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1968: the power of the masses

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of 1968. Ian Birchall looks at the lasting legacy of a year in which the oppressed and exploited fought back and proved they can win
Issue 2084
Supporters of the International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party, join a demonstration in 1968 against the war in Vietnam
Supporters of the International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party, join a demonstration in 1968 against the war in Vietnam

A Labour government elected with great enthusiasm a few years earlier, holding down wages, cutting public services, tightening immigration controls and slavishly backing a US war.

Sounds familiar? That was Britain at the beginning of 1968.

But 1968 would be a year of the unexpected, a year when the left, like everyone else, would be surprised by events that were often hectic, sometimes bizarre, but which above all revealed the possibility of transforming the world.

Over the coming months 1968 will doubtless be commemorated in the media. Much of what we shall be told will be myths, if not outright lies. The year will be misrepresented as a year of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – and of “student riots”.

The real truth about 1968 was an unwelcome one for our rulers and their hangers-on. The oppressed showed they could fight back – and sometimes that they could win.

In January the Vietnamese liberation forces launched a major offensive against the occupying US troops.

They even seized the US embassy in the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. US troops regained control with much loss of Vietnamese life. But it became clear that though the US had not yet lost the war, they could never win it.

The world’s greatest power had been humiliated. Now the Vietnamese were seen not as victims but as heroes – an inspiration to all those fighting back against oppression.

Around the world there were demonstrations in support of Vietnam.

Many of those demonstrating were students. Over the previous 20 years there had been a massive growth in the numbers of students.

Once a university education had been a path to privilege – now it simply made you an exploited white collar worker. As Bob Dylan put it, “Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift.”

Students were getting angry. Not just about the slaughter in Vietnam, but about their own situation.

Overcrowded and inadequate facilities, petty rules imposed by authoritarian administrators, antiquated programmes of study that did not meet their needs – all these were targets for an emerging student movement.

The old order was not going to roll over and die. In West Germany the student movement was slandered and reviled by the right wing press. Such hatred was whipped up that student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot and seriously wounded.

In the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King was shot and killed. He had gone to Memphis to support a strike by refuse workers, and had called for a general strike in the city.

The possibility of the civil rights movement linking up with working class struggle posed a terrible threat to the whole system.

In Britain there was a terrible shock for the left. A leading Tory, Enoch Powell, made a viciously racist speech in which he condemned immigration and foresaw violence as a result of it – a river “foaming with much blood”.

His sentiments won the approval of some groups of white workers, disillusioned by the failures of the Labour government. On May Day London dockers struck and marched in support of Powell. But there was resistance.

Terry Barrett, a docker and a member of the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP), courageously gave out a leaflet that drew out the real class issues: “Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right wing Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his party and his class. Again and again he has argued that the docks are ‘grossly overmanned’.”

Barrett helped to break the atmosphere of fear prevalent in the docks.


Powell’s speech gave encouragement to the far right. It also acted as a whiplash to the left. The Labour Party was generally inert in face of the racist threat, but a new layer of activists was stimulated to face the urgent challenge.

They soon received encouragement. In Paris there had been student demonstrations from the beginning of May.

The Sorbonne university in Paris was closed by the authorities. On the night of 10-11 May students were attacked by police with clubs and CS gas. They tore up cobbles from the streets, built barricades, and held their ground.

The government backed down, reopened the Sorbonne and released imprisoned students. The students had shown that state power could be resisted.

On 13 May union leaders called a one-day strike, hoping this would allow workers to let off steam. A million marched through Paris.

People were realising that token action was not enough. The next day Sud-Aviation workers in the city of Nantes decided to indefinitely occupy their factory. Within days the strike spread to the whole of France. Ten million stopped work, the biggest general strike in history.

In Nantes trade unions ran the city, controlling prices and organising petrol supplies. Elsewhere action committees were set up to deal with the problems of supplies.

When the government tried to call a referendum, it could not find printers to produce ballot papers. For a whole generation to whom

working class power had simply been an abstract phrase, it had now become an immediate reality.

Eventually the government – with the cooperation of the trade union leaders and a Communist Party obsessed with electoral politics – managed to regain control. But after this proof of working class power, nothing would be the same again.

The centres of world power were now shaken. The war in Vietnam was causing huge upheavals inside the US. Riots had followed King’s murder.

Lyndon B Johnson, architect of the war, decided not to stand for re-election and retired from politics. Robert Kennedy, campaigning for the Democratic nomination on an anti-war position, was shot by a Palestinian student enraged at his pro-Zionist stance.

When the Democratic Convention met in Chicago in August, a huge anti-war demonstration was brutally attacked by police.

Things were no smoother in the Eastern bloc. In Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek’s government was promising “socialism with a human face”. In August Russian tanks entered Prague to restore Moscow’s control. They encountered massive working class resistance.

The Russians reasserted their power, but not before revealing to the world that Eastern bloc “Communism” was a sham.

Throughout the world Communist Parties condemned the invasion. It was the beginning of the end for a Moscow-centred monolithic Communist movement.

These were the headline-making events of 1968. Below the surface there was a ferment of revolt, as different groups of the oppressed began to reject their oppression and assert their power.

Greater London Council tenants marched against rent increases, and squatters confronted homelessness with direct action. A wave of occupations swept British universities.

Students at Hornsey College of Art occupied for six weeks. The students quickly began to talk of taking control of education. When security guards were sent to evict them, the occupying students fraternised – giving tea to the guards and biscuits to their dogs.

In Wolverhampton, 4,000 marched in protest at Sikh bus workers not being allowed to wear turbans. Workers, mostly Asian, at the Injection Moulders factory in North London occupied their factory for 18 days until forcibly evicted by police.

Fishermen’s wives in Hull launched a campaign for better safety in the fishing industry after the sinking of three trawlers. Sewing machinists at Fords Dagenham factory struck for three weeks demanding equal pay for women. It was effectively the beginning of the modern women’s movement in Britain.


In October civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland, protesting at anti-Catholic discrimination, were attacked by police with clubs and water cannon. Police then rampaged through the Catholic Bogside district. It was the start of a new phase of struggle.

Even the reactionary world of English cricket was touched. When the South African apartheid regime refused to admit a black England cricketer, Basil D’Oliveira, the England cricket authorities, despite the many racists in their ranks, were obliged to cancel the tour. This started the long sporting boycott of South Africa.

Similar examples could be accumulated from all round the world. 1968 initiated a decade of struggle, with massive working class movements in Italy, Britain, Portugal, Poland, Iran and elsewhere. A new generation built militant movements for women’s and gay rights, against racism and war.

Much has changed since 1968. The sexist and racist ideas that were then commonplace have been pushed back, though not thoroughly uprooted.

Above all we must nail the lie that will doubtless be repeated by ignorant journalists throughout the coming year – that the rebels of 1968 were well-meaning but naïve, and soon reconciled to “reality”.

There were indeed renegades. Some – such as Kim Howells and “Baron” David Triesman – are in the present government.

Many more stayed true to their principles. In 1968 we wanted to smash a system based on war and racism, on inequality, oppression and exploitation. We still do. In the words of the Paris students’ slogan, “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.”

Further reading

The Fire Last Time by Chris Harman is one of the best accounts of 1968. It is on offer at Bookmarks for £5.

France—The Struggle Goes On, a pamphlet published in August 1968 by Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall, gives a real sense of the debates. It is reprinted in volume one of Selected Writings by Tony Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, priced £10.

For more on Vietnam see The American War by Jonathan Neale, on offer at £7.

To order these books phone Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848 »


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