Fifty Years After: The Sixties in Historical Perspective

 

Fifty Years After: The Sixties in Historical Perspective [1]

by Richard Greeman 

 

An Elegiac Evocation

Nineteen sixty-eight (sigh!)… What a wonderful year that was! Rebellions breaking out all over the f–king place. From Paris to Prague, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Mexico City to Chicago — in the ghetto, on the campus, in the jungles of Vietnam, even within the councils of the Vatican — revolution is the happening thing.

People in motion – all kinds of people. People thinking, acting, daring, participating in an unprecedented historical crisis on an unprecedented international scale. Sending sparks of inspiration and solidarity across frontiers of nationality, age, ideology, and class. Sparks illuminating a moment of world-historical significance, challenging the old order and illuminating possibilities of a different way of being, a new human order.

The place where the spark was kindled was Vietnam. There, poor peasants, city workers, Buddhist monks, and nationalist intellectuals led by the Communists under Ho Chi Minh successfully defended themselves against brutal attacks, first by the French Army and then by the Americans – the ‘anti-colonialist’ Americans, whose 1776 Declaration of Independence was included verbatim in the Basic Program of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. The Vietnamese were ingenious in their audacity, fighting with bicycles and bamboo sticks against B-52s and flame-throwers. Their popular rising during Têt (the Vietnamese New Year) inspired solidarity and sympathy around the world and inaugurated the year of the rebels. Images of beautiful Vietnamese faces and bodies agonized in torture and defiant in dignity girdled the globe through the technological wizardry of television. In the flickering light of the tube My-Lai became the global village.

From deep down in another colonial jungle – the Magnolia Jungle of U.S. racism – came another spark. Struck by Rosa Parks, kindled by Martin Luther King and the brave young people of SNCC and CORE, it burst into flame and burned its way through the cities of the oldest and most complacent of capitalist ‘democracies,’ incinerating the vestiges of McCarthyite conformity and awakening a new generation of white youth to the joys of sex, drugs, rock and revolution.

 

France: May-June 1968

In response to police repression of anti-Vietnam war protests, the Latin Quarter is occupied by student rebels – eventually by rebel youth of all classes and all ages demanding nothing short of a new society. Their slogan: ‘All power to the imagination!’ As in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, Paris is in revolt. Eros is in the ascendant. Handwriting on the walls: ‘The more I make revolution, the more I want to make love – the more I make love, the more I want to make revolution.’ The spark spreads to the aircraft and auto factories, then to the railroads, the buses, the labs, the big stores, the administrations. In every school, factory, office people are organizing ‘Action Committees’ to coordinate their struggle and reorganize their workplace. Power is in the streets. President de Gaulle, le grand Charles, is mysteriously absent.

Ten million French and immigrant workers are on a general strike. They have their own agenda. Not higher wages, but workers’ power, self-management, an end to hierarchy. Corporate managers and Communist union officials are equally nonplussed at the popular slogan, ‘Humanity will finally be happy when the last capitalist is hanged by the guts of the last bureaucrat.’ The detonator was the student uprising; the powder charge, the working classes. The target, the whole established order… In short, a pre-revolutionary situation.

 

Czechoslovakia: August 1968.

Half a million Russian troops invade Czechoslovakia to crush attempts to democratize and humanize the Communist regime. The massive resistance of students, workers, intellectuals and reform-minded Communists sparks worldwide sympathy. Behind the Iron Curtain solidarity demonstrations are held in Poland, Hungary, East Berlin, even Leningrad. In the U.S., protestors brutalized by the Chicago police at the Democratic Convention brandish signs reading ‘Welcome to Czechago.’ ‘Welcome to Prague’ is spray- painted on the streets of Berkeley during the battle for People’s Park.

Although the Czech experiment in ‘socialism with a human face’ is forced to capitulate before the armed might of what is euphemistically known as ‘Actually Existing Socialism,’ workers and students, imitating their French counterparts, continue to form Action Committees demanding civil liberties and workplace democracy.

 

Internationalism

In all these movements, internationalism prevails over national chauvinism and racism. When the French government deports ‘Dany-the-Red’ Cohn-Bendit (a Jewish German national prominent among the Paris student rebels), thousands of French workers and students parade through the streets chanting ‘We are all German Jews.’ The General Assembly of Student-Worker Action Committees call for ‘The Abolition of the Status of Foreigner in France!’ – this despite the French Communist Party’s patriotic appeal to ‘national feeling.’

The unity of the New Left, East and West, is incarnated in the person of ‘Red’ Rudi Dutschke, the dissident East German Communist student who became the outstanding leader of the SDS in West Berlin. His shooting by a right-wing fanatic echoes the shots that killed Martin Luther King the previous week. In Mexico City the sham internationalism of the Olympic Games is unmasked by victorious U.S. athletes raising their clenched fists in the Black Power salute and by the protest of the Mexican students — brutally slaughtered in the Plaza of the Three Cultures by the police of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Nineteen sixty-eight: a year of triumph and tragedy. A moment when the news was dominated, not by the pronouncements of boring bureaucrats, but by the daring deeds of people in protest and masses in motion. At a time when we ourselves were the spectacle we watched through the magnifying and distorting lens of the media. When bold, surrealistic slogans like ‘Do it!’, ‘Burn, baby, burn!’, ‘All power to the imagination!’ ‘Freedom NOW!’, and ‘Everything is possible!’ seemed perfectly reasonable. A time when everyone was young, when rebellion was in the air, when life meant struggle and it was exciting to be alive.

Do I wax nostalgic? Looking backward over two decades, one is tempted to paraphrase François Villon, the student-rebel-poet-thief of 15th Century Paris, and inquire: ‘Where are the riots of yesteryear?’ However, the purpose of the proceeding exercise in elegiac evocation is not to poeticize the remembrance of things past. It is rather to recall to the reader’s mind true-life images of an actual world-historical moment: memory-pictures which, from today’s viewpoint, would seem fantastic, were they not factual. With these images in mind, then, let us attempt more soberly to evaluate the movements of the 1960’s in historical perspective: the positive, the negative and the prospects for the future.

 

Backlash, or the Sixties Suppressed

If nothing else, the worldwide mass revolts that culminated in the revolutionary year 1968 disproved for our generation the pervasive myth of the invincibility of the system. Since 1968 we have undergone two decades during which the establishment has devoted the full force of its apparatus of repression and propaganda to the task of erasing the memory of what happened in the ’60s. The rebellions, near revolutions, and mass protests have disappeared down the memory hole as far as official history is concerned. In a frantic effort to avoid an inconvenient repetition, the media and the ruling elite have pulled out all the stops in their campaign to discredit and destroy even the memory of that glorious decade. [2]

For example, the media create and perpetuated the ugly myth of anti-war protesters spitting on returning soldiers, when in fact the movement set up G.I. coffee houses near Army bases where soldiers could relax, be themselves and escape for a moment the brutality and brainwashing of Basic Training. It is remarkable that despite this orchestrated slander campaign, so many people in the United States continue to be wary of foreign adventures in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador, to the point where the Reagan Administration, which came to power eight years ago with the destruction of Nicaragua as the number one item on its agenda, has had to face total failure. Indeed the derogatory phrase ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ (labeling a cure as if it were a disease!) is designed to conceal is one of the most remarkable phenomena of world history: for the first time in human memory the native population of a powerful imperialist nation (including many in the military) forced the abandonment of an oppressive war of conquest against a rebellious semi-colony. Neither the Athenian demos nor the Roman plebs had the courage and wisdom to effectively oppose their own imperialist leaders. The result was the destruction of democracy in Greece and Rome. The people of the United States have every right to be proud of our record of resistance and our continued opposition.

 

The Balance Sheet

Among the other great achievements of the ’60s was the end of two centuries of legal segregation and oppression of America’s Black former slave population. Add to this the official recognition of the rights (and the historical oppression) of women, gays, Hispanics, and the handicapped. Moreover, the dawning awareness of the danger to humanity’s survival posed by pollution and nuclear war represents a new and universal consciousness capable of uniting the mass of humanity in a common struggle. Finally, the establishment has not forgotten that our movements, however feeble and disorganized, succeeded in unseating and forcing the retirement of three of the most powerful and popular rulers of dominant nation states: Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and France’s Charles de Gaulle.

It is hardly surprising that the battle of 1968 did not end in a decisive knock-out against world capital in its ‘private’ and bureaucratic forms. What needs remembering 20 years after is the fact that we won a couple of rounds on points and struck a nasty left jab which sent the Establishment reeling to its corner. Nor is it surprising that the forces of repression and reaction returned to the fray stronger and more determined to crush the revolutionary elements; indeed it is in the nature of things. As Rosa Luxembourg so elegantly put it, ‘Every revolution is doomed to failure except the last one.’

 

A Failure to Build on Victories

The real shortcoming of the movements of the ’60s was not that we failed to annihilate a vastly superior antagonist, but that we failed to acknowledge, consolidate, and build on some of our very real and remarkable victories. For example, in the United States in 1970, the youth movement achieved a very high stage with the first nationwide general strike of students – spontaneously organized in response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, the repression of the Black Panther Party and the murder of Black protestors at Jackson State (Miss.) and White students at Kent State (Ohio). For the first time a majority of students, not just in elite schools like Berkeley, Columbia, and Ann Arbor, but in the hinterlands, was prepared to defy the authority of schools, parents, and the live ammunition of the police and the National Guard in full awareness of the potentially deadly consequences of their commitment. Moreover, the 1970 protests were not confined to the ‘single-issue’ of winding down a losing and unpopular war. They also struck to the root of the most critical domestic issue of the decade: Black liberation. If personal self-interest – the threat of the draft – may originally have awakened the student youth to politics, in the end they called the whole system into question by their actions.

The tragedy of 1970 was that far from building on what can be seen historically as a remarkable victory for spontaneous direct action – ­thwarting the plans of the Nixon-Kissinger Administration to expand the war in Southeast Asia and eradicate the militant Black leadership – the movement retreated into quietism and despair. Instead of planting the flag of victory on the high ground that had been conquered in an open struggle and congratulating themselves on their new power, the students succumbed to pessimism. Unaccustomed to measuring tactical victories in terms of a long range revolutionary strategy the students, and to some extent the Black militants, mistook a partial gain for a defeat. This failure to consolidate and capitalize on a new, higher stage of struggle had both subjective and objective causes.

 

The Scuttling of SDS

On the subjective side, the break-up of SDS in 1969 deprived the student movement of a national organization in which to gather and channel the new energies or prepare them for the next stage of struggle. This organizational quasi-suicide cut the new forces of radicalized youth off from each other and from a core of experienced, seasoned leadership capable of orienting the expanding movement.

The Progressive Labor Party, the Weatherpeople, and the other self-appointed elites and vanguards in SDS bear a heavy responsibility for disarming and disorganizing the radical student protest movement at the very moment it was about to achieve majority status and provoke what a Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest described as an ‘unparalleled crisis’ in American history. Through their ‘rule or ruin’ tactics, the Maoists and Weatherpeople more-or-less deliberately scuttled a fast-growing, radical, mass-based youth organization with a distinguished history. By turning their backs on the SDS tradition of participatory democracy and multi-tendency radicalism, they reneged on the promise of further mass organizing and political growth among the majority of youth. By opting for obsolete, elitist forms of struggle – vanguardism and terrorism – they effectively alienated the sympathies the movement had slowly gathered over years of escalating struggle. Worse still, they destroyed the vehicle through which it could develop further. [3]

The self-proclaimed super-revolutionary vanguardists in SDS were in effect retrogressionists with respect to the new forms of organization – radical, spontaneous, community-based, self-developing – which were the historically specific creations of the 1960s. Moreover, by refusing to recognize the role of youth and students as a new revolutionary subject with its own inner dynamic, they cut off the possibility of alliances with other actors on the revolutionary scene: Blacks, women, national liberation struggles, and the working class.

To form effective alliances, a social group must be organized and capable of united action, of throwing its weight into the struggle alongside of other radical social forces. In the modern world, youth and students represent such a force. In May 1970 half of the U.S.’s 8 million students and 350,000 faculty members were on strike against racism, imperialism and university complicity with the war machine. This was a considerable social force in itself, one capable of opening and prolonging a political crisis and of lending important weight to other social forces – the Blacks, the minorities, the women – who were already in motion. If something like the French student-worker revolt of May 1968 with its general strike of 10 million was probably not on the agenda for the U.S. in 1970 (for reasons we will discuss later) there is no doubt that a golden opportunity was lost.

 

The Role of Youth

Let us note the historical lesson for future reference: like the Black liberation struggle and the women’s movement, the students and youth need and are entitled to their own organizational vehicle for self-development and struggle. The course of history may, in some objective sense, ‘subordinate’ the youth within the broader struggle of the workers, but for elitist super-revs to choose to subordinate it to their chosen idea of ‘true vanguard’ is dangerous nonsense.

Granted, the U.S. is different from France, but if the French worker-student uprising of May-June 1968 proved anything, it proved that a student movement could serve as a ‘detonator’ for a social revolt that would unleash the fundamental economic antagonists in the social struggle – the workers versus the capitalist state – and involve the near-totality of the population in revolutionary activity. It proved that social revolution – despite the hoary prognostications of decades of liberal theorists and neo-Marxists – was still on the agenda in advanced capitalist countries. Most of all it proved (in the root sense of ‘tested’) the fragility and vulnerability of the seemingly invincible hegemonic bureaucratic-capitalist superstructure – the progressive modern state. The spectacle of the police in disarray, the government paralyzed, and the army confined to barracks (for fear of fraternization) is a specter that continues to haunt the corridors of power — even if the radicals have momentarily forgotten it. Like the failed pan-European revolutions of 1848, like the doomed Paris Commune of 1871, like the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905, the revolutionary year 1968 heralded the appearance of new revolutionary subjects, revealed new forms of struggle, and foreshadowed future possibilities.

The significance of 1968 twenty years later is less in its more-or-less predictable failure, than in its promise for the future. Call it, if you like, a ‘flash in the pan.’ It was nonetheless a flash sufficiently bright to illuminate, however briefly, the possible shape of things to come. This being the case, we have no choice but to return to the history of the rebellions of 1968 as to a living lesson, a roadmap which may point to possible pathways – perhaps the only roads – toward human survival and a new society.

 

What Was Missing?

Let us look, first of all, at the negatives: the reasons why the rebellions of 1968 did NOT result in world revolution.

I did not share the analysis of the celebrated Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whom the media presented as the inspirer of the worldwide student revolts, but who in 1968 publicly opposed them. [4] Marcuse’s earlier revival of Hegalian Marxism (Reason and Revolution, 1941) and his synthesis of Marx and Freud (Eros and Civilization) were certainly seminal for many in the New Left. But by the 1960s Marcuse was seeing only negativity (‘The Great Refusal’) in our epoch of world-wide rebellion and theorizing workers in terms of One-Dimensional Man (his 1964 book). [5]

On the other hand, Marcuse’s analysis did have the virtue of focusing attention on a salient feature of the 1960’s: revolt in the ‘periphery.’ Whether we consider the national liberation movements on the geographical periphery of the industrially developed world, or the ‘peripheral’ elements within it – the racial and ethnic minorities, the women liberationists, the youth, the unemployed, the disaffected intellectuals – we are looking at elements on the fringes. The fact that this rag-tag assortment of illiterate peasants and alienated intellectuals, dark-skinned ghetto-dwellers and middle-class students, outsiders, freaks and so-called ‘lumpen’ proletarians succeeded in uniting to knock the establishment off balance, is a remarkable testimony both to the fragility of the system and the maturity of oppressed humanity in our epoch of capitalist decadence.

The received wisdom of traditional ‘Marxism’ (Communists, social-democrats, even Trotskyists) considered these diverse ‘elements’ as essentially passive at best, and at worst as potential reactionary shock-troops in moments of crisis. Only under the ‘firm leadership’ of the advanced proletariat and its ‘revolutionary vanguard’ (the Party), it was believed, might they ‘go over’ to the revolution.

Yet 1968 presents the spectacle of these very peripheral elements joining forces, generating their own leadership, mounting new and ingenious forces of struggle, and provoking a social and political crisis – a breach in the continuity of authority. This radical rupture was all the more remarkable in the absence of two elements considered essential for the overthrow of capitalism: a world economic crisis and of a generalized intervention on the part of the working class.

 

Limits of the Struggle

The Sixties’ revolts erupted during a period of relative prosperity – the post-WWII boom of capitalist expansion. Unionized workers in the West, relatively well-paid, were considered integrated and consumerized. Futurists worried over the problem of ‘leisure time.’ Students, more or less assured of lifetime employment at places like IBM, were free to reject capitalist society on moral grounds. The mass strikes of the working class in France and Czechoslovakia were the exception, rather than the rule. It is not surprising, given their isolation, that they did not develop in an insurrectional direction and confront the armed forces of the state.

Whereas Marcuse and others dismissed French workers’ general strike as a sort of historical conditioned reflex, a throwback to the traditions of 1848 and 1871, one might argue the contrary case. The decision to stop short of the ultimate confrontation (and thus avoid a bloodbath) was perhaps a sign of the collective maturity and tactical wisdom not only of the French (with their bitter memories of the massacres of July 1848 and the 1871 Commune), but also of the Czechs (who could hardly have forgotten the fate of the insurrectionary Hungarian Workers’ Councils of 1956). It is hardly astonishing that the workers of France and Czechoslovakia chose not to become martyrs in the cause of an unlikely world revolution. What is astonishing is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the French workers refused to accept the Grenelle Agreements (including wage raises of up to 72%!) negotiated for them by the Communist and Socialist trade unions. It wasn’t more money they wanted, but something else: new human relations in production. (A mass meeting of 25,000 actually booed the CGT leaders off the platform at the huge Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris.)    

 

Astonishing but True

What is astonishing is the fact that during the French general strike, many enterprises actually resumed production under worker self-management and began exchanging their products with those of neighboring farmers, thus stripping the commodity-fetish off their labor and creating an embryonic socialism in the course of struggle!

What is astonishing is the fact that many workers (backed by the students) continued to face the police in full-scale battles to defend their occupied factories long AFTER the official Communist- and Socialist-led unions had ‘settled’ the strike and attempted to stampede the workers back to work with false reports that ‘all the other’ factories had returned.

What is astonishing is the fact that the Czech workers, often led by rank-and-file Communists, actually intensified the organization of democratically elected factory committees AFTER the Russian invasion put an end to Dubcek’s reforms.

Clearly, if these workers had no taste for traditional revolutionary martyrdom, they had no taste for traditional reformism either. If the Czechoslovakian mass strike had spread, say, to Poland in 1968 (instead of 1981), the Czech resistance might have taken a less passive, less ‘Schweikian’ form, and the outcome might have been different… Similarly, if the French general strike had spread into Britain and Germany – as it did in a drawn-out form in Italy during 1969…

But, not so astonishingly, it didn’t.

It didn’t for perfectly clear, objective reasons. The world economy was still enjoying the autumn of the long post-World War II boom. France, for example, had undergone a remarkable period of modernization and expansion during the Gaullist decade of 1958-1968, and in the U.S., L.B. Johnson was still able to deliver guns and butter, to pacify part of the labor movement and to co-opt an important sector of the Civil Rights movement by recruiting its leaders with paid jobs in his bogus ‘War on Poverty’ – all the while escalating his much more real and more costly war on Southeast Asia.

Only a Flash in the Pan?

Let us return, now, to our point of departure – Marcuse’s critique of the movements of the 60’s as essentially ‘marginal’ and their negative depiction as a mere ‘flash in the pan’ of no historical significance. History buffs and gun-freaks may recall that the expression ‘a flash in the pan’ refers to the misfiring of an old-fashioned flint-lock musket. The flint strikes a spark, the spark ignites the powder in the pan, but the main powder-charge in the breech fails to ignite. There is a blinding flash, but no bullet. This is an apt description of what happened in 1968.

On the other hand, the 60’s revolts – be they of youth, oppressed minorities or peasants in the periphery – did display the potential to act as detonators (our ‘flash in the pan’ image again) for flare-ups of serious class conflict involving the essential polar antagonists of modern industrial society: the wage earners who produce goods and services versus the stockholders whose corporations own, manage or control the means of production and the state. Moreover, in both France and Czchoslovakia, the rebels and strikers had the active sympathy of the general population, further isolating the power structure to the point where the Army and even some of the police could no longer be counted on. As we have seen, these pre-revolutionary situations flared up for a few weeks only and then, unable to go forward, died out, like a flash in the pan. But does this render them meaningless ‘throwbacks’ (Marcuse) to a bygone age of class struggle? Not necessarily. The fact that a musket may misfire on one or another occasion does not render it any less a deadly weapon. Perhaps the powder was wet. The wet powder in this case standing for the absence of an economic crisis. Better timing next time.And speaking of next time, there is a striking time-lag – a décalage or out-of-phase character – between the period of widespread social and political crises of the 1960’s and the period of generalized economic crisis we are entering today, East and West. Given this décalage, it is not altogether surprising that the revolts of the 60’s remained largely confined to ‘the periphery’ and retained a quality better characterized as ‘revolts’ or ‘rebellions’ than as ‘revolutions.’ (Hence the essentially symbolic, even theatrical quality of many of their tactics, from non-violent sit-ins to Days of Rage, or from showering the stock exchange with dollar bills to planting bombs under it.)

Meanwhile, the brief flash of 1968 stands like a beacon of hope, illuminating the capitalist landscape, pointing to the vulnerability of the powers that be and to the potential of new revolutionary subjects like youth and peasant farmers to ignite a general conflagration.

 

Some Hairy Theories

Nothing fails like failure. On the negative side, the objective isolation of these ‘peripheral’ movements from the central, essential class struggle of labor and capital led to some hairy theories with unfortunate practical consequences. Among the more innocuous of these deviations was Charles Riech’s theory of The Greening of America (1970) which predicted the peaceful transformations of the oppressive, exploitative and brutal institutions of U.S. capitalism through a revolution in consciousness (‘Conn III’) which would take over as soon as the long-haired students of 1968 were old enough to become Chairmen of the Board. In practice, the ‘Long March through the Institutions’ (as it was known in German SDS) changed little besides style.

Equally idealistic but far more pernicious were the various vanguardist theories based on the elitist dogmas of the ‘backward-ness’ of the masses and its corollary, the need for a ‘Party’ of heroic self-proclaimed revolutionaries to lead them or set them an ‘example.’ Although couched in the language of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, this ideology was a reversion to the ideology of the 19th Century Russian Populists – the ‘Narodniks’ against whom Lenin had had to struggle to lay the basis for Russian Marxism. Yet in the lull that followed the explosions of 1968, many European and American radicals, impatient with slow, dialectical development of mass movements and hungry for shortcuts to revolution, unwittingly reinvented the idealistic ‘serve the people’ ideology of the Russian students of 1870 and unconsciously aped the anarchist and populist bomb throwers of 1880-1914. [6]

 

Whose Violence?

On the level of the movement as a whole, incalculable damage was done by confusing the necessity for revolutionary violence (for example, self-defense as practiced by the original Black Panthers and Deacons for Defense; the militant occupation of private property and public space) with the counter-productive practice of individual terror. Rather than representing a step forward, the cultivation of individual violence was an index of the movement’s isolation and decline.

Finally, the very weakness of the 60s rebellions (the absence of an economic crisis and generalized class warfare) paradoxically revealed the secret vulnerability of the power structure. Despite its monopoly of guns, police, prisons, political processes and information media, the Establishment’s hegemony was severely (if momentarily) shattered by our rag-tag army of outsiders and freaks. The vaunted stability of de Gaulle’s monarchy-by-referendum proved to be a house of cards, and it was not for nothing that Nixon whined about a ‘pitiful, helpless giant.’ The Emperor, albeit armed to the teeth, for a moment stood naked for all to see.

History, like geology, does not move forward at a uniform pace, but rather in fits and starts. Long periods of apparent uniformity are followed by volcanic moments of rapid transformation, summing up all that has come before and illuminating much of what is to come. I very much agree with George Katsiaficas [7] who characterizes the 1960’s as such a ‘world-historical’ moment. Thus the rebellions of 1968 (like the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1905) may be seen as heralding the appearance on the historical stage of new revolutionary subjects and new forms of struggle that may develop at a later date.

If this be the case, the forces of social revolution that were forced into retreat two decades ago, may very well, following a historical pattern of 20-year cycles, return to the fray with the coming of a new generation. How have conditions changed since 1968? Will the balance of forces – subjective and objective – be more or less favorable for the Return of the Social Revolution?

 

Favorable Signs (in 1988 and 2018 [8][i])

To this inveterately optimistic observer, the objective signs looked favorable in 1988, on the 20th anniversary of 1968. To begin with, the strategic capability of the U.S. as policeman of the capitalist world had sharply declined since 1968. Then, U.S. imperialism was able to mount a prolonged full-scale invasion 6,000 miles from home against a seasoned Vietnamese guerrilla movement with a protected rear and lines of communication to allies in Russia and China. By 1988, tiny Nicaragua, surrounded by Contra bases, more or less abandoned by the U.S.S.R., still stood defiant, only 600 miles from the U.S., after 8 years of concerted attack. Meanwhile, Washington’s credibility lay shattered by the Iran-Contra-cocaine scandal. In comparison with the non-entity of [G.H.W.] Bush, Singlaub and North, Nixon and Kissinger loomed like giants (and even Nixon’s bumbling White House Plumbers looked professional).

If the Monroe Doctrine was showing signs of wear, in 1988 the Brezhnev Doctrine seemed altogether in shambles. The rumble of tanks moving, NOT out into Czechoslovakia but home from Afghanistan (with their tails between their treads) can only be sending one message to East Europe’s Communist dictators Husak, Geirik, Jarelzowsky and Company: ‘Sink or swim. It’s every man for himself, boys!’

Not only did Gorbachev knock the military props out from under the ruling bureaucrats of the Warsaw Pact, he also removed the ideological props. Whatever glasnost and perestroika may mean in Russian, translated into East German, Hungarian, Czech, and Polish they have got to revive the hopes (and fears, for the bureaucracy!) of 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1981 respectively.

Be that as it may, the rigid, bi-polar Cold War system with enforced social immobility based on the mutually agreed upon threat of the ‘Enemy Without’ seemed a thing of the past in 1988. The genii is out of the box. The superpowers suddenly didn’t seem so super any more, and humanity had less reason to fear and more reason to dream and to dare.

2018 update: Humanity did dream and dare, and in the Spring of 2011 another wave of radical uprisings, echoing 1968, spread around the globe, from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria to Europe, with the mass anti-austerity movement in Greece, the movements of the squares in Spain, Portugal and France, to the U.S. with the Wisconsin rebellion followed by Occupy Wall Street. As in 1968, the powers that be were caught off guard, but they soon organized the repression, an orgy of violence that continues to this day. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not usher in the expected “end of history” with a New World Order of liberal capitalism under U.S. leadership. On the contrary, the Cold War standoff between U.S. and Russia has been replaced by a multi-imperialist world-system. Imperialist rivalries between regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel – backed by global capitalist powers like Russia, China, the US, and Europe – fuel endless wars and civil wars. Neo-liberal globalization has given birth to competition between reactionary forms of economic nationalism, crony capitalism and authoritarianism.

 

Economic Crisis?

On the economic front, it is clear that the world’s dominant economic systems are on the brink of crisis. On the one hand, it is difficult to imagine the U.S. economy escaping the logical consequences of a rapidly declining balance of trade, a huge internal debt (both governmental and private), and billions of uncollectible loans to impoverished Third World countries. With savings institutions in deep trouble and the stock market, unchastened by Black Monday, battening on unhealthy speculation, laundered drug-money, and unproductive takeovers, it is likely that things may get a whole lot worse before they get better.

2018 Note. Ruefully re-reading my 1988 doomsday prediction I am reminded of the humorous brag: « We Marxists have correctly predicted five out of the last three recessions. » On the other hand, the objective conditions I noted in 1988 – debt, speculation, balance of trade, plant-closings, globalization — continued and intensified, while many of the regulations put in place in the 1930’s to prevent another 1929-type Crash were removed. And so we got the Crash of 2008. I hate to be an I-told-you-so, but I told you so (albeit 20 years too early).  

Whereas in 1968 the labor bureaucracy could drag a relatively well-paid layer of the working class ‘part of the way with LBJ,’ today plant closings, cut-backs, and take-backs have eroded the influence of the social-patriotic class-collaborationists of the AFL-CIO. How long can the Johnny-One-Notes of the UAW go on trumpeting ‘Buy American’ when it is obvious to every worker that ‘American’ companies are in fact transnational and that the job security of U.S. workers has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap labor in foreign lands? And if management can get away with paying garment workers 16 cents an hour in El Salvador, what chance does any worker – White, Black, or Latino – ­have asking for $16 an hour or even $6 an hour in L.A.? The answer is, ‘Let’s put the INTERNATIONAL back in UNION!’

The beginnings of an anti-imperialist Central America solidarity lobby within the AFL-CIO is evidence that many U.S. workers understand that they are being forced to compete with the victims of anti-union rightwing dictatorships propped up by U.S. workers’ tax dollars. Meanwhile, the situation of the Black and Hispanic labor force in the U.S., bad enough in 1968, has if anything worsened. To this reservoir of anger and revolt, Reaganomics has added millions of women forced into the labor market for survival, and thousands of skilled white workers who have been thrown out of work or forced into low-pay service jobs.

 

Capitalist Internationalization

The internationalization of capital has been the cutting edge of a generalized attack on U.S. labor’s historical living standard – an attack designed to reduce us all – White, Black, male, female, young or old, to the level of subsistence. Cutbacks in health care, housing, education and job safety combine with ‘deindustrialization’ to increase our insecurity and fear. All this takes place with the tacit complicity of the AFL-CIO leadership who blame everything on the Japanese and provide an easy out for the politicians and the corporations. As a result, union membership has declined to the level of the 1920’s. Only a new, militant and internationalist labor movement (allied with other community forces) can possibly turn this situation around.

On the other side of the ‘deindustrialization’ equation stand the new proletarians of Korea, Taiwan, and the other ‘Little Tigers.’ A generation ago, they were peasants. Today they are industrial workers in the most advanced and most profitable sector of the world economy, increasingly impatient with low wages, long hours, harsh conditions, and the U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes that enforce them. Unlike the peasant guerrillas of the 1960’s, these workers have the power to attack the system where it hurts.[9] 2018 Note. Soon the Asian Tigers were joined and surpassed by China, a 2000 pound industrial Gorilla – with a new, militant proletariat of billions. As early as 2006, there were 87,000 violent strikes and uprisings necessitating armed intervention according to official reports which likely underestimated the situation. Resistance has continued, with significant gains. The global proletariat, contrary to Western postmodernist, ‘End-of-Work’ dogma, has not ‘disappeared.’ It has merely changed its address, skin color and, for the most part, gender.

 

Some Big ‘Ifs’

If the internationalism that characterized the movements of the 60’s comes back to life and creates active links of solidarity among the workers in the various branches of the new multi-national capitalist system, then ‘everything is possible’ will cease to be a mere slogan. If the new subjects of revolution that revealed themselves in the mass movements of the 60s – the youth, the women, the oppressed minorities, the poor peasants, the new working class of educated technological and office personnel – join forces with these industrial workers in a situation of economic crisis, then humanity may yet find a way to its humanness and in the process save itself – and this beautiful world – from destruction.

These are all big ‘ifs’ – hypotheses based on selected evidence using an historical method that by definition lacks the verifiability (repeatability) of physical science. They are the best – indeed the only hopeful – hypotheses we have. Possibilities… Perhaps slim possibilities, but possibilities nonetheless, and thus a pathway opened toward a solution to the crisis of a society so decadent, so hell-bent on self-destruction, that the alternatives of ‘socialism or barbarism’ might better be restated as ‘socialism or planetary extinction.’

There are so many time-clocks ticking their way toward an all-but-inevitable Armageddon that, without the hypothesis of worldwide social revolution, it is only a matter of which form of annihilation we will succumb to first. An ‘accidental’ thermonuclear war à la ‘Strangelove’ or one unleashed by maniacal theocrats in Pakistan or Israel? The destruction of the ozone layer or the greenhouse effect? Overpopulation or universal starvation provoked by drought due to the destruction of the world’s rainforests?

 

Species Questions

‘People do make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.’ Marx’s remark is particularly poignant today when we may soon run out of circumstances (not to mention people).

What were once class questions, social questions, political questions, have been qualitatively transformed into species-questions: questions of global survival. The global order, dominated by multinational conglomerates more concerned with short-term profits than future economic development (and increasingly propped up by repressive military-bureaucratic regimes), no longer even pretends to offer long-tern solutions. Reformism, once the hope of liberal and social democrats, is (paradoxically) a viable possibility only in the Eastern Block. (In the U.S., liberalism – our chief antagonist in 1968 – has become taboo: the ‘L’ word).

Thus if we eliminate Divine or extraterrestrial intervention, we are forced to the conclusion that only human activity on a world scale – the mass activity of the powerless and oppressed, be they landless peasants and sweated laborers in the Third World, rebels fighting the ‘socialist bourgeoisie’ in the Second, or the relatively privileged technological new working classes in the post-industrial First World – can prevent extinction and open the way toward the reconstruction of a rational, humane society.

To be sure, such a radical perspective sounds hopelessly Utopian today with Thatcherite neo-capitalism triumphant. Like everyone, I have my moments of despair. But then I think back to the rebellious world of the Sixties, to a time when ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very Heaven!’ [10] I also remember that what happened once can happen, in perhaps more favorable circumstances, again. The ‘flash in the pan’ that sparked up in the Sixties was like a flare illuminating a dark battlefield. Its momentary brilliance revealed a capitalist adversary much weaker than we had imagined and a host of global allies we didn’t know we had. Not enough to win, but future times may be more favorable. Today, we see the circle of the rich and powerful growing smaller and smaller, the numbers of excluded and exploited growing larger and larger, and with it their resentments, their hopes and their world-wide demand for justice. ‘Ce n’est qu’un début! Continuons le combat!’ (‘It’s only a beginning! Let’s keep the struggle going!’)

***

[1] Originally published in New Politics on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the May 1968 uprisings. I have added a few 2018 updates, clearly indicated in the text.

[2].Update, June 2007. New proof of 1968’s still-potent charge. – after not twenty, but now forty years: Nicolas Sarkozy, the successful Right-wing candidate in last month’s French Presidential election, devoted his final speech of the campaign to…. 1968-bashing! According to Sarko, we ’68-ers are responsible for today’s ‘intellectual and moral relativism,’ ‘brought cynicism to society and lowered the political and moral level.’ Further more, we ‘encourage criminals.’ ‘We must turn the page of May ’68’ Sarkozy concluded (Le Monde, May 2, 2007).

[3] 2008 Note. On the occasion of the refounding of SDS this Winter, remorseful Weatherman Mark Rudd ruefully recounted dumping the SDS membership files into Lake Michigan. Imagine how much more powerful the spontaneous campus risings of 1970 would have been if connected and coordinated through this national network.

[4] Marcuse was appalled by the student tactics of strikes and occupations. Having been hounded out of Nazi Germany as a Jew and a Marxist, Marcuse defended the ‘liberal’ U.S. university system, where he had been welcomed, as a sanctuary for free inquiry. The sight of students taking over campuses must have reminded him of the Hitler Youth. We rebels exposed U.S. universities – supposedly ‘value-free’ – as complicit with the Vietnam war, carrying out secret military research and processing students into future officers and docile corporate employees.

[5] Please see my essay, ‘A Critical Examination of Herbert Marcuse’s Thought,’ New Politics Vol. VI, No. 4.

[6] This repetition of history as farce would be laughable were it not for its tragic consequences – for the radicals themselves, for innocent by-standers, and for the movement. From my own N.Y. circle, Ted Kapchuck is dead and Dave Gilbert and Kathy Boudin are in jail for life. We have already seen how SDS was dismantled in the name of this ‘revolution.’

[7] For the best overall view of the Sixties, I recommend George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968, South End Press, 1987.

[8] 2018 updates indicated by italics.

[9] 2007 Note. Twenty years later the Asian Tigers have been joined by China, a 2000 pound industrial Gorilla – with a new, militant proletariat of billions. Let us note that in China in 2006, there were 87,000 violent strikes and uprisings necessitating armed intervention according to official reports which likely underestimated the situation. The global proletariat, contrary to Western postmodernist, ‘End-of-Work’ dogma, has not ‘disappeared.’ It has merely changed its address.

[10] William Wordsworth’s recollection of his experiences in the French Revolution (the Prelude of 1850.)

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