Friday, 2 September 2016

1968: A Year of Revolution?

If 1967 was the "Summer of Love", then 1968 was the year of revolution. I remember it well, since it was my last year at Cambridge. There was great excitement on the student Left, and it was obligatory to stress your proletarian roots, especially if you'd been to a major public school. The inspiration, however, was driven almost exclusively by events abroad.
    Unlike the student Left of the 1930s, the inspiration did not come from Russia; and indeed the Soviet brand of socialism was specifically repudiated by most student radical leaders. The Soviet Union had long since ceased to be radical. Persecution of Russian dissidents increased in 1968, and in the summer came one of the salient events of the year. Alexander Dubcek of Czechoslovakia had led a promising movement towards a less oppressive form of communism. This attracted much popular enthusiasm, but on August 21st Russian forces invaded, to put an end to the "Prague Spring". Although there was no violence, these events finally killed any illusion that the Soviet Union could be considered a force for progress.
    More promising in some eyes was China, where Mao's "cultural revolution" was at its climax, as the former premier, Liu Siao-chi, having confessed to being a "capitalist roader", was expelled from the Communist party. He was to die miserably of ill-treatment; just one of many. The posters and scenes of mass action were undenaibly exciting.  and the extreme levels of death and destruction involved in the cultural revolution were not yet apparent to westerners, Then there was admiration of Cuba, with its young, charismatic leader, who was furthermore the enemy of the United States, the ultimate bad guy of 1968.
   The Cold War was in abeyance at this time, and the main great-power hostility was between Russia and China, with mutual and savage denunciation; so much so that some experts were even predicting a war in the near future. This potential conflict, however, was little noticed by student radicals in the west: the war that concerned them was, of course, in Vietnam. 

   By early 1968, American troops in South Vietnam were approaching half a million. In January came the Tet offensive, when for the first time the Vietcong launched direct attacks on the cities. Although all these failed, at enormous cost to the attackers, the American government became convinced that the war could not be won, and, with protests against the war, and against the "draft" that sent young men to serve in Vietnam, rising at home, began to search for a way out of the conflict. President Lyndon Johnson had done more for black Americans than any president since Lincoln, but his identification with the Vietnam war made him a deeply hated figure. I can well remember how his appearance on newsreels would bring a chorus of boos from Cambridge students. At the end of March, Johnson announced that he would not be running for re-election. The man looking most likely to succeed him, Bobby Kennedy, was then murdered in early June, leaving a serious gap in the leadership of the Democratic party.
   The demonstrations and sit-ins that swept college campuses in the summer of 1968 were paralleled in the Black community. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. For some time, his non-violent methods had been coming under attack from the more militant "Black Power" movement, but his death was greeted by a week of rioting and looting. At the Mexico City Olympics, two American athletes gave the Black Power salute on the medals rostrum, and were promptly sent home in disgrace. Left-wing student radicals and black power activists came together at the Democratic party convention in Chicago in August, where they were indiscriminately clubbed by Mayor Daley's police.

Simultaneously, similar but quite unconnected events were taking place in Paris. French students had their own grievances, and at the start of May clashes with the police erupted throughout the Latin Quarter. May 10th was the "night of the barricades". President de Gaulle at firdt seemed willing to make concessions, and at the end of the month announced new elections to the French National Assembly. Riots continued, but it quickly became clear that the students were isolated and lacked mass support: in particular, the powerful French Communist Party failed to back them. Next month the government banned demonstrations and outlawed many of the student bodies, and then won a landslide victory in the elections.

By comparison, protest movements in Britain, though widespread, were entirely derivative. They concentrated on Vietnam, despite the fact that not a single British soldier had been sent there: Harold Wilson's Labour government had, as we now know, successfully resisted intense American pressure to commit troops. Wilson's government had passed a number of important reforms: abolishing capital punishment, outlawing racial discrimination and decriminalising homosexuality; but in the eyes of the radical Left all this counted for nothing compared with the fact that Wilson gave verbal support to the American war. I witnessed Denis Healey, the minister of defence, being booed and heckled by students for this very reason. 
   The Rolling Stones captured the mood of 1968, with the song "Street Fighting Man" on their "Beggar's Banquet" album. It embodied what some radicals presumably wanted, and violence was predicted in Enoch Powell's notorious "Rivers of blood" speech, delivered in April. but in Britain, unlike in America and France, street fighting never really took off. 

In every case, the 1968 attempts at revolution not only failed, but led to distinct swings to the Right. In Czechoslovakia, Dubcek and his friends were expelled from the Communist Party, and the country settled down to a dreary few decades of low-level reression. De Gaulle resigned as French President in 1969, but was succeeded by his former Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou. In Britain, Harold Wilson unexpectedly lost the 1970 election to the Conservatives. And American politics saw a real and lasting sea-change. Ever since the Civil War, the old slave-owning states of the south had voted Democrat, largely because Lincoln had been a Republican. Lyndon Johnson expressed the fear that, by enacting his Civil Rights legislation, he could have lost his party the south; and in the 1968 Presidential election this did indeed happen. George Wallace, the openly segregationalist governor of Alabama, swept to victory throughout the south, and Richard Nixon was in consequence elected President by a small margin, in a clear negation of the hopes of the Left.

Jeremy Corbyn is my age. I suspect he formulated his ideas in the turmoil of 1968. I wonder if he has learnt anything since.

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