Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, May 09, 2008

1968: "The world is on fire - just follow the light"

In 1968, Jean Paul Sartre declared that "The world is on fire" - and so I thought I would just put up extracts from the memories of activists around at the time from a special edition of Socialist Review which give a sense of 'May 1968'.

'[T]he student movement, with their own demands, led the struggle. During the night of 10 May the barricades went up, with some workers joining them. The battle between the demonstrators and the police lasted for four hours. There was massive repression and the next morning the CGT called a one-day general strike for 13 May to protest at police violence. So on 13 May workers protested across France. This one-day strike was very strong in Paris and in the other big cities.

We started the occupation of our factory at Renault Billancourt on 16 May. We held meetings every day where workers could vote on the continuation of the strike. Workers at Renault had a long history of great struggles and that's why it was so important to have these meetings.

I was 25 years old at that time, and we were occupying the factory every day and night. This movement was exhilarating for us young people.'

Michel Certano, carworker, France

By 1968 it seemed the war had been going on my whole life. When the US was defeated in 1975 I felt I had won. All my friends and I felt like we were actually fighting the war alongside the Vietnamese.

Sheryll Yanowitz, Berkeley

1968 showed that the cracks in state capitalist power were widening, and that revolutionary struggle was back on the agenda, big time. That was where my future lay.

Eddie Provost, docker, London

For me 1968 was about the birth of the civil rights movement. Originally a campaign for basic demands, it stands out as a significant moment in the narrative of Irish history. The black civil rights movement and Martin Luther King earlier in the 1960s had excited the imagination of people here. The influence of the student movement and reports of militancy from around Europe were also in the mix - Northern Ireland is not an isolated place.

Eamonn McCann, Derry

'My officials came to me and said, "There'll be a demonstration [against the Vietnam War] in London and they might try to take control of this department." I said, "I've been trying to get control of it for several years!"'

Tony Benn, British Cabinet Minister

The New Statesman also has some pieces by Eric Hobsbawm and Noam Chomsky but both of those figures were quite mature and set in their ways by the time 1968 came around. Chris Harman, a review of whose book on 1968 by John Molyneux is online here was rather younger in 1968 and provides a better analysis of the radical change in consciousness that took place:

'[Things] began to change with the May events in France. People suddenly saw the possibility of revolutionary change much nearer home and one which came from below, involving the mass of people. The media concentrated on the student battles with the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris. But by the third week of May the spectacle of the working class holding to ransom the government of a major capitalist country had an impact on those fighting back against the system everywhere.

Great revolts cause a fantastic widening of people's horizons. Those who would have laughed at the idea of revolution in 1966 - or at least deemed it impossible - were taking it seriously in the summer of 1968. When Britain had its biggest Vietnam demonstration, in October 1968, the most popular slogan alongside "Victory to the NLF" (the Vietnamese liberation movement) was "We will fight, we will win, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin"; the most popular placard was of a clenched fist with a spanner and the words "Workers' Control".'

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