ICC meeting at ‘1968 and all that’: The perspective opened 40 years ago has not gone away

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The ICC had a stall and hosted a meeting at the ‘May 68 and all that' event at Conway Hall in May. The event was a very mixed affair. There was a strong presence of those we refer to as leftists - political tendencies that talk about socialism and revolution but actually defend the interests of capitalism. This was evident in a couple of the meetings we attended. One called ‘Stopping the war in 1968 and 2008' wanted to glorify the North Vietnamese struggle, in reality part of the series of proxy wars that went on between the US and Russian imperialist blocs, and draw parallels with the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq today. In other words, these advocates of ‘Stop the War' actually want to continue the war on the side of the ‘resistance' just as they campaigned for the Russian bloc and the Vietnamese Stalinists in the 60s. A meeting on ‘Prague and May 68' concentrated on the conflicts within the CP and intelligentsia, without mention of either the working class or Czech state capitalism. In these meetings the working class and its struggle hardly even got the walk-on part that they are relegated to in the media coverage of the May 68 events.

Other meetings we attended were of a different character, such as the one on the influence of surrealism and situationism in 1968, or the meeting held by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, an organisation which is also highly critical of the leftists, even if they too are weighed down with a classical bourgeois position on parliament. In this case, their idea that class consciousness can be measured (at least in part) by how many people vote for ‘socialist candidates' prevents them from seeing the essential role that mass strike movements like the one in May 68 plays in the development of a revolutionary understanding within the working class.

The ICC meeting ‘May 68: the return of the working class after 40 years of counter-revolution' took this view as its point of departure. Rejecting the false lessons of those who say the working class was merely interested in wages while the students were the only ones who had any revolutionary ideas, we have to see how the events of May 68 are rooted in history.

The students were certainly in conflict with the state and the brutal repression handed out to them lit the fuse of a more general movement; but it was the massive entry of the working class into the arena that transformed the situation. With nearly 10 million involved it was the biggest working class strike in history, paralysing French capital. Workers were discussing everywhere - in the factories, in the universities, on the pavement. The French events also proved to be only the first in a series of movements: the Italian ‘Hot Autumn' of 1969 and the Argentine uprising in the same year; Poland in 1970; waves of radical strikes in Spain in 1972; dockers' and miners' strikes in Britain in 72 and 74, to name just some of the main struggles. This showed that something very profound was going on at the basis of society. As the title of our meeting proposes, it marked the historic revival of the world working class after the crushing defeat of its first revolutionary efforts in 1917-23. By 1968 the first signs of the economic crisis, supposedly banished from capitalism for ever, was met by the struggle of a new generation of workers who had not been crushed by fascism, Stalinism, and the fraud of ‘democracy' and had not lived through the worst moments of imperialist war.

This was just the beginning of a series of movements in the class struggle that is still going on today, despite all the difficulties the working class has faced in the last 40 years, and that is why it is still important to discuss the struggles of 1968 today, not just as an exercise in nostalgia for the older generation, but in order to pass on the lessons of those struggles to the new generation of workers going into struggle today. With this perspective it is fitting that, in spite of the fact that there was a large majority of the older generation at the event overall, all but one of the people who were attending an ICC meeting for the first time were young. However, the discussion was started by the only member of the older generation not there to support the ICC. He raised the key questions of the nature of the defeats suffered by the working class.

For this contributor, not all defeats are the same. During the Civil War in Spain they said ‘better Vienna than Berlin' (i.e. better the doomed uprising of Viennese workers in 1934 than the passive response to Hitler coming to power in 1933) because it is better to go down fighting than to capitulate, and this gives a positive aspect to some defeats. For the ICC the worst defeats are those in which the working class is fighting for interests that are not its own, such as the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, when the workers were enrolled for imperialist conflicts under the banner of bourgeois ‘democracy'. Similarly, the defeat of the revolutionary wave was not obvious, above all in Russia, as the Bolsheviks started with the aim of leading the workers to revolution but became part of the counter-revolution, and this has allowed the bourgeoisie to paint the most brutal state capitalism in ‘proletarian' colours. The consequences of this form of defeat are still haunting the working class today.

The discussion on the perspective for the class struggle took up the question of the movements going on in the world today. Could the massive and militant struggles in Egypt, for example, lead to a revolution there? The perspective for the development of the class struggle needs to be looked at internationally, and in terms of the balance of force between the working class and the ruling class. When workers go into struggle in countries such as Egypt or Bangladesh they are faced immediately with direct conflict with the state, since the ruling class lacks credible shock absorbers such as trade unions, and so they have to form assemblies, knowing that the unions are on the bosses' side. It is possible for an insurrection to break out in a country like Egypt, but it would still need to spread internationally, and particularly to those areas where the working class is strongest and most concentrated, for it to lead to working class revolution - this is why the Bolsheviks looked to the development of the revolutionary wave and particularly the German revolution. This does not lessen the significance of struggles in the third world, which are an important part of an international development and an inspiration to workers everywhere.

A young ICC supporter from France pointed to the dynamic of struggles there today - the students in 2006 struggling against the CPE, the students and railworkers and others last year - which are responding to generalised attacks on living standards. Sarkozy, like all political leaders, wants to bury the hopes raised by 1968 once and for all, but has been unable to do so. In fact, while 1968 led to the open and widespread discussion of revolution again, today, after 40 years of capitalist crisis, there is a deeper level of class consciousness shown in the discussions in the assemblies during the movement against the CPE and in the attempts of students (themselves much more part of the proletariat than those of 68) to link with workers, and of workers in struggle to link with other industries and with the students. This shows that the perspective of struggle opened 40 years ago is still open.

At the end of an ICC meeting we asked everyone, particularly those who had not spoken, to make any comments on the discussion. The general feeling was that they had come to learn about the events of the past, an illustration of the questioning attitude that is also a vital sign of the slow and painful development of class consciousness. Alex 4.6.08

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