May 1968

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 78 – May/June 1988


May '68: the year of street fighting men, France in turmoil, the black movement in the USA, the universities occupied, the student sit-in and the Tet offensive. CAROL BRICKLEY examines four books on the 1968 upheaval. TREVOR RAYNE analyses the Vietnamese struggle which forged ahead against the mightiest imperialist power.

The problem for anyone attempting to assess the lessons and events of 1968 is to make sense of a mass of disparate protests, sit-ins, strikes, occupations, demonstrations occurring over a few years in major advanced capitalist countries at the end of a long period of boom. Four men, Tariq Ali (late Trotskyist of the IMG, now 'independent Marxist'); David Caute (historian, academic, formerly literary editor of the New Statesman); Chris Harman (editor of Socialist Worker); and Ronald Fraser (Left leaning oral historian) have each attempted to assemble the pieces of the jigsaw. Despite common themes, each has ended with a different picture.

We should not be surprised at this. Revolutions, rebellions and social upheavals are all things to all men. All classes and strata of society can be involved. The Russian Revolution in 1917 was the culmination of decades of social unrest which affected the students, intellectuals, military, bourgeoisie as well as the working class and peasantry: only story book revolutions are a simple fight between the workers and the bosses. But not all social upheavals lead to revolution – let alone socialist revolution. The outcome will be determined by which class is leading the struggle. Communist revolutions also require communist organisation.


Two of the books in question, David Caute's and Ronald Fraser's purport to be histories of events. If you want to know about the alternative culture of the period read David Caute for an over-detailed assessment of the antics of drug-crazed hippies who wanted to destroy capitalism by blowing everyone's mind. Caute's conclusions are in line with some of his source material: the abiding legacy of 1968 is cultural not political – 'The battle for sexual-erotic liberty in life, literature and the arts has been largely won in the West . . . despite inevitable backlashes' (p406).

Ronald Fraser has chosen 175 'leading' participants in the 1968 events and assembled the history from their contributions. What is interesting is how each of the contributors now defines his/her political affiliations. The majority belong to no political organisation and a large proportion define themselves as 'independent Marxists', 'independent socialists' and non-aligned.

Tariq Ali's book, described as an 'autobiography of the sixties', is an account of the life of a revolutionary jetsetter. Born into the Pakistani political elite and transported to Oxford University in the early sixties to keep him out of political trouble at home, Ali manages for the next ten years to place himself centre stage. He visits Bolivia as part of an expedition to visit Regis Debray in jail; North Vietnam for Bertrand Russell's War Crimes Tribunal, Germany on behalf of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Pakistan to advise on impending revolution and he would have been in France in May 1968 if he hadn't been in difficulty with his immigration status. He meets Malcolm X, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Marlon Brando, Bhutto, Stokely Carmichael, Bertrand Russell, and a whole coterie of European intellectuals, mostly it seems in restaurants and at social functions. With a bit more push he might have seen Ho Chi Minh. This is all served up in an entertaining fashion and the book is worth reading if only for his account of his visit to North Vietnam at the height of the war and his account of his meeting with Malcolm X.

Chris Harman's book is another story altogether. Four hundred pages cover the period from 1960 to 1976. Harman's book is a political assessment of the period in line with the politics of his organisation the SWP (International Socialists (IS) at the time). Centre stage for him is the organised working class: all other movements are judged by their relationship to it.


These four books are in agreement on the major events of the period: the black civil rights movement in the USA; the Vietnam war; May 1968 in France. Very little attempt is made to analyse why in the late 1960s, a movement, spurned and disregarded by the 'Old Left' CP and left labourites, centred on internationalism, anti-racism and anti-authoritarianism, came into being and grew to mass proportions. Yet this was the central issue of the period which introduced a whole generation to the politics of mass action, revolution and Marxist theory. Where did the spark come from? From young men like Tariq Ali, Rudi Dutschke, Dany Cohn-Bendit? From 'red bases' in the universities? From LSD, cannabis and pop music? From the organised trade union movement? Harman is the only one to attempt an answer: disillusion with the capitalist West and the bureaucratic East.

The SWP has long held to its slogan 'Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism'. Spanning the twin imperialisms of East and West is the international working class which will rise up against both bureaucracy and capitalism. The student revolt in 1968 Harman argues was simply an adjunct to the workers' struggles which were taking place at the time.

And the fault of the student movement, or indeed the black movement, women's liberation movement, anti-Vietnam war movement etc etc, was according to Harman that they neither had the power (to strike at the point of production) nor did they connect with the organised working class (trade union movement).

Such an explanation is the Noddy story book version of Marxist theory. Yes, the post-war boom generation was raised on Cold War politics (not least of all IS) and cultural austerity, but the prime moving force was not a rejection of the communist East, but a rapid realisation that the freedom and democracy of the West were only skin deep and did not extend even so far as all its citizens. The spark in the USA was the struggle for black liberation which, in the early sixties, mobilised black students and in turn their white compatriots. The anti-Vietnam war movement grew in solidarity with the communist North Vietnamese, aided in the war by the socialist bloc. The drafting of black men into the army divisions which sustained the most casualties fused the two issues, sent the universities into revolt and threw the US into crisis: 'No North Vietnamese has ever called me a Nigger'.

But for Harman the black movement, repeatedly referred to as 'lumpen proletariat', failed because it did not make connections with the working class. The USA's eventual withdrawal from Vietnam – a victory for the oppressed which still reverberates today – is passed off as President Johnson's simple method for ending the crisis in the US.

Nowhere in his book does Harman ask the question why the movement failed to mobilise the mass of workers – by Harman's definition white, male trade unionists. For the black working class in the USA's industrial ghettoes, forced into unemployment and shit work, and the black agricultural workers in the South who could not even register to vote, the answer would have been obvious.


There was of course one universally accepted exception to the theory that student revolt was an isolated petty bourgeois rebellion – May 1968 in France. Begun early in May as a result of student revolt at appalling standards and authoritarianism in French higher education, the response of de Gaulle and the French government ensured that the revolt grew. Repeated, bloody, street battles with the notorious French riot squad (the CRS) following the closure of Nanterre university and the Sorbonne, drew the support of Parisians. Many young workers joined the students at the barricades. Working class support forced the CP-led CGT (trade union movement) to call a one day strike.

French workers who were the lowest paid in Europe added their demands to the movement. But the workers were not content with the CGT's token strike and during the week following, factories began to be closed. The CGT at this point was more than anxious to ensure it remained in control and so placed itself at the head of the strike committees. To ensure that the student revolutionaries were marginalised, CGT stewards guarded the factories to prevent the students from entering.

By 18 May two million workers were on strike and the French government was under siege. On 24 May mass demonstrations were called all over France to coincide with de Gaulle's statement to the nation. One demonstrator in Lyons recalled how youth from the underprivileged housing zones joined the march: 'I felt a collective shiver go through the demo. It was as if people from another world, people you normally never met in the city, were joining in.' (Fraser p198).

By now 9-10 million were on strike. On the following day, Prime Minister Pompidou conceded a 35 per cent increase in the minimum wage (affecting two million workers) and a 10% increase across the board with a gradual reduction of the working week to 40 hours. Trade union leaders emerged from the talks confident that their troubles were now over. But the workers rejected the deal.

On 29 May the workers and students, still without a strategy for finally removing de Gaulle from power, marched on a CGT-led demonstration to the Elysée palace. The palace was empty. Speculation reached fever pitch that de Gaulle had conceded defeat. But the wily President had only flown as far as West Germany for a meeting with his Generals and to ensure the loyalty of the French army garrison. On his return to Paris on 30 May he called on French citizens to take civil action to prevent subversion and 'totalitarian communism', and ordering an emergency election. The choice he posed was between de Gaulle and civil war.

Loyal workers were given the afternoon off to participate in a festival of reaction. Right-wing demonstrators through Paris sounded horns to the rhythm of 'Algérie française' and chanted 'Cohn-Bendit to Dachau'.

During the next three weeks, despite continued resistance from workers and students, the CP and the CGT rushed to prove their patriotism: 'self-management is a hollow formula: what the workers really want is immediate satisfaction of their claims'; 'No, the ten million strikers did not seek power, all they wanted was better conditions of life and work'. When the government outlawed 11 student organisations and expelled 150 foreign students, the CP congratulated themselves for forcing the government 'to remove the trouble makers on the eve of the elections' (Caute pp223-4), and criticised the students for their lack of 'national feeling'.

Such knee-bending to the right-wing (typical of social democracy everywhere as any cursory examination of Foot's Labour Party on the Falklands, or Kinnock's Labour Party on the miners strike shows) only served to demonstrate their weakness. The election was a Gaullist landslide, celebrated by the release from prison of extreme right-wing generals who had championed Algérie française.

Harman's view of the defeat movement is characteristically narrow:

'Yet there was no objective need for the movement to fall away as it did in the first week of June. It did so because the most powerful political and trade union organisations within the French working class threw their weight into procuring a return to work in the key public services . . . Secondly, to say that May had revolutionary potential is not to say that the choice was, as General de Gaulle posed it on 29 May, between elections on his terms and civil war. There was a third option – the extension and deepening of the movement in such a way as to make the government continue to hold back from using the armed forces of the state.

This would have meant encouraging forms of strike organisation that involved all workers, the most 'backward' as well as the most advanced, in shaping their own destinies – strike committees, regular mass meetings in the occupied plants, picketing and occupation rotas involving the widest numbers of people . . . '

At this point we must ask Harman who was to lead such a 'deepening of the struggle'? Certainly not 'the most powerful political and trade union organisations'; this would be a demand for them to change their spots. Certainly not the student movement, which despite the courage of its participants fighting the CRS, and a great deal of socialist rhetoric, could pose no concrete way forward either for themselves or the workers. Graphically, Fraser tells of Cohn-Bendit's clandestine return from Germany at the height of the May events:

'All the way in the car to Paris I was wondering what to do, what to say, how to find a second wind . . . I went up front. There was no reaction. Then I took off my glasses. After a few seconds there was a tremendous ovation. People were standing, shouting: 'Les frontières on s'en fout!' (fuck all frontiers). It went on a long time, my eyes filled with tears. But in fact I had nothing to say. The main point of my being there was to defy the government, show it was powerless.'

No leadership existed which was prepared to face de Gaulle's threats or which was determined to win power. Harman argues for a third alternative: the concentration of the struggle in the factories and workplaces would answer the problem. But without a decision to confront de Gaulle's threats, nothing of the sort would be possible. The movement had grown to mass proportions, not because the workers had focused on their own economic demands, but because they had found common cause with a generation of students who rebelled against the regime on every level. It was from the end of May onwards that the government and the 'Old Left' were able to deepen the divisions between students and workers which Harman subscribes to.

This was part and parcel of IS's theory in the late 1960s, as it is today, 20 years later – the self-activity of the workers. Tony Cliff's lecture in those days, always overflowing with metaphor, was a description of the working class which, like Sisyphus (of Greek myth) condemned to pushing boulders up hills only to see them roll down again, would be involved in strike after strike which it might well lose. But in the process it would build its muscles, until, eventually a real He-man, it was able to knock-out the bosses. The SWP will wait forever for such a revolution.

There is no love lost between Tariq Ali and his contemporaries of IS. In his book, Ali describes IS as Eurocentric (not surprising after one IS member at the LSE told him to go back to Pakistan) and despises their contempt for the international revolution, and revolutionaries like Guevara and Castro.

Tariq Ali took a central role in the organisation of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). But the student movement never reached the same level as France even in its own terms. Occupations at Essex, Hull, the LSE, Hornsey College of Art and many more did not lead to street fights with the police or win the sympathy of the organised workers – among the most privileged in the world. A more significant legacy of 1968 was Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech, the subsequent support he received from the working-class muscle from the docks, Smithfield and Billingsgate markets, and the Labour Government's introduction of the first racist immigration laws.

The VSC ended not with a bang but a whimper. Its second demonstration in October 1968 culminated in a full-scale battle with mounted police outside the American Embassy. But by the third demonstration, in March 1969, the organisers were happy, amidst scare stories from the media that the demonstrators intended to seize 'key installations in London', to lead 100,000 demonstrators away from the US Embassy to Hyde Park. 'A small Maoist breakaway march' to Grosvenor Square was castigated by Tariq Ali for ultraleftism.

In the years that followed, the 'new left' formed from the student revolt decided to 'turn to the working class'. Much of Harman's book is devoted to this. The Sisyphus theory of class struggle was the order of the day and has remained so ever since. The IMG hung on to its internationalist credentials a little longer than the SWP before coming to rest in the lap of a Labour Party which is even to the right of Wilson. Today, the street-fighting youth, especially if they are black, are dismissed by SWP and IMG alike as lumpen proletariat. Tariq Ali, who called for the abolition of money on the BBC in 1968, will not now face a little aggro with Channel 4, his bosses, in order to give public support to Viraj Mendis.

But dismissive though one could be of the British 1968, it was in part of the islands which Britain claims as its territory that a working-class movement was prepared to challenge the might of the British state. In the North of Ireland in 1968, a civil rights movement was born, modelling itself on the black movement in the USA. The black ghettoes of Detroit were the Catholic ghettoes of Derry. Working class men, women and children, and students were on the march against bigotry and oppression. Tariq Ali does not think it worth a mention – there were no Northern Irish Mick Jaggers to have lunch with. Harman makes allowance for the Irish movement, which is more than IS did at the time – welcoming the British troops as peace-keepers.

He goes on to describe the inevitable 'degeneration' of the movement which had the (mistaken) temerity to take up arms to defend its community and which failed to organise Protestant and Catholic workers against the bosses –

'Protestant workers, whose own struggles were at a low ebb as the decline in the province's traditional industries sapped their militancy (! CB) were rarely drawn into struggle against big business and the state, and did not question their old sectarian Loyalist allegiances. So the Catholic minority fought alone, and saw the Loyalist workers as on the side of its enemy.' (Harman p257).

Such lies disguised as theory have guided the SWP ever since. They are not alone: it is a theory which predominates on the British left. Not even a crack on the head from the RUC would convince them that the Loyalist workers are not neutral. Taking the side of the Republican movement in Ireland requires a direct challenge to the British state: the British 'new left' proved no more able to do that than the 'old left' in Paris. It is the measure of the British left generation of '68 and after that it failed to aid the struggle in Ireland.



Tet offensive: prelude to Vietnam's victory

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 78 – May/June 1988.


'The Tet offensive marked a turning point in this war, as our president said. It burst like a bubble the artificial optimism built up by the Pentagon.' General Giap, Commander of the People's Liberation Army.

By 1968 the US had deployed half a million troops in Vietnam. The combined strength of the US-Saigon command was 1,200,000 men. Between 1965-67 the US had spent $26 billion on the war. The low intensity strategy had been escalated to all out warfare, involving the use of every type of weapon other than nuclear. With an economy that accounted for a third of the world's industrial output pitted against a population of 31 million people, 80 per cent of whom were peasants in a country no bigger than the state of Florida, the US strategists counted upon their weaponry to bring them victory. From August 1967 onwards US B-52s bombed Hanoi and the northern port of Haiphong almost constantly: day and night.

In the last days of January 1968 on the eve of the Vietnamese lunar new year – the Tet Festival – the People's Liberation Army launched a countrywide offensive throughout South Vietnam. It was co-ordinated with popular uprisings in the major cities and enemy bases. On the night of 31 January, the liberation forces struck at Saigon, capturing the main headquarters of the puppet army and blowing up Saigon radio. US war planes and military installations were destroyed. Police stations were ransacked. Five of seven floors of the US embassy in Saigon were occupied. Revolutionary control was established for several days in five out of Saigon's nine boroughs. All routes into the city were severed. Saigon remained encircled for weeks.

The old imperial capital of Hue was attacked and its fortress captured. For four weeks the revolutionaries held it, beating off combined US-Saigon troop assaults. The US Air Force flattened large parts of the city. Liberation forces laid siege to the US base at Khe Sanh, a garrison of over 6,000 marines. US Commander-in-Chief in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, responded to an enquiry from the Joint Chiefs of Staff about what to do in Khe Sanh: 'I visualise that either tactical nuclear weapons or chemical agents would be active candidates for employment.' It was not until 9 July, 170 days after the siege began, that the US forces managed to evacuate, having abandoned all attempts to keep the base.

News of the Tet offensive flashed around the world: for a moment the giant US war machine seemed paralysed and helpless. As it tried to recover its composure the Pentagon began to peddle the myth that Tet was an appalling catastrophe for the patriotic forces with 'staggering losses sustained by the Viet Cong.' In fact, the offensive was a major political victory: in many places the puppet administration collapsed completely; 169 garrisons defected to the liberation forces: in just one week more soldiers of the puppet army defected than during the whole of 1966. US troop desertions also increased. General Westmoreland was recalled to Washington and replaced. In an election year President Johnson declared he would not run for office again. The US was brought to the negotiating table.


Republican Richard Nixon announced: 'I have a secret plan to end the Vietnam War.' Indeed he had: operation Duck Hook was a calculated escalation leading up to nuclear attack - it worked on the Japanese so why not the Vietnamese, he reasoned. Secretary of State Kissinger threatened North Vietnam with nuclear attack if they did not cease operations in the South by 1 November 1969. In October the US went on full scale nuclear alert for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Vietnamese revolutionaries refused to submit to nuclear blackmail.

Nixon himself later explained that he backed down because a nuclear attack would have provoked massive revolt inside the USA itself: 'The nation could be thrown into internal physical turmoil,' ran a government memorandum, 'Widespread mobilisation of the National Guard . . . use of US Army units.'

The lengthening lines of the star spangled draped coffins fuelled the anti-war movement in the USA. A black youth was twice as likely to be killed in Vietnam as his white counterpart. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and George Jackson led the black communities against the war. Black ghettos were exploding into revolt across the USA. White youth were mobilising and burning draft cards. International solidarity, with the sickening exception of the British Labour government which supported the US, reinforced the socialist countries' material support for the Indo-Chinese revolutions. Doubt and hesitation struck deep into the imperialist brain. The Tet offensive was the prelude to a victory which left a scar Reagan has been unable to erase even today.


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