Like many of my generation, I feel as if, in lieu of that radical revolution, I have indeed been marching and attending rallies for the last half-century, even if there were also long fallow periods of inactivity. (In those quiet times, of course, there was always organizing and activism going on behind the scenes, preparing for the next wave of marches and demonstrations in response to the next set of obvious outrages.)Have you considered that your hypothesis is wrong? Or that your revolutionary goals were messed up?
If the arc of history bends toward justice, as King claimed, it’s been a strange journey, a bizarre twisting and turning as if we were all on some crazed roller-coaster ride.
The Sixties spawned many analyses of the ills of the American system. The ones that marked that era as revolutionary concluded that the heart of the problem was a distinctive mode of consciousness -- a way of seeing, experiencing, interpreting, and being in the world. Political and cultural radicals converged, as historian Todd Gitlin concluded, in their demand for a transformation of “national if not global (or cosmic) consciousness.”And thus the Long March Through The Institutions, and the Experimental Prefigurative Communities of Togetherness that have degenerated into epistemically closed hothouses. Hell, Professor Gitlin has since had second thoughts.
But 1968 was also a year of wishful thinking, rife with an error repeated even now in the shrines of the unreconstructed left: worship of the enemy's enemy. Under the pressure of either/or thinking, the assumption grew that the baddest guys of the left must be the best. Darlings of the left, such as Che Guevara and the Black Panthers' Huey Newton, were celebrated in blissful ignorance or willful denial of their harsh, authoritarian ways. All manner of drugs were extolled or condoned indiscriminately. Everything that had the look of arid establishment was condemned. When all intellectual standards were rejected as elitism, all professionalism as rank imposition, all institutions as prisons, all laws as oppression, rational thought was battered, and honorable men and women suffered unjustly.(See also this.) And kindly shut up about arcs of history. Emergence is messy, and history is the chronicling of emergence. Attempt to manage it, and get smacked by the invisible hand. Mr Chernus might be cognizant of that possibility.
The right way to remember the year 1968 is to give its complications their due. History is the most crooked of timbers. The egalitarianism of the civil rights movement and a spirit of cultural adventure commingled with a whole mélange of joyful and desperate reactions against white supremacy, senseless war, empty materialism and supine obedience. The result was a mutiny against all establishments, usually for good and sufficient reason, although ends were frequently violated by means.
After all, ever since the Vietnam War ended, progressives have had a tendency to focus on single issues of injustice or laundry lists of problems. They have rarely imagined the American system as anything more than a collection of wrong-headed policies and wrong-hearted politicians. In addition, after years of resisting the right wing as it won victory after victory, and of watching the Democrats morph into a neoliberal crew and then into a failing party with its own dreary laundry lists of issues and personalities, the capacity to hope for fundamental change may have gone the way of Herbert Marcuse and Martin Luther King.But in Mr Chernus's mind, it's still 1968, and it's still time for a vanguard.
Still, for those looking hard, a thread of hope exists. Today’s marches, rallies, and town halls are packed with veterans of the Sixties who can remember, if we try, what it felt like to believe we were fighting not only to stop a war but to start a revolution in consciousness. No question about it, we made plenty of mistakes back then. Now, with so much more experience (however grim) in our memory banks, perhaps we might develop more flexible strategies and a certain faith in taking a more patient, long-term approach to organizing for change.
Don’t forget as well that, whatever our failings and the failings of other past movements, we also have a deep foundation of victories (along with defeats) to build on. No, there was no full-scale revolution in our society -- no surprise there. But in so many facets of our world, advances happened nonetheless. Think of how, in those 50 years just past, views on diversity, social equality, the environment, healthcare, and so many other issues, which once existed only on the fringes of our world, have become thoroughly mainstream. Taken as a whole, they represent a partial but still profound and significant set of changes in American consciousness.
Of course, the Sixties not only can’t be resurrected, but shouldn’t be. (After all, it should never be forgotten that what they led to wasn’t a dreamed of new society but the “Reagan revolution,” as the arc of justice took the first of its many grim twists and turns.) At best, the Sixties critique of the system would have to be updated to include many new developments.
The largest mobilization for progressive politics since the Vietnam era offers a unique opportunity to go beyond simply treating symptoms and start offering cures for the underlying illness. If this opportunity is missed, versions of the same symptoms are likely to recur, while unpredictable new ones will undoubtedly emerge for the next 50 years, and as Martin Luther King predicted, we will go on marching without end. Surely we deserve a better future and a better fate.Imagine a world without Sixties vanguardists. It's easy if you try. And respect the propensity of complex adaptive systems to do what they d**n well please. That's the way in which unpredictable new phenomena emerge.