Memoir and myth: remembering the way it was in the '60s. Living on the edge
CONSIDER these images from the 1960s: Chicago policemen yelling ``Kill! Kill! Kill!'' as they charge youthful crowds; the Saigon police chief executing a captured Viet Cong; demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue chanting ``Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh is going to win!''; a young woman at Kent State screaming over a dead student; and enraptured concertgoers lighting up as they worship the Beatles, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan.... Images so powerful manipulate us too easily, creating a mythology that systematic inquiry can barely dent, and to which memoirs often contribute. Always excepting Reunion: A Memoir (Random House, New York, 539 pp., $22.50), Tom Hayden's remarkable account, those reviewed here have all the disadvantages of wisdom-after-the-fact; self-centeredness, cobwebbed memories, plus tunnel vision and a slapdash amateurishness that exalts ``what I write now about what I think I did then.''
This follows predictably from a '60s counterculture that celebrated individual consciousness, which used ``unreal,'' ``unbelievable,'' and ``outta sight'' as terms of praise, and which rejected traditional intellectual skills. Had not the best and the brightest led us into a terrible war? And had not the ``multiuniversity'' become allied with business and government?
Hence, sincerity and truth mandated patchy, catch-as-catch-can accounts, with balance subservient to emotion, and data to mood. Though the ever-practical Tom Hayden does refer to strategy sessions, he stands virtually alone. These books treat organization and procedure as irrelevant, idealism and exaltation as essential.
Exaltation, however, led to discontinuity and living on the edge, intensified by fevered personal lives, without the comforts of routine, family backing, or even adequate food and rest. Many authors describe their world as ``surreal,'' which sidesteps questions of what happened - and why.
All this by way of warning: the '60s is a tricky subject indeed. All works on it require cautious handling, no matter their scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliography. But these works allude to issues - racism, poverty, social injustice - which remain with us.
``The past is never dead,'' Faulkner insisted, ``it's not even past.'' Nixon defeated the New Left in 1968, and neoconservative intellectuals saw the Reagan ascendancy as a guarantee against a revival. The Reaganite inability to create a mass conservative party, plus White House bumbling and incoherence, has encouraged a modest leftist revival, especially on campuses. So these books form part of a struggle for the memory of the 1960s, whose outcome will influence the left wing of the Democratic Party, where Jesse Jackson may stand after Nov. 4.
The central question is clear: Did the New Left, the counterculture that nourished it, and the Students for a Democratic Society that spearheaded it constitute the glory or the shame of the 1960s? Was it in the mainstream of American history, as an idealistic response to racism, militarism, imperialism, and a paternalistic, subtly repressive higher education? Or was it all a horrible aberration, an arrogant usurpation of legitimate authority by nihilistic gangs, adolescents biting the parental hand that fed them, and provoking a richly deserved police backlash?
There is an alternative view, which sees the New Left in general, and the SDS in particular, as a loose assemblage of disparate ideas, which became looser still as membership soared as the war escalated. This benign and free-spirited SDS was emotionally devastated in mid-1968 by the destruction of hopes that had centered on Robert Kennedy, and by the triumph of the old politics, first at the Chicago convention, and then with Nixon's electoral victory. The radical, violent fringe had barely surfaced within SDS. Now it competed with the grotesque Maoists of the Progressive Labor faction to rip SDS apart, beginning the long slide into Weathermen terrorism.
This interpretation is central to Tom Hayden's ``Reunion,'' a political - and personal - autobiography of distinction. Skepticism is of course appropriate: Hayden is a political animal who, at age 48, undoubtedly has further ambitions. So he portrays himself as a nonviolent moderate within SDS, more sinned against than sinning, and certainly not the adventurer and news media superstar which, by 1968, he had partially become. The essential corrective is James Miller's excellent ``Democracy is in the Streets'' (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1987), which presents Hayden's other face.
Hayden nevertheless has crafted a remarkable, perhaps a brilliant book, political autobiography at its most effective. This '60s symbol - the quintessential ideologist, strategist, tactician, field commander, point man, emissary, and negotiator of the New Left - writes with unusual grace and impact. Focusing each chapter on a central theme, he offers a personalized history of the SDS drive against the war and racism, while not ignoring his own struggle for authenticity, satisfying relationships, and stability in a world run amok.
He often alludes to his divorced parents, his need for approval from a glowering father, and the rescue from burnout brought him by Jane Fonda and the family they have created. There is much on the dangerous organizing expeditions down South, and more on the prisoner-of-war rescue missions to Hanoi, whose ruthless dictatorship Hayden confesses he completely misunderstood.
There is no less on Robert Kennedy, with whom Hayden identified as a fellow young Roman Catholic, and whom he hoped could unite blacks and whites, the New Left and the Democratic Party, and end the war. For Hayden's opponents there is admirable generosity, unlike the rage many neoconservatives still vent on the New Left. And there is the tacit assumption that the Reagan bubble soon will burst, leaving a sadder but wiser Left to carry the torch.
Hayden's broad perspectives and recognition of error are, unfortunately, absent from Hans Koning's Nineteen Sixty-Eight: A Personal Report (Norton, New York, 194 pp., $15.95), a professional writer's scattered impression of the year. On the fringes of ``The Movement,'' Koning sees it as tricked, manipulated, and ultimately defeated - in France and Czechoslovakia, no less than in the United States - by ``The System,'' i.e., the forces of order and tradition. This is simplistic, mawkish, and entirely self-centered.
Little better is David Caute's The Year of the Barricades: A Journey through 1968 (Harper & Row, New York, 514 pp., $24.95). This offers a slapdash global overview, touching on Europe, the United States, Mexico, and even Japan, but suggesting no reasons at all for such a remarkable concordance of events. Worse still, the narrative reads like Time or Newsweek, with a pared-down text whose sentences read like headlines - or 90-second television bites - wrenched from context: ``Rioting in Paris; many arrested.'' Of description there is little, of interpretation, nought.
David Farber's Chicago '68 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 304 pp., $19.95) chooses serious scholarship over the quick fix. Thorough research, careful assessments, rich context, broad perspectives - Farber digs systematically into the Chicago events, concluding that the disorders represented the breakdown of a tenuous national consensus that had survived only because it went unchallenged - until Mayor Daley and Tom Hayden collided in the streets.
Inquiry unfortunately gives way to sheer polemicism in the main essays in Political Passages: Journeys of Change Through Two Decades, 1968-1988 (Free Press, New York, 354 pp., $21.95), edited by John Bunzel. These political/intellectual recollections by 13 writers and academicians - once of the left or center and now turned neoconservative - have an ingrown quality that smacks of the old Berlin and Vienna. Many essayists are decent and fair-minded. But Joseph Epstein, Peter Collier, David Horowitz, and especially Edward Shils, an internationally known sociologist whose much-vaunted civility has escaped him, demonstrate all the qualities these very authors denounce in the New Left: rage, disdain for facts, and a zest for blood. How appalled Edmund Burke and F.A. Hayek would be at the sins being committed in the name of conservatism!
Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.