’68 and Intimations of the Transcendent

With this month’s Liberty Forum essay, Dan Mahoney has give us an elegant and perceptive reflection on what the French, or at least some of them, refer to as “the events” of 1968. The vagueness of the term is itself indicative. We are not quite sure what the events were or what they denoted. Even in Dan’s deft handling they were events that never succeeded in becoming an event. It was the revolution that never was. The spirit of ’89 had not quite been revived in the sans-culottes of ’68. Charles de Gaulle would not play Louis XVI.

The suggestion of the theatrical and derivative character of what transpired is on point. It was a playing at revolution rather than a revolution. None of the participants wanted to sacrifice their precious liberties for the sake of a collectivized brave new world. It was tantalizing to contemplate a revolutionary outbreak, but deadly to embark upon it.

It might be instructive to contrast the events of ’68 in Paris (or in Chicago that same year, in the streets outside the convention of the Democratic National Committee) with what happened 21 years later at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. With Tiananmen ’89, ideas did have consequences, and for that reason, their impact went deeper. But of course the Tiananmen event was very clearly a democratic revolution, or an attempt at replacing totalitarian rule with a constitutional one. The protesters on the streets of Paris and Chicago, by contrast, already enjoyed the benefits of popular rule under a constitutional regime based on the principle of individual liberty.

For what, in that case, did they clamor?

Surely it was for what no finite political order could provide: the satisfying of one’s taste for the vertiginal and the unlimited. Having enjoyed the tranquility of the routine, and forgetful of what had happened just before they were born—the madness that convulsed Europe in the Second World War—the young were ready for their own encounter with the ineffable. Dan is correct in identifying the heady giddiness of those days in which possibilities seemed boundless, but I’m not sure that he really traces that impulse to its source. What seems to have been a leap into an illusion was actually a reaching, albeit incompletely, toward a higher mode of being.

Revolution requires an intimation of the transcendent. Even one that confines itself within the safety of a largely theatrical exercise lives from that prospect. This was what supplied much of the charm of “the events,” even in their recollection today. The hollowness of the project does not entirely rob it of its aspirational trajectory, for an aspiration lives off what as yet is unreal and unrealized. What there is of truth in the gestures and demands of the protesters of ’68 is surely the realization that the world in which they lived, with its mundane and unelevated vista, was not the highest. Even in their secondhand heroics there was a desperate longing for transcendence.

Perhaps they could not recognize it in the aging leadership whose own valiant struggle against Nazism was by then receding into the past. Or perhaps de Gaulle and his supporters could no longer communicate what they stood for. It is often the fate of founders not to be able to transmit their virtues to those whose later prosperity has been made possible by what they founded.

Whatever the case, the aspiration for a similarly expansive role is surely not the worst of impulses. But it is dangerous to regimes, especially in the moment of generational transitions of authority. Yet simply to condemn the intoxication of youth is not quite the adequate response.  Dan’s hero, Raymond Aron, came close to that attitude, if for entirely understandable reasons. How else might a responsible citizen be inclined to act? The first instinct is to arrest the rioters; the deeper wellsprings of their disorder are more difficult to pierce. We ignore them, though, at our peril.

Fragility of the Liberal Regime

The possibility of a revolutionary outbreak, an impatience with the order of limits, abides at the fringes of every constitutional regime. There is surely a need to acknowledge the revolutionary appeal, to oppose it and, perhaps more importantly, to channel it in the direction of its properly spiritual fulfillment. This is the pattern of the large upheavals of modernity and the reason why its political problems cannot simply be resolved by political means. An order of limits has not secured itself against the demand for the unlimited.

That is also the great challenge we continue to confront today as another form of it imposes itself on the French and world scene. The Muslim aspiration to remake the polity and, by extension, every polity in which Islam is socially pervasive, may be a less stylish but parallel version of the same demand. Paris and other Western locales in ’68 were a reminder of the fragility of liberal regimes even and, perhaps particularly, at the point of their greatest mundane success.

What could be more admirable than the recovery of material prosperity from the ruins of the Second World War? Yet astonishingly the generation that had come of age after the trauma seemed to value none of the sacrifices made on its behalf. It turned out that it was incredibly difficult to convey the depth of devotion needed to secure the routine decencies of social, economic, and political life. “The events” of ’68 were a rude reminder of the costs of neglecting the education of youth in the spirit of the regime. Even if the necessity for such formation was acknowledged, it was hardly evident that liberal self-understanding possessed the means of articulating own deepest inspiration.

When T.S. Eliot asked in a far bleaker moment in 1939 if, in light of the appeasement of Hitler, liberal political society represented anything more than a collection of banks and insurance companies, he might well have been speaking for the youthful provocateurs in the street. Liberal democracies that seemed to rest on ever-fewer convictions could now no longer say what their purpose was. That of course was not the whole truth about them, for they contained reserves of spiritual depth that astonished, perhaps, even themselves most of all, in the heroic resistance to totalitarianism and the long struggle of the Cold War. The protesters were right to demand moral resolve in the public order but they were wrong to conclude that it had not been forthcoming when it was needed most.

Perhaps the difficulty lies in the way in which liberal regimes have typically articulated their own animating foundations. When not pressed into service, those convictions recede into invisibility, but that does not imply their unreality. Friedrich Nietzsche was only partially correct when he noted that liberty once achieved promptly loses its appeal. His remark itself is just such an attempt to rekindle its flame, to call forth the growth of the soul by which the transcendent finality of freedom is glimpsed. That is what the liberal statesmen of the postwar generation had failed to convey. They possessed virtues not easily transmitted, and were inarticulate about them—even de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, in this sense, fell short. Mere condemnation of the obstreperous students is an insufficient response.

Of course their readiness to flirt with the worst totalitarian temptations must be rejected, along with the style of repudiation that remains a perennial gateway to the nihilism Nietzsche foresaw. Instead there must be a willingness to admit that the rudderless youth were not entirely mistaken in perceiving the blankness of the upbringing their elders had provided for them. When liberal regimes are erected on the false promise of an easy life then it is not surprising when the young look for other inspirations that might call forth the enlargement for which every human heart yearns.

Not all are ready to settle for a life untouched by self-sacrifice. There is still the call of a richer and deeper solidarity with others by which we build a more human world together. The challenge is to find the way in which the inviolable liberty of each becomes the pivot around which the social and political whole revolves. But where will they find that transcendent affirmation of the person that subtends a public devotion to liberty?

In Prague that Same Year . . .

The answer lies, not simply in recalling the heroic struggles of the past, but in making the defense of liberty the inescapable task of the present. Something of that response was surely evident in the few “dix-huitards” who came to repent of their own complicity with the totalitarian impulse of Marxism. One thinks of the so-called “new philosophers,” sobered by the exposé of communism in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago published a few years after “the events.” The dissidents of the Soviet Union were followed by the Charter 77 movement of Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. The Czech dissidents’ aesthetic and political leanings were not so far from the irreverence of the Parisian cohort of the 1960s. We recall that Prague had had its own more ominous spring of 1968 that resulted in its subsequent Soviet invasion.

Equally there was a growing dedication to the cause of human rights, whether in the American civil rights movement or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa that brought Nelson Mandela to the forefront. In all of these instances it became abundantly clear that the language and principles of liberal democracy contained a moral authority that belied the escapist tendencies associated with consumerist abundance.

The contrast, between the unseriousness of the raging streets and the sober cautiousness of Aron’s defense of ordered liberty could not be greater. One could be forgiven for dismissing the former and extolling the latter. But that would be an error, especially given the extent to which the “spirit of ‘68” lives on as a mode of critique laying claim to its own moral superiority. Rather than condemnation, the mixed motives of the protesters must be met by a resolve to clarify the tensions within them. The carriers of radical critique must be invited to put their own shoulders to the wheel of building regimes of truth where only ideology had prevailed.

“Live not by lies,” was the great call of Solzhenitsyn to his countrymen, and when they asked what criterion they were to use, his response was simple: Decide for yourself. Begin with the lie that you can recognize and resist its destructive effects. In that way you will enlarge the scope of truth and push its boundaries outward, even if only by a little. It is thus that a common world begins to be constructed.

But more than the political impact there is the moment of mutual recognition that is the interior reality of a liberal regime. We become free by acknowledging the mutual character of freedom.  That is the invisible source of a community of free persons. It rests on a glimpse of the transcendence of every single member within it.

It is for this reason that all the great defenders of human dignity and worth eventually find themselves compelled to resort to the language of transcendence. Whether believers or not, they must invoke a dimension of existence that lies beyond this world. Havel saw that it was necessary to find some way of saying that the consequential aspects of a person’s life are more than the elements that go into it. We do not live in space and time, where all is homogeneous and indifferent and therefore irrelevant. That is the nightmare of nihilism that haunted Nietzsche. No, what we do here matters, and forever, since each of us is uniquely called to play our part in the drama of humanity. It is for this reason, Havel insisted, that each person leaves “a trace on the memory of Being.”

That is the assurance for which the turbulent protagonists of ’68 sought confirmation. It is noteworthy that this was forthcoming, not from the thinkers and elder statesmen of their own immediate society, but from dissidents and prisoners more painfully engaged in demonstrating its truth. The case of Liu Xiaobo, who died in the custody of Chinese authorities last year, is evidence that we will not lack for such exemplars. It is in their testament that the faith sustaining liberty is witnessed most profoundly.