Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Remembering 1968: Ralf Fücks gives a Green view

Ralf Fücks, chair of the German Green Party and co-president of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung (Foundation)

The best of the ten essays in Dissent magazine's Spring 2008 symposium on "1968" is the contribution by Ralf Fücks (Dissent uses the Anglicized spelling "Fuecks" - and, no, it's pronounced more like "fooks" than what some of you are thinking). Fücks is the chairman of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, the foundation aligned with the German Green Party. The Heinrich Böll Stiftung also has an English-language Web site, which features a copy of the Dissent article under the title 1968 and the Discovery of Politics.

Opening by observing that the year 1968 resonated in some "truly revolutionary" political and cultural develops, he proceeds in the second paragraph:

It is true that the protest movement of that year did not lead to a dramatic overturn of the political order like the French or Russian revolutions. The extent of violence and counter-violence of 1968 is not comparable to the excesses of past wars and civil wars. It was the Prague Spring - an event that is often ignored when we speak of 1968 - that came closest to being the revolutionary overthrow of a regime. A peaceful revolution began in Czechoslovakia, and it shook "really-existing socialism" to its foundations. The revolution was destroyed by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact. The tragic gravity of the Prague events went far beyond the symbolic actions and theatrical stage-managing of student protests in the West. The Soviet invasion buried hopes for "socialism with a human face." In fact, communist hegemony in Eastern Europe was doomed from that moment. It was only a matter of time until a system incapable of reform collapsed. If there is an inherent link between 1968 and 1989 it is that the defeat of the Prague Spring would lead one day to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. (my emphasis)
The German Green Party always opposed the hardline Cold War pressures for military buildups and political confrontation between East and West in Europe.

But the Greens were also notable since their founding for their active solidarity with the democratic opposition in Communist East Germany (DDR, Deutsche Democratische Republik, English GDR, German Democratic Republic). In this way, they distinguished themselves from the two major German parties of today, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU). The Green Party supported the Ostpolitik initiated under the leadership of the SPD's Willy Brandt to make a de facto normalization of relations between East and West Germany. But, unlike the SPD and CDU in practice, the Greens understood Ostpolitik to include active solidarity and interchange with the grassroots democratic movements in the DDR, which organized around religious, peace and ecological issues.

The Greens' version of support for democracy and human rights in the Eastern bloc was not simply a slogan against The Enemy, as it was for hardline conservatives, for Realists, and too often for liberal internationalists in the West, including the US. It was a part of the Greens' core view of democracy and the peace movement and of their support for German unification.

His evaluation of the impact of "1968" on the West focuses largely on the experience of Western Europe. But the same analysis could apply in the United States and elsewhere, though it's too seldom formulated with this level of nuance:

In the West, things were different. The superiority of the capitalist democracies was demonstrated by their ability to absorb the momentum created by "1968," even against the will of the ruling elites who feared this would lead to the decline of the West. Open systems transform opposition into innovation. In other words, "1968" ended up giving Western societies powerful innovative momentum, extending from the triumph of popular culture and social emancipation of women to the emergence of new forms of political participation. The ideological recourse to Marxism, the admiration for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and solidarity with the "anti-imperialist liberation movements" in Vietnam and Palestine disguised the fact that "1968" was actually reformist in character. As is often the case, there was great distance between the self-understanding of the historical protagonists and their impact on society. If the revolutionary rhetoric of the movement’s spokespersons is the benchmark, the ’68 generation failed. However, in terms of the cultural and political changes set in motion by the movement, it was highly successful.
While this is not a specifically Marxist view of the historical process, the Germans do have the benefit of a long democratic labor tradition that includes an Hegelian understanding of history that was also part of the Marxist tradition. And the dialectical Hegelian view of historical processes has a lot to recommend itself. (In the American context for something like this written for general consumption, it would require about ten pages of explanation to adequately troll-proof it, so I'm not going to bother.)

But that paragraph in itself is a reminder about how impoverished the American political vocabulary is in so many ways. When Fücks talks about the "superiority of
the capitalist democracies" in the West, note that he is talking about the ability of the democratic process to adapt to mass demands for change against the will of what would more traditionally be called the ruling class. He uses the more polite and ambiguous term "ruling elites". Something very like this is what is meant when people say - as some ornery Jacksonians are still known to do - that the New Deal of the 1930s saved capitalism from itself.

In his last book published during his lifetime, The Economics of Innocent Fraud (2004), John Kenneth Galbraith described how the word "capitalism" became increasingly uncomfortable for the defenders of the established order in the capitalist countries over the course of the twentieth century. Describing various earlier embarrassments to the system's reputation, not least of which was the widely-held perception in the 1920s that the Great War of 1914-18 had its source in "the rivalry between the great arms and steel combines of France and Germany", he continues:

Later, and more destructive to the reputation of capitalism in the United States, was the visibly insane Florida real estate speculation [of the 1920s], the rising corporate and industrial voice and, most important, the stock market explosion of the late 1920s. Then came the world-resonating crash of 1929 and, for ten long years, the Great Depression. Capitalism all too obviously did not work. So denoted, it was unacceptable.

There followed a determined search for a benign alternative name. "Free Enterprise" had a trial in the United States. It didn't take. Freedom, meaning for enterprise decisions, was not reassuring. In Europe there was "Social Democracy" - capitalism and socialism in a companionate mix. In the United States, however, socialism was (as it remains) unacceptable. In the next years reference was to the New Deal; this, however, was too clearly identified with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cohorts. So in reasonably learned expression there came "the market system." There was not adverse history here, in fact no history at all. It would have been hard, indeed, to find a more meaningless designation - this a reason for the choice.
Conservatives of various kinds, not just the neocons who sometimes still cherish class concepts from a kind of mirror-image of Marxism, can still be heard to say that capitalism, or the "market system", produces democracy.

But that conservative version of economic determinism has to be justified by some purist, Libertarian-type economic dogma, not from actual history. Parliamentary democracy was the classic political demand of the rising capitalist class in the French Revolution of 1789 and the immensely important European revolutions of 1848, the latter which are very much remembered in European history and political theory but seemingly nearly forgotten in their American counterparts. Capitalism in Britain and and the US found democracy very consistent with capitalist development, though neither country could be said to be "pure" representative democracy in the 19th century by today's standards (e.g., slavery, property qualifications for voting, women deprived of the vote, etc.).

But in Germany and France, healthy capitalist economic development, and less robust versions of the same in the Habsburg empire, co-existed for decades with authoritarian systems (Bismarck's in Germany, that of Napoleon III in France). And the liberals who took their tradition from the capitalist advocates of 1848 often found themselves content with aspects of classical liberalism such as national unity and governmental secularism, without worrying excessively about the democratic parts. In most of Europe, certainly including the German and Habsburg empires, it was the social-democratic parties - which later split into Social Democratic and Communist Parties in the wake of the Great War and the Russian Revolution of 1917 - who were the chief advocates for democracy and individual political rights.

So there's nothing especially new or unusual about observing, as Fücks does in his essay, that "capitalist democracy" allows for expression of popular will, and in many cases effective expression of the popular will, against the consensus among the leading capitalists themselves. Capitalism and parliamentary democracy developed historically in close tandem. But they are not identical. And it became increasingly clear over the last century that there are actual contradictions (if you'll excuse another Hegelian concept) between democracy and capitalism. For myself, I have to credit that particular formulation, the contradiction between democracy and capitalism, to a business school professor of mine, David Palmer, a former investment banker. (It was a Jesuit school, what can I say?)

That was a long riff on a single paragraph of Fücks' essay, I realize. But it's a dynamic conception of history something like what I've described, that lets Fücks argue that even the adoption of very explicitly anti-capitalism ideologies "disguised the fact that '1968' was actually reformist in character." I would like to say he means that the movements of that time in Western countries were objectively reformist. But the neocons' propagandistic use of "objectively", as in "critics of the war are objectively aiding The Terrorists", may have ruined that particular usage for generations. That usage is part of the strong Trotskyist heritage of the neocons, though an Hegelian would probably say that it was a Troskyism that had undergone significant transformation. While less philosophically minded critics might wonder how great the transformation actually was, since the "left" nature of Trotskyism was always of a particular kind that maybe didn't need so much transformation to become neoconservatism. (Long story for another time.)

Fücks gives an orderly list of various long-term observable effects of "1968". The whole thing is definitely well worth reading. But his list includes: "an expansion of the political public"; "the expansion of democracy"; and, "the politicization of the private sphere".

I'll include here a couple of more passages I found particularly interesting. This one talks about the effects of some of the more Jacksonian aspects of American democracy on the present-day European Union democracies:

While American democracy was premised on a self-aware civil society and republicanism, Europe faced a legacy left by absolutist states. The postwar democratic order was conceived as resting on state institutions whose democratic authority came from elections. But in the 1960s, calls arose for democratization of schools and universities, for co-determination in industry, and for a deeper citizen involvement in the political process. The aim was to implant democracy more deeply into society. Above all, "1968" stands for a new political culture of democracy in practice, which also includes numerous self-administered projects and a plethora of nongovernmental organizations that have changed the political landscape.

Democratic virtues were, of course, not invented in 1968. But it was only after 1968 that European political culture became more defined by grassroots involvement, by the activism of citizen groups and the idea of self-determination. The American civil rights movement and its culture of nonviolent opposition had immense influence, as did new forms of political action that spread to Europe from the United States. A new political direction emerged in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and it played a decisive role in forming a more self-confident civil society that looked the state "in the eye." (my emphasis)
Is it really so hard to write clearly like this? None of the other ten essays in this Dissent symposium comes close, and there's only one of the others that I found to be genuinely good, though. Some of the others had some decent observations, if you can wade through the fog surrounding them.

Fücks is also good on describing the relation of "1968" to the women's movement and also on describing the dark side of the 60s slogan, popular in the US as well as Europe, that the personal is political:

Domestic violence was no longer a taboo issue, patriarchy was pushed aside, paths opened for diverse personal approaches to life, and sexual minorities won equality. The year was a catalyst of the new women’s movement and gay rights.

But all this led also to unpredictable developments. Media focus on the private life of politicians is one consequence of blurring the difference between public and private persons. Another is the emergence of "identity politics." Demands for equal treatment now feature claims based on ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Taken to an extreme, this tendency implies that everything in politics must be particularized. In this sense, identity politics conflicts with the idea of a republic of equal and free citizens, who formulate and express their political will in open debate.
Note that the last argument is a carefully formulated position from a democratic perspective, not a conservative slogan to try to discredit all "special interests" except those representing rich white people.

In the concluding section, he addresses some of the real problems of "1968", including the proliferation of small, often authoritarian leftwing sects and the unjustified resort to violence seen with groups like the Germany Red Army Faction (RAF, aka, "the Baider-Meinhof gang") or the Italian Red Brigades, though he does not specifically name those groups.

Since the "culture warriors" in the US are again wetting themselves this year over the long-disbanded Weather Underground (WU)organization in the US, it worth noting that the WU did not target individuals for kidnapping and assassination as did the RAF and Red Brigades. Their brand of terrorism (armed struggle, they called it) involved symbolic bombings of targets they took to be particularly representative of the ruling powers. Some of their own number were famously killed in an accidental explosion in a New York townhouse while building bombs. And there was a bombing of a mathematics building at the University of Wisconsin in which the WU may have been involved in which a student died, seemingly unintentionally from the bombers' viewpoint.

The kidnappings and deadly violence associated in Europe with the RAF and the Red Brigades were in the US more the work of groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), which kidnapped Patty Hearst, and the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The Black Panthers wound up in gun battles with police. But however one evaluates their activities, they did not pursue the kind of violent terror strategy that the RAF did.

His concluding paragraphs are well argued. They represent some actual political-historical analysis, not just the burnt-out clichees featured in most of the other symposium essays:

The protest movement of 1968 was never a uniform phenomenon, and its members went off in all directions. These ranged from hippies and spiritualists, Maoists and orthodox Marxists, to citizens’ action groups, feminist projects, third-worldists, pacifists, and those engaged in diverse forms of militancy. Part of the movement drifted into a conspiratorial world of armed struggle and left a trail of blood. Imagining that a new form of fascism threatened, all means were justified. The most virulent forms of "armed struggle" were in two postfascist states. Neither Germany nor Italy had any adequate tradition of a civic political culture; militant leftists in both of them were suspicious of political institutions and imagined themselves as descendants of the "antifascist resistance."

There was no "Chinese Wall" between such "red terror" and other groups of the radical left at the time. Even so, it is false and absurd to brand the ’68 movement as a whole as the precursor of left-wing terrorism. This is bad teleology. While some did opt for revolutionary violence, the vast majority set up anti-authoritarian children’s day care centers; reformed schools; published alternative newspapers; founded free theaters, human rights groups, women’s shelters, and citizens’ action groups; concerned themselves with alternative medicine; or embarked on the long march through parties and parliaments.

The discovery of politics in everyday practice, the practical improvement of society from within and below, a cosmopolitan attitude, a passion for open politics, sustained social commitments, an insistence on self-determination and democratic participation. These, too, are legacy of 1968 - it’s a lot. (my emphasis)
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