Tuesday, 8 May 2018
I rise this evening to pay tribute to the rebels of 1968 on this, the 50th anniversary of that remarkable year. 1968 was one of those years when millions of people were involved in trying to change the world for the better. The world was shaken by a wave of protests and rebellions again imperialism, racism, social injustice and the lack of real democracy. It began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Despite the presence of more than half a million US troops and the unprecedented bombing of that small, poor country, the fighters of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam stormed into towns and cities across Vietnam to show that they were not beaten. They even captured and briefly occupied the heavily fortified US embassy in Saigon. This story of the heroism and endurance of the small nation of Vietnam taking on the might of the US super power came to define our generation.
I was at high school in 1968. I remember the excitement and how the hopes of the time inspired a worldwide movement of solidarity for liberation and justice. The events surrounding the Tet offensive ushered in a year of widespread democratic engagement and what has been called the beginning of the revolution in everyday life. From 1968 onwards, we would hear that slogan which has never gone away: 'The personal is political'.
My favourite image of that year was the two black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, standing on the podium at the Mexico Olympics after they came first and third in the 200-metre sprint, holding their black-gloved fists aloft in the black power salute and standing with them wearing a civil rights badge in solidarity was the Australian athlete Peter Norman, who had run second. It was one of the most shameful facts of our contemporary history that Peter Norman was treated so shabbily by our sporting and government officials in the years and decades afterwards. It was so heartening, however, to hear the apology to his memory delivered recently by John Coates, President of the Australian Olympic Committee. Nevertheless, the struggle of Afro-Americans for social and economic equality, or even for basic human safety, continues to do this day with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The other images that stay strong in my memory and that have become symbols of the social movement of 1968 are those of the students and young people battling the police on the streets of Paris. In the first week of May 1968, students in Paris clashed with police practically every day, with hundreds arrested or wounded and hospitalised by tear gas grenades or the batons of the police. On the Friday night of 10 May, the famous 'night of the barricades', barricades were thrown up around the Sorbonne, the centre of the University of Paris. In the early hours of the morning, the students defended themselves against wave after wave of police attacks. France and the world awoke to reports of police violence that shocked even the French, long used to police brutality.
France's three-union federation decided on a one-day general strike to protest the government's use of the police to attack the students. The strike, incidentally, was strictly illegal. On Monday, 13 May, work came to a halt, and in every town and city throughout France there were huge rallies. More than a million people marched through Paris. All this, the heroism of the students and the huge marches, would have been worth recalling, but what happened next made this month truly historic. Inspired by the students, young workers throughout France initiated strikes and workplace occupations. All kinds of workers were involved—blue- and white-collar workers, women as well as men, unskilled as well as technicians. By the next week, France was paralysed by an indefinite general strike of some eight million workers. Half the work places of France were occupied by their workers. All the universities were occupied and approximately 400 high schools. It was an unprecedented revolt against the status quo.
After some hesitation, union leaders moved to take control and eventually begin negotiations with the government. Observers and historians agree on a number of key aspirations that emerged during the month-long strike. It was definitely about social equality. The major British poet Stephen Spender, who was in Paris at the time, confirms everyone called each other 'comrade'. Social divisions and stratifications began to dissolve as people took to the streets and began to talk to each other like never before.
Initially, striking workers did not make demands about pay. They talked about more respect at work and even 'autogestion', workers' management of their workplaces. Students were predominantly from middle-class backgrounds but they made every attempt to link up with workers during May and June. It was one of the tragedies of that time that the union leaders and the French Communist Party acted to keep them apart. This was a mistake and was later acknowledged as such by communist and union leaders.
Another aspect of this demand for equality was the steps towards the foundation of women's liberation. The first meeting was called in May by two students at the Sorbonne. The other notable aspiration evident at the time was for participatory democracy. In fact, students and staff at universities and schools drew up plans for staff-student management of their institutions. In some workplaces, similar plans were drawn up by the workers. One of the failures of the time was that nowhere were these plans implemented. If they had been, a new social order may have begun to emerge.
Finally, it was about social criticism, creativity and utopian dreams. The emptiness of a consumerist lifestyle was rejected. Restrictions on personal freedom were overturned. People not only talked of revolution and radical change but insisted that they live principled lives in the here and now. Playful, utopian graffiti and pungent, witty posters blossomed on the walls of cities and towns. The month of May became famous for its slogans. Here are some of the better ones: 'Imagination to power', 'Under the cobblestones, the beach', 'It's forbidden to forbid', 'Hurry up, the old world is behind you', 'Poetry is in the street' and 'The barricade closes the street but opens the way'. It was an impressive show of the internationalism and anti-racism that motivated the young of that era. How refreshing when contrasted to the resurgence of racism and anti-immigrant feeling in France and Europe today.
Sadly, the revolt of May-June failed in the end. The parties of the Left were disunited and offered no practical support for the radical demands of the young. No model of an alternative society emerged. There was a situation of stasis. This allowed the government to recover its nerve, rally the army and the right wing and take back control. Huge wage rises were conceded to the workers, who the unions persuaded to return to work. Street demonstrations were banned, censorship tightened and hundreds went to jail. The ruling Gaullists decisively won elections at the end of June. However, it should be noted that the voting age then was just 21, which meant millions of young people could not vote. Today, once again, the youth and workers of so many countries are taking up these issues of social equality, participatory democracy, internationalism and the emptiness and destructiveness of consumer capitalism. There is no better way to celebrate 1968 than to actively pursue those issues.
The great weakness of 1968 in France and elsewhere was that there was no significant political party that would champion what the students and young workers were striving for. I joined the Greens in 1990 with the hope that the Greens would become such a party that would help unite the great progressive struggles of our time. Having grown up with the memories of 1968 and the great social movements such as women's liberation, campaigns against the nuclear industry and for the environment, the end of apartheid and the Vietnam War, I came to understand the need for a political party that could play a leading and uniting role. I still have that hope that the green parties around the world, and even some traditional social democrat parties, will fill that gap and provide the support that our reviving social movements require to bring about a world of equality, genuine democracy, peace and ecological harmony.