In 1968, fury at the Vietnam war sparked protests and uprisings
across the world: from Paris and Prague to Mexico. Tariq Ali
considers the legacy 40 years on
Saturday March 22 2008
A storm swept the world in 1968. It started in Vietnam, then blew
across Asia, crossing the sea and the mountains to Europe and beyond.
A brutal war waged by the US against a poor south-east Asian country
was seen every night on television. The cumulative impact of watching
the bombs drop, villages on fire and a country being doused with
napalm and Agent Orange triggered a wave of global revolts not seen
on such a scale before or since.
If the Vietnamese were defeating the world's most powerful state,
surely we, too, could defeat our own rulers: that was the dominant
mood among the more radical of the 60s generation.
In February 1968, the Vietnamese communists launched their famous Tet
offensive, attacking US troops in every major South Vietnamese city.
The grand finale was the sight of Vietnamese guerrillas occupying the
US embassy in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and raising their flag from
its roof. It was undoubtedly a suicide mission, but incredibly
courageous. The impact was immediate. For the first time a majority
of US citizens realised that the war was unwinnable. The poorer among
them brought Vietnam home that same summer in a revolt against
poverty and discrimination as black ghettoes exploded in every major
US city, with returned black GIs playing a prominent part.
The single spark set the world alight. In March 1968, students at
Nanterre University in France came out on to the streets and the 22
March Movement was born, with two Daniels (Cohn-Bendit and Bensaid,
Nanterre students then, and both still involved in green or leftist
politics) challenging the French lion: Charles de Gaulle, the aloof,
monarchical president of the Fifth Republic who, in a puerile
outburst, would later describe as chie-en-lit - "shit in the bed" -
the events in France that came close to toppling him. The students
began by demanding university reforms and moved on to revolution.
That same month in London, a demonstration against the Vietnam war
marched to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. It turned violent.
Like the Vietnamese, we wanted to occupy the embassy, but mounted
police were deployed to protect the citadel. Clashes occurred and the
US senator Eugene McCarthy watching the images demanded an end to a
war that had led, among other things, to "our embassy in Europe's
friendliest capital" being constantly besieged. Compared with the
ferment elsewhere, Britain was a sideshow ("...in sleepy London Town
there's just no place for a street fighting man," Mick Jagger sang
later that year): university occupations and riots in Grosvenor
Square did not pose any real threat to the Labour government, which
backed the US but refused to send troops to Vietnam.
In France, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was at the
peak of his influence. Contrary to Stalinist apologists, he argued
that there was no reason to prepare for happiness tomorrow at the
price of injustice, oppression or misery today. What was required was
By May, the Nanterre students' uprising had spread to Paris and to
the trade unions. We were preparing the first issue of The Black
Dwarf as the French capital erupted on May 10. Jean-Jacques Lebel,
our teargassed Paris correspondent, was ringing in reports every few
hours. He told us: "A well-known French football commentator is sent
to the Latin Quarter to cover the night's events and reported, 'Now
the CRS [riot police] are charging, they're storming the barricade -
oh my God! There's a battle raging. The students are
counter-attacking, you can hear the noise - the CRS are retreating.
Now they're regrouping, getting ready to charge again. The
inhabitants are throwing things from their windows at the CRS - oh!
The police are retaliating, shooting grenades into the windows of
apartments...' The producer interrupts: 'This can't be true, the CRS
don't do things like that!'
" 'I'm telling you what I'm seeing...' His voice goes dead. They have
cut him off."
The police failed to take back the Latin Quarter, now renamed the
Heroic Vietnam Quarter. Three days later a million people occupied
the streets of Paris, demanding an end to the rottenness of the state
and plastering the walls with slogans: "Defend The Collective
Imagination", "Beneath The Cobble- stones The Beach", "Commodities
Are The Opium Of The People, Revolution Is The Ecstasy Of History".
Eric Hobsbawm wrote in The Black Dwarf: "What France proves is when
someone demonstrates that people are not powerless, they may begin to
I had been planning to head for Paris - it was something we had been
discussing at the paper - but then I received a late-night phone
call. A posh voice said, "You don't know who I am, but do not leave
the country till your five years here are up. They won't let you
back." In those days, citizenship for Commonwealth citizens was
automatic after five years. I would not complete my five years until
October 1968. Already Labour cabinet ministers had been discussing in
public whether or not I could be deported. Friendly lawyers confirmed
I should not leave the country. Clive Goodwin, the publisher of our
mag, vetoed the trip and went off himself.
I went a year later to help Alain Krivine, one of the leaders of the
May 1968 revolt, in his presidential campaign, standing for the Ligue
Communiste Révolutionnaire. As we touched down at Orly airport,
returning from a rally in Toulouse, the French police surrounded the
plane. "Hope it's you, not me," muttered Krivine. It was. I was
served an order banning me from France which stayed in force until
François Mitterand's election many years later.
The revolution did not happen, but France was shaken by the events.
De Gaulle, with a sense of history, considered a coup d'état: in
early June, he flew from a military base to Baden-Baden, where French
troops were stationed, to ask whether they would support him if Paris
fell to the revolutionaries. They agreed but demanded rehabilitation
for the ultra-right generals whom De Gaulle had fired because they
opposed pulling out of Algeria. The deal was done. Yet De Gaulle
slapped down his interior minister for suggesting that Sartre be
arrested: "You cannot imprison Voltaire," he ruled.
The French example did spread, worrying bureaucrats in Moscow as much
as the ruling elites in the west. An unruly and undisciplined people
had to be brought to heel. Robert Escarpit, a Le Monde correspondent,
wrote on July 23 1968: "A Frenchman travelling abroad feels himself
treated a bit like a convalescent from a pernicious fever. And how
did the rash of barricades break out? What was the temperature at
five o'clock in the evening of May 29? Is the Gaullist medicine
really getting to the roots of the disease? Are there dangers of a
relapse?... But there is one question that is hardly ever asked,
perhaps because they are afraid to hear the answer. But at heart
everyone would like to know, hopefully or fearfully, whether the
sickness is infectious."
It was infectious. In Prague, communist reformers - many of them
heroes of the anti-fascist resistance during the second world war -
had that spring already proclaimed "socialism with a human face". The
aim of Alexander Dubcek and his supporters was to democratise
political life in Czechoslovakia. It was the first step towards a
socialist democracy and was seen as such in Moscow and Washington. On
August 21, the Russians sent in the tanks and crushed the reform movement.
In every west European capital there were protests. The tabloid press
in Britain was constantly attacking leftists as "agents of Moscow"
and was genuinely taken aback when we marched to the Soviet embassy,
denouncing the invasion in strong language and burning effigies of
the bloated Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Alexander Solzhenitsyn
later remarked that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had been
the last straw for him. Now he realised that the system could never
be reformed from within but would have to be overthrown. He was not
alone. The Moscow bureaucrats had sealed their own fate.
In Mexico, students took over their universities, demanding an end to
oppression and one-party rule. The army was sent in to occupy the
universities and did so for many months, making it the best-educated
army in the world. On October 2 - with the eyes of the world on
Mexico City 10 days before the Olympic games were due to begin there
- thousands of students poured on to the streets to demonstrate. A
massacre began at sunset. Troops opened fire on the crowd listening
to speeches in one of the city's main squares - dozens were killed
and hundreds more injured.
And then in November 1968 Pakistan erupted. Students took on the
state apparatus of a corrupt and decaying military dictatorship
backed by the US (sound familiar?). They were joined by workers,
lawyers, white-collar employees, prostitutes, and other social
layers, and despite the severe repression (hundreds were killed), the
struggle increased in intensity and, the following year, toppled
Field Marshal Ayub Khan.
When I arrived in February 1969, the mood of the country was joyous.
Speaking at rallies all over the country with the poet Habib Jalib,
we encountered a very different atmosphere from that in Europe. Here
power did not seem so remote. The victory over Ayub Khan led to the
first general election in the country's history. The Bengali
nationalists in east Pakistan won a majority that the elite and key
politicians refused to accept. Civil war led to Indian military
intervention and that ended the old Pakistan. Bangladesh was the
result of a bloody caesarean.
The glorious decade (1965-75), of which the year 1968 was only the
high point, consisted of three concurrent narratives. Politics
dominated, but there were two others that left a deeper imprint -
sexual liberation and a hedonistic entrepreneurship from below. We
had cause to be grateful for the latter. We were constantly appealing
for funds from readers when I edited The Black Dwarf in 1968-69. One
day a guy in overalls walked into our Soho office and counted out 25
grubby £5 notes, thanked us for producing the paper and left. He
would do this every fortnight. Finally, I asked who he was and if
there was a particular reason for his generosity. It turned out he
had a stall on Portobello Road and, as to why he wanted to help, it
was simple. "Capitalism is so non-groovy, man." It's only too groovy
now and far more vicious.
In some ways, the 60s were a reaction to the 50s, and the intensity
of the cold war. In the US, the McCarthyite witch-hunts had created
havoc in the 50s, but now blacklisted writers could work again; in
Russia, hundreds of political prisoners were released, the gulags
were closed down and the crimes of Stalin were denounced by Khruschev
as eastern Europe trembled with excitement and hopes of rapid reform.
They hoped in vain.
The spirit of renewal infected the realm of culture as well:
Solzhenitsyn's first novel was serialised in the official literary
magazine, Novy Mir, and a new cinema took over most of Europe. In
Spain and Portugal, ruled at the time by Nato's favourite fascists,
Franco and Salazar, censorship persisted, but in Britain DH
Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, written in 1928, was published
for the first time in 1960. The book, in its complete form, sold two
Following Simone de Beauvoir's pioneering work in The Second Sex
(1949), Juliet Mitchell fired off a new salvo in December 1966. Her
lengthy essay, Women: The Longest Revolution, appeared in the New
Left Review and became an immediate point of reference, summarising
the problems faced by women: "In advanced industrial society, women's
work is only marginal to the total economy... women are offered a
universe of their own: the family. Like woman herself, the family
appears as a natural object, but it is actually a cultural
creation... Both can be exalted paradoxically, as ideals. The 'true'
woman and 'true' family are images of peace and plenty: in actuality
they may both be sites of violence and despair."
In September 1968, US feminists disrupted the Miss World competition
in Atlantic City, warning shots in a women's liberation movement that
would change women's lives by demanding recognition, independence and
an equal voice in a male-dominated world. The cover of the January
1969 issue of Black Dwarf dedicated the year to women. Inside, we
published Sheila Rowbotham's spirited feminist call to arms. (As I
write this, Professor Rowbotham, now a distinguished scholar, has her
job under threat from the ghastly, grey accountants who run
Manchester University. We are now in an epoch of production-line
universities with celebrities paid fortunes to teach eight hours a
week and genuine scholars dumped in the bin.)
And, yes, there was also the pleasure principle. That the 60s were
hedonistic is indisputable, but they were different from the
corporatised version of today. At the time they marked a break with
the hypocritical puritanism of the 40s and 50s, when censors
prohibited married couples being shown on screen sharing a bed and
pyjamas were compulsory. Radical upheavals challenge all social
restrictions. It was always thus.
In the prefigurative London of the 18th century, sexual experiments
required the cover of break-away churches such as the Moravians and
surreal Swedenborgians (for whom "love for the holy" was best
expressed in the "projection of semen"): both preached the virtues of
combining religious and sexual ecstasy. Sexual orgies were a regular
feature of Moravian ritual, according to which penetration was akin
to entering the wounds in Christ's side. William Blake and his circle
were heavily involved in all of this and some of his paintings
depicting this world were censored at the time. I hope this does not
come as too much of a shock to my old friend Tony Benn and others who
sing Jerusalem without realising the hidden meaning of:
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear!
Homosexuality in Britain was decriminalised only in 1967. Gay
liberation movements erupted with activists demanding an end to all
homophobic legislation and Gay Pride marches were launched, inspired
by the Afro-American struggles for equal rights and black pride. All
the movements learned from each other. The advances of the civil
rights, women's and gay movements, now taken for granted, had to be
fought for on the streets against enemies who were fighting the "war
History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away. In the
autumn of 2004, when I was in the US on a lecture tour that coincided
with Bush's re-election campaign, I noticed at a large antiwar
meeting in Madison a very direct echo in a utopian bumper sticker:
"Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam." The sound engineer in the hall, a
Mexican-American, whispered proudly in my ear that his son, a 25-
year-old marine, had just returned from a tour of duty in the
besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah, the scene of horrific massacres by
US soldiers, and may show up at the meeting. He didn't, but joined us
later with a couple of civilian friends. He could see the room was
packed with antiwar, anti-Bush activists.
The young, crewcut marine, G, recounted tales of duty and valour. I
asked why he had joined the marine corps. "There was no choice for
people like me. If I'd stayed here, I'd have been killed on the
streets or ended up in the penitentiary serving life. The marine
corps saved my life. They trained me, looked after me and changed me
completely. If I died in Iraq, at least it would be the enemy that
killed me. In Fallujah, all I could think of was how to make sure
that the men under my command were kept safe. That's all. Most of the
kids demonstrating for peace have no problems here. They go to
college, they demonstrate and soon they forget it all as they move
into well-paid jobs. It's not so easy for people like me. I think
there should be a draft. Why should poor kids be the only ones out
there? Out of all the marines I work with, perhaps four or five
percent are gung-ho flag-wavers. The rest of us are doing a job, we
do it well and hope we get out without being KIA [killed in action]
Later, G sat on a sofa between two older men - both former
combatants. On his left was Will Williams, 60, born in Mississipi,
who had enlisted in the army aged 17. He was sure that, had he not
left Mississippi, the Klu Klux Klan or some other racist gang would
have killed him. He, too, told me that the military "saved my life".
Following a stint in Germany, he was sent to Vietnam. Wounded in
action, he received a Purple Heart and two bronze stars; he also
began to change following a rebellion by black troops at Camranh Bay
protesting racism within the US army.
Following a difficult period readjusting, Williams read deeply in
politics and history. Feeling that the country was being lied to
again, he and Dot, his companion of over 43 years, joined the
movement opposing the war in Iraq, bringing their Gospel choir voices
to rallies and demonstrations.
On G's right was Clarence Kailin, 90 years old that summer and one of
the few remaining survivors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that had
fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war. He, too, has
been active in the movement against the war in Iraq. "Our trip was
made in considerable secrecy - even from our families. I was a truck
driver, then an infantry man and for a short time a stretcher-bearer.
I saw the brutality of war up close. Of the five Wisconsinites who
came to Spain with me, two were killed... later, there was Vietnam
and this time kids from here died on the wrong side. Now we have
Iraq. It's really bad, but I still believe there is an innate
goodness in people, which is why so many can break with unworthy pasts."
In 2006, after another tour of duty, G could no longer accept any
justification for the war. He was admiring of Cindy Sheehan and the
Military Families Against the War, the most consistently active and
effective antiwar group in the US.
A decade before the French Revolution, Voltaire remarked that
"History is the lies we agree on". Afterwards there was little
agreement on anything. The debate on 1968 was recently revived by
Nicolas Sarkozy, who boasted that his victory in last year's
presidential elections was the final nail in the '68 coffin. The
philosopher Alain Badiou's tart response was to compare the new
president of the republic to the Bourbons of 1815 and Marshal Pétain
during the war. They, too, had talked about nails and coffins.
"May 1968 imposed intellectual and moral relaivism on us all,"
Sarkozy declared. "The heirs of May '68 imposed the idea that there
was no longer any difference between good and evil, truth and
falsehood, beauty and ugliness. The heritage of May 1968 introduced
cynicism into society and politics."
He even blamed the legacy of May '68 for greedy and seedy business
practices. The May '68 attack on ethical standards helped to "weaken
the morality of capitalism, to prepare the ground for the
unscrupulous capitalism of golden parachutes for rogue bosses". So
the 60s generation is held responsible for Enron, Conrad Black, the
subprime mortgage crisis, Northern Rock, corrupt politicians,
deregulation, the dictatorship of the "free market", a culture
strangled by brazen opportunism.
The struggle against the Vietnam war lasted 10 years. In 2003 people
came out again in Europe and America, in even larger numbers, to try
to stop the Iraq war. The pre-emptive strike failed. The movement
lacked the stamina and the resonance of its predecessors. Within 48
hours it had virtually disappeared, highlighting the changed times.
Were the dreams and hopes of 1968 all idle fantasies? Or did cruel
history abort something new that was about to be born?
Revolutionaries - utopian anarchists, Fidelistas, Trotskyist
allsorts, Maoists of every stripe - wanted the whole forest. Liberals
and social democrats were fixated on individual trees. The forest,
they warned us, was a distraction, far too vast and impossible to
define, whereas a tree was a piece of wood that could be identified,
improved and crafted into a chair or a table. Now the tree, too, has gone.
"You're like fish that only see the bait, never the line," we would
mock in return. For we believed - and still do - that people should
not be measured by material possessions but by their ability to
transform the lives of others - the poor and underprivileged; that
the economy needed to be reorganised in the interests of the many,
not the few; and that socialism without democracy could never work.
Above all, we believed in freedom of speech.
Much of this seems utopian now and some, for whom 1968 wasn't radical
enough at the time, have embraced the present and, like members of
ancient sects who moved easily from ritual debauchery to chastity,
now regard any form of socialism as the serpent that tempted Eve in paradise.
The collapse of "communism" in 1989 created the basis for a new
social agreement, the Washington Consensus, whereby deregulation and
the entry of private capital into hitherto hallowed domains of public
provision would become the norm everywhere, making traditional social
democracy redundant and threatening the democratic process itself.
Some, who once dreamed of a better future, have simply given up.
Others espouse a bitter maxim: unless you relearn you won't earn. The
French intelligentsia, which had from the Enlightenment onwards made
Paris the political workshop of the world, today leads the way with
retreats on every front. Renegades occupy posts in every west
European government defending exploitation, wars, state terror and
neocolonial occupations; others now retired from the academy
specialise in producing reactionary dross on the blogosphere,
displaying the same zeal with which they once excoriated factional
rivals on the far left. This, too, is nothing new. Shelley's rebuke
to Wordsworth who, after welcoming the French Revolution, retreated
to a pastoral conservatism, expressed it well:
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.