Lamenting the lost spirit of 68
‘ WE want structures that serve people, not people that serve structures!’’ ‘‘ The revolution doesn’t belong to the committees. It’s yours!’’ ‘‘ The boss needs you. You don’t need him!’’ ‘‘ This concerns everyone!’’
No, not the slogans of the Occupy movement — the self-styled 99 per cent — but those of a previous uprising: France 1968, when students and workers took to the streets to protest against the old order.
The established order remained intact, but for many on the Left 1968 remains a talismanic date, standing not just for political revolution but for social revolution too, for sexual, chemical and musical experimentation.
As the British historian Timothy Garton Ash has noted, it even has prophetic properties. Rotate 68 through 180 degrees and you get the number associated with the next great uprising of the 20th century: 89, communism’s annus horribilis.
Born in Sydney in 1932, Sylvia Lawson is perhaps a little old to consider herself a true ‘‘ sixty-eighter’’. Nevertheless, her excellent book Demanding the Impossible is suffused with the spirit of 68 or, as she calls it, ‘‘ that wild democracy’’.
Indeed, it even takes its title from another slogan from that year of upheaval: ‘‘ Get real — demand the impossible!’’
Subtitled Seven Essays on Resistance, Lawson’s book is a meditation on the varieties of political activism and journalistic and artistic endeavour that make up the spirit of resistance. The essays venture far and wide: to Alice Springs, where the Aboriginal community struggles to cope with yet another set of regulations imposed by Canberra; back to wartime France, where Resistance heroes such as Jean Moulin and Germaine Tillion fight against the Nazi occupation; to East Timor, where the Balibo Five are cut down by Indonesian soldiers and where Australia’s ambassador Richard Woolcott pursues a policy of Kissingerian pragmatism, which is to say Kissingerian cynicism. In the final essay, Lawson juxtaposes France in 1968 and Australia in 2011. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she finds the latter deficient in revolutionary elan.
There is a strong note of elegy in Demanding the Impossible. At a number of points throughout the book, Lawson gives us a fictionalised account of what I’m sure is her own relationship with a group of older, unnamed women. These femmes d’un certain age (as she describes them) function as a kind of chorus commenting on the state of