1968: the year the world shook

1968 – 50 years ago – was the highpoint of the radicalism that had been sweeping the globe through the mid-60s from Belfast to Berlin, from Mexico to Melbourne, from Paris to Prague. It was a year of revolution and repression, of struggle and solidarity, of wild optimism and crushing defeat.

Anti-imperialist struggle

One of the radicalising issues for millions worldwide was the US war in Vietnam. The threat of the draft, combined with the increasingly shocking images of the war, began to unsettle increasing numbers of young people across the US from 1965 onwards.

John Levin, a student at Columbia University in New York, recalled:

“It was the first televised war, and that made it very vivid. We’d been brought up to believe in our hearts that America stood for fighting on the side of justice. World War II was ingrained in us – my father had volunteered. So there was this feeling of personal betrayal. And there was the absolute horror of it. I remember sitting by myself, crying, listening to the first reports of the bombings.”

The gulf between the rhetoric of the US government and the reality of its actions became increasingly clear. The war blew open the lie that the US was the leader of the “free world”. Far from exporting democracy and freedom, it was bombing, pillaging and strafing its way through the peasant villages and fields of Vietnam to back up a compliant and corrupt regime in South Vietnam. Why? To ensure US imperial domination of the globe and to push back against its rivals, in the USSR and China.

Once the mask had slipped, people couldn’t unsee the violent reality of the US state.

By the start of 1968, anti-war agitation was on the rise. Protests, teach-ins and occupations involving thousands swept across university campuses in the USA, Britain, Europe and beyond. In the US army, soldiers began to disobey actively and politically. In the US and Australia, young men began resisting the draft. In West Germany and France, activists demonstrated their opposition to the war by helping US GIs in Europe to desert.

All of this had laid the ground for a dramatic increase in anti-war agitation when, on 30 January, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) launched what came to be known as the Tet Offensive.

Tet is the Vietnamese lunar new year, and the NLF used the celebrations as a cover for raids on US military targets. The Vietnamese guerrilla army had been preparing for this offensive over the previous months by luring US forces into the countryside in a series of feints and skirmishes. The US high command, in its boundless arrogance, underestimated the Vietnamese forces and, as the new year fireworks were spitting and crackling, around 70,000 NLF soldiers attacked 34 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals and many military installations. More than 100 targets were hit all over South Vietnam, including the US embassy in Saigon. The US military was sent reeling. One of the smallest and least equipped fighting forces on the planet had publicly humiliated the world’s greatest superpower. The US couldn’t allow this situation to stand and began a devastating firebombing campaign. “We had to destroy the town to save it”, said one US officer after ordering the almost complete destruction of Ben Tre.

The legacy of the Tet Offensive was twofold. First, it confirmed that the US was waging a barbaric war against a peasant army in the interests of US profits and empire. Second, and very importantly, it demonstrated that US power was not invincible. For many years, the US state, with its nuclear weapons, its money, its laws and its standing army, had seemed all powerful. Now cracks were appearing and ordinary people across the globe gained confidence.

Student struggle

The university campuses were often the centre of activity in 1968. In January and February, students played a key role in challenging the repressive regimes of Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia, and after Tet the student struggle heated up in the centres of Western power. An International Vietnam Congress was organised by left wing German student organisation SDS in West Berlin a fortnight after the offensive began. The congress gathered thousands of radical students from organisations across Europe, the US and Latin America. Heated debates raged: about the Vietnamese revolution, national liberation, the role of students and workers in radical change, the place of violence in revolutionary struggle, and about art and history.

The congress concluded with a huge, tense and eventually exhilarating illegal march through the streets of West Berlin. British socialist leader Tariq Ali offered this description: “Twenty thousand people marching with red flags in what was the capital of the cold war! Phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal! As we marched through the old quarters you felt that the old revolutionary movement was being revived, that history was being re-made”.

In the weeks after the Berlin congress, student struggle began to turn from protest to resistance, leading to further radicalisation. Up to 10,000 students occupied their faculties across Italy, and state forces began to try to force them out. Britain had one of its most militant mobilisations in March, and in France, confrontations over Vietnam between students and the police and far right were increasing in frequency.

In April, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, riots and rebellions broke out in 167 US cities. City centres were in flames: “Harlem was on fire, all hell was breaking loose”, recalled Bill Sales, a leader of the Student Afro American Society at Columbia University. “The people took to the streets, police were running around cracking heads, fires were blazing. It was the first time I’d seen such social disruption where there was a real life and death situation.”

In West Germany, student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot in the head by a right winger, prompting a student insurrection. Street fighting unlike anything seen for decades erupted. Two people were killed, 400 injured and 1,000 arrested over five days. More than 60,000 people blockaded the headquarters of the right wing Springer press.

In this increasingly heated context, reformist and pacifist ideas were being sidelined. To be a revolutionary was the order of the day. And then the French May happened, and the ordinary functioning of the system was upended.

the French May

The French May was in many ways unexpected. The student movement in France had been smaller and less militant than in other European countries, and the government stable and secure. Nevertheless, by the end of May the entire edifice of the French establishment was being shaken. Not only were students rioting and occupying on an insurrectionary scale, but workers too were going out on strike and occupying their factories in huge numbers.

Events began on 2 May, when a far right group attacked a student union office at the Sorbonne University in Paris. This prompted a protest of self-defence on the part of left wing students. The university called on police to arrest the student ringleaders, an unprecedented move. The police had not been allowed on the campus in living memory. In response, the students began to mobilise in their hundreds and thousands, and over the next few days the streets of central Paris became the site of insurgent, wonderful defiance. As the students mobilised, the state responded with more violence. The situation escalated. Henri Weber, one of the leaders of student Trotskyist group the JCR described the events:

“As we made our way towards the next street, the police fired tear gas grenades and attacked us with truncheons. We retreated, started to organise … The whole shapeless crowd transformed itself into an active, self-organising ant-hill. Everybody seemed to find something to do. And then the clear ring of steel as cobblestones were prised up.”

The most famous mobilisation occurred on 10 May, when between 20,000 and 30,000 people participated in what became known as the night of the barricades. For hours, people fought the police, built barricades made of cobblestones and attempted to take the Sorbonne University back from the hated riot cops, the CRS. Kids, university students, young workers and poorer Parisians all stood together – shoulder to shoulder, passing cobblestones to one another to build barricades, a homage to earlier French revolutionary moments.

Under pressure from their members, the union leaders called a strike and demonstration for Monday 13 May to oppose the government’s violence and to show solidarity with the students. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out. Some say more than a million.

The strike on 13 May set off a wave of strikes across the country. Workers seized the opportunity to take action after years of accumulating grievances – with the boss, with the De Gaulle administration, with the police, with everything that had kept them down for so long. Before long, 10 million workers were out, the biggest general strike in history at the time.

Workers in the car and aviation industry were at the forefront of the struggle. At the Sud Aviation Factory in Nantes, a simple work stoppage over conditions escalated into an occupation, the imprisonment of the boss in his office and the rapid radicalisation of the workplace. For a full week, the town operated under workers’ control. Students and workers mingled and shared increasingly revolutionary ideas. One student recalls his experience joining workers on strike at the factory:

“Around the shelters, in the cold night, we eat, we drink fraternally, and above all we discuss. But about what! If not the revolt, the revolution, the worker-student relations, the necessity to unite the struggles into one struggle, of the free university, of student power, of workers’ power, of the role of the middle management in the strike, of the refusal of students to become exploiters, of self-management.”

The economic concerns of workers became entangled with the political. Strike committees were established across the country. Importantly, many workers were going outside the traditional leadership of the Communist Party and the main trade union federation, the CGT, and making links with more radical groups. Unfortunately, these trends were not enough to burst beyond the limiting confines of the existing leadership, and although de Gaulle briefly fled the country, the calling of elections for early June had the intended pacifying effect – the union leaders now swung all their energy behind the coming poll. The movement in the factories faltered.

Although the French May ended without the revolutionary overthrow of the state, the radicalisation continued in the months and years that followed. In Italy, workers and students took up the radical mantle and, in what became known as the “hot autumn” of 1969, millions of workers engaged in impressive strikes and factory occupations, locking the bosses out and instituting workers’ control. In the US, while the student movement stalled, workers began to radicalise, and this laid the basis for serious and significant strikes into the 1970s. Furthermore, the US war machine was seriously bruised. The anti-Vietnam War movement would make the US ruling class cautious about launching open warfare for years to come.

The lasting legacy of 1968 was, however, most profound in the changed consciousness of millions across the world. The slogan of the French youth, “Be realistic. Demand the impossible”, encapsulated the spirit of 1968. This spirit expanded their horizons, raised their expectations and allowed them to dream of a different world: a world free from the stultifying conformity of mainstream society; a world in which war, racism, oppression and exploitation were things of the past. These dreams were not constrained by national borders. Across the globe, people, particularly the young, began to see themselves as part of the same movement. They became internationalists.

They also became revolutionaries. In challenging the prevailing order, many began to awaken to the realities of the system. They began to understand that it could be changed, that struggle, and victorious struggle, is possible. French revolutionary Daniel Cohn-Bendit expressed this best:

“It’s a moment I shall never forget. Suddenly, spontaneously, barricades were being thrown up in the streets. People were building up the cobblestones because they wanted – many of them for the first time – to throw themselves into a collective, spontaneous activity. That night has forever made me optimistic about history. Having lived through it, I can’t ever say it will never happen again.”