Chris Harman


The year the world caught fire

(May 2008)

From Socialist Review, May 2008.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The events of 1968 inspired a generation and shaped struggles around the world for years to come. Chris Harman, a student activist at the time, looks back at this tumultuous year

Occasionally one year can cast a spell over the decades that follow. 1968 was such a year. Supporters of capitalism still bemoan its impact 40 years on. Nicolas Sarkozy on the eve of his election declared he aimed to eradicate the “harm” that it had done. Before him it had been Tony Blair who blamed “the 1960s” for what he sees as the ills of society today.

Yet you would have great difficulty understanding why the year was so significant from most of the media coverage. It has been dominated by renegades from the left who have turned into right wing fogies, with the likes of Martin Kettle and David Aaronovitch regretting their youthful folly. Interspersed with them has been the occasional ageing hippy recalling with nostalgia overindulgence in drugs and sex. At best what happened is presented as a euphoric student rebellion against conservative social mores: a time of dropping out, dropping acid and, perhaps, challenging old sexual stereotypes.

There are very different reasons for commemorating 1968. It was one of those moments in history when it suddenly seemed that the coming together of many different acts of revolt could overturn an exploitative and oppressive society in its totality.

The year began with a devastating blow to US imperialism’s attempt to crush opposition to its puppet regime in the southern half of Vietnam. There were armed risings against US troops in every city in the country, the brief seizure of part of the US embassy in Saigon, and a battle for Hue, the country’s former capital, that lasted for weeks. Television screens across the world featured a US general admitting of one town, “We had to destroy it in order to retake it.”

Blown apart was the arrogant assumption of the US ruling class that it could crush resistance anywhere in the huge chunk of the world it dominated. The consequences fed back into the heart of US society. The Democrat president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), had looked forward only a few days before to a triumphant re-election; the Tet Offensive meant that an anti-war candidate, Gene McCarthy, enjoyed unexpected success in the New Hampshire primary in March while Johnson declared that he would not be standing again.

While this was happening, the rival imperialist power in Moscow was also taking a hammering. The Stalinist regime that had ruled Czechoslovakia since the Second World War split apart, allowing students, intellectuals and workers to organise freely and discuss genuinely socialist ideas for the first time, while across the border in Poland students occupied the universities and fought back against police attacks in the streets.

When we demonstrated against the Vietnam War on 17 March in London, there was not just revulsion at the barbarity of US imperialism – with the chant, “Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids have you killed today?” – there was also the feeling that we could fight and win amid a world in turmoil. It was the most militant demonstration anyone could remember as tens of thousands of us tried to break through the police lines outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Just two and a half weeks later came the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis. People rose up in every black neighbourhood in the US, attacking symbols of authority, with young African-Americans turning away from the civil rights movement’s goal of peaceful integration into existing US society towards the overtly revolutionary ideas of the Black Panthers. A week after this there was a similar eruption of angry militancy among West Germany’s students at the attempted assassination of one of their leaders, Rudi Dutschke, after a hate campaign by the right wing Springer media empire. Tens of thousands took to the streets with red flags in an attempt to close down its newspapers.

May was the most amazing month. What began as a small group of activists defending themselves against a police attack outside Paris’s Sorbonne university escalated into a “night of barricades” involving tens of thousands of students who drove the police from the area and caused trade unions to call a one day stoppage and demonstration in solidarity. That then showed millions of workers their potential power. Strikes and occupations spread, closing down radio, television, airports and cutting petrol supplies, until the whole country was paralysed by a general strike of up to ten million workers that had grown from the bottom up.

France’s President de Gaulle had ruled with dictatorial powers for ten years, brought to power by parliament panicking in the face of the threat of a military coup. Now he was visibly humiliated. People in their millions laughed at his speeches denouncing the movement. The strikes made it impossible for him to implement a referendum that was meant to bring it to an end. The world’s media talked of “France’s May revolution”.

In June it was the turn of the students of Yugoslavia to precipitate their country’s biggest political crisis for 20 years as they battled with police in Belgrade to chants of “Down with the Red bourgeoisie.”

Defiant salute

August saw the Brezhnev regime in Russia set out to crush the ferment in eastern Europe by sending its tanks into Czechoslovakia and kidnapping the country’s leaders – and get a shock as it met massive passive resistance from virtually the whole population. Meanwhile, anyone who believed in “American democracy” got a sharp lesson as thousands of police viciously attacked anti-war demonstrators outside the Democratic Party convention in Chicago as it chose the pro-war nominee, Hubert Humphrey, as its candidate despite him not winning in a single primary.

The Olympic Games were in Mexico City in October. They were the occasion of a massacre much worse than any we have yet seen this year in Tibet. Police cornered a demonstration of tens of thousands of students in a square away from the city centre and opened fire from surrounding buildings, killing hundreds. They forbade the press from reporting what had happened. The world’s media and politicians chose to ignore the blood flowing in the streets. Instead they reserved their condemnations for victorious black US athletes who gave defiant clenched fist black power salutes on the podium – and were immediately banned from sport.

That month also saw an event whose consequences were to ricochet through British politics for the next 30 years. The armed Northern Ireland police force viciously attacked demonstrators from the nationalist ghetto of the Bogside in Derry who demanded civil rights. Inspired by the rebellions elsewhere in the world demonstrators fought back – the beginning of a great revolt against the sectarian statelet Britain had established when it partitioned the island in 1921.

But there was more to the year than just a series of exciting events. Each upsurge of struggle inspired those involved in the next, creating the sense of an international movement. People who otherwise might have regarded their struggles as over particular grievances saw they had much more general significance.

As with any great upsurge of revolt, no one expected it. The 1950s and early 1960s had been one of those periods in history in which the structures of existing society seemed frozen. The ruling powers had contained and rolled back the rebelliousness and ferment of the inter-war and wartime years. The US and the USSR had divided the world between themselves, not only geographically but also ideologically. If you did not accept the inhuman behaviour and dogmatic utterances of one you were expected to line up with the inhuman behaviour and dogmatic utterances of the other. Russian dissidents were thrown into labour camps or psychiatric hospitals, US dissidents were driven from their jobs by the Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned like Dashiell Hammett, expelled from the country like Charlie Chaplin or deprived of their passports like Paul Robeson.

The time when the CIO unions in the US had been a radical force was long since past; the union movements in France and Italy had been divided and their power apparently broken; Britain’s union leaders were the bastions of the pro-US and pro-nuclear weapons right wing inside the Labour Party; the National Union of Students was part of a CIA international front.

A stultifying conformity pervaded social life. The family was taken to mean the man working while the woman toiled in the home waiting on him with complete responsibility for childcare. Women were expected to kowtow to men, young people to look up to their elders, black people to be thankful when occasionally they were not discriminated against. In the Southern part of the US, black people were still subject to the separate and unequal “Jim Crow” status which denied them voting rights and any redress against racist thugs and police.

Liberal and Labour apologists for the system claimed its remaining ills could be cured by peaceful and patient endeavour for small reforms within existing structures. They spoke of an “affluent society” that was delivering rising living standards, of an “end of ideology” and the demise of the working class as it embraced “middle class” consumerism. It was a message which even influenced adamant opponents of the system like the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse. He portrayed a “one-dimensional” society of people so enmeshed in the ideology of “consumerism” as to rule out any revolt in its advanced industrial heartlands.

Hardly noticed by anyone were changes beneath the surface of society that were undermining the existing structures and ideologies which justified them.

These were bound to find expression first among young people. At all times in any society they are more likely to kick back against oppressive and exploitative conditions than their elders, worn down from bearing the weight of the past. Such kicking back grows in magnitude the greater the contrast between the official conformism and the conditions in which people live. And students are especially sensitive to the contrast in present day capitalism. They are herded together in their thousands and expected to become proficient practitioners of ruling ideologies that make little sense. They also find it much easier to argue out and give organised expression to their feelings than do workers, even young workers, since they are not bound to machines or office routines eight hours or more a day.

So it was students who were the first to move in 1968, giving the impression that expressions of more general social crises were a specifically student issue – the impression that so much media coverage of 1968 seeks to perpetuate.

Already the early 1960s had seen some dissent. There had been mass demonstrations against nuclear weapons in Britain; thousands of black and white students had taken part in the civil rights movement in the US; French students had resisted the Algerian War. There was a new flourishing of such activity in 1966 and 1967, with the first protests against the Vietnam War in the US and Britain, the radicalisation of German students after the police killed a demonstrator on a Berlin protest, the adoption of the concepts of black power and armed self-defence by African-American student activists, revolts against professorial authoritarianism and appalling conditions on the Italian campuses. The impact of 1968 was to gel these different movements together.

The Tet Offensive brought the sudden realisation that those who ruled over us were not all-powerful. So it was that in the first months of 1968 there was a rash of protests in Britain, mainly by students, against Labour ministers for supporting the Vietnam War and against Conservative politicians like Enoch Powell, Duncan Sandys and Patrick Wall for their racism. These were initially minority protests of perhaps a couple of hundred students. But a couple of years earlier they would not have been bigger than a couple of dozen. When the authorities tried to discipline protesters, hard arguing and insistent agitation by these minorities were able to swing previously liberal “moderates” – and even some outright Tories – into supporting the radical position.

In the early months of 1968 the student movements in Germany and Italy were much bigger than anything happening in France. French activists complained to one of our comrades that they did not have a movement like ours in Britain. The language of the movements was increasingly revolutionary but usually in terms of “student power” and students as “the new revolutionary class.”

Those who were more radical looked to the notions spread by Che Guevara (who had been murdered by the CIA only months before) that revolution would come from armed actions in the most remote areas of Third World countries and that Western workers were “bought off” by “consumerism”. This could divert them from making connections with wider numbers of people here.

This began to change with the May events in France. People suddenly saw the possibility of revolutionary change much nearer home and one which came from below, involving the mass of people. The media concentrated on the student battles with the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris. But by the third week of May the spectacle of the working class holding to ransom the government of a major capitalist country had an impact on those fighting back against the system everywhere.

Great revolts cause a fantastic widening of people’s horizons. Those who would have laughed at the idea of revolution in 1966 – or at least deemed it impossible – were taking it seriously in the summer of 1968. When Britain had its biggest Vietnam demonstration, in October 1968, the most popular slogan alongside “Victory to the NLF” (the Vietnamese liberation movement) was “We will fight, we will win, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin”; the most popular placard was of a clenched fist with a spanner and the words “Workers’ Control”.

Only a small minority within the student movement anywhere became committed revolutionary activists – but that minority was many times bigger than that of only six months before. The ideas of a much wider number of people were turned upside down by the experiences of the year. They began to listen, argue and discuss, and to read Marxist texts which had been all but excised from university syllabuses. The forms of social conformism that had underpinned the old ideas were also challenged.

Some of the changes were superficial but symbolically important, as when male students gave up wearing suits and shaving for jeans, beards and long hair.

There had been a very small counterculture on the margins of mainstream society in the late 1950s and early 1960s, characterised by a mixing together of those into hallucinatory drugs, left wing or pacifist ideas, avant-garde theatre or poetry, folk music and eastern religions. This counterculture had begun to find a wider audience with the “summer of love” in 1967 and the rise of the hippies. Its audience grew much greater because of the events of 1968, but also more political. It even began to influence the western world’s dream factory in Hollywood, with a new wave of directors and actors producing films previously unimaginable. But in the process it was easy for people to confuse changing their own lifestyles with the revolution.

Wave of occupations

There were more profound challenges to the old conformism, even if often mixed up with the lifestyle approach. It was in 1968 that the Women’s Liberation Movement was born as women activists began to challenge the sexist assumptions which the young men who had been radicalised brought with them into the new movements. The next year saw the first open organisation of gay people.

Very important for the future was the way activists drew lessons from the French events, lessons which led them to take up revolutionary Marxist ideas which had only been held by handfuls of people previously. They saw that it was not just “the people” in general that had shaken French society, but the workers.

The new student revolutionists of Italy (a fair number converts from the Catholic student organisations) turned to the factories and played an important role in the workers’ strikes which swept the country in its “hot autumn” of 1969 (sometimes called its “May in slow motion”). The slogan of Students for a Democratic Society in the US had been “Half the way with LBJ” in 1964; at the end of 1968 its activists declared themselves to be “Marxist-Leninists”. In Britain students went from occupations and demonstrations to leaflet the docks and the factories.

Such efforts were to be immensely important in the years that followed 1968. The French slogan after May had been “Ce n’est qu’un début” – it’s only the beginning. And across the world as a whole it was only the beginning. 1969 saw student demonstrations transformed into a mighty rising of car workers in the Argentinian city of Cordoba and an autumn wave of occupations and strikes in Italy. 1970 saw the biggest yet wave of student protests in the US after Nixon and Kissinger extended the Vietnam War to Cambodia and the national guard shot students dead at Kent State University, Ohio. 1972 saw a great upsurge of popular struggle in Chile and, at the end of 1973, an occupation by Athens students which turned into a huge popular uprising that caused the Greek military dictatorship to collapse six months later. 1974 saw a coup which overthrew the 40 year old fascist regime in Portugal and opened up 18 months of ferment with revolutionary characteristics. 1975 saw a rising tide of struggle against Spanish dictator Franco that caused his heirs to begin to dismantle his fascist regime within months of his death. And in Britain we went through the biggest wave of industrial struggle for half a century, culminating in the fall of the Tory government of Edward Heath.

Students who had been radicalised by the events of 1968 were able in these years to find common cause with a layer of workers and together create networks of activists committed to social revolution in the factories, mines, docks, offices and schools.

The importance of such networks was one other lesson of the May events in France. For, if de Gaulle was helpless in the face of the rebellion from below through most of May, at the end of the month he finally found a way to bring it to an end. He relied on the cowardly willingness to compromise of those who dominated the official structures of the working class movement. Union leaders were prepared to end the general strike by getting workers back to work, one section at a time, in return for partial concessions. And the political leaders were so thrilled by the prospect of a general election that they urged an end to the strikes, even though by doing so they broke the momentum of the movement and enabled de Gaulle to win the election.

That pattern too was repeated elsewhere in the years that followed, culminating in agreements by official leaders of the workers’ movements in 1975 and 1976 to campaign against strikes in the interests of “partnership” and social peace with the “social contract” in Britain, the “historic compromise” in Italy, and the “Pact of Moncloa” in Spain. Employers were not slow in seizing the opportunity to begin rooting out socialist activists and inflicting severe defeats on workers’ movements that had once threatened them.

As the workers’ movement went down, so did the other movements born of 1968. By the 1980s capitalism in crisis was taking bitter revenge on the hopes of that year, and by the 1990s a new conformism seemed all dominant, embodied in Blairism and neoliberalism.

There are differences with old conformism of the 1950s and early 1960s. The old suppressed open discussion of sexuality; the new extols its transformation into a commodity. The old confined women to the home; the new witchhunts mothers who will not work for poverty wages. The old believed in the right of white Western governments to use bombs and tanks to subdue vast areas of the world; the new preaches using them for mass killings in the interests of “humanitarian intervention”. The old believed in deference to the upper classes; the new in the divine rights of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Just as there was pessimism among much of the left in the 1950s and 1960s, so there is today. Neoliberalism had its shadow in postmodernism, with its claim that any total challenge to the system is both impossible and dangerous. Its stranglehold has loosened in recent years, but its paralysing effects still linger on. And some of the older generation contrast their own rebellious years with the supposed complacency of today’s younger generation. They forget that the millions who marched against the Iraq war are many times greater in number than those who marched against the Vietnam War. They forget how confused and sometimes demoralised the left was before the French May. Above all they ignore the way the very dynamic of capitalism itself, with its continual transformation of economic relations, forces masses of people to rebel against it, even when they themselves least expect to.

1968 showed a generation how such revolts can erupt, interact with each other and enable millions to see the possibility of a new world. That’s something hated by the likes of Sarkozy and Blair. It is something the rest of us should rejoice in.

Last updated on 27 December 2009