The long sleep of the post-war period was brought to an end in 1968, as revolts erupted across the developed world, writes Neil Faulkner
The Tet Offensive in South Vietnam was the beginning of a year of revolt across the world. A wave of militant demonstrations, mass strikes, and urban riots swept across the major cities of the capitalist system.
Many who lived through it felt it was a year of revolution like 1936 or 1848. The mood everywhere was tense with expectation and hope. A new post-war generation – the children of the Boom, raised in the shadow of the Bomb – had suddenly come of age and erupted onto history’s stage.
Revolt against the whole system was a common thread in the events of 1968. So, too, was the central role of young people, whether students or young workers. Protestors thought of themselves as part of a single movement. Action in one place inspired action in the next.
But the events of 1968 were also diverse. The struggle erupted along social fracture-lines that were different from country to country.
In Britain, Vietnam remained the principal focus. In March, thousands marched on the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, arriving with arms linked, carrying Vietnamese resistance flags, and chanting ‘Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?’ There were violent clashes with police.
In October, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign called a second demonstration. With around 100,000 people, three or four times the size of March, it was on a scale unprecedented for a political demonstration at the time. As well as thousands-strong contingents from the major universities, large numbers of workers also marched behind trade union banners.
In the USA, too, the war remained a central focus. When Mayor Daly of Chicago unleashed his riot cops on a peace demonstration outside the Democratic Party Convention in front of the world’s TV cameras in August, millions watched in horror graphic images of the violence with which the capitalist state treated democratic dissent.
But it was in the black urban ghettos that the movement peaked in the US that year. When Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, black America had erupted in a storm of rage.
There had been big anti-police riots before – Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, and a dozen places in 1966 and 1967. But this time, in an unprecedented night of destruction, looting, and fighting, a hundred cities burned across America.
A different kind of struggle again unfolded in Czechoslovakia. A ferment of debate among intellectuals and students had broken down the Stalinist censorship as splits opened in the ruling bureaucracy. The students formed a free union. The workers voted out government appointees from the leadership of state-run unions. The media filled with debate.
In August 1968, the tanks rolled in to crush ‘the Prague Spring’. Reformist leaders were arrested and deported. But it would take the Russians nine months to defeat the sustained passive resistance they faced from the Czechs.
Almost everywhere in the developed world that year, there were demonstrations, strikes, and occupations – from Londonderry to New York, West Berlin to Mexico City, Warsaw to Rome.
But it was in France, in May-June 1968, that the movement came closest to revolution.
As well as campaigning against the war, the French student movement was protesting about conditions in the universities, the character of education, and the whole authoritarian set-up in France under the ten-year rule of President Charles de Gaulle.
The authorities overreacted. They shut down the whole of Paris University and sent in the police. The violence unleashed provoked mass resistance. On ‘the Night of the Barricades’ (10 May), students and young workers battled the riot police for several hours and eventually drove them from the Left Bank university district.
The workers listened to live reports of the fighting on their radios or watched the events on TV. They, too, hated de Gaulle’s police. They, too, had faced them on the picket-lines, where police had sometimes killed striking workers with impunity.
The union leaders, under pressure from below, called a one-day general strike in support of the students. The response surpassed all expectations. On 13 May, hundreds of thousands of workers marched alongside tens of thousands of students. The chants were ominous: ‘Adieu, de Gaulle! Ten years is enough!’
The following day, young workers at the Sud Aviation plant in Nantes began an occupation. Their example was infectious. Within two weeks, France had ground to a halt, with an estimated ten million on strike, and hundreds of thousands occupying workplaces.
It was a re-run of 1936 (see MHW 85), only on a larger scale. France was close to revolution. De Gaulle fled to consult the generals: would they deploy military force to defend the government if necessary?
In the event, it ended as 1936 had done. The Communist Party, still with immense prestige inside the working class, engineered a return to work on a promise of wage increases and a general election. It was reformist leaders – not reactionary generals – who ended the revolutionary strike and saved French capitalism.
The events of 1968, in France and across the world, were the tumultuous beginning of a political crisis that would continue until 1975. What had caused it? What had brought to an end the long sleep of the 1950s and early 1960s?
‘Vietnam was my generation’s Spain,’ explains British feminist Sheila Rowbotham, ‘and the suffering of the people became imprinted in our psyches.’
Vietnam, with its monstrous use of military hardware against a peasant people, seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with the world: imperialism, violence, injustice, poverty …
But it was the catalyst rather than the cause of the crisis which shook world capitalism between 1968 and 1975.
The war had its biggest impact in the States. Americans came onto the streets because their own country was the aggressor and because young men were being conscripted to fight. But even here, the war was linked to other issues.
‘No Vietnamese ever called me “nigger”,’ said world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The real enemy, of course, was at home.
It had really started back in 1955, on the day that Rosa Parks decided that she had had enough and sat down in a whites-only bus seat. She ignited a bus boycott that shook the racist power structure of Montgomery, Alabama, and thereafter a mass movement of black Americans that was to shake the racist power structure of the whole of the US South.
The decade-long struggle of the Civil Rights Movement transformed America. It radicalised a generation of young activists, black and white. And when the war came, they knew what to do.
What gave the movement its power was the social transformation wrought by the Great Boom. Black Americans would not take any more because too many of them had moved from the isolation and fear of backcountry farms to jobs in the big cities.
It was the same worldwide. The boom had sucked millions of workers into the factories – from poor countries to rich, from rural areas to urban, from the home to the workplace.
It had also created whole new industries, suburbs, and concentrations of people. Not least, it had turned higher education from the preserve of a privileged few to an opportunity for a large proportion of the youth.
In Britain, between 1939 and 1964, the number of university students had risen from 69,000 to 300,000. In Paris, in 1968, there were 200,000 students in the city, of whom around 30,000 joined the demonstrations.
As the world changed, old oppressions became intolerable, new exploitation provoked outrage. And as so often, those first into action – the blacks, the students, the anti-war protestors – led the way for the class as a whole.
The vanguard provided encouragement to others to reflect on their condition and its injustices, and to organise themselves to fight back. Both the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement were spawned by the mass radicalisation of the late Sixties.
But it was when the workers also moved, as in France, as later in Italy, Britain, and Portugal, that the system was shaken to its foundations.
It was as Marx had said: the system creates its own gravediggers.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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