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John Molyneux

Reviewing Sixty-Eight

(Spring 1988)

Originally published in International Socialism 2 : 38, Spring 1988, pp. 23–39.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Review of: David Caute, Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades (Hamish Hamilton £14.95); Ronald Fraser, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (Chatto & Windus £14.95); Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (Collins £12.95); Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (Bookmarks £6.95)

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
And to be young was very heaven.’

Wordsworth was writing about the French Revolution but his words express splendidly how a generation of revolutionaries felt about 1968. So powerful were the emotions engendered by the events of that year that even when the passage of twenty years has, in all too many cases, cooled them into mere nostalgia for a past that has long since been renounced or ‘outgrown’, there is still sufficient interest for the anniversary to attract quite large-scale media attention.

As I begin this article in the first week of 1988 the New Statesman has already produced a special 1968 supplement, World in Action has done a ‘Where are they now?’ documentary featuring three activists of the period, and I have before me four substantial books on the subject which it is the task of this article to review. By the time this review appears it is very possible that revolutionaries of post-sixty-eight vintage will be thoroughly fed up with the reminiscences of their elders.

Nevertheless is it important that revolutionaries, young and old alike, should seriously study the struggles and movements of 1968. To change the world it is necessary to understand it and the present can only be understood as a product of the past. Many important features of today’s world were directly shaped by the events of twenty years ago, e.g. neither Irangate nor the US intervention in the Gulf can be understood except in the context of Vietnam, and the war that grinds remorselessly on in Ireland had its opening skirmish in Derry on 5 October 1968.

For the revolutionary left 1968 was particularly decisive, undermining the well-nigh absolute hegemony of the old reformist and Stalinist organisations and opening a space in which the project of revolutionary party building became a realistic possibility. Even more than a decade of downturn has not sufficed to close that space completely.

Here it is necessary to insist, in spite of and because of the likely media hype, that 1968 is not a myth or a romantic fairy-tale conjured up by ageing hippies harking back to the good old days of their lost youth. On the contrary it was a year of real mass challenge to the international capitalist order on a scale that had not been seen since the end of the Second World War and possibly since the great revolutionary wave of 1917-23. Even the briefest chronology of the year’s major confrontations makes this clear:


The Tet Offensive in Vietnam makes it clear the Americans are losing the war.


Assassination of Martin Luther King followed by black riots/uprisings in 126 cities.

Attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke followed by mass student street fighting in Germany.


Student revolt in Paris followed by general strike –; the largest strike in history.

The Prague Spring – Dubcek’s liberalisation in Czechoslovakia.


Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Democratic Convention in Chicago –; mass demonstrations and police riot.


Massacre of student/worker demonstration in Mexico on eve of Olympics.


Beginning of the nationalist uprising in Northern Ireland.

If anything the memoirs of old or ex-student revolutionaries are likely to underestimate rather than overestimate the significance of the year for the simple reason that they were almost certainly marginal to the really big struggles. Unfortunately the media discussion of 1968 is unlikely to correct such imbalances, still less form a basis for serious study, and sadly the same applies to two of our four books.

First there is David Caute’s Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades. This is both the worst and the most right-wing of the bunch in that it is the only one not explicitly on the side of the movements it describes. Caute studiously avoids any clear statement of his political position, in the name of historical ‘objectivity’ perhaps, and strikes a pose of standing atop the barricades of his title looking down condescendingly on both sides. I suppose one could call this ‘liberalism’, but it is a liberalism which, as so often, lends infinitely more aid and comfort to reaction than it does to those in revolt. Perhaps the people Caute really identifies with are

The majority of university teachers [who], while often initially sympathetic to student demands, finally rejected the whole movement, equated ‘student power’ with anti-rational left-fascism –; and welcomed its repression.

Perhaps Caute would dismiss this as a slander, and at a safe distance of twenty years he has no need to welcome the repression, but how else to explain his penchant for quoting distressed and outraged academics such as Diana Trilling and Sir Douglas Logan and the evident relish with which he combs the movements for every folly, absurdity and scandal he can lay his hands on.

Anyone who has experienced or even thought seriously about revolution knows that mass spontaneous struggles of the oppressed (without which revolution is impossible) inevitably include certain blunders, excesses and even crimes. However it has always been the mark of reaction to focus on these scandals as if they represented the essence of the movement, and of the treacherous liberal ‘sympathiser’ to use them as an excuse for retiring to the sidelines. This is precisely what Caute does.

His approach is a mixture of the academic and the journalistic, with a heavy bias towards the latter and the vices of both. The quest for understanding is continually sacrificed to the quest for good copy. It is this which determines his heavy over-emphasis on events in America (seven whole chapters, two on the Chicago Convention alone), for it is the American student movement with its isolation from the ranks of the organised working class that supplies the richest harvest of ‘crazies’. By contrast Ireland, with not a Yippie in sight, does not rate a mention – not even in the chronology.

Similar motivations seem to lie behind Caute’s concern with the sixties counter-culture. Cultural developments inevitably reflect and respond to what is happening in the wider society but the relationship is not mechanical. There was indeed a close and important connection between the left, the student revolt and the sixties cultural explosion that included everything from the Beat poets to the Beatles and Jean Luc Godard to Richard Neville, but they were not the same thing. Rather they were movements whose paths crossed in a significant conjuncture but whose directions (and composition) were different. Caute however is interested in amalgams not distinctions, in sensational montage not analysis. As a consequence he both falsely conflates the counter-culture and the left and fails to see the merit that existed in many of the artistic and intellectual products of the period. It is the persona not the poetry of Allen Ginsburg that interests him, the image of Timothy Leary not the ideas of R.D. Laing.

The intellectual poverty of the book is, perhaps, best illustrated by the questions Caute poses in the introduction.

What were they [the rebelling students]: courageous visionaries or romantic Utopians? Genuine revolutionaries or posturing spoilt brats? An authentic resistance movement or a frivolous carnival by kids who had never known poverty and the fear of unemployment? An idealist challenge to imperialism or a pantomime of rhetorical gestures? A rebirth of the critical intelligence or a long, drugged ‘trip’ into fashionable incoherence? This book aims to provide a history which will yield tentative answers to these questions. (Sixty-Eight, p. vii)

With a problematic like that, drawn straight from the world of the Sunday colour supplements, it is hardly surprising that Caute’s book is so weak. Its merit is that its four hundred-odd pages contain, amidst the retrospective smirking and cynicism, a good deal of factual information. In terms of theory and analysis it is worthless.

Tariq All’s Street Fighting Years is distinctly preferable in its politics and tone – Tariq, at least, is clear which side he is on – but hardly better as a historical account or as a guide to understanding. Indeed, this is really the most disappointing of the books because we might have expected something much better.

Tariq’s approach is autobiographical and this in itself is the root of some of the problems. I do not mean by this that socialists should reject autobiography in principle or that works in this genre can never be major contributions – think of Trotsky’s My Life or Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary – but Tariq is not Trotsky or Serge, not by a long chalk. Quite apart from questions of theoretical acumen and literary talent, the great strength of My Life, for example, is that Trotsky was central to the events he describes and those events were central to the epoch. Tariq, however, was central only to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in Britain which was a very minor episode among the epic battles of 1968, and as a consequence the autobiographical form repeatedly distorts any overall picture of the period.

Moreover, Tariq was not in any sense a typical sixty-eighter. Nineteen sixty-eight was above all an eruption of new forces from below whose aspirations were democratic and egalitarian in the extreme. Naturally these new forces threw up new leaders (though often the leaders were foisted on the movements by the media) but usually these leaders at least came from the rank and file, even if their rise was meteoric. But Tariq never seems to have been part of the rank and file. His class background, his education and status (President of the Oxford Union in the early sixties, reviews editor for Michael Heseltine’s Town magazine) made him always of the elite, always a star, and for this reason there are crucial aspects of the sixty-eight experience he is unable to grasp or communicate.

He doesn’t know or show what it was like to organise at grass roots level even among students (the working class seems to cross his path only accidentally) and he has almost no involvement in direct collective struggle. Leading a solidarity campaign, even when a couple of its demonstrations end in punch-ups, is not quite the same as being in a fight, as part of a collective, against an immediate enemy, whether it is a university authority, a boss, or the state. Consequently he misses the key ‘feeling’ of the time, namely the extraordinary elation of hitherto anonymous powerless individuals discovering their collective power.

Many of the participants in the struggles of sixty-eight became completely intoxicated by this experience and, lacking any knowledge of the sober realities of class struggle, failed to see any limitations to it – a fact which gave rise to much ultra-leftism and some of the absurdities seized on by Caute. Nonetheless it was one of the central driving forces of the international movement. Tariq doesn’t really express it. This is not because he was a premature hardened Bolshevik, it’s because he was never anonymous and powerless. For this reason it is quite false to claim, as the book’s jacket does, that this is ‘an autobiography of an entire generation’, if by that is meant a generation of revolutionaries.

Tariq’s best quality is that he is always on the right side, opposing bad things, supporting good things: anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-sectarian; pro-Vietnam, pro-Che, pro-Malcolm X, pro-student, pro-socialist, pro-democracy and pro-the revolution. But this good quality is offset by two bad qualities, both of which are amply displayed in Street Fighting Years.

The first of these I can only describe as an alarming absence of a basic sense of revolutionary decency. How else could he write, without a blush, passages such as the following?

There were two small tables beautifully laid out for supper and soon other guests arrived, somewhat less punctually than myself Kenneth and Kathleen Tynan and Eleanor Bron were assigned the same table as me, while sundry starlets and Ursula Andress, attired in an amazingly low-cut outfit, were seated on the other table a few feet away. Brando was the perfect host, dividing his attention equally between us and his other guests ... Dinner was followed by dancing and later Brando kindly offered to put me up for the night, but the Tynans, who had left early, had insisted I spend the rest of the night at their flat in Mayfair. This seemed a more relaxed option.

Over brunch the next day ... (Street Fighting Years, p. 75)

This may have been the spirit of ‘swinging London’ in the sixties, it was not the spirit of sixty-eight.

Tariq’s other bad quality, less offensive but ultimately more damaging, is the superficiality of his politics. It’s not that his political judgement is especially poor, in fact much of the time it is eminently sensible compared to that of many people around at the time, but it is always impressionistic, based on surface appearances, never the product of serious Marxist analysis.

For example he writes quite a lot about the in-fighting on the far left and the ‘style’ of the respective groups (Militant were ‘Seventh Day Adventists’, the Socialist Labour League, forerunner of the WRP, were ‘run like a one-party statelet’) but the political differences are simply not discussed seriously. Consider this account of the International Socialists (IS):

The IS members were entirely different and, on most questions, were refreshingly undogmatic, but their view of world politics seemed to be bizarre and far too Eurocentric. When I first heard them talk among themselves they gave me the impression of being a weird breed of professional anti-communists. When I discovered that for them there was no qualitative difference between Chiang Kai-shek and Batista on the one hand and Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro on the other, I realised that I would always be a stranger in their house. (Street Fighting Years, p. 119)

Tariq must know that this is a travesty: that the real issue was not Eurocentrism but the centrality of the working class and that the argument was not about whether to support Castro against Batista or Mao against Chiang but whether the societies over which Mao and Castro presided were, in the absence of workers’ revolution and workers’ power, some variety of socialism or workers’ state or whether they were state capitalist. Tariq knows this but prefers not to get involved in such ‘theoretical’ controversy – much better to skate over the matter with superior phrases about ‘bizarre’ views and ‘weird breeds’.

But is the debate about Stalinism and the nature of third world national liberation movements irrelevant to the subject matter of Tariq’s book? On the contrary it is of burning relevance. For the central theme of his account and, in his view, the central theme of the events of the late sixties, is the struggle against the Vietnam War and in support of the Vietnamese Revolution. His own visit to North Vietnam in early 1967, when he saw at first hand the hideous atrocities perpetrated by the American bombing, is described as

a formative experience; something I can never forget ... What I had seen was the most epic resistance ever witnessed in the sordid annals of imperialism. (Street Fighting Years, p. 113)

Yet now, twenty years later, thirteen years after the fall of Saigon, we are offered no critical reflections on this experience. Despite the fact that the outcome of events in Indo-China (above all the monstrous Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea, but also the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea and the sad spectacle of the boat people) posed questions about the underlying nature of these revolutions in the sharpest possible form; despite the fact that his own organisation, the Fourth International, debated the matter furiously, with Ernest Mandel (to whom Street Fighting Years is dedicated) insisting that the Pol Pot regime must be designated a workers’ state in order not to open the door to the theory of state capitalism; despite the fact that disillusionment with Vietnam and China wrought havoc on the left internationally; despite all this, Tariq maintains a discreet silence on the question. Instead all we get is silly comments like the following:

Many years later I was talking to a veteran communist leader in India. He was describing a meeting with Ho Chi Minh in 1964, two years before my visit. The Indian asked Ho Chi Minh to explain how the Indochinese Communist Party, which had been formed at roughly the same time as the Communist Party in India, had succeeded whilst they in India had failed. The Vietnamese had laughed and replied: ‘In India you had Gandhi. Here I am Gandhi!’ The remark was more serious than one might imagine. (Street Fighting Years, p. 113)

The irony is that in so far as the remark is at all serious (in suggesting that both Gandhi and Ho represented varieties of bourgeois nationalism) it is in a way that quite escapes our author.

In one respect, however, Street Fighting Years does give an insight into the theoretical basis of Tariq’s views. It reveals the decisive influence on his thinking, not of Marx or Trotsky, but of Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher, exponent of a literary Trotskyism shorn of its revolutionary cutting edge, propounded the view that the Soviet bureaucracy would reform itself from above, and it is Deutscherism that informs Tariq’s latest enthusiasm, Mikhail Gorbachev. A ‘powerful spectre ... beginning to haunt the European powers’ according to Tariq,

Gorbachev was foreseen by Deutscher. One hopes that the Soviet leader will soon repay the compliment by publishing Deutscher’s monumental histories of the USSR. (Street Fighting Years, p. 269)

What a pathetic re-enactment of the illusion, so characteristic of Tariq and many of his comrades in the late sixties and early seventies, that if the Trotskyists loved-up to Castro, Ho Chi Minh and others with sufficient fervour they would ‘repay the compliment’ by recognising Trotsky. The only difference is that no one is going to storm the US embassy chanting ‘Gorby! Gorby! Gorby!’

In the end, however, it is the omissions as much as the howlers that make this book such a let-down. It doesn’t capture the spirit of the period, it doesn’t offer a Marxist analysis, and it doesn’t even tell you much about street fighting, of which Tariq, as far as I know, did little.

Ronald Fraser’s 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, provides a very refreshing contrast. Fraser is a talented and conscientious oral historian who will be known to many readers of International Socialism for his outstanding Blood of Spain. Here, with a team of assistants, he has attempted the ambitious project of recreating the struggles of sixty-eight through the memories of 230 student activists of the time drawn from six different countries. Moreover the attempt succeeds, at times brilliantly. Fraser really has captured the ‘feeling’ of the student revolt in those heady days.

This is important for two reasons. First because, while it is pretty generally acknowledged that there was a special sixty-eight atmosphere, there are (as Caute’s and Ali’s books testify) rival interpretations as to what exactly that atmosphere was. The revolutionary liberatory experience born of collective defiance and initiative needs defending against those who depict the whole thing as some frenzied psychedelic trip, or the epitome of radical chic, or merely the exaggerated folly of naive youth. Secondly because as much as possible of this experience needs to be communicated to the current generation of socialists and revolutionaries – the children of the downturn – who, through objective circumstances, have never known the exhilaration of such a movement but who, if they are to remain revolutionaries, have to believe, emotionally as well as intellectually, that such things can happen.

Fraser and his collaborators achieve this by allowing the participants to speak for themselves, often without interpretation or commentary (though not, of course, without the interpretation of selection – a significant point as we shall see). The best way of illustrating this is simply to quote from the book.

It’s a moment I shall never forget. Suddenly, spontaneously, barricades were being thrown up in the streets. People were building up the cobble stones because they wanted – many of them for the first time – to throw themselves into a collective spontaneous activity. People were releasing all their repressed feelings, expressing them in a festive spirit. Thousands felt the need to communicate with each other, to love one another. That night has forever made me optimistic about history. Having lived through it, I can’t ever say ‘It will never happen’ ...
Danny Cohn-Bendit, student leader at Nanterre, on the night of the Paris barricades, 10/11 May 1968. (1968, p. 7)

The more straitlaced among us may cavil at this talk of ‘love’ and ‘communication’, but in an uprising people do have such feelings just as much as rage or bitterness or hope. I visited Paris shortly after the Night of the Barricades and there were no street battles during my brief visit but I saw how people had been changed – transformed is a better word – by their experiences. I too will never forget it and can’t ever say ‘It will never happen’.

My most vivid memory of May ’68? The newfound ability for everyone to speak – to speak of anything with anyone. In that month of talking during May you learnt more than in the whole of your five years of studying. It was really another world – a dream world perhaps – but that’s what I’ll always remember: the need and the right for everyone to speak.
René Bourrigaud, student at the Ecole Superieure d’Agriculture, Angers, France. (1968, p. 7)

Bourrigaud is describing what happened in a small conservative town in western France when the municipal theatre was occupied!

It became a permanent forum of debate. Workers came and took part–;it was the first time they had ever set foot in this temple of bourgeois culture. Some of them spoke about their experiences during the Popular Front occupations of 1936. (1968, p. 194)

But it is a representative experience – in Paris it was the Odeon, the national theatre, that became the forum, non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. Indeed something like it happens in every revolution – witness John Reed:

What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod pour out its four thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate everywhere ... At every meeting, attempts to limit the time of speakers voted down, and every man free to express the thought that was in him. (Ten Days that Shook the World, p. 40)

But for us in Thatcher’s Britain May ’68 is the closest to home, the proof of what is possible in advanced ‘democratic’ western Europe, and what is possible in revolution is what seems impossible the rest of the time:

The savage night of battle that followed was heard all over France. Radio reporters covered it live ... A well-known former soccer commentator (!) was reporting the events for one station:

‘Now the CRS are charging, they’re storming the barricade – oh, my God! There’s a battle raging. The students are counter-attacking, you can hear the noise – the CRS are retreating ... Now they’re regrouping, getting ready to charge again. The inhabitants are throwing things at the CRS – oh! The police are retaliating, shooting grenades into the windows of apartments ...’At this point the radio station, which had been telling the commentator over the air not to dramatise events, interrupted him. ‘This can’t be true, the CRS don’t do things like that!’ ‘I’m telling you what I’m seeing ...’ His voice went dead – they’d cut him off. (1968, pp. 187–88)

One of the ways in which Fraser’s book excels is in depicting the process of political awakening and commitment as it occurred in numerous individuals as part of the overall movement. Each story is different, unique, but from Berkeley to Belfast there is a common theme – the individual changing in the midst of collective action:

My world had been very staid, very traditional, very frightened, very middle class, and respectable. And here I was doing these things that six months before I would have thought were just horrible. But I was in the midst of an enormous tide of people ... It was phenomenally liberating ... At the same time it was political struggle. It wasn’t just Columbia. There was a fucking war on in Vietnam, and the civil rights movement ... 1968 just cracked the universe open for me. And the fact of getting involved meant that never again was I going to look at something outside with the kind of reflex condemnation or fear. Yes it was the making of me – or the unmaking.
Mike Wallace, occupation of Columbia University, New York, April 1968 (1968, p. 8)

And when we decided to occupy it was like the revolution had started! I was just a typical student, like most of those sitting in. But we discovered what is meant by collective strength, we felt our power. I can remember one of the IS student leaders saying: ‘We are sitting in because we have to protest against starvation in the Third World. ’ Clearly it had nothing to do with that – and yet somehow clearly it did. We were taking on the world, the political power structure and we sensed that rebellion from below could change it.
John Rose, LSE, 1967 (1968, p. 112)

‘Immediately, another march to City Hall [Belfast] was proposed. The law required that the police be given notice of all marches and an individual’s name be given as the responsible organiser. No one stood up to accept the latter role.

‘And then, all of a sudden, I remember this extraordinary voice with its amazing rhetorical ability come from one of the rows ...’ recalled Anne Devlin, sixteen-year-old high school student and daughter of a Catholic labour politician. ‘The voice went out to the roof and came back again: “Mr Chairman, I am an orphan, I have nothing to lose, I will give my name ...” It was Bernadette [Devlin]. Where she got the voice and the confidence to do it, I don’t know, but she grabbed her moment in history and set herself on a course for ever after.’ (1968, pp. 207–8)

Well, one morning my young brother comes running home, out of breath, with his little satchel, saying: ‘Come quick, there’s a demonstration!’ So instead of going to school I followed him and we found ourselves on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in the middle of this huge demo. How can I describe it? A fabulous happiness, a tremendous joy! I recognised a lot of friends from the Vietnam committee, we kissed. And then I see myself, holding hands with my brother, shouting, laughing, going through the streets with the demo. It was May ’68!
Lily Metreux (1968, p. 179)

In revolutions people express outrage and anger at the brutality of the system but outrage and anger are not the mainspring of revolution; revolutions are egalitarian but revolution is not made for equality; revolutions demand justice but, at bottom, revolution is not about justice; revolution is about freedom – yes, freedom of the individual – and individual freedom is inseparable from collective power. This is not the conscious message of Fraser’s 1968, but it is a message that vibrates from a multitude of its pages and for that reason, in itself, it deserves to be widely read.

Unfortunately it also has serious political weaknesses. Fraser, like Caute and even, to some extent, Tariq, does not really lay his political cards on the table, but it would appear that, like a number of his interviewees, he has retreated from the explicit commitment to revolution typical of sixty-eight to a vague radical reformism. He would probably endorse the comment of Robert Linhart, former leader of the Union des Jeunesses Communistes Marxistes-Leninistes, that ‘the illusion in our ranks, Trotskyists and Maoists alike, was the seizure of power. Noone believes in that anymore’ (1968, p. 325). He also seems to agree with Frank Bardacke that the American SDS’s turn to revolution in 1968 was a mistake, and with David Gilbert that it led people to look for ‘almost magical solutions’ including a ‘regurgitation of the Marxist formulation of the working class’ (1968, p. 261).

The result of this retreat is that the book ends very much with a whimper – the familiar invocation of the movementist alliance: more democracy, greater civil rights, more freedoms ... the demands of women, ecologists, ethnic and cultural minorities and others. (1968, p. 332) It is to Fraser’s credit as a historian that this feeble concluding perspective has not greatly obscured the incendiary material that precedes it, nonetheless it does limit it and distort it in various ways. Symptomatic of this is that Fraser restricts his account to students. This is a major fault. Of course no one would deny that students were immensely important in 1968, but it is quite false to present the struggles of that year as purely or even predominantly student.

The Vietnamese Tet Offensive was not launched by students; it was not students who burned the ghettos across America when Martin Luther King was assassinated; it was not the street fighting on the Left Bank but the general strike of ten million workers that made the May Events the high point of the whole movement; Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring and the resistance to the Soviet invasion involved students but was also far wider, and the same applied to the struggle in Northern Ireland; in Italy there was a direct connection between the student unrest and the revolt of the workers in the hot summer of 1969.

Failing to recognise this and focussing exclusively on students means, for example, that Fraser devotes only part of one paragraph to a description of only one of the ghetto uprisings, and that by a black student at Columbia who was not directly involved. However more is at stake here than just balance and comprehensiveness of coverage. Fraser’s student exclusivity is a concession to the view (epitomised by Caute who produces the blatant fabrication that ‘only black America provided a revolt by those who were exploited as well as alienated’ [Sixty-Eight, p. vii]) that sixty-eight was primarily a revolt of the privileged. If sixty-eight was a purely student affair then its significance as a challenge to capitalist power is enormously diminished. The whole demon of revolution is neatly exorcised for it is self- evident that students by themselves cannot make the revolution.

Taking students as the starting point also makes it impossible to produce a coherent explanation as to why this international revolt took place. In so far as Fraser attempts to tackle this question, it is via the biographical experiences of his informants, but here the oral history method lets him down. Accounts of individual experience, skilfully selected and juxtaposed as they are here, can be very effective at describing what happened, but cannot themselves explain why it happened. This is a task which requires Marxist analysis but Fraser does not provide it.

A book which does is Chris Harman’s The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After. The enormous superiority of this work over the others reviewed here – and really it is in a different class – derives first and foremost from the fact that Harman is alone in approaching the subject armed with the Marxist method, i.e. a method which makes its point of departure the development of the forces of production and the effect of this development on the relations of production and the class struggle and then goes on to consider the impact of and response to these changes at the level of the superstructure (politics, ideology, etc.).

Harman has produced a tour de force: much more than just an account of 1968, it is an overall guide to the class struggle in Europe and America from the late sixties through to the mid-seventies set firmly against the background of the development of world capitalism since the Second World War.

In seeking to convey the quality of The Fire Last Time, I find myself searching rather desperately for relevant comparisons.

It cannot be compared with even the best works of Marxist academic history (Hill, Thompson, de Ste Croix, etc.) which take a period in the distant past and study it in enormous detail, for, while it is not scholarly in that sense, it operates on a far wider scale and, in dealing with virtually contemporary history, it tackles problems that are both more difficult and more pressing. What do spring to mind are some of the classics of the Marxist tradition: Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, Trotsky’s 1905, even Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. I have no wish either to flatter Chris or to embarrass him, so I should say promptly that he does not have Marx’s genius for expressing the profoundest theoretical insight in a brilliant epigram, or Luxemburg’s magnificent revolutionary élan or Trotsky’s extraordinary confidence and dialectical sharpness so the comparison doesn’t really stand. That it should even arise is praise enough. Certainly it is a model of Marxist historical writing and particularly striking is the sure-footed way it moves from country to country, struggle to struggle, constantly relating the details of a specific episode to the total picture.

Perhaps the best way of bringing out the politics of Harman’s book is to show how its treatment of a number of key issues differs from that of the other three authors. This has the added bonus of focussing on some of the arguments about the legacy of 1968 that are likely to arise on the left in this anniversary year.

First the question of what caused the upheaval. As we have seen, neither Caute nor Ali, nor even Fraser seriously addresses this question. In so far as they offer an answer it is, essentially, the Vietnam War. The importance of Vietnam is obvious, especially in America, and there is no doubt that internationally it was the most frequently recurring issue, the common thread linking protest demonstrations in ‘London, Paris, Rome, Berlin’ etc. In itself, however, the war will not suffice as an explanation, for even the most vicious and disastrous colonial war (Algeria is another example) would not have had the effect it did if it had not intersected with ripening contradictions inside the capitalist heartlands.

Harman approaches this problem systematically. He begins by describing the state of the world pre-1968, ‘the long calm’ that accompanied the post-war boom and its ideological reflection in the theories of such diverse intellectuals as Crosland, Strachey, Parsons, Bell, Marcuse, Barran and Sweezy. All of these, notwithstanding their radically different viewpoints, assumed that western capitalism had solved its basic economic problems and permanently incorporated the working class. Harman demonstrates that, while the facts underlying this view were real enough, it was a profoundly false and one-sided generalisation. On the one hand it was based solely on the situation of north-west Europe, the American deep south and Northern Ireland where quite different economic, social and political conditions prevailed. On the other hand it ignored the way

economic expansion itself bred cumulative changes in the structure of the world system which were bound, eventually, to call into question the foundations of political stability. (The Fire Next Time, p. 5)

Here Harman points first to the contradictions inherent in the permanent arms economy which permitted the lesser powers (Germany, Japan, etc.) to take advantage of the boom conditions sustained by America’s unparalleled arms spending without themselves having to pay for them and thus enabled them to enjoy rates of growth which eventually undermined US hegemony. This in turn led the US to attempt to reassert its dominance in Vietnam.

Secondly Harman notes how the boom produced a massive process of urbanisation and proletarianisation which gradually reshaped the whole social structure. This had a particularly dramatic effect in the more backward sectors of advanced capitalism (southern Europe, southern USA, Ireland, etc.) where the old attitudes of rural deference and small farmer conservatism on which the authoritarian regimes in those sectors had rested were steadily uprooted. In this way the social foundation was laid for the later rise of working-class militancy and revolts against Jim Crow racism, Gaullism, Orangeism and the Mediterranean dictatorships.

Thirdly Harman shows how, as part of the same process, the boom transformed the position of students, enlarging their numbers and lowering their status and conditions, with the result that by the sixties, ‘neither in class origin nor class destination were students “the children of the bourgeoisie”.’ (The Fire Last Time, p. 41). Moreover he explains how

The transitional relationship between students and the different classes of society and their allotted role as transmitters of the ruling ideology make students especially sensitive to ideological crisis in the wider society. If that ideology is in palpable contradiction with reality as they experience it, they are themselves thrown into intellectual turmoil and can react with moral indignation. (The Fire Last Time, p. 42)

Thus whereas in Caute, Ali and Fraser sixty-eight appears as an almost miraculous eruption, a sudden moral revolt against the horror of Vietnam and the values of ‘consumer society’, Harman uncovers its material roots, including the material roots of the moral revolt. Whereas in Caute, Ali and Fraser the student rebellion is seen as essentially separate in origin and course from the struggles of the working class, Harman is able to treat both student and worker militancy as responses to the changes undergone by international capitalism and thus trace the underlying connections between the movements of sixty-eight and the great period of working-class struggle that followed in Britain, Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal.

The question of causation leads on directly to a second key issue – that of revolutionary continuity. A widespread view, echoed more or less in the three other books, is of a sixties ‘mood’ unconnected with revolutionary movements in the past and now definitely over, never to return. This, indeed, was how it seemed (and seems) to the majority of activists – the proportion of militants with a political memory or political consciousness stretching back to earlier revolutionary periods was infinitesimally small. For Harman, however (and here again we see the superiority of Marxism over subjective impressionism), ‘1968 is a year of international revolution no less than 1793, 1830, 1848, 1917 and 1936’ (The Fire Last Time, p. 152). In other words it is one episode, one high point in an ongoing class struggle that is inherent in the existence of a class-divided society and that continues today.

Harman is not, of course, suggesting that nothing has changed. He traces meticulously how all the movements born in the late sixties eventually ran into the sand and how in 1974–76 there came ‘a second turning point’ in which

the structures by which ruling classes maintained their own internal coherence and ruled the rest of society were repaired – in the most extreme cases virtually rebuilt. (The Fire Last Time, p. 339)

He shows how the characteristic form taken by the restabilisation was a pact between government, big business and the reformist labour leaderships (the Social Contract, the Pact of Moncloa, the Historic Compromise) which induced the working class to acquiesce in attacks on its living standards that would have been fiercely resisted in earlier years, which in turn paved the way for a new period of calm and a general swing to the right. But, Harman insists, this new stabilisation is no more permanent than its predecessor in the fifties. Indeed it is a lot less firmly based because of the overall economic crisis of the world system. For this reason the ruling classes have every reason to fear, and we have every reason to hope for, ‘another sixty-eight’.

This revolutionary perspective gives Harman’s book a purpose and coherence completely lacking in the other accounts. It also leads him to devote considerable attention to an aspect of the struggle which they treat only in passing and with a certain disdain – the question of revolutionary organisation. For Caute, Fraser and even Ali, the various revolutionary groups, organisations and embryonic parties which arose or played a role in 1968 are just part of the general kaleidoscope of events. For Harman they represent various attempts to solve a fundamental problem – the creation of a revolutionary party of the working class, i.e. the instrument indispensable to any ultimate victory, whose absence made a crucial difference on a number of occasions in these years (May ’68 in France, Portugal 1975 for example). He therefore takes the groups’ ideas and activity seriously and the result is a fascinating account of the development and trials of the revolutionary left.

What particularly distinguishes this account is that it avoids getting bogged down in sectarian minutiae. Harman’s focus is always on the relationship between theory and practice, on how the ideas of the revolutionaries assist or hinder them giving a lead to the various spontaneous movements when they arise, and on their capacity to keep revolutionary activity on course in periods when it is necessary to swim against the tide. In this way the story of the revolutionary left is integrated into the analysis of the class struggle as a whole.

The revolutionary groups of 1968 and after suffered from many defects, most obviously smallness, inexperience and isolation from the working class. This, however, was more or less unavoidable given the nature of the immediately preceding period. More serious in the long run, Harman shows, was their confused politics. Arising in a period when the classical Marxist tradition had been all but obliterated, they by and large turned for their ideas to a mixture of theories adopted and adapted from third world nationalism – Fanon, Guevarism and Maoism. Even some of the Trotskyist groups were similarly infected (as Tariq’s book reveals).

When the struggle was advancing, these ideas tended to fill the revolutionaries’ heads with dreams of instant revolution (‘The duty of a revolutionary is to make the revolution’ said Guevara) which diverted them from the crucial task of gaining a base in the working class. When these expectations were shattered on the rocks of reality and it became necessary to retreat, such ideas offered no basis for coming to terms with the new situation and led in the main to collapse and disillusionment.

This, of course, is a generalisation. Italy is the extreme case where the largest revolutionary left in Europe destroyed itself in the space of a couple of years; Britain, where the influence of Maoism was minimal and where the SWP was able to maintain itself during the downturn, is something of an exception. Nevertheless it has not been a question of returning to square one. Just as capitalism has not been able to restore the secure economic and political conditions of the fifties, so revolutionary socialist ideas are nothing like as marginalised as they were in the fifty years that preceded 1968.

Which brings me to a final crucial difference between The Fire Last Time and the other books: the audience they are written for. Caute’s book, as far as one can judge, is aimed at ‘the general public’ with only a passing interest in 1968; Tariq’s and Fraser’s (despite its great merits) cater primarily for the left nostalgia market referred to at the beginning of the article; only Harman has written a book for the revolutionaries of today, that is a book which reviews the past in order to look to the future and which will serve as a real guide to action.

In so doing he has provided a unique analysis of a period of international history rich in lessons for present and forthcoming battles. It also contains many specific analyses – of the British upturn, of the Portuguese revolution, of the end of the Franco regime and so on – which could not be properly discussed in this review but which are of great value and interest in themselves. It should be bought and read by every reader of this journal.

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Last updated: 28 June 2018