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The fire last time: 1968 in the US and France

Faline Bobier

April 14, 2018

This year is the 50th anniversary of the events of 1968. Many of the young people who are active in today’s movements—Occupy, Black Lives Matter; #MeToo, the Fight for 15 and Fairness—obviously were not born until long after the events of that tumultuous time. But it’s worth revisiting some of those events for what we can learn from them for the struggles happening now and still to come.

In the prologue to his book The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After British Marxist Chris Harman writes: “Every so often there is a year which casts a spell on a generation. Afterwards simply to mention it brings innumerable images to the minds of many people who lived through it—1968 was such a year. 1968 was a year in which revolt shook at least three major governments and produced a wave of hope among young people living under many others. It was the year the peasant guerrillas of one of the world’s smaller nations stood up to the mightiest power in human history. It was the year the Black ghettos of the United States rose in revolt to protest at the murder of the leader of non-violence, Martin Luther King. It was the year the city of Berlin suddenly became the international focus for a student movement that challenged the power of the blocs that divided it. It was the year teargas and billy clubs were used to make sure the US Democratic Party convention would select a presidential candidate who had been rejected by voters in every primary. It was the year the Mexican government massacred more than 100 demonstrators in order to ensure that the Olympic Games could take place under ‘peaceful’ conditions. It was, above all, the year that the biggest general strike to that point in history paralysed France and caused its government to panic."

Contradictions beneath the surface

One of the things Chris Harman takes time to lay out in his book is just how quiescent many pundits believed the situation to be pre-1968. Many thinkers, including thinkers on the left, believed capitalism had overcome its tendency to crisis and that workers, especially those in North America and Europe, had been bought off by material wealth. One could no longer look to the working class as the locus of change. If change was to come it would have to be from the most marginalized sections of society: the poor, the unemployed or people living in underdeveloped (in capitalist terms) or Third World countries – the global South.

Partly this reflected a reality in terms of the development of western capitalism, which experienced the longest boom in its history from the end of WWII until sometime in the mid to late 1960s, when crisis began to return to the system. It does not mean that no struggle happened during this period, but generally most workers experienced rising living standards without having to engage in struggle and it seemed like the system could produce both huge profits for the capitalists and smaller gains, but gains nonetheless, for working people. This explains why someone like Andre Gorz, a French theorist of the “new working class,” could write in an article written in early 1968 that “in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes.”

However, as Harman shows, underlying factors due to the long boom itself were laying the basis for a new period of struggle. These changes included things like the massive shift from rural to urban living across the world, which meant a) that people would be brought together in urban workplaces and b) that the only way to achieve a better life would be through common struggle. The long boom had been based on massive arms spending, primarily by the US, in order to maintain military hegemony over the other imperialist bloc, the USSR. Massive arms spending by the US government meant that other countries focussed on building up their economies, which would eventually put the US in a less favourable position in terms of the world capitalist pecking order. The mid-sixties saw the beginnings of the return of crisis to the world system, which was reflected in the US attempt to assert its hegemony militarily as the economic boom started to slow down by getting involved in the quagmire that would be the war in Vietnam.

Coupled with this was the huge expansion in universities and colleges starting in the 1950s, which meant that post-secondary education was no longer just the privileged sphere of the elites. Children of middle- and working-class families were able to aspire to higher education. As well there had been a huge migration of Blacks from the southern US to northern cities as Blacks realized that in spite of the rhetoric of democracy and freedom the South was still the reign of Jim Crow and segregation. Of course, many of these same Blacks would be disillusioned to find the same racism and discrimination in terms of housing, education, employment in the north, which would lay the basis for the civil rights and later the Black power movement in the 1960s.

Resistance in the belly of the beast

The US was the wealthiest, most militarily powerful capitalist country at the time and it chose to take on the tiny, largely peasant nation of Vietnam, as a way to assert its hegemony. This ended up sparking a huge anti-war movement, and contributed to the Black Power movement, the women’s liberation movement and the beginnings of the gay liberation movement (the Gay Liberation Front took its name from the National Liberation Front, the courageous struggle of the Vietnamese people).

On Dec 2, 1964 some 6,000 students gathered outside Sproul Hall, the administrative centre of the massive Berkeley campus of the University of California. A 21 year-old student, Mario Savio, addressed them. He had just heard that the university authorities were threatening to expel him for his role in a demonstration two months before: "If this is a firm, and the Board of Regents are the board of directors and President Kerr is in fact the manager, then the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material. But we’re a bunch of material that doesn’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university. We’re human beings…There’s a time when the operations of the machine become so odious, make you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, can’t even tacitly take part. And then 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 make it stop.”

This was the beginning of the Free Speech movement. The students occupied one of the campus buildings and police eventually went in with guns and clubs in their hands. They cleared the building and made 800 arrests. Back at the campus between 60 and 80 percent of the 30,000 strong student body joined in a protest strike.

At its beginnings the student movement was not necessarily “revolutionary” or “political” in an ideological sense. There was a strong streak of anti-authoritarianism and moralism. However, as the crisis in Vietnam deepened, with more US soldiers being killed, with the imposition of the draft which meant that young people would be forced to kill and die for a war they didn’t believe in, the movement began to look for political ideas to take their struggle forward. The founding of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) saw chapters springing up on university and college campuses across the country. The politics they found were often a mish-mash of Maoism, so-called Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism but they were an attempt to ground the movement politically.

Black Panthers

Black activists who had spear-headed the civil rights movement also began to come out against the war. People of colour could not see the Vietnamese people as enemies—as world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali put it, “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger’.”

At the same time as the anti-war movement was radicalizing, there was a similar radicalisation in the civil rights movement. Many students (Black and white) had been involved in the Freedom Rides, which involved travelling to the southern US to register Black voters, which put the Freedom Riders at risk of beatings and even murder at the hands of Klansmen and racists in the South. Many had followed the example of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King who preached non-violence (active non-violence) against the racism and thuggery of the police and white racists. But with growing frustration with ongoing racist brutality, more radical leaders like Malcolm X and the Black Panther party (founded in 1966 in Oakland, California), gained a wider audience.

Edgar Hoover of the FBI told President Richard Nixon, who was elected at the end of 1968, that an opinion poll indicated that “25 percent of the Black population had great respect” for the Black Panther Party,” including 43 percent of Blacks under 21 years of age.” By the summer of 1968 thousands of Blacks in dozens of cities were members, and their paper sold more than 100,000 copies. The Panthers attracted thousands of Blacks in ghettos across the US. After more than a century of attacks on Blacks by white racists who always insisted on their “constitutional right to carry guns,” here was an organisation which proclaimed openly its readiness to fight back.

Leading members of the Black Panthers would espouse some form of Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, anti-capitalism—again a similar kind of confused politics to what was on offer in the student movement. Like the student movement in the US, it was relatively divorced from US workers, partly because levels of struggle in the working class were fairly low in this period. There were also popular ideas about the real revolutionaries being those in “Third World” countries and American workers being bought off by material goods, or as in the case of the Black Panthers, focussing not on Black workers but on ghetto youth. In the case of the Black Panthers, of course, they were targeted by the police, the FBI and the US government. Leading members of the Panthers were systematically framed, jailed or murdered by police or FBI, because although their active membership was relatively small they threatened to topple the edifice of state-sanctioned racism which was fundamental to US capitalism and to keeping Blacks and whites divided.

Revolutionary Black workers

There was another important Black organization in this period, which began to develop in Detroit in 1968: DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. It specifically rejected the Panthers’ focus on the community and the unemployed, stressing instead the role of employed workers: "In one factory we have 10,000 people who are faced with the same brutal conditions…When you go into the community, the interests of the people…are going to be much more dispersed…When you close down the Hamtamck assembly plant…for a day you cost Chrysler corporation 1,000 cars…also you automatically can mobilise people in the streets, 5,000 or 10,000 at a single blow. We would emphasize that the working class is the vanguard of the major force within the revolutionary struggle…A lot of the experience of the Panthers has come from precisely that analysis—the analysis that the lumpen proletariat, which isn’t a stable class, is going to be the vanguard of the revolution. This is precisely why the Panthers have been led into so many adventurist actions…and have been engaged in so many of these shoot-outs in which they essentially came out on the losing end."

DRUM led to a proliferation of similar groups and the groups came together to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which became powerful in some plants. It even came close to winning elections in two United Auto Workers locals and worrying the union’s national leadership—since half the country’s auto workers were employed in the Detroit area.

The league did important work and had some successes, but it suffered from one great weakness—the Black workers were rarely more than half the workforce. Yet its theory insisted that Black workers had to be organised separately from whites: "Racism is so pervasive in the mentality of whites that only an armed, well disciplined, black-controlled government can insure the stamping out of racism in this country.” In plants that employed Black and white workers, and where Black workers were not the majority, this kind of politics would lead to eventual defeat, since you can’t fight a successful strike with less than half the workforce and win.

One of the leaders of the League told how Black separatist attitudes prevented the development of newer members with the same understanding as the founding core of the League: "We had no meaningful education program. We tried it a number of times, but it was sabotaged by the attitude of the reactionary nationalists. They didn’t want to study Marxism, so they used various tactics to stop the classes. That is not to say that some of our instructors were not dull for the workers, but that’s another question. The nationalists would say that Marx and Lenin were white and not relevant."

The movements of 1968 in the US were not able to break through and establish long-standing organization, partly because of the confusion around their politics, but when looking at the balance sheet it’s important to realize what they did accomplish. The US anti-war movement definitely helped cripple US imperialism, coupled with the courageous struggle of the Vietnamese people themselves. The strength of the anti-war movement and the combativeness of the Vietnamese meant there was no way for the US to win, in spite of their far superior military and economic power. When working class soldiers inside the US army (Black, white, Latino) started to turn against their own officers in the practice called “fragging” the writing was on the wall.

The anti-war movement also inspired the struggles of other sections of the oppressed – Blacks, women, LGBT individuals – who founded their own movements for liberation. One of the weaknesses in the US was the division between the working class and the movements. Turning now to events in France in May 68 we can look at an example where what started out as a student protest spread to the workers’ movement. Eventually 10 million workers were occupying their workplaces at the height of the conflict.

France 1968: students and workers united

On the night of May 10-11, 1968 in Paris what started out as a large demonstration of university and high school students against police brutality on previous student demos ended up with the students barricading themselves in a police-free zone, using whatever was at hand – overturned cars, material from nearby building sites, paving stones, etc. The inhabitants of the street where the blockade was thrown up by students and nearby streets showed their sympathy by bringing bread, chocolate and hot drinks. They were joined on the barricades, from which red and black flags flew, by large numbers of young workers.

A battle ensued between protestors and police that lasted several hours. But even when the police managed to regain control they hadn’t won in the court of public opinion. As the scale of the repression and the fighting became clear, the leaders of France’s major trade union federations called for a one day general strike for the following Monday, May 13. The strike was to be the biggest France had ever known, and within two days workers right across France were occupying their factories. What began as a student protest had, on the “night of the barricades,” thrown France into a huge social confrontation, with the government virtually paralyzed for three weeks as people speculated whether it was to be overthrown in a revolutionary manner.

The student movement in France was probably smaller than its counterparts in other countries at that time – the US, Italy, Britain – but what began as a revolt against conditions for university students and in favour of mixed dorms (men and women together) would spread to other areas of French life, that also felt the stifling centralization of power and authoritarianism practiced by the De Gaulle government. The demo on May 13, 1968 in Paris was the largest the city had seen since the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation in 1944. However, when it was over people went home and the government assumed things would go back to normal.

However, this was not to be the case. Workers at Sud Aviation in Nantes (a fairly large city in northwestern France) had been holding weekly 15-minute strikes. But that Tuesday the young workers in one section refused to return to work when the 15 minutes were up. Instead they marched around the plant getting support from other workers and blockaded the manager in his office. That night 2,000 workers barricaded themselves in the factory. Within a few days the movement spread and dozens more factories were occupied.

Be realistic, demand the impossible

The transformation of the student movement into a strike movement of workers astonished almost all observers. One trade union leader said afterwards: "Workers discovered it was possible to fight, and that when you fight well, not only is there the chance of winning, but the risks involved are quite small."

France ground to a halt. There were no trains, no buses, no banks open and no postal services. The strike movement wasn’t confined to traditional industries. By May 25 there was no regular TV service: journalists and production staff had walked out in protest at the government's censorship of news of the strike movement. Medical students (previously a bastion of the right among students) and junior doctors joined movements which declared an end to the old hierarchical organisation of the hospitals. Art students and painters took over the School of Fine Arts and turned it into a centre for the collective production of thousands of posters supporting the movement. Film makers withdrew from the competitive Cannes Film Festival and discussed how to rescue the film industry from the profit motive and the monopolies. Professional footballers (soccer players) occupied the headquarters of the Football Association.

As in other examples where workers and ordinary people begin to take the reins (Chile in 1973, Iran in 1979, Egypt in 2011), people begin to feel that they can make decisions about how production happens, what’s important. They begin to experience a freedom seldom or never experienced in their day-to-day lives. The movement in France actually had President De Gaulle fearful that he couldn’t contain it, which is why he left the country for a short time at the end of May.


What really ensured that May ‘68 would not ultimately threaten French capital was the collaboration of the union leadership (the largest union federation being controlled by the Communist Party), who were almost as frightened of independent action by French workers as they were of the right-wing Gaullist government, and a lack of revolutionary leadership or solid rank and file networks within the working class.

The choice made by the Communist party and the CGT (the biggest of France's trade union federations) to wind down the strikes by arguing that they would deal with De Gaulle through electoral means doomed both the possibility of workers pushing for more long-lasting gains and any chance of actually defeating De Gaulle in the election. De Gaulle would win handily in the elections because of the demoralising defeat visited on workers by their own leadership.

This didn’t mean it was easy for the trade union leadership to convince workers to call off their strikes and factory occupations. As one trade union official remarked afterwards: "Despite the money and other difficulties…the strike had become a bit like a festival. For two or three weeks the strikers had lived in a spirit of total freedom: no employers, no bosses, the hierarchy had disappeared. So before calling the strike off, people hesitated.”

But in order to go against the official leadership it would have taken strong rank and file organization and revolutionary leadership. The revolutionary left in France was extremely weak when the strike started. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build that leadership in the heat of the moment.

The real message of 1968 is that there is an alternative to imperialism of any sort, that people through their own self-activity can reconstruct society on a rational basis, that the oppressed can rise up and challenge a system based on injustice. What it also shows us is that the working class has the potential to become the ruling class and build a classless society, but for that to happen we need to build ahead of time the strong political networks and revolutionary politics that can make those dreams a reality. As one of the slogans from May 68 had it: "Soyez réalistes; demandez l’impossible."

Register now for Join the Resistance: Marxism 2018, a two-day conference April 27-28 in Toronto, including the session “Years of revolt! 50 years since 1968,” with Norman Otis Richmond of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Carolyn Egan, Ali Awali and Michael Tseng

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