Hope, terror and youth rebellion

October 11, 2008

Looking back on the political movements of the '60s and '70s is now a fairly well trodden path in the form of fiction, history and memoirs alike.

Hari Kunzru's latest novel, My Revolutions, however, strikes refreshing new ground in that it is written not, as usual, by a participant in those turbulent times.

Instead it's written by a younger author assessing the disappointed dreams of a previous generation for a radically different, liberated world.

The tired, mainstream mythology around the '60s portray the period largely as a quaint revolution in lifestyle and fashion defined by long hair, rock and roll, drug use and the hippie subculture.

But the youth radicalisation of that era was first and foremost a genuine social upheaval. It gave birth to a series of powerful mass movements demanding women's equality, queer equality, racial equality and an end to the West's wars of aggression and conquest.

The modern environmental movement also originates from this time.

The lasting cultural influence of this radicalisation on Western society is often discussed. Modern music and art were changed for ever in a social environment that encouraged radical experimentation and breaking with past orthodoxies.

The youth movements of the period also prompted a break with the stifling social norms around sex, marriage and relationships inherited from the ultra-conservative 1950s.

Largely, the youth radicalisation in Europe, the US and Australia was a product of a wave of revolutions and anti-colonial struggles that swept the Third World following the end of the Second World War.

The revolutions in Cuba and Vietnam were an inspiration to tens of thousands of young radicals in the West. Many drew the conclusion that they needed a socialist revolution in their "own" country as well.

The big question, however, was exactly how could such a revolution be achieved in the relatively prosperous, advanced capitalist countries?

An answer to this burning question was never successfully found by the movement as a whole. The youth radicalisation began to decline without leaving a lasting mark in the party-political sphere. The Western revolutionary left grew in size but nowhere became a decisive political force with a mass base in the working class.

My Revolutions explores how a very small minority of those politicised in this time reverted to acts of individual terrorism to advance their political aims.

The central protagonist of the novel is Mike Frame — a fairly unremarkable middle aged man living an unobtrusive life with his entrepreneurial wife Miranda and his 19-year-old step-daughter Sam. But the quiet, underachieving Mike Frame is living a lie.

His real name is Chris Carver, one time member of a left-wing terrorist outfit active in England in the late '60s and early '70s.

Miranda and Sam are completely unaware about Mike's former life. Mike himself remains grimly determined to stay under the radar of the British police, while trying not to think too much about a past he now deeply regrets.

This focus makes My Revolutions quite a different book to US author Phillip Roth's classic novel American Pastoral, which is also set against a backdrop of the ultra-left terrorism of the early '70s.

Roth's work largely depicts a "tragedy of the parents": a generation whose ideas and family traditions are shaped by the Great Depression and war are simply unable to connect with or understand the seemingly irrational mood of defiance that has gripped their children.

Kunzru's novel, however, is more a "tragedy of the children": those fired with imagination of a more humane, egalitarian world but unequipped with the knowledge, experience or political theory to succeed.

The fragile life Mike seems to have salvaged for himself begins to unravel as he approaches his 50th birthday. While holidaying in the French countryside he is shocked to see Anna — his former lover and comrade in his old terrorist cell.

This group remains nameless throughout the novel but is clearly modelled on extreme ultra-left groups like the US Weathermen, the German Baader-Meinhof Group and especially England's Angry Brigade.

Mike had assumed Anna was long dead; shot by police decades ago after she was part of an armed assault on the West German embassy in Copenhagen. He now becomes convinced that Anna is still alive and, like him, leading a new half-life in hiding.

At the same time Miles, another old acquaintance from Mike's radical past, tracks him down. Miles has abandoned any pretence of holding the left-wing ideals of his youth. Now a cynical political operator and seasoned police informant, Miles plans to expose Mike in order to generate a political scandal and bring down a prominent British MP.

These events intersect with the story of Chris Carver and his political evolution from a young man genuinely horrified at the barbaric slaughter of the US war in Vietnam to a partisan of the foolhardy strategy of urban guerrilla warfare and the "propaganda of the deed".

Kunzru manages to depict the young Carver and his volatile comrades without demonising their genuinely selfless political motivations. But their self-defeating methods of struggle are held up to scrutiny in the course of the book. The group becomes totally isolated from the broader social movements.

Because they lacked confidence in the potential of the broader masses to make a revolution, the young radicals in My Revolutions concluded they had to substitute for the masses. The consequences are disastrous.

There is a clear subversive subtext to My Revolutions. The novel is set in 1998, three years before the September 11, 2001 attacks. This alone urges a rethink of the nature of terrorism and its causes in light of the blatant propaganda justifying wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a response to "pure evil".

As direly mistaken as it was, the political terrorism of the early '70s depicted by Kunzru is still very different to the Al Qaida attack on New York's twin towers. And both instances of terrorism are dwarfed by the horrendous record of at least 1 million dead in Iraq since the US-led invasion began in 2003.

Despite Mike Frame's many personal and political faults the author presents him in a sympathetic light. His flawed choices are held up against the selfish and cynical Miles — a character representative of the ex-radical "political type" who are very aware of the injustices of the system but have decided to just look out for themselves anyway.

Mike, by contrast, had never stopped hating the system, but ended up distrusting himself and his own ability to help make progressive change. And so he stopped political activity altogether.

In this specific way the character of Mike Frame shares something with the majority of those politicised in the struggles of the '60s and '70s who later dropped out of politics, disillusioned.

Missing from the cast of characters, however, is a single '60s radical who isn't either dead, depressed, has become politically conservative, or sold out completely. Of course there are those who have never abandoned their ideals and still devote their lives today to radical social change.

It is these kinds of life-long revolutionaries who the German poet Bertolt Brecht once called "the indispensable ones".

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