As the crisis of capitalism spread around the world, the working class took centre stage – but the revolt did not result in successful revolution anywhere, writes Neil Faulkner

The events in France in May 1968 were a concentrated expression of a general political crisis of world capitalism. Exceptionally militant student demonstrations triggered a general strike of ten million workers which immediately posed the question of state power.

At the beginning of May, the authorities had closed Paris University and the police had launched a violent attack on student demonstrators. By the end of the month, France was on the brink of working-class revolution.

Events elsewhere sometimes followed a similar trajectory, but with differences, and always in slower motion.

In West Germany, the universities continued to be centres of radicalism and militant protest through the early 1970s. But the working class – in what was the most successful of the post-war European economies – remained largely inert, leaving student activists isolated from wider German society, and therefore prone to ultra-leftism and even, in extreme cases, terrorism.

In the US, too, the workers played only a limited role. The movement was dominated throughout by students, black activists, and young radicals involved in a range of campaigns from anti-war protests to gay rights. This was partly because of the weakness of organised labour, but also because the war, the draft, and racism were such central issues.

The biggest US protests came in 1970, when National Guardsmen (conscripted state militia) opened fire and killed four student anti-war protestors on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Colleges were occupied across the US in response to the atrocity.

Violent confrontations also took place in Northern Ireland, where the Catholic minority had faced systematic discrimination since the partition of the island in 1921. Repeatedly battered by sectarian police and right-wing thugs as they demonstrated for civil rights, the Catholic population of Derry rose in revolt in August 1969 and turned the Bogside into a ‘no-go area’ under popular control.

Elsewhere, the working class moved to centre-stage. In Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, a rising tide of strikes peaked with a wave of factory occupations by rank-and-file metalworkers acting outside official union channels.

The strikers demanded recognition of new democratic workplace structures, local negotiation of contracts, reduced working hours, and upgrading of insurance, pension, and social benefits to parity with white-collar workers.

In Britain, the Tory Government’s pay controls and anti-union laws were broken by strike action and mass picketing in 1972. The Tories were then defeated in a general election in 1974 when the miners went on strike in response to renewed attempts to hold down pay.

Much of Latin America was also in ferment. Chile became the primary focus of hopes for change when Salvador Allende was elected president and formed a Popular Unity government committed to radical reform.

When the bosses organised a strike in an effort to drive Allende from office, the workers seized control of the workplaces and established a network of workers’ councils (cordones). 1972 saw Chile poised between revolution and counter-revolution.

By the time long-serving Spanish dictator Franco died in 1975, his regime was being buffeted by mass strikes. Demands for pay rises were mixed with demands for democratic reform, regional autonomy, and release of political prisoners.

Developments in Spain were heavily influenced by yet more dramatic events unfolding in Portugal, where, in April 1974, the dictator Caetano had been overthrown in a military coup. His replacement, the conservative general Spinola, was unable to contain the wave of struggle unleashed.

Radical army officers wanted an immediate end to colonial wars in Africa and formed alliances with striking workers in the shipyards of Lisbon and Setnave and other industries. Right-wing coup attempts were defeated and Spinola was overthrown. Like France in 1968 and Chile in 1972, Portugal hovered on the brink of working-class revolution.

Yet the global political crisis of 1968-1975 – what Chris Harman called ‘the fire last time’ – did not result in successful revolution anywhere: not in France, Chile, or Portugal; certainly not in Germany, the US, or Britain.

The crisis was resolved in one of two ways: by murderous repression; or, more often, by carefully engineered demobilisation.

In both cases, political confusion and error on the Left was usually vital in providing the ruling class with an opportunity to defeat the movement and restore the stability of the system.

Repression was the norm in Latin American. It was trialled first in Mexico City on 2 October 1968. With the Olympic Games due to start in ten days’ time, Mexico’s authoritarian single-party regime was determined that nothing should detract from the state-sponsored spectacle. It was also determined to destroy the protest movement among Mexican students before it could have a radicalising impact on wider society.

A mass demonstration on that day was corralled in a major downtown square by 5,000 troops. Ordered to open fire, they killed at least a hundred. Hundreds more were wounded and/or arrested. The whole protest movement was broken in a single day of state terror.

In Chile, the mass movement was wider and deeper. Millions of workers, peasants, and shanty-town dwellers became involved in mass struggle and grassroots democracy in 1970-1973. Destroying such a movement was necessarily far bloodier than Mexico City.

Allende was a left-reformist politician who believed in a parliamentary road to socialism. He advised his supporters to rely on constitutional methods and refused to issue them with arms.

In September 1973, General Pinochet carried out a military coup backed by the Chilean landowners and bosses, US multinational corporations, and the CIA. Allende was murdered. So were an estimated 60,000 of his supporters.

Something similar happened in Argentina. A mass movement for change there was also diverted into constitutional channels. A subsequent military coup in 1974 led to the murder or ‘disappearance’ of tens of thousands of left-wing activists.

Repression was always in the mix. Everywhere, demonstrators and strikers were attacked by the police and stitched up by the courts. Sometimes, they were killed outright. Thirteen Civil Rights demonstrators were murdered by British soldiers in Derry on 30 January 1972 (‘Bloody Sunday’).

But wholesale repression was not usually an option. Bloody Sunday turned out to be a mistake. An attempt to smash the protest movement, it had the opposite effect: it turned it into an armed struggle as hundreds of young Catholics joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Something similar had happened in the US, where state violence against black protest, culminating in the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, had spawned a militant armed response in the form of the Black Panthers.

The British Cabinet rejected using troops against striking miners in 1972 precisely because they feared the working-class response if pickets were killed. In the end, the survival of the system depended less on police and soldiers, more on reformist politicians and union officials.

France had provided the model. The Communist-dominated CGT union federation had led a return to work in early June 1968 on the basis of the Grenelle Agreement – limited economic concessions by the employers and the state.

The re-stabilisation of European capitalism generally followed this pattern. The key roles were played by trade union leaders and Social-Democratic or Communist politicians. They used the power of the mass movement to win some concessions. They then used their influence over the workers to demobilise the movement and destroy its power.

In Italy, it was called ‘the Historic Compromise’ – which meant the Communist Party’s willingness to govern in harmony with (right-wing) Christian Democrats; in Britain, ‘the Social Contract’ – union-policed wage cuts and strike bans in return for Labour Government promises of reform; in Spain, ‘the Pact of Moncloa’ – wage limits, public-spending cuts, and union opposition to strikes that gave liberal politicians the breathing-space they needed after the fall of fascism.

Perhaps the dénouement was strangest of all in Portugal. The Communist Party emerged from underground existence under the dictatorship with enormous prestige. But it then devoted itself not to working-class revolution, but to an attempt to establish a Stalinist regime by winning influence over radical army officers.

It was outmanoeuvred. Right-wing officers took action to suppress their left-wing brethren inside the armed forces. They acted with the blessing of a broad coalition of moderate political parties. The Socialist Party – committed to parliamentary rule and limited social reform – was the main beneficiary. The revolution ended in a whimper.

But however it was done – whether by bloodshed or bureaucratic manoeuvre – the defeat of the mass movements of 1968-1975 was to have huge and unforeseen consequences.

For, the Great Boom had ended. Capitalism now faced an economic crisis as well as a political one. And by the mid 1970s, as that crisis deepened, the ruling class was in a far better position to resolve it at the expense of the working class than it would have been had the mass movement still been on the offensive.

Neil Faulkner

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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