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“Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!” 1968, 2011 and Revolutionary Solidarity

2011 February 22

Paris, 1968, left; Cairo, 2011, right

“Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy

Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy”

—The Rolling Stones, Street Fighting Man

I have before me the wooden poster my parents gave me when I moved into my apartment. Over a black background, vertical lines of many colors create a stencil of a smiling man’s head and shoulders. The depicted man’s name—Ho Chi Minh—appears above this image with a subtitle, in smaller font: “Los diseñadores cubanos ilustran sus poemas.” It is a relic of a time for which I feel a certain something, which cannot be described as “nostalgia,” since I never lived through the era in question. This was a time when, I am informed, everything in the entire world seemed to be changing rapidly and radically, when new winds were blowing on every continent, when the grinding of history’s gears was immediately palpable.

Christopher Hitchens describes the feeling thus:

Almost every morning, my little transistor radio would wake me with seismic tidings: the black ghettos of America aflame; the mighty American army baffled in the Mekong Delta; the Portuguese empire shrinking under the pressure of guerrillas in Mozambique and Angola; the streets of Madrid and Barcelona filled again with anti-Franco protests; the students of Mexico City cut down outside the Olympic stadium. There were just not enough hours in the day.

Dr. King portrayed a similar sensation in his speech entitled I Have Been to the Mountaintop:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

The day after he delivered that speech, he was shot to death, which sparked the flame in America’s ghettos to which Hitchens referred.

Hitchens and his compatriots are called the “sixty-eighters,” or, if you like, les soixante-huitards: the young people who shook the world in the year that is their namesake.

Since barely three weeks into 2011, my little smart phone wakes me every day with seismic tidings of young people shaking the world, and I can’t suppress the sense that I might be part of a group of “eleveners,” of onzards, who are echoing that bygone generation and setting history’s gears grinding again.

*   *   *

The soixante-huitards were a revolutionary generation even before doing anything to earn that description, the historical facts surrounding them creating the conditions for their eventual rise to what they were to become.

In the first place, there was the baby boom after the end of the Second World War, which meant that this was simply a much bigger generation than its predecessor. Illustratively, “by 1968 the number of university students in Paris had grown to over 500,000, twice as much as a decade before.” College-aged Parisians were vital in distinguishing 1968 from its neighboring years, as I’ll discuss later, but the sheer size of the generation was nor particular to that city. In 1960, as the pot began to heat what would boil eight years later, the age demographics in Hungary, for example, looked thus:

Needless to say, the American baby boom was just as profound.

A generation that represents that severe a leap in size is bound to require a world that can accommodate it, which signals nothing if not the potential for radical change.

Secondly, this was the first generation to grow up accustomed to seeing the world through a television. Not only did the newly ubiquitous technological feature connect young people by providing a common lens through which to view the world, but it also furnished them with information about life elsewhere. Consequently, they had a theretofore uniquely deep understanding of the traits they shared with their global peers. This point is widely considered to have been crucial in fostering the type of generational solidarity that led to the events of 1968 and their connectedness around the world.

The onzards, similarly, are much larger than the generation that came before. And this is especially so in the Muslim-majority countries. In the case of Iran, the late 1980s saw the Ayatollah offering considerable state subsidies to women who produced large families after the Iranian population was decimated by the war with Iraq. This has resulted in what Hitchens calls a “baby boomerang” of young people, created in no small part thanks to the mullahs, which feels antipathy toward the same. Says Hitchens, “Probably more than 50% of the Iranian population is under 25, and it’s rather outgrowing the tutelage of parenthood.” But this is not dissimilar from the rest of the region, which is uniformly quite young, a picture well painted by Graham Fuller’s paper on the topic for the Brookings Institution.

Of course, the onzards are also the first generation to grow up with a revolutionarily connective and widespread piece of technology. The importance of the internet can be overstated (and has been) in accounting for the recent toppling of corrupt, repressive dictators in January’s Tunisia and February’s Egypt, but the web indisputably played a formative role in creating the conditions for the type of international solidarity on display in those places, much as the television had for the soixante-huitards. Indeed, the internet, owing to its speed, its ubiquity and its democratic character (i.e. anyone, not just wealthy networks, can publish writing, photographs, audio, video…), offers a level of technological connectivity nothing like that which was available to the radicals of 1968.

Among the most important features of the soixante-huitards was the impulse toward international movements that shook both of the dominant poles of geopolitical powers—authoritarian communism and imperialist capitalism. The anti-Stalinist left, as some have called them, sought a third way, if that term is not too toxic. Writes Hitchens in his memoirs “Hitch 22:”

Events in Vietnam and Selma clearly discredited the vaunted “New Frontier” of American pseudo-liberalism, just as the stirrings in Poland and Czechoslovakia demonstrated the historic bankruptcy of Stalinism, while it went without saying that a British Labour government that could not even put down a white settler racist revolt in colonial Rhodesia (we all proudly called it by its true name of Zimbabwe) was showing in practice that Social Democratic reformism had exhausted itself. Soon all humane people would understand the need for a revolution from below, where those who worked and struggled and produced would be the ruling class.

Another soixante-huitard, the Pakistani-born British radical author and activist Tariq Ali, illustrated well an episode that serves to distill the essence of the sixty-eighters’ dual objections in a speech at UC Santa Barbara in 2007. Speaking about the Czech socialists’ and communists’ commitment to their social system but desire for more democracy, what Alexander Dupček called “socialism with a human face,” Ali (for whom was written the Rolling Stones song quoted above) recalls:

The media was taken over by the people who worked for it. And I remember one television show… where all those who had been political prisoners since the Second World War confronted their jailers… and the entire country would watch that show. Now, that degree of freedom, if you like, one had not noticed anywhere.

This, Ali asserts,

frightened the Russians, because they said, “If this example spreads, we’re sunk.” And so they sent in the tanks to destroy and occupy Czechoslovakia as some of you will remember. But the interesting point… was that this particular occupation and crushing of a popular movement did not excite too much anger in the West… because the experiment threatened them as well. And the NATO magazine, which had a long article on Czechoslovakia, only remarked on the speed with which Soviet troops had taken Prague. They were very admiring, militarily.

Perhaps the most thrilling of these actions happened in Paris (whence the French epithet), where students overtook General de Gaulle’s capital and enlisted the help of striking laborers to erect barricades in an effort to consolidate their occupation of the civic machinery. And while the Parisian Latin Quarter was, during the shut-down of the city, renamed the Heroic Vietnam Quarter, in solidarity with the struggle of the Vietnamese, the tenor of the so-called Mai 68 actions was not ideological. Indeed, it was something close to anti-ideological, preferring mysterious disestablishmentarian slogans to a political program.

The great French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was moved to remark,

What is interesting about your action is that it is putting imagination in power. You have a limited imagination, just like everyone else, but you have a lot more ideas than your elders, we were educated in such a way that we have a precise idea of what is possible and what is not. A professor will say, “Get rid of exams? Never. You can change them, but you can’t get rid of them!”Why? Because he has been taking exams for half his life. The working class has often imagined new ways of struggling, but always in relation to the precise situation it found itself in. In 1935 it invented the occupation of the factories because that was the only weapon it had to consolidate and exploit its victory at the polls. You have a much more fertile imagination, as the slogans we are reading on the Sorbonne walls show. Something has come out of you which is confounding, shaking up, rejecting everything which made our society what it is today. It’s what I would call an extension of the field of possibilities.

The onzards too appear to harbor an aversion to the dominant binary modes of geopolitical operation, especially in the Middle East, preferring neither to raise client states of the American imperial project, like, for instance, post-invasion Iraq, nor authoritarian theocracies, in the mold of the Ayatollah’s Iran. Readers will have noticed that Egypt’s homegrown democratic uprising is delightfully anathema both to the forces of corporate-fueled globalization and repressive religious autocracies.

Internationalist as they were, there was an important American component to the soixante-huitards, noteworthy not only for pushing a radical agenda in America but also for standing in solidarity with its brother and sister movements the world over. The black nationalist strain that assumed the helm of the civil rights movement after the assassination of Dr. King, the New Left movement that orchestrated the radical action at Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention, the women’s liberation movement that attempted to force a paternalistic America to reconsider its attitudes toward its female majority, the early stirrings of an environmental movement in the form of anti-nuke rallies—all these constituted a mass of people engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the uprisings that were sweeping the rest of the world.

Important here is that, while the focus of these movements, being American, was reshaping America’s ethos, policies, attitudes and direction, none of them proclaimed an allegiance to Soviet opposition to the American system. Dr. King, in the Mountaintop speech, condemned Russia as “totalitarian.” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which claimed the vanguard of American New Leftism, issued several sharp rebukes to the Soviet model in its founding Port Huron Statement. This was mirrored in the actions in Belgrade, Warsaw and Prague, which, though directed at changing the Communist parties in control, did not propose to do that by the process of Americanization. Implied in all these actions was a rejection not of one side but of the entire premise of the Cold War, whose tensions were at their highest in 1968. It is obvious that American support was critical to sustaining the attention and momentum carrying forth global radical action and that American action, especially around ending Vietnam War and the racist laws that governed the country, inspired protests elsewhere. Young people had a sense that the future was theirs to shape.

The question right now is: what is the American component of the eleveners to be? I see several possibilities, each centered around the imbalance in political power between the wealthy and the masses, an imbalance brought into stark relief by the collapse of the American (and global) economy in 2007 and the subsequent series of bailouts and tax-cuts that have constituted America’s chief response to the crisis. Inspired by Jonathan Hari’s article in The Nation on UK Uncut, a so-called “left wing Tea Party” in Great Britain, many chapters of US Uncut have sprung up across America, planning inaugural direct actions for February 26th. Russ Feingold, continuing his work to separate money from politics even after the end of his laudable career in public service, has founded Progressives United, an organization which will specifically combat the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations unfettered influence over the American political process. Perhaps most striking of all, there is the resistance to the assault on public unions currently on display in Wisconsin.

The question of labor as a component of the sixty-eighters is one that I have neglected here, partly because focusing on young people simplifies the picture and does not threaten to take us very far afield. But it is an important question to address, however briefly.

The events in Paris, Italy and Argentina, especially, boasted large labor contributions. When Parisian students shut down the city, labor was quick to join their struggle, an astounding ten million French workers going on strike and occupying factories, demanding control of them and confounding the Communist labor union heads from whom control over the actions of workers had unpredictably been wrested. In America, although Dr. King did take up the cause of labor rights, traveling to Memphis, site of his Mountaintop speech and subsequent assassination, in an act of solidarity with sanitation workers there, the American soixante-huitards were, for a variety of reasons, operating independently of the American labor movement, whose effects Joan Walsh vividly outlines.

It makes sense, though, that this time around, the American component of the earthquake of people power should be focused on labor. Unemployment, after all, is the topic most on the minds of Americans, young and otherwise. Where 1968 was a year of expanding European and American economies, 2011 is a year of economic collapse and desolation. The simultaneous burdens of economic stagnation initiated by bank misconduct, a large deficit built up over decades of corporate depletion of America’s production economy and a wave election that redounded to the conservatives’ benefit have resulted in the assault on public employees that President Clinton’s Labor Secretary Robert Reich warned of.

Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), who campaigned on fiscal restraint to solve a budget crisis Walker himself has by some accounts invented and by others exacerbated and which could in any case easily be fixed, decided when elected to pursue another initiative: busting the public unions. The bill Walker has proposed would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public workers (police and firefighters, who customarily support Republicans, are exempt—real principled stuff, this), disable unions from charging membership dues and force them to hold yearly votes in order to remain organized. Public workers would have to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage, in breach of the contracts under which the parties are currently operating. If these measures don’t pass, Gov. Walker has threatened to lay off up to 6,000 state employees.

Wisconsin has not taken kindly to this threat, tens of thousands of citizens gathering in Madison in protest. Said the aforementioned Russ Feingold of the crowds in the state captial,

The folks that are in that capital are students, teachers, public employees but also private employees, firefighters came, even though… they’re trying to somehow divide and conquer not only between private and public employees, they’re trying to divide people within the public employees.

Quite apart from the solidarity there on the ground, the Wisconsin protests, now spreading to Ohio and Indiana with the help of President Obama’s Democratic National Committee, have been inspiring helpful actions from where else but Egypt!

Egyptians have not only been contributing to the effort, publicized on Facebook, to buy pizzas to sustain the protestors, but the Egyptian labor movement has indeed made official pronouncements of solidarity. It reminds one of the type of international unity permeating the actions of 1968, especially the Vietnamese efforts in defense of black Americans in Watts, Los Angeles.

The situation playing out in the Midwest is not the fiercest in America, though. There is another crisis at present whose characteristics are considerably closer to 1968’s. I am referring to the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where radical actions on campuses are heating up, as is the violent crackdown the government is coordinating to combat it. This struggle has garnered very little by way of press in The United States, though The Busy Signal is proud to have covered it in its early days. From the chilliest to the warmest cities in America (and her colonies), elevener fever is catching.

I don’t know if this “onzard” construct will hold water; alas, it is even too early in 2011 to make sweeping claims about the character of the year. It is conceivable that the violent crackdowns in the Middle Eastern countries currently embroiled in struggle (not to mention Puerto Rico) will manage to suppress the movements and forestall the Egyptian and Tunisian fate from visiting other regional powers. However, if the struggle perseveres, if it succeeds, this will have been a remarkable year indeed, and it is up to us to shape our roles in it.

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