May 68 and the revolutionary perspective, Part 1: The student movement around the world in the 1960s

In the series May 68

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In January 1969, at the inauguration of his first Presidency of the United States, Richard Nixon declared: “We have learnt finally to manage a modern economy in a way to assure its continued growth”. With hindsight one can see to what degree such optimism has been cruelly refuted by reality: from the beginning of his second term, hardly four years later, the United States would have their worst recession since the Second World War, which would be followed by other increasingly serious recessions. But it must be said that in the domain of unfounded optimism, Nixon had been preceded by another head of state far more experienced that him: General de Gaulle, President of the French republic since 1958 and leader of the ‘Free French’ during the Second World War. The great man in his wishes to the nation had declared: “l greet the year 1968 with serenity”. One didn’t have to wait four years for this optimism to be swept away; four months sufficed for the serenity of the General to give way to the greatest disarray. It is true that de Gaulle had to face not only a particularly violent and massive student revolt but also and above all, the biggest strike in the history of the international working class movement. Needless to say that 1968 was not a ‘serene’ year for France: it was even, and remains to this day the stormiest since the Second World War. But it was not only France which saw important shocks during this year, far from it. Two authors that one cannot suspect of ‘franco-centrism’ the Briton David Caute and the American Mark Kurlansky are clear on this subject: “1968 was the most turbulent year since the end of the Second World War. The series of uprisings affected America and Western Europe, and included Czechoslovakia; it put the post-war world order in question[1]

No year has yet resembled 1968 and there will probably never be another like it. In a time when nations and cultures were still separated and very distinct (…) a spirit of rebellion caught fire spontaneously in the four corners of the globe. There had been other years of revolution: 1848, for example, but contrary to 1968, the events were restricted to Europe...”[2]

Forty years after this ‘warm year’, when certain countries have devoted massive editorial and televisual attention to this subject, it is up to revolutionaries to return to the principal events of this year, not to make a detailed or exhaustive account[3] but to draw out the real significance of them. In particular it is up to them to judge a very common idea today that also appears on page 4 of the jacket of Kurlansky’s book: “Whether historians or politicos, specialists in human sciences agree that there was a world before and a world after 1968.

Let us say immediately that we entirely share this judgment but certainly not for the same reasons that are generally invoked: ‘sexual liberation’, ‘women’s liberation’, rejection of the ‘authoritarian’ family, the ‘democratisation’ of certain institutions (like the University), new artistic forms, etc. In this sense, this article proposes to show what for the ICC really changed in the year 1968.

Besides a series of serious enough facts (such as for example the Tet offensive of the Vietcong in February which, if it was finally repulsed by the American army, showed that the latter would never win the Vietnam war or even the intervention of Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia in August) what marked 1968 as Caute and Kurlansky underline, is this ‘spirit of rebellion that caught fire spontaneously in the four corners of the globe’. And in this questioning of the dominant order, it is important to distinguish two components of unequal scale and also of unequal importance. On the one hand, the student revolt hit nearly all the countries of the Western Bloc and even affected in a certain way the countries of the Eastern Bloc. On the other hand, the massive struggle of the working class which in this year, fundamentally only touched a single country, France.

In this first article, we are going to only tackle the first of these components not because they are the most important, far from it, but because it preceded, for the most part, the second which revealed a historic significance going far beyond that of the student revolts.

The student movement in the world…

It was in the biggest world power, the United States, that from 1964 witnessed the most massive and significant movements of this period. More precisely, it was in Berkeley University, North California that student protest took on a massive character for the first time. The demands that initially mobilised the students came from the ‘free speech movement’ in favour of free political expression (notably against the Vietnam War and racial segregation) in the surrounds of the university. Faced with the recruiters of the American army who were doing a good business, the student radicals wanted to be able to make propaganda against the war in Vietnam and also against racial segregation (it was a year after the ‘civil rights march’ of 28th August 1963 to Washington where Martin Luther King had made his famous speech ‘I have a dream’). At first the bourgeoisie reacted with extreme repression, notably by sending police against the ‘sit-in’, a peaceful occupation of the premises, making 800 arrests. Finally, at the beginning of 1965, the university authorities authorised political activities in the university which went on to become one of the principal centres of student protest in the United States. At the same time, it was with the slogan of “cleaning up the disorder at Berkeley” that Ronald Reagan was, against all expectations, elected Governor of California at the end of 1965. The movement developed massively and radicalised in the years following, around protest about racial segregation, for the defence of women’s rights and above all against the war in Vietnam. At the same time as young Americans, above all students, fled abroad in numbers in order to avoid being sent to Vietnam, the majority of universities in the country were affected by anti-war movements. At the same time, there were also outbursts in the black ghettos of the major towns (the proportion of young blacks among soldiers being sent to Vietnam was much higher than the national average). These protest movements were often repressed with ferocity; thus, at the end of 1967, 952 students were sentenced to heavy prison terms for refusing to leave for the front and 8th February 1968, three students were killed in South Carolina during a demonstration for civil rights.

The movements achieved their greatest scale in 1968. In March the black students of the Howard University in Washington occupied the premises for 4 days.

From April 23 to April 30, 1968, Columbia University in New York was occupied in protest against the contribution of its departments to the activities of the Pentagon and in solidarity with the inhabitants of the neighbouring black ghetto of Harlem. One of the elements which radicalised the discontent was also the assassination of Martin Luther King, the 4th April, which were followed by numerous and violent riots in the black ghettoes of the country. The occupation of Columbia was one of the peaks of student protest in the United States which set off new confrontations. In May, 12 universities went on strike to protest against racism and the war in Vietnam. California flared up during the summer with violent confrontations between students and the police at the University of Berkeley for two nights, which led the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to a state of emergency and curfew. This new wave of confrontations would see its violent moments between the 22 and 30 August in Chicago, with real riots at the Democratic Party Convention.

The revolts of American students spread during the same period to numerous other countries. On the American continent itself it was Brazil and Mexico where the students were the most mobilised.

In Brazil, anti-government and anti-American demonstrations punctuated the year 1967. 28th March 1968 the police intervened in a student meeting and killed one of them, Luis Edson, and several were seriously injured, one dying some days later. The funeral of Luis Edson, the 29th March, led to an important demonstration. From the University of Rio de Janeiro, which went on unlimited strike, the movement spread to the university of Sao-Paulo, where barricades were erected. New demonstrations took place in the whole country on 30th and 31st March. On 4th April, 600 people were arrested in Rio. Despite the series of repressions and arrests the demonstrations were almost daily until October.

Some months after Mexico was affected. At the end of July the student revolt broke out in Mexico and the police replied with tanks. The police chief of the ‘federal district’ of Mexico justified the repression in the following way: it was a question of blocking ‘a subversive movement’ which ‘tends to create an ambiance of hostility toward our government and our country on the eve of the 19th Olympic Games’. The repression continued and intensified. 18th September the city university was occupied by the police. 21st September 736 people were arrested during new confrontations in the capital. 30th September the University of Veracruz was occupied. 2nd October, finally, the government (using paramilitary forces without uniforms) fired on a demonstration of 10000 students on the Place of Three-Cultures in Mexico. This event remembered as the ‘massacre of Tlatelolco’ ended up in at least 200 deaths, 500 seriously wounded and 2000 arrests. President Diaz Ordaz thus saw to it that the Olympic Games could take place in ‘calm’ from 12th October. However, after the respite of the Games, the students took up the movement again for several months.

The American continent was not alone in being touched by this wave of student revolts. In fact all continents were affected.

In Asia, Japan was the stage of particularly spectacular movements. Violent demonstrations against the United States and the war in Vietnam led mainly by the Zengakuren (National Union of Autonomous Committees of Japanese Students) took place from 1963 and continued throughout the 60s. At the end of spring 1968 the student protest covered the schools and universities. A slogan was launched ‘turn the Kanda (the university quarter of Tokyo) into the Latin Quarter’. In October the movement, reinforced by the workers, reached its peak. On 9th October, in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, violent clashes between police and students ended in 80 wounded and 188 arrests. The anti-riot law was actively restored and 800,000 people took to the streets to protest this decision. In reaction to the intervention of the police in the University of Tokyo to end its occupation, 6000 students went on strike on 25th October. The University of Tokyo, the last bastion still in the hands of the movement, fell in mid-January 1969.

In Africa, two countries, Senegal and Tunisia were in the forefront.

In Senegal, the students denounced the right wing orientation of government and the neo-colonial influence of France and demanded the restructuring of the University. 29th May 1968 the general strike of students and workers was severely repressed by Léopold Sédar Senghor, member of the ‘Socialist International’ with the help of the army. The repression caused one death and 20 wounded at the University of Dakar. On the 12th June a demonstration of students and pupils in the suburbs of Dakar claimed another victim.

In Tunisia, the movement began in 1967. On the 5th June in Tunis during a demonstration against the United States and Great Britain, accused of supporting Israel against the Arab countries, American Cultural Centre was trashed and the British Embassy was attacked. A student Mohamed Ben Jennet was arrested and condemned to 20 years in prison. On the 17th November the students demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. From the 15th to the 19th March they went on strike and demonstrated to obtain the release of Ben Jennet. The movement was repressed by a series of arrests.

..in Europe…

But it was in Europe that the student movement saw the most important and spectacular developments.

In Great Britain things kicked off in October 1966 in the very respectable ‘London School of Economics’ (LSE) one of the Meccas of bourgeois economic thought, where the students protested against the new director because of his links with the racist regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa. The LSE continued to be affected by protests, for example in March 1967 there was a five-day sit-in against disciplinary action that led to an experimental ‘free university’ copying American examples. In December 1967 there were sit-ins at the Regent Street Polytechnic and the Holborn College of Law and Commerce, both demanding student representations in the institution’s decision-making process. In May and June 1968 there were occupations at Essex, Hornsey College of Art, Hull, Bristol and Keele leading to further protests in Croydon, Birmingham, Liverpool, Guildford, and the Royal College of Arts. The most spectacular demonstrations (which involved a whole range of different people and different causes) were a series around the Vietnam War: in March and October 67, in March 68 and in the most massive and celebrated demonstration in October 1968, all of which involved violent clashes with the police with hundreds of injuries and arrests outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, London.

In Belgium, from the month of April 1968, the students took to the streets several times to proclaim their opposition to the war in Vietnam and demanded that the functioning of the university system be recast. On the 22nd May they occupied the Free University of Brussels, declaring it ‘open to the population’. They vacated the building at the end of June, after the decision of the University Council to take account of some of their demands.

In Italy from 1967 the students increased their occupations of universities and clashes with the police became regular. The University of Rome was occupied in February 1968. The police evacuated the building and the students repaired to the faculty of architecture in the Villa Borghese. Violent confrontations, known as the ‘Battle of Valle Giulia’, occurred with the forces of order, who charged the students. At the same time there were spontaneous movements of anger and revolt in the industries where unionism was weak (Marzotto factory in Venetia), which led the unions to decree a day of general strike in industry which was massively followed. Finally the elections of May brought an end to this movement which had begun to decline after the spring.

Franco’s Spain saw a wave of workers strikes and university occupations from 1966. The movement reached its peak in 1967 and continued throughout 1968. Students and workers showed their solidarity, as on the 27 January 1967 when 100,000 workers demonstrated in reaction to the brutal repression of a day of demonstration in Madrid, which pushed the students, holed up in the economic sciences building to fight the police for 6 hours. The authorities repressed the protestors with every means: the press was controlled; the militants of the movements and clandestine unions were arrested. On the 28th January 1968 the government installed a ‘university police’ in each university. That didn’t prevent the student agitation from resurging against the Francoist regime and also against the war in Vietnam which constrained the authorities to shut ‘sine die’ the University of Madrid in March.

Of all the countries of Europe it was in Germany that the student movement was the most powerful.

An ‘extra-parliamentary’ opposition was formed here at the end of 1966, notably in reaction to the participation of Social Democracy in government, basing itself in particular on the more and more numerous student assemblies held in the universities and animated by discussions on the means and goals of the protest. Following the example of the United States numerous university discussion groups emerged; a ‘critical university’ was formed as a pole of opposition to the ‘established’ bourgeoisie universities. An old tradition of debate of discussions in general public assemblies was revived. Even if many students were attracted by spectacular actions, the interest for theory, for the history of the workers movement resurfaced and with this interest the courage to envisage the overthrow of capitalism. Many elements expressed the hope for the emergence of a new society. From this moment, on the world level, the movement of protest in Germany was considered as the most active in the theoretical discussions, the most profound in these discussions and the most political.

Alongside this reflection numerous demonstrations took place. The war in Vietnam was obviously the main motive for the latter in a country where the government gave its full support to American military power but also which had been particularly marked by the Second World War. On the 17th and 18th February an international congress against the Vietnam war was held in Berlin followed by a demonstration of some 12000 people. But these demonstrations, starting in 1965 also denounced the development of the police character of the state, particularly through the plans for exceptional laws for the state to impose martial law in the country and intensify repression. The SPD, which had joined the CDU in 1966 in a ‘grand coalition’ government, remained faithful to its policy of 1918-19 when it led the bloody crushing of the German proletariat. On the 2nd June 1967 a demonstration against the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin was repressed with the greatest brutality by the ‘democratic’ German state which maintained the best relations in the world with this bloody dictator. A student, Benno Ohnesorg, was shot dead in the back by a uniformed policeman (who would be acquitted). After this assassination repulsive campaigns of slander against the protest movements intensified, particularly against their leaders. The mass circulation tabloid Bild-Zeitung demanded ‘Stop the terror of the young reds now’. During a pro-American demonstration organised by the Berlin Senate on 21st February the participants proclaimed ‘Enemy of the people number one – Rudi Dutschke’ the main spokesman of the protest movement. A passer by, resembling ‘Rudi the Red’ was grabbed by the demonstrators who threatened to kill him. A week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, this campaign of hate reached its peak with the attempted assassination of Dutschke on the 11th April by an excitable youth, Josef Bachmann, notoriously influenced by the hysterical campaigns unleashed by the press of Axel Springer, owner of Bild-Zeitung.[4] Riots followed that took this sinister individual and his press group as their main target. For several weeks before attention was turned toward France, the student movement in Germany strengthened its role as a reference point for the movements which touched most of the countries of Europe.

…and in France

The major episode of the student revolt in France began on the 22 March 1968 at the University of Nanterre, in western suburb of Paris. In itself, what happened that day was nothing exceptional: protesting against the arrest of a student of the extreme left from Nanterre suspected of being involved in an attack against the American Express offices in Paris during violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War, 300 of his comrades held a meeting in an amphitheatre and 142 of them decided to occupy a room of the University Council in the administrative building overnight. It wasn’t the first time that the students of Nanterre had demonstrated their discontent. Thus, just a year before at this university, we’d already seen a fight between students and police over the free movement of students in the university residence - allowed to the girls, but forbidden to the boys. On March 16 1967, an association of 500 residents, the ARCUN, decreed the abolition of the domestic rule that, amongst other things, treated the students, even the older ones (older than 21 at this time), as minors. Following which, on March 21 1967, on the demand of the administration, the police had surrounded the girls’ residence with the plan of arresting 150 boys who were found there and who were barricaded in on the top floor of the building. But, the following morning, the police themselves had been encircled by several thousand students and had finally received the order to leave without touching the student barricades. But these incidents, as well as other demonstrations of student anger, notably against the ‘Fouchet Plan’ for university reform in the autumn of 1967, were short-lived. March 22 1968 was something else entirely. A few weeks later, a succession of events led not only to the strongest student mobilisation since the war, but above all the biggest strike in the history of the international workers’ movement: more than 9 million workers on strike for almost a month.

For communists, contrary to the majority of speeches that were already being dished out, it wasn’t the student agitation, as massive and ‘radical’ as it was, which constituted the major fact of the ‘events of 68’ in France. It was rather the workers’ strike which, by far, occupied this place and which took on a considerable historical significance. We are going to treat this question in the columns of our press in other articles. Here, we want to limit ourselves to examining the students’ struggles of this time and to drawing out their significance.

From March 22 to May 13 1968

Before leaving, the 142 occupants of the Council room decided, so as to maintain and develop the agitation, to constitute the March 22 Movement (M22). It was an informal movement, composed at the beginning of Trotskyists of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) and some anarchists (including Daniel Cohn-Bendit), joined at the end of April by the Maoists of the Union des Jeunesses Communistes Marxistes-Leniniste (UJCML), and which brought together over some weeks, more than 1,200 participants. The walls of the university were covered with posters and graffiti: “Professors, you are old and so is your culture”, “Let us live”, “Take your dreams for reality”. The M22 announced a day of ‘university criticism’ for March 29, following similar action from German students. The dean decided to close the university until April 1 but the agitation restarted when the university reopened. In front of 1000 students, Cohn-Bendit declared: “We refuse to be the future cadres of capitalist exploitation”. The majority of teachers reacted in a conservative fashion: on April 22, 18 of them, including those of the “left”, demanded “measures and means so that the agitators can be unmasked and sanctioned”. The dean adopted a whole series of repressive measures, notably giving free rein to the police in the passages and paths of the campus, while the press was unleashed against the “madness”, the “small groups” and the “anarchists”. The French Communist Party fell into line: April 26, Pierre Juqin, a member of the Central Committee, held a meeting in Nanterre: “The agitators are preventing the sons of workers from passing their exams”. He couldn’t finish and had to flee. In Humanity of March 3, Georges Marchais, number 2 in the Communist Party, said in his turn: “These false revolutionaries must be energetically unmasked because objectively they serve the interests of Gaullist power and the great capitalist monopolies”.

On the campus at Nanterre, scuffles became more and more frequent between the students of the extreme-left and fascist groups of the Occident group, coming from Paris to ‘beat up the Bolshies’. Faced with this situation the dean decided on May 2 to again close the university, which was ringed by the police. The students of Nanterre decided that the following day they would hold a meeting in the courtyard of the Sorbonne in order to protest against the closure of their university and the disciplinary proceedings against 8 members of the M22, including Cohn-Bendit.

There were only 300 at the meeting: the majority of students were actively preparing for their end of year exams. However, the government, which wanted to finish with the agitation, decided to strike a blow and occupy the Latin Quarter and encircle the Sorbonne with police. The police entered the university, something which hadn’t happened for centuries. The students, who had fallen back into the Sorbonne, obtained assurance that they would be able to leave without hindrance but, while the girls were able to go freely, the boys were systematically led into the prison vans, from which they escaped. Rapidly, hundreds of students assembled on the square of the Sorbonne and insulted the police. Tear gas began to rain down: the area was taken but the students, more and more numerous now, began to harass the groups of police and their wagons. The confrontations continued for four hours during the evening: 72 police were wounded and 400 demonstrators arrested. The following days, police completely surrounded the approaches to the Sorbonne while four students were sent to prison. This policy of firmness, far from stopping the agitation, gave it a massive character. From Monday May 6, confrontations with the forces of the police deployed around the Sorbonne alternated with more and more sustained demonstrations called for by the M22, the UNEF and the SNESUP (union of head teachers) and regrouped up to 45,000 participants to the cries of “Sorbonne to the students”, “cops out of the Latin Quarter” and above all “free our comrades”. The students were joined by a growing number of schoolchildren, teachers, workers and unemployed. The processions quickly crossed over the Seine and covered the Champs-Elysees, close to the Presidential Palace. The Internationale reverberated under the Arc de Triomphe where one usually heard La Marseillaise or the Last Post. The demonstrators also prevailed in some towns of the provinces. The government wanted to give a token of good will by reopening the university of Nanterre on May 10. That evening, tens of thousands of demonstrators were to be found in the Latin Quarter in front of the police surrounding the Sorbonne. At 2100 hours, some demonstrators began to build barricades (there were about sixty of them). At midnight, a delegation of 3 teachers and 3 students (including Cohn-Bendit) was received by the rector of the Academie de Paris but, while agreeing to reopen the Sorbonne, he could make no promises about freeing the students arrested on May 3. At two in the morning, the CRS led the assault on the barricades after spraying copious amounts of tear gas. The confrontations were extremely violent provoking hundreds of wounded on both sides. More than 500 demonstrators were arrested. In the Latin Quarter, numerous inhabitants demonstrated their sympathies by welcoming demonstrators into their homes and throwing water onto the street in order to protect them from the tear gas and offensive grenades. All these events, and notably the witnesses to the brutality of the forces of repression, were being followed on the radio, minute by minute, by hundreds of thousands of people. At six in the morning, ‘order reigned’ in a Latin Quarter that seemed to have been swept by a tornado.

On Saturday May 11, indignation was immense in Paris and the whole of France. Processions formed spontaneously throughout the country, regrouping not only students but also hundreds of thousands of demonstrators of all origins, notably many young workers or parents of students. Everywhere universities were occupied; in the streets and squares, people discussed and condemned the attitude of the forces of repression.

Faced with this situation, the Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, announced in the evening that from Monday May 13 the police would be withdrawn from the Latin Quarter, that the Sorbonne would be reopened and the imprisoned students would be freed.

The same day, all the centres of the trade unions, including the CGT (which up until then had only denounced the ‘leftist’ students), and even some police unions, called for a strike and demonstrations for May 13, so as to protest against the repression and against the policy of the government.

On May 13, every town in the country saw the most important demonstrations since World War II. The working class was massively present at the side of the students. One of the most used slogans was: “Ten years, that’s enough!” with reference to the date of May 13 1958 which had seen the return of De Gaulle to power. At the end of the demonstrations, practically all the universities were occupied, not only by the students but also by many young workers. Everywhere, anyone could speak. Discussions were not limited to questions about universities and repression. They began to confront all the social problems: conditions of work, exploitation, the future of society.

On May 14 discussions continued in many firms. After the immense demonstrations the day before, with the enthusiasm and feelings of strength that emanated from them, it was difficult to carry on as if nothing had happened. In Nantes, the workers of Sud-Aviation, carried along by the youngest workers, a spontaneous strike broke out and they decided to occupy the factory. The working class began to take up the reins.

The significance of the student revolts in the 60s

What characterised all these movements, above all, was obviously the rejection of the war in Vietnam. But while the Stalinist parties, allied to the regimes of Hanoi and Moscow should logically have been found at their head, at least in the countries where they had a significant influence, as was the case in the anti-war movements during the Korean War at the beginning of the 1950s, this wasn’t the case at all. On the contrary these parties had practically no influence and were often in complete opposition to these movements.[5] It was one of the characteristics of the student movements at the end of the 1960s which revealed their profound significance.

It is this significance that we are going to try and draw out now. And to do it, it is clearly necessary to recall what were the principal themes of the student mobilisation of this period.

The themes of the student revolts in the 60s in the United States

If the opposition to the war undertaken by the United States in Vietnam was the most widespread and activating theme in all the western countries, it’s certainly not by chance, evidently, that it’s first of all in the United States that student revolt developed. American youth was confronted in a direct and immediate fashion by the question of war since it was it that was sent abroad to defend the ‘free world’. Tens of thousands of young Americans paid with their lives for the policies of their government, hundreds of thousands amongst them returned from Vietnam with wounds and handicaps, millions were marked for life because of the horror that they lived through. Outside of the horror that they found themselves in, and which is characteristic of all warfare, many among them were confronted with the question: what are we doing in Vietnam? Official speeches said that they were there to defend ‘democracy’, the ‘free world’ and ‘civilisation’. But the reality that they lived through contradicted these speeches in a flagrant fashion: the regime that they were charged with protecting, the one in Saigon, had nothing either ‘democratic’ nor civilised about it: it was a dictatorial and particularly corrupt military regime. On the ground, American soldiers had difficulty understanding that they were defending ‘civilisation’ when they were asked to act as barbarians, terrorising and massacring poor, unarmed peasants, women, children and the old included. But it wasn’t just the soldiers there who felt revolted by the horrors of the war; it was also the case for a growing part of American youth. Not only were young men in fear of having to go to war and young women afraid of losing their companions; everyone became more and more informed by the returning ‘veterans’ or simply through the television channels of the barbarity that the war represented.[6] The crying contradiction between government speeches on the ‘defence of democracy’ and its actions in Vietnam fed a revolt against the authorities and the traditional values of the American bourgeoisie.[7]This revolt fed, in the first instance, the hippy movement, a pacifist and non-violent movement which raised the slogans ‘Flower Power’ and ‘Make Love Not War’. It’s probably not by chance if the first student movement of any scale took place at Berkeley University, in the suburbs of San Francisco which was the hippy Mecca. The themes, and above all the means, of this mobilisation still had some points in common with this movement: use of the non-violent ‘sit-in’ in order to claim ‘Free Speech’ for political propaganda within the University, notably for ‘civil rights’ for blacks and to denounce the presence of the army on the campus and its efforts to enlist students. However, as in many other countries subsequently, and notably in France, 1968, the repression that was unleashed at Berkeley (800 arrests) constituted an important factor in the ‘radicalisation’ of the movement. From 1967, with the foundation of the Youth International Party by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who moved away from non-violence, the movement of revolt was given a ‘revolutionary’ perspective against capitalism. The new ‘heroes’ of the movement were no longer Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, but figures such as Che Guevara (who Rubin had met in 1964 in Havana). The ideology of this movement was more confused. It bore anarchist ingredients (the cult of liberty, notably sexual liberty, as well as the copious consumption of drugs) but also stalinist ingredients (Cuba and Albania were considered as exemplary). The means of action borrowed greatly from the anarchists, such as derision and provocation. Thus one of the first actions of the Hoffman-Rubin axis was to throw phoney banknotes around in the New York stock exchange, provoking a rush to grab them. Similarly, at the Democratic Convention of summer 68, it presented a pig, Pigasus, as candidate for President of the United States[8] at the same time as preparing for a violent confrontation with the police.

To sum up the principal characteristics of the movement of revolt that agitated the United States during the 1960s, you could say that it presented itself as a protest against the war in Vietnam, against racial discrimination, against inequality between the sexes and against the traditional values of America.

The majority of its protagonists showed themselves to be the rebellious children of the bourgeoisie; this movement had no proletarian class character. It wasn’t by chance that one of its ‘theoreticians’, the professor of philosophy Herbert Marcuse, considered that the working class had been ‘integrated’ and that the forces of revolution against capitalism were to be found among other sectors such as the black victims of discrimination, the peasants of the Third World or rebellious intellectuals.

In the majority of other western countries, the movements that agitated the student world during the 60s showed a strong resemblance to those of the United States: rejection of American intervention in Vietnam, revolt against authority in general and in the universities in particular, against traditional morals, notably sexual morals. That is one of the reasons why the Stalinist parties, symbols of authoritarianism, had no echo within these revolts whereas they were party to the denunciation of American intervention in Vietnam against the forces armed by the Soviet bloc and called themselves ‘anti-capitalist’. It is true that the image of the USSR had been greatly tarnished by the repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the portrait of Brezhnev wasn’t a ‘pin-up’. The rebels of the 1960s preferred to display in their rooms posters of Ho Chi Minh (another old apparatchik, but more presentable and ‘heroic’) and more still the romantic visage of Che Guevara (another Stalinist party member, but more ‘exotic’) or Angela Davis (also a member of the US Stalinist party, but who had the double advantage of being both black and a woman, a ‘good looker’ like Che Guevara).

This form, both anti-Vietnam War and ‘libertarian’, was especially prevalent in Germany. The main spokesman of the movement, Rudi Dutschke, came from the GDR, under Soviet tutelage where, as a very young person, he was opposed to the repression of the Hungarian Uprising. His ideological references were the ‘Young Marx’ of the Frankfurt School (of which Marcuse was a part), and also the Situationist International (which included the group Subversive Aktion, which the SI’s Berlin section was based on in 1962).[9]

In fact in the course of discussions which developed after 1965 in the German universities, the search for a ‘real anti-authoritarian marxism’ had a great success, which explains the numerous texts of the councilist movement that were republished at this time.

Class nature of the 60s student movements

The French student slogans (see box), like the majority of others put forward in other countries, clearly indicate that the student movement of the 60s had no proletarian class nature, even if in several places (as in Italy and evidently in France) there was a will to establish a bridge with the struggles of the working class. This approach also manifested a certain condescension towards the workers, mixed with a fascination with these mythic beings, the blue collar proletarians, heroes of readers who had half digested some of the classics of marxism.

Fundamentally, the student movement of the 1960s was of a petty-bourgeois nature, one of its clearest aspects being the will to ‘change life immediately’.

The ‘revolutionary’ radicalism of the avant-garde of this movement, including the cult of violence promoted by certain of its sectors, was also another illustration of its petty-bourgeois nature.[10] In fact, the ‘revolutionary’ preoccupations of the students of 1968 were incontestably sincere but were strongly marked by Third Worldism (Guevarism and Maoism), or else anti-fascism. It had a romantic vision of the revolution without the least idea of the real development of the movement of the working class that would lead it. In France, for the students who believed themselves ‘revolutionaries’, the movement of May 68 was already The Revolution, and the barricades that went up day after day were presented as the inheritors of those of 1848 and of the Commune of 1871.

One of the components of the student movement of the 60s was the ‘conflict between generations’, the very important cleavage between the new generation and those of its parents, which was the subject of all kinds of criticisms. In particular, given that this generation had worked hard to get out of its situation of poverty, even famine, resulting from the Second World War, it was reproached for only concerning itself with its material well being. From this came the success of fantasies about the ‘consumer society’ and slogans such as “Never work!” Descended from a generation that had submitted to the full force of the counter-revolution, the youth of the 1960s reproached its parents for its conformism and its submission to the demands of capitalism. Reciprocally, many parents didn’t understand and were loath to accept that their children despised the sacrifices that they had made in order to give them a better life than their own.

However, there existed a real economic element in the student revolt of the 60s. At this time, there was no real threat of unemployment or of problems of finding a job as is the case today. The principal concern that then affected student youth was that it would not be able to acquire the same social status as that of previous university graduates. In fact, the generation of 1968 was the first to be confronted, in a somewhat brutal manner, with the phenomenon of proletarianisation of the middle strata abundantly studied by sociologists at the time. This phenomenon had begun some years earlier, even before the open crisis had manifested itself, following a palpable increase in the number of university students. This increase came from the needs of the economy but also from the will of parents to provide their children with an economic situation superior to their own, and the possibility of doing so. It was, among other things, this ‘massification’ of the student population which provoked a growing malaise with the authoritarian structures and practices inherited from a time when the universities were mainly frequented by the elite.

However, if the student movement that began in 1964 developed in a period of ‘prosperity’ for capitalism, it was no longer the same from 1967 where the economic situation began to seriously degrade, strengthening the malaise of student youth. This is one of the reasons that allows us to understand why the movement of 1968 reached its heights. It is what allows us to explain why, in May 1968, the movement of the working class took the reins.

That is what we will look at in the next article.

Fabienne, April 2008.



[1] David Caute, Sixty-Eight: The year of the Barricades, London: Hamilton, 1988; also appeared in the United States with the title: The year of the Barricades: A journey through 1968, New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

[2] Mark Kurlansky, 1968: the year which rocked the world. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.

[3] Some of our territorial publications have already or are going to publish articles on the events as they unfolded in their respective countries.

[4] Rudi Dutschke survived the attempted assassination but the resulting brain damage was partly responsible for his premature death at the age of 39, on 24th December 1979, three months before the birth of his son Rudi Marek. Bachmann was condemned to seven years in prison for attempted murder. Dutschke wrote to his attacker to explain that he had no resentment against him personally, and to try to convince him that it was right to commit oneself to the socialist cause. Bachmann committed suicide in prison on 24th February 1970. Dutschke regretted not having written to him more frequently: “the struggle for freedom has just begun: sadly, Bachmann can no longer take part in it…”

[5] The student movements also affected countries with Stalinist countries in 1968. In Czechoslavakia they were part of the ‘Prague Spring” promoted by a sector of the stalinist party and could not therefore be considered as movements putting the regime in question. The situation in Poland was completely different. Protest demonstrations by students against the interdiction of a spectacle considered anti-Soviet were repressed by the police on 8th March. During the month tension mounted, students spread university occupations and demonstrations. Under the instructions of the Minister of the Interior, General Moczar, leader of the ‘partisans’ in the stalinist party, they were repressed brutally while Jews in the party were expelled for ‘zionism’.

[6] At the time of the Vietnam War, the American media was not so tightly controlled by the military authorities. This is an ‘error’ that the American government corrected at the time of the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

[7] Such a phenomenon wasn’t seen following the Second World War: US soldiers had also lived through hell, notably in the invasion of Europe in 1944. But their sacrifices were accepted by almost all of them and by the population, thanks to the authorities’ exposure of the barbarity of the Nazi regime.

[8] At the beginning of the twentieth century, some French anarchists had presented an ass to the legislative elections.

[9] For a synthetic presentation of the political positions of Situationism, see our article ‘Guy Debord: the second death of the Situationist International’ published in the International Review Nº 80.

[10] It should be noted that, in most cases (as much in the countries with ‘authoritarian’ regimes as in the most ‘democratic’), the authorities reacted in an extremely brutal manner to the student demonstrations, even when they were peaceful at the beginning. Practically everywhere the repression, far from intimidating the protesters, acted as a factor of the massive mobilisation and radicalisation of the movement. Many students who, at the start, would never have considered themselves ‘revolutionaries’ did not hesitate to call themselves such after several days or weeks of repression which did more to reveal the real face of bourgeois democracy than all the speeches of Rubin, Dutschke or Cohn-Bendit.

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