Jasiewicz on Konarzewska and Nakai and Przeperski, 'Unsettled 1968 in the Troubled Present: Revisiting the 50 Years of Discussions from East and Central Europe'

Aleksandra Konarzewska, Anna Nakai, Michał Przeperski, eds.
Krzysztof Jasiewicz

Aleksandra Konarzewska, Anna Nakai, Michał Przeperski, eds. Unsettled 1968 in the Troubled Present: Revisiting the 50 Years of Discussions from East and Central Europe. Routledge Studies in Modern History Series. London: Routledge, 2020. 244 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-367-22085-3; $48.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-03-208795-5.

Reviewed by Krzysztof Jasiewicz (Washington and Lee University) Published on H-Poland (October, 2021) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56195

There is something eerie in reading a series of fine essays about events that more than anything else shaped your Weltanschauung if these essays were composed by authors who had been born years if not decades after these events took place. It is eerie to realize that what for you is your personal history has become a subject of research by professional historians separated from those times by a generation or two. Indeed, the short bios of the fourteen contributors to this volume indicate that they are all junior scholars, about half of that number being still doctoral students at the time of the book’s publication. Only the short essay concluding the volume was penned by a true 68-er, Irena Grudzińska-Gross, unlisted among the contributors perhaps because she is universally known as one of the leaders of the Polish 1968 movement and a prominent member of this generation active in politics and intellectual debates, East and West, ever since.

Eerie as it might be, it is also a refreshing and stimulating experience. Each essay is a fine piece of scholarship in its own right. Their topics and the subdisciplines they represent vary greatly, from political and intellectual history to history of art and historical memories studies. Anybody interested in reflections on 1968 will find something enjoyable here; some, like me, may enjoy everything. But the book’s scope and the variety of addressed themes, its obvious strengths, also have their downside. As is the case of any collected volume, its editors had to struggle to achieve a certain degree of consistency of the intended message, to make the collection something more than a mere sum of its parts. They managed to accomplish it at the level of each of the four parts of which the volume is composed rather than at the level of the whole thing.

In their introduction, “1968: Myth and Impact,” Aleksandra Konarzewska and Michał Przeperski declare that “the point of departure of the following volume is, partly, Marxism understood as a worldwide political agenda that required a correspondence between thought and practice” (p. 2). It is a surprising vantage point for analysis of 1968, the year perceived by many as synonymous with the end of Marxist utopia. Yet the authors are prudent enough to insert the word “partly.” Marxism, mostly in its unorthodox renditions, features only in a few essays in parts 1 and 2.

Each part is composed of three essays. Part 1, “1968 and Transnationality,” opens with two essays on countries that were not in the focus of the world’s attention when the events of 1968 unfolded, Yugoslavia and Hungary. The piece on Yugoslavia, written by Una Blagojević, is titled “Worlds of Praxis: 1968, Intellectuals, and an Island in the Yugoslav Adriatic.” The mysterious island in the title is Korčula, which in August 1968 hosted a summer school organized by the milieu of the Ljubljana-based journal Praxis. What a gathering it was: among its participants from the West, there were Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, Ernst Bloch, Lucien Goldman, and Tom Bottomore, to name but a few, in addition to the guests from Hungary and the Yugoslav hosts. And what a time it was: a few months after the events in Poland and France, and coinciding not so much with the Prague Spring as with its abrupt end—the Soviet intervention. The discussions focused on the role of Marxism in the West and the Soviet-dominated East, Marxism as an effective tool to expose the ills of the former and a platform to reform socialism in the latter. But, as Blagojević demonstrates, they also exposed the lack of understanding by these great minds of the historical character of the ongoing student revolts. Maybe it was too early for anybody to grasp the revolutionary character of the events. They talked a lot about “revolution” in theoretical terms, but condemning the expulsion of the Polish professors from Warsaw University, they failed to show any concern for the Polish students. Blagojević does not address this issue, but they also seemed detached from upheavals happening at the time in the host country (see Hrvoje Klasic’s Jugoslavija i svijet 1968 [2012]).

Adrian-George Matus’s essay on Hungary is aptly titled “‘The Long 1968’ in Hungary and Its Legacy.” Indeed, 1968 can hardly be considered a climax or a turning point of any social or political developments there. Yet, in terms of Marxism-based criticisms of János Kádár's “goulash socialism” and the Soviet system in general, a lot was going on in Hungary in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Matus focuses his narrative on two groups of Marxist rebels. One has been sometimes affectionately referred to as “Lukács’s grandchildren” (Matus does not use this term) as György Lukács was their mentor and his philosophy their inspiration. Its most prominent members were Ágnes Heller, György and Maria Márkus (all three were participants of the 1968 Korčula summer school), Ferenc Fehér, András Hegedüs, and Iván Szelényi. Their politically sharp and intellectually sophisticated criticism was too much to bear for the regime, and, by 1975, most of them were forced to emigrate. The 1983 book by Fehér, Heller, and György Márkus, The Dictatorship over Needs: An Analysis of Soviet Societies, till today remains one of the most insightful—and the most underappreciated—statements on the nature of Soviet-type communism. The other group, called by Matus Hungarian Maoists, was composed of younger people, mostly students at the time. They faced harsh persecution by the regime. From this group came Miklós Haraszti, one of the founding members of the Hungarian democratic opposition in the late 1970s, who rose to prominence in Hungarian politics and international organizations after 1989.

The third essay of part 1, “The Anti-political Vision: Post-1968 Theories of Dissent in Central Europe and Beyond,” by Szabolcs László, shifts the reader’s attention to Czechoslovakia and Poland, without moving away from Hungary. It is a critical comparative analysis of three key programmatic statements generated from within the ranks of democratic opposition in the years following 1968: Václav Havel’s Power of the Powerless (1979), Adam Michnik’s “The New Evolutionism” (1977), and György Konrád’s Antipolitics: An Essay (1984). László, without neglecting the differences among the three writers, focuses on what their statements have in common: the questioning (and eventual rejection) of “politics as usual” as a tool of resistance against post-totalitarian communist regimes in Central Europe, in favor of “antipolitics,” civil disobedience, and grassroots movements not so much confronting authoritarian structures of power as expanding the pockets of freedom. László introduces a comparison across the Iron Curtain, recalling similar ideas of Western thinkers, among them Marcuse and Ivan Illich. But one cannot speak here about inspiration, be it mutual or only one-way; at the very best, it is only a parallel. Western anarchism was directed against the shortcomings of pluralist democracy, Eastern neo-evolutionism against authoritarian dictatorships. Contrary to the author’s claim of “transnational interconnectedness that cut across disciplines, political camps, borders, and the Iron Curtain,” we still lack proof of common roots or common outcomes (p. 53).

Part 2, “1968 and the Transformation of Meanings,” opens with a brilliant essay by Victoria Harms, “The Sixties and the Historian: Eric Hobsbawm and Tony Judt.” This is indeed a perfect choice of protagonists. Even if coming from different generations (Hobsbawm being thirty-one years older than Judt), they had a lot in common, as Harms demonstrates. She rightly sees most of these similarities as superficial but emphasizes the two that matter here: both were men of the Left (though Hobsbawm was a pretty hard-core Marxist, while Judt’s leftism was exceedingly unorthodox) and both expressed “particular scorn for the protests, the student rebels, and the academic ‘fashions’ that the sixties inspired” (p. 60). In Hobsbawm’s case this attitude is hardly surprising: for a Marxist like himself, the only true agent of social change could be the working class, the proletariat; one cannot speak of a revolution, if it does not lead to a change of socioeconomic formation. If, like Michnik in his “New Evolutionism” notes, 1968 meant the end of hopes for Marxist revisionism becoming the basis for a reform of socialist system, Hobsbawm’s reasoning reveals the impotence of orthodox Marxism in analyses of post-industrial societies. In contrast, Judt’s case is both simpler and more complex. Simpler, because his criticism of 1968 and its legacies seems to be rooted in his, constantly demonstrated, contrarian attitude: if anybody in my milieu is for it, I must be against it. Complex, because his criticism is often insightful and right on target. He seemed to be able to grasp, as few others in the West did, the meaning of the anti-authoritarian strain in Polish and Czechoslovak rebellions and to reflect on the reasons why the 68-ers (his generation) rebelled against their parents’ ideas and social order in the West.

The remaining two essays in part 2 are devoted to analyses of post-1968 developments in two Western nations: West Germany (Adrian Chubb’s “In Search of Public Sphere pluralism in 1960s West Germany”) and Italy (Bartosz Gromko’s “The Events of 1968 in the Eastern Bloc and the Italian Left”). Both are rich in detail; both provide insights into areas that conventional wisdom considers national specificities: abstract philosophical theorizing in Germany and political quarrels within the Italian Left. Chubb discusses debates on Habermas’s 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, that ensued after 1968. They often led to the not-so-abstract conclusions that the public sphere ought to be open to underprivileged social groups, to expand beyond white males who, before and after Marx, have held the monopoly on interpreting the world. In turn, in Gromko’s report one can find a full confirmation of prevailing stereotypes: among the Italian Left (and, arguably, in Italian politics in general), one can find a variety of positions that is driven more by the multiplicity of actors and their mutual animosities than by any in-depth assessment of substantive matters in question. The Italian Left did not speak of the 1968 events in the Soviet Bloc in sotto voce, but it did not speak in unison either.

Part 3, “Artistic Representations of 1968,” is truly original and refreshing. Contrary to readers’ likely intuitions, it is not devoted to works of art (novels, films, plays) that portray the events of 1968 (and there are quite a few, from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being [1984] to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers [2003]) but, in one case, to a non-artistic testimony by a writer, and, in the other two, to films that reflected a post-1968 social climate in the East. The very title of Anna Nakai’s essay, “Behind the Scenes of Broadcasting March 1968: Radio Free Europe and Its Internal Disputes over the Defector Henryk Grynberg,” summarizes the story. Grynberg, a Polish-Jewish writer and also an actor in Warsaw’s Jewish Theater, “chose freedom” during the theater’s ensemble tour of the United States in the fall of 1967. A man of broad knowledge and strong judgments, he had quite interesting stories to tell about the context of developments in Poland that culminated in March 1968. The obvious place to broadcast his stories back to Poland was Radio Free Europe, yet the cooperation between the writer and the station did not last long. The decision-makers could not agree with each other on what should be broadcast and when and how, due to the rapidly changing situation in Poland and their concern for the well-being of individuals Grynberg would mention in his stories. In sum, however, this well-researched and well-written chapter tells us more about the bureaucracy and politics of the Cold War propaganda machine than about any lasting legacies of 1968.

Nina Seiler, in her “Toxic Community: Incorporated Scripts, Bodily Resistance: Immunitarian Processes in the Comedy Rejs,” gives a penetrating analysis of the 1970 film Rejs (The Cruise). The film, directed by Marek Piwowski, with a cast of professional, semiprofessional, and totally nonprofessional actors, and, despite contributions by the writer Janusz Głowacki and Piwowski himself, a mostly improvised script, was, even with its very limited distribution, a huge hit in Polish theaters when released. Since, it has become a cult movie in the deepest sense of this cliché. As Seiler convincingly demonstrates, Piwowski exposed the dominant force of the behavioral patterns invented and imposed by the regime on the people who in consequence deprived characters portrayed in the movie of ability to act spontaneously in a situation that invites spontaneity—a leisurely trip on a boat. While circumstances allowed them to feel free, they labored to invent the ways to escape from freedom. A reference to unorthodox Marxism (the Gramscian concept of “hegemony”) would not be out of place here, but Seiler, mercifully, spares us any fancy referencing. If, despite all its technical shortcomings, Rejs has achieved the status not only of a cult movie but also of a classic of the Polish cinema, it was because of the universality of its message. For the 1968 generation, it was making a mockery of the communist system; for their children and grandchildren, it is making a mockery of whatever absurd they see in the world out there.

If Rejs is a mockery, the two films discussed by Marie Schwarz in her “Carnival and Utopia: Juraj Jakubisko’s Films and the Experience of 1968” are, in her words, “allegories.” I must rely on the author’s word, as I have not seen either Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans, and Fools) or Dovidenia v pekle, Priatelia! (See You in Hell, My Friends!), the two films the Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko made right after the Soviet intervention that ended the dreams of socialism with a human face. The former was released in 1969 but then banned by communist censors; the latter, which was almost finished in 1970, had to wait another twenty years for its completion and release. Both tell stories of relationships in small, intimate, family-like groups. In Birds, Orphans, and Fools, Schwarz sees an allegory of a utopian dream fading away; in See You in Hell, My Friends!, she sees an allegory of resistance against a totalitarian system. For both, 1968 is an obvious inspiration. While Schwarz does not avoid spoilers, her writing may convince readers to place each movie high on their films-to-watch-soon list.

The focus of the final part 4, “1968 and the European Contemporaneity,” remains on the three central European countries for which 1968 brought a traumatic experience, Poland and the two Czechoslovak successor states. Andrzej Czyżewski, in his essay “The Myths of March ’68: Conflicts of Memory in Contemporary Poland,” exposes the conundrum facing the current nationalist-populist-Catholic leadership of Poland, onto whose lap fell the responsibility for commemorations of the March events on their fiftieth anniversary. This regime has attempted to establish its foundational myth on anti-communist resistance by generations of Poles, from the “cursed soldiers” of the 1940s to the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. But in 1968 students who rebelled against the regime were led by individuals who, at the time, were people of the Left. Their ideas were rooted in Marxism; some of them were children of communist officials; many were of Jewish origin. These facts do not square at all with the right-wing ideology of Poland’s current rulers and their propagandists (who not only condemn communism wholesale but do not shy away from anti-Semitism either). So, as Czyżewski demonstrates, they attempted to “take March away from them” (Czyżewski cites here Irena Lasota, herself one of the leaders of the March events at Warsaw University, then an émigré, for years a harsh opponent of her former peers) (p. 168). Consequently, official celebrations were saturated with accusations that those who gained notoriety in March, like Adam Michnik or Jacek Kuroń, first struck a deal with the communists at the Round Table of 1989 and then usurped the leadership of Poland’s transformation to their own benefit, not the benefit of the people of Poland. Oddly, similar accusations have come from the Polish New Left, articulated however as criticism of the alleged betrayal by the 1968 generation of its leftist ideals in favor of a neoliberal approach to the economy and social policy (Czyżewski leaves this matter aside). Of all chapters in this book, this one comes the closest to demonstrating how the “unsettled 1968” is “reflected in the troubled present.”

While Czyżewski looks at the legacies of 1968 on a grand, national scale, Dmitry Bochkov, in his chapter on Czechia titled “The ‘Prague Spring’: From Cultural Memory to Personal Trauma?,” shifts the focus to the lowest, most intimate level—individual memories of 1968 as a traumatic experience. As the theoretical point of departure, he uses Jeffrey Alexander’s concept of “cultural trauma.” Alexander’s reflections on trauma as a factor shaping group consciousness and collective identity for years to come parallel closely Karl Mannheim’s analysis of a generation-forming role of historical events. Regrettably, neither Bochkov nor—to the best of my knowledge—Alexander cites Mannheim. I say regrettably because Mannheim’s concept of generation is extremely useful in analysis of the 1968 developments and their legacies. (To be fair, Mannheim is not absent from this book: his theory serves as the basis of Matus’s chapter on Hungary and is also mentioned by Czyżewski.) However, Bochkov exposes the generational gap between those who lived through 1968 as teenagers or young adults and their children and grandchildren, who could learn of the trauma only through the means of oral history (but not necessarily school textbooks: Bochkov’s interviewees complain that curriculum of history in Czech schools nowadays stops at World War II).

Also Dominik Želinský, in his “Freedom from, or in Socialism? The Prague Spring and the Trauma of the 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion in Slovak Political Discourse,” uses Alexander’s theory of cultural trauma to analyze how different current Slovak political actors construct their narratives of 1968, in particular of the Soviet intervention. He vividly demonstrates how different these Slovak narratives are from those that dominate among their Czech neighbors. Some, like Robert Fico, seem proud of Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, as the leading force in attempts to reform socialism. Others, though, perceive all these reforms as just a distant, Czech affair, and believe that Slovak contributions to them better be forgotten (after all, Gustav Husák was also a Slovak...).

In the short closing chapter, “1968 Again,” Grudzińska-Gross in her personal reflections of a 68-er argues in favor of the relevance of that year and the matters it symbolized to the contemporary world. As she says: “Yes, 1968 was great. And then it wasn’t” (p. 223). Indeed, this is the case. If so, 1968 and its legacies need to be studied. The book reviewed here is a perfect example of how such studies should be conducted. All chapters have solid grounding in theory. All are thoroughly researched and heavily referenced; all have long bibliographies appended. Regardless, they do not read as typical research papers but rather as essays, well written, insightful, thought provoking.

If the book does not deliver the reader full satisfaction, it is because of the breadth of the topic. Not all bases could be covered. It is a bit unfair to criticize the editors and authors for what the reader did not find in their book, but some reflections on the social and cultural background to the events of 1968 would certainly give it more depth. Why students, not the working class? Why in 1968, not a decade sooner or later? And why simultaneously in the West and in the East? As for the West, a plausible explanation was offered years ago by Ronald Inglehart in his analyses of what he called “the silent revolution” (see in particular Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society [1990]). The generation that came of age in the years following World War II, in peace and relative affluence, shifted away from their parents’ “materialist” values, focused on security (economic, personal, and international), to “post-materialist” values of self-expression, communal solidarity, and social justice. The shift, going on quietly in the background, erupted in 1968 with a big bang. The shift was the deepest among the middle class that sent its children, of the baby-boom cohort, to colleges some twenty-plus years—one generation—after World War II. One can find hints of such reasoning in Judt’s reflections cited by Harms, but Inglehart’s name is nowhere to be found in the book. Nor is there a fully satisfactory analysis of the similarities and differences between the West and the East, despite a few honest attempts toward this goal. Inglehart’s theory seemingly does not apply to the analysis of the situation in the East (no affluence, no sense of security). Or maybe it does, in a modified form? Was it also a generational rebellion, but here in the name of values that the parents’ generation preached (or at least believed in) but failed to realize? As I have put it elsewhere, “That the Polish March Events and the French May protests happened in 1968 is not a mere coincidence. Of course, it could have been 1967 or 1969; the point is that it happened when a new generation that was raised under circumstances different from those experienced by its parents was coming of age.”[1] Finally, we still do not know how—and if—1968 paved the way to today’s populism (a question posed in the introduction), but we can agree that “the unsettled 1968 is worth reconsidering through the prism of the troubled present” (p. 3).

It was an eerie experience to read and reflect on this book. Eerie, but worth every minute of it.


[1]. Krzysztof Jasiewicz, “Generation ’68 in Poland (with a Czechoslovak Comparative Perspective): Introduction,” East European Politics and Societies 33, no. 4 (2019): 830.

Citation: Krzysztof Jasiewicz. Review of Konarzewska, Aleksandra; Nakai, Anna; Przeperski, Michał, eds., Unsettled 1968 in the Troubled Present: Revisiting the 50 Years of Discussions from East and Central Europe. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56195

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