Revolutionary Ferment across the Planet
“All the factors making for an unprecedented boom were the same factors preparing the way for economic catastrophes and social upheavals.”
Ted Grant (1913- 2006)1
“Bliss was it, to be alive in that dawn, But to be young was very heaven”
William Wordsworth, in Paris during the great French revolution of 1789
Revolutionary periods are historical exceptions. They don't occur every day. The period around the years 1968-69 was such an historical exception. It was not just in Pakistan that the torrent of mass revolutionary upheaval swept across the country from November 7 1968 till the fall of the formidable dictatorship of Ayub Khan on March 26, 1969 the mass movement had challenged the state and victory of a socialist revolution seemed to be the inevitable conclusion. Across the planet there were revolutionary uprisings on almost all the continents.
In the aftermath of the Second World War there were huge revolutionary movements. It was the betrayal of these movements, mainly through the treaties in Yalta, Tehran and Potsdam between Stalin, Churchill and US presidents, Roosevelt and Truman, that the communist leaderships of these workers' movement betrayed these revolutions and capitalism retained its stranglehold over these societies.
India, Greece, Italy and France are some of the major examples. However, the post-war upswing of world capitalism and the rise of US imperialism as its bulwark, alongside the rapid growth in the Stalinized Soviet Union, all had a pacifying effect both in Eastern and Western Europe and in most of the advanced capitalist countries. At the same time, imperialist exploitation was so intense and the local bourgeois leaders were so corrupt that the revolutionary tide continued to rise in the so-called “third world” or the semi- or neo-colonial countries. This led to the overthrow of capitalism and feudalism in a number of these countries.
The most important was the Chinese revolution of 1949. From a Marxist point of view, it was the second most important event in human history after the October revolution of 1917 in Russia. However it was not carried out according to classical Marxist lines as was the case with the socialist revolution that started the process of creating the USSR under the leadership of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik party. The Chinese revolution of October 1949 under the peasant Red Army led to a caricature of socialism where the working class did not play a leading democratic role in the running of the planned economy, as was the case in the Soviet Union, at least in the first five to seven years of its existence. The new regime in Peking was based not on the lines of Moscow of 1917 but on the deformed Stalinist model of Moscow of 1949.
Many other countries, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America where capitalism and landlordism were overthrown in the 1950s and early 1960s, also modelled themselves on Stalinist Moscow and Maoist China, and the social transformations were carried through by guerrilla armies or military coups of the radical officers. They took the form of what is described as Proletarian Bonapartist states. The countries in which such historically peculiar forms of states emerged included China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Somalia, Afghanistan and some others who went some distance in this direction.
Although terribly bureaucratically deformed, these regimes were progressive in nature as they were instrumental in the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism. They at least ended the rule of capital, of private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and the landed estates, along with putting an end to the scourge of imperialist plunder. However, the lack of a soviet/workers' democracy and with a narrow nationalist outlook based on the ideology of “socialism in one country” and their heavy dependence on the Soviet Union and China led to their collapse once Stalinism fell in Eastern Europe and Russia.
In spite of all this, the tidal waves of the colonial revolution surged relentlessly throughout the post-war upswing. In most cases these movements broke through the constraints of national liberation. They went beyond the stage of “national democratic revolution” in most countries of the colonial and neo-colonial world. This was perhaps the largest movement of humanity ever seen since the fall of Rome. Such was the colossal size and ferocity of these movements that imperialist domination was challenged as never before.
In relatively large countries, where either the prevailing pro-Moscow or pro-China Communist parties were small or where they had become an impediment to these movements, stubbornly trying to restrict them to the bourgeois democratic stage, a new phenomenon developed. This was the phenomenon of populism.
From Argentina to Egypt and from Indonesia to Pakistan populism spread like wildfire. It reflected the failure of the traditional left leadership to pass on to the socialist stage in order to complete the basic tasks of the national democratic revolution on the one hand, and the total incapacity of the local national bourgeoisie to carry out these tasks on the other, while there was a burning desire of the masses to emancipate themselves from exploitation and impoverishment under capitalist rule and the yoke of imperialism.
Most of the individual leaders who became the icons of these populist tides came from within the military elite. At least they had the ability -more than the Stalinist leaders - to understand the nature of these upheavals and had a greater feel of the pulse of the mass revolts emerging from below, than the traditional left leaders. On the other hand, these populist leaders had little or no understanding of Marxism and revolutionary socialism. They were prompted more by the dynamics of the mass struggles and the sheer intensity of the movements.
In spite of their lack of any basic Marxist training, they proclaimed to be socialist and raised radical revolutionary slogans and put forward programmes that connected with the revolutionary moods and sentiments of the masses that were entering the arena of history to transform society radically. The pressures from below forced these leaders to take radical steps, such as large-scale nationalisations, serious land reform and other radical policies that shook capitalism to its very foundations, without actually overthrowing capitalism.
Some of them did indeed wish to go the whole hog and finish off capitalism altogether. This was especially the case in Egypt where colonel Jamal Abdul Nasser after nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956 and defeating the joint aggression of Britain, France and Israel wanted to move forward and nationalise the whole economy and join the Warsaw Pact. In the Suez War the imperialists received a stunning blow from the Egyptian army led by the populist Nasser on the back of a rising mass movement. That war broke out on October 29, 1956 when Israel, Britain and France launched a joint effort against Egypt with the aim of instituting what today would be described as “regime change” and the deposition of Nasser, but the imperialists failed abysmally to achieve their objectives. Gone were the days when they could march into any colonial country and dictate to the people of that country.
Between 1955 and 1957, Nasser nationalized all foreign owned banks and insurance companies and many other foreign-owned companies. From this position of strength, Nasser could have completed the revolution. The problem was that when he sent his emissary to Moscow in the early 1960s seeking approval and endorsement, he was rebuffed by Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union at that time. Brezhnev claimed that to move towards a complete abolition of capitalism and landlordism (even in a distorted Stalinist manner) would disturb the balance of forces in the Middle East and disrupt détente and the mutual relations of co-existence during the cold war between the USA and USSR.
The Stalinist leaders both in Moscow and Peking played a similar role in several other countries during this rising tide of the colonial revolution. Egypt was and is probably the most important country in the Middle East, from the point of view of the size of its proletariat and its economy. An overthrow of capitalism and the implementation of a planned economy, even with the drawbacks of doing it from above, would have had a big impact on the region and far beyond. Here again the Stalinist idea of a “national road to socialism” played a disastrous role. The survival of capitalism not only exacerbated the social crisis in Egypt, but in the decaying conditions of Egyptian capitalism Nasser began to lose the initial mass support and social base that he had. He was thus pushed towards Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism, as it was known.
However, Arab nationalism was no solution to the socio-economic problems faced by workers and toiling masses of Egypt and the Middle East. Reaction started to gain force and the social and political weaknesses of Nasser were also reflected on the external front. In the 1967 war Egypt suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the reactionary Israeli state, an ironic revenge for the defeat in 1956.
Nasser's response to the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israeli army was to offer his resignation, which was broadcast on radio and TV. But the reserves of support among the masses were still huge and millions poured out onto the streets, not only in Egypt but across the Arab world, and as a result Nasser withdrew his resignation.
However, it is also true to say that in the period 1962 to 1967 there was growing opposition to Nasser within Egypt itself. From the initial huge economic successes the economy started to slow down. Part of the opposition was expressed through the Islamic clergy and this pushed Nasser into taking measures to limit the powers of this clergy. By 1969 he was also in conflict with the judiciary which he also clamped down on.
Nasser died in 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar Al Sadat. Although formally continuing with the same regime, Sadat moved to radically dismantle the economic policies of Nasser and also purged many leaders from the Nasser era, and subsequently pulled the country back under the sphere of influence of US imperialism, thus unravelling all the gains of the Nasserite revolution. This is a lesson for today, especially for the Venezuelan revolution.
Ever since then the government has been in the hands of pro-Western elements that collaborate with US imperialism and have a good working relationship with the hated Zionist regime in Israel. The main opposition they have been facing has been from the Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), the Islamic fundamentalist reactionary movement. Ironically this movement was set up by US imperialism after the Suez War to destabilize Nasser and other left-wing leaders of the Arab and Muslim world. Forty years on, however, there are new stirring of the class struggle in Egypt and left forces are coming to the fore.
Another traumatic and disastrous outcome of the policies of Stalinism was the bloody massacre of about 1.5 million members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). In the late 1950s and early 1960s the PKI was the largest communist party in the world outside the Stalinist bloc. Such was the strength of the PKI in those times that in 1958 it had the support of 73% of the soldiers in the Indonesian Army. But here again the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy instructed the PKI to join and dissolve its forces into the PNI (Nationalist Party of Indonesia) led by the populist Bonaparte, General Soekarno.
The demagogue Soekarno -who had also relations with Mao and the Chinese bureaucracy -in spite of his fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric, aimed to keep capitalism intact. But with the rising strength of the PKI there were revolutionary tremors in Indonesia. With a programme of socialist revolution the PKI could have overthrown capitalism through a revolutionary insurrection in a short span of time. But as a result of the amalgamation into the PNI under the dictates from Peking (Beijing), the PKI leadership had exposed its internal structures, cadres and membership. This was to prove fatal when a CIA-sponsored coup against Soekarno, headed by the treasurer of the PNI General Suharto, led to the setting up of a vicious dictatorship.
It was in 1965, that in connivance with the CIA and its sponsored Islamic fundamentalist vigilantes, that Suharto carried out one of the most brutal and massive genocides in recent history. This was another result of this disastrous two-stage theory which the Stalinists, through the respective leaders of the various communist parties, forced on the rising movements throughout the colonial world. Such was the brutality and the bloodshed, such was the defeat, that it took the Indonesian youth and workers 34 long tormented years to rise once again and overthrow the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of General Suharto in 1998.
It is not a historical accident or a coincidence that in many of the proletarian Bonapartist revolutions the Moscow or pro-Peking communist parties actually played a reactionary role in trying to hold back the movement and keeping it within the so-called “democratic stage”, i.e. a stage where capitalism is kept intact. This stubbornness of the Stalinist left to cling on to this historically obsolete and redundant Menshevik “theory of two stages” left a vacuum. And both history and nature abhor vacuums. That explains, as we have seen, why in that period of history the vacuum was filled by populist leaders such as Juan Peron in Argentina or Nassser in Egypt, or Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan. And in fact, the history of the 1968-69 revolution in Pakistan and the events that followed help to explain the phenomenon of populism in great detail.
Impact of revolution on advanced countries
The historical importance of the period around 1968-69 was that the revolutions that had been unfolding in the former colonial world were finding their echo in mass movements of the workers and youth in the advanced capitalist countries. This was still the peak of the post-war boom, the biggest expansion that capitalism had ever witnessed, but that boom was about to slow down dramatically.
After more than two decades of a continual boom and growth in the industrialized world there were mass movements of the youth and workers in countries like Italy and France, of revolutionary dimensions. There was the explosion of the civil rights movement in Ireland, the movement of the youth in the United States. Britain was affected with a massive outbreak of strikes and even countries like West Germany and Sweden were affected. In fact in all the advanced countries there was some degree of mobilisations. A few years later Spain, Portugal and Greece were also affected, which led to the fall of the dictatorships in those countries. Mexico witnessed dramatic events also. Stalinism in Eastern Europe was also shaken by the dramatic events in Czechoslovakia.
But above all the revolutionary upheavals in France of May 1968 became the epicentre of this revolutionary tidal wave that was sweeping across the planet. The events of those tumultuous years have been described as “student revolts”, “agitations against military dictatorships”, “movements of democratic and human rights” by the traditional bourgeois analysts and even most left-wing intellectuals.
It is true that most of these revolutionary upheavals were initiated and triggered off by the students. Initially the campuses became the centre of revolutionary ferment. This confirms the fact that student movements are often barometers of the rising temperature and change in mood of the masses and of society as a whole. They are like the leaves of the tree tops who are the first to move as the storm begins to rise. They are like the heat lightening that precedes a storm.
But all these movements gained real momentum and force only once the workers and the toiling masses entered the arena of struggle and revolt. In spite of the different shades and intensities of these movements in different countries, the fundamental psychology of the masses in revolt was that of a deep desire for radical change and in many cases for the overthrow of this rotten exploitative system and for a socialist transformation of society. We shall try to prove and substantiate this assertion with the facts, with the events as they actually unfolded on the ground, as the mass movements burst onto action. The most advanced and striking examples are France, Italy and Pakistan itself.
France, May 1968 - the greatest revolutionary general strike in history
Such was the intensity and ferocity of the French event of 1968 that it not only rattled the French state and the ruling class but sent shock waves throughout the echelons of power around the world. At the same time this revolutionary upheaval with its epicentre in Paris was a huge inspiration to the revolutionaries and the toiling masses around the world. These events brought to the fore the real revolutionary force and the socio-economic and political power of the working class when awakened into action by historic events. Ted Grant founder of the Marxist Tendency in Britain produced a pamphlet in the white heat of the May 1968 revolutionary upheaval in France, which it is worth quoting at length.
“Not a nut or bolt turns in hundreds of occupied factories: not a wheel moves in public transport. The reactionary newspapers' lies are "censored" by the printers and so are those of the radio and television. The French working class in its millions cocks its little finger, and the vast complex of French capitalism grinds to a halt.
What a mighty demonstration of the invincible power of the working class, when it begins to move! How crushing a refutation this is of all those cynics and sceptics who have written off the working class as "bought off", "apathetic" etc! How clear it should be to even the most politically uneducated workers that their French brothers would now be firmly in power, but for the craven, cowardly policies of the French Labour and Trade Union leaders. This is the essence of the events which have shaken the French ruling class and terrified the exploiters of the world!”2
Here again the role of the students as an initial spark igniting the flames of revolution was graphically demonstrated.
The wave of revolt culminating in the mass sit-in strikes and occupation of the factories began with the students. The pitched battles between them and the police were ignited by the vicious police attacks on a students' meeting in the Sorbonne University: it was the first time that the police had intervened in the university since German occupation.
The Daily Express (London) reported that 80% of the population of Paris was for the students. Senior secondary school students came out and teachers were forced to lock 13 year-olds in their classrooms to stop them joining the strike. Even this restraining hand has been stayed as the teachers and pupils together joined the workers. More important was the fact that the students lifted the lid off the boiling pot of working class grievances. The façade of the French equivalent of the "never had it so good" society has been pierced.
But it was the young factory workers, emboldened and electrified by the success of the students and making contact with them on the million-strong demonstration of May 13th, who took the initiative in organizing the sit-in strikes in the Renault factories and elsewhere.
The general strike of May 13 marked a qualitative turning point. Hundreds of thousands of students and workers poured onto the streets of Paris. Some idea of this is conveyed by the following description of the mighty demonstration of a million, which took over the streets of Paris on the 13th of May:
"Endlessly they filed past. There were whole sections of hospital personnel in white coats, some carrying posters saying 'Où sont les disparus des hôpitaux?' ('Where are the missing injured?'). Every factory, every major workplace seemed to be represented. There were numerous groups of railwaymen, postmen, printers, Metro personnel, metal workers, airport workers, market men, electricians, lawyers, sewer men, bank employees, building workers, glass and chemical workers, waiters, municipal employees, painters and decorators, gas workers, shop girls, insurance clerks, road sweepers, film studio operators, busmen, teachers, workers from the new plastic industries, row upon row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it, if it but decided to do so."3
The leaders of the unions hoped that this would be sufficient to halt the movement. The leaders did not intend the general strike to continue and spread. They saw the demonstration as a means of blowing off steam. But once it started, the movement soon acquired a life of its own. The call for a general strike was like a heavy rock thrown into a tranquil lake. Although there were only about three and a half million workers organised in the unions, ten million went on strike and a wave of factory occupations began all over France.
A gigantic wave had swept from one end of France to the other. Not only the industrial workers but also the bank employees, white-collar workers, and the catering workers responded to the call to strike. While only 30% were unionised, over 50% of the labour forces was involved which is incontestable proof of the revolutionary energy and determination that had been unleashed. As in all revolutions, from the cracks and depths of society the formerly politically backward workers, the sweated and impoverished, the demoralised and cynical, had been brought to their feet. The poor farmers set up barricades round the city of Nantes and other cities "in support of the workers and students"4. Exemplary order was maintained and, as even the capitalist press had been forced to admit, the workers "check and grease factory machines that are lying idle".
All this and yet the leadership of the Communist Party and the CGT, along with the Catholic unions and "socialist" Force Ouvrière, refused to carry through what the workers had begun: the seizure of power. Gratified, the Observer remarked, "the Communist unions and the Gaullist Government they appear to be challenging are really on the same side of the barricades". The reactionary Le Figaro also praised the statesman-like posture of the CP leaders.
Workers took control of petrol supplies in Nantes, refusing entry to all petrol tankers, which did not carry authorisation from the strike committee. A picket was placed on the only functioning petrol pump in the town, which made sure that petrol was only issued to doctors. Contact was made with the peasant organisations in the surrounding areas, and food supplies were arranged, with prices fixed by the workers and peasants. To prevent profiteering, shops had to display a sticker in the window with the words: "This shop is authorised to open. Its prices are under permanent supervision by the unions." The sticker was signed by the CGT, CFDT and FO. A litre of milk was sold for 50 centimes compared to the normal 80. A kilo of potatoes was cut from 70 centimes to 12; a kilo of carrots from 80 to 50, and so on.
The students, teachers, professional people, peasants, scientists, footballers, even the girls of the Follies Bergères were all drawn into the struggle. In Paris students occupied the Sorbonne. The Theatre de l'Odéon was occupied by 2,500 students and the school students occupied the schools.
Since the schools were closed, teachers and students organised nurseries, playgroups, free meals and activities for the strikers' children. Committees of strikers' wives were set up and played a leading role organising food supplies. Not only the students, but also the professional layers were infected with the bug of revolution. The astronomers occupied an observatory. There was a strike at the nuclear research centre at Saclay, where the majority of the 10,000 employees were researchers, technicians, engineers or graduate scientists. Even the Church was affected. In the Latin Quarter, young Catholics occupied a church and demanded a debate instead of mass.
The rioting in Paris continued, with workers and students braving tear gas and baton charges. In a single night there were 795 arrests, and 456 injured. Demonstrators attempted to torch the Paris Bourse (Stock Exchange) the hated symbol of capitalism. A Commissaire de Police was killed in Lyon by a truck.
Once in struggle the workers began to take initiatives, which went far beyond the limits of a normal strike. A key element in the equation was the means of mass communication. Formally these were powerful weapons in the hands of the state. But they also depended on the workers who were operating the radio and television stations. On May 25 state radio and television - the ORTF - went on strike. The TV news at 8pm was blacked out. The printers and journalists imposed a kind of workers' control of the press. Bourgeois papers had to submit their editorials for scrutiny, and had to publish the declarations of the workers' committees.
The National Assembly discussed the university crisis and the battles of the Quartier Latin. But the debates in the chambers of the Assembly were already an irrelevance. Power had slipped from the hands of the legislators and was lying in the streets. On May 24 President De Gaulle announced a referendum on radio and television. His plan to hold a referendum was frustrated by the action of the workers. The general was unable even to get ballot sheets for a referendum printed because of the strike of the French printing workers and the refusal of their Belgian colleagues to scab. This was not the only example of international solidarity. German and Belgian train drivers halted their trains on the French border in order not to break the strike.
Every serious political commentator stressed the revolutionary fervour that existed:
"The waves of protests sweeping France are not merely genuine grievances, but also represent a diffuse and generalised protest against the regime as a whole. The workers are not merely asking for financial compensation, for shorter working hours, but like the students are also talking vaguely of revolutionary committees"5.
Peaceful transformation of society
Even the mouthpiece of the conservative British bourgeoisie, The Times London, had to accept the revolutionary character of the events taking place in France.
“All the conditions for a successful overturn are there; the workers are determined to go the whole hog. The middle class, particularly its lower layers, look with profound sympathy on the strike wave and in many cases join in, e.g. on the ships "even the officers have joined the sit-ins begun by the crews.”6
The Times had to accept the shifting of power to the working classes who had risen to transform the system.
“It is the working class which has the effective power in the factories, the ports, the mines, and the streets. A classic situation of dual power exists. Even the televising of the debate in the National Assembly was done only by permission of the workers' organisations, as even a Gaullist MP was forced to admit. Those vestiges of the Government, the police and the army are completely unreliable. The police themselves have been touched by the hot flames of revolt. Their union issued a warning to the Government that "the police officers thoroughly appreciated the reasons which inspired the striking wage-earners and deplored the fact that they could not by law take part in the same way in the present labour movement... the public authorities will not systematically set the police against the present labour struggles"7.
In the event of a clash, many "serious wards, many sections, if not the majority, would go over to the workers. The Army also would be split from top to bottom if the officer caste sought to intervene. This is shown by the comments of a National Serviceman when he was asked if he would fire on the students and workers and replied 'Never. I think their methods may be a bit rough but I am a worker's son myself'."8 If ever there was a time when the working class could take power peacefully, that time is now, wrote Ted.
Reaction was very weak at this stage but if the fascists and the army elite would seek to whip up gangs of thugs to oppose the workers, they would be silenced first of all by the setting up of workers' defence guards and eventually by an armed people.
The Government and its puppet National Assembly was left suspended in mid-air. If the CP leaders had one ounce of the heroic courage and energy of its own rank and file or the working class generally, it would have rounded out broaden and organise the instinctive desire of the masses for their own instruments of power, the workers' councils.
In his sympathetic biography “The Last Great Frenchman - A life of General De Gaulle”, the author C. William wrote:
“But De Gaulle's mood on the morning of 25th had turned for the worse. He was in the words of one of his minister's prostate stooped and aged! Another minister found an old man who had no 'feel' for the future…from 25 to 28 May De Gaulle remained in a state of profound gloom…the council of ministers met at 3.pm on 27th May. The general presided, but was noted that his heart and mind were elsewhere. He stared at his ministers without seeing them, his arms flat on the table in front of him, his shoulders hunched, seemingly totally indifferent, to what was going on around him. ….according to the US ambassador De Gaulle told him that, 'the game's up'. In a few days the communists will be in power”9.
In its editorial, The Times asked the key question: "Can De Gaulle use the army?" and answered its own question, saying that he could perhaps use it once. In other words, a single bloody clash would be sufficient to break the army in pieces. That was the appraisal of the hardest headed strategists of international capital at the time. There is no reason to doubt their word on this occasion.
But how was it that this gigantic revolutionary movement failed to overthrow capitalism? Why did the socialist victory slip out of the hands of the mighty proletariat that had so forcibly risen to transform society?
In the entry on May 1968 in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we find an answer:
"De Gaulle seemed incapable of grappling with the crisis or even understanding its nature. The Communist and Trade Union leaders, however, provided him with a breathing space; they opposed further upheaval, evidently fearing the loss of their followers to their most extremist and anarchist rivals."
In his prolific article on the 40th anniversary of those dramatic events, Alan Woods wrote on May 1st 2008,
“A general strike is different from a normal strike because it poses the question of power. The question at stake is not this or that wage increase but who is master of the house? In the course of struggle the workers' consciousness increased at a vertiginous speed. They came to understand that this was not a normal strike for economic demands but something far greater. They became conscious of the power in their hands and saw the weakness of those who were supposed to represent all the power of the state. All that was necessary was for every workplace to elect delegates and to link up the strike committees in every town and region, culminating in the formation of a National Committee, which could take power into its hands, consigning the old state power to the dustbin of history.
But none of this was done, and the enormous revolutionary potential of the movement was dissipated, just as steam is harmlessly dissipated in the air unless it is concentrated in a piston-box. In the end, the workers returned to work and the ruling class concentrated power back into its hands. Once the movement began to ebb, the state began to take its revenge.
The marvellous movement of the French workers thus ended in defeat. But the traditions of May 1968 remain in the consciousness of the workers of France and the whole world. Today, after a long period of economic boom, the capitalist system is again entering into a crisis in which all the contradictions that have been building up for the last 20 years will come to the fore. Big class battles are on the order of the day all over Europe.”10
Revolutionary ferment in Europe
The stormy events in France had a massive impact, especially on the neighbouring and other European countries. The bursting of the accumulated discontent, even in the most advanced countries of Europe and where reformist ideas have become embedded within the leadership of the labour movement, exposed the contradictions that had built up under the surface. Even at the height of the unprecedented economic boom that followed the Second World War, and with the many concessions granted mostly by the Social Democracy, the class contradictions, which are inevitable under a capitalist mode of production, could not be removed.
Having said that, even those concessions that were given to the European proletariat were not charity granted to the workers by the ruling classes. They were won by serious struggles of the working class. As Marx's puts it, “When there is a revolution from below the ruling class resorts to reform from above.”
The rapid industrial and economic growth in Europe had expanded and advanced the economy and industry; at the same this changed the balance of forces between the classes. With the growth of the economy came the growth and strengthening of the proletariat. This newly emerged and strengthened proletariat was to reveal its strength, energy and power during the revolts of the 1968 period, and after the powerful movement in France in May 1968 came to massive upsurge of labour struggles in Italy.
The Italian “Hot Autumn”
Italy too was affected by the generalised situation of revolt affecting many countries at the time. In 1968 it was mainly a student-based movement with some important labour struggles. But it was in 1969 that the Italian proletariat rose up and began to challenge the very existence of capitalism itself.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s Italy had undergone a radical economic and social transformation, known at the time as the “Italian miracle”. From a relatively backward economy with industry concentrated mainly in the northwest, the country became one of the major advanced capitalist countries. This meant that millions of peasants, mainly from the South, were sucked into the cities, into the factories, to swell the ranks of the Italian proletariat.
By 1968 Italy was no longer the predominantly peasant country of 1948. Its cities grew rapidly and with this came a series of new social problems. The first signs of the coming storm were seen in the period 1958-63 with a series of very militant strikes, but the movement that reached its high point in 1969 started in 1966 with the engineering workers strike that was followed by a whole series of other sectors coming out. With this movement came the formation of the first rank and file factory committees in the engineering industry.
In 1967 there were the first stirrings of the student movement, with University occupations in several universities, and this naturally gravitated towards the labour movement. There was an instinctive coming together of workers and students in this period, and indication of what was to come.
What was to bring the situation to a head was a longstanding dispute with the government and the bosses over pensions. In December 1967 the trade union called off a strike over the question, thinking they could calm the movement down, but they were about to receive a shock. The year 1968 opened up with a series of strikes, during which the trade unions put a compromise deal to a ballot, but the workers rejected the proposal. This was the first clear signal that a conflict between the ranks of the unions and the leaders was brewing. The mood was so militant that the unions had to call a general strike which proved to be hugely successful; something the trade union leaders had not expected!
The next big battle was over regional wage differentials. After the Second World War the bosses had managed to impose a wage system where workers in the south received less than workers in the north. In 1968 the workers set about struggling for the abolition of these differentials. The two issues of pensions and wage differentials led to a powerful general strike in November 1968 and in March 1969 the bosses' confederation was forced to abolish the differentials.
With each mobilisation of the working class the bosses and the government were forced to retreat and make concessions. With each concession grew the confidence of the working class that then became even more determined to ask for more. The working class became conscious of its power and strength.
It was in the midst of this process that the French events erupted in May 1968, further radicalising and strengthening the will to struggle of the Italian workers. Throughout the whole year new layers of previously “dormant” workers started coming out in struggle. Factories in traditionally “backward” areas came out on strike spontaneously. Women started taking part in big numbers, often outdoing their male colleagues in militancy and determination.
With this radicalisation came the building of the Factory Councils, which represented a radical break from the previous trade union structures. These were committees elected by all the workers in a factory, with right of recall. In the autumn of 1969 these committees coordinated the struggle from below and challenged the bureaucracy that dominated the official unions, with an unprecedented wave of strikes.
Initially the sectarian left meant this was the beginning of the end for the official unions, but they were very mistaken. In the period 1968-77 the membership of the unions almost doubled! Faced which such a radical movement from below the trade union tops were forced to come out and officialise what had been an unofficial movement. They were forced to make radical-sounding speeches to satisfy their own ranks. They were forced to move to the left in words and actions.
This radicalisation of the leadership attracted millions of workers into the unions, who were joining because they wanted to fight. This further radicalised the whole trade union movement. The trade union bureaucrats were riding a tiger that they found difficult to dismount!
The difference between the Italian situation and the French was this. In France the movement developed into an all-out general strike with factory occupations. The workers went as far as they could go without actually overthrowing capitalism. It was an extremely intense battle to the end. It lasted a few weeks and then from the great heights it had reached, the French working class was betrayed by its own leaders.
In Italy, although it never reached a May 1968 situation, the movement lasted for years, for ten years in fact! It was an unprecedented situation that only really ended in 1979 with the first electoral setback of the Italian Communist Party after it had openly supported the Christian Democrat government. It took the Italian bourgeoisie many years of manoeuvring, of collaboration with the trade union tops, of many concessions, before they could get the situation under control.
What all this expressed was the immense power of the working class. In fact the Italian workers could have taken power not once but ten times. All that was missing was a leadership up to the task. Tragically there was no such leadership and eventually the movement was defeated and a new period was opened up, one of constant attacks on all the gains of the previous period. The 1970s and 1980s were years of falling strike figures and falling trade union membership.
Only in the recent period have we seen the beginnings of a recovery with a series of very militant strikes and even general strikes. The wheel of history has come full circle and a new opportunity is facing the Italian working class to change society. Now, it is necessary to learn from the mistakes of the past in order not to repeat them!
The revolutionary fervour that spread across the globe was also to have a dramatic impact on the North of Ireland. In periods of revolutionary upheavals movements in different countries can inspire and reinvigorate long-standing struggles at a rapid pace. The struggles against different forms of oppression get new infusions of energy from these struggles. This was the case with the Civil Rights movement in Ireland.
Alan Woods explains in detail how things developed.
“The Civil Rights movement was really a reflection of the international situation and especially the revolutionary movement in France in May 1968. This was entirely in line with Irish history. The revolt of the United Irishmen was inspired by the French revolution of 1789-93. The Easter Rising of 1916 was a direct result of the first imperialist World War. The students of the north of Ireland were no different to their counterparts in Paris. The Civil Rights movement began with a march of 2,500 demonstrators from Coalisland to Dungannon on Saturday, 24 August, 1968. Protestant bigots staged vicious attacks against the demonstrators. When the marchers attempted to cross Craigavon Bridge, the police made a baton charge. Riot equipment was used, stones thrown and 88 people were injured - 77 civilians and 11 police.
“It is important to note that the IRA had little or nothing to do with the Civil Rights movement, which was influenced by Marxism and revolutionary ideas. The movement contained both Catholics and Protestants. In particular the Derry Young Socialists played a key role, fighting the bigots on the barricades. On 19th April there was a ferocious battle in Derry in which the people fought back against their tormentors. The figures tell their own story. This time 209 police were injured, against 79 civilians. Faced with a barrage of petrol bombs, the authorities were forced to use armoured cars. The next day, O'Neill resigned and the whole reform programme was consigned to the dustbin.
“(…) On 18th March, the Civil Rights Association announced that it would continue and intensify its campaign of civil disobedience. It put forward a programme of transitional demands, including: One person, one vote in local government elections; votes at eighteen; an independent Boundaries Commission to determine electoral boundaries; a fair housing allocation system; anti-discrimination laws for employment; a review of the Special powers Act and disbandment of the B-Specials.”
In fact 1966 had been a turning point and as Alan Woods continues:
“A number of young people began to join the movement. They were radical in outlook and looking for the revolutionary road. However this did not fit in with the schemes of the then leadership of the Republican Movement. The latter did not have a revolutionary perspective and consequently were taken by surprise by the events of 1969, when the North was moving fast in the direction of civil war. On 12th August in the Catholic Bogside district of Derry the barricades went up in response to attacks by the combined forces of the RUC (Royal Ulster Constablery) and Protestant mobs. Having fought off the forces of reaction, the revolutionary youth raised Republican flags and proclaimed the Bogside Free Derry.”
“(…) The revolutionary potential was clearly present, but the revolution was not armed. What was needed was an armed workers defence force, based on the trade unions, on the lines of Connolly's Irish Citizen Army (ICA).
“(…) When there was no revolutionary force ready and able to take over the leadership, the forces of reaction raised their head. Fearing the development of a revolutionary movement in the North, the Irish bourgeoisie took steps to divert it along nationalist lines. As a key part of this strategy they deliberately split the IRA, which was too left wing for their liking. Large amounts of money were supplied to the right wing, conservative, militaristic elements to set up a rival organization, the Provisional IRA, in opposition to the "Officials", as they became known.
“(…) When the population of the Six Counties defiantly resisted the Stormont repression and fought the local forces of "law and order" to a standstill, the Stormont government had to call in the British army to suppress the insurgents. But they were not the only ones who wanted such an intervention. The truth is that both the British and Irish ruling classes were terrified of the prospect of social revolution in the Six Counties that could easily spread to the South and to Britain. They conspired together to crush the revolution at all costs.
“In Derry, thanks in no small measure to the Marxist leadership of the Young Socialists, the Bogside district was under the control of the Derry Citizens Defence Committee. Following a stone-throwing incident, the RUC began to attack. There was an imminent danger of a pogrom. As a result, the people of the Bogside and Creggan rose up to defend their areas, setting up barricades. Despite fierce fighting, the forces of the state were unable to penetrate their defences and enter the Bogside. Jack Lynch, the Fianna Fail prime minister in Dublin, made a broadcast in which he informed the people of Ireland that he was asking Britain to apply for a United Nations peacekeeping force, since Stormont was "no longer in control". This was a direct instigation to Britain to intervene in the North to re-establish order.
“The British government promptly took its cue from Dublin. On 14th August 1969 British troops were ordered into Derry by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan. The next day they entered Belfast. By the end of that week there were 6,000 British troops in the Six Counties. The excuse - accepted by many, including it must be stated the so called Lefts. But nothing was solved. In the five years of the O'Neill government only three people had died in sectarian incidents. In the summer of 1969 nine people were killed, 150 were wounded by gunfire, 500 houses were destroyed and over 2,000 people were made homeless. And that was nothing compared to the horrors that lay ahead.
“At first the British troops had been welcomed by many Catholics. But soon the real nature of the forces of British imperialism became clear. Their main purpose was to destroy the revolutionary movement that was developing in the North. Their main target was the "Communists", as they made clear. This aim was shared by the bourgeois rulers in the South, who used the Provisional IRA for this purpose. Nowadays it has been forgotten or is not known by many, but the Provos were viciously anti-Communist. Their activities included the burning of Marxist books. (…) To imagine that it was possible to defeat the might of the British army in single combat was madness, as subsequently became only too clear.
“(…) Yet the only hope for defeating reaction was to cut across the sectarian divide. This was possible, on condition that the correct policies and tactics had been pursued. Without any leadership there were many local initiatives to combat sectarianism. In August 1969 a meeting of 9,000 workers at the big Harland and Wolff shipyard declared their opposition to the sectarian intimidation of Catholics. Joint patrols of Catholic and Protestant workers were established in the Ardoyne and several other areas.
“By the summer of 1969 local defence groups - almost all of them non-sectarian - had been formed in Ballymurphy, Springhill, Turf Lodge, New Barnsley, Springmartin, Highfield and Clonard. If this tendency had been encouraged, and the patrols had been armed, an entirely different perspective would have opened up. Instead, the sectarian paramilitary organizations of both sides launched a vicious campaign of intimidation to drive people of the other religion from their homes and create separate enclaves. Families were burned out of their houses just on the basis of their supposed religious affiliation. This systematic criminal activity was intended to reinforce the sectarian divide and turn it into an abyss. It succeeded only too well.”11
As we can see from Alan Woods' analysis, initially the Civil Rights movement in Ireland in 1968 had all the potential to become a revolutionary movement of the Irish proletariat. What was lacking was a mass revolutionary party of the working class, capable of offering a way out. Lacking this, the ruling class was able to whip up sectarianism, pitting Catholic against Protestant, and thus cutting across the developing revolutionary movement.
The stormy tides of the 1968-69 revolution did not need much time to reach the shores of Latin America. Almost 500 years of European colonialism there were relentless struggles of the peoples of this region against it. In the twentieth century due to the socio economic patterns of combined and uneven development under imperialist rule sharpened the contradictions in most countries of Central and Latin America. These have been the victims of some of the most vicious and brutal military dictatorships. These despotic regimes crushed the revolutionary uprisings against imperialist stranglehold, capitalist exploitation and Military rule. US imperialism had been instrumental in setting up, patronizing and imposing these brutal repressive military regimes. Not for nothing is there an ironic and legendary joke in this continent that goes like this: “Question: Why are there no military coups in USA? Answer: because there is no US embassy in the USA.”
Historically the most well known movement -and its most barbaric repression -that took place in the year 1968 was in Mexico. In the backyard of US imperialism, with a common border of about 5000kms, Mexico was very important for the American ruling class in its lust for exploiting its resources including human labour and other strategic interests of US imperialism. These events took place close to the time of 1968 Olympics.
Mexico was dramatically affected by revolutionary upheavals worldwide. Mexico's economy was actually growing quite fast, within the context of a general worldwide economic upswing. But this growth was very unequally spread, with a gaping social and economic polarization between the rich and poor. The President wanted to show to the world that Mexico was a “modern” country, and his opportunity came in the 1968 Olympics, which were held in Mexico City.
The workers and youth had another idea. As in many parts of the world 1968 proved to be a year of revolution in Mexico also. This was dramatically confirmed on August 27th, when about 400,000 people converged on the centre of Mexico City chanting abuse against the president.
The movement started with the students but after severe police repression it began to spread to the workers. The movement initially began with two demonstrations, one in solidarity with the Cuban revolution and another by polytechnic students protesting against a police intervention in their schools. Both demonstrations suffered police repression. But the students would not be cowed. They organised to spread the movement and call a general strike of all students. Soon the demonstrations began to grow in size and number, from 30,000 at the beginning to half a million a month later.
The students consciously turned to the population at large, going to the neighbourhoods, the markets, bus stations, with leaflets. The workers responded magnificently. One example is when tanks were brought in to the main square of Mexico City to disperse a student demonstration. The President, Diaz Ordaz, in an attempt to show he had mass support, brought in thousands of government workers in a counter-demonstration. But those very same workers began shouting, “We have been transported here; we are the sheep of Diaz Ordaz.”
Then a new rally was planned for October 2, just ten days before the Olympics were to open. The government was keen to put an end to the rising wave of revolt in the country, and present the country to the world as calm and under control.
At least 5000 students and workers gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, calling for democratic reforms, such as autonomy for the country's universities, the freeing of political prisoners and social justice. But the security forces were waiting for them. At a certain point agents provocateurs opened fire, giving the army the “excuse” to open start shooting into the vast crowd with machineguns. The estimates of those killed that day range from anything from 150 to 500. Hundreds were arrested, and many disappeared. To this day no one knows what happened to them.
The object of the massacre was clear. It was to destroy the leadership of the student movement and put an end to the movement that was spreading more and more, involving wider layers of the working class.
Earlier this year we had a hue and cry about the Olympics being held in Beijing, after the repression of the movement in Tibet. But back in 1968 there were no official complaints about the events in Mexico City, no US condemnation then! In fact, the truth about what had happened was not revealed for another three years!
This brutal massacre put an end to the movement… for the time being. However, the effects of the movement were to be felt for years to come. It showed quite clearly that the old one-party rule of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) was in the process of decay. The 1968 movement was the first crack that was later to become a gaping chasm and eventually lead to the fall of the regime and prepare the ground for a new period, which we are still living in today.
The lessons of that tragic experience have come down to the new generations with the added experience of the rigged 2006 elections at the behest of US imperialism. The Marxist tendency in Mexico, working under the banner of El Militante, is emerging as a significant force of the revolutionary left in Mexico. Already it has been the subject of state repression. And this in itself is a proof of its growth and development. In the coming years El Militante, with a revolutionary programme and a Marxist internationalist strategy, can become the torch bearer of the first real socialist victory in central Latin America, and above all in the backyard of mighty US imperialism that is a “giant with feet of clay”.
At the end of the Second World War the imperialist powers made a deal with Stalinist Russia which divided Europe according to spheres of influence. On this basis it was agreed that Russia would have most of Eastern Europe. This was merely the recognition of the fact that Russia had now become a major world power and dominated that region militarily.
However, part of that deal also entailed betrayal of the revolution in the West. Thus potentially victorious movements in countries like Greece, Italy and France were defeated. In Eastern Europe the movement was also held back as Stalin imposed regimes that were modelled on the bureaucratic caricature of Socialism that Russia had become.
The arch reactionary British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill confirmed that this deal (with Stalin) had taken place at the Potsdam summit in October 1944 thus noted:
"The moment was apt for business, so I said, 'Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don't let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece, and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?' While this was being translated I wrote out on a half sheet of paper: Romania: Russia 90 per cent, The others 10 per cent; Greece: Great Britain (in accord with USA) 90 per cent, Russia 10 per cent; Yugoslavia: 50-50 per cent; Hungary: 50-50 per cent; Bulgaria: Russia 75 per cent, the others 25 per cent.
"I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to sit down. After this there was a long silence. The penciled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, 'might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an off-hand manner? Let us burn the paper.' 'No, you keep it' said Stalin."12
And according to Churchill, "Stalin adhered strictly and faithfully to our agreement of October and in all the long weeks of fighting the Communists in the streets of Athens not one word of reproach came from Pravda or Izvestia".13 Thus was the Greek revolution betrayed!
As Ted Grant explained in Stalinism in the Postwar World, (June 1951):
“In Europe, the victory of Russia in the war and the upsurge of the masses following the defeat of German-Italian fascism also developed a tremendous revolutionary wave which threatened to sweep capitalism away over the entire continent. However, the victory of Russia in the war had complex and contradictory consequences. Temporarily, but nevertheless for an entire historical period, Stalinism had been enormously strengthened.”14
The imperialists were forced to accept Russian hegemony of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia which they would never have agreed to concede even to reactionary Tsarism. The Russian Stalinist bureaucracy had achieved the domination of the region beyond the wildest dreams of Russia under the Tsars.
Comrade Ted Grant in his brilliant work “Russia: from Revolution to counter revolution” gives an in depth analysis of this process.
“The process whereby capitalism was overthrown in Eastern Europe, and Stalinism extended, took place in a peculiar way, as explained by the author of the present work in documents published at that time. The vacuum in the state power in Eastern Europe, following the defeat of the Nazis and their quislings, was filled by the forces of the conquering Red Army. The weak bourgeoisie of these areas had been largely exterminated, absorbed as quislings by German imperialism or reduced to minor partners of the Nazis during the years of the war. They had been relatively weak in Eastern Europe even before the war, as the states of this region were largely semi-colonies of the great powers on the lines of the South American states. The pre-war regimes suffered from a chronic crisis due to the Balkanisation of the area and the incapacity of the ruling class to solve the problems of even the bourgeois democratic revolution. They were nearly all military police dictatorships of a weak character without any real roots among the masses.”15
In spite of all this, Eastern Europe was to be shaken several times by mass movements challenging the rule of the bureaucracy, the most famous being Hungary 1956 where we had the making of the political revolution. That rising was drowned in blood when the Russian tanks went in.
However, the rising world tide of the 1968-69 revolution could not be curtailed or stopped even by the so-called iron curtain. The discontent amongst the masses that had accumulated against the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe was ignited once more by the events of 1968 in France and elsewhere. Among the East European regimes most affected was Czechoslovakia.
The movement became known as the “Prague Spring”. Again it was the students who gave the initial spark to the movement.
The students, demonstrated in the winter of 1967-68 when the electricity failed and the lights went out in their hostels. They marched through the streets carrying posters bearing the short but clear slogan: "Give us light."
As Alan Woods, in his article Czechoslovakia (1968): Stalinism rocked by crisis, wrote at the time:
“The Secret Police brutally attacked the demonstration, wounding several students. It was a measure of the nervousness of the bureaucracy then that they strove to pacify the students by offering to pay the hospital bills of the injured demonstrators. This offer was met by the bold demand that those responsible for the outrage must be punished and the press must publish all the facts about the incident. The student leaders warned that if the papers did not tell the truth they would march to the factories and explain the facts to the workers. (…)”
“From the outset, Dubcek who coincidentally became the leader of this movement aimed to enlist the support primarily of the intellectuals and students, who have been the most vocal in his support. The Czech bureaucracy was clearly frightened that the ferment among the intelligentsia would spread to the workers. The lessons of the "Crooked Circle" in Poland and the "Petöfi Circle" in Hungary, whose agitation sparked off the violent mass movements in 1956, was not lost on Dubcek and the other bureaucrats. They were prepared to grant concessions temporarily, especially to the intelligentsia, in order to preserve their own privileged position. These reforms were far less sweeping than the reforms carried out by Gomulka in 1956. Why then did the Russian bureaucracy choose to intervene?
“The first thing which alarmed Brezhnev and the leaders of the Russian bureaucracy was the rapid development of the mass movement in Czechoslovakia. For all the timidity of Dubcek's reforms (it now emerges that Dubcek himself was a 'compromise' candidate of the Central Committee, i.e. not even the most radical of the bureaucrats!) they undoubtedly acted as a catalyst to the profound feelings of discontent that were welling up in the working class.
“The split in the bureaucracy precipitated an unparalleled outburst of discussion, protest meetings and demonstrations. In every factory, college and village a furious discussion raged. From all over the country resolutions poured in demanding the sacking of Novotny and the speeding up of reforms. For the first time, meetings of the CP themselves were the scene of noisy discussions, criticism and even the removal of candidates from the official lists. An attempted coup of Novotny followers merely acted as a whip to stir up the masses further. The movement was gathering impetus. The bureaucracy was forced to swim along with the current, to grant reform after reform. (…)”
“The movement in Czechoslovakia was nowhere as highly developed as the movement in Hungary or Poland in 1956. There were no workers' councils, nor were the workers armed, as in Hungary, where the Russians intervened. (…)”
“The tragedy of Czechoslovakia was that the Czech people found themselves leaderless, disarmed and unprepared. The Dubcek clique preferred to see the country occupied rather than arm the working class. For all his brave words, Dubcek was prepared to eat dirt, rather than risk sparking off the spontaneous mass movement of the working class. (…)”
“The Czech events, although far less advanced than the Polish and Hungarian events of 1956, had shaken to the core every one of the bureaucratic cliques in Eastern Europe and Russia.
“In March, as a direct result of the ferment in Czechoslovakia, riots broke out in Poland, in which at one stage, a crowd of 10,000 people wrecked the Ministry of Culture, shouting "long live Czechoslovakia", and battling with the police. And whereas in 1956, the students and workers sang Polish nationalist songs, in 1968 they began their demonstration by singing the 'Internationale'. (…)”
“Even more significant were the disturbances in Yugoslavia. Inspired by the French events, and influenced by the crisis of the Yugoslav economy and the wide-spread suffering of the masses, students in Belgrade staged protest demonstrations against the wealth and privileges of the bureaucracy, demanding the equalization of salaries, an end to the power of the "red bourgeoisie" and to the policies of breaking up the planned economy and handing back the state-owned property to private owners.
“The students even took over a whole suburb and ran it for a time. The students' leaflets received an enthusiastic reception from the workers. Newspapers reported people standing in groups, studying and discussing the views expressed. Such was the sympathy of the whole population that violent repression was out of the question. The "arbiter" Tito had to step forward and promise to "look into" the students' demands. (…)
“The growing unrest, on the one hand, and the increasing nervousness of the bureaucracy on the other was clearly revealed at the recent World Youth Festival in Sofia, where the usual rigged Stalinist puppet-show of "Peace and Friendship" gave way to splits, disagreements and open violence, when the Bulgarian police beat up a number of delegates and cameramen. (…)”
“A week after the invasion [of Czechoslovakia], the effects were already apparent in the most repressive Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe including East Germany.
“Attempts by Ulbricht to get the East German workers to sign petitions in support of the action of the Warsaw Pact met with refusals to sign. Hundreds of people entered the Czech embassy and other buildings of Czech delegations in defiance of the government, which had surrounded these buildings with police.
“There was even a demonstration of 4,000 workers at Eisenhüttenstadt protesting against the invasion.
“In spite of all the ravings of the Ulbricht press, the jamming of Western broadcasts and the banning of Czechoslovak German language newspapers, the truth had seeped through to the East German working class. (…)”
“In Russia itself, for all the striking progress that had been made by the nationalized, planned economy, the figure for wastage of production had been put as high as 30-50%. Along this road, no further progress could be made. The needs of the planned economies themselves demanded an end to the rule of the parasites and the introduction of a democratic plan of production to meet the needs of the people themselves.
“Such a plan could have only succeeded on the basis of a Socialist Federation of Eastern Europe and Russia. The continuation of the old capitalist national divisions was the most powerful brake on the productive forces of Eastern Europe. It was a monstrous distortion of socialism that "socialist" Rumania and "socialist" Russia actually have territorial disputes. (…)”
“Most criminal of all was the spectacle of Russian and Chinese divisions facing each other over a completely artificial line drawn up in the nineteenth century by the Russian Tsar and the Chinese Emperor!
“The survival of these senseless antiquated national divisions was not the result of "nationalism" among the working classes of the East. They were never consulted about it. It was purely and simply the result of selfish greed and narrow nationalism of the bureaucratic cliques, who were not prepared to sacrifice an inch of "their" territory, to share their privileges, power and income with the other bureaucrats. (…)”
“As in 1953 and 1956, the capitalist press had had a field-day, exploiting the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia as "proof" of the barbarity of Communism, the impossibility of combining socialism and democracy, etc., etc.
“The resulting depths of cynicism to which the representatives of "Western Democracy" could sink was typified by the crocodile tears of US president Johnson, who was waging a barbarous war against the people of Vietnam on behalf of World Imperialism. The words "Freedom" and "Democracy" on the lips of these gentlemen are made to smell rotten. (…)”
“But now, in a manner which could hardly have been foreseen, the revolutionary movement is coming to a head in all the main areas of the globe simultaneously.
“The real balance of forces on a world scale is strikingly revealed in turn by the events in Vietnam, France and Czechoslovakia.”16
The capitalist system in the West was becoming thoroughly rotted. From being a progressive system, which rapidly developed the productive forces of the world, it was turning into its opposite. And the tumultuous events in France and beyond were a confirmation of this.
But also in the East, Stalinism had entered into a phase of crisis, which threatened not only the parasitic Stalinist cliques of the East, but also the capitalist systems of the West. The events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia were an anticipation of what was to come. They anticipated the later crisis that was to bring all the East European regimes tumbling down in 1989. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a viable workers' alternative, the collapse of Stalinism ushered in the return of capitalism and this was to give a temporary respite to imperialism.
It used this collapse of Stalinism and capitalist restoration in Russia and Eastern Europe to aggressively launch a capitalist onslaught that has devastated the majority of humankind. Unprecedented poverty, misery and destitution have created hatred that will lead to much larger revolutionary upheavals in the period ahead. The overthrow of this rotten capitalism through a socialist revolution is the only alternative for human survival.
The USA, the Vietnam War and radicalisation
Such was the power of the 1968 movement that it affected the very bastion of imperialism, the United States of America. The movement brought together the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement and the student revolt, as well as a growing radical mood among the working class.
Such was the force of this mass revolt that the so-called “warrior president Lyndon B. Johnson” was forced to retreat. On 31 March, 1968 the president came under such pressure that he was forced to announce that he was abandoning his re-election campaign and that peace talks with the Vietnamese Liberation forces would soon begin. Literally within a few minutes students on campuses across the country were cheering.
The war in Vietnam, which completely transformed the situation in the U.S.A., did not begin in a planned way. The U.S.A. was sucked into it almost by accident. It began with a covert operation, the sending of officers and “advisers” to prop up an unpopular and corrupt government against its own people. This is the usual style of U.S. imperialism! The regime of Ngo Dinh Diem was guilty of vicious repression in South Vietnam. Buddhist monks burned themselves alive in protest. Finally, Diem was assassinated by his own generals.
Three weeks later, the President of the U.S.A. suffered the same fate. Kennedy was succeeded by his Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who immediately announced that he was “not going to lose Vietnam”. “Win the war!” was his clear instruction. But despite all its tremendous wealth and military firepower, the U.S.A. did not win the war. On the contrary, Vietnam was the first war America ever lost. Korea was a draw. But in the steamy jungles and swamps of Vietnam, the Americans suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of a barefoot army.
In order to step up its military activities in Vietnam (as usual) an incident was required. This was (as usual) manufactured in the so-called Bay of Tonkin incident. It was alleged that a U.S. warship, the Maddox, had been fired upon by North Vietnamese naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. For years it was believed that the U.S. navy had been the target of unprovoked “Communist aggression”. That was completely untrue. Even at the time, the captain of the Maddox admitted that none of his crew had made “actual visual sightings” of North Vietnamese naval vessels, and not one sailor either on the Maddox or the Turner Joy had actually heard North Vietnamese gunfire. The opening of the Hanoi archives has proven conclusively that the North Vietnamese did not fire on the American ships, which were actually inside Vietnamese territorial water at the time. Yet the American public was persuaded to back a foreign war on the basis of false information and not for the last time, as we know.
“The very next day Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnamese naval bases and an oil depot. It was the start of a huge campaign of bombing that caused havoc in Vietnam, killing a large number of civilians and destroying its industry and infrastructure. On television, President Johnson declared: “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense but with positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak to you tonight.”17
There was not a word of truth in any of this. Johnson and co. had decided to send U.S. troops to Vietnam and that was that. In the same way, George W. Bush and his friends decided long before 11 September to invade Iraq and lied through their teeth about the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to pose a deadly threat to American security to sell it to the public.
“In the years that followed, high explosives, napalm and cluster bombs rained down on Vietnam. The U.S. Air Force dropped toxic chemicals, including the notorious Agent Orange on forests, allegedly to kill the vegetation and deny shelter to the Vietnamese guerrillas. A total of 18 million gallons of herbicide were dropped. Even today U.S. servicemen are dying from the effects of just handling these toxic agents, especially cancer. One shudders to think of the effects they had on the Vietnamese men, women and children on whom they were dropped. Tests have shown that the South Vietnamese have levels of dioxin three times higher than those in U.S. citizens. It will take many years to flush these toxins out of the fragile ecosystem. This was chemical warfare pursued with a vengeance!
“In all, the U.S. dropped more tons of explosives on Vietnam than were dropped by all sides in the Second World War. After bombing one village to rubble, one U.S. officer was quoted as saying: 'We had to destroy the town in order to save it.' They are still 'destroying towns in order to save them' today. Ask the inhabitants of Fallujah. And the tactic of dropping tons of poisonous chemicals still continues in Colombia, where herbicides are being used in the so-called war against drugs. The damage to people, vegetation and wild life will be the same as in Vietnam. But nobody talks about that.
“The name of this particular operation was 'Rolling Thunder'. There must be somebody in the Pentagon, some frustrated poet, whose sole function is to think up picturesque names for such acts of barbarity. Lately we had 'Operation Shock and Awe'. It is a pity such talented people were not around at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, or Attila the Hun might have called his activities: 'Operation Sweetness and Light'. No matter what the name was, it did not succeed. Once an entire people stands up and says 'no!' to a foreign invader, no amount of troops, guns, bombs or chemical agents will make any difference, as George W. Bush will learn to his cost in Iraq. The Vietnamese continued to resist. More and more U.S. troops had to be sent in and more and more body bags were being flown home.”
Alan Woods explains in his book Marxism and USA,
“At first the U.S. authorities simply hid the facts of the growing escalation from the American public. They continued to lie and deceive with the active assistance of what is known in some quarters as the free press. But as Abe Lincoln pointed out: you can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Slowly, by degrees, and not all at the same time, the people of the United States became aware of what the true situation was.
“The suffering of the Vietnamese population will never be fully known. Apart from the huge number killed and maimed, the war caused many other human casualties. The relentless bombing, shelling and defoliation drove tens of thousands of peasants from the countryside to the outskirts of the big cities where they lived in humiliating poverty. The traditional structures of Vietnamese village life were shattered. Young girls became prostitutes for the U.S. soldiers.
“A drug culture flourished, which later fed back into the cities of the U.S.A., with devastating results. In 1971 the Pentagon calculated that nearly 30 percent of the U.S. troops in Vietnam had taken heroin or opium, while smoking marijuana was commonplace. Attempts to stamp out the drug trade met with the opposition of the South Vietnamese puppet regime, which was heavily involved in it. That was an indication of the rottenness of the regime the U.S.A. was trying to prop up.
“By the end of 1967 the U.S. was spending $20 billion a year on the Vietnam War, which contributed massively to a balance of payments deficit of $7 billion. By the end of 1968, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam was over 500,000. Towards the end of the war, the U.S. troops in Vietnam were completely demoralized. They understood the situation, that they were fighting an unwinnable war. The Vietnamese were fighting a just war of national liberation, while the U.S. army was a hated army of foreign occupation. In any army there is an element of killers and sadists, and in such a situation atrocities and brutality against civilians became routine. Eventually, these horrors became known at home, with the massacre at My Lai among the most infamous. The supposed moral justification for the war was blasted to pieces just as in Iraq today.
“In January 1968, President Johnson announced that the U.S.A. was winning the war. This was immediately blown apart by the Tet offensive. The Vietnamese mounted simultaneous attacks in more than a hundred cities. In Saigon a sapper unit even managed to penetrate the U.S. embassy compound. These events were shown all over America on the television screens to a shocked public. This cruelly exposed the fact that for all its military might, the U.S.A. had not succeeded. The war finished Johnson's political career. Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, defeated L.B.J.'s Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the Presidential elections of November 1968.”18
As we have already mentioned the anti-war movement intermingled with the movement for Civil Rights. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. This provoked the anger of the Blacks in the United States as more than 100 cities erupted, with flames reaching within six blocks of the White House. Such was the power of the movement that it took 70,000 federal troops to restore order.
The Black revolt of April 1968 was the culmination of an urban black rebellion that had been unfolding since the summer of 1964, in fact it reflected a process that had been brewing since the 1950s. Now it reached fever pitch and shook US society to its core. With this came a radicalisation of the youth in particular who turned to radical and revolutionary politics.
This turn to revolutionary politics was embodied in one of the central figures of the time, Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965. In the last year of his life he began to move towards a class analysis of the black question, drawing the conclusion that racism was an integral part of capitalism, that it was used to divide the workers and thus guarantee the profits of the capitalists.
The French events of 1968 were to accelerate this process. And the Tet offensive at the same time revealed that the giant did indeed have “feet of clay”. Tangible evidence of this was the upsurge in student protests. In March 1968 saw the first University occupation at Howard University with the student winning most of their demands. Another occupation followed at Columbia in May, where one thousand students occupied the University. At San Francisco State University we saw a four-and-half month long strike. Again the University administration was forced to accept most demands.
This mood started infecting the working class, with wildcat strikes mushrooming. When this affected the auto industry the Wall Street Journal was forced to admit that, "the revolution of the sixties had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system - the point of mass production, the assembly line."
The upsurge in rank and file workers' protests had an impact on the official unions, where they were forced to take on a more radical stance, leading many strikes. In fact in the years 1969-70 they led far more strikes than at any time since 1946.
Such was the intensity of the conflict in American society that at one point the state forces opened fire on protesting students, killing four white students at Kent State university and two Black students at Jackson State university. There were strikes and protests at over 440 US campuses, with four million students taking part.
An opinion poll carried out in 1971 revealed that up to three million people were of the view that a revolution was necessary in the United States. Such was the impact of 1968 on the workers and youth of the most powerful capitalist country in the world.
The purpose of this book is to elaborate on the revolutionary events that unfolded in Pakistan in 1968, the year of revolution. It was part of an international tirade of revolutionary uprising in that period. May 1968 in France was clearly the most advanced revolutionary upsurge in the advanced capitalist countries. As we have observed, Italy was also affected as was Mexico. Even the mighty United States could not escape this process.
It is also true that the radical mood affected even what might seem to have been relatively stable countries. In Britain for example we witnessed a growing level of strikes, which culminated in the mass movement against the hated Industrial Relations Act in 1971. Such was the mood that there was talk of a possible general strike, the first that there would have been since 1926.
Even that much-loved (by the reformists) “model” of class peace and class collaboration, Sweden was affected. Throughout 1969 strikes broke out in many places, and were more extensive and violent than at any previous time in the 25 years since 1945. Germany also saw extreme radicalisation of the students and growing militancy of the working class.
With some delay Spain, Portugal and Greece were affected. At the time of the 1968 wave of revolts these three countries were under the jackboot of military dictatorships. But in the early 1970s there were two mass movements brewing. In Portugal this combined with the liberation struggles in Mozambique and Angola, bringing down the hated dictatorship. At one point such was the situation in Portugal that the British Times even commented that the game was up. They felt that capitalism could not be saved. In Spain the decades-old Franco regime finally came tumbling down and in Greece the mass movement removed the hated Colonels' regime. In all three countries we witnessed pre-revolutionary situations where the workers could have taken power.
The impact on the former colonial countries
In the same period we had a parallel development in the former colonial countries where a whole series of countries saw social transformations that led to the setting up of regimes similar to Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. There was the example of the revolution in South Yemen in 1967, which Ted Grant commented on in his 1986 article The Colonial Revolution and Civil War in South Yemen:
“The overthrow of British imperialism, which was forced to retreat from Aden and South Yemen because of the movement of the masses, marked the beginning of the revolution in South Yemen. However on the basis of bourgeois democracy, with the crisis which exists of world capitalism, a crisis above all in the colonial areas, it was clearly revealed that the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois democrats were incapable of taking action against landlordism and carrying the bourgeois democratic revolution to a conclusion.
“Thus the most revolutionary wing of the revolutionary forces was compelled to take power into its own hands. But in order to eliminate feudalism and landlordism they were compelled to go further and eliminate capitalism or rather those elements of capitalism that existed in South Yemen at that time.
“South Yemen declared itself a 'Marxist' state, i.e. in reality it was a military-police-bonapartist dictatorship, basing itself on a nationalised economy but with the support of the overwhelming majority, especially of the active population. The Yemeni revolutionaries had as their model the revolution in Cuba, in Russia and of course in China.”19
We saw a similar development in Somalia in 1969, where the former Chief-of-Police, Siad Barre led and organised a coup which eventually finished up like South Yemen where these military officers discovered that they too were “Marxist-Leninist” and modelled themselves on Soviet Russia. In the 1960s we saw Syria and Burma go down the same road. In 1974 there was the military coup in Ethiopia that brought to power the Derg which had been formed in June 1974 by military officers after a widespread mutiny in the armed forces. That regime also modelled itself on Stalinist Russia. The regimes that came to power in Angola and Mozambique after the defeat of Portuguese imperialism in 1974 were of a similar nature.
Ted Grant, writing in 1975 explained the process:
“The Ethiopian revolution, like that of Syria and Burma, seems to be developing on the lines of sections of the officer corps, leaning on the support of the workers and peasants, purging the country of feudalism and then with the incapacity and feebleness of the native bourgeois carrying the revolution through by expropriating the bourgeoisie which has shown itself incapable of leading the fight for the development of a modern economy. With the backwardness of the country, the limited understanding of the military caste leadership leads them to accept "socialism", i.e. the military-bureaucratic caste system on the model of Russia, China and Cuba, as the solution to the problems of economic expansion so imperatively necessary for the country. The economic might of Russia and China, which is abolishing backwardness with seven-league boots, acts as a mighty magnet. The narrow national limitedness of the rulers in Stalinist states far from repelling them acts as a mighty attraction. Not least of the attractions consists in the organisation of "socialism" and the privileges of the military and bureaucratic castes, which the intelligentsia and military middle layers would consider to be the natural order of society.
“Consequently, because the development of [the] productive forces is hampered by the elements of capitalism and big business which are subordinate to, and collaborators of, imperialism, they are swept away. In a twisted version of the permanent revolution this lower officer caste becomes - for a period - the unconscious agent of history, in carrying through the necessary tasks of the state-ification of the economy.
“All these processes are due to the delay of the proletarian revolution in the advanced countries. But they constitute the lappings at the edges and the undermining of the foundations of world capitalism. Not accidentally most of the bourgeois Bonapartist dictators and the rulers of most of the colonial countries which have gained their independence rule in the name of a mythical form of "socialism". This is because of the profound effects in the consciousness of myriads of the oppressed of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. But this in turn for a whole epoch has reinforced the hold of the Russian bureaucracy over the Russian masses. At the same time it has strengthened the power of the reformist and Stalinist parties in the industrialised countries and deepened their nationalist limited outlook and de-generation.”20
Since the collapse of Stalinist Russia, and its parallel in China with the adoption of the “market”, i.e. capitalism, all these processes have unravelled with most of these regimes drifting back towards capitalism, in some cases after internal conflict and upheaval such as the civil war in Yemen. But the return to capitalism has solved none of the problems. On the contrary, it has exacerbated them. A new wave of struggle is now being prepared, but this time the whole world is affected.
Venezuela and Latin America are at the heart of this process. And what we see is that just as world capitalism has entered one if its deepest ever crises in history, the concept of socialism is back on the agenda!
Almost a quarter of a century after the Second World War the youth and proletariat on a world scale entered the arena of history, to once again take their destiny into their own hands, feeling the experience of their own strength, of their revolutionary capacity and the valour of the labouring and exploited classes. This mighty movement registered in that epoch showed that revolution and socialist transformation was totally possible and practicable.
Although defeated, the events of 1968 shall not go in vain. As Trotsky said, “No struggle ever goes in vain”. The imprint left on the realm of world history by the 1968-69 revolt cannot be removed. Describing that revolutionary epoch and the situation that developed in the following period and up till today, Alan Woods summed up in his article on the 40th anniversary of the French Revolution (1st May 2008):
“We have no time for those petty bourgeois ex-revolutionaries who talk about 1968 in sentimental and nostalgic terms as if it were ancient history of no practical relevance to the world we live in. Sooner or later the events of 1968 will reappear on an even higher level. Which country is the most likely candidate for this scenario? It could well be France, but it could also be Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain or any one of a number of other countries, and not only in Europe. We look forward to this. We desire it and we are preparing for it. We are striving to prepare the vanguard so that the next time we will be successful. And on this glorious proletarian anniversary we say: The Revolution is dead. Long live the Revolution!”21
Revolutions are not every day occurrences. It can take years, decades, for a new opportunity to arise. It is our duty to learn the vital lessons from those gigantic events, those historical moments of 1968-69. In truth the most important lesson drawn by Leon Trotsky exactly 70 years ago is once again the decisive and most crucial lessons from the 1968 revolutionary movement of 40 years ago. At the founding congress of the 4th International in 1938 Trotsky wrote: “The historical crisis of human mankind has been reduced today to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.”
Trotsky was brutally assassinated just two years later in 1940 in his exile in Mexico by a Stalinist agent. The balance of forces changed tremendously after the Second World War. Western imperialism got a respite from the betrayals of the Social Democratic and Stalinist leaderships of the workers' traditional parties. The longest upswing of world capitalism in history from 1948 to 1973 was one of the factors that gave some credence to social democracy. This to some extent delayed the revolution in the west.
On the other hand in Russia, China and Eastern Europe the rise and spread of Stalinism, strengthened the authority of the 'Communist Parties' for a whole period. The planned economy introduced for the first time in history by the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky provided steady and in some cases dramatic growth for a whole historical period. Even this Stalinist caricature of the October foundation of this economy gave tremendous growth rates and impetus to science, technology and production. This led to a rapid rise in the living standards in these Stalinist states.
In turn these states created a lot of illusions and also enormous ideological confusion amongst the toiling masses and left leaders especially in the colonial countries. Hence the developments again became impediments to the revolutionary upheavals of 1968-69 and derailed the potential socialist victories into tragic defeats.
However, since then the collapse of Stalinism on the one hand and the excruciating agony brought onto the human race by this crisis ridden, bloodletting capitalist system has solved nothing. The vast majority of the human race has been forced into intolerable conditions. Life has become unbearable for the majority people on this planet. And with every passing day it worsens. This cannot go on forever and it cannot crush or remove the will and determination of humankind to struggle for the survival of its very existence.
Nothing is wasted in history; it all has a purpose. In the last few decades of reaction and onslaught of the ruling classes the credibility and authority of reformism and Stalinism within the labour movement has been severely diminished.
An epoch is opening up now where we see the predictions and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism being vindicated over and over again. Now we will see new movements and uprisings. Class struggle is back on the agenda. The revolutionary movement will erupt sooner rather than later. However, history does not repeat itself in exactly the same way; it repeats on a higher plane. Thus we will see a new 1968-69, more generalised, more global, and on a higher level and with greater zeal and vigour. And this time we must make sure that the errors of the past are not repeated, that we don not face once more a series of defeats.
Our task is to build the International Marxist Tendency and develop it as a leading force on this planet. We must make sure that this time round the voice of genuine Marxism is not a voice in the wilderness. In all countries we must strive to establish the Tendency as a recognised force within the labour movement. It must be organised and prepared to harness the energy of these massive upheavals of the youth and toilers. A successful socialist transformation, a socialist victory in such conditions will be on the order of the day. The genuine communist future, through which the ultimate emancipation of the toiling masses will be achieved, will not be far away.
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1 Ted Grant, The Unbroken Thread, (Fortress), p. 414
2 Dual power in France A Militant leaflet, May 1968
3 Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 12.
4 London Times 21.5.68
5 Financial Times, London 20.5.68
6 Times, London 23.5.68
7 Times, London 24.5.68
8 Times, London 21.5.68
11 Alan Woods, “The revolutionary dialectic of Republicanism - An Open Letter to Irish Republicans, (Part eight)”, October 2003
12 W. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 227-8
13 Ibid, op. cit p. 229
14 Ted Grant, The Unbroken Thread, Fortress Publications, p. 167
15 Ted Grant, Russia from Revolution to Counter-Revolution, p. 227-228
16 Alan Woods, “Czechoslovakia (1968): Stalinism rocked by crisis”, September 1968
17 Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, Cold War, p. 216.
18 Alan Woods, Marxism and USA
19 Ted Grant, The Unbroken Thread, Fortress Publications
20 Ted Grant, “The Iberian Revolution - Marxism and the historical development of the international situation”, p. 17, 1975