Lament­ing the lost spirit of 68

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

‘ 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

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