“Demand the impossible”: what the left should learn from 1968

The legacy of 1968 is about the future of a united Europe and the left.

An Occupy Wall Street protest march in New York in 2011.
An Occupy Wall Street protest march in New York in 2011. Image: Blaine O’Neill (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In order to understand the legacy of 1968, we have to first consider its differing meanings for the west and east of Europe. For the west, May 1968 remains a symbol of liberation and rebellion against entrenched power structures and a landmark cultural moment. But in eastern Europe it is associated with the Prague Spring and Soviet military invasion of Czechoslovakia. On the fiftieth anniversary of 1968, this split continues to define political and cultural divides across the continent. Today, Europe is being confronted by many challenges: the refugee crisis, Brexit, terror attacks, the rise of far-right populism, and conflicts in the east and the Middle East. All of which confront us with the most burning questions: How can we sustain freedom and human rights when the state and international cooperation fall short? What could a new and just solidarity look like?

Nation states are behaving like gated communities.

Europe is not just facing problems, it is also part of the problem. But if we are to counter right-wing populism, first we need a European political coalition brave enough to be critical of the European Union. As one of the leaders of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) youth organisation said at its party congress in June: “The European Union must die so that Europe can live.” By not addressing the EU’s failings, the left has allowed the right and far right to fill the vacuum. We are still defending the present political status quo when this status quo itself has to be questioned.

The dominant type of EU governance today is externalising problems beyond Europe’s borders, pushing conflicts to the outside to keep the interior safe. As a result of this strategy of bordering conflicts and punishing the peripheries for the Union’s own crisis, we are observing the return of the repressed – the EU is actually surrounded by a belt of wars in its south and east, unavoidably accompanied with an influx of migrants fleeing conflict. The logic of borders is being multiplied inside what was supposed to be a borderless zone; a new European tribalism is on the rise defining the political agenda. Nation states are behaving like gated communities and migrants are being used as scapegoats for problems that predate their arrival.

It’s time we acknowledged the sacred cow of the present state of affairs: liberal democracy. 

It’s time we acknowledged the sacred cow of the present state of affairs: liberal democracy. Isn’t it symptomatic that a common negative signifier of all the political trends that we usually dislike or are frightened with is called “illiberalism” today? The only ideological name liberalism is able to find for its political opponents or enemies is simply “non-liberal” – as if the political spectrum solely contains something that is liberal, and “the rest”, which is not. What a reduced perception and lowered horizon of politics dominate nowadays! Democracy itself has entered a populist modus operandi which conceals political alternatives. 

Whenever we face ideological polarisation, discontent, fear or anger, our typical strategy today is to go back to the “norm”, to the political center that can save us from the extremes. That was, in particular, a recipe of Macron’s success, billed as the “great savior” of Europe, an anti-populist populist proposing “an alternative” from the heart of the establishment. But the root of the problem does not actually lie in the extremes, it is in the center. A populist extreme is a result of the political center’s inability to deal with inequality. The reason why the AfD could unprecedentedly enter the German Bundestag is not because of the country’s strategy of accepting migrants has backfired, as many commentators have come to assume. But because of the political center’s post-ideological “gut und gerne leben” (“live well and happy”) agenda, to quote from Merkel’s famous electoral slogan in 2017. If there is no alternative, one will get Alternative (for Germany).

The left has abandoned utopia – and now the far-right have become the visionaries proposing a dystopian future.

Politics is foremost about dissensus, and the center is currently able to propose only a “non-ideological” “neutral” consensus, with all dissensus and critique taken up by right-wingers. After 1968, we have observed a striking crash of the left. First, it abandoned the working class, then the proletarised middle class. Ultimately, the left has abandoned the people, populus as such – and now it is the far-right who claim to speak “in the name of the people”. The left has abandoned utopia – and now the far-right have become the visionaries proposing a dystopian future. The extreme right has learned lessons from the left, and is even trying now to create a kind of nationalist International. Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon is attempting to unite Europe’s far-right populists by the European Parliament elections in 2019 on the basis of an organisation in Brussels called The Movement (sic!).

The basic political lesson to be drawn from the 20th century for the left today is that it’s over. There is no recipe from the past to follow, we have to formulate new responses to the challenges of today. But what unites the revolt of 1968 and the recent “square movements” throughout the globe is that the political action in both cases took the form of occupying the public space. The problem, then as now, is the lack of a longer term vision for taking power. 

Any progressive movement would do well to remember the famous motto of the Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation: “Be prepared! – Always prepared!” The problem today is that the far-right is getting ready and the left is not. Realpolitik is conducted not on the squares, but by organised structures and institutions after the revolution. The very notion of revolution has been fetishised, which overlooks that hard-won victories can be reversed without a proper political structure to implement its agenda and incorporate it into society.

At a time when authoritarian and fascizoid pathologies are cynically pretending to be the new norm, what we need is not a pseudo-liberal “balanced objectivity” – which is not just simplistic but also harmful – but a new political subjectivity. The great value of the notion of subjectivity – both in philosophical and political terms – is that by employing it we also are immediately reinstating and emphasising the existence of truth. We live today not in the post-truth world but in the pre-truth world – in a world where truth has not arrived yet. And truth is not only concrete, as Hegel put it, but also always partisan and subjective. There is no other genuine politics than the politics of truth.

The only realistic political strategy is indeed to demand the impossible.

If there is any basic political principle necessary to follow today, it is the most famous slogan of May 1968 – “Be realistic – demand the impossible!” The most dominant ideology at present is a fusion of neoliberalism, austerity and nationalistic hatred. Militarism, xenophobia, social and economic discrimination, isolationism, impoverishment are not just possible, they are welcomed. While welfare, affordable housing, living wages, free healthcare are deemed “unrealistic”.

The boundaries of the possible have radically shifted, and what was hard to predict even a decade ago – wars in Ukraine and Syria, ISIS, extreme right-wing populism on such a scale, Brexit, Trump – became not just possible, but normalised. In such difficult political times, it’s not enough to defend what little we have, hoping for moderate reforms. On the contrary, reforming the existing system is becoming harder and harder to the point where a complete transformation may be more feasible.

That’s why the only realistic political strategy is indeed to demand the impossible. In other words, the impossible is a disruption, in which politics becomes possible. If we don’t demand the impossible, we will lose what seems to be still possible today.

Vasyl Cherepanyn is head of the Visual Culture Research Center, Kyiv and curator of The Kyiv International – ’68 NOW project




Related Articles