1968, or: The Virtues of Disobedience 1

[Here’s my take on ‘1968’, an important part of my generation’s heritage, also known as ‘the sixties’. Unfortunately WordPress cuts out the endnotes when copying from Word. Part 2 shall follow, as shall a further essay on the shadows and downsides of 68. The photo is from a Pina Bausch production of the Rites of Spring.]

1968, or: the Virtues of Disobedience. A Personal Account

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. (…) One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living. (…) With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
– Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), p. 260 and p. 263.

Of course, our power to shape reality has limits. Reality also has the power to shape us, and its power is usually stronger than ours. We do not say, as do some fashionable New Age philosophies, that we create our own reality. (…) We come into a reality that is already given; within those sets of circumstances, we can make choices that will shape our future, but reality is a collective event and can be changed only by collective action.

If we wait for some authority to grant us permission to take our power, we will wait for a long time; it is not in the interests of authority that we become empowered. Responsibility means being responsible to our own power. To take power is to be willing to speak the truth that rises in us, whether other people approve of us or not.
– Starhawk (1987), Truth Or Dare, p. 24 and p. 193.

You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows
– Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (1965)

Munich University, eighteen years old. My first enrolment in the winter semester of 1967/68. Sitting in a first German tutorial on Czech and Russian Formalists of the 1920s and 30s, wondering if I would ever be able to understand this kind of academic German replete with syntactic circumlocution and abstract nominalisation. The first winter, the first snow that you have ever really seen, falling on Amalienstrasse, the sheer open-mouthed wonder at the magic of the change in both the visual and acoustic streetscape: hard edges softened by shining white roundness and, suddenly, the incessant traffic noise has almost completely disappeared. And then, soon, the grey slush, the leaping over or dodging of melting mounds and dirty puddles, the long absences of sun.

In the greyness of winter, in the monumental central entrance hall in the main university building, all cold dark grey marble and Power, the stony continuity of the Second and Third Reichs is almost palpable, the felt presence and obligations of history, the elders, the precursors, a presence previously unknown to this antipodean and at times almost oppressive.

There are the grey wide steps leading up from the inner courtyard to the first floor balustrade from which, on a sunny Thursday on the 18th of February 1943, the students of biology and medicine Sophie and her brother Hans Scholl of the White Rose resistance group threw the anti-Hitler leaflets for which they were imprisoned and executed four days later. For many of us they were some of the precursors, the trailblazers of a better Germany. Would my generation, the students and youth of ‘68’, pick up the bundle of their legacy, that ever vulnerable, never completely born child called the idea of freedom, across the icy crevice of the mere twenty four years since the defeat of fascism?

The Trailblazer’s Dream. In the night before their leafleting at the university Sophie dreamed that the Gestapo had arrested them both. During her last four nights in prison at Munich-Stadelheim, when not being interrogated, Sophie ‘slept like a child’. On the morning of her execution she told a fellow prisoner of a dream she had had that night: ‘It was a sunny day and, dressed in a long white robe, I was carrying a child to a baptism. Although the road to the church went up a steep mountain, I carried the child firmly and securely in my arms. Suddenly there was a crevice in the glacier before me. I just had enough time to safely lay down the child on the other side – and then I fell down into the depths of the crevice.’ She added her own dream interpretation: ‘The child is our Idea, which will triumph over all hindrances. We were allowed to be trailblazers, but must die for it.’ Shortly afterwards her prison cell is empty. The only thing left is the statement of prosecution on the reverse of which, in a light hand, is written the word Freedom.

There is also the anglophile solace of Anglia, the cramped little English bookshop in Schellingstrasse in which the pale young English owner with the squint and his brown skinned, young-but-balding American sales assistant talked horseracing, and you saw and bought your first Buddhist books. Adapting to Germany and the sea of ‘Germanness’ I find myself, quite quickly and naturally, swimming in, I also do not want to lose the English-speaking side of me. To keep my English language neurons firing, there is a conscious immersion in the pop songs broadcast on the American Forces Network and the literary discussions in English at the Critical Society (English staff and German students dissecting and discussing English literature over German beer and tobacco in homes or pubs. One night I lead the discussion on a favourite early Eliot poem Portrait of a Lady. It is here I meet my future partner, Barbara).

Then suddenly it’s 1968, annus miribilis. At Easter in West Berlin there is an assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke, a prominent and charismatic spokesperson of the SDS and the student movement. The shooter of the gun is Josef Bachmann, a 24 year old unskilled worker from Munich. In several German cities students and other youth spontaneously riot and attack the newspaper offices of the Axel Springer company, the right-wing publisher of the tabloid Bild-Zeitung, the expression of the main defamatory, scapegoating and viciously stereotyped anti-student campaigns that explicitly incited anti-student violence that had motivated Bachmann. Newspaper offices are blockaded, windows smashed, delivery trucks overturned and set on fire. Two demonstrators are accidentally killed in Munich. Bild is seen as one of the main manipulators of mass consciousness.

All the needs that could become drivers of class struggle find expression in Bild : mass resentment against state bureaucracy, anger against the parasitic lifestyle of the rich, the intuition that social wealth is being wasted, despair over the isolation and powerlessness of the individual – all of these experiences find expression in the tabloid press. But while Bild expresses mass needs it simultaneously struggles against their perception by the masses. More precisely, it lends expression to mass needs in order to prevent their fulfilment. (From a speech by young writer Peter Schneider intended for the ‘Springer Tribunal’ planned for February 1968. )

Since the killing of twenty-six year old student, pacifist and member of the Protestant student organisation Benno Ohnesorg in June 1967 (shot in the head from behind by a policeman during a demonstration against the Shah of Iran), the student movement has evolved away from the university enclave and purely verbal protest and started to really become the APO, the Ausserparlamentarische Opposition, the ‘Extra-Parliamentary Opposition’, as it calls itself. (Since December 1966 there has been a ‘Grand Coalition’ of conservatives, liberals and social democrats in governing Germany, thus removing any parliamentary opposition. The ex-member of the Nazi party and staff member of Hitler’s foreign office, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, is Chancellor. To add insult to injury, this Grand Coalition has also been preparing controversial anti-democratic Emergency Laws, the Notstandsgesetze, which have awakened memories of Hitler’s dictatorship-enabling emergency laws of March 1933 after the Reichstag fire).

I watch the anti-Springer-press riots on TV, a spectator of what I as yet do not really understand. Slowly absorbing, ever more curious, drawn in by the atmosphere, trying to make sense of it all, moving beyond the liberal press, buying my first leftist texts, like the quarterly theory journal Kursbuch edited by the widely respected poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. I find myself reading its red-covered thirteenth edition on the international student protests with frissons of almost-belonging over a solitary coffee in the swank, oh so European Hofgarten (Baroque building and gardens mentioned in Eliot’s The Wasteland, rebuilt from ruins after the war). Enjoying the, for me, new dialectically polemical spirit and playful syntax of political commitment expressed in the movement’s most coherent representatives, like Enzensberger himself, and impossible in the liberal press: ‘The new opposition has arguments but no means of production. Springer has means of production but no arguments. This condemns the truth to hit the streets; for hitting the streets it is condemned…’ . Reading, just watching.

The next month, in May, I also watch the student riots in Paris on the TV news. Le joli mai, ‘The revolution will not be televised’. The poetry of May 68 is not visible on the screens. I attend some packed assemblies at university, a rally in the city. I am absorbing the subtly exciting atmosphere, the body language, the walking of the talk. One day there is student political street theatre near the university fountains in Ludwigstrasse: a guy with a beard in an academic gown sitting on a toilet seat shitting on some distasteful government university reform proposal or other. It’s not so much the content of the performance that makes the deep impression, it is the courage of the performer, the radically democratic effect of public satire, the transformation of dead public space and the everyday into a space for political comment and mind expansion.

A first taste of real and direct democracy makes a lasting impression: mass discussion (diskutieren becomes one of the main verbs in a now finally truly democratised Germany for at least a decade), open voting, the smoke-filled lecture halls, the first black leather jackets, the first unkempt men with beards or longish hair, the more self-confident and interesting looking women. I am still a virgin longing for defloration. The sublimated sexuality of it all is an important aspect of the excitement. There is something in the air, a vibration, a vague sense of some kind of excitement in the ether, something subtly shifting somewhere, collectively forming. Something both in us and larger than us.

All this just seems to be ‘where the action is’, both literally and metaphorically. There is as yet, for me, no real ‘theory’, just the lived realities of throngs of people gathering, speakers speaking of public matters: war crimes in Vietnam, US Imperialism, Emergency Laws and the dangers of a new authoritarian society, the absence of parliamentary opposition, hierarchical, authoritarian and antiquated university structures (Unter den Talaren, der Muff von Tausend Jahren – ‘under the ceremonial gowns the reek of a thousand years’; students parade this banner in front of a ceremonial procession of university professors). The powers that be, the political and academic ‘establishment’, is clearly ossified and authoritarian. To any young person open to it, the powerful appeal of the APO lies mainly in its consciously and explicitly anti-authoritarian and radically democratic stance. Politics is not a party media spectacle, removed from all personal relevance. La politique se passe dans la rue: politics is now happening in the streets.

The appeal of this kind of politics is not abstract, not merely theoretical. It is also sensuous and sensual. The student radicals are ‘walking their talk.’ As in good communication or good theatre, first the heart and body, then the mind: in a sense, I am unconsciously ‘conquered’ before all rational theory: Je suis venu, J’ai vu, J’ai cru (I came, I saw, I believed – May 68 graffito at the Sorbonne in Paris). And, equally, this sense of standing at some edge, some threshold without quite knowing of what before it is actually expressed: J’ai quelque chose à dire mais je ne sais pas quoi (I have something to say but I don’t know what – graffito at Censier). Something is trying to birth itself perhaps, a time of turning and revolt that, at its finest, sometimes takes on quite poetic and philosophical forms. Beyond all traditional (boring) politics this is the poetry of mass revolt …La poesie est dans la rue: not only politics, especially in Paris, even poetry is now in the streets and on the walls. This poetry is worth documenting.

The Poetry of Revolt – As expressed in some favourite graffiti from May 68 in Paris

La vie est ailleurs. (Life is elsewhere – at the Sorbonne)
Ce n’est pas une révolution Sire, c’est une mutation. (This is not a revolution sire, it’s a mutation – at Nanterre)
L’imagination prend le pouvoir. (Imagination is taking power – Stairwell at Political Sciences)
Il y a de la méthode dans leur folie. Hamlet. (There is method to their madness. Hamlet. – at Nanterre)
Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi. (Run comrade, the old world is behind you – RueRotrou/Odeon)
Câche-toi, objet. (Hide, object – at the Sorbonne)
Les murs ont des oreilles. Vos oreilles ont des murs. (The walls have ears. Your ears have walls. – Sciences Po.)
Défense de défendre. (No forbidding allowed).
Défense de ne pas afficher. (It is forbidden not to put up posters. – Sciences politiques)
Soyez realistes – demandez l’impossible. (Be realists – demand the impossible – at Censier)
Déjà 10 jours de bonheur. (Already ten days of happiness – at Censier)
Dessous les pavés c’est la plage.. (Under the cobblestones, the beach – at the Sorbonne)
Ici, on spontane. (Here, we are spontaning – at Censier)
And, the monosyllabically unsurpassable: Eve. (At Nanterre).

Or let’s try and make a found poem of the rest:

Le Joli Mai (Found Poem)

Boredom is counter-revolutionary.
Speech-making is counter-revolutionary.
Get lost opinion-owners, no speech-makers, no microphones.
Interrupting anyone is forbidden.
I don’t like writing on walls.
I luv too rite in funetics.
I decree a state of permanent happiness.
The limits imposed on pleasure excite the pleasure of living without limits.
Creativity. Spontaneity. Life.
Death is necessarily a counter-revolution.

Commute, work, commute, sleep…
Meanwhile everyone wants to breathe and nobody can and many say:
“We’ll breathe later.” And most of them don’t because they’re already dead.

No replastering, the structure is rotten.
Don’t take the lift, take power.
Masochism today takes the form of reformism.
Let’s not change bosses, let’s change life.
Don’t be taken in by the politicos and their filthy demagogy. We must rely on ourselves: Socialism without freedom is a barracks (Bakunin) – Revolutionary anarchist organisation.
Occupy the factories.
All power to the workers’ councils (an Enrage). All power to the enraged councils (a worker).
When the national assembly becomes a bourgeois theatre, all the bourgeois theatres must become national assemblies.
Those who speak of revolution and class struggle without referring to the reality of daily life are talking with corpses in their mouths.

Conflict is the origin of everything (Heraclitus).
Heraclitus is coming back. Down with Parmenides. Socialism and liberty.
When the finger points out the moon, the imbecile looks at the finger (Chinese proverb).
The infinite doesn’t have an accent.
Life loves the consciousness that we have of her (Rene Char).
A life of presence, nothing but presence.
Absence is where evil forms.

We refuse to be high-rised, diplomaed, licensed, inventoried, registered, indoctrinated, suburbanised, sermonised, beaten, tele-manipulated, gassed, booked.
Concrete breeds apathy.
Live without dead time. Have limitless pleasure.
Down with the abstract, long live the ephemeral (Marxist-Pessimist Youth).

I’m a Groucho Marxist.
We have a pre-historic Left.
I have nothing to say.
Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking.
Form dream committees.
Forget everything you have learned. Start by dreaming.
Art doesn’t exist. Art is you (B. Péret).
Art is dead. Let’s liberate our everyday lives.
Revolt and only Revolt creates light, and this light can only take three routes: poetry, liberty and love (Andre Breton).
Obedience starts with consciousness and consciousness with disobedience.

Professors, you make us grow old.
When examined, answer with questions.
Thought that stagnates rots.
“Blow up your mind.” [Original in English]
Every view of things that isn’t strange is false (Valéry).

Let us take the Revolution seriously, but not ourselves.
Speak to your neighbours.
Love one another.
You can’t be 2% in love, nor even 4%.
Whoever speaks of love destroys love.
The more you consume, the less you live.
Commodities are the opium of the people.

We want a wild and ephemeral music. We propose a fundamental regeneration: concert strike, sound meetings (collective exploratory séances), elimination of copyright (sound structures belong to everyone). (At the Conservatorium of Music)
I participate. You participate. He participates. We participate. They profit.
The golden age was the age when gold did not reign. The golden calf is always made of clay.

You, my comrade, you who I was unaware of amid the tumult, you who are throttled, afraid, suffocated – come, talk to us.
Look at you, you’re sad (Les Enrages).
Create.
Yell.
Nothing.
Sisyphus!
Quick!
Live in the present.
Rage in the belly.
Everything is Dada.

Life is a mauve antelope in a field of tuna fish (Tzara).

We must systematically explore chance.
We are reassured. 2 plus 2 no longer equals 4.
Action must not be a reaction but a creation.
Human emancipation will be total or it will not be at all.

Only we can do nothing.
Meeting motions kill emotions.
Don’t get caught up in the spectacle of opposition. Oppose the spectacle.
Are you consumers or participants?
Only the truth is revolutionary.
Lucidity is the wound that is closest to the sun. Don’t go to sleep in the obscurity of committees.

There’s a cop in each of us. He must be killed.
The Revolution must occur within people before it can be realised in things.
In order to call in question the society in which one ‘lives’, one must first be capable of calling in question oneself.
Neither master, nor God. God, that’s me.
Neither God nor metre.
To hell with boundaries.
The freedom of others extends mine infinitely (Bakunin).

It’s sad to say it, but I don’t think that we can win without red and black flags. But they have to be destroyed – afterwards (Jean Genet).
We have only made an uprising out of our revolution.
The Revolution must cease to be in order to exist. [end of found poem]

The quality of radical consciousness expressed in such graffiti is unparalleled in the annals of popular revolt and insurrection. How can one not be drawn in by the sheer creativity, radical wisdom, surprising reflexivity, revolutionary energy and mordant wit of such words? For a wonderful historical moment, radical theory and poetry have merged on grey walls: ‘…long live the ephemeral…’

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 28, 2012.

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