You Say You Want a Revolution

From Bertolucci to the Beatles, 1968 is back.

Book cover

The great Johnny Thunders once sang, “You can’t put your arms around a memory.” Truer words were never spoken, unless your name is Bernardo Bertolucci, in which case it’s important that you have as much sex with your memories as possible. His latest film, The Dreamers, immerses us in a seminal moment of the 20th century, the spring of 1968, when students in Paris took to the streets, and world revolution was hanging like pollen in the air. The specific grievances of 1968 will remain opaque to filmgoers (Chaplin versus Keaton? The closing of a favorite cinema?), but Bertolucci compensates for his characters’ political vacuity with a great deal of nudity.

If memory is closely related to self-definition, then it’s easy to understand why the year 1968 is still with us. Certain years stand out for world-shaping events (2001; 1963), and others, more rare, for a feeling that our DNA itself is changing, and an alternative universe of human possibility is coming into view, if only for a brief, tantalizing moment. 1848 was such a year, and 1968 had the same electric quality. “Be realistic; demand the impossible,” read a poster in Paris. In countries that barely had official relations—France, Poland, the United States, Czechoslovakia—millions of young people sought—and, amazingly, managed—to claim a voice in shaping their ossified societies, before an inevitable backlash put them down, subdued but still defiant.

Thirty-six years later, the blurry events of ‘68 are coming back into focus, more vividly than one might expect. That year remains a crucial litmus test, defining people by the choices they made in those heady times. It’s hard to open a newspaper without seeing a photo of John Kerry in Vietnam (he arrived there Nov. 17, 1968). The recent release of George W. Bush’s medical records revealed that the future president had a hemorrhoid in 1968 (no wonder he hated the ‘60s). Even the Beatles are back: The 1968 White Album has been mixed with Jay-Z’s Black Album (2003) to produce Danger Mouse’s completely illegal Grey Album, and on Feb. 24, “Grey Tuesday,” there was a remarkable Internet protest against attempts to suppress it. There’s something happening here (what it is ain’t exactly clear).

In his impressionistic new book, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, Mark Kurlansky doesn’t pretend to sort it all out neatly—which is what makes it such a fascinating, and fitting, evocation. A popular historian with one of the most eclectic résumés in the business—he’s written on cod, salt, the Basques, the Caribbean, and European Jewry—Kurlansky breaks ground in an important way, linking all the events around the world that year in a global collage. That was precisely the point of 1968—we were all revolting together. In far-flung capitals and on college campuses something ended, and something new rose up to take its place—a sense of individual empowerment, moral outrage at the excesses of governments that no longer seemed omniscient or even competent, a millennial desire to make the world anew—at least until billyclubs knocked the stuffing out of utopian fantasy. (Kurlansky supplies the jarring reminder that in 1968, Mississippi first allowed women on juries; across the Atlantic, the Spanish right was still holding masses for fascists, including Hitler, and lagged so far behind the times that they considered it a big deal when they voided a law, nearly 500 years old, expelling the Jews.) With all those old people running things, it’s no wonder that Night of the Living Dead was a big hit in 1968.

In his quasi-novelistic way, Kurlansky re-creates the youth movements that spontaneously combusted in 1968, from Paris to Prague to Mexico City, probing what linked them, what failed to link them, what succeeded, and just as often, what failed. All felt contempt for the older generation, but there were more tangible connections as well (breakthroughs in satellite transmission and video gave TV stations more power to cover international events). All started out optimistically, found dizzying early success, and then dissolved into helpless rage as the year unfolded.

Kurlansky excels at something Bertolucci also enjoys—conveying the innocence with which the status quo was shattered forever. Around the world, to join a riot was half an act of protest and half an act of unpremeditated romantic curiosity. There is a lot of laughter in the book: Everything Abbie Hoffman did was funny—half revolution, half David Letterman. But history didn’t exactly obey the revolutionaries’ bidding. What didn’t blow up in 1968? The year that began with the Tet Offensive saw a brutal escalation in Vietnam and bloodshed on every continent, including a nasty civil war in Nigeria, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and violent suppression of all the student movements. (Kurlansky is great on the battle for Chicago at the Democratic convention.) The status quo was indeed shattered, as so many young people hoped it would be, but the end result was a more draconian set of governments than even the cynics expected.

When Martin Luther King Jr. died, he was working on a speech titled, “America May Go to Hell.” Kurlansky shows how close we came—with the civil rights movement splintering into violence, and the political system breaking down during an exhausting slog to the White House. One of his best sections is counterintuitive, arguing that modern conservatism was also born in 1968, an ugly stepsister to the Revolution, but no less important, and in some ways the year’s most lasting legacy. The GOP used race hatred to recruit new voters, and Kurlansky makes a good case that Nixon’s campaign sent Republicans down a far-right path that they have yet to return from. Chief Justice William Rehnquist comes out looking very bad—he advised Nixon to attack the courts and then to stack them with right-wing picks, including himself. The Republicans’ star African-American, Jackie Robinson, was so disgusted that he called them “racist” and joined the Democrats. There wasn’t a whole lot of middle ground in 1968: It was one of those years you had to pick a side and stick with it.

In his panoramic tour, Kurlansky could have paused longer on the most sweeping youth movement of them all—the one that went completely haywire. China’s Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and was in full flower by ‘68. It is arresting to reflect on the many ways it resembled the others—a distrust of elders (except Mao), a furious quest for sincerity, a commitment to cast out old ways of thinking. But of course it was beyond tragic, a fact that becomes sickeningly clear in one of the most unforgettable books of the past year. Li Zhensheng’s Red-Color News Soldier depicts in graphic detail exactly what happened in China’s time of madness. Li was a state photographer, allowed to document the medieval humiliations inflicted on counterrevolutionaries (dunce caps, placards, executions), but gifted with an artist’s sensibility, and what feels like a dissenter’s eye as well. It is utterly engrossing, even when you can barely look at it.

1968 is now far away, as far as 1932—the depths of the Depression—was then. Yet more than a few of the seeds planted in that disorienting year have continued to sprout in hidden corners of the garden. In many ways, the Internet, with all its possibilities and irritations, embodies the interconnectedness that the youth of ‘68 were fighting for. It would strike them as wonderfully insane to know that you can read a newspaper in Prague or Nigeria or Beijing with the mere tap of a finger. The spirit of 1968 may have faded, but like a trick candle that refuses to go out, it has not entirely been extinguished.