“L’imagination au pouvoir!” demanded the posters plastered on Paris walls fifty years ago this spring. It was indeed a glorious time to be on the democratic left. In over a dozen countries, young people took to the streets to protest an immoral war in Indochina and unjust policies at home. Czechs began to create a humane form of socialism. Women revived a feminist movement, while saving the environment was starting to become a mass cause. One could imagine these alloys of rebellion fusing into a movement strong enough to batter the old order and build a new one.
But those in power were quite capable of imagining how to keep it. And, for the most part, they succeeded. The 1968 festival of the oppressed gave way to a hangover of disappointment and frustration that is with us still. Dreams of revolution gave way to defensive struggles against right-wing forces that skillfully stoked popular resentments. The left won some cultural battles, particularly on the terrain of gender and sexuality. But the war in the trenches continues, and Trump’s presidency makes it more difficult, and more urgent, than ever.
During the bygone heyday of big dreams, Rudi Dutschke, the charismatic German activist, cautioned his fellow leftists not to expect rapid change. We must, he said, embark on “a long march through the institutions.” Protests alone would not convince fellow citizens that a different world was either possible or desirable. You had to win their trust by working with them, every day in every place where power resides.
Feminist and LGBTQ organizers put that wisdom into practice. They made the moral case for total equality between the genders on the job, in academia, the media, the courts, the major parties, Congress, and around the world. The melding of a stirring vision with a shrewd strategy yielded such results as laws against sexual harassment and for marriage equality that were inconceivable in 1968. And they never stopped marching.
It’s an achievement leftists today should emulate. To topple a narcissistic, racist president and his deeply reactionary party requires a readiness to mount campaigns that will not just refute their brutal lies but that can throw them out of office. In workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods, there are grievances to understand and resolve. Leftists need to explain clearly the kind of society they want to build, and figure out how to knit together a coalition from the disparate fragments of discontent all around them. Pragmatic thinking and strategic action are not in conflict with the radical spirit of 1968; they are the only way to fulfill it. Now imagine that.
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent.