Much can be confused or lost in translation. The late Chinese premier Zhou en Lai is said to have pronounced when asked about the impact of the French Revolution that “it is too early to tell.” But actually, he was referring not to the 1789 storming of the Bastille but to the événements (national strikes and student riots) of May 1968, which occurred less than four years before his famous statement.
Perhaps because it provided a counterpoint to Gandhi’s comment on Western civilisation (“I think it would be a good idea”) and matched a stereotyped view of China’s capacity to think long term, Zhou en Lai’s answer quickly passed into folklore. A classic case of the journalistic injunction that when one is given a choice between printing the truth and printing the legend, one should “print the legend.”
Yet his actual interpretation of the question makes his answer far more profound. For a huge number of reasons, the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s still resonate. Not least in China which turned its back on the brutal Cultural Revolution of the sixties for a market led export economy. Or Bangladesh, where the events of this period turned a seemingly far-off ideal of independence into an urgently necessary reality.
The history of the 20th century pivots between the defeat of Fascism in World War II and the Cold War, which reached its height around this time, with tumultuous ideologically-driven conflict between the US-dominated West and the Soviet Union. As the era of European colonisation rapidly drew to a close, the Third World bore the brunt as it became the scene of proxy wars enabled by the two power blocks.
The popularity of the Non-Aligned Movement can be attributed to its common sense in rejecting a paranoid, US encouraged notion of seeing every nationalist move in the post colonial global South as part of a “worldwide Moscow led communist conspiracy.”
Cold War conflicts were on a far more brutal scale than most wars we see today, with millions of civilians being killed in South East Asia alone. Even in the face of a huge anti-war movement, the US in Vietnam was prepared to sacrifice its own soldiers on a scale not seen today. In countries as diverse as Chile, Congo and Indonesia, coups were fomented and great power games were paramount.
For instance, Eritriean rebels fighting their long independence war from Ethiopia were supported by Moscow one year and pulverised by Soviet supplied arms the next, after Addis Ababa succumbed to a Marxist-led coup. Similarly, to the chagrin of those American citizens inspired by the movements for equality encapsulated by the Civil Rights struggle for desegregation, apartheid South Africa was supported by Western powers in its wars against Angola, because it was seen as being part of the Western bloc.
All this killing did nothing to advance capitalism or communism. Worldwide trends towards decolonisation and latterly, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall, market-based capitalism, continued regardless and may have actually been slowed down by the superpower conflict.
Yet, if the recent past had too much ideology to choose from, in the present day we are faced with too little as liberal capitalism is supposed to have triumphed above all. Or as the handy US political shorthand puts it, the Right won the economic Cold War and the Left won the cultural war for equal rights. And countries like China and the UAE which may be actively hostile to “cultural” talk of democracy or equality have certainly weighed in to adopt those parts of the globalised free market that suit them.
But try telling the famed “end of history” thesis to the several million people who have died in the Congo since the 1990s. Russia and America may have played little part in this conflict, but why is it often ignored by the world’s media even though far more people have been killed than in all the Middle East’s wars since 1945 – and this killing has been fuelled by funds from conflict minerals including those crucial to the world’s mobile phones?
The propensity of capitalism for financial crises and intensifying inequalities means that such value free aspects of unrestrained capitalism will always be challenged. In the absence of a credible international socialism, environmentalism and religious fundamentalism are the only ideologies that seek to do this on a global basis.
But however appalled religious individuals may be by secular values they see as immoral, experience from the US Bible Belt proves that fundamentalists can individually prosper in a secular society while having little impact on its politics. Collectively they are just another mass market consumer segment. Although their societies are built on the shakier temporary foundations of oil and exploited migrant labour, the shopping kingdoms of Arabia and the Emirates are similarly just as much part of the global consumer society as anywhere else.
Meanwhile, the most damaging policy that relatively irreligious European states have adopted for radical Islamists is to tolerate the preaching of radical jihadists more than some Middle Eastern states.
Of course there is also nihilistic al-Qaeda-influenced terrorism to contend with, but contrary to the rhetoric of the “war on terror” violent fanatics pose little long-term threat as their acts do more to alienate than attract supporters.
Perhaps then it falls to Greens to make use of the increased ecological awareness that resulted from the race to the Moon, that other great revolution of the 1960s – which allowed us to see Earth from space for the first time – to change the world by adapting to resource constraints and climate change. But somehow, I think this will have more influence on long-term business planning, rather than individual aspirations. Better governance and environmental responsibility may be urgent but don’t quite have the same ring as Liberty, Fraternity and Equality...
However, for all the past failure of utopian ideals, politics is too important to be left to cynics. The other great change to arise since the sixties, the rise of women in the workforce, shows how the collective small actions of millions of individuals, can change society more than big ideas alone. Feminism, contraception and women workers were all around for many years, but it took the mid 20th century’s advent of reliable family planning to empower women in the workplace on a mass scale and to drive global equality.
As a threat to tradition, nothing scares many religious fundamentalists quite so much as the worldwide rise of feminism, so their hostility is at least explainable. But their attempts to use worldwide cynicism towards politicians, to smear democracy itself are doomed. While the ideal of all citizens participating equally in the creation and enforcement of laws via elected representatives may be traced back to ancient Greeks, mankind has only seriously practiced universal suffrage in the sense of votes for all men and women in the last one hundred years.
If there is now disillusionment with for example, corporations exercising too much political clout and grabbing all the wealth, well then that makes an argument for more democracy, not less and is certainly not a justification for fundamentalist ideas that have been shown to limit political freedoms while failing to advance human society and progress.
The challenges of building equality and feeding and employing a planet with a couple billion more people on it – while keeping within sustainable environmental limits – are huge and require every sinew of human creativity, science and goodwill. Without a long term optimistic vision of the future – which is an area in which green activists are often hampered by an ideological commitment to zero growth – there can only be pessimistic scenarios.
It is most likely to be ordinary citizens, not present day politicians, who will bring about a paradigm shift that helps to deliver a better future. This won’t be about old ideologies but will require a politics that puts people and planet first.