The end of history

The twin anniversaries of 1968 and 2003 remind us that the story of the left is littered with utopia

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It is a quirk of political history that the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War and the 40th anniversary of the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demonstrations occurred within days of each other this March. I don't know which is the more depressing to observe: the baby boomers who took us to war in Iraq wriggling to justify their actions, or their contemporaries, preening themselves as they reminisce about the student revolutions of 1968.

Either way, the two anniversaries are fatefully interwoven in a way that obscures a genuine understanding of either event. There is little doubt that the organisers of the Stop the War movement see themselves as the heirs of those who demonstrated against US intervention in south-east Asia four decades ago. It is no coincidence that Andrew Burgin, a prominent member of the British anti-war movement, is now devoting himself to organising the "1968 and All That" celebrations to mark this year's anniversary. Nor should it really surprise anyone that a National Union of Students president during the late Sixties, Jack Straw, ended up as the foreign secretary who took us to war. For the militant left, his track record of treachery is a long one. When Essex University students dared to shout down a group of visiting MPs in April 1968, Straw issued a statement of pure charmlessness saying that their actions were "intolerable and inexcusable - I utterly condemn this". He may have drawn the attention of MI5, but Straw was never a radical. His fogeyish attitude to his fellow students' rebellion was entirely characteristic.

As these two anniversaries continue to generate considerable airtime and newsprint (we have the anniversaries of the May 1968 "events" and the end of the Iraq War to come, remember), it is somehow fitting that Straw is there to represent the government view. The Justice Secretary's woeful responses to John Humphrys's questions about the war on the Today programme recently demonstrated how utterly stripped of principle Labour's approach to the war has become. Which was worse: Straw's refusal to answer the question about whether the war had made Iraq a better place, or his retreat into the excuse that no one could have reasonably predicted that there would be no weapons of mass destruction? And yet, on the other side of the baby-boomer divide, there is a similar refusal to answer a straight question. What do those who wish to follow in the footsteps of the soixante-huitards say to those who ask whether their preferred option was for Saddam Hussein to remain in power? Of course the honest answer, at least in the short term, is "yes". But fortunately for those of us who were sceptical about intervention, with Saddam removed we no longer have to face the implications of that answer. Some would say that a contained Saddam would have been better than al-Qaeda unleashed on Iraq. Well, perhaps, but it is hard to know how anyone could judge the relative scale of such horrors.

New Labour has always had a problem with history. The failure of its main players to grasp the importance of understanding the past has always been yoked to their desperation to establish a legacy for the future. This is as true of Gordon Brown as it is of Tony Blair. All opposition, internal and external, was to be consigned to "the dustbin of history", and yet an ignorance of the history of the Middle East and Afghan istan, and its power over the present, has been the undoing of this government. In turn, the consequences of these two failing foreign adventures have detracted from its claims to a historic legacy in Northern Ireland and the Balkans.

Writing in 1992, the year Labour slumped to its fourth successive election defeat, the cultural critic Greil Marcus bemoaned the growing fashion for the phrase "the dustbin of history". In a brilliant essay in the liberal American journal Common Knowledge, entitled "The Dustbin of History in a World Made Fresh", Marcus quoted Henri Weber, a student at the Sorbonne in 1968. "It was fantastic," said Weber. "Everything we did immediately belonged to history." Marcus observed: "No - everything you did was immediately written out of history. Now your words sound childish." Marcus's essay still bears rereading in the context of present discussions of 1968 now that it is itself a 16-year-old historical document. "It is an embarrassment, listening to these stories and these cries, these utopian cheers and laments because the utopian is measured always by its failure . . ."

Marcus was writing these words not as a right-wing critic of the 1968 movement, but as a baby boomer whose own politics were forged by the student revolutions. Yet his observations, even in 1992, were stripped of the sentimentality so often associated with accounts of this period.

The left in Britain has long been seduced by the romance of 1968. Whereas leaders of the movement in France such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Bernard Kouchner entered mainstream politics, the equivalent figures in Britain preferred to enter the media, leaving this territory to the likes of Jack Straw. How different would it have been if Tariq Ali had followed his destiny and become a politician?

A bitter maxim

Instead, the "leader" of the Grosvenor Square demonstrations is reduced to writing about his personal disappointment and the betrayal of the cause on every five-year anniversary. His conclusions in the Guardian this month were particularly bleak: "Some, who once dreamed of a better future, have simply given up. Others espouse a bitter maxim: unless you relearn you won't earn . . . Renegades occupy posts in every west European government defending exploitation, wars, state terror and neocolonial occupations; others now retired from the academy specialise in producing reactionary dross on the blogosphere, displaying the same zeal with which they once excoriated factional rivals on the far left."

Ali can't even bring himself to mention the name of Bernard Kouchner, who led the strike committee of the faculty of medicine at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1968, but now sits in the right-wing government of François Fillon as foreign minister.

The twin anniversaries of 1968 and 2003 remind us that the history of the left is littered with utopian failures. New Labour was the photographic negative of 1968: socialism stripped of any revolutionary content. But still people invested it with their hopes, and its failure brings its own disappointments. The failure of its only vestige of utopian politics, the concept of "humanitarian intervention", will have far greater consequences than the collapse of the student revolutions.

In this month of anniversaries it is only proper that we should receive a visit from the great nemesis of the French left, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose election as president delivered the final blow to the spirit of '68. Speaking during the campaign he said: "In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all." Gordon Brown's summit with Sarkozy will include discussions on giving France one of the top jobs at Nato in return for sending 1,200 troops to Afghanistan, a deal to build a Franco-British aircraft carrier and plans to bring in French expertise to build a new generation of British nuclear power stations.

What a way to mark an anniversary.

This article appears in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?