01 December 2005

Hari on Berman's Power and the Idealists

In last Sunday's New York Times Review of Books, Johann Hari reviews Paul Berman's latest book, Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath (Soft Skull Press, 2005), about the ideological split in the generation of '68 captured by Hari's title, "The Red and the Green."
In the years since 1968, the New Left had acquired a sepia glow, with nostalgia mopping up any blood and broken teeth. Now the old conservative criticism - that 1968 and its children staged a thuggish, apolitical tantrum, with no lasting legacy - resurfaced.

If anyone can put this dispute into its historical context, it's Berman. He is not only an alumnus of the rebellion; he is the keeper of its yearbook and its funeral director. In this free-standing sequel to his superb "Tale of Two Utopias," he revisits the European graduating class of Rebellion High.

Behind those horrible images [of Joschka Fischer beating a policeman], Berman explains, lies a complex history. These self-styled revolutionaries were the children of a Europe that had failed to resist fascism. Their parents had lowered their gaze and sleepwalked in a Europe littered with gas chambers. So, for this generation, "the way to judge anyone's moral character ... was to pose a hypothetical question.... To wit, what would you have done, in France under the German occupation?" ...

Liberal democracy (and capitalism, and Zionism) became, to them, cunning veils for a new Hitler. So when, during the Munich Olympics of 1972, the Palestinian Black September cell murdered 11 Israeli athletes, Ulrike Meinhof (along with much of the radical left) declared herself thrilled. And the deformations of morality multiplied. In 1976, a group called the Revolutionary Cells hijacked a plane, flew it to Entebbe in Uganda, and separated the passengers: Jews and non-Jews. The Jews - "capitalists" and "Zionists" - were selected for death. The leader turned out to be a man named Wilfried Böse, who was much admired on the Frankfurt left. Fischer knew him well. This was the point of Fischer's desillusionierung....

As Fischer was retreating from his police-beating days, a string of soixante-huitard European intellectuals began to use the vocabulary of the New Left to create nothing less than a political philosophy opposed to all dictatorship, everywhere. Waving his copy of Solzhenitsyn, the French philosopher André Glucksmann tossed a dynamite-packed question to his New Left comrades. If we want to resist every variant of Hitlerism and every streak of authoritarianism, he asked, might we not at least recognize it in the empire to our east, where 20 million people have died in gulags and free speech is a cruel joke?

The conservative pessimists jeered, claiming Glucksmann would be left alone and humiliated. But slowly, steadily, many of the most famous children of 1968 rallied to his side, from Daniel Cohn-Bendit ("Danny the Red") to Bernard-Henri Lévy. Berman argues that - at this moment - the spirit of the rebellions solidified into its most enduring form: an antitotalitarianism of the liberal-left....

This antitotalitarian '68 went on to shape the actions of European governments at a turning point for the continent. In the 1990's, it was the soixante-huitards - now close to the chancelleries and palaces of much of Europe - who led the fight against the New Left's old fascist enemy when it emerged in the form of Serbian ultranationalism. When a program of ethnic extermination began just two days' drive from Auschwitz, it was the old barricadier Joschka Fischer who made Germany's wrenching involvement - its first lurch into postpacificism - possible, explaining to a shocked audience of fellow Greens, "I learned not only 'No more war' but also 'No more Auschwitz.'" In Europe at least, Kosovo was the New Left's war - the street fight against fascism now directed against a target worthy of the name.
via Cliopatria

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