Fifty years later, it’s hard to convey the speed at which the events of 1968 followed one another—the way in which that year simultaneously felt like the world could sink down into barbarism or rush forward toward something new. 1968 marked a period when millions resolved to change the world, and hundreds of thousands of them joined or founded socialist organizations. Remembering that era and drawing its lessons is a central focus of this issue of the ISR.
The year began with a massive coordinated series of attacks by national liberation fighters in Vietnam—known as the Tet Offensive—against US occupying forces. On February 27, Walter Cronkite declared the Vietnam War “unwinnable.” On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, setting off riots in virtually every major city in the United States. In April, Columbia University students took over buildings to protest the university’s connection to the war in Vietnam and its plan to build a segregated sports stadium dubbed “gym crow” by students and local Harlem residents. On May 3, riots broke out during student demonstrations in Paris. A week later, workers launched a general strike throughout France in support of the students. By May 22, 10 million workers were on strike in what was at
that point the largest general strike in history. In July, strikes and demonstrations broke out across Czechoslovakia before Russian tanks and troops poured over the border to crush it. In August, the Democratic National Convention turned into a police riot as students, media, and even delegates were attacked indiscriminately. On October 2, military police massacred hundreds of student demonstrators in Mexico City days before the opening of the Olympic Games, which were boycotted by thirty-two African nations in protest of apartheid South Africa’s participation. An October 5 demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland kicked off that country’s civil rights movement. And on October 18, at the Olympics, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, medalists in the 200-meter race, raise their gloved fists during the medal ceremony in what would become one of the iconic images of 1968.
1968 saw protests not just in Europe and the United States, but across Africa—from Senegal to South Africa—and in Latin America. Uruguay, Brazil, and later Chile, saw the rise of mass movements involving many different sectors of society, from students to workers, taking on, in some cases, revolutionary, or near-revolutionary, proportions.
This issue includes an article by Mexican socialist Manuel Aguilar Mora revisiting Mexico’s 1968, the student movement, and the massacre at Tlatelolco fifty years ago. South African historian Heike Becker explores in her article the struggles of students and youth on the African continent that are too often left out of the narrative of the “’68 moment.” Becker then focuses in on the struggles of students in South Africa against apartheid in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the echoes of those movements in the recent post-apartheid student struggles in South Africa.
1968 was a year of revolutionary hope. Much of the time the system we live in doesn’t hold on to power through the use of force (although it is never above using it). It does so by convincing people that there is no alternative. Around the world, 1968 was a year that showed the violence of which this system is capable in its quest to protect the power and profits of a tiny minority. But it also inspired hope that a different world could be won.
1968 was the culmination of more than a decade of sustained protest—and some of those ’68 moments lasted into 1969 (Italy’s “Hot Autumn”), 1970-73 (Chile), 1974 (Greece), and Portugal (the 1975 revolution). The struggles of 1968 were preceded, and influenced, by a whole period of radicalization: by the civil rights and Black Power and anti-Vietnam War movements in the US, the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people for national liberation, and a host of other anti-imperialist struggles that had emerged in the postwar period, from Cuba to Algeria. Che’s electrifying call in 1967 to create “two, three, many Vietnams” was one that inspired radicals throughout the world. For years, people had demonstrated, picketed, and sat-in. What began for many as outrage over one or another aspect of capitalism, oppression, and imperialism developed into a far-reaching questioning of the entire structure of world capitalism.
In the United States, for example, tens of thousands of people had begun their political activity in the early 1960s believing that Jim Crow and Vietnam were the exception—dark stains on an otherwise well-intentioned nation. If you could protest, if you could stand up with the moral force of justice behind you, you could sway the people in power. At the height of the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech movement, student leader Mario Savio in a speech gave voice to the politics of the early 1960s:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
Tens of thousands of people did just that. At times they faced horrible violence, and as the decade wore on, the movement scored important victories. Yet the gears didn’t stop.
After a long struggle, the US civil rights movement won the end of legal Jim Crow only to confront the much deeper roots of structural racism, of poverty, and the American injustice system. It confronted conditions in the North, which were often just as brutal as in the South—except that the Democratic politicians who had at least paid lip service to civil rights were the ones presiding over the Black ghettos of the North. Even as the antiwar movement was beginning to turn public opinion against the war, the war only seemed to escalate.
In her account of her experiences in 1968, which will be published on the ISR’s website along with other first-hand reminiscences, Francis Fox Piven says: “[P]rotests are contagious. People on the move show other people what can be done.” Movements in one area gave rise to and confidence to movements in other areas. The driving force of the 1960s radicalization was the movement against imperialism and colonialism on the one hand, and the fight against racism on the other. But those movements also gave rise to movements for women’s liberation, gay liberation, a powerful Chicano movement, and higher levels of class struggle, not just in France, but also in the United States. The roundtable discussion with three historians on women in the Black Panther Party—with an introduction by Leela Yellesetty—gives a glimpse into the potentials and challenges of that process.
As these movements continued to organize, they ran up against structural limits of the capitalist system. They began drawing more radical conclusions. Through a process of radicalization, in which social movements of students, workers, and the oppressed challenged racism, imperialism, sexism, and class oppression, millions of people came to the conclusion that a more revolutionary transformation of society was necessary. To give one example, a 1970 survey concluded that nearly a third of Black soldiers in Vietnam were willing to join the Black Panther Party when they returned to the United States.
But how do you change the system? Students had taken over universities. From 1966–1969, nearly every major city in America had exploded in urban rebellions often led by African American veterans returning from Vietnam. And two Democratic presidents had escalated the war in Vietnam while failing to seriously tackle the problems of racism and poverty at home. Still the gears kept turning.
A famous slogan was graffitied across Paris in 1968: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” It is an inspiring reminder even today, when we are constantly told that we need small dreams and narrow horizons, that change comes when we think big. It’s important to remember that history moves in jolts and that, very quickly, what once seemed impossible becomes both possible and necessary.
The explosion of student and worker protests in Paris in May 1968 showed a new possibility: that the gears and wheels and levers, the apparatus that made the machine work, wasn’t machinery at all. It was men and women with their own dreams. When workers throughout France struck in solidarity with student protestors in Paris, it showed the potential of a new revolutionary power. For weeks, the French government seemed on the brink of collapse. Ernest Reed’s overview of the French May and Megan Behrent’s analysis of the high school students’ rebellion in France reveal the creative power and potential of a struggle that brought, albeit for a brief period, workers to center stage. As Behrent writes, “Although the events of May 1968 fell short of a revolution, the lasting image of student and workers struggling in solidarity to transform both education and society at large is a powerful image—one that inspires radicals today much as it terrifies rulers the world over.”
Although the scale of working-class rebellion in the United States never reached the heights of May in Paris, the movements did begin to seep into the working class in two profound ways. First, the period 1965–75 witnessed a significant rise in unofficial “wildcat” strikes across the country, and second, new radical movements emerged among young workers, particularly African American workers as documented in Lee Sustar’s article about the Black worker revolts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In addition, a full-fledged revolt took place within the armed forces that, along with the continued resistance of the Vietnamese people, played an important role in bringing about the US defeat in Vietnam.
1968 was explosive, but nowhere did it result in revolutionary change. France gave us a glimpse of the power and creativity of workers in struggle. But it did catalyze young radicals around the world to seek revolutionary forms of organization to take on the capitalist system as a whole.
It’s certain that many of the system’s problems, from inequality to oppression to war are every bit as pressing, and in many cases worse today, than they were in 1968. A look back at 1968 reminds us that a socialist alternative has always found a way to revive the imagination of a new generation.
The challenge today is to build now—both movements as well as socialist organizations—for the upheavals to come. To quote Rosa Luxemburg: “Your order is built on sand. Tomorrow, the revolution will raise its head again, proclaiming to your horror amidst a blaze of trumpets, ‘I was, I am, I always shall be.’”
Also in this issue
This issue also includes an article by Rafael Bernabe, a long-time Puerto Rican socialist and activist and member of the Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (Working People’s Party), on the background to the interlocking crises in Puerto Rico. Bernabe concludes that “Puerto Rico’s dire situation is the result, not only of colonial rule, but of the destructive imperatives of capitalist competition.”
November 1918 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the German Revolution—a drawn-out process of mass struggle that began with strikes and soldier’s mutinies that brought down the German Kaiser and gave rise to a period of heightened mass working-class struggle. The failure of the German Communists to take advantage of a final revolutionary opportunity in 1923 led to the subsequent rise and victory of Hitler’s Nazi Party. Axel Fair-Shulz offers a feature-length review of Haymarket Books’ reissue of Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923, which, he argues, “remains the single best introductory book in English on the German Revolution of 1918–23.” Sean Larson offers a substantial review of Weimar Communism as Mass Movement 1918–1933, a book of essays by key historians on the period discussing the emergence of German Communism after the fall of the Kaiser to its defeat at Hitler’s hands in 1933. According to Larson, the book “provides an invaluable history for English readers and will be a touchstone for the revived interest in these questions among an emerging socialist left.