My '68

Since Daniel Cohn-Bendit and everybody else who was involved is doing it, I too will tell you what I was up to 40 years ago. In 1968, like everybody else who mattered to me, I wanted to be a communist. The problem was that, unlike Danny the Red, I was in the United States (a grad student at Northwestern U., just outside Chicago), where we didn't really know what a communist was or how to be one. There was a CPUSA, but it was practically invisible, driven underground by the likes of Joseph McCarthy and infiltrated so thoroughly by the FBI that it smelled like a maggoty corpse. This was very unlike the case in France, where there was a real Parti communiste that the students had seen up close and rejected. For us, "communism" was an available old label that we could stick onto whatever revolutionary movement most appealed to us. Some people were memorizing Mao's little red book, others were debating Trotsky, others were arguing Rosa Luxembourg against Lenin, lot of people were quoting Frantz Fanon, and everybody admired Fidel and the late Che.

Me, I looked to Spain as one of my main examples of what a communist was supposed to be. I hadn't ever been to Spain and didn't really want to go while Franco was governing, but I read a lot about it. The Republic of 1931-36 liberated people in ways that were worth fighting for, I believed -- and still do. And the communists were the strongest and most effective force for defending it, I believed -- though now I see it was all much more complicated. The book that my colleague Baltasar Lotroyo has just reviewed on our companion, Spanish-language website Lecturas y Lectores, tells us much about the enormous strengths and fatal weakness of the Spanish Communist Party and, I think, of Communist Parties everywhere. (See review of La voz dormida.) The main weaknesses have always been corollaries to its "democratic centralism," the rigidity of its line and resistance to self-criticism and insistence on obedience, which made it vulnerable to the great Stalinist distortion. But the strengths are also real: the courage and persistence of its members in pursuing ideals that still seem worthwhile. Those strengths, and the party's tough history of resistance during the Franco years, have kept the party alive in Spain while it has virtually died everywhere else in Europe.

In '68 and the years following, I steered clear of the Maoists and stayed skeptical of the Trots, and channeled my political energies into setting up an SDS chapter on campus that agitated against the war (Vietnam in those days) and around local civil rights issues like integrating the public schools. And I'm still trying to figure out how to be the kind of communist I've always admired, the kind who makes cultural and economic liberation possible but doesn't accept democratic centralism.

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