A history lacking in hindsight

Issue: 123

John Rose

Gerd-Rainer Horn, The Spirit of ‘68—Rebellion in Western Europe and North America 1956-1976 (Oxford University, 2008), £19.99

When International Socialism’s editors asked me to review this book I was in the middle of a speaking tour of the wave of new year student occupations in solidarity with Gaza. Now, there was a just a hint of 1968 about these protests. So what an excellent accompaniment, I thought, to all those annoying train journeys. Alas, it was not to be. While the book certainly lives up to its title, it collapses over the political legacy of 1968.

Nevertheless, as an introduction I strongly recommend it. The author has complete command of the research and adds a wealth of new material, especially from Holland, Belgium, Italy and Spain. In addition, the tracing of all the bewildering variety of sinews that finally exploded in 1968 is superb. I doubt whether anyone else could get away with showing how “Howl”, the US beat-poem masterpiece of Allen Ginsberg, led simultaneously to the Beatles’ most radical moments and the streets around the Sorbonne in Paris in 1968. And the book is worth reading just for the passage “Marlon Brando turns Communist”, a wonderful exposition on the Italian teppisti—Italy’s teddy boy rebellion that turned red!

The book captures brilliantly the great mass democratic upsurges from below on campus, factory and street. The demand for autogestion (self-management), arguably the single most important demand of 1968, is fully grasped. The book bursts with examples of “participatory democracy at the point of production”—in the French May, of course, but also in many other countries, especially during Italy’s long hot autumn in the late 1960s and early 1970s:

“Springing up in the midst of a huge national wave of social movement activity paralysing universities and factories alike, the average Italian delegate was rather different…graphic descriptions of the origins of the delegati at the giant Fiat works…demonstrate the new phenomenon: ‘We jumped on tables in the canteen and organised assemblies and the first strikes…delegati elections were immediate and the most combative were chosen…whoever displayed the most amount of rage and whoever was most experienced politically’.”

Yet how to go beyond this? The author locates precisely that pivotal moment when, in his words, the new left had to give way to the far left. Spontaneity was not enough; revolutionary political organisation was essential. To go into jargon mode, this was the moment that the game was up for anarcho-libertarianism and autonomism:

“Aiming to avoid a repetition of the French post-May 1968 defeat, the far left’s eyes were suddenly opened to the perceived lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution. Here…the organisational antidote to new left passivity and disorganisation was beckoning…[for those] disillusioned with the tyranny of new left structurelessness.”

And yet it is here that the book stalls. This is very frustrating, given the encyclopedic promise of the book. This hinges on the extraordinarily limited way the author approaches Maoism and Trotskyism, the two political strands which he acknowledges offered a potential link back to the Bolshevik Revolution from 1968 and forward again.

Now, it is true that in 1968 both of these strands were roughly equally weighted in the eyes of the youthful revolutionaries looking for a way forward. But the author has the benefit of hindsight, which he rightly uses to draw a link between 1968 and the new social movements of the 21st century. With hindsight, we can confidently conclude that Maoism proved to be a catastrophe whereas Trotskyism, creatively adapted to late 20th century circumstances, offered then, and offers now, a way forward.

Horn’s approach leads to unacceptable omissions. The Italian revolutionary student leader Renato Curcio is celebrated several times in the book. Yet, in passing, we are told Curcio became one of the “guiding spirits of the terrorist Red Brigades”. This is the only reference to the urban terrorism that grew directly out of one way to adapt “Maoism” to the post-1968 movement. And it was an unmitigated disaster, in Italy with the Red Brigades, in Germany with Baader-Meinhoff, in America with the Weathermen. It fuelled the intense disillusion with 1968 that led to postmodernism and the ex-Marxist B52 liberals of the Bush/Blair era.

The failure to explore what I am calling Trotskyism creatively adapted is even more serious. Again, using the hindsight test, this is very marked. Which Trotskyist tendencies are alive and well in the 21st century, intervening in the new social movements, as well as in the workers movement? The answer is the Fourth International of Ernest Mandel and the International Socialist (IS) Tendency of Tony Cliff. Mandel and Cliff played vital roles in 1968, both as theoreticians and as active builders of revolutionary organisations. Cliff’s intervention ensured that the IS Tendency became dominant in the British revolutionary student movement, Mandel’s intervention in France ensured that the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire played a central part both in the French May and afterwards. Indeed it is the Ligue that is the backbone of the new Anti Capitalist Party in France launched this year and very obviously the inheritor both of the French May 1968 and France’s new social movements.

Yet neither Mandel nor Cliff is mentioned in this book. Nor is there a mention for either Tariq Ali or International Socialism editor Chris Harman, who were effectively Mandel and Cliff’s respective representatives in the 1968 student movement (though at least Tariq, unlike Chris, makes it to the bibliography!). It may be that Cliff is dismissed because Britain itself is dismissed as a 1968 backwater. But there is no similarly easy explanation for the excision of Mandel. I think the answer lies with a kind of intellectual political loss of nerve by the author.

In the final part of the book the author searches for a theoretical retrospective on 1968. This involves a retreat from the far left, back to the new left. Surprisingly, he thinks he discovers it with a remnant of the British new left that previously he had almost ignored. It is the public row at the end of the 1970s between the historian EP Thompson and New Left Review editor Perry Anderson that is given this exalted status.

The row was about the tension within Marxism between “determinism” and “voluntarism”, about structure and agency, the limits that social and political structure places on potential agents of social and political change. Now, it may well be that the row reflected, as the author suggests, “the impasse of 1968”. And clearly this is a useful framework for reflection. And yet not a single insight is derived from the row. None of the historical practical consequences are discussed: the conservative role of the reformist structures, especially the trade unions and parliament; the persistence at the time of the conservative Stalinist structures, both within the West and in global East/West “Cold War” terms; the structure of capitalism itself and the implications of the return of its crisis symptoms in the 1970s. The row disappeared almost as suddenly as it appeared.1

And this raises the most glaring omission in the book. While Marxism is recognised abstractly as the guide, the classical Marxist tradition is ignored. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg (heroine of the German revolutionary students) even Gramsci (particularly surprising because Italy, rather than France, is given pride of place as the 1968 showcase) are never mentioned.

Yet the legacy of 1968 cannot be understood without the creative adaptation of the writings of the classical Marxist revolutionaries. They are the essential tool to explore the dynamics of how “agency” could have overcome then, and can overcome now, the conservatism of structures. This is not just about restating the centrality of the working class as the agency of change, more globally rooted than ever before. It is also about the fight for political clarity about what are the socialist or communist (with a small “c”) objectives—never achieved properly in 1968 and its immediate aftermath.

To creatively paraphrase one of Marx’s most famous aphorisms, workers need to interpret, as accurately—as scientifically—as possible, the world as they struggle to change it. Indeed, it does not at all ring hollow to emphasise as scientifically as possible, especially in this, the epoch of rapidly degenerating climate change.


1: Though written in obtuse, scholarly language, by far the best response to the Anderson/Thompson argument is to be found in Alex Callinicos’s Making History (Brill, 2004).