Vive La Revolution!


The issues raised by the May 1968 upheavals in France and elsewhere about the iniquities of capitalism and the need for a just alternative have not gone away.

“Down with the consumer society!”; “The more you consume, the less you live!”; “Commodities are the opium of the people!”; “To live is not just to survive!”; “Don’t beg for the right to live – take it!”; “In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure, the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society!”; “The liberation of humanity is all or nothing!”; “Those who make revolutions half-way only dig their own graves!”; “Boredom is counterrevolutionary!”; “We will ask nothing. We will demand nothing. We will take, occupy!”

“Down with the Right, down with the class-collaborationist Left and its elections, for direct workers’ democracy!”; “Don’t negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them!”; “The revolution is incredible because it’s really happening!”

THUS read the slogans that galvanised hundreds of thousands of young people, especially students and workers, into action in the streets of Paris 40 years ago and set off the greatest social upheaval in the rich countries of the West since the Second World War. The historic events of May 1968, unfolding through a series of spontaneous revolts, shook some of the world’s most powerful governments, brought 10 million workers out on strike, radicalised huge numbers of pe ople, and shattered many complacent assumptions.

These included the belief that the post-War “Golden Age of Capitalism”, which still had not run its course then, would continue to spread generalised prosperity among the people, politically disarm the working class, and make mass-scale revolt impossible. The Western world’s rulers and strategists had total faith in the West’s military prowess, in particular the invincibility of the United States’ forces in Vietnam which were then fighting a brutal war against communism.

Above all, it was assumed that the relatively evolved structures of representative democracy in the West, and the welfare state made possible by its prosperous capitalist order, would help co-opt or incorporate all dissent. This would make ideology irrelevant, even obsolete – Daniel Bell wrote in his famous The End of Ideology – and social conflict inherently “manageable”. Order, consensus and stability would be the natural condition of Western society.

The year 1968 began with the Tet Offensive by the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the army of North Vietnam against U.S. troops and their South Vietnamese collaborators, which took the West by surprise. The attack’s sweep and intensity took the war into South Vietnam’s urban areas, including Saigon, where guerillas penetrated the U.S. embassy compound. Tet was a military debacle. It was beaten back by massive military force, almost half the attackers lost their lives and over 600,000 civilians became refugees, including over 80 per cent of the population of Hue, Vietnam’s third largest city.

But politically, the Tet Offensive brought home to the American public the vulnerability and fallibility of U.S. troops and highlighted the possibility, soon to become a near-certainty, of a U.S. defeat in Vietnam – until then considered impossible. This and the great ferocity of U.S. operations against Vietnamese civilians sparked off not only a huge anti-war mobilisation in the U.S. but also energetic protest movements in countries as diverse as Germany, Italy, Mexico, Turkey, Japan, Brazil and Pakistan.

Tet formed part of the backdrop to May 1968, which soon developed into an anti-systemic upheaval. The revolt, and its repression, exposed the severe limitations of a supposedly inclusive and tolerant democratic regime and questioned the legitimacy of the Western political order and the very rationale of the West’s consumerist society.

Another graffito in Paris put it thus: “Since 1936 [when the first Popular Front government with the Left’s participation was formed], I have fought for wage increases. My father before me fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life has been a drag….”

Unlike the revolution of 1789, May 1968 did not produce a transfer of power to another social class or radical change in the political order. But it generated a huge transformation in ideas and a rejection of many received beliefs. A new set of values took hold of the minds of millions of young people: a powerful questioning of the notions of obedience and hierarchy; a rejection of the inherent superiority of Western civilisation and a critique of some over-simple versions (for instance, crude rationalism) of Enlightenment values; and a culture of protest and revolt.

Politically, the “60s culture” emphasised radical and equitable solutions to social and economic problems, an enrichment of democracy through genuine popular participation, and rejection of the programmes and policies of the conventional Left, as well as a reaffirmation of the notions of equality, social solidarity, justice and peace.

May 1968 and the other upheavals of the year led to the crystallisation of a new political current, the Far Left, across much of western Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S. These movements radicalised large sections of the intelligentsia and spawned unprecedented amounts of revolutionary literature of high analytical quality, such as The New Left Review and many other journals.

Many of the great ideas and institutions that are taken for granted today were born or developed in this period, including autonomous mobilisations of working people; new social movements focussed on gender, race and ecology; numerous civil society initiatives; and alternative forms of articulations in the public sphere. The Beat Generation too owes a great deal to this churning.

The “60s culture” permeated countless spheres of creative activity, including cinema, poetry, theatre and literature. It also deeply influenced the Black Power movement in the U.S., itself radicalised by the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968. The Black Power salute raised by two U.S. athletes at the Olympic Games in Mexico that year became a symbol of the revolt of the African-American minority and its struggle for equality and justice.

Few fields of intellectual endeavour were left untouched by these new ideas, whether political science and sociology, history, or analytical economics and political economy. Of great and lasting relevance was the contribution of what has been termed “Western Marxism”, a current distinct from the arid and ossified orthodoxies of Soviet-style theories.

Some of the greatest intellectuals who continue to influence radical and critical thought today, from E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson and Terry Eagleton to Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky and Jurgen Habermas, owe much to the ferment produced in the wake of May 1968.

At the global level, the world witnessed a call for a new international economic order, for North-South equality and for a transformation of the global development agenda, which had run into crisis. In the early 1970s, the vulnerability and unsustainability of global capitalism was highlighted by the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, Richard J. Barnett and Ronald Muller’s Global Reach: Power of the Multinational Corporations, and Susan George’s How the Other Half Dies. In brief, the social and intellectual ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, in which May 1968 played a pivotal role, produced a comprehensive and rich agenda of radical ideas and strategies, which enriched the great classical paradigms of modernity and had freedom, openness, radical democracy, equality and justice at their core.

The progressive movements spawned by these soon faced a massive political challenge in the form of the Thatcher-Reagan “counter-revolution” of the 1980s, which sought to kill the welfare state, undermine trade unionism and destroy the legacy of the “social market economy” through the unbridled promotion of the minimalist state and the free market.

Thus was born the predominantly Anglo-Saxon model of corporate-led neoliberal globalisation, which was imposed upon the rest of the world through the “Washington Consensus” developed by the U.S. government, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Not just countries of the Global South but even those of the North became victims of market fundamentalism. For instance, Japan and Germany, which had relied on state-directed or development bank-led industrialisation, had to fall in line with the Anglo-Saxon model.

Government after government withdrew public service provisions under “austerity” regimes, and millions of people suffered big losses in income and economic security. The nation-state itself became increasingly subordinated to corporations and disabled from formulating sovereign social and economic policies based on its own resources and people’s needs.

As the juggernaut of neoliberal globalisation rolled on, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet bloc itself soon collapsed. The world lost a countervailing force. Even nations such as India and the smaller newly industrialising countries of East and South-East Asia, which had held out against free trade and full-throated deregulation, privatisation and globalisation, caved in. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 weakened the latter. India was a case apart – of a voluntary top-down decision to embrace neoliberalism.

By the beginning of this century, the march of neoliberalism seemed unstoppable and Francis Fukuyama’s dire but gravely mistaken End of History prediction – of the vanishing of all the classical agendas of modernity and their replacement the world over with the “liberal democracy plus Coca-Cola or McDonald’s” formula – appeared to have won out.

The world’s elites basked in globalisation and blithely declared that there was, and could be, no alternative to it. No nation or group of nations, including the European Union, Japan, China and India, despite the rising economic power of the last two, seemed able or willing to resist globalisation, which seemed destined to triumph.

This was a grand illusion, and has become manifestly visible as such with the spiralling global financial crisis. The U.S. economist Paul Krugman has described this as “an epic …crisis”. Alan Greenspan, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, said the U.S. crisis was likely to be judged in retrospect as “the most wrenching since the end of the Second World War”.

Martin Wolf, Financial Times’ chief economic commentator and the media world’s most unabashed ideologue of neoliberalism, concedes that the era of supposedly self-regulating markets has ended. The “journey across the world toward ever more liberal economies, with the U.S. being in some ways the model towards which everybody was moving, more flexible, more dynamic, with a highly deregulated financial system has stopped,” he said recently.

Wolf declared March 14, when the Bear Stearns bailout was announced, as “the day that the dream of global free market capitalism died”. The reason, he said, was that “the dominant feature of this system… was a shift from bank-based relationship lending to transaction-oriented activities, in which the financial system itself was engaged in arranging lending, arranging funds for borrowers, then packaging those funds into securities and selling them on to third parties, who would hold them for long periods: investment funds, pension funds, insurance companies”.

This, said Wolf, has now broken down in “quite a spectacular manner, because many of the markets on which this model relies have basically been frozen for six or seven months. They’ve just disappeared.”

The financial turbulence precipitated by reckless lending by Western banks to “subprime” (or unsecured and high-risk) borrowers is now unfolding into a disaster that could cost the world $1,000 billion.

The crisis is rooted in market failure related to the incalculable risks of mortgages and other loans, which banks concealed in the hope that hiding and distributing the risks would somehow minimise them. The result was an enlargement of risks. To reduce them, neoliberals, who for years had condemned state intervention and multibillion-dollar handouts of taxpayers’ money to rescue failing banks, are now pleading for intervention. Everybody, from IMF economists to private bankers, has suddenly discovered the virtues of the state and of the Keynesian policies of putting purchasing power into the hands of the people.

The crisis is spreading to and hurting the real economy. There is a significant slowdown in the U.S. and the E.U., aggravated by high oil prices, food shortages – private stores in the U.S. and Japan are fixing the amount of rice consumers can buy – and a sharp rise in primary commodity prices. The question is no longer whether there will be a recession but how severe it will be and whether big state bailouts will merely postpone the day of reckoning.

This returns us to the classical agendas that 1968 so powerfully articulated, including need-based and equitable development and radical participatory democracy. It is a pressing reminder that we must put people and politics in command, in place of markets.

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