The world of ’68 and the France of today
The following is an extract from the new introduction to ‘France 1968 – Month of Revolution’, a vital book for workers and youth the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) has just republished (first published in 1988).
‘France 1968 – Month of Revolution’
This book aims to bring to life the drama of a month in France in which the future of capitalism was in jeopardy. Ten million workers, occupying the factories and workplaces across the country, hoisting red flags and singing the Internationale, made clear their desire for a new society. They forced a powerful president to flee his country. They drew to their side wide layers of the middle class. Soldiers, sailors and police were ready to mutiny. The flame of the movement leapt across borders, inspiring workers and students in neighbouring Belgium, Britain, Germany, Spain and above all Italy.
As the fortieth anniversary of these momentous events has approached, we have seen a deliberate attempt, throughout the media coverage, to play down and trivialise their real significance. They concentrate on the more exotic antics of the students, remove the anti-capitalist content from the movements taking place world-wide and say little or nothing about what was the most powerful general strike in history. This month of revolution in the heart of Europe demonstrated that a socialist transformation of society was within reach.
For the mass media – owned by capitalists and operated in the interests of capitalism – the less said about socialism the better! This is more than ever true as this book is being re-published. Capitalists already acknowledge that they are on the verge of the worst crisis of their system since the “Great” Depression of the inter-war years.
In the year after Month of Revolution was originally written, in 1989, the state-owned planned economies of the ‘Soviet Union’ and Eastern Europe began their historic collapse, falling like a pack of cards after the Berlin Wall was torn down. We were told then that socialism was finished. The ideal way of running society, from now on, was to be capitalist, with no challengers. End of story! Or, as the much quoted Francis Fukuyama declared, the “end of history”!
But less than twenty years later, it is becoming more obvious by the day that capitalism is a blind, anarchic and dangerous system. The downward spiral in the world economy is set to plunge tens of millions more into poverty and despair. The mightiest power, the United States of America, and its dwindling band of allies, is bogged down in ugly, unwinnable wars. Even the future survival of the human species is in jeopardy through global warming because of the greed of the bosses. They flaunt their wealth and refuse to change course.
Small wonder their ‘kept’ media attempt to bury the real meaning of 1968. For new generations of youth and workers, a retelling of the events is a re-affirmation of the validity, indeed the necessity, of maintaining and stepping up the struggle for a socialist world.
A year to remember
Nineteen sixty eight was a year to remember, not only in France, with the revolutionary general strike that is the subject of this book, but across Europe and world-wide. Few such years exist in history. They are usually associated with one phenomenon such as war, especially world war, or revolution, especially one that spreads from country to country such as in 1848 or in 1917–18. There was the year of the economic crash in 1929 and even the year of the counter-revolutions of 1989.
But 1968 was memorable in a different way. Apart from being the year the first astronauts saw the dark side of the moon, it was a year of dramatic political events around the globe – events that shook the ruling classes and elites of the world to the core. Mass movements forced them to rethink their strategies for holding onto power and gave courage to those who challenged them and the capitalist way of doing things.
It was a year of student revolt against war, oppression and authoritarianism and against the profit system in countries as far apart as Brazil and Poland, the US, Britain, Germany, Japan and Mexico. It was the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam and mass anti-war, anti-imperialist demonstrations in the US, Britain and elsewhere, that were behind the change of tack by Democratic American president, Lyndon Johnson, over his country’s bloody involvement in Vietnam.
In March Johnson announced he would not stand in that year’s presidential election. In August, the US Democratic Party’s Chicago convention was besieged by tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding immediate withdrawal of all troops from Vietnam. Mayor Daley sent heavy battalions of police in against them, to beat them and to arrest them by the hundreds. All this was shown on TV news broadcasts across the globe. The cry went up from the embattled protesters: “The whole world is watching you!”.
The ‘Chicago Eight’ leaders were put on trial. By the end of the year, the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon had been elected president – the man who was to end the war in Vietnam but not before ordering many more brutal offensives in Asia, including the murderous carpet bombing of Cambodia. Today, after five years’ involvement in Iraq – with astronomical human and financial cost, with Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and ‘rendition’ – the George Bush regime has sunk deeper and deeper into a mire of unpopularity at home and abroad.
It was actually in the year 1968 that Ba’athist officers in Iraq carried through the coup which brought Saddam Hussein to power. One of the world’s most brutal dictatorships was created and, like so many, enjoyed western support for many years. 1968 also saw the swearing in as president of Indonesia the dictator General Suharto. With the full backing of US and world imperialism, over the previous two years he had been responsible for the slaughter of up to a million members and sympathisers of the mighty Indonesia Communist Party.
In Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – Ian Smith, the white supremacist who died this year, was battling to maintain his dictatorship of a minority over the oppressed black majority. In South Africa the abhorrent apartheid regime of another pampered white minority, kept tens of millions of black workers and youth enslaved. Nationally and internationally, however, the resistance was growing.
By 1968 in China, the brutal ‘Cultural Revolution’ of Mao, in which millions were killed, was running into serious difficulties. It had been initiated as an attempt to regenerate the Chinese economy – state-owned and planned as it was – but also to clear out the ‘capitalist roaders’ within the ruling caste. As in the Soviet Union and the other Stalinist states, society was run by a massive, parasitic bureaucracy claiming to rule in the name of the working class but with no elements of workers’ democracy and sucking the life-blood out of the body on which they depended. But Mao’s ‘revolution’ from the top was going too far for certain layers of the bureaucracy. Only through breathing the oxygen of workers’ control and management can a state-owned economy be healthy and fully developed.
In Europe, cracks were appearing in the right-wing dictatorships of Portugal and Greece, which would be swept away just five years later. In Lisbon, Marcello Caetano replaced as head of the military regime there, António de Oliveira Salazar, after he had become incapacitated by an accident. In Athens, the Greek colonels’ junta zig-zagged between repression and concession – freeing the singer, Theodorakis but holding plebiscites to reinforce their rule.
1968 in Northern Ireland saw the first explosions of the civil rights movement against Unionist rule. Hounded and persecuted by the bigotted Royal Ulster Constabulary and hated ‘B Specials’, the youth and workers of the Catholic areas of Derry, rose up. The mass movement that developed saw important examples of unity between Catholic and Protestant workers and youth which others, even on the left, chose to ignore.
In the US in 1968, the struggle for black rights had been raging for some years. On April 4, 1968, its most famous leader, Martin Luther King (Jnr), was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee. Having moved progressively to the left, King had, on this day, been speaking at a rally in support of striking garbage workers.
Six months later, at the Olympic Games in Mexico, the black US sprinters, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, made their famous black-gloved fist Panther salute from the podium, in defiance of the US government and in solidarity with the struggle of the black workers and youth of America. They were seen as heroes by millions around the world but villified in the US’ media for their ‘insult’ to the powers that be. The spite of the ruling class was reflected in the decision of the Olympic Committee to ban them from the Olympic Games for life.
Ten days before the start of those Olympics, one of the most horrifying events of that tumultuous year took place. Tens of thousands of young people marched to the stadium to express their hatred of war and dictatorship. The tanks and guns of the Díaz Ordaz regime, with help from the Pentagon, moved in on them, massacring more than 300. Scenes of young bodies piled one on the other were beamed across the world and only heightened the anger of workers and young people internationally – against rulers and against the system of capitalism.
In India, opposition to Congress Party policies forced Indira Gandhi to feint to the left but also to adopt ‘presidential rule’ to maintain control in four of the most populous states. Mass movements in Pakistan in 1968 challenged the rule of the feudal landlords and the military, leading to the downfall in the following year of the dictator, Ayub Khan.
Throughout the world of capitalism and landlordism East and West, political and cultural revolts were in full flow. It was a year in which the struggles of women for equal pay and for control over their own lives grew rapidly. A year, too, when the gay rights movement gathered momentum. A spirit of challenge and outrage permeated society, especially the youth.
In Britain, the Wilson Labour Government was growing unpopular. Mass protests and strikes were developing, including against its attempt to restrict trade union activity. This culminated the following year with the infamous ‘In Place of Strife’ proposed by employment minister, Barbara Castle. This was a Labour government attempting to impose anti-trade union legislation that laid the basis for the brutal attacks of the Heath and Thatcher Tory governments. Their laws remain to this day on the statute books, never repealed by New Labour.
In this period, the Labour Party was still a workers’ party with bourgeois leaders. Pressure from below forced Wilson to step back on a number of issues. It was impossible for him to physically support the US in Vietnam with troops. The Blairite New Labour Party has had no such constraint in relation to Iraq. This alone indicates the character of the ‘60s generation.
The attempts of the present ruling classes and media to rubbish the ideas of anti-capitalism and socialism will arouse renewed interest. Their inability to prevent new crises ensuing from the collapse of their overblown credit system will create the conditions for a new generation of this calibre to arise…