19 January 2008
This year marks the 40th anniversary of 1968. Ian Birchall looks at
the lasting legacy of a year in which the oppressed and exploited
fought back and proved they can win
A Labour government elected with great enthusiasm a few years
earlier, holding down wages, cutting public services, tightening
immigration controls and slavishly backing a US war.
Sounds familiar? That was Britain at the beginning of 1968.
But 1968 would be a year of the unexpected, a year when the left,
like everyone else, would be surprised by events that were often
hectic, sometimes bizarre, but which above all revealed the
possibility of transforming the world.
Over the coming months 1968 will doubtless be commemorated in the
media. Much of what we shall be told will be myths, if not outright
lies. The year will be misrepresented as a year of sex, drugs and
rock'n'roll – and of "student riots".
The real truth about 1968 was an unwelcome one for our rulers and
their hangers-on. The oppressed showed they could fight back – and
sometimes that they could win.
In January the Vietnamese liberation forces launched a major
offensive against the occupying US troops.
They even seized the US embassy in the South Vietnamese capital,
Saigon. US troops regained control with much loss of Vietnamese life.
But it became clear that though the US had not yet lost the war, they
could never win it.
The world's greatest power had been humiliated. Now the Vietnamese
were seen not as victims but as heroes – an inspiration to all those
fighting back against oppression.
Around the world there were demonstrations in support of Vietnam.
Many of those demonstrating were students. Over the previous 20 years
there had been a massive growth in the numbers of students.
Once a university education had been a path to privilege – now it
simply made you an exploited white collar worker. As Bob Dylan put
it, "Twenty years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift."
Students were getting angry. Not just about the slaughter in Vietnam,
but about their own situation.
Overcrowded and inadequate facilities, petty rules imposed by
authoritarian administrators, antiquated programmes of study that did
not meet their needs – all these were targets for an emerging student movement.
The old order was not going to roll over and die. In West Germany the
student movement was slandered and reviled by the right wing press.
Such hatred was whipped up that student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot
and seriously wounded.
In the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
He had gone to Memphis to support a strike by refuse workers, and had
called for a general strike in the city.
The possibility of the civil rights movement linking up with working
class struggle posed a terrible threat to the whole system.
In Britain there was a terrible shock for the left. A leading Tory,
Enoch Powell, made a viciously racist speech in which he condemned
immigration and foresaw violence as a result of it – a river "foaming
with much blood".
His sentiments won the approval of some groups of white workers,
disillusioned by the failures of the Labour government. On May Day
London dockers struck and marched in support of Powell. But there was
Terry Barrett, a docker and a member of the International Socialists
(forerunner of the SWP), courageously gave out a leaflet that drew
out the real class issues: "Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right wing
Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his party and his
class. Again and again he has argued that the docks are 'grossly overmanned'."
Barrett helped to break the atmosphere of fear prevalent in the docks.
Powell's speech gave encouragement to the far right. It also acted as
a whiplash to the left. The Labour Party was generally inert in face
of the racist threat, but a new layer of activists was stimulated to
face the urgent challenge.
They soon received encouragement. In Paris there had been student
demonstrations from the beginning of May.
The Sorbonne university in Paris was closed by the authorities. On
the night of 10-11 May students were attacked by police with clubs
and CS gas. They tore up cobbles from the streets, built barricades,
and held their ground.
The government backed down, reopened the Sorbonne and released
imprisoned students. The students had shown that state power could be
On 13 May union leaders called a one-day strike, hoping this would
allow workers to let off steam. A million marched through Paris.
People were realising that token action was not enough. The next day
Sud-Aviation workers in the city of Nantes decided to indefinitely
occupy their factory. Within days the strike spread to the whole of
France. Ten million stopped work, the biggest general strike in history.
In Nantes trade unions ran the city, controlling prices and
organising petrol supplies. Elsewhere action committees were set up
to deal with the problems of supplies.
When the government tried to call a referendum, it could not find
printers to produce ballot papers. For a whole generation to whom
working class power had simply been an abstract phrase, it had now
become an immediate reality.
Eventually the government – with the cooperation of the trade union
leaders and a Communist Party obsessed with electoral politics –
managed to regain control. But after this proof of working class
power, nothing would be the same again.
The centres of world power were now shaken. The war in Vietnam was
causing huge upheavals inside the US. Riots had followed King's murder.
Lyndon B Johnson, architect of the war, decided not to stand for
re-election and retired from politics. Robert Kennedy, campaigning
for the Democratic nomination on an anti-war position, was shot by a
Palestinian student enraged at his pro-Zionist stance.
When the Democratic Convention met in Chicago in August, a huge
anti-war demonstration was brutally attacked by police.
Things were no smoother in the Eastern bloc. In Czechoslovakia,
Alexander Dubcek's government was promising "socialism with a human
face". In August Russian tanks entered Prague to restore Moscow's
control. They encountered massive working class resistance.
The Russians reasserted their power, but not before revealing to the
world that Eastern bloc "Communism" was a sham.
Throughout the world Communist Parties condemned the invasion. It was
the beginning of the end for a Moscow-centred monolithic Communist movement.
These were the headline-making events of 1968. Below the surface
there was a ferment of revolt, as different groups of the oppressed
began to reject their oppression and assert their power.
Greater London Council tenants marched against rent increases, and
squatters confronted homelessness with direct action. A wave of
occupations swept British universities.
Students at Hornsey College of Art occupied for six weeks. The
students quickly began to talk of taking control of education. When
security guards were sent to evict them, the occupying students
fraternised – giving tea to the guards and biscuits to their dogs.
In Wolverhampton, 4,000 marched in protest at Sikh bus workers not
being allowed to wear turbans. Workers, mostly Asian, at the
Injection Moulders factory in North London occupied their factory for
18 days until forcibly evicted by police.
Fishermen's wives in Hull launched a campaign for better safety in
the fishing industry after the sinking of three trawlers. Sewing
machinists at Fords Dagenham factory struck for three weeks demanding
equal pay for women. It was effectively the beginning of the modern
women's movement in Britain.
In October civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland,
protesting at anti-Catholic discrimination, were attacked by police
with clubs and water cannon. Police then rampaged through the
Catholic Bogside district. It was the start of a new phase of struggle.
Even the reactionary world of English cricket was touched. When the
South African apartheid regime refused to admit a black England
cricketer, Basil D'Oliveira, the England cricket authorities, despite
the many racists in their ranks, were obliged to cancel the tour.
This started the long sporting boycott of South Africa.
Similar examples could be accumulated from all round the world. 1968
initiated a decade of struggle, with massive working class movements
in Italy, Britain, Portugal, Poland, Iran and elsewhere. A new
generation built militant movements for women's and gay rights,
against racism and war.
Much has changed since 1968. The sexist and racist ideas that were
then commonplace have been pushed back, though not thoroughly uprooted.
Above all we must nail the lie that will doubtless be repeated by
ignorant journalists throughout the coming year – that the rebels of
1968 were well-meaning but naïve, and soon reconciled to "reality".
There were indeed renegades. Some – such as Kim Howells and "Baron"
David Triesman – are in the present government.
Many more stayed true to their principles. In 1968 we wanted to smash
a system based on war and racism, on inequality, oppression and
exploitation. We still do. In the words of the Paris students'
slogan, "Be realistic. Demand the impossible."
The Fire Last Time by Chris Harman is one of the best accounts of
1968. It is on offer at Bookmarks for £5.
FranceThe Struggle Goes On, a pamphlet published in August 1968 by
Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall, gives a real sense of the debates. It is
reprinted in volume one of Selected Writings by Tony Cliff,
International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, priced £10.
For more on Vietnam see The American War by Jonathan Neale, on offer at £7.
To order these books phone Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848 » www.bookmarks.uk.com