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‘68 and all that: The British left today and the legacy of 1968

17 May 2008

John McAnulty recently attended the 1968 commemoration organised by the British socialist movement in London.  Below he reports on the outcome

An ‘event’ on Saturday 10th May in Conway Hall London marked an attempt by the British left and by some sections of the European left to celebrate the many revolutions of youth, women, workers and national liberation and solidarity movements that are summed up in our understanding of 1968.

Did the aging movements, many of them founded by the children of 1968, have the capacity and élan to learn from the events of that time and from the many struggles since and draw from the historical events ways to move forward and revive the working class movement today?

On the surface the answer appeared to be yes. The packed venue adopted the framework of 60’s ‘happenings’ – multi-format workshops, exhibitions, ‘war on terror’ board games, poetry readings and reviews.  It covered a wide range of political, social, economic and cultural issues. The impression was of activism, diversity, the voices of a multifaceted movement, topped by a rally of hundreds in the main hall.

Alas, these impressions were largely superficial.  Between today and the original happenings stands forty years in which, over time, the dominant event tended to be the SWP Marxism hodge-podge.  Plenty happened in Marxism, but the only coherent link was the need of the SWP to recruit more members. This conference had the same disjointed character – a disparate amalgam reflecting the disunity and fragmentation of the British left rather than the diversity of a mature movement.

Eamonn McCann gave an entertaining account of the Derry revolt, enlivened by his ability to point to the international socialist currents that had a direct influence on the Irish youth and radical scene. Alain Krevine of the French LCR gave an account of the rising in Paris linked to a critical analysis of the new movement. In many other cases it would have been very hard to connect some of the workshops directly to the ‘60s rebellions. Sometimes the events were interesting in their own right, for example the radical educational psychologist L S Vygotsky. Could his theories of the development of language and consciousness be used to re-interpret and support Leninism? Others were quite funny – a history of the youth ‘woodlander’ movement thrown off course by ex-members who good-humouredly spilt the beans. The movement had been a front controlled by the Communist Party and they had been expelled as soon as they began to think for themselves and to sign up to the radical wing of the punk movement!  Some events were simply bizarre – a lecture on murals in Northern Ireland.  There were no radical murals until after the battle of the Bogside.  The revolutionary artform of the ‘60s in Ireland was the poster. Murals, as opposed to wall slogans, did not become widespread until the ‘80s and marked a decline in the movement and the rise of the hegemony of the Provos.  Above all the vast majority of the left at the time would rather have put a bullet in their heads than refer to the occupied six counties as ‘Northern Ireland’!

The final rally did not bring together the left in a vibrant reconnection with their revolutionary past. Rather the impression was of a collective collapse on one another’s shoulders. A desperate determination to roll the dice one more time in the last chance saloon, without the energy to really confront and analyse the rising that took place so long ago and fully dissect its strengths and weaknesses.

The hero of the rally was Alain Krivine of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), the large French sister organisation of Socialist Democracy.  Comrade Krivine, stood above the general debate in the sense that he offered a critique of 1968 rather than simply nostalgia for the good old days. On the basis of that critique he offered a direction for socialists today – a new mass party that would be anti-capitalist. The analysis and proposals were greeted with adulation – and it was this that gave the game away.

In 1968 the new left was a movement of debate, of argument, of different ideas, programmes and strategies all competing with each other.  Today’s descendents of the movement grasp desperately at any idea, suspending all critical faculties in the hope of survival.

This is all the more striking given the limited and questionable nature of the LCR position.  Alain Krivine argued that the Paris uprising was defeated because there was a counter-offensive by De Gaulle and the French state and the movement was betrayed by the traditional workers leadership of the workers movement.  De Gaulle rallied the counteroffensive around an election and the French Communist Party supported his call for social partnership. However the main weakness was internal.  The new left did not have the detailed programme that was necessary to take power.

Things are different today.  The capitalist offensive is much harsher and there is a lot of resistance from the working class.  The Communist Party is in decay and the new left, especially the LCR, have a sizeable electoral base.  It is time to build a new party, a mass party that would be anti-capitalist but not necessarily revolutionary in the traditional Marxist sense.

The LCR argument deserves further expansion and discussion and I will return to the issues in a later article.  There are however some obvious points that were not made in the conference. The first, self-evident point is that 1968 was 40 years ago.  If the mistakes were as Alain Krivine argues, why did the left not correct them over the 40 years that followed? The second point was the dog that did not bark, the issue never mentioned. What has led to our present difficulties is not the collapse of 1968, but the collapse of the 1917 revolution.  1917 was the defining moment for the working class in the 20th century.  The collapse of the USSR meant that the deformed remnants of that mighty struggle could no longer offer the possibility of the future self-organisation of the working class.  What should socialists say today?  Do we reaffirm the promise and programme of the workers revolution as the starting point for a new socialist movement in the 21st century?  Do we shrug our shoulders and look elsewhere?  The LCR have indicated that their own party programme, a programme based on the 1917 revolution, will not be the basis of a new party.

The fact that the audience at the Conway Hall rally was willing to buy an argument that went from a fairly superficial analysis of 1968 to the latest of today’s quick fixes speaks volumes.

There were present a sizeable number of younger new people drawn into the movement today.  There were many older people who have contributed much and who individually represent an ongoing revolutionary determination and the quiet heroism of a life spent in struggle. However the mass of the attendees were not people at the cutting edge of revolutionary theory and practice, hammering out a new programme for the 21st century. Many were running on empty, willing to bet everything on one last throw of the dice.  The fact that these dice have been thrown over and over again by the LCR and by our parent organisation, the Fourth International and have led to disaster each time they were thrown, made no difference.  Plan B is plan A all over again.

There is much to learn from the new left of the ‘60s. An analysis of our history will play a role in the building of a new movement. Despite the strength and success of individual workshops, the London conference did not undertake any systematic analysis and the task of building a new movement has yet to be seriously attempted.



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