Political generations appear and disappear with astonishing speed.footnote＊ Thirty years ago, a budding anarchist and sixties student radical, I shared with certain others of my generation and class a politics of generalized anti-authoritarianism and free love. In Australia at the time, coming out of the rigid conformity of the Cold War, such a politics was not as vapid as it sounds today. The Communist Party was banned outright, along with James Joyce, James Baldwin, and any sex at all that dared to speak its name. Non-white people were denied entry into Australia, black Australians were denied legal rights, even the right to vote, and devotion to monarchy, marriage and hyper-hypocrisy remained our sacred birthright. We read Reich, Nomad and Bakunin, remaining oddly innocent of any more solid socialist tradition.
Ten years later, student anarchism quickly transformed itself into the more class-oriented, anti-imperialist libertarian socialism of the seventies. In Britain now, I joined those attempting to win ‘Power for the People’ on the streets of London, in the local struggles of the day. And, just in time—as a single parent and comical colonial relic—I discovered women’s liberation, then closely linked in with alternative or libertarian socialism.
Two decades on again, and it is hard indeed for socialist and movement activists of the sixties and seventies to contemplate the passing of our own one and only (and the Left’s hopefully more cyclical) heyday. Today, depression, cynicism or political turnabouts are hard to avoid, even knowing we are not the first—and will not be the last—to face the defeat and disorderly retreat of the ideals, activities and lifestyles that transformed and gave meaning to our lives. Depression hits hardest when the withering of former struggles and aspirations begins to feel like personal defeat; often ending the friendships, the shared activities and the opening up of public spaces, so necessary for the survival of any sense of optimism in the future. The excitement of
Yet for over three and a half decades most Western socialists had battled not only against the destructive consequences of capitalist development, but also against Stalinism and the stifling, authoritarian regimes of Soviet-style state or bureaucratic socialism. And now, just when in Britain more people seem a little more aware again of some of the problems accompanying the inequalities tolerated, indeed promoted, by the unregulated free market of Thatcherism—if only to welcome the minor shift to Major—and just when, in the East, Stalinism is finally in irreversible retreat, those who worked hardest and longest for a more democratic socialism seem most silenced. Ten years of defeat for almost all egalitarian and collectivist endeavours has caused many of us on the left to fall into chronic mutual abuse, to fall upon our own swords, or to fall—some never to rise again—onto the analytic couch.
The resounding victory for the conservative alliance in East Germany, the one country of the Soviet bloc which appeared to have a democratic left opposition in New Forum, has been registered by many across the political spectrum as the proof that socialism of any kind will never have popular appeal. In fact, New Forum, a heterogeneous alliance of peace, environmental and human-rights activists under the umbrella of the Church, was never itself organized as a political, let alone a socialist, opposition. Its recent dramatic rise and fall tells us much about the extreme isolation of dissident intellectuals in East Germany, as well as the effectiveness of four decades of Stalinist rule in massively discrediting and impoverishing both socialist and democratic ideals and values.