Fifty years ago, 1968 marked the highpoint of a cycle of popular struggles that shook the edifice of power in what were then the welfare-capitalist West, the state-socialist East and the national-developmentalist South simultaneously. These struggles challenged racism and patriarchy, colonialism and heteronormativity, conservative culture and authoritarian forms of political organisation. The voices of these activists still resonate today, as activists and scholars try to think through the meaning and potential of social movements which are still shaped by the long shadow of 1968.
Laurence Cox is editor, with Salar Mohandesi and Bjarke Skærlund Risager, of Voices of 1968, a collection of original texts from the struggles of that year in 12 different countries. The book is published by Pluto Press.
In 1968, everything changed. The then largest general strike in world history nearly brought down the French government; a huge popular flowering of energy in the then Czechoslovakia – and the invasion that defeated it – marked the beginning of the end for Soviet power in eastern Europe; civil rights marchers in Northern Ireland provoked a crisis that would last for a third of a century and more. In Prague, Paris and Derry alike, liberated zones challenged routine capitalist, Stalinist and postcolonial power relations.
In the US, the long cycle of struggles that had started with Black Civil Rights was reaching a crescendo; in Italy, the ten-year cycle that would last until 1977 was only just beginning; in Mexico, the mass slaughter of students changed political culture for good. Dynamic cycles of social movements developed across Canada and Japan, West Germany and Great Britain; if the struggles in Yugoslavia or Denmark were less dramatic, they nonetheless marked a fundamental shift in popular struggle and culture.
The ‘long 1968’, as historians call the wave of struggles around the world that peaked in that year, remade the landscape of social movements and popular resistance. Stalinism and social democracy, together with the national-developmental strategies of most majority world states, lost their grip on the popular imagination and their power to convincingly promise a better world. Leninists and anarchists, Black and indigenous struggles, autonomists and situationists, radical and socialist feminists, counter-cultural and LGBT visions offered new ways of thinking the future grounded in the practice of radical struggles and the creation of different kinds of movement. In this way, beyond simple celebration or condemnation of 1968, activists in today’s social movements organise in the long shadow of 1968, in a context of popular struggle fundamentally shaped by this experience and these explorations.
The disappointments of past ‘victories’
In the longer historical view, earlier struggles in the global North had primarily been structured around the search for ‘a state of our own’: whether understood on democratic and / or nationalist lines against monarchies, dynastic states and internal colonialism, on class lines as the struggle for communism or a welfare state, or on gender lines in terms of the right to vote. The first half of the twentieth century in particular had seen decisive steps in all of these directions, and by the start of the long 1968 – despite glaring exceptions – many states could claim to be democratic, welfare states or even socialist.
The results could then be measured against what movements wanted; and often fell far short. Western democracies lined up behind the US’ brutal war in Vietnam, while repressing their own internal minorities, whether US blacks, First Nations in Canada, or Algerian migrants in France. Soviet-style socialism required regular military intervention in Eastern Europe as well as extensive political police forces. Widening access to education and health provision went hand-in-hand with a continued cultural conservatism, patriarchy and heteronormativity. And wherever movements protested, they met with violence, whether directly from the state or from right-wing actors with quasi-official encouragement and backing.
All of this forced a rethink: the ‘Old Left’, Stalinist and Social Democratic alike, had in several countries achieved much of its core goals of state power and economic redistribution. The results were real, but fell far short of the hopes of total social transformation held by their supporters. The arrangements underpinning these particular kinds of states depended on ruling many questions out of order – not least questions about decision-making within social institutions, particularly the workplace and the education system; and questions which went beyond economic redistribution to challenge conservative cultures based on taken-for-granted ways of life. They also depended on the exclusion or subordination of groups which were not core members of these coalitions: women, ethnic minorities, indigenous populations, migrants, lesbians and gays, students and those outside the labour force.
In this sense, 1968 was a return of the repressed: not only in terms of groups and issues, but also in terms of the questions which the populations supporting the ‘Old Left’ had put on one side in the long struggle to achieve some degree of power within the state. Now the question became what had not been achieved, and the answer could no longer be assumed to lie at some point in the future when ‘a state of our own’ would make everything better.
Czech communist reformers and Italian autonomists, Canadian Red Power activists and Northern Irish civil rights organisers, Mexican guerrillas and West German radical feminists, US Black Panthers and Japanese anti-imperialists, British gay activists and Danish hippies, Yugoslav radicals and French Maoists, by no means agreed with each other about the way forward; but the debates across and between movements, political lines, tactics – and the speed with which groups rose and fell, individuals and organisations changed their positions, testify to the energy and seriousness with which participants asked themselves the question, in a deeply international moment where participating in or following one another’s struggles, opposing the war in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, supporting the French uprising or Northern Irish civil rights shaped many activists’ understandings.
The many voices of 1968
Voices of 1968 captures the moment when activists came to realise and articulate this new understanding across many different countries and movements. Rather than canonising a particular sectarian or academic vision of 1968, these voices give us back a sense of the reality of mass struggle: movements springing up across society, challenging many dimensions of power, exploitation and culture, trying out political visions and practical tactics. We see flyers and posters, song lyrics and graffiti, snapshots of struggle and repression, radical manifestoes and communiqués from the underground, strategic analyses and personal accounts, reports from actions and black humour. Autonomists and Leninists, feminists and lesbian / gay activists, workers and students, indigenous and migrant voices, hippies and guerrillas, anti-war and international solidarity movements come to life in these pages.
In Prague, the attempt to build ‘socialism with a human face’ was crushed by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact: our texts capture the secret congress of the Czechoslovak party at the Vysočany factory, the song ‘Russians, go home!’ busked on the streets in the days immediately following the invasion, and the letter written by Jan Palach before he set fire to himself in protest – as well as a hilarious account by Czech students who visited the West German student left in 1968.
From Northern Ireland, housing rights activists report on blocking the roads and organising a rent strike in Derry, eyewitnesses tell how the police helped a loyalist mob ambush civil rights marchers at Burntollet Bridge, republicans discuss the politics of ‘Free Derry’ and other areas defended by residents’ committees against the police and loyalists, and a representative of the radical People’s Democracy speaks to solidarity activists in New York. Another chapter shows the Mexican student movement opposing the Olympic Games, the state massacre at Tlatelolco which left hundreds dead, and the development of guerrilla and indigenous organising in the years that followed.
In France, we read slogans from the student uprising of May 1968 and a report from the occupied Sorbonne, radical workers calling for self-management and the account of a Moroccan Maoist, feminists challenging the law by admitting to having had an illegal abortion, and the manifesto of a prison information group including Foucault, Deleuze and Genet. From the US, we hear the voices of antiwar activists, the Diggers call for disrupting everyday capitalism, the transcript of a meeting between the Black Panthers and the radical southern white Young Patriots, and the programme of the Puerto Rican Young Lords.
The chapter on Britain contains timely reminders that cultural conservatism can be challenged effectively: we see the founding of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, read a report from the occupation of the LSE, watch the organisational chaos as the first free festivals emerged, read black feminist strategy and the Gay Liberation Front’s analysis. From Denmark, the book includes demands for democratising education, an account of how Christiania was occupied, socialist feminists critiquing male hippies and an Inuit voice at the start of de-colonial struggle in Greenland.
The chapters from the massive struggles of Italy’s long 1968 and Canada’s many movements, from radical Japanese activists and the streets of West Germany, or from Yugoslavia’s student uprising are just as diverse, dramatic and (at times) funny. Many of the texts are translated here for the first time: each text, and each country, has its own introduction to help the newcomer find their own way into the material, along with a general introduction to 1968 and further reading.
Learning and inspiration for today
All three editors are involved in creative forms of radical media. Salar Mohandesi co-edits the militant research Viewpoint Magazine, Bjarke Skærlund Risager co-edits the Danish history-of-ideas journal Slagmark and I co-edit the activist/academic social movements journal Interface. None of these projects would have seemed strange to the activists of 1968.
While editing this book I tried many of the texts out on activists at the Ulex training centre in Catalunya. They threw themselves into the workshop with great gusto – and for the rest of the day many could be seen immersing themselves in the texts they hadn’t used. These voices from fifty years ago came to life for people involved in today’s struggles in many different countries.
And rightly so: despite the rising fascist tide and the slower rising tide of melting glaciers, our struggles against austerity and neoliberalism, against police violence and killer borders, to defeat patriarchy and racism have not, in this century and in the global North, reached anything like the height that many of these struggles reached. If we are serious not only about reaching those levels but going beyond, to transform our societies, we need to think forward into these moments of mass radicalisation, challenges to power relations across a whole society, the sense that a new world could be imagined – and be able to take things further, to defeat the power and create that new world. These voices from the past are a precious resource in enabling us to think forwards from our own time and place.
Laurence Cox is Senior Lecturer in Sociology, National University of Ireland Maynooth. A long-time activist, he co-founded the social movement journal Interface and researches popular struggles for a better world. He is co-author of We Make Our Own History: Marxism, Social Movements and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto, 2014).
Voices of 1968: Documents from the Global North, edited by Salar Mohandesi, Bjarke Skærlund Risager and Laurence Cox, is available from Pluto Press.