1968 revolutions

From Anarchy In Action

A wave of revolutionary activity swept the global in 1968 and subsequent years. The targets included, primarily, the hegemonic power of the United States in the world system, and, secondarily, the stale and bureaucratic "Old Left."[1] Moving beyond overwhelming focus on the proletariat, the "New Left" added concerns of feminism, gay liberation, ecology, national liberation, issues related to the disabled, and more. Abandoning the Old Left's bureaucratic political structures, the New Left often preferred to experiment with horizontal structures, with ideas of "prefigurative politics," participatory democracy," and in some cases, Anarchism.

Immanuel Wallerstein argues that the world revolution of 1968 transformed global political common sense. New cultural mores of anti-racism, feminism, and sexual revolution entered the mainstream, and a critique of US imperialism and the bureaucracy of the Old Left became vastly more legitimate.[2]

Some anarchists and libertarian Marxists argue that the workers', feminist, black liberation, indigenous and other struggles of the 1960s caused the breakdown in the 1970s of Keynesian policies and the so-called golden age of capitalism. "As the revolt against exploitation grew," John Holloway writes, "both in its monetised and non-monetised forms, the extraction of surplus value became more and more difficult for capital."[3] According to this explanation, the struggles succeeded in putting the entire world capitalist system into a major crisis. Neoliberalism, then, was a counter-revolution, an attempt by the ruling class to "recover after the revolution of 1968."[4]


Tet Offensive

On 31 Jan 1968 (the third day of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year), Vietnamese fighters of the National Liberation Front launched attacks attacks within almost every major city and town in southern Vietnam. In the two months of fighting from 29 Jan to 31 March, at least 3,895 occupying United States soldiers died. As poor Vietnamese peasants caught the world's largest military by surprise, the attacks shocked the American public. In March 1968, for the first time, more Americans opposed the Vietnam War than supported it.[5]

In the wake of the Tet Offensive, protests against the Vietnam War and against American military hegemony accelerated globally.

Columbia University occupation

1,000 people organized by the Student Afro-American Society, SDS, and other groups occupied five buildings at Columbia University from 23 April to 30 April 1968. Police arrested more than 700 people.[6] Kirkpatrick Sale describes the occupation as a moment when many SDS members realized that they had revolutionary aims.[7] Along with various Marxist groups, the anarchistic Yippies played a role in the occupation.[8]

Raymond Brown, who led the Student Afro-American Society, explains his group's role, which historians of the occupation have neglected:

But certainly, the black students played a pivotal role, because, first of all, we were more disciplined than any other group. We determined—we were the first to determine to barricade buildings. We asked, in a manner that’s become controversial in the ensuing years, the white students to leave and grab other buildings. And we barricaded that first building.

Our role was strategically pivotal because city had just erupted weeks earlier after Dr. King’s death. There was a perception that Harlem might rise, and we did have a lot of community support. And so, the reason this lasted for seven days was because nobody wanted to arrest the black students, and, subsequently, that meant they couldn’t arrest white students. So, our role was pivotal, though ignored historically and journalistically.[9]

The May-June Revolt in France, 1968

Also see the article The May-June Revolt in France, 1968.

In May and June of 1968, a wave of riots and occupations swept France and nearly 10 million workers went on strike. The uprising enjoyed strong popular support; on May 8, a poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion found that four-fifths of the country sympathized with students in Paris who had been rioting for several days.[10] With the influence of the Situationist International, radically anti-authoritarian and utopian slogans appeared on walls across the country. "Be realistic: demand the impossible." "Live without dead time." "Boredom is counterrevolutionary." "Happiness is hanging your landlord." "No forbidding allowed."[11]

The economy was brought to a halt, and the conservative president Charles de Gaulle even temporarily fled the country.[12] However, workers stopped short of actually reopening and self-managing the factories they occupied, and in June the country re-elected de Gaulle. An Anarchist FAQ offers the following explanation for why the revolt failed in the short-term:

So why did this revolt fail? Certainly not because "vanguard" Bolshevik parties were missing. It was infested with them. Fortunately, the traditional authoritarian left sects were isolated and outraged. Those involved in the revolt did not require a vanguard to tell them what to do, and the "workers' vanguards" frantically ran after the movement trying to catch up with it and control it.

[I]t was the lack of independent, self-managed confederal organisations to co-ordinate struggle which resulted in occupations being isolated from each other. So divided, they fell. In addition, Murray Bookchin argues that "an awareness among the workers that the factories had to be worked, not merely occupied or struck," was missing.[13]

The Communist Party played a role in suppressing the revolution. Crimethinc summarizes the conclusions of May 1968 participants Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit: "The Communist CGT union negotiated a settlement with the government to get the workers back to work, and when the workers they claimed to represent refused en masse, they functioned as strikebreakers."[14]

Latin America

The most famous event in Latin America involved the Tlatelolco massacre of about four hundred protesters in Mexico City on 2 October 1968. On 23 July 1968, riot police attacked two rival student groups in Mexico City. The attacks united the student movement against police repression, and three days later, thousands marched. The police attacked again, killing seven, wounding five hundred, and arresting hundreds. On 29 July, over 150,000 students launched a general strike, closing all of Mexico City's schools. At Polytech University by the end of August, the strike had reached 300,000 participants, and a strike council issued demands related to a variety of social issues. In September, a National Strike Council formed and demanded public negotiations with the president. When the president refused, a rally was called in Tlatelolco housing district of Mexico City for 2 October. At the rally, police and soldiers massacred about four hundred people. “Without warning, soldiers and police viciously attacked the rally, shooting hundreds of people. In many cases they followed the wounded into the hospitals and killed them there. To this day, no one knows for sure how many people were killed at Tlatelolco.”[15]

This was not the region's only instance of radical activity or of brutal state repression. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the police murder of a student on 29 March 1968 led to two weeks of riots. In Uruguay, strikes and riots led the state to declare martial law in July 1968. Rebellion swept the country. In Argentina, the murder of three students in May 1968 sparked major protest and on 12 June, four hundred students occupied the University of La Plata in Buenos Aires.[16] In Córdoba, Argentina, a 1969 uprising forced the ousting of Juan Carlos Onganía's military dictatorship. Urban movements in Chile "modified the structure of cities and brought Salvador Allende to the presidency in 1970."[17] Farmers' struggles in the mountains of Peru ousted Juan Velasco Alvaro's government. Miners and other workers in Bolivia in 1970 built a powerful Popular Assembly that challenged ruling class power.[18]


In October 1968, masses of Pakistani students revolted began against government repression of students and dissidents. The Left parties did not support the students. Riots broke out on 6 November in several cities. The government ordered all schools closed. In December, students called a general strike which workers from many industries joined.[19]

  1. Immanuel Wallerstein and Sharon Zukin, "1968, Revolution in the World-System: Theses and Queries," Theory and Society, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jul., 1989), 431-449.
  2. Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), 84-85.
  3. Holloway, John, "The abyss opens: The rise and fall of Keynesianism", https://libcom.org/history/abyss-opens-rise-fall-keynesianism-john-holloway.
  4. Raul Zibechi, "The Revolution of 1968: When Those From Below Said Enough!", Americas Program, 3 June 2008, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/662.
  5. George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Cambridge: South End Press, 1987), 29-31.
  6. "How Black Students Helped Lead the 1968 Columbia U. Strike Against Militarism & Racism 50 Years Ago," Democracy Now!", 23 April 2018, https://www.democracynow.org/2018/4/23/how_black_students_helped_lead_the.
  7. Sale, SDS, 437-441.
  8. Jonah Raskin, "Up Against the Ivy Wall: the Columbia Insurrection at 50," Counterpunch 6 February 2018, https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/06/up-against-the-ivy-wall-the-columbia-insurrection-at-50/.
  9. "How Black Students Helped Lead the 1968 Columbia U. Strike Against Militarism & Racism 50 Years Ago."
  10. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left, 87-88.
  11. "May 1968 Graffiti," Bureau of Public Secrets, http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/graffiti.htm.
  12. Crimethinc, "#23: May ‘68 and the Situationist International," The Ex-Worker", "https://crimethinc.com/podcast/23/transcript
  13. An Anarchist FAQ, http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secA5.html#seca57.
  14. Crimethinc, Ex-Worker, "#21: Communism and Socialism, pt.2," https://crimethinc.com/podcast/21/transcript/.
  15. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left, 47-48.
  16. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left, 49.
  17. Zibechi, "The Revolution of 1968."
  18. Zibechi, "The Revolution of 1968."
  19. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left, 49.