Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

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Review of '1968: The Year that Rocked the World', Mark Kurlansky, Jonathan Cape £17.99

Today, millions across the world have a sense of living in a period when real social change is not just necessary but actually possible. The last time such a feeling emerged was 1968, one of the most memorable years of the 20th century.

A brief diary of some major events during that extraordinary year may help understand why that sense of change became so electric. 1968 opened with the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnamese guerillas brought their war of resistance to the very gates of the US embassy in Saigon. In March, in Poland, an eruption of student protest was batoned down by the 'Communist' cops. A London Vietnam Solidarity Campaign march turned into a pitched battle with police in Grosvenor Square. In April Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, setting off riots in 168 American cities. In Berlin a right wing assassin half-killed Rudi Deutschke, a leading figure in the German student movement. May and June saw 30,000 Parisian students build barricades and fight the riot police all night. Their struggle initiated the biggest general strike in European history. In June Bobby Kennedy was shot dead. In Italy the 'long hot autumn' of militant strikes began. October saw the Royal Ulster Constabulary launch an unprovoked and bloody assault on a civil rights march in Derry, and the start of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles'. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign drew what was then an unprecedented 100,000 people, mostly students and young workers, to its London demonstration. In Mexico City, in the run-up to the Olympic Games, the government massacred 100 students. At the Games themselves, two black American athletes, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, gave the Black Power salute from the podium as they received their medals.

Towards the year's end, President Johnson declared in his Thanksgiving message, 'Americans, looking back on 1968, may be more inclined to ask god's mercy and guidance than to give him thanks for his blessings.'

For socialist and radical parties and movements, 1968 saw a mushrooming in their number and members. There was a huge revival of interest in Marxist ideas.

Mark Kurlansky has added a new volume to the shelf of books on 1968. His offering has some decided merits. It's lively and well written. The author has gathered some very good stories. His commitment is to those who 'said no' in 1968, and who continue to do so. Kurlansky is at his best when describing moments of repression. His telling of the Chicago cops' brutal attacks on the demonstrators in August is brilliant. And his chapter on the massacre of Mexican students is frighteningly convincing. He's less good on the movements themselves. His focus is on the people who emerged from them as spokespeople.

Perhaps his most disappointing chapter is the one on France. When workers took up the student baton and ran with it, in the huge strike and occupation movement, what was it like in the factories, shops and offices which participated? How far did the French Communist Party monopolise control of the strike movement, containing it, and what possibilities for alternatives began to appear? These are vital questions, but Kurlansky's reportage doesn't get us near them. Indeed, workers barely appear in his narrative. He gives no sense that across advanced Western capitalism there was a rising tide of strikes, expressing a new confidence among both manual and white collar workers, even if this was often still disconnected from the front-page stories of the time. There are gaps in his coverage. Northern Ireland doesn't rate a mention, while Italy is referred to only in passing.

How could 1968 happen? To grasp this, we need a sense of the huge social changes going on within the long postwar boom - the immense migrations of workers from rural to urban areas, the changing composition of the workforce, the growth of huge new student populations in mass universities. Such changes provided the underpinning to much of the drama.

1968 saw new openings for the left. The old left had been dominated by Communist parties that were, in practice, becoming more openly conservative and reformist. What chances were there for a new, revolutionary left to seize the opportunities of the time?

1968 began to pose some of these questions, but it was in the next few years that they would be answered. In a way, treating one dramatic year by itself involves a mis-emphasis. For 1968 was part of a larger wave of protest from below, whose full dimensions and outcome can only be assessed on a broader canvas. Sometimes, but not often enough, Kurlansky recognises this. Almost at the book's end he quotes from an interview with Jacek Kuron, a revolutionary Marxist in 1966 who inspired leading Polish students in 1968. Kuron went on to play a leading role in Solidarnosc in 1980-81, and became minister of labour in the first 'post-Communist' government of 1989. Looking back in tears from 2002, Kuron deeply regrets his later actions: 'My participation helped people accept capitalism. I thought capitalism was self reforming. It's not. It's like Russia-controlled by only a small group because capitalism needs capital. Here now [in Poland] half the population is on the edge of hunger and the other half feels successful.'

The words embody a tragic but honest process of appraisal.

More of the same spirit would have lifted Kurlansky's book into a different league.