The pursuit of happiness is a dream for all generations
By Peter Marcuse
August 1, 2008
The protests of 1968 symbolically, the occupation of the Columbia
University buildings, the student uprisings in Paris and the street
protests in Berlin are now in danger of being denigrated as the
actions of spoiled, confused, if not neurotic, students and
rebellious youth who were "finding" themselves in making trivial
demands of their uncomprehending and benevolent societies.
An April 23 op-ed by Paul Auster in the New York Times calls 1968
"the year of the crazies." Another op-ed, by Jean-Claude Guillebaud,
on May 24, calls the protesters "useful idiots," and the current
attention on them a "frenzy of nostalgia."
In the process, the serious changes brought about by the events of
'68, the substance of the protests, the reasons for the discontent,
and the desire for change, are either ignored or superciliously
dismissed as childish daydreams.
Even Slavoj i ek, in the July issue of In These Times, quotes with
approval French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's comment about the
students of '68: "As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a
new master. You will get one."
That that much was, in fact, achieved is beyond doubt.
The Columbia protests stopped both military research at the
university and the construction of a gym in a park that was seen by
Harlem and its black residents as an insult by a rich, dominant institution.
Internationally, the '68 protests changed the character of post-war
politics, helped end the Vietnam War, and legitimized concerns about
peace, welfare and democracy beyond the prevailing mainstream consensus.
Underlying the student protests was a deep dissatisfaction with
things as they were: the acceptance of violence, the discrimination,
the consumerism, the competitive pursuit of wealth and power, the
false virility, the hypocritical sexual mores, the environmental
degradation, the commercialization of art and imagination, the
production of one-dimensional people. The desire for love as a
central component of life love both in its erotic and in its humane
sense, brotherly and sisterly love among all people was a powerful
But the nature of the dissatisfactions and the aspirations behind
them deserve a closer examination.
Surprisingly, those aspirations for a just and humane society are not
far from those on which the United States and the French revolutions
were based more than two centuries ago: "life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness," and "liberty, equality, fraternity." These
claims have run through the history of the modern world, and have
been the sources of major protests against the three great social
evils of exploitation, domination and discrimination.
In the American Revolution, "life" meant the satisfaction of material
needs. That's what motivated the Boston of Sam Adams and what roused,
in the spirit of equality, the colonial farmer.
"Liberty" in the United States meant freedom from domination from
abroad, and in France meant freedom from an entrenched feudal system.
"Fraternity" later "sorority," or better yet, "solidarity" spoke
to relations between people, not simply formal justice but also human
relations. It was this claim of fraternity, coupled with a belief in
equality, that lay behind the slave rebellions, the Civil War and
later the civil rights movement, in which the exploitation and
domination that racism supported were necessarily also targets of the struggle.
"The pursuit of happiness," however, added something different.
"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is Thomas Jefferson's
modification of philosopher John Locke's phrase "life, liberty and
property" a solidly liberal and now conventional formulation.
It is stretching a point to think that in writing "the pursuit of
happiness," Jefferson might have had in mind the claims of the '60s
protesters. But while the connection may be more logical than
historical, it is nonetheless symbolically provocative.
The '60s did add a new ingredient to the conventional liberal demands
of the earlier centuries claims made possible by technological
promises of plenty and prosperity that were based on a system in
which exploitation, domination and racism were concealed but
The '68 movement targeted the one-dimensionality that was the result
of a system in which profit was derived from never-ending competition
and never-ending growth.
The protesters thought there was hope for revolutionary change
because this system contains the means for its own undoing: It
produces technologies that enable the fulfillment of authentic human
needs to an extent never before possible and without the necessity
of manufacturing inauthentic needs for material consumption to keep
the system going.
With this new awareness, new demands were expressed in action.
(Historically, those aspirations were not new; the Lawrence textile
strikers in Massachusetts put "Bread and Roses" on their placards in
1912.) These new claims took seriously the "pursuit of happiness"
both as a social goal and as a personal one. They were the
foundations of the '60s protests.
The earlier claims were included: the right to equality in opposition
to discrimination was successfully addressed with broad civil rights
legislation and political reform. The acceptance of more widespread
democratic participation in politics extended liberty. And opposition
to domination ended the Vietnam War under the claim for justice and liberty.
Separately, these were each major reforms. They came together as
anti-colonial revolutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The students occupying Columbia University buildings protesting a
university gym preempting a public park, accepting the leadership of
African-American youth, and opposing the use of university resources
for research into technologies of death symbolized the earlier and
the new sensibility.
The students were deeply disturbed at the difficulties of providing
an adequate material life, in the face of the reality of increasing
inequality in the distribution of goods and services. But they added
to that a demand to expand the possibilities for the pursuit of
happiness, both as individuals and collectively, although the claim
was often rather inchoate, and expressed more theoretically and
philosophically than politically.
So, no political revolutions resulted from the actions of the
demonstrators in the streets of Berlin, New York and Paris or in
Detroit, Los Angeles and Montgomery. Major reforms, yes, but the
idealistic aspirations were abortive.
They responded to the one-dimensionality of the world around them,
and linked their dissatisfaction to the antiwar and civil rights
movements, but not politically to the third source of protest exploitation.
Symptomatic of this was the attitude of the police in the Columbia
buildings occupation. They treated the students as elitist brats
enjoying the luxuries of an expensive education that a working
policeman could never aspire to. The common nexus that connected the
students' aspirations for freedom and happiness to the limits on
material opportunities of exploited workers did not come together.
In France, workers were directly engaged, but the bulk of the trade
union leadership withheld support from the broader aspirations,
refusing to see connections where doing so would have interfered with
more pragmatic considerations.
In May 1968, a columnist for Le Nouvel Observateur wrote of Paris:
It was the strike, not the student revolt, that truly paralyzed the
country for three long weeks. The paradox is that these two movements
never encountered each other. The students marching toward the
factories to "meet the workers" found the doors closed. The unions
didn't want them: the workers found the students disorganized and
The New Left tried to put all claims together and in context, but in
the end failed. The system was too strong, was able to deliver the
goods to meet ever-increasing, artificially created needs and
consumerist desires, and provided enough satisfaction to thwart the
emergence of even deeper demands. The reforms that were achieved were
limited not by the weakness of the students and the protesters of the
'60s, but by the strength of the system that they critically engaged.
By 1968, the advances that a technologically oriented industrial
society had opened up were, in a technical sense, revolutionary. They
created a possibility of a world without want, a world in which
necessary uncreative labor was reduced to a bare minimum, in which
restraints on liberty and blocks to fraternity were no longer
required for growth, in which there was no need to repress love that
might interfere with economically more desirable motivations a
world in which, in a manner of speaking, utopias were no longer
utopian but were technically feasible.
Realizing this, as many of the protests of '68 did, put the
possibility of meeting new claims such as for the achievement of
happiness on the historical agenda, and on the global stage.
For the first time in history, the possibility of achieving the full
goals of the 18th century revolution existed, and the students and
protesters of '68 were the first to raise it in the arena of
political and social action.
However, the formulation of these new demands ignored one simple
thing: the system which had delivered the goods to many of the
students and their supporters, enabling them to formulate these newly
realizable aspirations had not delivered the goods in like manner
Many workers, the unemployed and poorly paid, members of ethnic or
racial minorities, and many women were excluded from the benefits of
the new abundance, as were huge numbers in the Third World. Their
struggles were for the minimal level of equality that would let them
participate in the acquisition of the goods being delivered to
others. i ek, writing in In These Times, calls them the Excluded,
differentiating them from the Included, such as the students and many
of those on the New Left.
As a consequence, a conflict appeared between the demands of the '68
protesters and the large number of those whose demands could be seen
as a prerequisite for pursuing the claims of the new sensibility. In
other words, a disconnect occurred between the needs of the Included
and the needs of the Excluded.
That disconnect was little addressed in theory, and it perhaps
prevented the ferment of the '60s from achieving either side's goals.
But there were glimmers of a realization of the problem: in the calls
of the civil rights movement not only for full participation in the
existing system but also for reform of that system as in the calls of
the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of his life:
We have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain
basic questions about the whole society. We are still called upon to
give aid to the beggar who finds himself in misery and agony on
life's highway. But one day, we must ask the question of whether an
edifice which produces beggars must not be restructured and
refurbished. That is where we are now. (Speech to the leadership of
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Frogmore, May 1967.)
When i ek stresses the importance of "the destructured masses" and
attention to "the Excluded," but criticizes the French suburban riots
of 2005 as "an outburst with no pretense to vision," he is right. But
the lesson that needs to be drawn is to forge the link between the
resistant members of the Included the students and intellectuals of
'68 and their successors today and the Excluded the exploited
workers of the majority of the world, including the French suburban
rioters in 2005 and of African Americans and Latinos of the United
States. But the unification of the two is not easy in practice.
We have seen a perverse reflection of the failure to unite the
sources of protest in the current election campaign. In caricature,
Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) primary campaign drew on the demand
for sorority, and Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) on that for racial
equality. Both campaigns dealt, with various levels of directness,
with the exploitation of workers.
But Obama also draws on another sensibility that greed is
dehumanizing, that broader changes in human relations and conduct are
needed, that there is something missing in everyday life that goes
beyond a mere paycheck and a middle-class standard of living. Perhaps
calling it a real chance at the pursuit of happiness is too
rhetorical, but that is what it harkens back to.
Clinton tried to convince voters that this was elitist, of interest
only to the Included, and she tried to convince those who endure
exploitation whose daily lives are insecure, whose needs and
anxieties are day-to-day, who may in fact really be bitter, the
Excluded that Obama and his greater vision come at the expense of
neglecting their immediate crises.
Former White House adviser Karl Rove saw the difference in similar,
if cruder, terms. He wrote in the May 16 Wall Street Journal: "The
primary has created a deep fissure in Democratic ranks: blue collar,
less affluent, less educated voters versus the white-wine crowd of
academics and upscale professionals (along with blacks and young people)."
In diluted form, this is precisely the problem that 1968 raised for
the first time in efforts for major social change in the United
States: on the one hand, the connection between the immediate needs
of those still struggling for the basics, and, on the other hand, the
hopes for a fuller, richer life that others, largely better
positioned, want to pursue.
The two together constitute a call to implement the "inalienable
right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that the
Declaration of Independence claimed more than 200 years ago, that the
idealistic protesters of 1968 were after, and that Obama must succeed
in unifying if he is to advance the change he is talking about.
It is a set of goals still well worth fighting for. And we should
honor the activists of 1968 for their contributions to it, not
dismissively denigrate them.
Peter Marcuse is professor emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia
University and was involved in the demonstrations at the University
of California-Berkeley in 1968. His father, Herbert Marcuse, was a
founding sponsor of In These Times and was one of the philosophers
who provided a theoretical basis for the 1968 protest movements and
the New Left.