Frankly, I had been sick and tired of friends of my generation (in their early and mid-sixties now), repeating over and over again that we should “retire” from left-wing/revolutionary politics and make room for the younger generation. There was even one who suggested collective (literal) suicide. It is true that with our old habits and convictions, our experiences that we have interpreted and digested one way (but not in other possible ways), with our grudges and petty comforts, we usually acted as plugs, corks or stoppers, in short, pains in the ass. There seemed, on the other hand, to be no overflowing fountain of youth to be stopped or hindered by our old and worn off (but persistent) existence, at least for the last three or four decades.
Well, this sequence in history seems to be coming to an end.
We are approaching the 50th (Golden!) anniversary of one of the most significant anti-systemic revolutions of our time: 1968 is fifty years old next year. Immanuel Wallerstein called it a “World Revolution”:
For 1968 shook the dominance of the liberal ideology in the geoculture of the world-system. It thereby reopened the questions that the triumph of liberalism in the nineteenth century had closed or relegated to the margins of public debate. […] Liberalism did not disappear in 1968; it did, however, lose its role as the defining ideology of the geoculture. (Immanueal Wallerstein, After Liberalism, p. 139)
1968 was usually described as a “youth movement”; so much so that the radical wing of the movement in the US called themselves “Yippies” (not to be confused with “Yuppies”), the Youth International Party. Throughout these five decades we have exhaustively argued about the problems of positing the main conflict as “Young/Old”. Shouldn’t race, gender, sexual orientation or (as I should have argued as a Marxist) class be the determining divide? Can “Youth” be defined as the bearer of the revolutionary aspirations of an era? Well, yes and no. Of course age is not, cannot be, the determining factor in social change. But gender, sexual orientation or race are not, either—by themselves. Class seems to be such a factor, especially to those of us of the Marxist convinction, but the fates of various revolutions since late 18th century have shown us over and over again that it is not exactly the case in practice. Class actually is the main divide, but little does this determination help us in resolving revolutionary moments (and their aftermaths) in actual history. Class, to use a very shaky metaphor, is the explosive matter; say, gunpowder or TNT. It needs, however, a fuse to become active. Depending on the specific circumstances of an era and culture, this fuse can be women, queer people, immigrants, “inferior” races (the “subaltern” in general, so to speak) and definitely Youth. Without the fuse, the explosive matter remains inert. Without the explosive matter, on the other hand, the fuse just fizzles. For a revolution, we need both (all these potential fuses are, in one way or another, included in the explosive matter anyway). And even this is not enough: we also need an inability on the part of the ruling classes to rule, an inability to juggle the intricacies of class, gender, sexual orientation, race and age, to play them one against the other in order to keep the status quo intact. 1968 was one such event. It exploded and shone brightly for a very significant historical moment. It did not just fizzle, it changed things, it changed the ways we perceived the world, the ways we perceived each other, it changed our language and our way(s) of life in such a way that it can never go back. Then it withered away, and the ruling classes, licking their wounds, re-established the status quo pro ante. But it was not exactly pro ante either. Because even in cases of total defeat, revolutions change things.