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Every Generation Does Not Get Its 1968


I recently read Tariq Ali’s spectacular telling of his political coming of age, Street Fighting Man: An Autobiography of the Sixties (Verso, 2005).

Originally published in 1987, the book has been reissued at just the right moment, at least for me. Had I read this when it first came out, I would perhaps have been annoyed. Those were my sixties, the 1980s. Us college students in California had been active in many, many struggles against Reaganism: the budget cuts, the wars on El Salvador and Grenada, the collaboration with the Afrikaner government in South Africa and the suppression of the liberation struggles across southern AfricaÅ ..and on.

In 1987, just about when this book first came out, I was active in the second of Jesse Jackson’s attempts to fashion a political force of the Left. The Rainbow Coalition provided the life raft for us young people who came of age in the interregnum between the ’60s and the anti-globalization explosion. I remember licking envelopes or doing something like that when a couple “of the ’60s” began to regale the rest of us with what it was like back in the day. Same old saw: the big movements, the idealism, etc.

My friends and I had been convinced that the myth of the ’60s had been crafted by the media to create an immense sense of futility among the students, and to make those of us who wanted to create a progressive political project either guilty for being in a carefree generation or angry with our peers. The “60s” oppressed us. Every generation does not get its 1968, but all young people find a way to bring their hopes before a world tired into submission. No doubt the upsurge of the ’60s was dramatic. The powerful rebellions around the world in that long decade are often described as a movement of youth or of students. The exuberance of the generation born after the end of the Second World War and the start of decolonization had decided to settle accounts on the streets with regimes that had failed their own precepts.

Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins provided a very useful summary of the global events that rocked one year of that decade, 1968, and showed what widely dispersed social forces took to the streets to rock the world (1968: Marching in the Street, Free Press, 1998).

From Pakistan to Mexico, we get a sense of the students and the workers and their wide-ranging demands for liberation of work, home and body.

For a host or reasons (too detailed to go into in this commentary), capitalism came in for concerted attack across the planet. Motivated by sweet dreams of freedom, young and old joined hands to re-envision the system ­in the advanced industrial states they fought against economic and sexual repression, in eastern Europe they fought against civil repression, and in the Third World they fought against the persistence of collaborationist relations between the governments and imperialism. The revival of active anti-systemic mass culture terrified many in the establishment, and it provided fodder for the revanchism of Thatcher and Reagan.

Fredrich Hayek, the God of both Thatcher and Reagan, had warned in 1944 and then again in the 1970s that any attempt to create justice in the world would end in the re-creation of Buchenwald or the Gulag. The anti-systemic jouissance of the ’60s ended in a serfdom, but one that was engineered by the enemies of the students and workers. Tariq Ali’s autobiographical narrative begins in 1949, when as a young boy in Pakistan, he heard the ground move from the East. Inspired by the Chinese Revolution, a railway workers strike resounded with the slogan, “We shall take the Chinese road, brothers! The Chinese road.”

To start the 60s in the Pakistani 1940s is not a biographical conceit, but a prelude to what would become the 60s most important anchor: the Vietnam War. “We were to be punished for the success of the Chinese,” Ali writes, “who were perceived at the time as the willing and conscious tools of Moscow’s subversion. The forward march of the Asian revolution had to be challenged, stopped and militarily defeated.”

It was this war to end the Asian revolution, particularly in its Vietnam sector, that inspired much of the social upsurge in the advanced industrial states and elsewhere. The student movement certainly coalesced against the war, the US women’s liberation movement took inspiration from the Vietnamese women fighters (a story Elisabeth Armstrong and I recount in the new issue of CR: Centennial Review), the Guevera assault in Bolivia followed from Che’s attempt to open a second front against imperialism to take the heat off the Vietnamese, the Black Power movement organized against the racist war and drew inspiration from the barefoot warriors who held off the most powerful war machine in history.

“Asia” was the unconscious center of the ’60s (even more so if you include the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Hippie fantasy with India). One’s relationship to the Vietnam struggle provided Ali with a metric to judge one’s seriousness about imperialism. When he eventually joins a political organization (the International Marxist Group, a Fourth International outfit), he does so not for any other reason than that they were, to his mind, the only Marxist group that had a correct line on Vietnam. Although, in his typically warm style, Ali tells us,

“Which set of initials [political parties, IMG, IS, etc,] one supported was important. I had always been friendly towards other initials, even to the extent of recommending to people in those towns (and they were a majority) where there was no IMG that people should join the IS,” this as a prelude to recounting an incident where an IS member yelled “Why don’t you go back to Pakistan?” at him.

Tony Cliff, head of IS, unhelpfully sympathized, “that none of this would have happened if I had joined IS rather than the IMG, which was sweet of him, but only confirmed my opinion of what had taken place. I was angry and fed-up enough to contemplate a total withdrawal from any involvement in British politics, but realized that this was an immature and individualistic response.” The burden of the struggle could not countenance such a departure. In 1970, Agatha Christie published an extravaganza, her novel Passenger from Frankfurt. There is a scene set within the American Embassy in London.

During a dinner party, a fracas erupts outside. Glass breaks, shouts and pistol shots interrupt the guests. The uninteresting Minister of Social Security for Her Majesty’s Government is incensed, “Shouting about Vietnam and all that. What do any of them know about Vietnam? None of them have ever been there, have they?”

Outside, in Grosvenor Square (what was once called Little America), one can imagine a young Ali during the March 17, 1968 protest pelting Eero Saarinen’s building with tomatoes, alongside 25,000 other inspired people organized by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (including two important intellectuals, Perry Anderson, who remarked loudly during the battle with the police, “This is our constituency, man!” and Sheila Rowbotham who recounted,

“The police seemed to go mad. I suspect they were taken aback by behavior they had not predicted”). Ali had been in Vietnam recently and had returned inspired by the brutality of the American campaign and by the resilience of the Vietnamese. He knew from his visit to the frontlines as a representative of the Bertrand Russell Foundation that the war could not possibly be prosecuted by the US for the “freedom” of the Vietnamese.

The scale of the savagery meant that the US war planners had something else in mind: the destruction of Vietnam as a symbol of national independence. What the marchers had not known then was that the day before, on March 16, 1968, the US troops at My Lai conducted the most well publicized massacre of the war. A real treat in Ali’s book is his Vietnam diary (January-February 1967).

From Hanoi, the team goes as far south as possible. In Ninh Binh province, between visits to the war wounded and alerts of possible US bombing strikes, the team takes a break.

“Encountered massive traffic jam at 2am. Got out of the car with P [a Vietnamese interpreter]. He recognized the area. His father, a Viet Minh guerrilla, had fallen in battle not far from here in 1952. And now, I think to myself, P’s generation is experiencing its war. For the last two decades this country has known no peace. Being here at this time is a much better education than any of the dozens of books I have read about this nation.”

Vietnam, for Ali, “was a formative experience; something I can never forget.” In his new introduction to the volume, Ali writes, “History rarely repeats itself, either as tragedy or farce, but it echoes.”

Iraq is an echo of Vietnam, not a repetition. Iraq is not Arabic for Vietnam, says the contemporary slogan, “not exactly true, but a nice thought nonetheless.” While the introduction is lyrical and informative, it would have been useful to hear why Iraq is not the Vietnam of our times. Tariq Ali’s book is not simply the summation of one victory to another. It tells us what it takes to create the small political groups that work alongside mass sentiment and upsurges. Discontent without organization by the Left can always find its way into reactionary politics. The mass demonstrations are punctuated by the normal, tedious work that goes into the creation of political mobilization. This is the essential work of politics.

The day of the march is not the day of the work. In Sheila Rowbotham’s memoir of these same times (Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties, Verso, 2001), she describes what it was like to build toward the March 17 event.

“My own Vietnam Solidarity efforts that January in Hackney were not exactly at the cutting edge, being rather the revolutionary equivalent of ‘doing my bit.’ The saga of the jumble sale for East London VSC was continuing. At the eleventh hour, with jumble bursting out of my bedroom, I discovered the Trotskyist secretary had considered himself too much the grand revolutionary to book a hall for the jumble sale. Suspecting sabotage and hardly able to move around in my room for boxes, I defiantly stuck up notices in the newsagent’s anyway:

‘Victory to the Vietcong Jumble Sale, 12 Montague Road.’

Sure enough, the rough gangs of elderly women who were regulars at all the local jumble sales were in the door, down the corridor past the ‘Dialectics of Liberation’ poster on the wall and bargaining fiercely. Then off they went, like the proverbial greased lightning, leaving sad little piles of debris in their wake.”

That sounds awfully familiar, and it is something that we need to celebrate and champion. The real heroes of our movement are those who are in the trenches, not throwing brickbats, but distributing leaflets and reaching out beyond. I could recount every detail, every step of the way, onward to 1953 when Stalin dies all the way to the end of the Vietnam War. That story is told vividly in Ali’s autobiography. I could find all the places where I disagree with him on the politics of this or that, or the emphasis of this or that, but that is for another time.

Except that it might be worthwhile to remind ourselves that the student movement did not come out of nothing, that, contrary to Herbert Marcuse’s theories, the worker’s movement had not vanished into accommodation with consumerism. It is important to recall the part the media played in its concentration on the students and its occlusion of the workers: Jack Woddis offers the example of October 1968 when a few thousand Japanese students tried to capture Parliament and the Tokyo railway station.

Their failure hit the front page, just as the media ignored a march of 700,000 workers and a one-hour tool-down by three million Japanese workers against the US war in Vietnam, both held on the same day as the student actions. From this very important example, Woddis reminds “those who appear to think that revolutionary struggles in Europe began with the appearance of Cohn-Bendit and Tariq Ali” that the workers had played a crucial role in the century leading to 1968.

Ali himself however did not take the Marcuse line, but hewed a position closer to Ernest Mandel, who spent much of the 1960s cautioning students to reach out to workers. Marcuse declared in 1969, “The Marxian proletariat no longer exists in the developed industrial countries.” He celebrated the student struggles and championed their “opposition to all ideology.” The disavowal of the role of the working-class and of ideology is a problem we have inherited, and that we have to struggle against. For now, what is essential for me is to indicate how important Ali’s book is, not so much for its own narrative of the twenty odd years that make up the ’60s, but as a Künstlerroman, a story of an artist who is struck by an immoral world and comes to a moral maturity.

The anti-globalization and anti-war movement in North America, at least, has created a large number of people who are sympathetic or active in the Left. Without well-developed parties that transmit the important theories and histories of revolution and past struggle, we have a group that will go forward unschooled in the art of long-term political engagement.

We know what it means to get politicized, but we don’t always know how to remain politically active and we know less how to remain active for long periods of time. For that, we need to engage with the process of becoming and being political, with how it happens.

Few on the Left are comfortable talking about our own lives. We are much more comfortable talking about this or that political issue. But we need more of these books, that walk us through the process of being political ­ not just showing up at mobilized rallies, but of being in touch with each other, creating periodicals that reach out to others, of reaching out to our own communities, to work in the organizations of the working-class, to draw them into the political will of the Left. “Socialism is a wise old shepherd,” sings LKJ, which means we need to cultivate organization and patience, not just rage against the machine.

Study is imperative. “What was missing,” writes Tariq Ali, “were carefully prepared goals which could capture and reflect popular enthusiasm while exploding the social order from within and demonstrating to millions of workers in struggle the reality of socialist democracy.”

Our movements cannot make a “single leap” into socialism, but they will need to nurture the terrain for the creation of socialism in our political context. The ’60s in one sense was easier than our context: then, there was a horizon (socialism) that knit together the frustrations of many, many people. Today we have an adversary (imperialism or at least militarism, capitalism or at least corporatism), but we don’t share a view of what our struggles will produce.

From those of the ’60s who continue in the struggle, and there are many of them across the planet, we can learn the lesson of persistence. In Christie’s novel, one of the guests at the US Embassy sighs after the protest has subsided, “Not too many arrests. Eight. They’ll be up at Bow Street in the morning. More or less the usual lot. Petronella was here, of course, and Stephen and his crowd. One would think they’d get tired of it one of these days.”

Some have, and many have not. Those who remain cannot gift us a fully formed horizon of our struggles. That we have to construct, in the political arena, which means the rallies, but so much, so much more.

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