The Shadows of 68: In Blind Revolt 1

[This essay on the shadow sides of ’68’ follows on from the previous essay on the glories and positive legacy of ’68’. The essay has again been divided into two parts, the second of which shall follow.]

The Shadows of 68: In Blind Revolt (Neurosis, Narcissism and Activism)

Die Meriten der Studentenbewegung bin ich der letzte zu unterschätzen; sie hat den glatten Übergang zur total verwalteten Welt unterbrochen. Aber es ist ihr ein Quentchen Wahn beigemischt, dem das Totalitäre teleologisch innewohnt, gar nicht erst – obwohl dies auch – als Reperkussion.
(I would be the last to underestimate the merits of the student movement; it has interrupted the smooth transition to a totally bureaucratized world. However, it is mixed up with a soupcon of delusion that contains the totalitarian as a teleological element in itself, not only ‒ although that as well – in its repercussions.)
– T.W. Adorno in a letter to Herbert Marcuse on 6th August 1969, the day of his death

In both Europe and America, the confusion of alienated youth shows up in their self-contradictory amalgam of anarchist and Leninist thoughts and tactics, often within the same group and in the same action. In my biased opinion, their frank and clear insight and their spontaneous gut feeling are anarchist. […] But their alienation is Leninist, bent on seizing Power. Having little world for themselves, they have no patience for growth; inevitably frustrated, they get quickly angry; they want their turn on top in the Power structure, which is all they know; they think of using their youthful solidarity and fun-and-games ingenuity to make a putsch.
– Paul Goodman, ‘Anarchism and the Young’ (1970), in Drawing The Line, p. 221.

As we go through life, we have the experience of being shattered again and again. Each time, an aspect of our personality that had become calcified into shell is broken open. It reconfigures again, and eventually begins to calcify. If we have committed ourselves to a path, our existing constructs will be shattered each time they harden into a shell. (…) For every construct we live by, for each personality we adopt seriatim, there is a shattering, so that we can grow.
– J. Thornton, A Field Guide To The Soul, p. 239.

Reflecting on the movements of the sixties, the influential social philosopher of the French Socialisme ou Barbarie group Cornelius Castoriadis maintains that in ‘May 68’ while ‘people were seeking truth, justice, freedom, community’, they were also ‘unable to find the institutional forms that could incarnate these views in a lasting manner’, that the ‘May minority might, perhaps, have been able to become a majority if it had gone beyond proclamations and demonstrations. But that implied a different dynamic into which it was clearly neither willing nor able to enter.’ Ceteris paribus, the same can be said for the radical student movements and counter-culture of the sixties and seventies in general.

Castoriadis’ hypothesis of course begs the question of why this ‘different dynamic’, this willingness and ability were generally absent. The reasons are no doubt highly complex and multi-layered and I cannot pretend to know the answers. However, perhaps some initial approaches to the question can be assayed. One approach might be to look at historical continuities and possible psychosocial fault lines running through individuals, movements, organisations.

In the historical dialectic of both personal and general human cognitive development, what is at first a liberation from a previous cognitive cage can then quite easily become a new cage, a new shell that needs to be broken open again. To better understand both the limits and failures of our movements as well as the older historical shadows of the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ (1917-1945) that surrounded and lay upon our ‘generation of 68’ – in Germany that meant the often acrimonious grappling with our parents’ involvement in, or knowledge of, the crimes of National Socialism ‒ , it may perhaps simply be necessary to first understand the shadow sides of our own movement. Despite all the manifest differences between that previous age and ours, and between the Old and the New Left, it may be time to also look at some of the possible continuities.

Mind Cages

We can perhaps begin with a quite personal vignette: a summer holiday in Yugoslavia with my partner B., my friend and comrade M. and his girlfriend P. A tiny, bare and brutal, yet overwhelmingly tranquil rock of an island off the coast of Dalmatia somewhat mystically called Ist (German for ‘is’). Just a few simple houses and a small wharf, no trees, no tourism. We rent some rooms in a family’s small house. Deep clear Adriatic water for snorkelling, making love in the seaside cemetery in the noonday heat, the beautiful and subtly exciting aroma of wild thyme and pungently strong Yugoslav cigarettes. One day M’s girlfriend P. somehow manages to let the bathroom door bang shut so violently that its glass breaks. The landlady of course demands some financial compensation.

M. and P. argue that the landlady is simply ‘a typical petty-bourgeois’, voicing ‘typically petty-bourgeois’ attitudes that we need not regard. The landlady has become a Marxist ‘character mask’, a social role, a category, not a specific person with specific human needs and feelings. She has been de-personalized, potentially de-humanized, the same fatal process of linguistic categorizing that finds its terrible practical apotheosis in the Leninist-Stalinist murder of people for the ‘crime’ of belonging to a social class (e.g. ‘kulaks’) or the fascist liquidation of people for belonging to a particular race. And all this construct to actually rationalize a (‘petty-bourgeois’?) unwillingness to pay up, to simply take personal responsibility and make monetary amends for probable wrongs. We anti-totalitarian critics of ‘character masks’ are in grave danger of ourselves becoming ‘character masks’ of a totalising theory, ideologues using anti-ideological ‘Marxism’ as an ideology to rationalise our own unconscious needs or weaknesses. Like dogmatic Marxists, we were in danger of having (a vulgarised, reductionist) Marx where we should have had our brains and hearts.

Beyond Marxism other mind and feeling cages also flourish. The ‘solidarity’ of comrades can also mean the usual human mess of neurotic rivalry, envy, one-upmanship, subtle power games and status conflicts. There is the deadly corrosive competitiveness of lefter-than-thou-ism, the irksome self-flagellations of ‘petty-bourgeois’ guilt-tripping, the cool veneers and unconscious armours and uniforms of radical chic (the black leather jacket with red Mao badge, the Red Guard cap, the Palestinian scarf…), the often quite explicitly macho leaders (at least until, thankfully, militant feminism quickly arises in critical and corrective response), the hierarchies of power or else covert ‘tyrannies of structurelessness’ .

Ideologically, there is the widespread naïve flirting with third world authoritarian and ‘good leader’ cults (Guevara, Castro, Mao, Ho) and, connected with this, a general pop-Maoist ‘third worldism’ of ‘anti-imperialist struggle’ and even so-called ‘peoples’ war’. There is the tendency to downplay or even support violence if it is deemed somehow ‘revolutionary’. There is the often convoluted, turgidly obscure and tendentiously abstract jargon (whether Marxist, Leninist, Situationist or Frankfurt School) that isolates from mainstream society and even from other students. There is the tendency to ignore, play down or even excuse or legitimise (‘historically adverse conditions’, ‘reaction to imperialist attacks’) the horrendous crimes and abuses of the Soviet or Maoist ruling classes. There is the especially neo-Leninist tendency to a mind-deadening, cliché- and unconsciously guilt-ridden sectarianism, a self-punishing ‘militantism’ (as we call it at the time, co-opting a useful French term), an arrogant avant-gardism and collective ego-inflation, the extent of whose megaphone-amplified rants are in direct proportion to their social irrelevance.

Campus Confusion Cholesterol Count

screams of Power polluting the air
coming down thick
like the mush the media exude
to fill your head with medicated goo:

the fucking Internationale, the cockrock
marches of the thirties reverberate
between slabs of grey concrete, dead glass
erections enclosing the concentration campus
of this our most holy mother
megamachine multiversity

no silence no birds no grass no trees
but the tombstone speechlessness
of the powers that be
and the paleolithic screams
of the powers that want to be

(1974, Frankfurt University campus)

And so it is that many of us in the student left find ourselves wearing the old masks and playing the old tunes all over again. The earlier ex- or implicit defining assumption of the original ‘New Left’ seemed simply ‘forgotten’ or ditched. This key assumption that grounded the ‘New’ epithet (as it had the antecedent self-critique of the previous generation’s ‘Western Marxism’) had been that of the wholesale failure of the ‘Old Left’ working class movements in the twenties, thirties and forties and the general integration of Western working classes into the efficient workings of affluent ‘late capitalism’ and consumerism in the fifties and sixties. Now, however, the New Left seemed to be regressing back to the Old Left.

All these internal neurotic tendencies achieved their irksome and self-defeating climax in the decaying ‘organisational’ phase of the originally largely spontaneous movement in the late 60s/early 70s in which a plethora of Marxist-Leninist sects and their armed terrorist versions arose in various countries (Maoists, Weathermen, 2nd June movement, Red Army Faction, Red Brigades: although the mainstream media tended to portray these terrorist groups as somehow ‘Marxist’ or ‘anarchist’, they were all – almost without exception ‒ Leninist-Maoist and ‘third-worldist’ in ideological persuasion).

Even previously (and later with increasing frequency), many of the originally spontaneous and creative forms of protest or ‘limited rule-breaking’ had also become mere rituals or consciously media-oriented ‘spectacles’ of protest. Media and militants fed off each other as the latent collective narcissism prevalent in the generation of which our movement was an expression now became manifest. In the words of a contemporary US-Situationist critique:

All marches became carefully orchestrated performances, produced as much for the TV cameras as for the participants. The Movement consciously evoked a theatrical atmosphere in its panoply of slogans and banners; its leaders were aware of their role as performers and played this part in the courtroom as well as on the podium.

Militant celebrities like Yippy Jerry Rubin or ‘sponti’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit quite consciously played to the media and, in Cohn-Bendit’s case, even later rationalised this narcissism as some new and ‘advanced’ form of social identity-formation. Andy Warhol’s notorious ‘five minutes of fame’ also came into its own in the spectacle of militant politics.

At the time, all this admirably played into the hands of the capitalist media which could present the New Left movement and the counter-culture as a mere spectacle or image of revolt (ultimately useful for selling a new range of ‘cool’ commodities, some later even peddled by erstwhile ‘revolutionary’ leaders such as ex-Black Panther Elridge Cleaver’s range of trousers) and thus ignore and avoid the degree to which it was an authentic radical revolt against the capitalist system and its core values.

Stimulated by some manifestations of worker militancy in Italy and Germany (‘September strikes’), from about 1969 onwards there had been a general attempt at ‘superseding’ the limitations of a youth- and student-centred movement and a so-called ‘turn to the working class’. Members of student groups like the ‘sponti’ Revolutionärer Kampf started working in factories. The whole socialist and Marxist theoretical legacy, including the ‘classics’, were for the first time massively available both in mainstream editions and in an explosion of pirate editions that graced the book tables outside the university cafeterias and in the leftist bookshops. They were intensively studied in student reading groups. In this so-called ‘proletarian turn’ I was one with my largely ‘sponti’ peer group in Frankfurt in identifying with the forgotten or suppressed legacy of council communism, anti-dogmatic libertarian Marxism, syndicalist anarchism – all now filtered through the anti-authoritarian and youth culture experience of 1967/68 (and, with some, particularly through its highest theoretical expression in Guy Debord and the Situationists).

We pursued this identification often in theoretical combat with the old elitist enemy, Bolshevism or Leninism, which was now re-emerging like a ghost from its Old Left cadaver in a burgeoning renaissance of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist student sects and grouplets and, soon, the first disastrous manifestations of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist terrorism in the guise of the so-called Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof group). Some ex-anti-authoritarian communards and ex-SDS-members also dabbled in various forms of blind militancy and leather-jacketed actionism that in some cases also shaded off into outright terrorism. For some, molotov cocktails and rocks evolved into explosives and guns, blind militancy had followed its own fatal logic and evolved into blind militarisation and terror.

The atmosphere started getting a little nasty. Personal and public neuroses meshed and mingled in confused amalgamations. The fatal group dynamics of internal psychological group terror fused with ideological and practical terror directed outwards. In the new Leninist and Maoist terrorists’ rationalizing ideology, an anti-imperialist, ‘third-worldist’ world drama was concocted in which they themselves were heroic central actors, the ‘first world’ avant-garde of an imaginary global ‘Red Army’ of revolutionary peasants and oppressed nations:

Heroic identification with and authentic compassion for the ‘damned of the earth’ here merged with narcissistic self-inflation and aggressive disinhibition. The one cannot be distinguished from the other. (Gerd Koenen)

As Frankfurt ex-militant Gerd Koenen also points out, the German Red Army Faction’s quite unique form of paranoid and narcissistic megalomania was in many ways a blind ‘return of the repressed’, an unconscious ‘anti-fascist’ mimicry of the Nazis’ ‘total war’ ideology and consequent Götterdämmerung, right up to the collective suicide in the prison bunker in the bleak ‘German autumn’ of 1977.

The latter became another turning point in the development of the German movement, with many one-time leftist militants (like Joschka Fischer) now turning towards the real ferment in German civil society: the movement of burgeoning grassroots citizens’ and green initiatives (Bürgerinitiativen) that were also giving birth to the many local ‘green and alternative’ electoral initiatives (Grüne Listen) that finally coalesced into the German Green Party in 1979.

But I am jumping the gun, as it were. Back in 1972 I completed the exams for my university degree in Politics and English, focussing on the history of the revolutionary Russian and German workers’ councils, the history of the Ulster/Irish problem as a study in ‘dys-synchronicity’ and ‘delayed development’, the internal Cuban economic debates, dissident and self-critical Western Marxist Karl Korsch and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as an expression of pre-capitalist values confronting the new realities of an emerging money-dominated society in Elizabethan England. I still felt part of a socialist student movement.

Yet the whole ‘proletarian turn’ phase , the blind actionism or ‘militantism’, the beginnings of outright urban guerrilla terrorism – all these indications of a movement in deep crisis in the early seventies could suddenly erupt into personal consciousness with deeply alienating effects.

Thus on occasion you found yourself within a demonstration column walking on the road, perhaps chanting one of the wittier or less inane slogans (‘Auch Polizisten sind Söhne der Arbeiterklasse!” ‒ ‘Cops are sons of the working class too!’; ‘Lotta dura senza paura!’‒ ‘Tough struggle, no fear!’; ‘Jaruszelski, Pinochet: Generäle in den Schnee!’ – ‘Jaruszelski, Pinochet: dump the generals in the snow!’), and then the next moment found yourself standing on the kerb with the rest of the plastic-bag clutching consumers and workers watching this strange spectacle march past. (In the movement, outside the movement, as in childhood watching the other kids on the carousel, waiting for some significant scarf of meaning to flutter to your feet like the Queen’s in the motor cavalcade in 1954.)

One day you found yourself standing in a classroom on the top floor of the brown, brutalist concrete Education/Politics university skyscraper in Frankfurt trying to have a conversation with some comrade who was still using a lot of abstract Marxist jargon. Suddenly there was a subtle internal jolt and you realised you had stepped out of that particular linguistic and mental cage and simply no longer shared a lot of the tacit assumptions the comrade had. However, you felt unable to meta-comment on all that (perhaps along the lines of: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t share the assumptions implied in your comments’), and thus felt utterly tongue-tied and helpless. One kind of alienation had been replaced by another. Inside the language, outside the language, the words drifted past in a meaningless carousel as we both fluttered about helplessly in different mind cages like rooky western anthropologists among native tribes.

At age twenty-four your diary contained three aphorisms, two about language, all three about some kind of death:

Wo nichts zu sagen ist, gibt’s auch kein Schweigen. (Where there’s nothing to say, there is also no silence),
Unsere Sprache muss einen Revolver ziehen und auf sich selber schiessen. (Our language has to draw a gun and shoot itself).
And, strangely, our old friend death raises his old head again: Verdrängung des Todes: Verdrängung des Lebens. (Denial of death: denial of life).

The shadows were also more complex and intimate night shadows. You had night dreams of jealousy, idealised leader-identification, rivalry and sexual one-upmanship, the murky, unexamined shadow side of all the politics. ‘In bed with’ it all and simultaneously outside it all, watching, oedipally envious of a strong ‘performing’ male’s power, with a girl with the same name as my partner’s.

I am sleeping in bed with Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s girlfriend Barbara. He also seems to be back in the room somewhere and jealous. (1973)

Or else a dream of anti-authoritarian revolt against the father figures with the help of the new radical mentors, the new father figures.

I am standing in class rows in the quadrangle at Fort Street. I am standing next to Herbert Marcuse (I think Adorno and Horkheimer are there too). I initiate a rebellious rhythmic stamping of the feet that grows louder and ever more rebellious: a revolt against the teachers. At the climax of this loud revolt the teachers switch on gigantic spotlights, we look up and are completely blinded. I am (or someone else is) watching all this on TV and at the turning on of the spotlights the TV image goes white and disappears.

Whiteout/blackout, watching it all as a spectacle on TV, within it all and outside it all, in blind revolt and blinded by revolt. There was a hidden narcissistic psychodynamic to the revolt, a shadow side, a blindness or blackout, that, unexamined and un-integrated, would help (along with establishment repression, career pressures, changing economic conditions or the inherent general laws of all systemic process) kill it, co-opt it or turn it into its opposite. Can hope be maintained without confronting the loss, despair, lack of bonding and self-worth that lies at the origins of narcissism?


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 1, 2012.

One Response to “The Shadows of 68: In Blind Revolt 1”

  1. And with that deep and profound analysis, Peter, I wonder how we/you can maintain hope…in my case, it just feels like a moral imperative to do so.

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