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Nonfiction in Brief

February 14, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

THE YEAR OF THE BARRICADES A Journey Through 1968 by David Caute (Harper & Row: $19.95) It's the season for 1960s histories, but this one is an anomaly. While others reminisce about well-intentioned but often naive idealism, David Caute offers a staunchly socialist, intensely detailed, circumspect overview of radical ideologies and actions from 1967-69 in America as well as in Western and Eastern Europe. While many former activists affirm the movement's activism (for helping end the war and liberalize the culture) but criticize its goal of fundamental political change, Caute praises the goal but criticizes the activism. New Left leaders, he writes, allowed the commercialized West to "accommodate cultural outrageousness, turning it to profit . . . and neutering basic dissent."

In a sharp historical overview, Caute shows that the movement was only politically radical for a short time. He illustrates how the New Left, inspired more by Albert Camus' existential humanism than by Sartre's socialism, began in opposition to atomic weapons and injustice against blacks. By 1968, the movement's goals became more Socialist, aimed at "changing the bureaucratic structures of society and endowing common people with an awakening sense of their own capacity." But New Left leaders rejected or forgot about structural reforms, Caute writes, settling instead for a new affirmation of the welfare state.

Caute, the author of books on postwar anti-communism in the United States and on the fall of white Rhodesia, does a good job of chronicling how "the inevitability of rulers and ruled, rich and poor, became accepted" after the emphasis turned from social reform to self-help. His assertion that today's activists aren't interested in basic structural reform is debatable, though, for '60s political activism was largely a cult of personality, centered around Mao and Fidel, while today, one can find many lobbying for national health insurance at home and socialist experiments abroad.

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