Third World Orphans of Counterculture and Revolution: comparing 1967 to now

by Arturo Desimone. (July 4 2011)

New student-activist cultures in the Western societies often recall their predecessors, the student counterculture of 1968. They inevitably remind the public they aim to mobilize of such nostalgia for the 60s and 70s  reformists—whose efforts despite their eccentricity and psychedelic pleasure-seeking, secured progressive policies, tolerant mindsets and rights the West offers today as luxury commodity-catalogs. But there is a crucial difference with the current emerging, still evolving ranks of demonstrators: the children of Third World exiles who found harbor in Europe thanks to the 1970s lobbyists are among these awakening students, and have a different historical memory than non-immigrants.

In recent years student movements in Europe upped their militancy, at times suprising managers of the educational system—for example last year when 200.000 British students marched against anti-education budget cuts. Comparisons have been made to the 1970s and 60s, claiming the countercultural spirit of 1968 is reborn, or that a current generation of wannabes and imitators want to reembody this historical Zeitgeist, recalling  psychedelic movements rhetoric of Western buddhist beliefs in reincarnation. These comparisons can even be in the form of a sardonic or ridiculing tone: “Stop being so 1968!”

Current student movements certainly take  inspiration from the 70s that varied between heroism and over-indulgent new avant garde forms of consumeristic expressionism. These new rebel hordes have yet to match their ancestors in massive impact and cultural reform. There are nonetheless factors that put 21st century student activists in a different identity crisis than the mostly native-European “baby boomers” of 1968: Europe is ethnically much more diverse, especially in its younger generations. Third and second generation immigrants from the poorer decolonized countries, or “New Europeans,” may take after the counterculture but are also inspired by revolutions of their ancestral ex-colonial provinces, and have other motivations besides these in their foreign baggage. Today’s left-leaning  might often not notice that during 1968 there was arguably a Cold War within the Cold War Left in the sometimes ambiguous and uneasy alliances between Third World revolutions and the Western Countercultural dissidents who represented the former from inside the established.

An emerging student activist culture in the Netherlands—at times devoted, serious yet weak compared to movements now in Bologna and the UK—began largely as resistance against the current right wing Dutch governemnt (CDA-VVD) and its satellite Freedom Party of notorious rightist-makes-mightist Geert Wilders (PVV.) The  Christian Democratic Alliance’s (CDA) front-evangelofascist Verhagen has been responsible for many new, harsh policies such as fining students who take longer than 2-3 years to attain their bachelors a fine of 3000 euros annually, even if the reason for being tardy is a severe GP or shrink doctor-confirmed handicap.

Verhagen studied during the 1970s. He took 11 years over his bachelors.[1] This was a time when higher education in its traditional role—( a production system for knowledge, preparing young adults of the elites with information and mental articulation necessary to inherit the profession of coordinating society)—was paralyzed.

The factor paralyzing the Cold War institutions of higher education was largely the counterculture and leftist-activist cultures among students, who carried out strikes and used the unis to lobby for their own new taboo-breaking lifestyles, and to donate solidarity to the revolutionary self-determination movements in the Third World—to Fanon’s Algeria, Castro’s Cuba and Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam. The third world targets of European youth counterculture’s solidarity were not by any means Southern counterculture movements. Third World ist revolutionaries did not as much seek reform or press for lifestyle rights within the dominant institutions, and they did not go into the jungles carrying kalashnikovs in order to tune in, turn on and drop out—at least this was not their official ideological line, though some of the recruits may  have preferred life in the jungle to ordinary society and may have there engaged in LSD, or listened to Jimi Hendrix while making love.  Generally the revolutionaries simply wanted to abolish all hierarchies of feudal, colonial and capitalistic society without trying to integrate and recondition the oppressors.

Arguably the countercultural movement, though it was in uneasy alliance with the peoples resisting in the global South, imagined and projected itself as having much more in common with the revolutionary oppressed.  [2] But  the countercultures of the 1960s and 70s that dominated European higher education was of a different path than that of guerillas in the Vietnamese and Cuban wildernesses.[3] Their concern ranged more from individual to cultic lifestyle reform and exploration of liberties that were available yet labelled as inaccessible by the reactionary authority of the parental nuclear family regime.

Many children and grandchildren of the third world revolutionary generations who emigrated to the West, now study in Western European institutions. These Westernized students are often not fully aware that the 1968-type counterculture was a first-world, intra-status-quo reform movement radically different from the revolutionary anti-colonial social revolutions that embodied the hope of the families of immgrated and exiled parents.

The children of Third World ex-revolutionary societies, when taking up activism here are often look for inspiration to the West’s 1968 movements of these establishmentarian-reformist counterculture revolutions, emulating nostalgic, passé white  rebels who were then nonetheless a courageous pioneering minority among the West’s students then. Ironic, because the reason that may have motivated their admiration of counterculture includes the social consciousness they inherited from the world of their parents and grandparents in the old country, and their admiration for the history of Third World struggles that are a direct heritage they know they are indebted to for their right to live. The nostalgia of ancestors’ heroic liberation struggle can often become an oppressive liturgical narrative in the families of some younger so-called “New Europeans” or in-between people, which are maybe better identified as washed up cosmopolitans in an increasingly provincial European Union.

The newer, emerging social movements among students and other youth must decide what to take and abandon from both these influences. They are not in the position to experiment on the frontier of avant garde exotic consumerism of the counterculture, knowing where it led to; but nor can they become armed guerillas in the rural wilderness—at least not as long as they are in Europe, where there are few or no forests left.

They cannot aim to be rural guerillas if they decide to re-patriate to the ancestral countries either: the recent Tunisian rebellion in January 17 showed what was in their time and territory a more interesting method than Guevaraist and Maoist applied theories of violence—sadly the enthusiasm for parliamentary democracy and naivete about Western interests in regime-change led to the tragic disappointment of an otherwise noble popular revolt.

Young European citizens who are orphans of third world revolutions will have to realize they need make the necessary step, of turning their student movement into more than a group protesting cuts that mostly directly impact student life. Instead they have to be what student movements historically were: anti-war movements, movements of solidarity and overall social consciousness.[4]

Perhaps the gift and advantage of students who are the second generation immigrant children of Third World intellectuals, is that they will lack the patronizing mentality that characterized Sartre and his disciples among the European students.[5]

When emerging student activists in Europe make the necessary shift of expanding their movements opposing education cuts into corresponding anti-war movements, those activists who are conscious of their roots in third world revolutions can reach out to people in places like Libya with a non-condescending solidarity—a solidarity that is not a disguised form of charity from Western philanthropists who pretend they understand the wants of the formerly colonized. [i] These activists will at least be able to put their friends and comrades in perspective when the latter compare the sit-ins of Occupy movements to the Arab revolutions. Recent Arab revolts were crushed by tanks, armies, the G8 and intelligence agencies. Occupy movements fall when their own members betray the group and sell out to the local mayor and to corporate sponsors.

[1] Telegraaf article Rutte en Verhagen langstudeerders

[2] Arianne Mantel 29 nov 2010

[3] see  Suri, Jeremi  The Rise and Fall of an International Counterculture, 1960–1975American Historical Review, 2009 –  “The international counterculture was, in fact, complicit in many of the elements of society that it criticized. It was not a call for revolution, despite its rhetoric, as much as it was a movement for rapid and personal reform within existing social and political structures”(…) “In this context one must, however, distinguish the counterculture from various other resistance movements. Many citizens residing in colonial and postcolonial territories had long opposed the great power politics that, in their eyes, contributed to imperial domination over their societies. Nationalist leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam were not part of the counterculture because they never accepted the basic institutions that were connected to it.

[4] (These existed throughout the world then, from anti-neoliberal students in Argentina to the anti-communists Czech Republic, students in France in solidarity with anti-colonials in Algeria, from Birzeit fighters against oppression in Palestine to even students following the anti-torture acitivist Yehashayu Leibowitz in fearsome Israel.)

[5] dissidents who gave their solidarity to Iranian Ayatollahs, Third World Maoists, and PLO liquidations of Israeli athletes in Munich as if these were the highest and only possible intelligent expression of Third World revolution to lobby for. These same European intellectuals wisely vied for secular existentialism and left-wing-humanist individualism for their own societies.