Updated: Apr 1
A year on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a curious parallelism seems to be developing between the current crisis and one which struck the West 50 years ago.
Building through the late 1960s, the Vietnam War and the role of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Democratic government in the conflict split the liberal coalition in the US and led directly to the emergence of what became known as the New Left in American politics.
There were other, deeper elements to the development of the New Left, including an expansion of the US middle class following World War II, a corresponding growth in higher education coming into the 1960s, and the emergence of a drug counter-culture in the West. But it was Johnson’s failed policy towards Vietnam which brought the New Left energetically to life, together with its radical urban guerrilla fringe.
Essentially driven by US college students, the New Left was characterised by its radical Marxist principles and its positioning away from what its leaders characterised as the Old (Stalinist) Left. At the heart of the New Left movement was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which, in what became known as the 1962 Port Huron Statement, rejected what the SDS characterised as "formulas" and "closed theories”, calling instead for a "new left . . . committed to deliberativeness, honesty [and] reflection."
Traumatised by the violence in Vietnam together with its heavy televisual reporting, the New Left was also shaped by the impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and quickly evolved to fight against what it saw as the prevailing authority structures in US society; Johnson and his inner circle, as well as the Democratic Party’s links to industrialists and corporations, which the New Left termed “the Establishment”.
From this point, the New Left quickly morphed into anarchist, countercultural and hippie-related groups (the Yippies, Diggers, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, the White Panther Party) some of which engaged in protests to gain media attention and undermine the authorities. By late 1966, for example, the Diggers had opened stores which gave away their stock (as well as money and drugs) and also organised free music concerts, while the Yippies employed more theatrical gestures to make an impact, such as advancing a pig ("Pigasus the Immortal") as a Presidential candidate in the 1968 US general election.
It was this protest in Chicago, together with its brutal policing, which led directly to further violent clashes with police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, broadcast live on US television (and which included the famous protestors' chant of “The whole world is watching”).
Ironically, by this time, the New Left coalition had already begun to break apart with the Democrats bringing the leftist anti-war elements into the party. This left a remaining radical core of the SDS to turn, in 1969, to direct violent action, with the Weathermen (a faction of the by now dissolving SDS), attempting to launch its own guerrilla war in what became known as the "Days of Rage". A year later, three members of the Weathermen would blow themselves up in Greenwich Village, trying to construct a bomb out of dynamite.
In Europe, and particularly in West Germany, moving through the same period and with an equally growing university-educated population just as agitated by the Vietnam War, an uneasy consensus around the role played by German citizens in World War II was also rapidly unravelling.
The argument to this point had been that what was termed as denazification had been a success in extracting the post-war West German state from the horrors of fascism. By the late 1960s, however, this consensus was coming under increasing pressure from critics (many of whom were the children of the men and women that had fought during the war), who argued that denazification had been a fraud perpetrated by the fascists of the 30s and 40s whilst remaining in power within the West German state after the war ended.
Denazification, an Allied programme designed to remove Nazi Party and SS members from German society, had been undertaken with mixed results before being dissolved in 1951. One of the challenges for the US government with denazification was the close economic ties the country had with Nazi industrialists and scientists (as demonstrated in the Operation Paperclip initiative), whilst the programme itself was also unpopular within West Germany, particularly with Konrad Adenauer’s post-war government.
Opinion polls carried out by the US until 1952, for example, demonstrated the resistance denazification encountered in the US-occupied West German zone:
A majority of those polled between 1945–1949 stated that Nazism appeared to have been a good idea if badly applied.
In 1946, 37% agreed with the proposition that "the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans was necessary for the security of Germans".
In the same year, one in three stated that Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race.
In 1950, a third of those polled stated that the Nuremberg trials had been unfair.
In 1952, 37% agreed that Germany was better off without the Jews on its territory.
In the same year, 25% had a good opinion of Hitler.
In 1951, after laws were passed in West Germany bringing the denazification programme to an end, officials accused or suspected of being Nazi supporters were able to take up roles n the civil service (except for those classed as Major Offenders or Offenders), whilst amnesty laws were passed allowing nearly 800,000 suspected Nazi supporting citizens to resume their normal lives.
Against this backdrop, and energised by the US counter-cultural Marxist-influenced New Left, the Red Army Faction (or RAF, pictured), a guerrilla organisation, emerged in 1970 to attack the West German state (together with its US ally) to force it to reveal its fascistic underpinnings. This campaign of direct action (including such media-friendly stunts as stealing and giving away train tickets) was designed to disrupt the relationship of the citizen to state but quickly descended into a cycle of violence, leading to the deaths of the initial Red Army Faction leaders (Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof), as well as those they killed.
Ultimately responsible for the deaths of 35 people, with 27 RAF members or supporters also being killed during its actions, the Red Army Faction (or Baader–Meinhof Gang, as it became known), was characterised by the authorities as an anarchist-terrorist organisation during its campaign of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and bank robberies, which continued for more than three decades. The Red Army Faction also spawned revolutionary cells and generational manifestations between 1973 and 1995 which in themselves were responsible for 296 bombings, as well as acts of arson and terrorist attacks.
This kind of urban guerrilla violence was not limited to West Germany alone. In Italy, terrorist groups sprung up during the same period, including the Red Brigades and Ordine Nuovo, which continued with its terrorist campaigns into the 1980s during what was known as “The years of lead”, Action directe in France, active between 1979 and 1987, and in Belgium what were termed the années de plomb (the “Bloody Eighties") resulted in 28 deaths during the Brabant Massacres.
Today, we are moving deeper into an equally disruptive and unstable crisis of politics with the Covid-19 pandemic, during which a new “establishment” argument has been made that ever-tightening restrictions and lockdown measures, together with increasing state surveillance and police enforcement, can only be lifted once vaccines to combat Covid-19 have been effectively distributed.
It is an argument which, in the eyes of many of its critics, has morphed over time into a worrying series of authoritarian measures centred on an emerging policy called Zero Covid.
Zero Covid emerged during the latter stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, built upon the premise advocated by the policy’s supporters that it will take months to vaccinate the 70% of the population thought to be necessary to achieve herd immunity against the Covid-19 virus. Leading to this point, Zero Covid supporters argue, governments should follow a policy of strict lockdowns, border controls, and aggressive infection-tracing, with public health experts taking the lead in the Zero Covid policy and its implementation.
In association with the Zero Covid agenda, advocates of Green Zones also argue for strict border controls, widespread quarantine measures and movement restrictions between infected areas, which Green Zone advocates claim is the only route to opening-up green zone areas (once Covid-free) after such a coordinated “elimination strategy” has been successfully followed.
In this vein, on 8 January 2021 the British medical researcher and director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar, argued on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that currently enforced travel restrictions only "buy you time" but will not prevent new Covid-19 variants from spreading from country to country. Farrar argued that “travel restrictions have to be comprehensive, they have to be in place for a long time and in the end, they buy you time, they won't prevent new variants arising." Developing his theme, Farrar stated that “the way to avoid that, which would be very damaging for all of us - economics and finance as well - the way to avoid that is to get vaccines to the world, reduce the amount of transmission around the world, reduce the chance of new variants, and protect the world."
At the time of writing, health officials, on the whole, argue that the current batch of Covid-19 vaccines (Phizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca) are believed to be effective against Covid-19 and its known variants. This gravitation towards the certainties of Zero Covid, however, particularly on the part of sections of society which has been particularly shocked by the threat Covid-19, is also influenced by the precautionary principle that vaccines may be ineffective against unknown future Covid-19 variants and that current restrictions will need to continue indefinitely as a result.
One of the hardest-hit groups during the Covid-19 pandemic policy response, if not in direct health terms, are children and young people. This detrimental impact has been particularly felt by young people, especially where their education and personal development during the pandemic is concerned.
Effectively the kinds of lockdown measures so vigorously argued for by Zero Covid advocates and which have already been adopted by many countries in one form or another have severely disrupted the education and security of children and young people, except in the case of key workers, whose children still have access to class-based teaching or for those from privileged backgrounds (who can pay for home tutor and online teaching support).
Internationally, UNICEF, reported in October 2020 that the pandemic was pushing more households into poverty, as families lose their sources of income due to the impact of Covid-19, with the global economy moving into recession as a result. According to UNICEF, the number of children living in poor households globally could even reach more than 725 million in the absence of any mitigating policies.
Meanwhile, in the UK in December 2020, Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) reported that Covid-19 isolation was having a detrimental effect on children’s education and welfare, particularly for the most vulnerable. According to Ofsted, repeated isolation had chipped away at the progress pupils have made since returning to school in September 2020 and many schools were reporting at least one child as being homeschooled at the time of the report.
In the US, according to broadcaster NBC, in mid-December 2020 hospital emergency rooms saw a 24% increase in mental health-related visits from children aged 5 to 11 compared to the previous year (with the increase among older children being as high as 31%). NBC also reported that classrooms had been unusually empty, with quarantines and sickness affecting attendance in schools. Some US school districts also reported that the number of students who had missed at least 10% of classes had more than doubled, with an estimated three million vulnerable students appearing not to be in school at all by the end of the year.
In the 1960s the trauma of the Vietnam War and the dislocation it caused to its generation of young people in the US and Europe led to a political rift which continued for years (in some cases, decades). The shock of the war was also a decisive moment for those brought into this anti-establishment rebellion, which not only led to the emergence of the New Left but also direct action and violence across Europe and the US.
As a result of the current crisis, the international political response to the pandemic and the increasingly authoritarian measures taken up by governments in response, we may be about to experience a similar political dislocation on the part of the contemporary young generation, as it faces the prospect of a decimated educational career combined with a damaged personal future. At the moment, the shock of the crisis, combined with almost constant shock media messaging and repressive enforcement measures, has suppressed widespread rejection of the “new normal” as it, inexorably, threatens to become “the future normal”, with some on the Zero Covid side of this growing political divide even appearing to welcome this prospect.
When that political and culture shock is most fully felt, and if a generation encouraged to believe in a career-orientated future of personal fulfilment finds itself questioning whether it has been misled, will it comply with this “new normal”, even if begrudgingly? Or will it (or parts of it) break away and attack those public policy actors that it views as anti-democratic and dangerous, just as an earlier generation rejected the political establishment behind the Vietnam War?
If so, we could be looking at the rise of protests, generational divide and violence on a scale not seen since the 1960s when what started as political stunts quickly turned into department store firebombings, the kidnapping of industrialists, and shoot-outs with the police.
One protest group that has already demonstrated a skill organising media stunts to further its cause is the environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion (XR). To date XR has used such tactics as deploying a fire engine to spray the UK Treasury in red paint, occupying the Scottish Parliament, “swarming” roadblocks, occupying London bridges, organising sit-ins at London City Airport and stopping London underground and DLR trains from running.
As if to prove to Marx’s much-quoted (and misquoted) adage correct that history tends to repeat itself as farce, XR has mirrored the early attempts by the Red Army Faction to disrupt the political system and, like the SDS, positioned itself as an anti-establishment alternative to the status quo.
Marx actually wrote, in his 1852 essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon about how Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers in an 1851 coup. In the piece, Marx states that historical entities appear twice, “the first as tragedy, then as farce" (referring respectively to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon III).
This historical principle, whether suggested satirically or not, remains applicable today. In its early incarnation, the Red Army Faction looked to generate anti-establishment sentiment in the general population as part of its process of disengaging people from adherence to the appearance of state benevolence. The descent of its members into nihilistic bloodshed came when its early disruptive stunts failed to deliver anything other than ambivalent support for its aims and violent state suppression of its actions.
As our current lockdowns slip into further authoritarianism, and as a perception grows that “the new normal” looks suspiciously like the state using oppressive means to divert a traumatised population from public policy failure, we may begin to see the same kind of dislocation on the part of a traumatised younger generation as experienced 50 years ago.
If this does prove to be the case, expect to see growing reports of direct action and stunts not dissimilar to those executed by Extinction Rebellion, but delivered by an increasingly angry, detached lockdown generation which sees itself as no longer having anything left to lose.
Perhaps Marx was right after all and history is indeed about to repeat itself as farce.
Or possibly as something more sinister.