Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Paul Foot on 1968: The Fire Last Time

[Hidden away on its 'archive' section, the New Statesman this week decided to publish a superb article from 22 April 1988 on the twentieth anniversary of 1968 by Paul Foot, which I have decided to republish on this blog, mainly because it saves me writing anything]

A considerable industry has been at work for months to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of 1968. Numerous books have already been published, and the television interest reaches its climax soon with an extravaganza on Channel 4. The popular theme is that 1968 was an aberration, a momentary delirium which seduced the youth of the time, but out of which that youth have grown up into sensible middle age. The books and programmes tend to concentrate on the cultural obsessions of the 1968 students, their incantations, promiscuities, drugs. Like an eclipse on a 29 February in Leap Year, such a strange and rather disturbing Happening is unlikely ever to occur again. (Sighs of relief all round.)

Most of this is entirely trivial, and suits the prevailing reactionary mood. No important person today wants to dredge up too much about what really happened in 1968 — a revolutionary tremor which threatened an earthquake to bring the entire Old Order crashing down.

Why did it happen, what were its effects, when did it stop, and will it happen again? No one on the official left will even ask the questions. It takes an active revolutionary in what will unquestionably be the least-reviewed book in the pack to answer them.

Chris Harman locates the cause of the 1968 upheavals in the "long boom" in which the postwar industrialised economies basked. The boom, however, was a creature of capitalism every bit as much as the slumps of the 1930s. Its fruits were not shared either by workers or by the growing body of students it required and regimented. During the "long boom", workers and students developed at the same time a collective confidence and a collective frustration. These burst out all over the world in 1968. The triggers were different — America’s monstrous war in Vietnam, the meanness of the universities in France, religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. But the fundamental causes were the same everywhere.

For a moment, the 1968 revolutions rubbed out the contours of world politics. The "Cold War", the "Iron Curtain" were irrelevant to the new insurgents. Just as Mayor Daley was ordering troops to beat up demonstrators against a rigged Democratic Party convention in Chicago, the Russian government sent its tanks into Prague. The aims were the same: to quash revolts — revolts which for a moment revealed that the "socialism of the ‘socialist world’ was as phoney as the freedom of the ‘free world’." The absurd slogans and antagonisms with which governments and ideologues East and West had bamboozled their peoples were suddenly ripped up as effectively as were the Paris paving stones by the students of the Sorbonne. The thrilling message of emancipation in the Czech manifesto "2000 words" was written with the same inspiration (though in more exciting prose) as were thousands of manifestos issued by demonstrating students in Warsaw, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Chicago.

The second crucial characterisation of the time was that students’ revolt set off workers’ revolt. The most convulsive example was in France, which, in sharp contrast to the predictions of every known political scientist, left and right, experienced that May the largest general strike in the history of the world.

The revolutionary impact of 1968 went on long after the calendar year — through the "hot autumn" in Italy in 1969, to the miners’ and dockers’ strikes in Britain in 1972 (which changed the Tory government’s entire strategy and eventually kicked them out), to the Portuguese revolution in 1974, to the overthrow of the Greek colonels in 1975. Right across Europe, and beyond it, the revolutionary upheavals of 1968 went on until 1976, and threatened the very existence of "society as we know it".

How was order restored — how are we now back with "society as we know it", even more ugly, cruel and complacent than it was before? At times (in Britain at the end of 1973, for instance, or in France in May 1968) the ruling class, even with all its troops and policemen, were weak (in France the police went on strike). By themselves they could not restore their own laws and orders. Their chief allies in that business were the Old Order of the left, whether of the communist or Labour variety. Communist tanks in Prague broke up the revolution there, and, by the same token, Communist-led trade unions in France persuaded public service workers back to work, and so broke up the general strike. In the United States, the politicians of the Democratic Party, in Britain the politicians of the Labour Party laid their "historic" claim to the loyalty of workers and students, and called them to order. This was known at the time in different languages as the: "social contract" (Britain) the Pact of Moncloa (Spain), or the Historic Compromise (Italy). It took the sting out of the 1968 revolution and its aftermath. Once the sting was out, the right wing lost interest in the Old Order of the left which had done its work so well. The political pendulum swung to the right, to the "free market", against the welfare state — to the fattening of the rich and the slimming of the poor; to Thatcher in Britain, to Reagan in the United States, to Kohl in West Germany, to Chirac in France. The office-hunters of the left, who helped lose the revolutions, lost office as well.

The revolutions of 1968-1976 threw up new revolutionary ideas and organisations which could not see any fundamental difference between the social orders on either side of the Iron Curtain, and which doubted that society could be changed by electing new governments, while industry, finance, law, media, all the other big institutions of society remained in the (wholly undemocratic) hands of the wealthy. Chris Harman traces the history of these organisations, many of which disappeared in frantic gestures of individual terrorism or in incantations to the "Third World". He argues, however, and he is right, that the spirit of 1968 and the small organisations which it inspired were and are the only real hope for socialist change.

The steady drift of former socialists to the right (for a wonderful example read Paul Johnson’s "conversion" to the Revolution — in the New Statesman of course), the fashion for "new realism", the obsession with parliamentary politics, all these are creatures of the prevailing reaction, not enemies of it. Nor is that reaction half so secure as it pretends. The slump of the eighties is not as deep as the slump of the thirties, but it is every bit as intractable. The first was ended in a world war, but a world war now is out of the question, even for the generals.

The mix which gave rise to 1968 is still bubbling in the pot. It will explode in a "fire next time" which will engulf the world just as unexpectedly as it did last time, and the politics of the traditional left will be just as useless and just as hostile.

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At 4:57 am, Blogger Sean Purdy said...

What an excellent fucking review! Paul was such a fine writer. I'm giving a talk for my branch next week on 1968 and will liberally use this article.

Cheers, Sean

At 5:00 am, Blogger Sean Purdy said...

As an aside on Paul Foot, I heard him speak in Toronto on Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitain Revolution. There were a dozen Haitian immigrants in the audience and they were so impressed with his talk that they publicly presented him with a t-shirt with the face of Toussaint and a famous quote of his. Paul donated it to the Canadian IS and we raffled it off in a fundraiser. I won the t-shirt and used it so much it only lasted about a year. I miss that t-shirt!

Cheers, Sean

At 5:05 am, Blogger Sean Purdy said...

And I should have added that I miss Paul Foot as well.

Cheers, Sean


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