Reflections on 1968

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by George Katsiaficas

More often than not, the movements of 1968 have been situated within nationalist parameters, and the global dimension of the movement’s vitality, if not altogether ignored, has been consigned a minor role. Whether in Mexico or France, Vietnam or India, the meaning of 1968 has been interpreted within the context of domestic patterns and localized history. Seen through such prisms, the most significant and vital aspect of 1968’s explosive energy — that it consisted of one international movement rather than multiple ones — becomes minimized, even forgotten. My book on 1968 was the first to consider the movement’s global character, to speak of a unified revolt against both capitalist domination and Communist rule.

This world movement shared twin aspirations of self-determination (whether on institutional, neighborhood or national levels) and international solidarity. The determinate negation of hierarchical rule and national chauvinism, these aspirations were evident in different forms in different places: in Vietnam, national integrity and independence were the concrete historical manifestations of the drive for self determination, while the May 1968 general strike in France promulgated autogestion (or self-management) and unity across national and ethnic divisions. In all areas of the world, an intuitive global identity more powerful than national ones was everywhere evident. In 1970, a succession of mainstream opinion polls found that Ho Chi-minh was more popular on American college campuses than US president Richard Nixon. At the same time, more copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the American anti-slavery classic) were in print in Vietnam than in the US.

As Hegel postulated in his Philosophy of History, so in 1968, world history moved from East to West. A synchronic analysis of 1968 reveals the year’s global uprising began with the Tet offensive on Vietnam. On January 30, overnight surprise attacks were launched on every major city and US base, and even the US Embassy grounds were overrun. As opposition to the war came to include Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, leading to the worst rioting in US history. Conflagrations and violence spread to more than 100 cities, and more damage was done to Washington DC than when the British burned the city in 1814. The French May events erupted with an intensity that continues to give energy. The Prague Spring and the attempt to liberate socialism from its Soviet domination were answered by an invasion of Czechoslovakia by half-a-million Russian troops. The Chicago convention of the Democratic Party turned into a police riot. The Olympics in Mexico City were preceded by a massacre of hundreds of protesters in Tlatelolco Plaza…. and these were just some of the major events that year.

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The international connections between social movements in 1968 were often synchronic as television, radio, and newspapers relayed news of events throughout the world. In May 1968, for example, when a student revolt led to a general strike of nearly ten million workers in France, there were significant demonstrations of solidarity in Mexico City, Berlin, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Berkeley, and Belgrade, and students and workers in both Spain and Uruguay attempted general strikes of their own. Massive student strikes in Italy forced Prime Minister Aldo Moro and his cabinet to resign; Germany experienced its worst political crisis since 1945; and a student strike at the University of Dakar, Senegal, led to a general strike of workers.

In my book on the global imagination of 1968, I developed the concept of the “eros effect” to explain the rapid spread of revolutionary aspirations and actions. During moments of the eros effect, universal interests become generalized at the same time as the dominant values of society (national chauvinism, hierarchy, and domination) are negated. As Herbert Marcuse so clearly formulated it, humans have an instinctual need for freedom — something that we grasp intuitively, and it is this instinctual need that is sublimated into a collective phenomenon during moments of the eros effect. Dimensions of the eros effect include: the sudden and synchronous emergence of hundreds of thousands of people occupying public spaces, the simultaneous appearance of revolts in many places, the intuitive identification of hundreds of thousands of people with each other, their common belief in new values, and suspension of normal daily routines like competitive business practices, criminal behavior, and acquisitiveness. People’s intuition and self-organization — not the dictates of any party — are key to the emergence of such protests. Actualized in the actions of millions of people in 1968, the eros effect is a weapon of enormous future potential — and it may well be 1968’s single most important contribution to freedom movements.

Although often thought to have climaxed in 1968, the global movement intensified afterwards. In 1969, the Italian Hot Autumn saw hundreds of thousands of workers challenge factory authority and institute autonomous forms of shop floor governance. In 1970, the US movement reached its high point at the Black Panthers’ Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention (RPCC), the culmination of the “American 1968,” a remarkable five-month upsurge from May to September 1970, during which the movement produced a political strike of four million students and half a million faculty on the campuses after the killings at Kent State and Jackson State Universities; the National Organization for Women called a general strike of women (and innovated the design of the modern symbol for feminism); Vietnam combat veterans massively joined and became leaders of the peace movement; the first Gay Pride week was organized; and the Chicano Moratorium on August 29 brought tens of thousands of anti-war protesters into the streets of Los Angeles. As the whole society was disquieted, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and a rainbow of constituencies flocked to Philadelphia in September in response to the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) call to write a new constitution for the US. A visionary draft was produced through a participatory process involving more than 10,000 people, who approved by consensus the need to replace the nation’s standing army with popular self-defense teams and to equitably redistribute the world’s wealth.[1]

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This remarkable five-month insurgency was touched off by the killings of college students at Kent State and Jackson State Universities who were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. In response to these killings and the murderous repression of the BPP, a popular upsurge shook the US from May to September, prefiguring a whole different kind of society. This period marked the closest the U.S. had come to a revolutionary situation in the twentieth century. Not only was it entirely political (and not oriented around economistic demands), the campus shutdown was the largest single strike in the history of the United States. Besides paralyzing the system of higher education, it spelled the beginning of the end for yet another American president who failed to pull out of Vietnam. As previously fragmented insurgent social movements dedicated themselves to creating a new social order, Business Week warned about the danger of a revolution. Every sector of the social movement in the country intensified its activities and reached a climatic peak.  More than 500 GIs that deserted every day of the week in May and office workers in Washington DC created Federal Employees for a Democratic Society (an organization credited with the capability to “operate as a shadow government”).

The acute phase of the uprising required bloodshed and force of arms to quiet. Across the country, more than 35,000 National Guard were called out in 16 states to bloodily suppress protests.  From Kent and Jackson to Buffalo and Albuquerque, more than 100 people were killed or wounded by government violence. Before order was restored, the USA was irrevocably changed.  Historians may have neglected these events and the media may never have covered them, but the USA endured a crisis of a depth and intensity to which only its Civil War can compare.

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The Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention

In France, individual charismatic leaders, in large part created by the media, spoke for what the movement wanted, and the broad constituencies were unable to gather in a single place to promulgate their vision for the future. In the US, despite police and FBI terror against the BPP, thousands of people converged on Philadelphia for the RPCC.  In the midst of the global uprising of 1968, the Panthers were best positioned (as the most oppressed in what Che Guevara called “the belly of the beast”) to articulate universal aspirations to transform the entire world system. Delegates from local black groups and from an array of organizations — the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, I Wor Keun (an Asian-American group), Students for a Democratic Society (the national student organization with a membership of at least 30,000), the newly formed Gay Liberation Front and many feminist groups — all regarded the BPP as their inspiration and vanguard. This extraordinary alliance constituted the RPCC, and they were able to unify and develop their future direction. Most remarkable of all, this diverse assembly was able to write down their vision for a free society.

The form of the gatherings was slightly different than in 1787. Panther members, who also coordinated security contingents that insured a trouble-free working environment, led each workshop. Panthers prevented the media from attending, fearing their presence would only make a circus of the proceedings. While many journalists complained about being barred from the plenary and workshops, the space created by the absence of media was too valuable to sacrifice to publicity. Here was the movement’s time to speak to itself. Seldom do groups communicate with such a combination of passion and reason. Person after person rose and spoke of heartfelt needs and desire, of pain and oppression. As if the roof had been taken off the ceiling, imaginations soared as we flew off to our new society. The synergistic effect compelled each of us to articulate our thoughts with eloquence and simplicity, and the “right on!” refrain that ended each person’s contribution also signaled that the time had arrived for someone else to speak. An unidentified Panther later described how the even the children had not been boisterous: “The children were to be for the three days like adults, infected with a kind of mad sobriety.” The same author promised: “There is going to be a revolution in America. It is going to begin in earnest in our time…To have believed in a second American revolution before Philadelphia was an act of historical and existential faith: not to believe in a new world after Philadelphia is a dereliction of the human spirit.”[2]

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Workshops drafted outlines to comprise an “Internationalist Constitution,” not a national one.  Its preface declared an International Bill of Rights and promised reparations to the people of the world. Participatory workshops of women, black nationalists, street people, ex-prisoners, veterans, students, health workers and artists expressed how their constituencies viewed a free society. Although the September convention roared its approval of the program, the gathering two months later in Washington DC failed miserably, largely because of the Panthers’ decision that the new constitution was a mistake.  The change in the Party’s orientation “back to the black community” and the emergence of electoral politics as the defining tactic of the Panthers proved to be the beginning of a bitter and bloody internal feud, which tore the organization — and the movement —apart.

When held up against the RPCC documents, the Panthers’ 1966 program is timid, its vision limited. The program and platform contain no mention of international solidarity. While there is an understanding of “people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized by the white racist government of America,” Third World people were coequal objects of repression; they had yet to become subjects of revolution. Nowhere in the platform is there a hint, for example, of Huey Newton’s subsequent offer to send troops to the National Liberation Front of southern Vietnam to assist them in expelling the US. Nor are gay people’s rights, the liberation of women, and proportional representation of minorities and women anywhere to be found in the 1966 documents. Not only is women’s liberation conspicuously absent, but the idea of Panther women fighting as soldiers alongside the National Liberation Front, an idea insisted upon by Huey, was inconceivable in 1966.

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Compared with the exemption of black men from military service, the RPCC called for an end to a standing army. Rather than black prisoners receiving new trials, all prisoners were to be judged afresh by decentralized revolutionary tribunals. International reparations and the redistribution of the planet’s wealth superseded the modest national reparations of 40 acres and two mules for African-Americans. As should be apparent, comparison of the political program of the BPP with the vision of the popular movement at the RPCC calls attention to the ways in which the movement itself surpassed the visionary capacity of its most heroic and historically prescient leaders and organizations (all of whom, despite their centrality to the movement, remain partial and fragmentary).

At this juncture, I want to emphasize that the capability of “ordinary” people to organize and speak for themselves, to run their own institutions and manage all of their own affairs, can be astonishing. Within the constraints of the existing system, it takes moments of exhilarating confrontation with the established powers to lift the veil concerning people’s capacities, moments of the “eros effect” in which everyday life in the hoped-for society of the future is prefigured. Unleashed from institutional masters and political bosses, spontaneous actions of millions of people can be a potent force in national and local politics. Even when they fail to accomplish their immediate objectives, they can have far-reaching international effects as well.

To be fair to Seale and Newton as well as to appreciate properly their historic roles means to place their program and platform at the beginning of a turbulent and rapidly changing historical epoch. Between the Oakland launch of the Party and the RPCC, four years of rapid change occurred, transforming the nation and the BPP as part of it. Unlike the amorphous RPCC gathering that produced no concrete organization or ongoing program, Newton and Seale were ready to act and did act immediately after they wrote the 1966 program. RPCC participants were never able to make a long-term commitment to implement the new constitution.

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The International Movement in 1970

The crisis of 1970 was not simply a North American phenomenon. Like the world-historical social movements of 1968, events in 1970 were globally motivated and enacted. In scores of cities around the world, militant protesters demonstrated against the escalation of the war. Some burned American flags while others went beyond the level of symbolic gesture. In Venezuela, two students were killed during the third day of massive protests against the invasion of Cambodia. In Calcutta, the American university center was ransacked, and in Hamburg. Amerika-Haus was occupied and renamed “The House of the Four Dead at Kent.” In Britain, protesters painted swastikas and dumped pigs’ heads in American businesses. The simultaneous eruption of a global movement compelled policymakers to change plans at the same time as it forged international unity among people who recognized in each other the humanity denied them by the existing world system. The heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people to foreign domination was the prime mover of events in this period, and in southern Vietnam after the invasion of Cambodia, anti-war protests became so massive that the government ordered all schools closed.

After President Thieu publicly vowed to “beat to death” peace demonstrators, police bloodily cleared anti-war Buddhist nuns and monks from the Vietnam national pagoda, killing five persons and wounding 53.Also in 1970, the Polish workers’ movement revived. Chanting “We apologize for 1968!” — when workers had failed to rally to students’ support — workers went into the streets of Gdansk. As fighting with police escalated, at least 45 people were killed, hundreds wounded, and 19 buildings set on fire — including United Polish Workers’ Party headquarters. The movement spread to Gdynia and Szczecin. Only after Party Chief Edward Gierek resigned could the insurgency be contained. Fighting in the streets subsided, but the trade union movement slowly rebuilt itself into Solidarność — the organization that went on to overturn Poland’s government in 1989.

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After 1968, grassroots movements continue to be structured according to a grammar of increasing democracy, autonomy, and solidarity. Diachronic analysis gleans the inner qualities of self-management and solidarity as uniting the apparently disparate and essentially multifarious movements that have emerged since 1968. These now seemingly universal desires stand in stark opposition to the entrenched system of capitalist patriarchy. With these unifying aspirations, social movements remain globally connected, and internationally synchronized actions are increasingly common. From this perspective, late 20th century democratization movements were delayed results of 1968’s high points. They were the sixties’ gift to the future. Without anyone predicting their downfall, Eastern Europe’s communist regimes in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Romania all were transformed in 1989. The Soviet Union could not remain aloof and soon, it dissolved. Looking back at the string of uprisings that swept away East Asian dictatorships and East European Soviet regimes, Immanuel Wallerstein, Terrence Hopkins, and Giovanni Arrighi called the movements of 1989 “the continuation of 1968.”[3]

In Asia as well, the movement of 1968 had profound effects. In her 1986 presidential campaign against Marcos, Corey Aquino ran under the banner of LABAN  (Lakas ng Bayan) or “Power of the People” — an amazingly similar phrase to the chief slogan of the BPP, “All Power to the People.” Today that exact phrase is used in many contexts: in Venezuela, for example, it is painted on police cars. While the phrase’s exact origin lies in the flux of popular creativity that congeals in social movements, its common usage speak volumes about these movements’ similarities to each other.[4] One analyst reported that East German participants in their democratic revolution of 1989 were familiar with “People Power” but did not trace it to the Philippines. Similarly, activists in Nepal used the term without reference to the Philippines.[5]

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Korea may not have been part of the international synchronicity of events in 1968, but in 1960, Korean students had overthrown dictator Syngman Rhee in what may be regarded as the first New Left revolution. The actions of Korean students inspired many others around the world. Newspapers reported that protesting students in Turkey bowed their heads to show respect to their Korean counterparts. US activist Tom Hayden, one of the main authors of the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), remembered his feelings when he first heard the news from Seoul: “I was exhilarated when I saw young people our age overthrow the dictator Syngman Rhee. Through that movement, I learned the history of the Cold War for the first time. Those events challenged our naïve belief that our parents were fighting for a free world. I can tell you that movement helped inspire SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and the black movement in the South. Two days after Syngman Rhee’s forced resignation, SDS held its first meeting.”[6]

Although resistance in Korea continued against the Park Chung-hee regime, Korea became marginalized from the world’s movements (with the exception of the Juche wave from North Korea). By the end of the 20th century, Korea assumed its place near the center of world events with the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, a modern day Paris Commune during which citizens bloodily defended their city while governing themselves through direct democracy.[7] In contrast to the centrally organized 1948 Jeju uprising, the spontaneous Gwangju People’s Uprising was a New Left insurrection in the sense of self-management (direct democracy). During the Gwangju Uprising, the formation of what was named the “absolute community” embodied the eros effect.

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Instances of the Global Eros Effect

People’s intuition and self-organization — not the dictates of any party — are increasingly keys to the emergence of global protests. While political leadership based upon authoritarian models of organization has withered among freedom-loving movements, the power of example and synchronicity of uprisings are increasingly potent — especially when their promulgators are among the poorest inhabitants of a world capable of providing plenty for all. Actualized in the actions of millions of people in 1968, the eros effect continues to define an essential core of movements, and as such it is a weapon of enormous future potential. Both the disarmament movement of the 1980s and the alterglobalization movement of the 1990s experienced periods of rapid international proliferation. With the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, transnational eruptions of protests became widely visible.

Instances of the spread of movements across borders, involving a process of mutual amplification and synergy, are significant precursors for future mobilizations. In the period after 1968, as the global movement’s capacity for decentralized international coordination developed, five other episodes of the international eros effect can be discerned:

  • The disarmament movement of the early 1980s
  • The wave of East Asian uprisings in the 1980s and 1990s[8]
  • The revolts against Soviet regimes in East Europe from 1989 to 1991
  • The alterglobalization wave and anti-war protests on February 15, 2003
  • The Arab Spring and Occupy Movements of 2011

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The next generations of protests — drawn from the trajectory of Chiapas, Caracas, Gwangju, Berlin, Seattle, February 15, 2003, and the Arab Spring — will surpass these other waves in a cascading global resonance. As the global tendencies of the world system intensify in their impact on millions of peoples’ everyday lives, internationally coordinated opposition is more and more a necessity.

For the eros effect to be activated, thousands and then millions of people who comprise civil society need to act — to negate their existing daily routines and break free of ingrained patterns. This process is not simply enacted by the will power of a small group — although ones may help spark it. Without help from anyone, the global movement is building toward a protracted people’s uprisings that breaks through regional cultures and confronts the planetary constraints on people’s freedom. As the target is fixed, its bulls eye will be reached: the hundred billionaires who greedily hoard humanity’s collective wealth, an even smaller number of gigantic global banks and corporations, and militarized nation-states armed with weapons of mass destruction. People used to think that it took a vanguard party to provide this kind of coordination, but these recent episodes of the eros effect prove otherwise. The multitude has its own intelligence, an intelligence of the life-force, of the heart. The eros effect is not an intelligence of Cartesian duality, yet is a moment of extraordinary reasonability.

The 20th century will be remembered for its horrific wars, environmental devastation, and mass starvation amid great prosperity. It will also be known as a time when human beings began a struggle to transform the entire world system. Uprisings at the century’s end reveal people’s attempts to enact global justice. From the grassroots, millions of people around the world in the past three decades have constituted a protracted people’s uprising against capitalism and war. Without anyone telling people to do so, millions in the alterglobalization movement confronted elite meetings of the institutions of the world economic system — practical targets whose universal meaning is profoundly indicative of people’s yearnings for a new world economic system. No central organization dictated this focus. Rather, millions of people autonomously developed it through their own thoughts and actions. Similarly, without central organization, as many as thirty million people around the world took to the streets on February 15, 2003 to protest the second US war on Iraq.

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As the global movement becomes increasingly aware of its own power, its strategy and impact are certain to become more focused. By creatively synthesizing direct-democratic forms of decision-making and militant popular resistance, people’s movements will continue to develop along the historical lines revealed in 1968 and subsequent Asian uprisings: within a grammar of autonomy, “conscious spontaneity,” and the eros effect.

As we move into the 21st century, the Arab Spring and Occupy protests provide empirical evidence of the growing consciousness of ordinary people who go into the streets to change history. No one could have guessed that the suicide of a vegetable vendor in a small Tunisian town would set off the Arab Spring. Not even Mohamed Bouazizi himself had any idea that his solitary act of despair and anger would resonate among so many people. With the Arab Spring, the eros effect has become obvious to millions of people. The occupation movement’s spillover into Greece and Spain shows that regional boundaries have been burst asunder. In 1968, “the whole world was watching.” Today, it is increasingly the case that the whole world is awakening. Our ultimate goal should be to forge permanent popular assemblies as forms of governance, to enlarge and solidify the kinds of small general assemblies proliferating from the grassroots. Previous historical examples of such forms of governance can be found in the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1980 absolute community in Gwangju.

New grounds of optimism that a global eros effect, like that in 1968, will again become operative. It appears to be impossible to predict when and why. Like falling in love, enacting the eros effect is a complex process. Can we make ourselves fall in love? Can we simply will ourselves to remain in love? If the eros effect were continually activated, we would have passed from the realm of prehistory, to a world in which human beings for the first time are able to determine for themselves the type of society in which they wish to live.

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End notes:


[1] See “Organization and Movement: The Case of the Black Panther Party and the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention of 1970” in Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party (New York: Routledge, 2001) pp. 141-155; the documents are reported on pp. 285-300.

[2] “Not to Believe in a New World after Philadelphia is a Dereliction of the Human Spirit,” unsigned article, The Black Panther, 9/26/70, p. 19.

[3] Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, “1989: The Continuation of 1968,” After the Fall: 1989 and the Future of Freedom edited by George Katsiaficas (New York: Routledge, 2001) p. 35.

[4] Poder Popular is also the name of Cuban institutions of government established in the 1975 Constitution. Earlier, a slogan was widely chanted in Chile: “Crear, crear; Poder Popular!” In 2007, I was astonished to see “Todo el Poder al Pueblo!” on the sides of police cars in Caracas, Venezuela.

[5] Thompson, p. 131.

[6] Tom Hayden made these remarks in Gwangju during a speech at the International Conference Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising in May 2010.

[7] See my article, “Comparing the Paris Commune and the Gwangju Uprising,” New Political Science, June 2003, available at http://eroseffect.com/articles/parisgwangjuprint.pdf

[8] See Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, 2 volumes (Oakland: PM Press, 2013).

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[Thank you indeed George for your activism and this contribution]

The writer is a Professor of Humanities at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. A long-time activist, whose writings include books on the global uprising of 1968 and European social movements. Together with Kathleen Cleaver, he edited Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party. He recently completed a two-volume book, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings. His web site is: http://www.eroseffect.com

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