Promises of 1968: Crisis, Illusion, and Utopia

TitlePromises of 1968: Crisis, Illusion, and Utopia
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialed. Tismaneanu, Vladimir
PublisherBudapest: Central European University Press
ISBN Number978-615-5053-04-7
Publisher link
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Promises of 1968 combines a wide range of articles loosely arranged around the year 1968. With one exception, contributors are well-known scholars of East European communism. The volume is divided into three sections: “Picking up the pieces: 1968 between memory and theory”, “Lessons and legacies of 1968”, and “1968 in pieces: case studies of transformation.” The authors deconstruct the mythical aura surrounding 1968. Many deal with the year’s pre-histories and legacies “with the benefit of hindsight,” as editor Vladimir Tismaneanu asserts that one cannot make sense of 1989 without 1968 (8, 16-18). Tismaneanu’s introduction outlines the global significance of 1968 while simultaneously acknowledging local peculiarities. He integrates various claims and findings of subsequent articles, although in doing so, he glosses over important differences (e.g. Sołtan’s almost enthusiastic conclusion on p. 154 vs. Heller’s sober introduction on p. 157).

Some contributions will be highlighted here in order to illustrate the wide range of topics and approaches assembled in this volume. Prominent scholars such as Martin Palouš, Agnes Heller, Dick Howard, and Irina Grudzinska Gross share their personal recollections of the struggles in 1968 and 1989 against the communist “ancien régime” (Palouš). Grudzinska Gross puts forth an intriguing analysis of the anti-Semitic slurs against the Polish student movement, and the condescending designation of “spoiled children” for their Western counterparts. Tellingly, she only talks about “we” in quotation marks, thus acknowledging the possible partiality of her account. Heller’s and Palouš’ contributions are imbued in their role as dissident scholars, hence their presentations are fascinating examples of the formative influence of participant-academics on historical narratives (comp. also Jiři Pehe’s article in the same volume). 

Others scrutinize the political thought pervading the year of 1968. For example, Jan-Werner Müller focuses on the spokespersons of the New Left, such as Débord, Marcuse, Dutschke, Tronti, and Negri. He demonstrates their novel political thought in France, West Germany, Italy, and (to a lesser extent) Britain. He juxtaposes national peculiarities of the New Left with the increased disemination across borders. Paradoxically, although this national-international “thought in motion” keenly observed developments abroad, it adhered to domestic traditions (77). Thereafter, Jeffrey Isaac, expert on the Czech Charta 77 and self-described “Child of the Seventies”, outlines the impact of 1968 and the New Left on his own political formation and work as political theorist.

A large part of the volume is dedicated to legacies, memories, and twisted narratives that inextricably link the tumultuous years of 1968 and 1989. For instance, Jiři Pehe convincingly illustrates how on-going struggles over the Communist legacy in the Czech Republic have prevented an impartial, yet necessary historical (re)assessment of 1968. He argues that a clearer understanding of the Prague Spring, its brutal end, and its formative impact on later dissident groups such as Charta 77 and KOR would inform and resolve contemporary disputes over the Velvet Revolution. Considering the broader scope, Bradley Abrams pursues the legacy of ‘68 for the emerging dissident movements in Central Europe in general. Across the region, the August invasion convinced intellectuals that it was impossible to reform existing state Socialism. Often, human rights and environmental activism came to replace earlier Marxist convictions.
Nick Miller scrutinizes the long-term effects of 1968 in the case of Yugoslavia. He argues that although three distinct groups (the student movement, party critics, Albanian and Serbian nationalists) publicly criticized Tito’s regime in 1968, only the nationalists survived, and went on to force and exploit ethnic tensions.

Tismaneanu’s and Bogdan Iacob’s contribution deconstructs the myth of a courageous Ceausescu who openly confronted the Kremlin and asserted Romanian sovereignty in foreign affairs. Contrary to the manufactured “national-communist legend” of a momentous caesura, the authors illustrate continuities in the Conducator’s policies across 1968. His official condemnation of the Warsaw Pact invasion allowed Ceausescu to break with Soviet oversight and his deceased Stalinist predecessor, Gheorghiu-Dej. The authors demonstrate that this allegedly bold move catered to Ceausescu’s vain neo-Stalinist personality cult and consolidated his position as national-Communist leader.

Mark Kramer’s analysis of Czechoslovakia formidably lays out the numerous considerations and actors partaking in the decision to crush the Prague Spring. He brilliantly demonstrates the frantic discussions among Communist leaders and Politbureau members about the KSČ’s (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) reform during the spring of 1968. Kramer insists that the decision to invade was not Brezhnev’s alone. On the contrary, what is now known as the Brezhnev doctrine was a collective decision that sought to restore cohesion in the crisis-ridden Communist bloc.

While several articles include recent archival findings and novel approaches and offer excellent perspectives on 1968 and its legacies across Europe, a few critical remarks are due.  Karol E. Sołtan’s article on “The Divided Spirit of the Sixties” seems to privilege complex theorizing on a proposed “global civic awakening” since 1943 (!) over lucid and comprehensible arguments (131).  Likewise, Tereza Brînduşa-Palade’s insistence on the term “forma mentis” instead of the English equivalent “mentality” appears unnecessarily distracting. She bases her analysis of post-1968 Marxism on Lenin, Hannah Arendt, and Leszek Kołokowski, but curiously lacks a precise time frame and contextualization of their writings and changing reception. Furthermore, Arendt’s theories of totalitarianism from the 1950s continue to inform Palouš’ and Heller’s narratives on the entire Communist era , contrary to Pehe’s suggestion of a more nuanced view on four decades of real existing socialism.

Overall, readers should expect a rather Eurocentric view save a few references to North America and China, as the volume completely ignores Latin America and its significance for the New Left. Short overviews of 1968 country by country around the world can be found for instance in Gassert and Klimke’s 1968: Memories and Legacies of a Global Revolt, even though this publication lacks the integrative approach of this book (Gassert and Klimke 2008). Interestingly, the contributors disagree on the comparability of the Western and Eastern European experiences in 1968. Although Tismaneanu pointedly asserts the “multiplicity of historical experiences” in 1968 (14), among the participant-scholars only Grudzinska Gross acknowledges the limitations of her experience. Moreover, Aurelian Craiutu’s eulogy of Raymond Aron’s analytical skills and moral integrity is representative for the authors’ overall preference for Aron at the expense of Jean-Paul Sartre who barely receives any attention. A more effective historical contextualization of Aron’s views would have illustrated his unpopularity at the time, and would have successfully integrated scholarly analysis with subjective experience. For instance, although Tony Judt recalls his reservations against Aron in 1968, today he is remembered as an expert on French and particularly Aron’s philosophy.[1]

Were it not for the conclusion, Jeffrey Herf’s accurate analysis of the Red Army Faction’s skewed worldview and anti-Semitism in the 1970s readers might walk away with the impression that all of West Germany’s students in 1968 were reluctant to face their country’s Nazi past. However, in this very volume, Charles Maier urges caution concerning similar controversial generalizations made by Götz Aly in Unser Kampf 1968 (Aly 2008).

An additional weakness of the book is its tripartite organization, which serves merely as a rough guide, leaving the reader wondering about the categorization of some articles. It also may have been wiser to re-order the sections, introducing the reader to the case-studies first and then moving on to the recollections and legacies of 1968, and lastly to theoretical considerations. Despite these weaknesses, this volume is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about 1968. But readers should not expect a uniform interpretation. On the contrary, this collection engages with continuing controversies. The overall high quality of contributions and the authors’ expertise makes this an informative and challenging addition to existing scholarship on 1968.


Victoria Harms

University of Pittsburgh



Selected Bibliography:

Aly, Götz. Unser Kampf, 1968 – ein irritierter Blick zurück. [Our Struggle: A Troubled Look Back] Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2008.

Gassert, Philipp and M. Klimke (eds). 1968: Memories and Legacies of a Global Revolt. Bulletin of the German Historical Institute. Washington D.C.: GHI, 2008.

Judt, Tony. The Memory Chalet. New York: Penguin, 2010.



[1] Tony Judt (who later produced excellent work on Aron) recalls: “At the time, I thought Aron unfairly dismissive – his dyspepsia prompted by the sycophantic enthusiasm of some of his fellow professors, swept off their feet by the vapid utopian clichés of their attractive young charges and desperate to join them.” The Memory Chalet (New York: Penguin, 2010):122.