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.