A tumultuous year when the floodtide of mass revolt swept over the narrow confines of capitalism and threatened the very foundations of the system.
The whole of the May issue of Socialism Today, monthly journal of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, will be devoted to the revolutionary events of 1968. Alongside many important features dealing with different aspects of 1968 will appear an edited version from this overview of 1968 by Peter Taaffe.
1968 Year of Revolution
Some years stand out as historic turning points: 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1968, 1989. Some, like 1989, signify a turning back of the wheel of history, but others are clearly identified with revolution. 1968 is of the latter. This was a tumultuous year when the floodtide of mass revolt swept over the narrow confines of capitalism and threatened the very foundations of the system.
The high point was undoubtedly May-June 1968 in France, the greatest general strike in history, when ten million workers occupied their factories in a month of revolution. Marx and Engels wrote of periods in history when decades appear like “one day” in their apparent tranquillity and then there can be days in which the events of 20 years can be compressed. This was the case in one month in France in 1968.
But it was not the only arena of colossal social upheaval, a year in fact of revolution and, to a lesser extent, counter-revolution throughout the world. Even to those who lived through and participated in these events, to merely recall the number and scale of events is breathtaking. Alongside the revolutionary events of Paris and the rest of the cities of France, we also witnessed a mass movement in Mexico – which had some of the features of France initially – but was to be drowned in blood in the infamous massacre of Tlatelolco Square. The official death toil was 300 – but in reality much more, possibly one thousand – massacred by the bloodthirsty troops of the Mexican regime.
This was also the year when the 10,000-day war in Vietnam changed decisively in the Tet offensive of the National Liberation Front, when the conviction of inevitable defeat of the strongest military machine on the planet at the hands of ragged peasants took hold. Ironically, in January of that year the 10,000th US airplane was lost over Vietnam. On 4 February, in Atlanta, in prophetic words, Martin Luther King declared: “I’d like somebody to mention that… Martin Luther King junior tried to give his life serving others.” He was murdered two months later. In March of that year, Eugene McCarthy came within 230 votes of unseating the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson in the US. Johnson said he would not seek re-election. Richard Nixon won the Republican New Hampshire primary. Four days later Robert Kennedy announced that he would be entering the 1968 presidential race, only to suffer the same fate as Martin Luther King.
In August of that year, the privileged bureaucratic elite of the ‘Soviet Union’ deployed 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops to put an end to the ‘Prague Spring’. A few days later, students were battered by Mayor Daley’s ‘Democrat’ police in Chicago as they cried: “The whole world is watching.” And irony of ironies in this year of revolution, right-wing Republican candidate Nixon was elected president after hypocritically promising to end the Vietnam War – “peace with honour”. Britain also, 1968 witnessed growing opposition to the right-wing Labour government of Harold Wilson, both on domestic and foreign policy issues like Vietnam. Tens of thousands demonstrated in Grosvenor Square in opposition to the Vietnam War in March and October.
And it was not just in the advanced industrial countries that turmoil prevailed. In Indonesia, in China – through the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ – in Pakistan, which in the movement of workers and peasants had a parallel with what was happening in France at the time – society seemed to be convulsed with waves of opposition reaching almost every corner of society.
1968 also signified the renaissance of culture – particularly affecting artists, musicians, students and the middle layers in society – but more importantly, the re-emergence of the working class after the seeming torpor and social stability associated with the ‘rebirth’ of capitalism in the post-1945 period. It should never be forgotten that the revolutionary events of 1968 developed despite the 1950-75 world economic boom not having exhausted itself. Indeed, Paul Krugman, in his recent book ‘The Conscience of a Liberal’, quotes the author Tom Wolfe writing of the US economy in 1968 as a “magic economy”.
Upheaval in the US
Wages had risen for most, the minimum wage in the US in 1966 was $8 an hour in today’s terms (higher than today’s $5.15). Eighty per cent of the population had health insurance and Lyndon Johnson’s presidency had been compelled to introduce pro-black American legislation such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. This, however, was only one side of the US boom because at this stage, as a result of the colossal increase in the cost of the Vietnam War, social welfare was cut back, one result of this being 14,000 children being maimed or killed by rats in New York. Young people were in revolt while a million black Americans considered themselves revolutionaries. This underlines the Marxist analysis that revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations are not the result of economic factors alone but can be ushered in by political events.
The Vietnam War was acting to rot both the economic and social foundations of the US economy, the mightiest in the world, that could not pursue a policy of ‘guns and butter’. In the process, it destroyed Johnson’s presidency, dramatically demonstrating the advance of mass consciousness in 1968. Previously, the undoubted economic progress of substantial layers of the population, not just in the US but in Europe, Japan and elsewhere too, led the capitalists to conclude that the social stability of their system was guaranteed, apart from a few leftovers from the past which could be dispensed with by skilful ‘social engineering’.
Importance of the role of the working class
But this was to miss the process of change which was taking place below the surface. They were not the only ones to sin on this score. Many Marxists had fallen into the trap of impressionism, concluding that the industrial working class was reconciled to capitalism, was to be written off or, at the very least, was quiescent and was therefore ineffectual at that stage in the struggle against capitalism.
The forerunners of the Socialist Party in Militant disputed this. We defended – and still do today – Marx’s emphasis on the role of the organised working class in the socialist revolution. This is the only class, organised and disciplined by large-scale production in industry, that can develop the necessary social cohesion and combativity to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution. This still holds true today, despite the deindustrialisation that has taken place in Britain and other advanced economies. The ‘new’ layers of the working class include, for instance, civil servants and teachers who, under the whip of neo-liberalism, have been driven into embracing methods of the working class like strikes! When British teachers strike on 24 April, civil servants and college lecturers will join them.
The peasantry, by its very nature, is divided into different strata, the upper levels tending to merge with the capitalists. On the other hand, the lower levels of the peasantry or small farmers are closer to the working class and, through economic ruin, tend to fall into the ranks of the working class. The same holds for the modern middle class, both in the urban and rural areas.
But many Marxists concluded prior to 1968 that the working class was conservative, some had been ‘bourgeoisified’ and therefore were no longer the main agents of social change. This led them to seek salvation elsewhere, either with Tito in Yugoslavia, by implication recognised as a ‘unconscious Trotskyist’ or Mao Zedong in China, or even Fidel Castro. The latter had undoubtedly presided over a very popular revolution with elements of workers’ control but not with the workers’ democracy which existed in Russia at the time of the October revolution.
The position of Militant at that stage collided with those like the adherents of the Trotskyist United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI). The leader of this organisation, Ernest Mandel, spoke in London in April 1968. We challenged Mandel’s thesis that so long as the US dollar remained stable, the situation in Europe would not fundamentally change for at least 20 years! The USFI and Mandel had concluded that the ‘epicentre’ of the world revolution had shifted, at least for a time, to the former colonial and semi-colonial world.
Militant always sought to explain the significance of events in this region of the world, involving as it did two thirds of humankind in the splendid movements of national liberation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, from a world point of view, the decisive forces for socialist change were still concentrated in the advanced industrial countries which would have to link up with the movements in the neo-colonial world.
This did not at all imply that we thought that the world should ‘wait’ until the workers of Europe, Japan and North America were ready to move into action. We gave full support, both in general and in action, to the national liberation struggle, even when it was under the leadership of bourgeois or pro-bourgeois forces, such as in Algeria at the time of the struggle against the French. But, as the experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia prior to the revolution of 1905 and 1917 had demonstrated, in periods of seeming quiescence, it is vital to defend the role of the working class as the main agency of socialist change, even when that is not apparent on the surface.
Most of these forces who claimed to be Marxist or Trotskyist at that time were based primarily upon the radicalised students and intellectuals who had developed in the period up to 1968. The intelligentsia or intellectuals can play a key role in the developments of the working-class movement, as the history of the Russian workers’ movement demonstrated. Lenin and Trotsky and the great leaders of the Bolsheviks, never mind Marx and Engels, evolved from the ranks of the bourgeois and the petty-bourgeois. However, they had broken, both personally but above all politically, from the milieu from which they came. They generalised, summed up, the experience of the working class in the form of perspectives, programme, strategy and tactics, as well as organisation. They were ‘sticklers’ for theoretical accuracy, for clarity, particularly on the issue of the social forces involved in revolution, the type of organisation needed by the working class, the laws of revolution and everything that flowed from this. They had nothing in common with those ‘intellectuals’, many of them socialist and even ‘Marxists’, who could change their ideas, as Balzac put it, like a man changing his clothes.
In fact Marx and Engels, presently hailed by even bourgeois writers as ‘perceptive sociologists’, were invariably denounced in their time as ‘disruptive elements’, particularly by their ‘socialist’ opponents. Because they had a theoretical anchor, a method – like Lenin and Trotsky – they were however inoculated against the episodic moods and fashionable theories which can complicate, to say the least, the struggle for clarity and clear understanding in the workers’ movement. These intellectuals are not an independent factor in history but reflect, sometimes in advance but very often they are in the rear, the movements taking place, sometimes subterraneously, at the base of society.
Witness the baleful role of these intellectuals in the period following the collapse of Stalinism and the ideological campaign of the bourgeois for the ‘free market’. With the exception perhaps of Latin America – where a layer of socialist and Marxist intellectuals held out against the barrage of hostile propaganda – the overwhelming majority in the intellectual milieu of Europe and America, penetrating even into the neo-colonial world, either capitulated or accommodated to a pro-capitalist position. Not just Francis Fukiyama but the overwhelming majority of these intellectuals have acquiesced to the idea that ‘ideology’, and therefore the class struggle, was dead.
Even now, as we daily witness more and more masonry falling off the ‘financial architecture’ of world capitalism, journals such as the London Review of Books carry articles that constantly refer to the ‘post-ideological age’ and a barely concealed contempt for the socialist project. Alain Badiou, commenting in New Left Review on the legacy of 1968, can incredibly write: “Marxism, the workers’ movement, mass democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state – all the inventions of the 20th century – are not really useful to us any more.” [Alain Badiou, ‘The Communist Hypothesis’, New Left Review January-February 2008.]Yet if there is one overriding conclusion from 1968 it is that the absence of a real mass “party of the proletariat” allowed the French bourgeoisie to derail the revolution. Moreover, without the creation of such a force, favourable opportunities will be lost in the future. No doubt a violent eruption of mass working-class movements from below – which will take place as a consequence of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s – will force this intellectual layer to adapt as they did in the past and many of them will jettison their present positions.
A vital part of the process of the socialist revolution is preparation, from ideological, political and organisational roles. The outlook of most of the students and intellectuals who participated in the 1968 events was socialist in colouration; some were even Marxist or Trotskyist. This was because of the rumblings from below in the factories and the workplaces and also because there was a ‘socialist’ model, at least in economic terms, in the planned economies of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, albeit hobbled by bureaucratic, one-party totalitarian regimes. Nevertheless, the prevailing view of most of the organisations that based themselves upon the intellectual strata wrote off the working class, or any prospect of events like that of May-June 1968 occurring.
Why did France erupt?
They were not alone. On New Year’s Eve 1967, de Gaulle, the 78-year old president of France, stated: “I greet the year ’68 with serenity.” Reflecting the confidence of French capitalism, he continued: “It is impossible to see how France today could be paralysed by crisis as she has been in the past.” As Sean O’Hagan in the Observer comments: “Six months later, de Gaulle was fighting for his political life and the French capital was paralysed after weeks of student riots followed by a sudden general strike. France’s journey from ‘serenity’ to near-revolution in the first weeks of May is the defining event of ‘1968’, a year in which mass protests erupted across the globe, from Paris to Prague, Mexico City to Madrid, Chicago to London.” [‘Everyone to the barricades’, The Observer, January 20, 2008.]
But it was not an accident that France erupted into revolution, whereas neighbouring countries like that in Germany did not. If the fashionable theory at the time on the role of students as the ‘detonator’ – that is a conscious policy of confrontation with the bourgeois state in order to ignite a working-class revolt – was correct, it would have developed first in Germany. There, the student movement was on the same or even a higher level than in France, where the assassination in 1967 of Benno Ohnesorg, a student protester, by a police officer had produced a widespread student revolt and brought to prominence the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS – Socialist German Student League). One of the SDS leaders, Rudi Dutschke, was also shot in the head in April 1968, and never fully recovered from his injuries.
This was every bit as threatening as the movement that was to develop in France. However, the underlying social conditions were different. The whole preceding period under de Gaulle’s semi-dictatorial regime of the Fifth Republic had resulted in unbearable tension within the ranks of the working class. There were even armed guards in some of the big factories, used as means to intimidate the working class. France was a country where, as the tsarist intelligence commented in 1917 on the eve of revolution, “an accidently dropped match” could ignite an explosion.
This ingredient was provided by the brutal repression and beating up of the students, which brought a million workers out in a general strike – reluctantly called by the trade union leaders – which then led to workers going back and occupying the factories and to the revolution that ensued. It was the specific features of France which placed the country and the working class in the vanguard of the revolution at that stage. Because conditions were different in Germany and Britain, even in Italy – which in a sense subsequently developed on an even higher plane than France – at that time, the ‘spark’ of student revolt could not provoke the same reaction as in France.
But if France had succeeded – and it could have done as the tremendous and illuminating book of Clare Doyle’s, ‘France 1968 – Month of Revolution’, demonstrates – then Berlin, Milan and Turin, and even London would have joined this movement. Even those ‘of 1968’, like Tariq Ali, underestimate the situation in Britain at that stage. He commented recently: “Compared with the ferment elsewhere, Britain was a sideshow.” [‘Where has all the rage gone?’ Tariq Ali, The Guardian, 22 March 2008.] Echoing this, even Mick Jagger, in his song ‘Street Fighting Man’, warbles: “In sleepy London town, there’s just no place for a street fighting man.”
Britain and Northern Ireland in turmoil
This is to underestimate completely the underlying mood that was developing in Britain at this stage, not just in the protests against the Vietnam War culminating in the clashes at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, but amongst the working class. The Grosvenor Square demonstration involved 100,000 people. In the preceding week, the capitalist press, particularly The Times newspaper, believed their own propaganda and gave the impression that Britain was on the eve of insurrection. This was an exaggeration but the sense of unease and opposition to capitalism was not confined to the students. A series of strikes broke out, of sewing machinists at Ford’s involving working-class women, symptomatic of what was to take place later. In our journal Militant in October 1968, we commented on a “Liverpool strike wave”. In Northern Ireland, the civil rights movement, which exploded in October in Derry, was a direct reflection of the worldwide revolt in 1968, particularly affecting young people, both Catholic and Protestant, who clashed with the sectarian Unionist state at that stage.
Moreover, within the Labour Party, the growing militancy and support for Marxist ideas was reflected at the 1968 party conference. There was, in the words of Militant in November of that year, “Almost three million votes for alternative socialist policy”. This was at a time when the Labour Party at the bottom was still a workers’ party, with a pro-capitalist leadership. Now, under Blair and Brown, it is a complete tool in the hands of the capitalists.
Then, basic rank-and-file democracy existed, which allowed ordinary local parties to move resolutions that could become official party policy. One moved by the Liverpool Borough Labour Party and seconded by Bristol North-East constituency called for the “taking into public ownership [of]… the 300 monopolies, private banks, finance houses and insurance companies now dominating the economy, and… producing a positive national plan anchored to socialist production.” This conference also carried by five million votes to one “the repeal of the anti-trade union legislation” of the Prices and Incomes Policy.
The resolution on public ownership was the most striking example of the growing support for Militant, which became a household name in the 1980s. Moreover, this mood resulted in the next year in the head-on confrontation between the trade unions and the Labour Party left rank and file on the one side, and the Labour cabinet of Harold Wilson on the other over the infamous ‘In Place of Strife’ anti-union proposals. These measures, which were defeated, nevertheless laid the basis for the Tories’ introduction of similar measures first through Heath in the 1970s and later by Thatcher. This legislation proposed “compulsory strike ballots” and “cooling-off periods”, and other measures to curtail the power of organised labour. It was met by an outcry amongst workers, provoking a series of warning strikes at local, regional and national level. If the Wilson government had not retreated on these measures, it would have been broken, with an open split in the cabinet, similar to what happened in 1931, which led to the formation of the National Government.
Merely to recount these events of the time shows just how far removed the Labour Party now is from that period. The underlying situation was such in Britain that a successful revolution in France would have spread like prairie fire throughout Europe and the world. British society was in ferment, as Labour ministers were jeered and heckled, with Wilson’s car damaged by “staves beating down on the bonnet, and radio and radio telephone aerials… broken off.” [Harold Wilson, The Labour Government 1964-70 (1971), p567.] Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, when he spoke in Oxford in support of the government’s position, met with opposition, according to his account: “As soon as I rose to speak, they sprang up and began to chant ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!’ and gave no sign of stopping. The chairman appealed to their leader (Mr Christopher Hitchens) but his reply was that if you know what someone is going to say, and know that it is wrong, you are entitled to protect the audience from being misled.” [Michael Stewart, Life and Labour: An Autobiography (1980), p155.] This very same Christopher Hitchens, then a member of the International Socialists (predecessors of the SWP), now writes vituperative articles in capitalist journals in defence of Bush’s war in Iraq.
The opposition to the Vietnam War, however, as we commented earlier, culminated in the mass demonstrations in 1968. Moreover, an indication of the effects of the May-June events was felt at the very summits of the Labour Party at the time. Richard Crossman, for instance, who at times had stood on the left of the party, commented: “Isn’t it true that we are now in a revolution, which may actually succeed? I’d always thought it would have been very exciting to have lived through 1848 and now I find we are living through the most momentous year I can remember since the war… East and west of the iron curtain, establishments are being challenged and new forces from below with little care for the concept of parliamentary democracy as we know it. They are in revolt against a parliamentary democracy which was an ideal in 1848 but is now part of an established oligarchy, part of the establishment in the West, just as communism is part of the establishment in the East. These uprisings this year are in both cases anti-establishment. Strangely, when I think about this, some of my depression goes away.” [Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol III (1977), pp76-77.]
Radicalisation in Italy
If this is at the top, imagine the quickening of the pulse, the expectations of change, in the light of the events just across the Channel amongst young people, the working class in neighbouring countries, where the May-June events struck like a clap of thunder. In Italy, for instance, Paul Ginsborg, a noted historian of that country, wrote later that the effects of the events of 1968 coalescing with the eruption of revolution was reflected particularly the next year in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969. He wrote: “There followed the most extraordinary period of social ferment, the high season of collective action in the history of the Republic. During it, the organisation of Italian society was challenged at nearly every level. No single moment in Italy equalled in intensity and in revolutionary potential the events of May 1968 in France, but the protest movement in Italy was the most profound and long-lasting in Europe. It spread from the schools and universities into the factories, and then out again into society as a whole.” [Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy, p298.]
A glimpse of the power of the working class has been given by Rossana Rossanda, one of the founding editors of the left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto. She wrote of June 1969: “The paradox was that the Italian ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 was just beginning. Instead of starting up as usual after the holidays, factory after factory was being occupied by the workers, with the massive Fiat plant in the lead. Yet the PCI was entirely concentrated on our case [for expulsion from the PCI]. The Hot Autumn was the largest, most sophisticated industrial struggle since the War—not just a strike, but a matter of the workers taking the entire production process into their own hands, elbowing the management hierarchy aside. And these were not an experienced cohort, tested by decades of repression, but young workers, often without qualifications, whose education had come from the chaotic development of the society they had grown up in; who had taken something from the resounding student protests of the year before and made it their own.
“Was it revolution the young workers had in mind when they marched in through the factory gates and took over the assembly lines? The decision ran like a spark from plant to plant: they fought to change their workplace, to keep it in their hands. They shook off the habit of obedience. When they spoke in the assemblies, the union leaders had to queue up for the microphone like the least skilled worker, just as at the Odéon in Paris the year before—but without that sense of atomization. They were in their own place; they talked about how things had been done up till now, what they could not take, how things could be done. The stakes were very high; for capital there could hardly be a greater challenge. The media knew it. At first they were pleased to see the PCI and the unions bypassed, then they were frightened.” [Rossana Rossanda, The Comrade from Milan, quoted in New Left Review, January-February, 2008.]
These events struck terror into the ranks of the Italian ruling class: “Symptomatic of the climate of the time was the confession, many years later, of one of the principal stockbrokers of the Milan Stock Exchange, Aldo Ravelli, a man not given to easy panic: ‘Those were the years in which – I am telling you to give you some idea of the atmosphere at that time – I tested how long it would take me to escape to Switzerland. I set out from my house in Varese and got to the frontier on foot.’” [Paul Ginsborg, Italy and its Discontents, 1980-2001, p40.] Ravelli never had to make the walk in earnest. He did not do this seriously because the leaders of the mass organisations of the Italian working class in effect saved capitalism. But they were compelled to ride a tiger as almost a decade-long opposition from the masses developed within Italy in the latter part of the sixties and almost throughout the whole of the seventies.
Bloody events in Mexico
No less important was the effect in the neo-colonial world. The events in Mexico of October 1968 stand alongside France and Italy in terms of the sharpness of the struggle. Although little commented on internationally at the time, they were the most bloody of the year. They were pushed into the background because of the invasion by Soviet tanks of Czechoslovakia (then the Czech Republic and Slovakia were united in one state under the iron heel of the Stalinist regime) just a few days before. As Ed Vulliamy has commented recently: “Historians write of the black gloves held aloft by medal-winning American runners at the Mexico Olympics. They write less about the white gloves worn by the Olympia Brigade of the Mexican army, tanks behind them and the helicopters aloft, which fired on students, families and workers, in the Tlatelolco neighbourhood of Mexico City on 2 October, a week before the Games.” [‘True voice of the revolution’, Ed Vulliamy’, The Observer, January 20 2008.]
Anticipating the bloody Argentinian junta of the 1970s, the Mexican ruling class resorted to the tactic of the ‘disappeared’ by dumping the bodies of those that had been murdered at sea. So etched into the national psyche of the Mexican people, particularly radicalised workers and students, are these events, it meant that “the revolution in 1968 would be more enduring there than anywhere else in the world”. Fidel Castro, however, kept silent, “failed to lift a finger in support of Mexico 1968 or any of its descendants”, partly because the Mexican bourgeois government was the only one to recognise the Cuban regime. More importantly, however, a new revolution in Mexico with the working class in the lead would have resonated powerfully within Cuba itself with demands for real workers’ democracy.
Indeed, the participants in the Mexican events stood for a “second Mexican revolution”, seeking to complete what the revolution of 1910 and the work of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata had been unable to carry through. These events echo throughout Mexico today. They led to the overthrow of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party – PRI) which had ruled Mexico for 70 years. They found a reflection in the ‘Zapatista’ movement in the early 1990s and in the events unfolding in Mexico today, with the challenge of Andrés López Obrador nearly defeating the right-wing candidate, Felipe Calderón.
Effects of the Vietnam War
Not least concerned about what was happening in Mexico was the US ruling class. It is always wary about the pivotal role of Mexico, both for its effect in the US on the Latino population, which is considerable today, but also as a gateway to Latin America as a whole. In 1968, the US ruling class had enough on its plate with the social convulsions set off by the Vietnam War. One reflection of this was that 3,250 young people went to prison on the grounds of conscientious objection to the war. An estimated quarter of a million others avoided the draft into the armed forces and one million committed draft offences. Yet only 25,000 were indicted and one study found: “The number of eligible Americans who managed through student and occupational deferment and other factors to avoid military call-up totalled 15 million.”
As a result, as historian Arthur Schlesinger junior wrote, this meant “the war in Vietnam was being fought in the main by the sons of poor whites and blacks, whose parents did not have much influence in the community. The sons of the influential people were all protected because they were in college.” [Michael Maclear, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, p313.] First place in the ranks of these ‘chicken hawks’ – those who avoided the draft but were prepared to support the war – were George W. Bush and his ilk.
The slaughter in Vietnam was the main motivating factor in provoking the movement of youth internationally in the period preceding 1968 but which broke out in mass proportions that year. The unspeakable violence and destruction meted out by the US ruling class by cowardly B-52 bombers and Agent Orange was typified by the massacre at My Lai that year, and the horrific details of which were only revealed later. Two hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians were ‘officially’ accepted as being murdered but a US army author estimated that 700 were massacred. The punishment for the main instigator of this crime, Lieutenant William Calley, was just three days in military prison.
Such was the publicity given, for the first time, by TV to a war that, following the Vietnam War, the deposed President Johnson regretted not resorting to what would have been dictatorial methods in the US over TV coverage. “Early in the war”, related General Westmoreland, commander of US operations in Vietnam, “he should have imposed press censorship, no matter how complex the problems that might have generated.” [Lieutenant General Philip B Davidson, Vietnam at War, p490.] The US ruling class has subsequently learnt that official ‘censorship’ is not required while they have Murdoch’s ‘Fox News’, a virtual government propaganda arm, and ‘embedded’, pliant journalists in Iraq.
International uprising of youth
The uprising of the youth in 1968 was indeed worldwide. It was not just manifested in Paris or Berlin but in many other countries such as Italy. Indeed, the movement of the students in Italy was arguably the most important in seeking to link up with the working class and nowhere else in Europe did the students manage this so successfully. Some dismissed the actions of these young people as antics or, as the French sociologist Raymond Aron put it, “the play acting of spoilt rich kids”. Undoubtedly, for some young people who participated it was a case of ‘revolutionary measles’, from which they recovered before they were reintegrated into capitalist society. But others sincerely wished for a break from the deadening conformity of capitalist society and alienation that Marx spoke about. The idea that the producers were reduced to cogs in the vast machine of capitalism took hold even during an economic boom or upswing, which fuelled the revolt of the youth.
Many of these young people were, potentially, yeast for the rise of a new mass movement. In Italy, for instance, it has been estimated that there were 100,000 members of ‘far left’ organisations and parties between 1968 and the end of the 1970s. This was a period of colossal experimentation, not just in politics but also in the arts, music and culture in general, which held out the prospect of liberation for the new generation that was impossible within the rigid confines of capitalism. There were ‘excesses’ in the movement, largely because of frustration, which in the case of Italy flowed from the bureaucratic dead hand that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) sought to impose on the movement. Also displayed was great flair, innovation and the flowering of great talent in the arts. In the great swirl of ‘autonomous’ movements, groups and organisations were layers of young people who were looking for a clear road in order to change society.
However, the PCI leadership was looking towards an ‘historic compromise’ with the main party of the Italian bourgeois at that stage, the Christian Democrats, but came up against this swirling, mostly positive movement from below. PCI dignitaries mobilised to crush autonomous movements in the universities, sometimes using ‘muscular workers’ in order to defeat and crush the students. This, in turn, led to ultra-left gestures, some of them extremely harmful to the struggle for socialism and liberation, for instance, the development of terroristic ideas in the ‘Red Brigades’ and other ‘autonomous’ armed groups. A generation was therefore tragically lost to struggle who could have regenerated the Italian workers’ movement on a much higher plane, through the development of a mass or at least a large alternative party to the PCI on clear revolutionary, socialist and democratic lines.
Stalinists invade Czechoslovakia
The movement in Eastern Europe, to some extent, mirrored that in the West of the continent. This was presaged by the Prague Spring, the ejection of Stalinist hardliners from the leadership of the Czechoslovak ‘communist’ party. The replacement of the Stalinist creature Novotný by Alexander Dubček did not, however, mean a switch to workers’ democracy, as was presented even by some Marxists at the time. Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’, which received mass support in Czechoslovakia and beyond, did not in reality represent a real step in this direction. It is true that the loosening of the reins of the Stalinists led to huge political ferment, in which the ideas of workers’ democracy, many of Trotsky’s ideas, for a free press, democratic control and management of industry, were thrown up, discussed and debated. But Dubček represented the process of bureaucratic reform from the top in order to prevent revolution from below.
This could not be tolerated by the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy. In Poland in 1956, they had been compelled to accept Gomulka coming to power who, like Dubček, represented a more liberal and nationalist bureaucratic regime. At that stage, they had their hands full with the Hungarian revolution, with its ideas of real workers’ democracy, which represented a mortal threat to their regime. They were therefore forced to tolerate Gomulka coming to power but Czechoslovakia in 1968 was developing against a profoundly changed world situation, including in the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe and Russia. To allow Dubček to persevere would have opened the floodgates in Poland, East Germany, Hungary and all the states of eastern Europe that were seething under the stranglehold of Stalinism. The crushing of the Prague spring was therefore deemed unavoidable by Brezhnev and was acceded to even by Fidel Castro, who weighed in after some delay in support of the Russian tanks in Prague. This in turn laid the basis for the mass disillusionment with Stalinism and a blow to the idea of a planned economy upon which it rested, not just in Czechoslovakia but throughout Eastern Europe. As subsequent events in Poland showed, it also fuelled support for the ideas of a return to capitalism.
Ideas of revolution still alive
1968 therefore had an international scope, in the same way as 1848 and 1917. The ruling powers today wish to banish the spectre of 1968. First place amongst these, appropriately, is the French bourgeois, represented by the words of Nicholas Sarkozy. He boasted during his presidential campaign last year that he was going to banish through his election victory the ghosts of 1968. He declared: “May ‘68 imposed intellectual and moral relativism on us all… The heirs of May ’68 imposed the idea that there was no longer any difference between good and evil, truth, falsehood, beauty and ugliness. This heritage of May ’68 introduced cynicism into society and politics.” Incredibly, he even claimed that ’68 helped “weaken the morality of capitalists, to prepare the grounds for the unscrupulous capitalism, of golden parachutes and rogue bosses.”
No, these are the endemic features of capitalism which the generation of ’68, both then and subsequently, have tried to eradicate by preparing the ground for the completion of 1968, the socialist transformation of society. The French bourgeois inveighed against the French Revolution, the heroic Communards of 1871, the sit-down strikes of 1936, as they did and do today against 1968. As with those previous events, they will not succeed in extirpating the example of this, the great year of revolution and near-revolution. It is the task of socialists and Marxists to keep the traditions of 1968 alive but also to learn from the deficiencies of this movement, in order to prepare the socialist future for humankind.
This article is from Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales
Socialism Today website