The real achievements of 1968
Monday May 5 2008
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who "sat on the touchline watching with ironic
detachment", thinks 1968 was a waste of time (It was fun, but 1968
left us sybaritic, self-absorbed and ruled by the right, May 1).
Those who protested against Vietnam did not think it a waste of time,
nor those who took to the streets after the murder of Martin Luther
King. Nor those who battled with the police in Warsaw or resisted
Russian occupation in Prague. I could add those arrested for forming
illegal trade unions in fascist Spain, the students massacred and
ignored by the media assembled for the Mexico Olympics, the first
protesters in Northern Ireland, and of course, the millions of French
workers who took part in the biggest general strike in world history.
In fact, 1968 was part of a long chain of insurgency that went on
until the mid-70s, culminating in the collapse of the fascist regimes
in Portugal and Spain. Not bad for "a brief orgasmic thrill".
Of course, many of the gains were rolled back. That was what the
coups in Chile and Argentina were about. That was what Thatcherism
and Reaganism were about. That is what the transformation of women's
liberation into sexual commodification is about. The conclusion,
surely, is not that it was wrong to fight, but that we have to fight
again. As the French activists said, "Ce n'est qu'un debut" - it was
only the beginning.
Editor, International Socialism
Geoffrey Wheatcroft states that 1968 has left us all "sybaritic,
self-absorbed and ruled by the right". He dismisses the Grosvenor
Square demonstration as a "mob of youngsters baiting police horses".
He obviously wasn't there - I was. This was a huge demonstration
against the war in Vietnam. He states "the US eventually left
Vietnam". No they didn't. They were forced out - not just by the
Vietnamese but by a worldwide campaign. He also quotes Eric Hobsbawm
as criticising the 1968 movement but, writing in Black Dwarf,
Hobsbawm said: "What France proves is that when somebody demonstrates
that the people are not powerless, they may begin to act together."
Wheatcroft describes the reforms of laws regarding homosexuality,
divorce and abortion as libertarian and wonders if they were "for
good or bad". Huge events occurred across the world that year. The
Tet offensive in Vietnam; the overthrow of Ayub Khan's dictatorship
in Pakistan; the Prague "spring"; the disruption of the Miss World
competition by US feminists. Yes, the forces of reaction struck back.
What is really depressing is Wheatcroft's concluding message: trying
to make things better usually ends up making them worse.
I have no trouble visualising Geoffrey Wheatcroft "watching the
political turmoils with ironic detachment". Presumably it is in this
sense that he recalls AJP Taylor's comment about 1848, that a
movement led by students is a sign of "political backwardness".
Taylor misjudged many things, Israel and the 1956 Hungarian
revolution to name but two. Were the Tiananman Square activists and
the Soweto rebels politically backward?
It is true that some of the Stalinists of the French Communist party
regarded student activists as the sons and daughters of the
bourgeoisie playing at revolution. But it was from a less sectarian
and puritanical tradition that the New Left emerged, re-establishing
a socialism out of the shadow of the gulag. The convulsive historical
processes of 1968 were international and the effects were felt
throughout the 70s. To say that "our kids jeered at Harold Wilson,
who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories
were in power for 22 of the next 27 years" is to completely rewrite
history, since it was during this period that the movement reached
its highest point, culminating in the miners' strikes and the
toppling of Heath's government. It was the return of Wilson and the
Labour party's attempts to operate a pay freeze that caused the
demoralisation and anger that created the conditions for the election
Many of those in the workers' movement suffered during the years of
reaction that followed - not all being lucky enough to pick up
well-paid jobs in the media. The challenges facing us will require a
militant response too, of the sort hinted at by Seumas Milne
(Grangemouth's oil workers show how it can be done", May 1). It is
not individualism that will take the left forward, but the collective
power we discovered in 1968 and are in the process of rediscovering.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft quotes Street Fighting Man as an example of the
naivety that was abroad in 1968, but ignores the song's chorus: "But
what can a poor boy do / 'cept to sing in a rock'n'roll band / 'cause
in sleepy London town / There's just no place for / a street fightin'
man." Jagger didn't get where he is today without being a shrewd
observer - we were never meant to listen with a straight face.
In all the commemoration of 1968, one event seems to have been
forgotten: the Caerphilly byelection. It was an anglicised industrial
area, held by Labour for over 60 years, and Phil Williams, standing
for Plaid Cymru, reduced a majority of over 20,000 to a few hundred.
He didn't win, but he changed the nature of Welsh politics for ever.
Most of the activists supporting him were inspired by the events in
Paris. In the short term we lost, but in the long run, 30 years
later, thanks to Ron Davies, we won and had the assembly.
In 1968 I led the occupation of my form room in protest at not being
allowed to use it during rainy playtimes: does this make me a