In 1968 when student demonstrations broke out everywhere in France, the great cry of condemnation of the participants was: “They don’t even know what they want. When you ask them what kind of society they’re looking for, all you get is confused stuttering or useless general ideas. They’re wholly negative and destructive. They have no plan; they propose no solutions.” We hear this same speech periodically today, sometimes aimed at young people when they happen to challenge the adult world (a rare event these days) or else at the leftists: “Look at them, they’re assassins. They want to destroy society, but what for? They have no idea. They have no solution for the difficulties we’re in now. Same thing with the ecologists. “They don’t want to have anything to do with nuclear power. They talk about alternate energy sources, but everybody knows they would barely provide ten percent of what we need. They’ve got no solution to the energy crisis, but they don’t want any more pollution. They’re just idealists.”

What an odd reversal. It’s the young, the leftists, the ecologists who seem to be dangerous idealists, devotees of irrational ideas, whereas their accusers are the realists, whose feet are firmly planted on the ground and who are not swept away by passionate belief. Well, in my view it’s just the other way around. It’s the leftists, ecologists, Third-World residents, and feminists who are the realists, who see reality as it is, who detect the dangers menacing us and bring them to light, who call our attention to new features of age-old questions. Their accusers are dangerous idealists and fantasts, because they believe (but that’s all it is, an idle belief) they have solutions – which are nothing of the sort.

Before accusing those sometimes vacillating movements of lacking a program, we ought to begin by asking whether we, the adults, the old-timers, have had real solutions over the last half century to the problematic situations that have sprung up. Did we come up with answers? Evidently not, which is just what the young are accusing us of. Well, that being the case, how could we have the gall to demand that such movements, now groping their way forward, have ready at hand something that we ourselves couldn’t find after a thousand studies and every kind of scientific, philosophical, and humanistic research?


SOURCE: Jacques Ellul, Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 37–38.