< Chris Harman: 1968–1998 – The dynamics of struggle (Spring 1998)


Chris Harman

1968–1998: The dynamics of struggle

Interviewed by Ahmed Shawki

(Spring 1998)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

1968 MARKED a turning point in the political movements of the 1960s. In 1968, thousands of people involved in the movement against the Vietnam War, the Black Power movement and other movements began to conceive of themselves as part of a worldwide revolutionary movement.

Just recounting the events of 1968 gives some indication of the degree to which the pace of politics accelerated. In January, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front’s Tet offensive proved the U.S. couldn’t win the Vietnam War. Tet pushed the anti-war movement to new heights and led President Johnson to announce he wouldn’t run for re-election. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination sparked mass rebellions in 200 cities across the U.S. In May–June, a general strike of 10 million workers paralyzed France and almost brought down the government. Until a Russian invasion crushed it, the Czechoslovakian “Prague Spring” reform movement threatened to topple the Stalinist government.

Chris Harman is a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party, editor of its newspaper Socialist Worker and author of many books, including Economics of the Madhouse, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, Marxism and History and The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918–1923. ISR’s Ahmed Shawki asked Harman to discuss 1968 and its lessons for socialists today.


ISR: It’s been 30 years since 1968. How would you describe political developments since then?

REALLY, I think it’s useful to break the last 30 years down into three separate periods.

The first period – that really began in 1967 and ran right through 1975 or 1976 – was one in which whole waves of struggle broke out, starting often with student struggles, which merged in the case of the United States with the struggle against the Vietnam War, and with the Black struggle, which moved from the southern states to the northern cities. There was a whole wave of struggles which in certain important countries then merged with a wave of working-class struggle.

It was most explicit, most clear, in France in 1968, where student struggles began in the first week in May, culminating on the 10th of May. Then workers staged one general strike on the 13th of May, and by the 20th of May had the whole country paralyzed. Up to that point it was the biggest general strike in history.

The same process took place, although not quite in such a concentrated form, in Italy. You had a wave of student struggles in 1967-1968, and then from the autumn of 1969 onwards what was called the “Hot Autumn,” the eruption of workers’ struggles right across northern Italy. This then created political instability and a rising working-class movement in Italy right through to 1974–1975.

It did take place in other forms in other countries. In Greece, very little happened in 1968, but in 1973 the uprising against what was then the military dictatorship in Greece, started by rebelling students at the Athens Polytechnic [the equivalent of a community college], began. Tens, hundreds of thousands of workers supported the students, destabilizing the regime. This led to the end of the military regime and the return of civilian, parliamentary rule. In Spain there were no direct developments from the French events, but by the early 1970s, student struggles, arising with workers’ struggles, and rising rebellions by the oppressed nationalities, destabilized the fascist regime in 1974–1975.

The basic picture we should have of that period is instability. Indeed, it varied from country to country. In the United States, for instance, you had the student revolt, the revolt against the Vietnam War, the Black movement and – on the back of this – the growth of the women’s movement and the gay movement. The number of strikes also went up. In 1968, there was a third more strikes involving twice as many workers as there was three years before. The union leaders were under considerable pressure from below and could not always hold the line. There were major strikes in the auto industry and the mines.

The increasingly bitter conscript army in Vietnam was overwhelmingly working class, and growing numbers of AFL-CIO locals came out against the war. In a Detroit referendum in 1970, 63 percent voted against the war. This sentiment also expressed itself in Black caucuses in the unions and rank-and-file revolts in the mines, the post office and the Teamsters. But the ensuing economic recession on the one hand, and the slow reduction of the army in Vietnam on the other, ensured that bitterness against the war did not spread to wider sections of the working class and fuse with a strike movement over economic issues.

In Germany, you had very big student struggles, a mass student movement. The student movement began as a mass anti-authoritarian movement and became a mass movement that called itself Marxist. But it coincided with a low level of workers’ struggle. In Britain we had a sort of intermediate situation, with a fairly small student movement in 1968–69, but a slow buildup of workers’ struggles until 1974, when workers brought down the then-Conservative government.

That’s the overall picture. It varies from country to country, but that’s the picture of the period. It was a period in which revolutionary socialist ideas, which had been marginal in virtually every country of the world, began to move toward the center of the political stage. At the beginning of 1968, if you tried to identify a revolutionary in the United States, you would have talked to dozens, hundreds at most. But by the end of 1968, into 1969 and 1970, there were tens of thousands of students who regarded themselves as revolutionaries, and tens of thousands of Black people who regarded themselves as revolutionaries. In Italy as well, there were very small numbers of revolutionary socialists in 1968. But by 1974, 50,000-70,000 people regarded themselves as revolutionary socialists. There was that sort of growth.

ISR: Many activists at the time thought that revolution was just around the corner. Why didn’t it happen?

IT WAS very disconcerting for people on the left because they’d been through a period of five or six years of rising struggle. Then in 1974, the whole world economy entered its first full-blown crisis since the Second World War. And just when working conditions were beginning to suffer, the established leaders of both the opposition political parties and the trade union movement told the most experienced activists inside the working class movement, “Don’t rock the boat. Work together with the employers.” It broke the back of the upsurge of struggle, it defused the upturn in struggle, which meant that we entered the second period.

From the mid-1970s onwards, what happens is that we had a series of compromises in country after country between the official opposition to the old establishments and the people in the establishment. It took the form in Britain, for instance, of the signing of the Social Contract in 1974, in which the trade union leaders, including those that seemed quite left wing during the previous period, made an agreement with the Labour government. This led to trade union leaders telling workers to work harder, to accept layoffs, to accept cutbacks and so forth, which previously, workers hadn’t been prepared to do.

In Italy you had what was called the Historic Compromise, whereby the main opposition party, the Communist Party, agreed to enter what was called the “governmental arena” and the unions to tell workers to accept wage cuts and layoffs – things they were not prepared to accept in the previous five years. In Spain we had the Pact of Moncloa in 1977, whereby the parties and unions that had been in opposition to fascism signed an agreement with the employers, brokered by the government. The employers – having been former leading figures in the fascist movement – now paraded themselves as respectable, democratic oppositionists, in order to police the working-class movement.

In the United States it was slightly different, in the sense that you didn’t have any formal pact. But looking back, what seems clear is that in some ways the removal of Nixon as a result of Watergate led to an interregnum under Ford and Carter. During Carter’s administration, people who had been completely opposed to Johnson and Nixon were brought back into the political fold.

A whole series of compromises was made under Ford and then under Carter, which then defused the feelings that still existed up until 1974 in the United States – bitterness against the establishment, bitterness against the war, and so on. The state pretended to clean up the CIA, though they didn’t do it effectively. They jailed the Watergate burglars. And at the same time, in the 1975–76 financial bailout of New York City and the 1978 government deal saving Chrysler, you had the first turn by the trade union leaders to accepting concessions, wage cuts and so on.

The effect internationally was to restabilize the system. We’ve usually talked about this period as “the downturn,” which lasted from 1975–76 right through to the 1990s. It started as a period of concessions by the trade unions and the political parties which claimed to represent workers. Then in the 1980s it passed into a period of very large defeats. Again, in Britain in the mid-1970s we had concessions in which the trade unions voluntarily accepted cuts in working-class living standards, cuts in welfare benefits. We moved straight through from that into the period of Margaret Thatcher. The government took on the miners, took on the print workers, took on the dock workers, and broke the power of the best organized sections of workers.

In Italy you had a period of recession from 1976 to 1980. In 1980 the employers and the government took on the workers in the most important factory in Italy – the Fiat factory in Turin – and broke the organization in that factory. In Spain you had a very similar process – a period of recession at first, followed by a series of defeats.

Again, there were parallels in the United States. You had a period of concessions and cutbacks under Carter. Then Ronald Reagan came to power, smashing the air traffic controllers, and then a whole series of disputes – at Hormel and elsewhere – where the employers just moved in and broke trade union organization, encouraged runaway shops, and so on and so forth.

That was the overall picture. It should be said that the period of the 1980s was absolutely demoralizing to those who had become radicalized in the 1960s and early 1970s. It meant people who thought there was going to be great social change in a matter of a couple of years were faced with a period of reaction, of a move to the right, that seemed to be unstoppable at the time. You know, the slogan of the 1980s was, “Greed is good.” It was also a period that was terribly hard for many trade union working-class activists everywhere, because it meant the factories they worked in often shut down, they often were victimized and work became harder. It was a very demoralizing period.

ISR: What changed the political climate in the 1990s?

I’D PUT it like this: The 1990s has been a slow recovery from the previous period. Initially – and again, I’m trying to give a general picture – the recovery took place on the edges of the organized working-class movement. In Britain we had the biggest riot in 100 years in 1990 against the Poll Tax. Then we had a series of protests against the Criminal Justice Bill, and protests against school closures. There was the beginning of a new feeling that something was afoot, something was changing. In France you had very big protests in 1992 and 1993 by young people against the attempt by the government to reduce the minimum wage. In Germany you had the beginnings of protests against the German Nazis, big demonstrations of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people.

Everywhere in 1991, during the Gulf War, you had the emergence of an anti-war movement. It was very brief because the war didn’t last long. Again, you had the feeling that something was afoot. A new generation of people were becoming open to politics. As the 1990s proceeded, clearly what we see in Europe is that movement from the periphery in most European countries has moved back to the center of the working class movement and the political stage. The biggest example of that was France in November–December 1995, when what began as a routine protest against government cuts in welfare, public sector pensions and the rights of railway workers erupted into massive strikes and protests. This mushroomed to all-out strikes on the railroads, buses and streetcars of most French cities, strikes in telephones, strikes in electricity, and twice a week demonstrations involving up to 2 million people. France has seen strike after strike since the great public sector stoppages of December 1995 forced a retreat by Juppe and Chirac. The highly effective and highly publicized blockade of the country’s roads and the end of last year was the high point of a much wider ferment.

This has swung the whole pendulum in France to the left on a massive scale. It led recently to the left parties winning the election, and to where the talk now is, “How do you reduce unemployment by reducing the work week?” There’s now all sorts of left talk. It may not be translated into action, but there has been a swing of the pendulum to the left.

You have some of the same processes at work in Italy, when demoralization in the 1980s led to an attempt by the Italian right-wing parties led by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi in coalition with the Italian fascists to attack workers’ rights and welfare rights in the early 1990s. A couple of one-day general strikes and Berlusconi was forced to resign – then you had the emergence of a government of the former left parties. The tempo of struggle is much greater than in the 1980s.

In Germany, after the euphoria in mainstream political circles over German reunification, you then had since the early 1990s a rising number of workers’ struggles, a rising workers’ protest against the attack on sick pay, against attempts to attack the pensions, strikes over wages by public-sector workers and by metalworkers. And this is in a country that was emerging from a fairly low level of struggle – Germany was the country least affected by the working-class upturn of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In Belgium, a series of public sector stoppages and protests last year have been followed by huge support for the Renault occupation this past March.

In the United States, it seems to me that the UPS strike represented a similar sort of move in that direction, though I can’t say how deep it is.

There were two exceptions in the period – one is Britain, one is Spain. I’m not going to talk much about Spain. In Britain, what we have is a very deep-seated feeling among working-class people that things should change, after 18 years of Tory [Conservative Party] rule. That’s why they voted for the Labour Party last year in one of the biggest landslides ever. Things have been taken away from people and they want to fight back. But there isn’t any fightback yet. We expect it to come, but it’s not here yet. So we have a contradictory situation. We have enormous bitterness against the situation, but without any fightback. There’s a contradiction between what we can see happening just 23 miles away in France – with a continuing high level of strikes – but not in Britain.

ISR: What’s different between this period of struggle and 1968?

IN THE most recent stage, you saw the elements which existed in 1968, beginnings of students’ struggles, of workers’ struggles. But there are two differences, I think.

First, we’ve not yet reached the level of political consciousness that the movement had then. You don’t have lots of people everywhere calling themselves revolutionaries. Among working-class people you have a much deeper feeling that they want to change things, that something has got to give, than was the case, certainly in Britain and the United States, in 1968. There’s a much deeper feeling. But you don’t have the tens of thousands of people who call themselves revolutionaries yet. Certainly in the United States you don’t. And in Britain, you have a revolutionary left like our party, but you don’t have tens of thousands of young people marching on the streets – but that may change.

I should say, though, that in France the most recent election results show that things can change. More than 800,000 people, I think, voted for candidates of the revolutionary left. So there is an incredible openness of people to new ideas in the late 1990s.

The other very important thing is that in several of the main European countries you have the rise of open fascist organizations. It’s not true in Britain and it’s not true in the U.S., but go across to France, and the fascist party’s [the National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen] posters were there everywhere during the election, and it got 15 percent of the vote. You walk into a bar, and the person serving you may well be voting for a fascist. Which means that things are much more serious in some ways than they were in the 1960s.

1968 was serious in the sense that people wanted to stop the horrible war in Vietnam. 1968 was serious in the sense that people saw the possibility of change in the world opened up by the French events. But the alternative of socialism or barbarism wasn’t posed nearly as sharply as it is today. If you’re in France or Austria, you have far-right fascist parties getting 15–20 percent of the vote, openly putting on the agenda a fascist program. That’s the ugly face of barbarism.

ISR: Why hasn’t the struggle in the U.S. and Britain today reached the levels of, say, France?

IF YOU look at the economic situation, clearly in the United States and Britain, we’ve been faced with some kind of economic recovery, reflected in the stock market and in the increased availability of jobs in certain areas.

There’s no doubt that if you’re the “right sort of person” in terms of class background, color and things like that, you can get a job these days in London. Age is also important. If you’re 55 and unemployed in Britain you stand no chance of getting a job. But if you’re a twenty-year-old with some qualifications from school and not Afro-Caribbean or Asian, there are certain sorts of jobs available. There are pools of unemployment, but they’re not as bad as they were in 1991.

At the same time, the mood is not the same as even in the boom in the 1980s. In this country, in 1987–88, ordinary working-class people could imagine that things were going to get much better for them. It was exaggerated. We had the absurd situation in Britain that you could own a house and see it go way up in value. A friend of mine’s house went from 15,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds. But it didn’t mean anything to him, because he still had to live in it. He couldn’t just sell it. But the belief that you could sell it and somehow make a quick buck was there and the belief that you could make money by investing and by buying up stocks and shares was there. It wasn’t a real “trickle down” of wealth, but the trickle down of the idea to working-class people that they could make gains in the system. We had a television show character called “Loads o’ Money” that was this caricature of a working class person who was making it.

That is not at all in my view the mood in the 1990s. The mood everywhere is more bitterness, more job insecurity. People don’t feel they’re making loads of money. If you’ve got a job, life seems harder in the late 1990s than even in the early 1990s. Job insecurity is there, you have to work harder to get benefits, there’s more and more pressure to put in unsocial working hours [overtime], more and more stress, more and more people are fed up with things. This is in a period of boom. This is the general situation.

If you look at Europe, high levels of unemployment are fuelling the crisis. If you look at Britain and the United States in two or three years’ time, there is the fair possibility, if not the probability, of an economic recession. I always think that when it comes to Marxist economics, it’s a bit like meteorology. Meteorology is a science, but it can’t tell you for certain what the weather’s going to be like next month. Marxist economics gives you a sense of the dynamics of the world economy, but how in practice that will work out, when the recession will actually break, when things are going to get nastier, you can’t tell that in advance.

But all the signs show a boom that is very precarious. Events in the Far East [i.e. the meltdown of the Thai, Filipino, Korean and Indonesian economies in late 1997] show how rapidly things can become destabilized. I think it’s important to understand that if people are feeling insecure at the moment, there’s very little possibility that in two years’ time they’re going to feel more secure. The pressures are going to increase. If it comes to recession, people who feel insecure now are going to go absolutely crazy.

The depths of bitterness will be there, but we can’t see in advance how it will reflect itself politically. There are two possibilities. One is that people will be drawn toward the left, and big struggles – like in the 1930s in the United States, when even the most downtrodden and the oppressed and beaten-down groups of people were pulled into struggle. The other alternative that can’t be ruled out is that the forces of the right re-emerge – as they have to some extent in parts of Europe – and begin to play on people’s fears and anxieties, to build a frightening right-wing movement. What happens depends in part on accident – whether particular workers engage in strikes or other struggles. But it depends mainly on what socialists argue and what socialists do.

ISR: If things can go both to the right and to the left, what role can socialists play in rebuilding a working-class fightback?

THE KEY thing to understand is that whether this is taking place in a particular locality or a particular workplace, how it expresses itself partly depends upon peoples’ spontaneous activity. But it also depends on whether there are arguments around leading in one direction or another. In Britain, the bitterness among workers who live in public housing is enormous, because people find their lives are deteriorating. Their homes are deteriorating. Life seems much worse than in the past.

People can react in two different ways. One is to go for quite reactionary arguments: “Crime is a result of people not having moral standards; it’s all the result of unmarried minorities; there are too many immigrants.” These arguments can come forward. Of course, there’s another argument that comes forward, which is: “It’s all the fault of the rich, of capitalism; crime is a result of unemployment. Deal with these social conditions and you deal with the problems that come from these conditions.” These are the two sorts of arguments.

The ability of a socialist to articulate an argument can sway a whole meeting, or the mood of a whole street of people, and make them react and organize in one way rather than another way.

Similarly in the workplace, when the bitterness arises, people want struggle. But always there are people who come forward saying, “Struggle doesn’t achieve anything” or “Our boss is a good boss. Why don’t we all go back to work and see how things will sort out.” And the mood of struggle can be broken just that quickly. Here, the individual, or even better, the group of individuals, who know how to articulate a certain point of view, who are respected because they’ve always been there arguing, can put across a political position and make a decisive difference.

The bitterness is not produced by socialists, it’s produced by conditions. Even the point when that bitterness is turned into anger and action isn’t really produced by socialist activity or socialist argument. But the direction in which it goes is to a very large extent dependent upon there being people there who are putting forward one point of view or another. Being there doesn’t mean being someone who occasionally turns up with a leaflet or a newspaper. It means being someone who is located in the workplace or locality, who has the ability to articulate an argument, who is known and has a certain degree of respect.

And that’s why we say our aim in Britain is to create a network of socialists in each locality and each workplace. Now, of course, doing that means handing out leaflets, selling the paper outside a workplace or in a locality, selling three or four copies. It means talking to the people that buy them, and winning them to a political point of view so they can articulate and put across the socialist argument in a much wider context. There are clear signs of change everywhere. It’s a bit like the situation before the outbreak of struggles in the 1960s. “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Huey Newton and Bobby Seale played this Bob Dylan track over and over again as they put together the first issue of their Black Panther paper in the late spring of 1967.

It gave expression to their feeling that a new mood was arising among the most oppressed people in society. No one really knew what was gong to happen next. This was before the upheavals of 1968 – the tearing apart of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam by the Tet offensive, the wave of ghetto risings following the murder of Martin Luther King., Jr., the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia, and the French May. But there was a sense that molecular changes at the base of society were going to crystallize into something new.

These lyrics should have a resonance right across Western Europe today, 30 years on. For changes in people’s moods are occurring just as they were in the U.S. in 1967, and again the outcome and course of development is still undecided.

The media has barely noticed any of this – but the mass strike has been reborn in the core countries of the European union over the last couple of years. But what is occurring is not just a revival of economic struggle. The struggle itself is beginning to throw up slogans with much wider social – if not yet revolutionary socialist – connotations. At the same time, especially in France, the revival of the workers’ movement has gone parallel with a growing movement against racism and the fascist right.

All this represents a radical change from the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. However, there is an immense confusion of ideas. Nor can we rule out major defeats for one or another struggle breaking the forward momentum. In France the anti-racist, anti-Le Pen agitation and the strikes still constitute two separate movements, with different slogans and ideas, even though both owe much of their inspiration to the strikes and demonstrations of December 1995, and many activists are involved in both. There is no guarantee that the new mood of struggle will break through the old ideological barriers. But there never can be such a guarantee. In the late 1960s, genuinely Marxist ideas faced bitter competition from liberal preachers of “participatory” democracy, Stalinist worshippers of China and Albania, middle-class “student vanguardists” and anarchist “anti-authoritarians.” It took much argument and effort to turn a receptiveness to Marxist ideas into a victory for them – and it was a victory that was often too little, too late. Things are not going to be any easier today, and with the rise of the Nazi right, the price of failure will be much costlier. Nevertheless, a spontaneous growth of struggle is occurring and, with it, a new level of generalization. There is a massive opening for Marxist ideas – if Marxists know how to take advantage of it.

Last updated on 31 July 2021