Thursday, 2 July 2009

The spirit of '68

My copy of the new International Socialism arrived in the post today - and it's now also online. It's easy to overlook John Rose's review of a new book about 1968, tucked away at the back in the print edition, but it is worth a read. The reviewer begins by recalling speaking at various student occupations - in solidarity with Gaza - earlier this year, and notes that there was at least a hint of '68 in these militant internationalist actions involving students at over 30 universities.

He recommends Gerd-Rainer Horn's 'The Spirit of '68' as an introduction, but also points out problems with the book's acount of the political legacy of the late 60s upheavals. Rose's review captures the global scope of the demonstrations, strikes, riots and occupations of this period, which seems to reflect the book under discussion. The magnificent democratic spirit of these times is evoked powerfully.

But, as Rose observes, there are difficult dilemmas thrown up by movements of mass action. It can matter immensely how activists engage with these. One line of response to these upsurges of struggle (and how they unfolded) was the evolution of 'red terrorism' - Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhoff, the Weathermen - which later encouraged a backlash against the legacy of the radicalism of these years.

The important point Rose makes is that these groups' disastrous strategies grew out of the mistaken outlook of some left-wing activists, who believed an elite revolutionary vangaurd - not the mass action of workers and students - was key to change. They also celebrated spontaneity without a grasp of the need for on-going organisation - or of the particular kinds of organisation required in different contexts.

Rose, unlike Horn, recognises the importance of revolutionary socialist groups like the International Socialists (IS) - forerunner of today's SWP - in championing a serious and radical alternative to such mistaken trajectories. IS made a sharp turn to organising among students in 1968, with its leading figure Tony Cliff devoting a great deal of time to discussing politics with students in the LSE canteen (as he recounts in his brilliant autobiography, A World to Win).

At the same time IS didn't give up on the idea that organised workers are necessary to change the world - this proved vital during the upturn in workers' struggles of the early 70s. IS grew dramatically in '68 - especially recruiting students - and grew further in the years that followed.

We aren't, unfortunately, seeing a re-run of the late 60s. We are, however, in an age of capitalist crisis, war and ideological turmoil. Even if the student - and to an extent worker - unrest we are seeing now is only an echo of '68, it is nonetheless significant. A sharp turn to mobilising and organising the newly radicalised, with a particular emphasis on politically conscious students, is required. With the recession biting, and youth unemployment soaring, there's an extra edge this time around. Learning the lessons of earlier eras is a must.

1 comment:

  1. I liked how Rose emphasized the role played by the IS in Britain and the FI in France to help build lasting organizations that were able to weather the 1970s and the downturn that began at the end of that decade. By comparison, what happened in the United States (and Canada, where I am from), was the dissolution of any rooted and "small mass parties" that came out of upheavals of 1968. Because the (American) SWP, as outlined in Callinicos's pamphlet "The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left", was so dogmatically and mechanically focused on the one-issue of "Out Now!" that they failed to intervene in the SDS. In doing so, they ceded that organization, which had about 100,000 members in 1968, to the Maoists and Maoist variants of Marxism. The New Communist Movement in the US that came out of 1968 had started to collapse by 1974 when it split in multiple directions over the Boston bus boycott and had largely disappeared by the very early 1980s. If the SWP had interevened rigorously in the SDS, it may have been able to build a stronger organization but then again the SWP was quite screwed up by its insanely sectarian and factionalized internal life.

    In Canada, most 1968 revolutionaries, mostly students, were sucked along by a radical left nationalism (rooted in the popular front ideology of the Canadian CP and Canada's own pre-Gunder Frank dependency theorists like Harold Innis who developed the staples thesis) and most wound up in the social democratic party, the NDP, trying to win it to a revolutionary socialist program. This grouping, known as the Waffle, were expelled and fell apart by 1975 as its leadership increasingly adopted nationalist politics instead of socialist politics. A small splinter of this group would get in touch with Cliff by the late 70s and form the International Socialists (of the IST). In Quebec, where revolution was actually on the agenda as the trade unions adopted revolutionary socialist programs calling for workers control and held two massive general strikes in 1972 (Quebec's 1960s and 1970s is stupidly ignored in most accounts of the 'long sixites', including Harman's The Fire Last Time). In the 1970s there were at least three Maoist organizations in Quebec with over 2000 members (Quebec had 5 million people) but they all collapsed by the very early 1980s with one group of 2000 simply dissolving themselves at one of their conventions.

    Anyway, I just think its important that Rose highlights the impact of Cliff and Mandel in building lasting organizations out of the 1960s upheavals. Where this didn't happen, for the most part, the radical left has been fragmented and rudderless, especially in North America.