• May 1968

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 • May 1968

Posted by keza at 2008-05-04 05:17 AM

Well, the 40th anniversary of May 1968 is here. The events in France were probably the most spectacular,  but the whole of 1968 was a watershed year for the left.

Barry gave a 5 minute talk about it on ABC Radio National a few days ago. I'm posting the transcript here -  but it can also be heard as a podcast by clicking on the link.


http://www.abc.net.au/rn/perspective/stories/2008/2232798.htm



Transcript

The year 1968 was a revolutionary moment. That's what I felt back then, as a scrawny 17 year old Brunswick boy in his final year of high school, and that's what I think now, as a paunchy balding pony-tailed historian. Revolution was in the air. Seriously.


The political rebellion was sparked in Australia by conscription for the Vietnam war but it was also part of a spectacular world-wide movement. From Poland to Mexico to Vietnam and South Africa oppressed peoples were rising up, defying authority, and demanding greater freedom. The left, united internationally, was challenging the capitalist system, even in relatively affluent democratic countries like the UK, USA, and France. 1968 was a high tide for the left.


My comrades and I genuinely believed that a revolution would happen and that capitalism would be overthrown by an alliance of workers and students. I leapt into this struggle, was recruited into the Communist Party of Australia and, within a few years, had been arrested several times, suspended from university and gaoled at Pentridge with two others for contempt of court.


The revolution did not happen - but it was both fun and right to give the reactionaries a hard time. We helped move society forward from where it was to where it now is.


Forty years on, I wonder: where did the spirit and content of the left go? I quit the Communist Party and drifted along through the 1980s identifying with whatever seemed to be a left-wing position. I uncritically went along with anti-Americanism and the environmental movement. Like many others of the class of 1968, I wanted my life to make a difference but, in abandoning critical reflexivity and theory, I reckon I lost the plot.


Back in '68 we were all Marxists of various types. I still like Jean Luc Goddard's observation that we were the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola. Goddard was right - the 1960s 'cultural revolution' was a product of a permissive consumerism brought about by industrial capitalism.


Marxism gave the left an effective theory for understanding the processes of change in society and, on the basis of that understanding, bringing about the overthrow of humanity's final form of slavery - wage-slavery - and to replace the rule of the capitalist class with the rule of the workers. John Lennon's song, 'Power to the people', recorded in 1971, resonated with those of us who saw things in that way.


Today, what passes for the left openly opposes progress. This pseudo-left has nothing in common with the sixties spirit and no social base outside Government funded institutions of propaganda. Its role is to make the right appear less ignorant and to complain about the weather. Back in '68, environmentalism and nature worship, notions of a balance in Nature, properly belonged to the right. It was only when the right retreated and the left hibernated that such reactionary conservative ideas, with their antecedents in Romanticism and fascism, were taken up by people claiming to be left-wing. A vacuum is always filled.


If there's a practical legacy of 1968 that I'd like to see revived, it's the teach-in. Teach-ins were forums for people to get together, usually on campuses, to hear the best of opposing points of view, based on informed, evidence-based, debate. It was through teach-ins featuring opponents like Dr. Jim Cairns and Frank Knopfelmacher that many of us came to support the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.


By contrast, the pseudo-left has no need for investigation and debate. It is quasi-religious with a formula into which the events of the world are slotted. Thus, when the US goes to war to topple the fascist dictator, Saddam Hussein, it can only be an act of imperialist aggression designed to grab Iraq's oil.


We need a revival of the left. One that supports progress, can analyze reality, understands Marxism, and is imbued with the rebellious spirit of '68.


Power to the people!

 

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by Cyberman at 2008-05-05 03:31 AM

Keza,

 

You say that in 1968 Environmentalism properly belonged to the right.

 

Not so in Europe and the UK. Most  support was from the left and urban working classes, who, in the sixties were daring to suggest that they had the same right as anyone else to breath clean air,  drink clean water and live in an unpolluted environment.

 

This is an extract from the UK Labour Party manifesto of 1970"

 

".......we believe that we have a duty to the future; to ensure that the Britain we leave to the generation that follows is not spoilt by our misuse or neglect of the environment. We are still dealing with the slums, slag-heaps, derelict land and foul rivers of the first industrial revolution. Today we have to manage our own lives in a new industrial society so that we do not spoil our land, our water, our beaches - even the air we breathe - with noise, fumes, filth and waste. This will only be done by a Party which is not the creature of private profit."

 

The UK Labour Party of 1970 may have had its faults, but nevertheless it had, unlike the later New Labour Party of Blair and Co,  the sense to keep Britain out of US promoted imperial wars. It had not completely lost its Socialist credentials.

 

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by youngmarxist at 2008-05-05 02:53 PM

Cyberman says: 


You say that in 1968 Environmentalism properly belonged to the right.
 
Not so in Europe and the UK. Most  support was from the left and urban working classes, who, in the sixties were daring to suggest that they had the same right as anyone else to breath clean air, drink clean water and live in an unpolluted environment.

Of course, this desire is far different to "environmentalism and nature worship,notions of a balance in Nature".


The right to breathe clean air is based on the idea that society should serve people and their needs. Environmentalism and nature worship, on the other hand, are based on the idea that people and their needs must take second place to nature, which is a reactionary, right-wing position.

The UK Labour Party of 1970 may have had its faults, but nevertheless it had, unlike the later New Labour Party of Blair and Co,  the sense to keep Britain out of US promoted imperial wars. It had not completely lost its Socialist credentials.

The Labour Party of the Wilson years certainly did not have the stomach to overthrow far-right dictators who represented a minority of a country's population. The history of  their dithering over Rhodesia (as was) shows that.

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by Cyberman at 2008-05-06 03:20 PM

Youngmarxist,

 

On the question of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe , I think you'll find that it wasn't a question of "stomach" , as you put it, but rather a general approach by the left at that time to the wider question of ending apartheid in South Africa and the decolonialisation process in the neighbouring countries, including Zimbabwe and the then Portugese territories of Angola and Mozambique.

 

Given your current position on intervention in Iraq, you might find it hard to believe, but the idea that the R/Z question could be resolved by a UK military invasion was, rightly or wrongly,  never seriously entertained at the time by any left political party worldwide.

 

The idea that there was a 'good' left in 1968 and a different left now, which you have dubbed the 'pseudo-left' is quite wrong. If you don't like the left now, then there is really no reason to think you would have liked the left of 1968. Except, perhaps, if you an old wrinkly, who has long ago moved to the right, and wish to maintain a wistful and nostalgic affection for the political affiliations of a lost youth.

 

It is interesting that you are prepared to concede that some environmental issues such as clean air and clean water supplies are good  issues for the left. But, then there are others, which you dismiss as 'nature worship' and  reactionary. Maybe you can give us some examples of what you have in mind?

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by youngmarxist at 2008-05-06 05:01 PM
Cyberman says:

If you don't like the left now, then there is really no reason to think you would have liked the left of 1968. Except, perhaps, if you an old wrinkly, who has long ago moved to the right, and wish to maintain a wistful and nostalgic affection for the political affiliations of a lost youth.
It's a common tactic for the psuedo-left to call people 'right-wing' who oppose their reactionary program. This is natural, as there is a lot at stake. If the pseudo-left's influence is removed from politics, and they are pushed to the right where they belong, they will lose all power and control over people who oppose wage-slavery and even more backwards ways of running things.
It is interesting that you are prepared to concede that some environmental issues such as clean air and clean water supplies are good  issues for the left. But, then there are others, which you dismiss as 'nature worship' and  reactionary. Maybe you can give us some examples of what you have in mind?

People-centred, progressive, left-wing environmentalism:

Suing Mount Isa Mines over apparent lead poisoning of children.

Reactionary, anti-human, green nature worship:

Lying about the type of people who take airline flights to push an anti-air travel agenda

The Climate Camp movement in the UK: (my emphasis below)

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the problem of climate change. It's easy to feel that we can't make a difference. Our aim is overcome feelings of isolation and helplessness by bringing people together to create a community of resistance. We hope the camp inspires people to take action, share ideas and beyond the camp, make a start in their own localities and spheres of interest. The camp will...

  • Be a place where we explore grassroots solutions to climate change through workshops, skill-sharing, education, debate and entertainment. The camp will also bring together people already campaigning on this and related issues.
  • Take direct action against the root causes of climate change. Yes we need to change light bulbs and stop flying to Spain for the weekend, but we also need to act collectively. This is the only way to stop the actions of those vested interests that watch the planet burn while counting the money they make from the fire.
  • Demonstrate and live the alternatives by bringing diverse groups and individuals together to live in an ecologically sustainable, cooperative way. The camp will aim to be as carbon neutral as possible and all energy, except perhaps gas for cooking, will come from renewable sources.
  • Be a space for celebration, for kids and families, a place to socialise with friends old and new. Western civilisation has tried to answer the eternal question of what it is to be human by surrounding itself in a cocoon of objects, an endless stream of meaningless stuff. This is a chance to show the opposite, that less can be so much more.

Agreeing with the "humans are a virus" attitude, or taking it even further:

The point here isn't that we're necessarily a virus, but that some asshole 10,000 years ago decided to rebel against nature.  We'll pay the price eventually.

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by Cyberman at 2008-05-06 05:52 PM

Youngmarxist,

 

Well, congratulations on coming out on the side of the workers and their children on the question of lead pollution in Mt Isa! I haven't seen much previously on your forum, from the LS comrades,  which I could say was even remotely left wing.

 

If you are going to cuddle up to the Institute of Public Affiars and other ring wing elements in society, there is all the more reason to make the most of issues which will help you maintain your left wing credibility. So you ( meaning LS comrades generally) have to start including these issues in when you write articles for the Australian newspaper! You have to start telling people that this is what you believe. How about starting a campaign on the issue? What about the other mining towns? Broken Hill for example. What's the situation there?

 

Of course in princinple I agree that air-line travel should be more widely available. We can't ignore the environmental issues though - that would be irresponsible. Id suggest that everyone should have a carbon credit to use as they see fit, even to sell if they like. That way they could drive a Humvee and take air flights with a good conscience!  

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by youngmarxist at 2008-05-06 10:44 PM
Cyberman says:

If you are going to cuddle up to the Institute of Public Affiars and other ring wing elements in society, there is all the more reason to make the most of issues which will help you maintain your left wing credibility.

It's important to note the on-going use of this psuedo-left tactic. Cyberman uses the loaded phrase "cuddle up to", gives no examples of where Last Superpower have agreed with the Institute of Public Affairs, and has given no consideration to whether the IPA may be correct on any given issue but assumed they must be wrong (which is the definition of an ad-hominem argument).

Further, Cyberman has demanded that we do what he thinks we should. If Cyberman happens to think that lead poisoning in Mt Isa is important, there is nothing stopping him from setting up a blog and starting his own campaign on this issue. Of course, if Cyberman's only goal is to paint us as right-wing, and he does not care about the issue in itself, he is unlikely to do that.

I haven't seen much previously on your forum, from the LS comrades,  which I could say was even remotely left wing.

Presumably Cyberman doesn't think that these things are left-wing:

Calling for a world based on production according to need rather than profit:

Now, free software drives the internet. It's produced on the communist basis of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need". It's done in people's free time, even people who still have to earn their living as wage workers, have organised themselves globally to transform the basic infrastructure of modern society, in ways that most multi-national corporations today still haven't figured out how to adapt to.

...

So, imagine a world in which that sort of conception of things is normal. All our time is free time, because nobody owns the means of production, everything produced is produced by people who want to produce it, not for sale, and not because they are paid to do so, a world without the obstacles created by marketing and “suits”, a world, in short, of free enterprise.

Discussing and linking to articles about the condition of the working class in China

Writing articles that cover the protests about an Aboriginal man killed by a Queensland police officer. (much much more here, by me)

Promoting the idea that children all around the world should have cheap computers.

Discussing the economics of collective ownership

Promoting the Creative Commons movement

Linking to reviews of "Capital"


Or, publishing articles about how revolution is the only solution to unemployment.

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by Cyberman at 2008-05-18 04:59 PM

One of the constant themes that we read so often from LS is how the left used to be so much different and progressive that it is now. Of course, the simpler and more plausible explanation is that the left has stayed pretty much the same but the personalities have changed.  Youthful revolutionaries can often turn into middle-aged conservatives.

 

The failure of the May '68 revolution can largely be explained by the same process. The leadership of the PCF and CGF declined to accept a winning position when it was presented to them. They too had got old and wrinkly and the last thing they wanted to be bothered with, at their time of life, was running a revolution. Why risk their bourgois comforts and a comfortable pension?

 

As Iain Gunn describes the events:

 

" CGT leader Georges Seguy went proudly to the giant Renault plant at Billancourt. But he was immediately booed and heckled. At every Renault plant in fact the deal was rejected as a sellout and workers dug in for a longer struggle."

 

"One of the chants at Renault was for a 'people's government.' They wanted more than just better wages or talks on union rights. What more sign did the leadership, especially the PCF, need. What had they spent their lives fighting for? If they had moved just one finger they could have swept de Gaulle and the capitalist class backing him aside. But at that decisive moment they failed, the leadership did everything but lead and the movement was left to inevitably falter."

 

The full article can be read here:

 http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~socappeal/1968/may68.html

 

 • Re: May 1968

Posted by owenss at 2008-05-18 07:34 PM

Cyberman I think you are right to point out that the Communist Party of France and the trade union leadership sold out the events of May 68.

 

You state that it was because they were attached to their comfortable lifestyles.

 

Well firstly trade union leaders will always fall short in a revolution because trade unions embody the ideology of reform ism,  that's what trade unions do, the day to day bargaining over the terms that workers will sell their labour. ( Ive spent many years arguing at trade union conferences that politics is trade union business let alone revolution)

 

As to the Communist Party leaders, sure some must be attached to the good life but some would not do anything unless given the green light by Moscow. I don't think that we should underplay how much western CPs had become agents of Soviet foreign policy.

 

There's a third element and that is fear. I understand that when De Gaul fled France for Germany he did so to rally French troops in Germany to return to put down the revolution if necessary. The leaders of the CP would have realised that if they had joined the revolution that the next escalation would have been military confrontation.