Berman's 'Utopias': boomers left and right

June 30, 1996|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

"A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968" by Paul Berman. 352 pages. W. W. Norton. $24.

Here is Paul Berman's political journey in a nutshell: He started out as a member of SDS and ended up writing for the New Yorker. To be sure, the New Yorker met him halfway - the magazine that once published James Thurber now favors such trendy types as Berman and Henry Louis Gates - but his success in establishing himself as a public intellectual has not come at the expense of his political convictions, or his thoughtfulness.

At a time when left-wing political discourse in America has mostly degenerated into the frenzied writhings of a dying dinosaur, Berman has emerged as one of a handful of morally serious cultural commentators on the left. It is this seriousness that makes "A Tale of Two Utopias" one of the most provocative books yet written about the 1960s.

Much of the provocativeness of "A Tale of Two Utopias" arises from its complexity: It is easy to read but difficult to summarize, save by oversimplification.

To put it as concisely as possible, Berman contends that the student movements of the 1960s, both here and in Europe, sought to restore to left-wing politics the utopian idealism that was burned out of the democratic socialists of an earlier &L generation by their battles with Stalinism - and that the collapse of the New Left was due precisely to its failure to guard against the same totalitarian temptation to which so many of the leftists of the '30s succumbed.

"The students," Berman recalls ruefully, "were, almost everywhere, militantly anti-intellectual; yet they had outfitted themselves with a worldview that existed nowhere but in books. They were energetic; and blind. They had aimed for the future and had hit the 19th century, and nothing was left to guide them except the cult of the will... By 1972 or 1973 the movement was gone. Nothing remained but ashes and embers and several million people in a daze."

Berman's mistake is in assuming the generation of 1968 to have been all of a piece, an error symbolized by the title of his second chapter, "The Moral History of the Baby Boom Generation." In fact, "A Tale of Two Utopias" tells the story not of the whole baby-boom generation, but of certain baby boomers (including Berman himself) who went to certain colleges and universities, there to undergo an "agony of conscience and idealism" and be swept up into a vain fantasy of revolutionary reform.

What he neglects to mention is that the political odyssey of the majority of his fellow baby boomers has been, broadly speaking, rightward, as is clear from looking at who voted for whom in every major election since 1964.

The truth, of course, is that most boomers long ago wrote off the left and that most of those who still carry its tattered banner have wholeheartedly submitted to the totalitarian temptation Berman criticizes so trenchantly. It is the political-correctness movement, not the thoughtful leftism of writers like Paul Berman, that is the ultimate legacy of the student protests of the 1960s. Therein lies the real moral history of the baby-boom generation, and it is, to Berman's discredit, largely missing from the otherwise compelling pages of "A Tale of Two Utopias."

Terry Teachout is music critic of Commentary. He also writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, covers classical music and dance for the New York Daily News and reviews books for the New York Times Book Review. He is writing "H. L. Mencken: A Life."

` Pub date: 06/30/96

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