10 November 2010

What happened when a student demonstrator met a former revolutionary in 1968

Today's student demonstrations have got Twitter and the blogosphere going with people recounting their memories of student demos from bygone days. So here's my two penneth.

Essex, 1968
 I was at the Essex University demonstration when some mustard powder was thrown over a visiting scientist and set off a train of events that led to the temporary closure of the university.

After it had opened again, I was also present at a seminar in the sociology department where the visiting speaker was the distinguished sociologist, Professor Amitai Etzioni (above), who was visiting the UK from Columbia University.

Question time
At the end of his talk, one of the students, fresh from the heady days of closing down the university, sought to put Etzioni in has place with such arrogant confidence that both the question and the answer are still with me - more or less verbatim - more than 40 years later:

"Professor Etzoni. One doesn't have to be a theoretical genius to see that your approach is an essentially conservative one. I'd like to ask if you've ever taken a more revolutionary position and, if so, what made you change your mind?"

Unknown to the student (and many others among us at the time), the young Etzioni had been a member of the Palmach, an elite commando group of the Haganah during the years leading to the establishment of the state of Israel.

This is no doubt why he paused for quite a long time before answering:

"I don't normally talk about these things, but as you ask, I will give you my answer. Yes, I was once a revolutionary. But when I was a revolutionary, we didn't occupy university libraries and laboratories. We used bombs and guns and we used to kill people, mainly the British. As for why I gave up being a revolutionary, it was because I saw at first hand what happens to revolutionaries. They end up falling out and killing each other."

His interrogator had no further questions, and the discussion returned to Professor Etzioni's latest book.