Soviet tanks roll into Prague in Czechoslovakia on August 21st, 1968. Copyright: www.historytoday.com
By Rufus Tyler
1968 was a turbulent year for the bourgeois. There was widespread discontent in France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Pakistan, and widespread anti-war protests in the English-speaking countries. 1968 marked the high tide of capitalism, there had been unprecedented economic growth since WWII, as a result the proletariat was growing too. Revolutionary fervour was on the upswing as well, thanks to the Cuban revolution and Che's adventurism, plus the ongoing wars of liberation in Africa: Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Guinea-Bissau. These struggles fired up the youth in the West and Latin America.
The Tet offensive made the imperialists rethink their strategy in the Vietnam War. Up until that point U.S troop numbers had kept on increasing, after the offensive, the U.S introduced the policy of Vietnamisation, which aimed to let the Vietnamese do most of the fighting, effectively taking the bulk of the casualties as well.
This article will discuss the events that unfolded in four countries during 1968: Mexico, Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, and France. It will rely heavily on Marxist.com for facts and figures as well as analysis.
The Mexican student movement of 1968
02 October 2018
The international context
1968 represented the peak of the post-war boom, which was accompanied by a massive development of the productive forces. In Europe specifically, the reconstruction brought huge investment in the means of production. This immensely transformed the class balance of forces in favour of the workers, which was totally unnoticed by the vast majority of ‘left’ leaders.
In Latin America, a nascent generation of youth was inspired by the events of the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the figure of Che Guevara, both of which fortified activism in the universities. The national liberation movements against imperialist intervention also played a key role in political agitation. One of the most emblematic of these was the war in Vietnam,
Barry Carr writes
"In the case of the students and the newly radicalised health workers, the basis from which the new protagonists emerged was the rapid expansion of state spending in education and health. In 1960, there was one student in higher education for every 333 people; in 1970 1:125; in 1977, 1:55. The figures for the Federal District are even more impressive: 1 out of every 111 (1960); 1:66 (1970), and 1:33 (1977)."
These figures indicate a mass expansion of higher education. Thousands of worker and peasant émigré children, looking for work in the cities during the industrialisation process, were increasingly incorporated. They were mostly inducted into the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN). In 1968, the UNAM and Polytechnic had more than 200,000 and 100,000 students enrolled, respectively. These students did not live in a vacuum, and many were the sons and daughters of railroad workers, telecommunications workers, metalworkers and so on – those layers of the working class victimised by brutal state violence for demanding union democracy and questioning the status quo.
Repression in the less advanced countries is routinely harsher than in the west, this is especially true of Mexico, where the local bourgeoisie could feel its weakness, being wedged between a growing, strengthening proletariat and international capital. The movement started with the students but after severe police repression it began to spread to the workers. That was the breaking point - the bourgeoisie must never be allow the demands of the students to take up the cause of the workers because that fundamentally challenges the power of the state. To put it in a reductionist manner: the students are the brains and the workers are the brawn, if they unite they can topple governments. The end result was the massacre. There are no official figures but as many as five hundred students were killed. The massacre broke the back of the movement, there were some protests afterwards but they fizzled out eventually.
Pakistan’s Other Story: 2. A Revolutionary Epoch
17 April 2009
Between 1955 and 1957, Nasser nationalized all foreign-owned banks and insurance companies and many other foreign-owned companies. From this position of strength, Nasser could have completed the revolution. The problem was that when he sent his emissary to Moscow in the early 1960s seeking approval and endorsement, he was rebuffed by Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union at that time. Brezhnev claimed that to move towards a complete abolition of capitalism and landlordism (even in a distorted Stalinist manner) would disturb the balance of forces in the Middle East and disrupt détente and the mutual relations of coexistence during the cold war between the USA and USSR. The Stalinist leaders both in Moscow and Peking played a similar role in several other countries during this rising tide of the colonial revolution.
The partition of India was a continuation of the british "divide and rule" strategy. Rich muslims supported it because they thought that if they had their own country they'd be able to compete with giant indian companies like Tata. It was supported by the local bourgeois and remaining feudal elements. At one time indians of all sects were willing to work together for independence, like during the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of February 1946 the RIN Mutiny may have been the real motivation for the British to leave India https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/in-the-70th-year-of-independence-here-is-a-look-back-at-the-long-forgotten-1946-rin-mutiny-in-mumbai/articleshow/57967250.cms?from=mdr.
Political leaders deliberately incited religious intolerance and violence quickly followed. Over a million people died, some killed, some died in the confusion - like in overcrowded railway stations, f.e., folks were crushed when the surge of the crowd pushed them between the train and the platform. Scenes like these were repeated all across the subcontinent for days, it was utter chaos. The partition of India resulted in the biggest ever death toll for a mass migration. Stalinist parties also supported this thanks to the two stages theory.
"Pakistan's not viable as a state"- Lal Khan
The army and the government bureaucracy are the two strongest institutions in Pakistan. Both work together with US interests to repress workers. They prop up the vulnerable bourgeoisie. When limited land reform was carried out it was people close to the former landlords - their heirs, retainers - and friends of the army and bureaucracy who benefitted. This is emblematic of their corruption.
The energy unleashed by the 1968-69 revolution in Pakistan was also because of a politically virgin proletariat with no long history of reformist trade unions and parties. But this upsurge also went through a tortuous process, the main reason being the lack of a genuine Marxist leadership and a revolutionary organisation.
Students and youths refused to pay the fares on trains and buses, and the authorities were impotent to press upon them to pay up. Mainly in the cities, people dwelling in rented houses refused to pay rent. Workers occupied the factories and peasants took over the landed estates.
In reality the masses in this revolution were challenging the existent relations of property; and the ownership of property is not challenged in a 'democratic' revolution. The foremost symptom of a socialist revolution is the challenging by the deprived of the sacred ownership of property in a capitalist/feudal set up. This revolt against the prevalent property relations was the basic aspect that made the character of the 1968-69 revolution socialist.
A revolutionary opportunity that had taken decades to come was lost. As a consequence the masses were to pay a heavy price and endure decades of hardship and suffering. In the final analysis the absence of a revolution party and a clear Marxist leadership was the only reason that this great revolution had receded and was derailed. That is the most vital lesson of the 1968-69 revolution.
The revolution spurred the founding of the Pakistan People's Party, which the masses see as their only alternative to right-wingers and fundamentalists to this day. In the past it had claimed to be revolutionary but today uttering words like "socialism" is not allowed among the party cadres.
In a speech at the District Bar Association at Hyderabad on 26 June 1969, Bhutto thundered:
"The Pakistan Peoples Party is a party of the people of Pakistan. Let me make it quite clear that it is a party of the workers and peasants and the students of Pakistan. It is a revolutionary party".
This was perhaps the most radical definition of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Yet this was not the full story of the PPP. The other side of the story is that Bhutto and the PPP leadership of the time, although very left and revolutionary in expression, were always burdened by ideological confusion and contradictory ideas and tendencies. Hence they were incapable of laying the basis for a genuine revolutionary party to lead the masses in overthrowing capitalism and carrying through a socialist transformation of Society.
To talk about socialism is one thing, to have a clear Marxist understanding and ideological clarity for a revolutionary change is another. Bhutto often used to relate to all sorts of varieties of socialism, even the most reformist types. He often mentioned Sweden and Scandinavia in his remarks. Some still do. From the reactionary role of the 'Socialist Second International' that even continues today there are so many varieties including centrism, left reformism and innumerable varieties of Stalinism that proclaim to be socialist, but in reality are reformist tendencies that strictly adhere to Capitalism and in the last analysis play a counter-revolutionary role.
The left leaders in the PPP were so naive, to say the least, that they attributed the rise in mass consciousness to his personality, rather than the social upheaval that had galvanised the people to seek a revolutionary change in their lives, their society, and the system that oppressed them. Bhutto had merely been the focus of their desire for change.
This popularity reached its zenith when he was going more and more radical in his revolutionary and socialist rhetoric. The enormous response he got further moved him to the left. But when the ruling classes counter attacked the movement with war and reforms the left leadership didn't have a clue how to mobilize the working masses to combat and defeat the attacks of the state. With the PPP in power in a bourgeois state the subsequent reformist policies were inevitable. To expect to achieve revolutionary aims through exercising power in a bourgeois state structure was and is a Utopia which the great teachers of scientific socialism had fought against at every historical juncture since 1848.
It began with students protesting poor conditions - their dorms had had the electricity cut off. The students marched, the police beat them severely. They wanted to let the workers know what had happened to them and this set off a crisis where the government was forced to grant concessions. These concessions did not go down well with the Kremlin, who sent in troops to control the situation. The soldiers were not told where they were going - some wept when they found out they were in Czechoslovakia - they had been told that they would be fighting counter-revolutionaries, and did not expect to have to crush a workers' movement.
50 years after the Prague Spring – what are the lessons for today?
22 August 2018
Dubček’s proposed economic, social, and political reforms were timid, but suggesting them was enough to set the masses into motion. The split in the bureaucracy and the proposals to reform opened the floodgates of political discussion and participation among a whole new layer in society.
Workers’ councils were set up; censorship collapsed; and resolutions from trade union and CP branches demanding workers’ democracy within the planned economy poured into Prague from all over the country. Dubček’s proposals began to take on a life of their own and the bureaucracy was rapidly losing control of the situation.
While the imperialists and their friends shed bitter tears over the fate of the "poor Czechs", they are not prepared, of course, to lift a finger to help. And with good reason. They know perfectly well that all the Kremlin's propaganda about "counter-revolution" in Czechoslovakia is a downright lie. The tragedy of Czechoslovakia was that at the crucial moment the Czech people found themselves leaderless, disarmed and unprepared. The cowardice of the Dubcek clique, which preferred to see the country occupied rather than arm the working class, is a clear indication of their real interests.
They are well aware that the workers and peasants of Eastern Europe are not fighting to restore capitalism but to create genuine workers' democracies. The capitalists have no interest in allowing that to happen.
"biggest revolutionary general strike in history"- Woods
During the glorious thirty (roughly the period between 1945-1975) "we were isolated"- Woods. Many, if not most, of "left-wing" thinkers had written off the working class in advanced capitalist countries as "corrupt", "americanised" and "bourgeoisified", not ready for a revolution for at least twenty years. These analyses were proven wrong. The groups behind these analyses were surprised by the events of May 1968, it came as "a bolt out of the blue" to them.
"students and intellectuals are a sensitive barometer OF TENSIONS BUILDING UP IN SOCIETY"
2 May - Nanterre campus of Paris University closed by admins
3 May - Students at Sorbonne campus of Paris University meet to protest the closure and threatened expulsion
6 May - The national student union, and the university teachers' union organised a protest at the Sorbonne campus. The police became violent, protestors retaliated by throwing cobblestones and putting up barricades, the police had to retreat momentarily. They returned with tear gas and arrested hundreds of students.
7 May - High school students joined the protests at the Arc de Triomphe. They demanded the authorities release the arrested students, reopen the universities. Negotiations broke down and revolutionary fervour among the students rose.
10 May - Crowds were prevented from entering the Latin Quarter by riot police thugs. More barricades were set up, then they were attacked by CRS(riot police) after midnight. The clashes lasted till daybreak. The government's heavy-handed response aroused sympathy for the strikers.
11 May - The main unions, the CGT, the CFDT and the FEN, called for a general strike on 13 May. The Confederation Generale du Travail(CGT - linked to the communist party, 1.5 million members) and the Force Ouvriere(CGT-FO - set up by the CIA to counteract communist influence, 600,000 members). Next came the CFDT (Confedeation Française du Travail), which had around 750,000 members. This was a very interesting phenomenon. The CFDT had originally been set up as a Catholic union, but it moved to the left and began to adopt a socialist stance. In 1968 it stood far to the left of the CGT
12 May - Prime Minister Pompidou calls for the Sorbonne to reopen. This incensed the masses who sensed the government's weakness, pushing them on to call for more action.
13 May - 24 h General Strike
- Over a million people marched in Paris
- purpose was to let off steam by masses
- massive demos took place instead
- union and political leaders were hoping it would all blow over after General Strike
- workers had a taste of their own power
There were 3.5 million union members in France, 10 million, out of a total population of 51 million (countryeconomy.com), turned out to the General Strike. The working class in France had been deliberately kept small by the bourgeois. They had been scared by the Paris Commune of 1871, they chose to invest their wealth in their overseas colonies instead of developing their own industry.
14 May - The strike spread to key factories around france.
18 May - Coalmines and public transport in major cities stopped working.
20 May - Ten million workers were on strike
21 May - the country, and the state, were not functioning.
24 May - De Gaulle spoke on the radio and proposed a referendum: Do you want De Gaulle to continue as president Yes or No? The referendum is the quasi-fascists' tool of choice when looking for a mandate from the people because it is possible to phrase the question in such a way that's almost unintelligeble, making the result a foregone conclusion.
Printers refused to print ballots. Belgian and german printers did too.
De Gaulle's pronouncement had no effect on the strike, real power was on the streets.
A General Strike is very different to regular strike - it asks the questions: Who has the power?, Who is the master of the house? Workers feel their own power and see the weakness of the state (which always tries to maintain the myth of its inevitability and invincibility)
25 May - State radio and TV workers went on strike.
By May 27 the balance of forces had massively shifted in favour of the working class. Power was within their grasp. De Gaulle was utterly demoralised, but he had one key card he could play, the leadership of the Communist Party and the trade unions. On May 27 [an]agreement was reached between the unions, employer's associations and the government.
De Gaulle initially placed his confidence in the Stalinist leaders to save the situation. He said to his naval Aide De Camps, François Flohic, "Don't worry, Flohic, the Communists will keep them in order." (Philippe Alexandre, L'Elysée en péril, p. 299.)
What do these words prove? Neither more nor less than that the capitalist system could not exist without the support of the reformist (and Stalinist) labour leaders. This support is worth much more to them than any amount of tanks and policemen.
Union leadership asked the workers to return to work. All industries including nuclear engineers, teachers, bank workers, white collar workers, vedettes, department store workers plus all sectors of society: students HS and U, TV workers, artists, peasants, doctors, lawyers were infected with revolutionary fever. If there ever was a time when we could have had a bloodless revolution, this would have been it.
It was the stalinist Communist Party(PCF) which sent the workers back to work. They called for an end to the strike in exchange for ministerial positions in a new power-sharing government. The french people punished this betrayal at the next election when the communists lost seats in the legislature.
De Gaulle called for General elections in June.
Once the protests were over, there was violent repression - chasing students into their houses, beating passers-by, using dangerous tear gases, chasing students into hospital, etc.
May 1968 reinforced the revolutionary spirit of France, a new 1968 is in the works.
At the end of the day these revolutionary movements failed because of a clear lack of leadership. The entrenched stalinist parties of the time were too subservient to the soviet bureaucracy, whose only concern was remaining in power in the USSR at all costs. Their power hungry stance led them to collaborate with capitalist governments to the detriment of the workers of the world. The middle years of the twentieth century can be summed up in two words: stalinist betrayal.
Revolutions take place in times of flux - society must be going through some sort of transition - from boom to bust, from peace to war, for example. Humanity today is going through the greatest challenge humans will ever face - the "climate crisis". The time is ripe for change, as can be seen across the globe today - there's unrest in Hong Kong, Sudan. The United Kingdom and Europe are going through Brexit, the climate strike/extinction rebellion is starting to get traction in the west. The outlook today is very different to what it was in 1968, back then capitalism was on the rise, it could afford to give back a little to the workers. The Soviet Union also played a role - it was necessary for capitalists to show that their way was better, so they had an incentive to give their workers a better standard of living, in order to prove that capitalism was superior. Now that "socialism" in the former Soviet Union is dead that incentive has disappeared, times are tougher in that resource extraction is hitting hard, physical limits - we are running out of natural resources, no amount of magical thinking i.e. economists' talk of decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, will fix that.
The bourgeoisie is much weaker today than it was in '68, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have no end in sight, Venezuela continues to be a thorn in the imperialists' side. If it were stronger, the US ruling class would have succeeded in overthrowing Maduro by now.
One final thing to mention is that the extinction rebellion people have been set up, from the beginning, as a sort of pressure valve that will allow folks to vent, without ever challenging the power of the capitalists responsible for the crisis. That is the reason behind their "no politics'' line. As it stands today the extinction rebellion is a dead end, it has been co-opted by corporate interests before it even got started. We, as marxists, must educate the public and make the connection between capitalists and the damage they do in the pursuit of profit, they are responsible and must be held accountable. In brief, socialism is the only way forward.