Issue 219 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: 1968: the year the monolith cracked

Jonathan Neale

Several things stand out about 1968. It was a world movement. It began with a crisis of the old orders. Because it exploded into a rigid and reactionary world, it produced great hope. Students were important in many places, but workers were usually more important. What mattered in the end, in every place, was what the working class did or did not do. The strength of the movement was its joy and spontaneity. Our weakness was our leaders.

These are generalisations. Let's get specific. The movement started long before 1968. For me it began in 1961, when Pat Means became the first black student at my school in Texas. I was white. I knew I ought to ask Pat to the senior prom. I was 13 and terrified I would lose all my friends if I did. It took me 15 months to work up the courage. When I did, Pat said no, thank you very much, Jonathan, but my mother says it's too far. I was so relieved.

In 1971 I stood on the main street of Lashkargah, a small market town in south western Afghanistan. Thirty boys from the high school demonstrated on the dirt main road, while 100 peasants, me, an Afghan teacher and a few policemen watched.

The town was on the edge of famine. More hungry people came every day.

The boys took turns standing on an upturned box and shouting their slogans. They didn't make speeches. The main slogan was 'Death to the Khans'. The Khans were the landowners, several local men their fathers worked for. The boys meant it about death. Within ten years those boys would kill those Khans.

We watched and said nothing. Many of the crowd were the boys' parents, small peasants and sharecroppers. They were proud and terrified. They knew the government killed, often and unpredictably. The Afghan teacher next to me said, 'Do you have demonstrations in your country?' 'Yes,' I said quietly. Later, privately, he told me about being a Communist in Afghanistan.

What had happened to me, and what had made those boys so brave? 1968.

The year 1968 was the year the monoliths cracked. First, US power was humiliated in Vietnam. South Vietnam was an American puppet state, where 500,000 American troops had been sent to put down the Communist led NLF guerrillas. The long guerrilla war dragged on and on. Then on 31 January the NLF attacked from within the cities. They took control of Hue, the second city, and held it for weeks. In Saigon, the capital, they briefly seized the US embassy.

American firepower beat them, pulverizing the buildings and the cities and the civilians in them. But the people in the world with televisions had seen the courage of the Vietnamese. Nobody could now believe that the Vietnamese people supported the Americans, or that the US would win in the end.

The US had dominated the world for 20 years. In the US imperialism was called 'our leadership of the free world' and had been ideologically unchallenged for a generation. Now all that was in question.

In April Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to build support for striking garbage workers. Probably the FBI shot him, but nobody knew for sure. They didn't have to. King had dedicated his life to non-violence. Now the people he had led honoured him in the only way that made sense. They rioted and burned in 200 cities, because his death proved that non-violence did not work.

The other great power bloc was the Soviet empire and its satellites in Eastern Europe. They pretended to be socialist. Fat men in suits with briefcases and limousines ruled the same as in the West. Ordinary men and women worked the machines with resentment and cleaned the floors and watched the clock the same as in the West. But across the world most of the best militants thought those countries were socialist, some sort of model for what they wanted.

Czechoslovakia was part of the Russian sphere, ruled by Communist puppets of Moscow. But those ruling Communists split in 1967, and a faction under Alexander Dubcek took over the government. They wanted 'socialism with a human face', but without elections or strikes. Under pressure from the right, they turned to the workers for support and got it. The Russian rulers, their whole empire threatened, sent in the tanks.

There were demonstrations. Dubcek was taken prisoner. He was released when he promised Russia he would tell his people not to fight. He did that, and they followed him. But the Soviet monolith had cracked. Russia was the home of tanks which put down a movement. All over the world, militants who looked to Russia thought again.

In May 1968 the students in Paris demonstrated over issues nobody can remember. The police attacked them with gas and truncheons. The students built barricades of cobblestones and cars in the central university district. Bleeding and crying, they retreated barricade by barricade through the night. Across the country people listened on their radios.

The trade union leaders, Communists and Socialists, had condemned the students. Now pressure from below forced them to call a demonstration against the police in Paris. Around 1 million people came.

And that might have been it. But there was a small group of Trotskyists at an aircraft factory in a city in the west called Nantes. There was a 15 minute strike the Tuesday after the demonstration in Paris. At the end of the 15 minutes the Trotskyists and their supporters refused to go back to work. They went round the factory pulling everybody else out. They barricaded the manager in his office and took over the factory.

And because everybody was ready, because everybody had been angry for years, because they had seen the students fight and because they had seen the size of the demonstration, there were 8 million people on strike by the end of the week. It was the biggest general strike in world history.

The trade union bureaucrats were Communist Party members. They led the workers and sold them out. For them it was that or watch those beneath them take power. They did get the workers better wages, better holidays and union recognition. But for a moment, for a few days in the occupations, workers had tasted revolution. So anything less was, and felt like, a defeat.

However, outside France we had learned general strikes were possible. We had been told that was all over, all gone, myths of 1917. (As you are told now: 'That's all 1970s militancy don't be silly.') Then in 68 we saw a general strike and everybody could see the power of the workers.

The US monolith was under threat. Communism was discredited. And the working class was back. In many parts of the world people were able to generalise because these three things happened together, at one time. In the years that followed, 1968 became a world movement of many smaller movements. In many places there was an explosion of hope. The stronger the grip of reaction, the stronger the feeling when it let loose. I remember my mother sitting in a chair, watching a television programme about women's liberation, the tears streaming down her face, just saying over and over again, with such bitterness and such relief, '50 years, 50 years, 50 years.' My mother was 50.

It's hard to convey those feelings. But look at the pictures in Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins' book 1968: Marching in the Streets look at the faces. Or better yet, read the first half of The Beginning of the End by Angelo Quattrochi. (Skip the second half of the book, by Tom Nairn.)

Quattrochi was an anarchist poet in Paris in 68. He wrote in English, as the struggle was happening, from the barricades and the occupations. The book looks like prose and is only 80 pages long. But it's a poem. Read it slowly, read it aloud. It's beautiful. It's funny, it's sad, and in many places it's wise. I won't quote from it here, because much of the power is in the way Quattrochi builds his effects from page to page. In places I disagree with him important places to him and me. But read it for the feeling of the time. Nothing gives it better. Chris Harman's book is written in this spirit. Chris is editor of Socialist Worker. His book is called The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After. He means what can we learn for the fire next time?

There are lessons for now. For that was a time of expansion, when in Britain if you wanted a job you got one. Think of the bitterness now, the rage at what happened to you when you were unemployed, when you were humiliated at the benefit office, when your mother couldn't get into hospital. Think of all that silenced hate. And now think what would happen if there were mass riots in London, a demonstration of 1 million and all the workplaces in the country were occupied.

Think if this happened right after the Americans had invaded Iraq and been forced to retreat by strikes across the Arab world and mass demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi that burned down the American embassies.

That's not quite what happened in 68. But it's the sort of thing that happened. It produced hope, and an openness to revolutionary ideas.

All over the world. Those high school boys in Lashkargah may not have heard of the Paris revolt. But they knew the workers and peasants and students of East Pakistan had risen against the Pakistani army and split the country in half, creating Bangladesh from East Pakistan. They knew student demonstrations in West Pakistan had begun a process that ended when a general strike in Karachi removed the military dictator. 1968 and the Chinese 'Cultural Revolution' produced Pakistan and Bangladesh, and they produced Lashkargah.

But it was not just Texas and Prague and Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The good thing about Ali and Watkins' book is that it has incidents, snapshots of struggle, from all over the world; Rio and Berlin and Mexico and Tokyo.

The bad thing is it does not tell you what was wrong with the movement. In particular, it does not tell you what was wrong with the leaders. Dubcek, Bhutto, Bobby Kennedy, Huey Newton, Che and Fidel, are all praised. But if you don't see what was wrong with the politics of those leaders, then you don't know why we lost. And if you don't know why we lost, then there isn't any point in fighting again. We'll just lose again.

Of course, in one sense there were victories and they remain important. Gay liberation and women's liberation made a difference, and civil rights were won in the US. France and Italy have more powerful unions. In the long run, we have destroyed Stalinism. The US government is much more scared of sending troops against 'hostile' populations because after Vietnam US workers won't let their sons die for that.

These are victories, and they are particularly important in terms of 'social values'. But most black workers in the US still have hard lives, many are unemployed, many gay men and lesbians are frightened of exposure, and women are still oppressed. Suffering continues, and is often worse, because the world economy is in crisis.

But all those of us who hoped for revolution, for fundamental change, lost. And the larger the movement, the stronger that feeling, because the more people hoped.

We lost because we looked to people who had the wrong politics. That sounds like a sectarian generalisation. Let's be specific.

In the Indian state of West Bengal there was a wishy washy Communist state government, but the home minister ruled that police should not be sent into the factories to solve industrial disputes. The two sides should settle it themselves in the factory. The workers of Calcutta invented the gherao a non-violent tactic in the Gandhian tradition. When they had a demand they simply surrounded the relevant manager in a body. They didn't hurt him, but if he wanted to meet his bodily needs he had to shit in his pants inside the ring of workers. Some managers lasted an hour, some 20 hours. All gave in. The national government stepped in and replaced the home minister and sent in the police. But by then there was a mass movement among the workers in Calcutta.

The young people attracted to revolution in Calcutta left the city for the countryside, influenced by the ideas of Mao and Che Guevara. They organised the landless, meeting at night, planning the assassinations of landlords. The police and the army tracked them and found some and tortured them and broke some of them, and found the rest and tortured more and jailed the lot.

The revolutionaries could have stayed in Calcutta and built in the jute mills and the mines. They could have taken the movement to Bombay and Delhi. Instead they turned their backs on urban workers' power, because the only revolutionary politics they had heard about told them to.

In Afghanistan the Communists won a considerable base in the cities. They recruited army officers and staged a coup. The countryside rose against them. The Communists bombed and strafed the villagers, and the rising grew worse. The Russians came in to support the Communists, and a few months later the government workers in Kabul went on strike and the city rose in demonstration. The Commmunists shot the demonstrators, and strafed and napalmed and tortured the peasants and the workers and each other. And lost.

Cordoba was the city in Argentina where Che Guevara grew up. Multinational capital built new car plants and a new working class grew up. One day the police attacked a workers' demonstration, and the workers fought back into the night. The Cordobazo they called it, the Cordoba rising. After that the revolutionaries led the strikes that organised the Fiat plant. The revolutionary movement had the power to challenge the Peronist trade union bureaucracy in Buenos Aires, it had a chance of leading the workers of Argentina.

Then the terrorist wing of the revolutionaries kidnapped the boss of Fiat. The revolutionaries did not protest, because they thought kidnapping was revolutionary, because of the example of Che. And the army was able to smash them, because the workers did not feel that way.

The fundamental problem was the same. Most people who looked to revolution looked to a group of people who would be in charge of the process. The point of a plot in the countryside or a kidnapping is that you can be Che Guevara, not Jane Schmuck along with 10 million other Jane Schmucks. This fitted with the elitism that felt natural to many students, particularly those trained for privilege.

The tradition of socialism from below had been almost obliterated by two generations of Stalinism. You could see in France, or in even the smallest struggle, the shape of power from below. The idea of direct democracy, of workers' power, made a sudden sense. But the people who wanted that then turned to politics that were rooted in power from above.

The reformists too were wedded to power from above. In Britain in 1974 the new Labour government presided over mass unemployment, a wage freeze, hospital closures and cuts. The trade union leaders and the Communist Party said we had to support the Labour government, because at least they weren't Tories. (We're hearing the same again.)

I was in the Socialist Workers Party then. We only had 4,000 members, mostly recruited after 68, but we meant it about socialism from below. In 1976 I was a shop steward in a London hospital. I went to a conference called by shop stewards in the car plants in Birmingham. They were led by Communists. They wanted us to reject the 'social contract' with Labour, because they were under pressure from below car workers were losing their jobs. But they didn't want us to support the skilled toolroom workers who were on strike in the car factories against the wage freeze because really they wanted us to do what Labour needed. I learned then don't listen to the leaders' words, just watch if they support every struggle.

I learned another thing. The SWP at that conference argued for supporting the toolroom workers. We lost it, about 1,000 to 700. We lost it because the Communist Party and the reformists had built more and longer in the big workplaces than we had.

In ten years of struggle, I had learned that we needed an organisation of socialists committed to power from below, not to coups or hijacking or parliaments or winning union positions. We need an organisation of democrats, who will sit in the working class and argue and agitate and patiently explain. An organisation that can move like lightning together when social crisis demands that, as it did in France in 68. But an organisation that will not try for power until we have persuaded, shown and won our fellow workers to the revolution.

Chris Harman's book is about how to do that. It's about how workers think and feel and change in struggle, and how revolutionary organisations can and cannot relate to those changes. It's a wise and detailed manual of strategy and tactics for revolutionaries.

Harman is an analytical writer, not an emotional one. If you want the feel of the movement, if you want to know how it was, read Quattrochi. If you want to know what can be learned from the movement, get Harman's book and read it. And reread it in the struggles to come.

What do we know for next time? First, we need an organisation of democratic socialists from below. Second, the tide of struggle flows up and back internationally, not nationally. Third, when the struggle comes the hope and joy will be proportional to the bitterness we have lived through. Fourth, last time round the reformists and the Communists and the revolutionaries from above made the running. This time round the reformists will have no answer to the crisis of the market and the Communists have been smashed. This cuts two ways. It opens a space for revolutionary socialism. But it means that if we do not fill that space the working class will not have even the reformists to defend us.

Fifth, last time the movement was most explosive in places where a new working class came up against old authoritarian structures. There are many such places now. Jakarta is one of them, but so is Los Angeles. Sixth, last time the movement grew in an expanding system. It's easier to dream when you're not frightened of losing your job. But last time that also meant the grip of reformism was far stronger, because it seemed that reforms worked. This time it will be bitter. Seventh, any new generalised upheaval will be a reaction to a crisis of the system. We cannot predict the form of that crisis an economic crisis, a hole in the sky from pollution, a defeat for the US in war. But when it comes, it will change everything.

Ten years ago, in 1988, there were a lot of books and television shows about 68. All my friends my age watched and said, didn't we look young (we did), and weren't we nicer than they are today (we were).

The comrades at my local college rang me up and asked me to come down to the occupation and give a talk to a Socialist Worker student meeting about May 68. That's how I celebrated 68. Because history is not a memory or a chance to have a private cry about your youth. History is a weapon in your mind and hands for tomorrow.

The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After by Chris Harman, Bookmarks 9.95.
1968: Marching in the Streets, by Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins, Bloomsbury 20.
The Beginning of the End, by Angelo Quattrochi and Tom Nairn, Verso 9.
1968 Magnum throughout the world, by Eric Hobsbawm and Marc Weitzmann, Hazan 29.99.


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page