By Randy Shaw
Thursday, May 15
On May 13, 1968, students, workers, and activists marched through the
streets of Paris to challenge the nation's social, economic, and
political structures. The marches were a prelude to what became a
two-week general strike, the impact of which remains hotly debated to
this day. The events of May 1968 were not the world's first mass
protests, but their role in the subsequent alteration of French
society was widely hailed as proving the power of political action
outside the electoral process. The United States also saw mass
protests in 1968, but their failure to end the Vietnam War and the
election of Richard Nixon that November left many activists
frustrated. The successful WTO protests in Seattle reasserted the
power of mass protest, but this appears to have dissipated as the
Bush Administration invaded Iraq despite millions taking to the
streets and the federal government failed to legalize undocumented
immigrants despite the mass protests of the spring of 2006. Can mass
protest still make a difference in the United States, or is the
electoral processembodied in the mass involvement of those in the
Obama campaignnow seen as the leading if not exclusive route to
For 40 years, the phrase "May 1968" has connoted a unique mass
outpouring in Paris that many saw as the germination of a new social
order. The Paris events were distinguished from mass protests in the
United States by the mass involvement of workers, who occupied
factories and engaged in a two-week general strike in one of the
world's most advanced industrial nations.
There are enough books about May 1968 to fill entire libraries, and
the UC Berkeley Art Museum currently has an exhibit of stirring
photos taken by Serge Hambourg. Seeing the hope and excitement on the
faces of protesters, it is clear that participants believed that
taking to the streets was a profoundly meaningful actsomething that
cannot often be said about today's mass events.
Critics of the impact of May 1968 have focused on the transitory
aspect of the French protests, the lack of a concrete agenda, and the
fact that a major target of the protestsFrench leader Charles De
Gaullewas easily re-elected in June. But less frequently noted is De
Gaulle's leaving office after losing a vote of confidence a year
later, and that Parisian, if not French, society was visibly changed.
For many, May 1968 showed the continued power of mass protest, and of
the primacy of political engagement outside the electoral process.
Even as the protests are commodifieda candy store is selling $75
chocolate bars in the shape of the pavers that protesters dislodged
from cobblestone streetstheir power continues to resonate.
U.S. protests in 1968
In the United States in 1968, student and anti-war protesters saw the
year end with Richard Nixon winning the presidency, and the Vietnam
War's escalation. Less obvious at the time was the increasing
backlash against the civil rights movement that has moved American
politics largely rightward for nearly 40 years.
Many young activists responded to Nixon's victory by moving from
protests to voter registration and the electoral process. This effort
culminated in anti-war progressive George McGovern winning the
Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, but his landslide defeat
resurrected activist doubts about the potential of national elections
to bring progressive change.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the successful mass protests against
nuclear power, as well as against U.S. funding of military assistance
to anti-democratic forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador, led to
renewed respect for non-electoral strategies. Until at least 1992,
progressive activists prioritized local and state elections over
national political campaigns.
The battle in Seattle
It looked for a time that the 1999 mass protests against the meeting
of the World Trade Organization (WTO) would be the U.S. equivalent of
May 1968. The marches resembled their Paris predecessor by
incorporating a broad cultural critique of contemporary capitalism,
and achieved virtually complete success by shutting down the WTO meeting.
But anti-globalization forces never expanded their base, or developed
a domestic agenda that facilitated its mass expansion. Future trade
organization meetings became armed police encampments preventing even
peaceful protest, while activists had less need to protest after
getting most of the Democratic Party to back fair trade, rather than
free trade. 9/11 also changed the terms of the globalization debate,
as combating "terror" replaced fighting sweatshops as the chief focus.
But in the big picture, mass protests outside the political process
irrevocably altered the landscape for trade deals in the United
States. Those marching in Seattle no doubt smiled to hear Hillary
Clinton become a born-again free trader during the Ohio primary, as
it represented a near total capitulation of the Democratic Party's
free-trade, pro-NAFTA base to the forces of fair trade.
Mass protests against Iraq War
The successful impact of mass anti-globalization protests may have
helped fuel the massive turnouts in the United States against the
proposed invasion of Iraq. But after President Bush signaled that he
was impervious to protests (and would rather accept a 27 percent
approval rating than defer to the popular will), many who marched in
the 2002 and 2003 Iraq protests figured that future involvement was pointless.
Seeing Bush as the chief obstacle to peace, even activists skeptical
of electoral politics volunteered for the Kerry campaign in the fall
of 2004. Although the massive outpouring of volunteers into swing
states came too late to defeat Bush, the Republican's victory in 2004
did not alter the progressive community's primary focus on winning elections.
Obama and mass election activism
When Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy in 2007, he
recognized America's fervent desire for change. But Obama also
realized that Kerry had tapped into a mass activist yearning to be
part of a larger cause, and that this cause could become his campaign.
This desire to be part of a large, broad-based social movement fueled
the May 1968 Paris protests, but has seldom found expression in the
United States. The Seattle WTO protests included workers but
relatively few activists of color, while the spring 2006 immigration
marches were more representative but included relatively few
Despite the ongoing insanity of the Iraq war, activists remained
focused on electoral solutions. Obama's ability to harness this mass
desire for participation in a social movement focused on winning the
2008 presidential election is the central story of his success, and
reflects activists' continued shift from protest to electoral politics.
Obama realizes that elections are simply a means to an end, and that
the real test is whether, after taking office, his progressive
campaign agenda is implemented. This will likely require the type of
mass gatherings in the streets that proved so galvanizing in Paris in
1968, and that could represent the ideal fusion of mass protest and
electoral politics that activists in the U.S. have sought in vain for decades.
Randy Shaw is the editor of BeyondChron.org.