Chris Harman


Old fire, new sparks

(February 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.106, February 1988, p.9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE TWENTIETH anniversary of 1968 has generated a lot of rubbish in the media. This is unfortunate. For the events of 68 provide Important lessons for today – providing you look a bit further than just the student revolt as seen by the nostalgia industry.

The world in 1968 was very different in many ways from that of today, most obviously in that it was preceded by two decades of economic boom, not 15 years of economic crises. But there are some significant similarities.

Then as now the orthodoxy was that the working class was in decline. Then as now what struck people was the move away from traditional left politics. Then as now fashionable Labour thinkers recognised that a minority were suffering, but claimed it was a powerless minority – today’s “servant class” was then the “invisible poor”.

There had been a decline in trade union membership and an even greater decline in working class political activity by the mid-1960s in most West European countries.

In Britain Labour Party membership had fallen by more than half in ten years, and the Daily Herald and the weekly Reynold’s News had both gone bust.

In France major firms like Citroen and Peugeot were non-union and the main working class party, the Communists, could only sell 200,000 copies of their daily paper L’Humanité. In Italy shopfloor organisation had been completely destroyed in the country’s biggest factory, FIAT in Turin.

The “vacuum on the left” showed itself in France in 1958-60, when many workers voted for de Gaulle, and in Britain in April 1968 when dockers struck in support of the racism of Enoch Powell. The layer of shopfloor activists with socialist ideas even if usually of the reformist or Stalinist sort – was weaker, and reactionary moods met little resistance as they swept through wide sections of the class.

Many commentators concluded that de Gaulle had shown the way forward to other European governments with an authoritarian form of bourgeois democracy which centralised power, ignored the susceptibilities of important sections of the old political establishment and rode roughshod over the unions.

Such people forgot there was another side to the “apathy” of the working class. Reformist left organisation was a barometer of working class feeling in the workplaces and localities.

As Tony Cliff concluded from the experience of the ten million strong French general strike of May 1968:

“The deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations smashed all such barometers [of mass consciousness] to pieces. This explains why there was no way of detecting the imminence of the upheaval of May 1968. And also, more importantly, it explains the extreme, explosive nature of the events. The concept of apathy is not a static concept. At a certain stage of development, apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action ... Traditional barometers missing, the policies of the bosses and the state, as well as those of trade union bureaucrats, are much less sure ... than before.”

It was precisely because the reaction in France was so sudden and unexpected that May 1968 was followed by a sea change in the political approach of governments throughout Europe. From then on the drift towards authoritarian forms of rule stopped.

By the mid 1970s the fashion had swung right over to attempts to control the working class by building up mediating structures based on the reformist leaders of the Labour movement. Even the dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal gave way to bourgeois democracy.

All this has an important bearing on politics today. Since the late 1970s there has been a renewed tendency for governments to hanker after an authoritarian version of bourgeois democracy. And for those with this inclination, Thatcher’s Britain is very much the model.

She has enjoyed important victories – most notably over the miners in 1985. She has won three elections running. That has caused the opposition parties to move sharply to the right in pursuit of votes, and much of the Labour left to collapse.

The erosion of left politics in the factories is shown by the near complete collapse of the Communist Party and by a fall in the Labour Party’s manual worker membership. It now claims only 30,000 members in the two biggest manual unions, the TGWU and the AEU.

The sudden rise in the level of gay bashing shows how rapidly right wing ideas can influence wide layers of workers in such a situation.

Yet Thatcher does not enjoy anything like complete hegemony. The ideological centre has moved to the right, but not all the way. The Tory vote in the last election was still lower than in the 1930s and the 1950s. And on certain key issues Thatcher’s single minded pursuit of the interests of the ruling class runs counter to the desires of many who voted for her.

Fewer than 8 percent of the population use private education and health. The great majority of Labour, Alliance and Tory voters depend on the state for services. Yet she pushes policies which assume massive support for privatisation of these areas.

She forgets the hard lesson taught to French capitalism in 1968. Old, electorally oriented organisations can, through weakness and cowardice, refuse to act as channels for discontent. That can lead many sparks of resistance to go out. But it can also mean that the bureaucratic firemen are not immediately on hand when a spark does cause a prairie fire.

We’ve seen a first sign of this with the sudden flair up of discontent in the NHS.

The lesson of 1968 remains valid. The more authoritarian governments get, the more they try to rule without mediating structures between themselves and the rest of society, the more exposed they can become. Thatcher and her admirers may have forgotten that lesson in 1988. We should not.

Last updated on 15 April 2010