A Tale of Two Utopias

Phil Leggiere reviews Paul Berman's book "A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968".

Published July 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

There's certainly no dearth of accounts of the 1960s, written from wildy diverse perspectives, grinding a host of ideological axes. Like a television re-run in endless syndication -- melodrama, comedy, farce or tragedy, take your pick -- the '60s live on, their legacy fodder for very '90s-style culture wars.

Most of these accounts are content to recycle stock images from collective memory. Rare is the history that views the '60s in exacting relation to what came before and what has followed. Rarer still is one that can critically reconstruct the consciousness of the time. In his new book "A Tale of Two Utopias," social critic Paul Berman attempts to fill that gap by delivering an eclectic and often absorbing analysis of the international student New Left. Prolix and often unwieldy in its ambitiousness, "A Tale of Two Utopias" is not the place to go if you're looking for a light and lively narrative history, a 1960s complement to, say, David Halberstam's "The Fifties." Despite its focus on the white youth rebellions of the era, it's not really the place to find a comprehensive treatment of the anti-war movement, rock culture or "sexual revolution" either.

What Berman does offer is a probing, if occasionally ponderous, meditation on the intellectual zeitgeist behind the insurgencies and near revolutions of 1968 (utopian moment number 1). And he speculates on that moment's influence on the wave of real revolutions (utopian moment number 2) in Eastern Europe in 1989. The ferment of 1968 was, according to Berman, the product of "a revolutionary exhilaration," inimical in spirit to "settled doctrinal orthodoxies and national boundaries." Berman attempts to evoke this evanescent spirit and to analyze its later manifestations in such phenomena as the Gay Liberation movement, the "New Social History," the Sandinistas, the works of Francis ("The End of History") Fukuyama, French "post-Marxist" philosopher Andre Glucksman and the political alliance of Frank Zappa and Vaclav Havel.

Berman's literary gifts, however, are rarely as impressive as his talents as a historian and theorist. "A Tale of Utopias" is an intermittently brilliant work -- the critique of Fukuyama's work is particularly fine -- that forces readers to wade through some unnecessarily choppy and academic prose.

By Phil Leggiere

Phil Leggiere is a cultural critic living in Hoboken, NJ.

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