4 Ways ’68 Was About So Much More Than the French May

by Connor Woodman

24 May 2018

Biblioteca de Arte/Flickr

Many of the forces that arose to combat the sixties remain in power. These forces understood the challenge of the sixties. We should, too. 

Boundaries, 2009

Revolutions are the ecstasy of history: the moment when social reality and social dream fuse. 

Angelo Quattrocchi, 1968

This month marks the 50th anniversary of a huge uprising in France: mass demonstrations and street battles which synthesised student walkouts and a 10-million-strong general strike. President De Gaulle abandoned the teetering Fifth Republic, and for a moment the first successful revolution in an advanced industrial state looked likely.

Important and seismic as those events were, it’s crucial to view the French May as part of a two-decade-long planetary upheaval which shook the capitalist world order from Havana to Hanoi. The struggles and backlashes of that period continue to mould the political terrain facing the left today.

1. ‘68 wasn’t one month, but two decades.

The French May didn’t emerge spontaneously, but was just one eruptive result of decades-long tectonic shifts. ’68 – marked by Soviet tanks in Prague, mass demonstrations in Grosvenor Square, and a massacre in Mexico City – should be considered a signifier for a period of global struggle stretching from 1956 to 1979.  

1956 marks the emergence of the ‘first New Left’, a response to the USSR’s invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s revelations about the horrors of Stalinism. That year also witnessed the humiliation of the British and French empires after their failed invasion of Egypt. Simultaneously, the Montgomery bus boycott kicked off the civil rights movement in the US – essentially the counterpart to Europe’s mass worker movements – and the Battle of Algiers began, intensifying the long and successful struggle of the Algerian people to liberate themselves from French rule.

1979 marks the symbolic defeat of the energies of ’68: the extraordinary decade-long wave of Italian labour struggles lay in tatters following the Red Brigades’ execution of former prime minister Aldo Moro and mass arrests of autonomist leaders; the British ‘winter of discontent’ culminated in the ascendance of Margaret Thatcher; and the communist movement’s role in the Iranian Revolution was eclipsed by right-wing Islamist forces.

2. ‘68 wasn’t just about students.

Although popular memory is dominated by long-haired students and dope-smoking hippies, the period marked the explosion onto the world stage of a range of subaltern classes.

Peasants fought heroic national liberation struggles in the Global South. Rural guerrillas across Latin America relied on the support and nourishment of peasant populations – most spectacularly during the 1959 Cuban Revolution – whilst fighting the US empire’s proxy governments. A new Communist party of the Philippines began a still-extant guerrilla war in 1969, and a popular movement of workers, peasants and students ousted a dictatorship in Pakistan the same year.

In the West, the most advanced – if ultimately rolled-back – uprising occurred in Portugal in 1974. Workers commissions governed hundreds of Portuguese factories throughout 1974-5, and landless labourers on agricultural estates began a huge wave of land occupations. For the first time, the unwaged, the outcast and the lumpen proletariat were taken seriously as a revolutionary force by the left, from the prisoners’ rights movements to the Black Panthers.

Students were often on the front lines of street demonstrations – and in Ethiopia in 1974, spearheaded a revolution against the feudal regime of Haile Selassie – but at the peak of their movements, radical students became cognisant of their own limitations as a social sector. After shutting down the entire high school and university sector in 1967-8, and failing to fundamentally alter the country’s power structures, Italian students poured into factories and local communities, convinced the off-campus working class contained the key to successful revolution. Many US radicals reached the same conclusion, and two of the major offshoots of Students for a Democratic Society – Progressive Labor and the New Communist Movement – dedicated themselves to organising within the proletariat in the 1970s.

3. ‘68 was global and anti-imperialist.

Many of the most important struggles occurred in the Global South: the late 1950s and early 1960s wave of decolonisation, particularly across Africa, was arguably the single most important post-WW2 development. Even the French May was preceded by comparable (and, in the West, ignored) uprisings in Dakar and Tunis earlier that year.

The anti-colonial rebellions of the period left their mark on the West, both within the left and beyond. The National Liberation Front’s struggle in Algeria toppled the French Fourth Republic in 1958, then brought about the formal end of the French Empire in 1962, catalysing a reconfiguration of the French polity. Long armed struggles in Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola against the final European empire, Portugal, directly caused the radicalisation and instability which led to the revolutionary collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974. That armed anti-colonial rebellions caused huge political upheavals within western countries during the period has been almost entirely erased from the popular consciousness.

The single most radicalising force on western students was the Vietnamese struggle against US invasion. In a way unparalleled and unrepeated since, the western left realised the central importance of mass movements in the Global South, and of racialised minorities within the Global North. The Black Panther party brought its own variant of Maoism within the borders of the US, and western student movements were heavily inspired by the earlier Zengakuren movement, which fought against US military bases in Japan. For much of the global ’68 left, anti-racism, anti-imperialism and militant class struggle were the essentially-intertwined bases of revolutionary politics.

4. ’68 continues to structure our present.

Much of the left’s great theoretical innovations emerged from ‘68: women’s liberation as a direct response to the sexism of the New Left, civil rights and black power movements; ‘identity politics’ as an attempt, most clearly articulated by the Combahee River Collective, to forge an anti-capitalist analysis intertwined with race and gender; and what would become queer liberation emerging around the Compton and Stonewall riots. Many of our finest cultural and theoretical productions date from the period; even Novara Media’s name originates from a major struggle of that time: the Italian ‘hot autumn’.

The reactions the period engendered continue to deeply influence our current moment. Authoritarian neoliberalism – first tested in the bloody US-imposed repression of an elected left government in Chile in 1973 – was partly an attempt to crush the spirit of ’68, whilst co-opting its individualist and culturalist elements. Mass incarceration emerged as a way of reconfiguring white supremacy following the advances of black liberation in the US, and in Indonesia the western-backed mass killing of up to one million suspected communists in 1965-66 permanently eradicated any serious left force in the fourth-most populous nation in the world.

The forces of left anti-imperialism which went on a world-wide offensive from 1956-79 were not totally defeated in the neoliberal and New Right reaction: Cuba, for example, was still sending troops to assist post-colonial Angola and the ANC in South Africa in the struggle against apartheid until the late 1980s. The Philippine communist movement continues, and the period’s role in cracking stifling social attitudes in the West cannot be underestimated.

A combination of political-economic factors created a destabilising opening for mass movements of the left across those decades. What’s certain is that capitalism will not avoid another prolonged period of global instability within our lifetimes – we may even be living through the first murmurings of a new cycle of struggle. If we are to succeed where the ’68 radicals fell short, we ought to study their thought, their movements and their failures. We can be better prepared next time.

Connor Woodman writes for Novara Media and other outlets.

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