A TALE OF TWO UTOPIAS: The Political Journeu of the Generation of the 1960s

A TALE OF TWO UTOPIAS: The Political Journeu of the Generation of the 1960s

Jonah Goldberg

By Paul Berman. Norton. 300 pp. $24

Read Time:
2m 48sec

What is utopia but the worship of perfection at the expense of the good? Thomas More understood this when he contrasted his neologism utopia, meaning "no place," with eutopia, meaning "the good place." The Right has its utopias, usually in the Good Old Days. But for serious utopias, set in the Glorious if Receding Future, the Right can’t hold a candle to the Left. There have been moments—in 1830, in 1848, in 1917—when the Left thought itself just one manifesto, protest, or burning barricade away from utopia. But these expectations were not met—a point memorialized by graveyards around the globe.

Berman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is a man of many expectations. He would add two more dates to the list of revolutionary moments: 1968 and 1989. To some degree, he is merely stating the obvious. Clearly, 1968 was one of the more tumultuous years of the century, and 1989 was arguably the most important year since 1945. But Berman wants to do more than mark these milestones. He wants to connect them as parts of a single utopian project.

Berman contends that 1968 was the apogee of not one but four revolutions. The first was the Western youth revolt, epitomized in the United States by the New Left and the counterculture’s "insurrections against middle-class customs." The second revolution was one of the spirit, encompassing everything from a turn toward Asian religion to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The third comprised the worldwide insurrections against Western, mostly American, imperialism. And the fourth was the battle against communism, spearheaded by the Prague Spring.

Berman tries to knit these diverse revolts, rebellions, reforms, and riots into a single, essentially left-wing fabric. But too many threads keep unraveling—most notably the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the less velvety revolutions in the rest of Eastern Europe. Undeniably there were affinities between these anti-communist movements and the Western counterculture. Vaclav Havel was a champion of what Herbert Marcuse called "the great refusal," urging his fellow Czechs to create "parallel lives" where they could live "in truth." The rock bands, the cult of Frank Zappa, the sexual liberationism, the anticareerism—these were all too recognizably the hallmarks of protest in the West.

But what does it mean to be left-wing under communist rule? To Berman’s chagrin, Havel and some of his like-minded compatriots moved from Ramparts to Commentary, began to read Adam Smith, and praised President Ronald Reagan’s Euromissile policy as a necessary bulwark of freedom. Berman records his dismay at visiting Czechoslovakia and seeing the "utopianism" of the average citizen’s admiration for America. His only consolation, it seems, is that "eventually the people of the East were fated to get a clearer idea of American bleakness and social decay."

In the end, Berman’s mostly hortatory attempt to equate 1989 with 1968 founders on the facts. Unlike the New Left, the protest movements of Eastern Europe did not dream of building the perfect society. They did not consider liberal democracy to be morally bankrupt. Instead, they sought to disentangle themselves from the failed utopia of communism and achieve what they called "a normal society" of family, friends, work, and faith—a eutopia, at most.


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