‘It was the best of times! It was the worst of times!’
No! Actually it was the best of times – closer to Wordsworth (‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, And to be young was very heaven’) than to Dickens. At least that is how 1968 was for me and how it has remained for fifty years.
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.
So begins Chris Harman’s The Fire Last Time:1968 and After, the best book ever written on that extraordinary year, and every word of it applies to me. Since a narrative account of ‘my ‘68’ would far exceed the requested length for this article I’m structuring it around some of the ‘innumerable images’ that mention of this extraordinary year brings to my mind.
The first is of the Bowery, the skid row of downtown Manhattan.
The Bowery in 1967
I found myself on the Bowery at Christmas 1967. I was a student visiting New York on a three week trip and on my first night I was robbed in my hotel room. This forced me to make my way down through Manhattan to the Bowery in search of accommodation in a $1 dollar a night flop house. As a new student I had just met people with socialist and Marxist ideas for the first time, and the extreme inequality I saw in New York as I walked past the corporate wealth of the sky scrapers and Madison Avenue to the utter degradation of the down-and – outs on the Bowery both shocked me and resonated with the ideas I had recently encountered. I also grasped, half intuitively, that these two poles were two sides of the same capitalist coin – of the same alienation as I would later learn from Marx. Capitalism I decided was simply unacceptable; I would become a socialist.
Returning to my University in Southampton I got involved in left politics in the Uni and in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which leads to my second image: the mounted police charging against Vietnam protestors in Grosvenor Square.
Grosvenor Square, 17 March 1968.
A group of about ten of us from Southampton Uni travelled to London for the demo in a minibus. We arrived at Travalgar Square to find it absolutely filled with Vietnamese flags – a truly beautiful sight, aesthetically as well as politically. After speeches the march of many tens of thousands headed down Charing Cross Rd and Oxford St towards the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair.
We were met in South Audley St. with a line of cops blocking the entrance to the Square, but ten or twenty thousand people all pushing is quite a weight and the police cordon soon broke. We swept triumphantly into the Square in front of the embassy. Fearful that the embassy would be stormed, and such was certainly the mood of the crowd, the police counter attacked on horseback. This was my first major protest and the first time I’d seen anything like this. It was very scary, especially seeing a demonstrator who had been kicked in the head, but I was in awe of the protestors who stood their ground and fought back. Of course the media reported the whole thing as an example of outrageous violence by extremists – never mind the violence of My Lai, napalm and the rest in Vietnam.
This was a time when something world shaking seemed to happen every few days – on 4 April Martin Luther King was assassinated and there were across the US – but my next image comes from Paris and is a barricade made of cobblestones.
In early May we started to get reports of students clashing with the police in the Latin Quarter, the student area, of Paris. The protests began over issues such as overcrowding, mutual access to male and female dormitories and, of course, Vietnam. The French riot police, the CRS, were known for their brutality and the fighting was fierce. On 10 May it culminated in ‘the Night of the Barricades’ when local people came to the aid of the students. This was followed on 13 May by a general strike of 10 million workers in solidarity with the students. I decided to take myself to Paris.
When I got there, around 17 May, I found a society at a standstill, paralysed by the power of the working class. I made my way to the occupied Sorbonne. There was no actual street fighting going on but the debris of the struggle was everywhere, in particular piles of these huge cobblestones that had been dug up to build barricades and to hurl at the cops. You could also see the walking wounded on the streets with their heads bandaged by the improvised infirmary in a wing of the Sorbonne.
I stayed overnight on the floor of an occupied room with about 20 others. Asking round the room I was surprised to discover that none of the others were actually Sorbonne students but mostly young workers who had been inspired to join the struggle. What they mostly talked about was how their consciousness had been dramatically changed over the previous few weeks from passive acceptance of the system to outright rebellion.
The next day I made my way, not far, to the Odeon, France’s National Theatre, which had been handed over to the students by its famous director, Jean Louis Barrault, and turned into a permanent round the clock debating chamber
The occupied Odeon.
In Ten Days that Shook the World John Reed describes the atmosphere in 1917:
Then the Talk, beside which Carlyle’s “flood of French speech” was a mere trickle. Lectures, debates, speeches–in theatres, circuses, school-houses, clubs, Soviet meeting-rooms, Union headquarters, barracks–. Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories–. What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk! For months in Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street-corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street-cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere…
The Odeon was a glimpse, on a much smaller scale of course, of the same explosion of discussion. From there I found my way to the École des Beaux Arts which had been transformed into a poster factory churning out the now iconic silk screen posters of the revolt which were then plastered across Paris . Of these many famous images I have chosen one that points to what really Made May ’68 so important – the workers’ great strike and factory occupations.
It was this power that made May ’68 not just amazing and inspiring street theatre but a real challenge to the system, a real potential revolution.
By the time I returned to Southampton I was convinced of three things: 1) revolution was possible;2) the agent of revolution was the working class; 3) it was necessary to build a revolutionary organisation in the working class to challenge the leadership of reformist trade union officials and the old Communist Parties, whom I saw opposing and selling out the May struggle by working to end the strike as soon as possible. Sometime in June Tony Cliff visited Southampton to talk to a group of about four or five students, and argue more or less exactly this. I joined the International Socialists.
So many other things happened that year but for reasons of space I will mention just three. On August 20, by which time I was back home in London, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.
From the beginning of the year the Communist reformer, Alexander Dubcek, had been announcing his intention to liberalise and bring in ‘socialism with a human face’. Brezhnev and the Soviet Union were having none of it. The International Socialists and others immediately organised a mass protest at the Russian Embassy. This was important because it gave concrete expression to the IS slogan, ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ and for me and others it meant that anti-Stalinism was in our DNA. The invasion split the international Communist movement and to this day Stalinists are known as ‘Tankies’.
Also in the summer of 1968 I attended a national organising meeting of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in Leeds to plan for a major demo in London in October. The meeting began in Leeds University but after a red scare we were kicked out and ended up, by various means, up on the nearby Yorkshire Moors. As far as I know there is no photo of this but in my mind’s eye I can see the likes of Chris Harman, Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali sitting round a hollow in the hills to debate the route of the march until a bunch of farmers arrived with dogs and clubs to turf us off their land. I mention this because it was an example of the kind of mad cap spontaneous ‘happening’ that characterised much of the organising in that year. But the day also had its serious side. The IS people argued that the Vietnam demo should go to the East End and the Bank of England to link the struggle against the war to the workers’ struggle against capitalism. They didn’t win that debate - the demo went to Hyde Park – but my impression is they won many of the best of the ’68 generation to the perspective of going to the working class and the factories, just in time for the big industrial battles of 1969-74.
The last but one image I’m citing does not, unlike the others, relate to an event I took part in. Nevertheless it is absolutely and symbolic of the period. This is the image of Tommy Smith and John Carlos giving their Black Power salute on 12 October on the victory podium at the Mexico Olympics.
This magnificent gesture of defiance is iconic in itself but also underlines the immense importance of the Black American struggle throughout 1968 and in the whole historical period. The civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali, Black power and the revolutionary Black Panthers transformed ‘the ideological panorama of the age’, to quote Gramsci. It was, of course, the Civil Rights Movement in the US that inspired the Civil Rights struggle in Northern Ireland which led to the famous demonstration in Derry on 5 October.
The issue of racism was never far away in 1968. I already mentioned the assassination of Martin Luther King but there were also Enoch Powell’s viciously racist ‘rivers of blood’ speeches in February and April which made race and immigration into central issues in British politics. In May ’68 attempts were made to demonise the student leader, Danny Cohn-Bendit , as ‘a German Jew’ and ‘foreign scum’ prompting the mass response ‘We are all German Jews’ and ‘We are all foreign scum’.
Finally I remember this poster from May.
The beginning of a long struggle. It certainly was for me and for many of my generation. And many of us who came into the revolutionary movement in that year have shown a good deal of staying power. Having seen 1968, I can never say, ‘It can’t happen’ and the important thing, of course, is to use the history of ‘68 to inspire and inform a new generation of revolutionaries today. The struggle goes on and now, if humanity is to have a future, the revolution is more necessary than ever before.