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Wednesday 5 December 2007

Dominic Hilton's account of the NCF Event: Good, Bad or Ugly? Children of the Revolution on 5 December 2007

They toasted the Bolshevik Revolution, endorsed terrorism, and worshipped Mao. So just who were the generation of ’68?

They were us, said the writer and journalist Neil Lyndon, who joined CND at the age of 15 and was a member of the Young Communist League back in the day. And we should apologise.

Prominent political figures like Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit were “so close to extreme terrorism in the late 60s/early 70s.” And many people who now work in broadcasting “never acknowledged how in that period they aligned themselves with movements that were Stalinist and terrorist.”

The 68ers, said Lyndon, still have all this “Weren’t we lads. What a time it was.” stuff going on. Meanwhile, Gunter Grass is excoriated for his crimes (being a member of the Waffen-SS at 17). “I allied myself with totalitarianism,” Lyndon acknowledged. “We got away with it – others didn’t.”

The prolific columnist and novelist Ruth Dudley-Edwards suggested the whole revolution was mainly about fashion. “I was at Cambridge and I was a feminist and in favour of an uprising of black South Africans,” she explained, “but I wasn’t going for the whole thing. I had a sense of perspective. Actually, I rather hoped the rugger buggers would throw all the revolutionaries into the Cam.”

Che Guevara always made Dudley-Edwards sick. Fashionable attitudes make her sick. “Just because you are young it does not entitle you to be so silly that you try and destroy things you don’t understand at all,” she warned the room.

Austin Williams, one of the founders of Living Marxism and still a communist, took a different note: “The Bolshevik Revolution was a great moment in history,” he said. “Che Guevara, Castro and Stalin are twats – but the joke is that you think that’s the problem.”

The problem is now, Williams insisted. “Even Tony Blair thought that the 60s were responsible for the moral collapse of society. Today there is no political dialogue, no political opposition, nobody is arguing about anything anymore.”

TV producer Michael Attwell grew up in South Africa when it was a racist state. “Robert Kennedy was the first person I heard argue against Apartheid, in Joburg in ’66,” he said. “Left-wing ideas were suddenly out in the ether, they were everywhere. They were about equality, but also, crucially, about using violence to achieve equality. Left-wing ideas appealed for precisely this reason – democracy was clearly not enough to bring about change.”

Attwell then went to Oxford. “There were trendy people,” he reminisced. “And then there was Anne Widdicombe, who said, “Don’t smoke marijuana.” She sounded so very like the South African government. So there was no question who I was going to hang with.”

Meanwhile, “Che Guevara was very sexy. It was very attractive to be on the left. Mao’s little red book looked great on posters.”

The left was branded better. But when he thinks back on it, Attwell remembers how he defended the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. “I am ashamed to even think about it.”

No apologies, please, demanded Ruth Dudley-Edwards. “I wanted to punch Tony Blair’s lights out for apologising for the Irish potato famine.”

Then came the memories of Mo Mowlam. “She used to throw things over the walls to the prisoners when she was at Durham,” Dudley-Edwards recalled. “Mo was knee-jerk anti-establishment, without any thought. She was intensely fashionable – always changing. That’s how she became a Blairite in the 90s. But it became wicked when she was made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She despised men in uniforms and loathed the stuffiness of the RUC. She humiliated them by sending them out to get her tampax. The people she thought were the enemy were the people who were protecting the state against civil war. She was the embodiment of what I call ‘The Unthinking Generation’.”

“The teachers were crap, the government was crap, so of course you railed against the establishment,” explained Michael Attwell. “Unfortunately, the result has actually been social anarchy.” The best example of this is in broadcasting, said Attwell. The Prime Minister used to be asked deferentially if he had anything he’d like to tell the nation. Now he is accused of being a criminal or having blood on his hands before he has answered the first question.

“Before the 1960s the language of public discourse was extremely formal,” Ruth Dudley-Edwards reminded us. When the photograph was published of JFK sitting in the Oval Office with his tie loose and his sleeves rolled up, it “really caused a shock – as crazy as that sounds now.”

Ah, the Kennedys again. Everyone agreed how cool and young Jack and Bobby were. But this has always struck me as odd. Jack in particular was politically quite conservative, and certainly moderate. They were the Bostonian sons of a superrich bootlegger. They were Camelot and all the high civilisation that entailed (in top hats and tails). Neither J or RFK wore tie-dyed rags or sandals. And they were both virulent anti-communists.

Anyway… The audience started talking about the sense in the 60s that the US was falling apart. Prominent political leaders were assassinated one after the other. “The reek of conspiracy about the assassinations was just absorbed with the right and the establishment,” said Neil Lyndon, revealingly.

Austin Williams, a self-confessed sucker for the “radicalising nature of the 60s” talked of a spirit, encapsulated by the NASA Apollo missions. “The whole era was about exploration. Nowadays the ‘returning safely’ would be the most important thing.”

Hard to argue with that. And nobody did.

But there’s a bigger problem here. Ruth Dudley-Edwards said that “In the 60s, we lost the boundaries. The Left believe you can entirely change human nature.” And you can’t.

Austin Williams spoke with passion about “a sense of” something and an “intellectual debate”, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Who cares about those things?” Dialogue, debate, a sense of something, is not worth tens or hundreds of millions of bodies. The road to perfection is strewn with corpses.”

And besides, perhaps the reason we lack any “intellectual debate” these days is not because the left has given up, but because the left has triumphed. Hasn’t the consensus shifted to the left, in great part thanks to the 68ers? Doomsday environuts, to take one such example, are now the mainstream norm, not the lunatic fringe.

Dominic Hilton, Research Fellow

Speakers Michael Attwell, Austin Williams, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Neil Lyndon

© Ruth Dudley Edwards