1968: a year that's still burning

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Protesters on Boulevard Saint Germain, Paris 1968. Pic: Bruno Bailey

Fifty years ago students and workers took to the streets of Paris. Chris Harman was both a participant in the events and analysed the movement that nearly turned the world upside down. Here we print extracts from his classic book about the period, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, which has been reissued for the anniversary.

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.

There are millions of people throughout the world who still feel their lives were changed decisively by what happened in those 12 months. And they are not, as the media presentation today would suggest, just those who were students or hippies.

For 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 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, and Russian tanks rolled into Prague to displace a “Communist” government that had made concessions to popular pressure.

It was the year the Mexican government massacred more than a hundred demonstrators in order to ensure that the Olympic Games could take place under “peaceful” conditions. It was the year protests against discrimination in Derry and Belfast lit the fuse on the sectarian powder keg of Northern Ireland. It was, above all, the year that the biggest general strike ever paralysed France and caused its government to panic.

The media account of 1968 as “the year of the students” has ignored all this and presented what happened as a “clash of generations” based on a sudden fad for long hair, drug-taking and Che Guevara posters. The image of revolution has been relegated to the attic of historical has-beens as former student leaders tell how they have abandoned their youthful dreams for the delights of a well to do middle class life. If the fashion in 1968 was to drop out and to drop acid, now, apparently, it is to drop in and drop socialist politics.

From such a viewpoint 1968 was a historical anomaly, a sort of crusade of overgrown children, separated from what went before and what came after.

The contention of this book is very different—1968 was the product of contradictions which had been developing in the years that came before and which continued to explode in the decade afterwards.

The politics of student protest

One of the myths about 1968 is that the students started off by being political. This simply is not true. At the LSE the resolution to occupy was moved by the former chair of the Conservative Society. At Columbia the biggest student group before the struggle was the Citizen Council, which undertook “social action work” in the local community, and the far-left group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) worked in “coalition with moderate student groups”.

It was precisely because they were “non-political” that students reacted so bitterly to the power structure when it resorted to lies and acts of repression against them.

At the LSE in 1967 the Marxists of the Socialist Society were still a fringe ginger group, capable of taking the initiative at key moments, but by no means recognised as a leadership by the mass of active students. The wording on the demonstrating students’ banner was “down with the pedagogic gerontocracy” (meaning literally, rule by aged teachers); not until after nearly two years of struggle and argument did the slogan become “Free, free the LSE, free it from the bourgeoisie”.

In Germany the student movement was spearheaded by an explicitly Marxist organisation, the German SDS (German Socialist Student League). But the “Marxism” of the majority tendency inside the SDS…broke with classical Marxism, considering the working class of little significance. It accepted the analyses of the “Frankfurt School” theoreticians Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. These claimed that the capitalist system was “closed” and without any possibility of “concrete negation”— meaning that the only challenge to it could come from fringe social groups and from the peoples of the “Third World”. Workers could not fight society because their own consciousness had been shaped by “an authoritarian character structure” imposed on them by the media.

The student movement rose so rapidly because of the students’ lack of roots in production. They were not tied to machines eight hours a day, 48 weeks of the year, so found it much easier to meet and mobilise than workers usually do. The initial outraged minority of students could take action on the campus without being held back by the indifference or even hostility of the majority—something rarely possible for workers in a factory or office.

But the lack of roots also guaranteed that the student movements began to decline the moment they reached their peak of involvement and enthusiasm. For the students did not have the power that workers have when they strike—the ability to hit the source of their employers’ profits. They could not build enduring organisation based on their ability to put permanent pressure on the authorities. The student upsurge could, by the very speed of its development, throw the authorities onto the defensive; it could force them to make concessions in a desperate attempt to reassert their ideological control over the mass of students. But it did not have the power to do real damage and that led students rapidly to believe that little more could be achieved by direct action.

From civil rights to black power>

The band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The television cameras focused, through the sweltering Mexican heat, on the Olympic podium. The crowd prepared for a glorious moment of US patriotism as the 200 metres gold and bronze medallists Tom Smith and John Carlos took their positions. Then each raised his right hand, wearing a black glove, and clenched it into a fist.

It was a gesture of outright defiance against everything the self-proclaimed patriots who organised the Games stood for. The athletes had counterposed the “Black Power” salute to the American flag and the American anthem. In doing so they gave expression to the mood in every black ghetto in the US by that summer of 1968. What had begun a dozen years earlier as a movement in the Southern states for integration into US society had turned increasingly into a movement of opposition to US capitalism.

The French May

History does not proceed at an even speed. Sometimes even minor shifts take decades or centuries. Sometimes more can happen in one night than in the previous ten years. Such a night was that of 10-11 May 1968 in Paris.

That Friday evening had begun with a large demonstration of university and high school students, the fifth in a week. Their cause was the use of police to close the university and prevent protests at the disciplining of students from the university annexe in the suburb of Nanterre. Armed police had attacked the previous demonstrations, using batons and teargas, and making many arrests. Students had begun to fight back by throwing cobblestones at the police and building improvised barriers out of traffic signs and metal grilles. But this evening’s demonstration was peaceful.

Then, around 10 o’clock, the demonstrators found the police had barred their way across the bridges of the Seine. The police aim was to bottle up the protest in the streets around the Boulevard Saint Michel. The students turned the police’s tactics inside out, creating a “liberated”, police-free area by throwing up barricades in all the adjoining streets—to the traffic signs, grilles and cobblestones were added scores of overturned cars, material from nearby building sites, sacks of cement, compressors, rolls of wire, scaffolding poles.

The inhabitants of the Rue Gay Lussac and nearby streets showed their sympathy with the students 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.

The government ordered thousands of CRS paramilitary police into action at about 2am. The most vicious street fighting followed. Again and again the police charged the barricades, shooting teargas and percussion grenades, beating up anyone—student, worker or simply passer-by—who fell into their hands. The demonstrators threw everything at hand at the police—cobblestones ripped up from the street, teargas canisters and grenades that had not yet exploded. Those in the flats above the streets threw down water to dowse the teargas fumes. Many of the overturned cars caught fire. Again and again the police were forced to halt their offensive. It took them four hours to regain control of the area.

Even then the demonstrators were not vanquished. The leaders of the major trade union federations had been meeting all evening, listening to radio reports of the demonstration. As the scale of the repression and the fighting became clear, they called for a one-day general strike for the following Monday, 13 May.

To try to contain the protests, prime minister Pompidou announced the university would be reopened and there would be a “review” of the charges against those arrested. He later explained: “I preferred to give the Sorbonne to the students than to see them take it by force.” But it was already too late. The students were now determined to occupy the university the moment it opened. More important, the strike was to be the biggest France had ever known, and within two days workers right across France were occupying the 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 paralysed for three weeks as people speculated whether it was to be overthrown in a revolutionary manner.

The fire next time

The “networks” which bind exploited classes to existing society are not made up of metal or stone, but of human beings who argue with other human beings to direct their activities in a certain direction. They are foremen or priests, trade union officials or local politicians, lawyers or community relations councillors. They can be challenged by other organised groups, by revolutionary socialists bound together into parties which enable them to combine their efforts, to present common arguments and work out common strategies.

In modern industrial capitalist society the most important arenas for these arguments are the workplaces where the great mass of people are exploited and the labour movements which claim to articulate their grievances.

But revolutionary organisation itself is not built just in the workplaces. It was precisely the ability of revolutionary organisations to grow in the student, black and anti-Vietnam War struggles of 1968 that enabled some of them to relate to mass workers’ struggles afterwards.

There were reasons why revolutionary socialist ideas suddenly had such an impact in 1968. The world’s two great blocs entered into political crisis, weakening the ideologies that had bound people to the system for two decades. At the same time working classes which had grown massively during the long boom—especially in southern Europe and the black ghettos of the US—could no longer be controlled in old ways.

The real message of 1968 was that there was an alternative to imperialism of any sort, that people through their own self-activity could reconstruct society on a rational basis, that the working class could become the ruling class and build a classless society. A slogan from Trotsky scrawled on the wall of the Sorbonne spelt it out: “Mankind will not be free until the last capitalist is strangled with the entrails of the last bureaucrat”.

These are edited extracts from The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After by Chris Harman, published by Bookmarks, £12.99. Order your copy at bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or call Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848