence of that time. Yet the readiness to provoke or instigate it was the great weakness of 1968. So was the cavalier attitude towards democracy and the rule of law.

In the readiness to forgive or relativise the broken heads and bodies, we glimpse the fatal slide of parts of the project into the bloody anarchy of Italian and German terrorism. The peaceful civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, one of the most hopeful beacons of that year, lapsed quickly back into internecine warfare. The desire for conflict was too deeply rooted in the dynamics of 1968 to produce peace.

Thirty years on, there is hope for a different and a better way. Revolution is easy. Dreams take a little longer.

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