Joel Geier, associate editor of the International Socialist Review, spoke on ``1968: Year of Revolt'' at the University of Illinois, Champaign, IL on March 26, 2008. He was a leading member of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s and witnessed the 1968 protests in Paris. He discussed a vital yet hidden history of struggle and its relevance to today.
The International Socialist Review is sponsoring a national meeting tour to mark the 40th anniversary of the remarkable year 1968. It was a year of conflict, class struggle and revolutionary upheaval around the world. 1968 saw the Vietnam Tet Offensive; the May general strike in France; the Black Power salute at the Olympics; the student struggle in Mexico and the massacre in Tlatelolco Plaza; the Prague Spring and Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; the police riot at the Democratic Party convention; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and urban rebellions; the birth of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit. 1968 offers lessons to a new generation of activists and radicals organising for a better world.
Today, with the economy inching closer to the brink of collapse, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan causing unimaginable death and suffering, and billions of people around the world suffering from poverty, oppression, and exploitation, the lessons of 1968 are of vital importance to a new generation of activists and radicals organising for a better world.
This meeting was sponsored by the International Socialist Organization, University of Illinois Branch.
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video © 2008 Charles Jenks; all rights reserved.
More excellent footage from Paris, May 1968.
The Mysterious Chemistry of Social Change: the USA 1968 in Retrospect
The last thing the legacy of 1968 needs is nostalgic commemoration. Even as it was happening, it was being packaged for consumption. Nor should we celebrate it in the name of some abstract spirit of resistance. It was a year of contradictions and confusions, many of which continue to confront anyone who wants to take part in a movement for radical change.
1968 saw more young Americans drawn to the left than any time since the 1930s. In a Gallup survey of student opinion conducted in the spring (before the May events in France), 69% considered themselves “doves” on Vietnam, 16% agreed that the war in Vietnam was “pure imperialism” and 8% identified themselves as “radical” or “far left” (a 100% increase in a year). In the autumn, a Fortune magazine survey revealed that half of all college students thought the US was a “sick society” and 368,000 of them now considered themselves “revolutionaries”.
The upsurges that convulsed the United States in 1968 were inextricably linked to global events, but shaped by factors peculiar to the national context. In this presidential election year, 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam, where a war that was supposed to have been won long before continued into its fifth year. At home, the country’s racial hierarchy had been under challenge from the civil rights movement for a decade. But socialist traditions were weak and there was no significant social democratic or Communist party. This starting point accounts for many of the peculiar features of the American ‘68: its ideological and organisational chaos, as well as its willingness to experiment. Among young radicals there was a Year Zero mentality.
It was in the USA that the global trends of media saturation and consumerisation were most pronounced at the time, which helps explain the importance assumed by images and gestures in the American movement. It was also in the USA that the generational split, evident everywhere in 68, was most sharply divisive. In addition, activists in the US faced a degree of violent repression unknown in Western Europe.
The civil rights movement’s challenge to Jim Crow in the south had secured major advances, but had also exposed the intractability of American racism. Legal segregation had been destroyed, but economic inequality loomed larger than ever. In 1966, the Black Power slogan had signalled a new black nationalist consciousness among younger activists, who advocated building black-only organisations.
Martin Luther King stood in the middle of the tempest. In 1967, his opposition to the war had been denounced by mainstream civil rights leaders and liberal opinion-makers, including The New York Times. While he agreed with the militants that the movement had to enter a new, more ambitious phase, he continued to advocate non-violence and inter-racial alliances. In early 1968, he launched a Poor People’s Campaign, demanding a guaranteed income for all. He journeyed to Memphis, where black sanitation workers were on strike for union recognition and a living wage, supported by a tense but potent alliance between local black churches, white-led trade unions, students and ghetto youth.
King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4th deprived the anti-war and black freedom movements of their most effective leader, perhaps the only one who could have resisted the tide of fragmentation. The civil disorder that followed was the most widespread in US history. Riots broke out in 125 cities; 70,000 US troops were called in to quell them. In Washington DC, crowds 20,000-strong overwhelmed local police. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol. On April 5th, rioters reached within two blocks of the White House. In the end, 21,000 were arrested; 3000 injured; and 46 killed, all but five black.
One of those killed was Bobby Hutton, the 17 year old treasurer (“Minister of Finance”) of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers aimed to build an all-black ghetto-based cadre with a mission of self-defence against state violence. To this they added an anti-colonial perspective and a smattering of anti-capitalist rhetoric. Unlike most black revolutionaries at the time, they advocated building alliances with radical whites. In the course of 68, the Panthers became icons for both black and white youth. They also became targets for the FBI. In September, J. Edgar Hoover described them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and launched a campaign to destroy them, fomenting violence between Panthers and street gangs, as well as splits and rivalries among the Panthers themselves. By the end of 1968, Huey Newton was in prison and Eldridge Cleaver had fled the country. In 1969, 27 Panthers were to be killed by police and hundreds more jailed.
Black Power politics took a multitude of forms. At the October Olympics, sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave the clenched fist Black Power salute on the winners’ podium, and were promptly expelled from the games. That year also saw black car workers in Detroit forming the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, with an openly Marxist orientation. They enjoyed support in the community and from the white left, but earned the ire of employers, police and union leaders. The model spread quickly across the auto industry, and resulted in the formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers the following year.
For three years the anti-war forces had been gathering strength, challenging super-patriots and Cold War shibboleths. During the course of 68, 16,000 US troops were killed, with an all-time high of five hundred in the second week of February, casualties of the Tet Offensive, a military disaster but a political triumph for the Vietnamese. In its wake, establishment spokespersons came out against the “unwinnable” war. But they were struggling to catch up with the movement.
The national leadership of the anti-war forces was fluid; the major demonstrations were coordinated by a shifting array of organisational alliances but the bulk of the action was initiated by grass-roots activists. In 1968 it took every conceivable form and spread to every corner of the country.
On April 26, one million students took part in a nationwide anti-war strike, affecting a thousand colleges and schools. At the University of Arizona in Tuscon 11,000 students, half the enrolment, stayed out of class. A new wave of high school students joined the fray, with 200,000 staying out in New York City. On the following day, an anti-war march in San Francisco was led off by a contingent of 40 active duty GIs, one of the first signs of the GI rebellion that was ultimately to incapacitate the war machine.
During the course of 68, the anti-war movement came under pressure from opposite directions. Liberals wanted it to fold into the Democratic party, and radicals wanted it to become a multi-issue “revolutionary” campaign. Neither offered much of substance to the rank and file.
The rebellion at Columbia University in New York City was triggered by a convergence of protests. The principal issues were the university’s plans to build an exclusive gym on public parkland adjacent to Harlem (one placard read “Gym Crow Must Go!”) and its links with the Institute for Defence Analysis, a war think-tank. The local chapter of SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, the principal New Left youth organisation – called a protest on April 23rd, which was joined by the Student Afro-American Society (SAS), and turned unexpectedly into a 1000-strong occupation. Shortly after the first building was seized, the SAS claimed it for black people and asked their white allies to leave. The white students deferred, and took over another four buildings. These soon became known as “liberated zones”, hosting meetings, performances, and non-stop informal debates. The students were joined by the Motherfuckers, an anarchist “street collective” from the Lower East Side, and were visited by a succession of movement celebrities. The logic of the occupation was summarised by one of the SAS leaders:
“There’s one oppressor – in the White House, in Low Library [a university building], in Albany, New York. You strike a blow against the gym, you strike a blow for the Vietnamese people. You strike a blow at Low Library, you strike a blow for freedom fighters in Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese Guinea, Zimbabwe, South Africa.”
After eight days, the university called in the police. The black students surrendered en masse and in disciplined formation. Elsewhere, there was chaos. Some white students resisted arrest, some submitted passively, but all were beaten. Plainclothes police swept through the campus attacking anyone who looked like a protester. Two hundred students were injured and 600 arrested. In response, nearly the entire student body and most of the faculty went on strike, closing the campus for a month. Leadership passed from SDS to the more broad-based Students for a Restructured University, which, with the aid of $40,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, negotiated a compromise with the university administration.
But SDS regarded Columbia as a triumph. Direct action had escalated the struggle, and repression had exposed the true face of the state. Tom Hayden called for “Two, Three Columbias!” echoing Che Guevara’s call for “Two, Three Vietnams”. Thanks to the nationwide publicity attending the Columbia events (which preceded those in May in France), SDS ranks swelled to 100,000. But its leadership became entranced by revolutionary spectacle. By the end of the year, the organisation was mired in factional struggle, and it broke up in June 1969.
Political radicalism was joined with the counter-culture, not only in the minds of the media but in the minds of many millions of young people. Opposition to the war and to racism came to be associated with particular fashions and tastes in music, with the socially and sexually unconventional. Growing your hair long in 1968 was not just a fashion statement; it often meant family rows and harassment in the street. “Underground newspapers” - several hundred of which appeared in 1968 - combined coverage of movement events with comments on music, sex and drugs. They gave people a taste of participatory journalism and, most importantly, the sense of belonging to an outlaw community.
The Yippies were the principal exponents of a marriage of the counter-culture and revolutionary politics. The name itself was an ironic parody, and the movement’s leaders, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, merrily exploited the media’s appetite for sensationalist extremism. They were flippant, obscene, and sometimes daringly imaginative. They studded their manifestos with pop cult references and absurdist jokes. Jerry Rubin declared that “Guerrilla war in America is going to come in psychedelic colors.” Abbie’s book ‘Revolution for the Hell of It’ was a best-seller.
One Communist curmudgeon derided them as “Groucho Marxists". But the real problem with the Yippie leaders was that they were self-selecting and unaccountable. Their informal following was large; their antics struck a chord with many young people, while infuriating a much larger number of older people. The counter culture inspired and energised, but it also fostered an an “us vs. them” construction of America; for some, the counter-culture was a way into politics, but for many others, not least many working class people, it was a barrier to participation. The revolution in consciousness promoted by the counter-culture posed as a challenge to power, but it offered an easy get-out, in which personal lifestyle changes substituted for collective action. It was also a form of rebellion all too vulnerable to appropriation by the corporations and the establishment media. In the autumn of 68, Columbia Records placed a full page advert in the underground press. It showed a bunch of long-haired protesters in a jail cell (but didn’t indicate what they were protesting about) under the headline: “But the man can’t bust our music”.
1968 was the first time a mass social convulsion had been broadcast on television. In the absence of stable national organisations, the media selected the “leaders”, and the more outlandish your rhetoric (and your appearance), the more likely you were to be selected. The movement and the counter-culture were subject to non-stop attack from the mainstream media, which nonetheless played a key role in disseminating the message. A strange interaction grew up between the flesh and blood movement unfolding in different communities and the image of that movement that was projected back to us.
In reality, the youth movement was characterised by a spectrum of memory and experience, from neophyte teenagers to activists in their mid or late 20s who’d already gone through 6-8 years of intense political struggle. People were moving at breakneck speed from earnest American idealism to embittered radicalism, going through liberalism and beyond, sometimes into Marxism, but mainly into a homespun anarchism. Throughout 68, the movement was prone to wild mood swings, from utopia to apocalypse and back in a matter of weeks.
This year’s Democratic presidential primary has been dramatic, but it’s a mere West Wing episode compared to the full blown tragic opera of the 1968 contest, which included the toppling of an incumbent president, the assassination of his leading opponent, and a riot at the nominating convention. Eugene McCarthy, a circumspect liberal, challenged Johnson in the primaries on an anti-war platform. His campaign drew in many students, and going “clean for Gene” (cutting hair and shaving beards when canvassing for McCarthy) became a media-touted phenomenon. Against all predictions, on 12 March McCarthy came a close second to Johnson in New Hampshire. Four days later, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy, making a clear bid for the anti-war vote. On 31st March, Johnson bowed out of the race. Vice-president Hubert Humphrey enjoyed the support of the party machine, but stayed out of the primary races, which became a contest between Kennedy and McCarthy, neither of whom actually called for US withdrawal from Vietnam. It was on the night of his victory in California – where the two “anti-war” candidates split five million votes between them – that Kennedy was shot dead. His killer was a Palestinian, a people whose plight was raised in those days only by black radicals.
Humphrey was now assured the nomination. But the Democratic Party convention in Chicago was a debacle. The Yippies planned to organise a Festival of Life to counterpoint the Convention of Death. Other anti-war activists announced actions in the city. In the end, a modest crowd of 10,000 turned up, and were met with severe police violence, which spilled over into indiscriminate attacks on journalists and by-standers. For days, the images of confrontation were nightly TV fare. Many were radicalised by the spectacle, but many more thought (and told pollsters) that the police gave the protesters what they deserved. The Federal government eventually indicted eight people on conspiracy charges, among them Hoffman, Rubin, Hayden and Black Panther Bobby Seale. Their 1969 trial became a notorious showdown between the movement and the establishment.
Nixon campaigned on a “law and order” platform, bolstered by a secret plan to bring “peace with honour” in Vietnam. He claimed to speak for “the silent majority”, i.e. all those who were not protesting. In November, he edged out Humphrey. The Peace and Freedom Party, with Eldridge Cleaver as its presidential nominee, was on the ballot in 13 states and picked up just under 200,000 votes. Thirteen million votes went to the die-hard segregationist George Wallace, who pledged to run over any demonstrators who got in front of his limousine and asserted that the only four letter words that hippies did not know were w-o-r-k and s-o-a-p. The white backlash was in full swing and out of it was born modern conservative Republicanism.
Many activists ended 1968 in despondency. A Nixon White House meant more war, more domestic repression. The movement appeared fragmented and stalemated. But the impetus of the year’s rebellions was not spent. Although it is often presented as a series of climactic confrontations, 1968 was full of harbingers of the future. Latino Americans, inspired by African Americans, formed their own militant organisations, notably the Young Lords and the Brown Berets. In September, second wave feminism made its first public splash when a group of radical women disrupted the Miss America contest. The next year, the Stonewall riots – whose participants included veterans of civil rights and anti war struggles - kicked off the gay liberation movement. The white working class, quiescent for so long, began to stir; 1969 saw more days lost to strike action than any year since 1946; rank and file reform movements emerged in major unions. The peak of anti-war activity came in 1970, when three million students took strike action against Nixon’s widening of the war into Cambodia. Six of them were killed at Kent and Jackson State universities.
The wave of insurgency washed into the most unlikely places, including the political backwater that was my home town, suburban, affluent and all-white. I turned fifteen at the start of 1968 and I remember the events of that year more vividly than those of 1988 or 1998. After the Columbia rebellion, a small group of us resolved to form an SDS chapter. We got in touch with the national office, who sent a staff member to meet us. (We pooled our allowances to pay her fare). She must have been all of 21, but to us she was an elder. However, the line she took was that in SDS college students couldn’t tell high school students what to do; she urged us to start with “our own oppression”. It wasn’t what we were hoping for; we wanted someone to tell us how we could take part in “the revolution”. We did, however, produce one issue of our own “underground “ newspaper, printed at the SDS offices in New York’s Union Square.
In the autumn, two young men working for the Federal government turned up and made contact with our little group. They were not FBI agents but employees in the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) programme. Often referred to as a “domestic Peace Corps”, VISTA ordinarily focussed on projects in disadvantaged communities. But within VISTA radicals argued that the problem with America was not the poor but the rich, and that VISTA should therefore be working with young people in affluent areas. Soon they had us reading Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, a text we found largely incomprehensible. More usefully, they helped us organise a picket of a local grocery store in support of the United Farmworkers’ Union epochal campaign against California grape-growers. Still, the emphasis was more on “addressing our own oppression” than solidarity with people more obviously oppressed. In our school, pressure to get good grades was intense. So we decided to turn the tables by distributing a “teacher evaluation form” (“How boring is your social studies teacher; rank from 1 to 10…”). For this crime we were suspended from school for a week. This seemed anything but a punishment and I remember spending much of that week watching Godard films in Manhattan.
Late in the year, we learned by word of mouth that Abbie Hoffman and Eldridge Cleaver were speaking at a Catholic community college in a neighbouring town. We drove over and found thousands of young people milling around, excited just to be there. The revolutionary rhetoric was laced with impudent humour. Abbie performed yo-yo tricks and told us how he’d got so fed up with seeing pictures of himself in the New York Times that he had taken to writing FUCK on his forehead. “Let them print that if they want!”. It was amazing that so many youth would put aside their other concerns to turn up to hear visceral calls for the destruction of the system of which they were supposed to be the beneficiaries. But after hearing the speeches there was nothing to do, no strategy one could follow, no plan of action. It was the best and worst of the year.
In the school debate that preceded that year’s mock presidential election, I represented the Peace and Freedom Party. Donning Panther-style black jacket and beret, I did my best to preach the revolutionary message. We got about 10% of the vote, a much better showing than Cleaver managed in the real elections.
In 68 we were a small minority; but two years later, I was elected student body president on a platform of draft counselling (a euphemism for draft evasion), a softer approach on drugs, student participation in the curriculum and, believe it or not, an end to mandatory attendance of classes. Within weeks of my election, Nixon invaded Cambodia. In our school, as in many others, some 90% took part in the ensuing strike. At one point I was called in by the principal and asked to deal with a complaint: a group of die-hard, pro-war jocks had claimed they were being intimidated by hippie girls half their size.
The events of 1968 stamped me for life. The frustrations and failures of the year left me with a distrust of of revolutionary demagoguery and of unaccountable leaders manufactured by the media, and a wariness over the ease with which politics could be blunted by ‘lifestyle’ choices. I drew the lesson that spasms of activism were no substitute for building enduring and democratic institutions. The resulting desire for some organisational and ideological stability probably accounts for the twenty years I spent in the Labour Party.
But I also drew from 1968 an absolutely priceless lesson in the mysterious chemistry of social change. I learned that resistance comes in unexpected forms and from unexpected sources. I learned that in the right circumstances large masses of people can move quickly from apathy to radicalism. I learned that what seems permanent and unchangeable can be consigned, in the blink of an eye, to the dustbin of history. I consider myself lucky to have witnessed the dimensions of the possible transformed in a few short years.
The spirit of 1968
Why do so many people today dismiss the courage and imagination of the struggles that shook every corner of the globe in 1968?
THE SPIRIT of 1968 was lost on me, because at the time I was in an all-white junior school in Kent. I wish I could remember the headmaster bawling in assembly, "Whoever it was who used fuzzy felt to make surrealist graffiti will be severely punished," but I don't think it happened.
Mark Steel is a comedian, a columnist for the Independent newspaper, and a socialist and activist in Britain. He's the author of two collections about contemporary Britain, It's Not a Runner Bean: Dispatches from a Slightly Successful Comedian and Reasons to Be Cheerful--as well as Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution.
Somehow the atmosphere found its way through, though. Most of us loved Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, although we can't have known anything about civil rights. And even if we'd been told about segregation, we'd have gone, "Wow--they get to sit at the back of the bus all the time--can we be negroes, miss?"
Clearly something big and exciting was happening, yet the most common appraisal of the time now is to dismiss it as a frivolous episode involving a few hippies and students.
Partly this is because many of the articles are written by posh ex-radicals, who fill magazines with pompous drivel like, "For I and my fellow compatriots of the Harrovian Order of Revolutionary Iguanas, it was a time of infinite mental universalness. We'd read Pitkin's essays on biscuitology, we staged a production of The Tempest in which all the characters were spring onions, and debated 'This House supports Woldemort's theories of elongatable pugnocity' with such vivacity we had to capture the cleaner and bury him alive in the forest to calm ourselves down."
Another problem is that some figures from the time are now prominent members of the establishment. And they try to claim they're still pursuing the egalitarian ideals of their youth, but in a modern globalized setting, which is why they're thrilled to have landed the contract for selling land mines to the military police in Burma.
And then there's the image of the whole period as revolving around hippies and rock festivals. But they were only one side of a movement that shook dozens of governments, undermined wars and threatened both major superpowers. It would be like saying the period between 1939 and 1945 mostly involved a concert in Oldham by George Formby.
For example, in May 1968, the French general strike was the biggest to have ever taken place in the world, and started with a mass meeting of autoworkers. Or maybe the union meeting began, "Brothers, sisters, dudes, hey, look at the colors on this carburetor. Those in favor raise your hand." And the strike's demands were five vibes an hour, rising to seven and three-quarters for overtime.
Similarly, in the United States, the antiwar campaign involved more than the festival at Woodstock. By 1968, the most prominent characters were ex-soldiers who'd been in the war and the Black Panthers, which eventually caused disarray in the U.S. Army, as one-third of soldiers were Black and were unenthusiastic about fighting for a country that didn't let them eat at the same table as whites.
The sense of revolt spread to almost every country, so hundreds of Mexicans were gunned down for opposing the regime, and a civil rights movement began in Northern Ireland to challenge discrimination against Catholics.
Then, in Czechoslovakia, a reforming government was crushed by Russian tanks, and protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers' guns. Even this, while sounding hippieish, would be an ideal way to protest in today's busy, time-conscious world, because even if you were too rushed to demonstrate, you could send your protest by Interflora.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
YET ALL this courage and imagination is dismissed by so many, such as one columnist who recently derided the whole movement as "self-loathing twaddle."
So Martin Luther King and the protesters in Prague and the French strikers could have stopped themselves getting so worked up if they'd just learned to enjoy a little "me" time. And then the Viet Cong could be laid out, one by one, while a shrink said gently, "So when your family owned half an acre of a rice field and shared a mule, and then the mule was napalmed--did this make you angry in any way?"
Another writer complained that 1968 was a vile year because it had saddled us ever since with "horrid anti-authoritarianism." Because life's so much less horrid if people just put up with having tanks roll over them, or with being made to wait for a Blacks-only ambulance without making a fuss.
The other accusation made against 1968 is that it made no difference. But in one regard, it must have done, because from the antiwar movement and gay liberation campaigns to its wildest hippiest forms, the events of that year suggested to a generation that if you're unhappy with the unfairness of the world, the best thing to do is something yourself. Alternatively, you could hope it's put right by Gordon Brown, or David Cameron, or that other one.
Originally published in the Independent.
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Podcasting & Torrents
1968, Forty Years Later: Tariq Ali Looks Back on a Pivotal Year in the Global Struggle for Social Justice
We continue our series “1968, Forty Years Later” with the political activist, novelist and historian, Tariq Ali. Back in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War at its height, Tariq Ali earned a national reputation through debates with figures like Henry Kissinger and then-British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart. He protested against the Vietnam War, led the now-infamous march on the American embassy in London in 1968, and edited the revolutionary paper Black Dwarf, where he became friends with numerous influential figures, such as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Forty years later, Tariq Ali continues his lifelong struggle against US foreign policy across the globe. [includes rush transcript]
Tariq Ali, acclaimed British Pakistani historian, activist and commentator. He is one of the editors of the New Left Review and the author of a dozen books, including Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties. His forthcoming book is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power.
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JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the latest part of our series “1968: Forty Years Later.” For a discussion on the legacy of 1968, I’m joined by the political activist, novelist and historian, Tariq Ali. Back in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War at its height, Tariq Ali earned a national reputation through debates with figures like Henry Kissinger and then-British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart. He protested against the Vietnam War, led the now-infamous march on the American embassy in London in 1968, and edited the revolutionary paper Black Dwarf, where he became friends with numerous influential figures, such as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
years later, Tariq Ali continues his lifelong struggle against US
foreign policy across the globe. He has written more than a dozen books
on world history and politics, as well as five novels and scripts for
both stage and screen. He is currently one of the editors of New Left Review. His memoir is titled Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties.
Tariq Ali, welcome to Democracy Now!
TARIQ ALI: Good to be with you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s so many things that happened in
1968, and obviously you’ve had time to reflect on all of them. Talk to
us first about what was going on in England at the time and your
involvement in the social movements that developed at that time.
TARIQ ALI: What we had in Britain in the ’60s, late ’60s,
was a Labour government, which had been elected. This Labour
government, despite all its promises, had decided to carry on backing
US foreign policy, and the war in Vietnam was at its height. And the
government, to our anger, decided to support the war in Vietnam. So
there was a wave of anger amongst Labour supporters, who said this is
not on. And w then set up the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, though it
has to be said, Juan, in retrospect, that that Labour government
resisted heavy US pressure to send troops to Vietnam. They backed it
verbally, but neither Britain nor any other Western European state sent
troops to Vietnam, unlike Iraq. So even though they backed it, it was
very different. And the United States embassy—
JUAN GONZALEZ: The only troops, I think, that were sent by other countries were South Korea, Australia, some of the—
TARIQ ALI: South Korea and Australia, always there. But
no European country sent troops to fight in Vietnam. Very interesting
when you think back on that. It was the height of the Cold War. You
would have thought they would, but they didn’t.
And so, a big movement grew, demanding dissociation from the war
in Vietnam and for Britain to withdraw political support. And this
became a very large movement and backed by virtually every serious
political figure in Britain at the time, apart from the government. We
had lots of Labour members of Parliament who were opposed to the war,
rock singers coming on demonstrations, Mick Jagger writing “Street
Fighting Man,” numerous other people involved in it. And the fact that
this was Britain’s closest ally in Europe made it a problem.
And I remember Senator Eugene McCarthy, the Democrat peace
candidate, saying publicly, “What is our country coming to, when our
embassy in the friendliest country we have in the world is permanently
under siege?" That cheered us up enormously, because it meant that we
were having an impact.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the protest at the US embassy that you were involved in?
TARIQ ALI: Well, you know, this was after the Tet
Offensive in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese had taken the US embassy in
Saigon for a token period. They had all been killed. I guess you could
call it a suicide attack, using today’s language.
And so, we thought, what can we do to show solidarity with the
Vietnamese? Can’t we just capture the embassy for a short time and run
the Vietnamese flag up and then withdraw? And in October ’67, we got
very close to doing that. And we were surprised, as well, and so were
the people in the embassy. So we thought, in March ’68, we would do
that. But this time, everyone was prepared, and the police, mounted
police, charged us and prevented us from reaching the embassy, so there
was a big clash. And then Mick Jagger said, “Well, you know, it’s
obvious what we have now got to do. We’ve got to have our own cavalry.
So why don’t we train people to fight on horseback against the mounted
police?” But we thought that we’d give this one a miss.
So that was the big clashes outside Grosvenor Square, which
stunned the country, actually, because they weren’t prepared for that.
But it showed the depth of feeling. And then, a few months later,
France exploded in May-June, with ten million workers on strike, which
just shifted the whole political locus or focus of the struggle to
something completely different, that something which had begun as an
antiwar movement was now becoming a deeper social movement.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the French convulsion, of course, didn’t actually start in Paris, as you mention in an article you recently did at the Guardian. It started at a smaller university outside of Paris, and it started in March, right? Could you tell—
TARIQ ALI: It started on March the—
JUAN GONZALEZ: —for a lot of our younger listeners and
viewers, some of that history of that amazing movement, how a few
students ended up leading a movement that paralyzed the nation?
TARIQ ALI: It’s quite astonishing when you think back on
it. On March the 22nd in a campus in Nanterre outside Paris, students
came out to protest against the restrictions, against bad housing
conditions, and the government overreacted, beat them up. They set up
the March the 22nd Committee, which called demonstrations in the heart
of the Latin Quarter, and that quarter exploded on the night of May the
Two months later, the campaign erupted with massive clashes.
And, you know, the French have this magical capacity to erect
barricades. Historically, from the eighteenth century onwards, they’ve
been very good at doing barricades. It’s almost genetic now. And so,
they put up the barricades in May, and the country was on
The students were then joined by workers. There were factory
strikes. And soon, by the beginning of June, you had ten million
workers on strike, many of them occupying their factories and wanting
to run society. And you had Jean-Paul Sartre, the great French
philosopher, congratulating the students and workers and saying, “You
have put imagination on the seat of power.” So that French upheaval
transformed the mode all over Europe, without any doubt, and people
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how did the students build that kind
of alliance with the labor movement? And how did it spread beyond just
the students to the labor movement?
TARIQ ALI: I think when workers saw students fighting on
the barricades, the effect of that was exemplary. It’s just like the
students had seen the Vietnamese fighting in Saigon; that had got them
going. So the Latin Quarter in the heart of Paris was, when it was
under student control, was renamed the Heroic Vietnam Quarter. And when
workers saw students fighting on the barricades, they said, “Hey, hang
on a minute. You know, these namby-pamby kids are taking on the state.
We suffer much more than they do.” And slowly, delegations of young
workers started coming from the car factories, from other factors, and
joining students. Very funny story, when building workers suddenly came
and said, “Hang on. We can show you how to build better barricades,”
and immediately barricades went up. So this exemplary effect then went
into the factories, and the trade union leaders, which were communist,
all of them, were completely thrown by this and couldn’t control the
workers at all, and the workers occupied.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact of that movement on the
social conditions of the people in France, because obviously Charles de
Gaulle, the World War II hero, was the president at the time, and the
impact on the government and what kinds of reforms emerged from there?
TARIQ ALI: Well, the government panicked. Charles de
Gaulle, in a very rare outburst of anger, because normally he was very
lofty, but when he found out what was going on in his country, he said,
“Chie-en-lit”—it’s “[expletive] in the bed.” And the students then put up a poster with de Gaulle, saying, “No, you are the chienlit,” which went all over the streets of Paris. But de Gaulle panicked. During the general strike in France, he panicked.
He went secretly to address French troops stationed in
Baden-Baden in Germany and said to them, “If Paris falls, will you help
me to retake it?” And the army—the general said, “We will, provided you
release the generals who were involved in the Algerian coup,” total
sort of right-wing generals. And de Gaulle made the deal. Never came to
that, thank God, because there would have been massive bloodshed. So it
didn’t come to that, but that’s how scared they were.
And you had French journalists traveling Europe and being asked,
“Do you think the disease will spread? How serious is it?” because the
entire rulers of Western Europe became very nervous.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And again, what kind of impact was there on French society, in terms of the conditions of workers and students following that?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, the impact was that they won
massive reforms. You know, the government which came after de Gaulle,
Pompidou, actually made a lot of concessions in levels of wages,
working conditions, the conditions inside universities. So, in order to
prevent revolution, they acceded to a great deal of the workers’
demands. In some factories, trade union bureaucrats would go to the
factory and say to the workers, “Guys, we’ve won a 25 percent wage
increase,” and they’d say, “Screw it.” “And what do you want?” “We want
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what most people don’t realize, I
think, is that, the past forty years, the ruling classes of France have
been trying to take back all of the reforms that were achieved in that
short period of time back then, and the French working class has always
been considered the most pampered by capitalists of Europe, in terms of
their general conditions.
TARIQ ALI: They are. And the current president, Nicolas
Sarkozy, came to power saying, “My victory shows the death of May ’68
and that legacy in France, and I will destroy it forever.” Well,
exactly the opposite is happening. His ratings, a year after he was
elected, are now rock-bottom. He’s a disliked president, even more
unpopular than Chirac. Even as we speak, there are public-sector
strikes taking place in France.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to move on to Czechoslovakia,
also 1968. Certainly, what was happening in France had an impact as
well on what happened in Czechoslovakia and in the confrontations with
the Soviet Union.
TARIQ ALI: You know, Juan, I always felt that in some
ways what happened in Czechoslovakia offered a great deal of hope,
because here you had a reformist faction inside the Czech Communist
Party trying to make Czechoslovakia a socialist democracy. Dubcek, the
leader of the reform communists, said, “We want socialism with a human
And that socialism with a human face had already led to the most
amazing discussions in the Czech press and Czech television, which
became the freest in Europe, even though it was state-owned.
Journalists took control, and the newspapers and television were
transformed. Political prisoners could confront their jailers on
prime-time television and say, “Why did you torture us? Why did you say
this?” So the whole country was politicized.
And then, fearful that this particular disease might spread to
Russia and Eastern Europe—and there was every chance it might have—the
Russians sent in the tanks. And the response of NATO was not so
critical, if you look at what—
JUAN GONZALEZ: And they sent in the tanks around—in what month again?
TARIQ ALI: August.
JUAN GONZALEZ: August.
TARIQ ALI: It was the 21st of August, 1968. The Russians
and the Warsaw Pact powers sent in the tanks to crush the Czech
experiment. And by doing so, they didn’t know it, but they signed their
own death warrant, because, interestingly enough, people like Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize Russian novelist who wrote the famous
books on the gulag, he was asked, “When did you lose faith totally in
your own country and its capacity to reform from within?” and
Solzhenitsyn said, “21st of August, 1968. When they stopped the Czechs
from doing what they wanted and transforming the system, then I knew it
was the end, and I lost all faith in this regime.” Interesting.
But the response of the West was very mild, because they were
not happy with the socialism with a human face either. But if the
Czechs had won, who knows? The history of Europe might have been very
different, because you never had a socialist government which was also
democratic. And here, there was a possibility that the two could come
together, and that would have given a very different shape to the world
in Europe and elsewhere.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re talking to Tariq Ali, the political activist, novelist and historian. His memoir is called Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties. We’ll be back with him in a minute. Stay with us.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re talking to Tariq Ali, the political activist, novelist and historian. His memoir is called Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties. He has a big article in the Guardian of London called “Where Has All the Rage Gone?” about 1968. We’ve been talking about England, France, Czechoslovakia, where the fermenting in Europe in 1968, but it wasn’t just in Europe or in North America. There were widespread movements, amazing movements, in other parts of the third world at the same time. And those have gotten far less attention in many of the retrospectives about what’s been going on.
TARIQ ALI: I know. It’s really awful, that, actually. It shows the sort of nostalgia side of it. People only want to remember what they remembered at the time. But I think the two big events in the third world, one was the Mexican students’ uprising at the—it was Olympics year, don’t forget. And the Mexican students fought for democracy in their own country against an oppressive semi-one-party state regime. And the Mexican authorities decided to massacre them. There was a gigantic massacre by the Mexican regime. You know, hundreds of students were killed, thousands were wounded. And at the same time, the Olympics were about to take place. No one at that time in the West said, “Let’s boycott the Olympics,” by the way.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. And in terms of some of the issues that they were raising at the time in Mexico?
TARIQ ALI: The issues they were raising were social justice, democracy, democratic rights, an end to an authoritarian, corrupt one-party state government. That is what the Mexican students were demanding, and they were mown down. And the most striking image that came out of the Olympics was the two black US athletes who had won the gold—the runners who had won the gold and silver medals, when they went to the podium. I mean, it was a moment of real pride and internationalism that, in solidarity with the students, they had their medals, and they stood with their heads hanging down and raised their fists to give the clenched fist salute, a very moving event which was seen all over the third world as a sign of solidarity with that world by Afro-American athletes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, in Mexico itself, the achieving justice or rectifying what happened back then is still a political battle that’s ongoing in a series of Mexican governments since then.
TARIQ ALI: It has been ongoing, and it’s still ongoing, because in the last Mexican elections, as anyone who followed them closely knows, Juan, they tricked—they tricked the electorate once again. They rigged the elections, not as massively as they used to do in the past, but sufficiently to deny López Obrador the presidency. The Obrador campaign, election campaign, in Mexico mobilized more people than any other campaign they’d done, literally a million people in the Zócolo, in the heart of Mexico City. And then they say he didn’t—and this was the case in most parts of the country. Everyone thought he was going to win. But suddenly, at the last moment, they rigged the elections, and all the people who accuse Chavez in Venezuela of all sorts of crimes and send hundreds of observers to watch every move were not present when the pro-Western government in Mexico was rigging the elections against López Obrador.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Then, of course, the events in your own homeland, which are perhaps the least covered or remembered of all the major upheavals of 1968.
TARIQ ALI: You
know, people sometimes get surprised when they ask me, “Well, we know
about ’68, but we lost everywhere. We fought, and we lost.” And I say,
hang on a minute. There’s one country where they fought for three
months, the students in Pakistan, against a military dictatorship. And
the struggle began on November the 7th, 1968, went on ’til March the
And if you look at the chronology of that struggle, Juan, it
gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Workers join, white-collar workers
join, lawyers join, women join, judges come out on the streets,
prostitutes get organized and come out. It became a massive social
struggle. And every day, the number of people getting killed gets
bigger and bigger and bigger. We still don’t have accurate figures of
how many people the police and army shot dead in Pakistan.
But finally, when railway workers began to disrupt the railways, taking out the railway lines from the track, and the demand was very simple: end of dictatorship, and democratic free elections in the country. These were the two central demands. But the military dictator of the time, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, backed by Washington and London, was standing firm, ’til he realized he couldn’t carry on. And in March, he was toppled. And I remember—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Why was he so backed by Washington and London?
TARIQ ALI: Well,
because Washington, in Pakistan, have always preferred to rule via the
military than through civilian politicians. They don’t trust the
civilian politicians too much. So all the three key dictators Pakistan
have had had been backed by Washington. And in fact, Ayub was put into
power by Washington in October ’58. So after ten years, the students—he
was removed. It was an insurrection, and he had to go.
And I was in the country at the time, and the mood was just exhilarating, euphoria, you know, people celebrating on the streets, hugging each other, distributing sweets. And religion played no part in the struggle at all. It was a totally secular struggle. And the three big demands of the movement, social demands of the movement, were food, clothes and shelter for all.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk about the enormous development of a feminist movement at that time, which most people, when you’re dealing with the Muslim world, would not even envision that. But as far back as ’68, there was a strong feminist movement there.
TARIQ ALI: There
was a strong women’s organizations in both parts of Pakistan, as it was
then. And one of the most moving things was when a student was killed
in the western part of the country, in the eastern part of the country,
which later became Bangladesh, women would just pour out onto the
streets, very few with their heads covered, but barefooted in mourning
and in solidarity with what was happening to students in West Pakistan.
But the feminist movement, you know, it’s often forgotten: why
was it called the women’s “liberation” movement? The word “liberation”
came from Vietnam. The National Liberation Front of Vietnam was
fighting for its freedom; we should fight for our freedom. Gay
liberation movement, women’s liberation movement, black liberation
movement were inspired by all those struggles.
And I guess, of what survives from that, in terms of the legacy, the biggest gains were probably made on that front, social and sexual front. Women’s rights were won, the right of women to have abortions, the ending of illegalizing abortions, homosexuality, which was totally crushed. People now forget, because so much has changed on that front, that in countries like Britain, in the late ’50s and ’60s, early ‘60s, it was illegal to be gay. Illegal. You were arrested if you were found out. I have many friends who were locked up. Now, young people can hardly believe that. So the ’68 movement was a political, social, and movement for sexual liberation, which shouldn’t be forgotten. A lot of the rights being enjoyed by women and gay people today come from that movement.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, as you say, religion played no part in that movement, and yet now religion plays such a huge part in the daily life and the political life of Pakistan today. What was the transformation that has occurred?
TARIQ ALI: You
know, I challenge that, actually. I think what—the last general
elections in Pakistan, the religious parties were virtually wiped out
electorally. It is true that there is much more religiosity on
Pakistan, but there is in virtually all parts of the world, including
this country. But in terms of the religious parties actually dominating
Pakistan, this is not true, or the notion that Pakistan is on the eve
of a Jihadi takeover and the Jihadi finger on the nuclear trigger.
I’ve just written a long a book on Pakistan, which will be published in September, in which I actually challenge all these mythologies and ask why are they being created and what is the function of it. The bulk of the country isn’t attracted to either Jihadi or religious politics. These are a tiny, tiny minority in Pakistan. The real problems of people in that country are food, clothing, shelter, education. And no political party or the military are interested in solving them. The surprise is, for me, that more people don’t move towards religion. But they don’t.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So where has the rage gone, as you’ve asked in your article? And why there is so little of that kind of rage that erupted in a short period in the late ’60s and early ’70s?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think
it was a different period. That was an epoch of wars, of revolutions.
Don’t forget, a lot of revolutions had taken place. I mean, the Cuban
revolution had happened in 1959. So the mood was very different,
whereas what we are witnessing now is essentially the attempts to
revive a movement after massive defeats.
So the demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 were gigantic, much larger than anything that happened in the ’60s, both the United States and in Europe. Gigantic. But it was a spasm. It happened, and then it disappeared. And it was as if millions of ordinary citizens were coming out to tell their politicians, “You’re lying. We know you’re lying. Don’t force us into this war.” But once the war happened and Iraq was occupied, through demoralization, depression, a sense of powerlessness, they retreated. Whereas in ’68 the movement grew slowly and built up to a peak, here the movement peaked to try and stop a war, and then it disappeared.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you mention the massive protest in 2002, 2003. We also had, in this country, massive protests just a year or two ago of unprecedented protest of immigrants in the country—
TARIQ ALI: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —over attempts to recruit much more draconian laws against immigrants. Yet, again, that movement too rose and then dissipated, and there hasn’t been any significant continuity. Could it be that part of the problem is that there’s been much less emphasis on the need for strong radical and revolutionary organizations to move from one massive uprising to another to be able to provide some kind of accumulated strength to the progressive movement?
TARIQ ALI: Well. I think that
is a part of the problem, is that there is no political organization,
radical or otherwise, which can actually take these movements forward,
except in Latin America, Juan, where country after country, you have
giant social movements in Latin America. And then the result in
Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ecuador and now in Paraguay, of all places,
is victories for people attached to these movements. So, Latin America,
I argue, is one of the few places where there is hope. But in the rest
of the world, movements rise and fall.
I mean, we could say, in a way, that an unusual development in Western politics is the size of audiences which Barack Obama is getting. He has energized youth in a way that they weren’t energized before. And it’s foolish and sectarian to say, but it’s the Democrats. Yeah, it is, but that’s not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is that a young generation has become attracted to politics again. The question is, will it remain so if the Democrats win? But it’s an interesting phenomenon.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Or—but then the issue is, are they attached to normal Democratic party politics, or are they attached to some kind of a real—a potential social movement? That’s the big issue is, in terms of the presidential race.
TARIQ ALI: Well, it’s—you know, the strength of this campaign for Obama has been that people think he is offering something different, that this will mark a break. And, of course, on one level, his race, it will mark a phenomenal break if he’s elected. But whether it will on other things, of course, remains to be seen. If he wins, my advice to everyone here is to be at the celebrations in Washington with banners saying "Pull out of Iraq now,” is to make it a big antiwar moment, because since he’s used his opposition to the war in Iraq in this campaign, one shouldn’t stay aloof from this movement, but find ways of intervening in it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in Europe today and in Britain, what are the expectations of these presidential elections?
TARIQ ALI: In
Europe, well, it varies from place to place. I mean, I think, for
instance, in Italy, which has just had a big victory of the right, they
will find it awkward, because it’s a very racist government now in
Italy. Juan, I don’t know whether people here follow it, but 68 percent
of Italians want all the gypsies, the traveling people, expelled from
the country, forgetting that they too were victims of the Third Reich
and were wiped out in the Second World War. So if America elects a
black president, I think a lot of Italian right-wingers will be
slightly disconcerted, saying “Oh, but these are the sort of people we
are trying to get rid of from our country.”
In Britain, they are prepared to go along with anyone Washington
elects, both political parties, New Labour and Conservative. So they
are not bothered. Their position will be support the White House,
whoever’s there. If Obama changes some things, they’ll go along with
that. They are not going to fight.
But Europe, of course, is watching this quite keenly, because in Germany, for instance, and other places, you have politicians who have been incredibly upset by the Iraq business and now Afghanistan, where they see no hope at all. So they are hoping that there will be a change of regime, which will pull out and allow the Western world to breathe again without occupying countries. But, you know, that may be a hope which might not be fulfilled, but we’ll see.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Tariq Ali. You’re going to be speaking tomorrow night, May 30th, at 7:30 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in a public forum on “The New Imperialism: Old Problems and New Challenges.” Thanks again for being with us.
TARIQ ALI: Thank you very much.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Tariq Ali, political activist, novelist and historian. An Autobiography of the Sixties is his book. He’s speaking tomorrow at the Baruch Performing Arts Center here in New York.