Removing the obstacle to thought

The problem is not the events of 1968, writes Mike Macnair. The problem is that the ideas which 1968 has been taken to confirm have been proved by history to be mistaken

It is a cliché that generals tend to plan to fight the last war. The same thing happens in politics. The current generation of leaders of the far left came into politics round the anti-Vietnam war movement and around the year 1968. These events therefore have a hold on their political imagination which bars the way to serious thought about present and future tasks.

‘The year 1968’ for this purpose does not mean simply the events of France in May-June 1968 (discussed by comrade Jack Conrad’s recent series). Equally, if not more, important in the formation of the body of left ideas which grew out of 1968 were the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the ‘Prague spring’ in Czechoslovakia.

The forms of the far-left ideology built around the year 1968 are in origin primarily soft-Maoist (or ‘Mao-spontaneist’) and from the Mandelite (‘Pabloite’) variant of Trotskyism. I was a member of the Mandelite International Marxist Group from 1974 on. As such, it is personally striking to me that members of groups of Trotskyist origin (if they were more self-aware of the history than such people usually are) might now say that “we are all Pabloites now”. The critiques of ‘Pabloism’ that were offered by other variants of Trotskyism (and by older ‘official communist’ and Labour types) in the 1970s are forgotten.

Mandelites proudly called for victory to the (Vietnamese) NLF, or to the IRA, and were denounced for it by other Trotskyists; people who denounced this line and their political descendants are now even more third-worldist than we were and call for victory to the Iraqi resistance. The ‘workers’ bomb’ line shared by the 1970s Mandelites and Healyites and mocked by the Socialist Workers Party is replaced, as Charlie Pottins has pointed out, by the SWP’s defence of the ‘mullahs’ bomb’. Former Healyites have become advocates of political strategies which go further in the direction of ‘left’ and ‘council’ communism than the Mandelites ever did when Healyites were polemicising against us for these errors. Militants of the SWP and Socialist Party in England and Wales - and of the Labour Party - have gone beyond the 1970s IMG attempt to engage with the feminist, lesbian/gay, etc movements, which in the 70s they denounced as petty bourgeois, into complete capitulation to ‘identity politics’ and ‘political correctness’.

The process of change is to a considerable extent one of generational replacement. The older generations of the left have largely died or retired, the ‘children of 68’ have taken centre-stage.

If the course of events since 1968 had confirmed Mandelite or Mao-spontaneist perspectives, this change would be a fine thing. In fact, the contrary is the case. The Portuguese revolution of 1974-76 destroyed the ‘councilist’ line of the Mandelites for Europe. Jean-Michel Krivine admits in the latest International Viewpoint that the much-vilified Vietnamese ‘old Trotskyist’ ‘sectarians’ had a better understanding of the actual dynamics of the North Vietnamese regime than the Mandelite, Mao-spontaneist, etc enthusiasts of the 60s and 70s.1

At that, the Vietnamese Stalinist sweatshop is a better outcome than that of most of the ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘colonial liberation’ movements. What has happened in the ‘eastern bloc’ is not ‘political revolution’, but the restoration of capitalism. The ‘social movements’ have disintegrated into fragments, their larger parts more or less fully integrated into the capitalist political game.

My purpose in this article is to understand how an interpretation of 1968 has shaped the dominant politics of the modern far left - and led it into a blind alley. The events of the year 1968 were not, except in a very limited sense, a 1905, a dress rehearsal for a coming 1917 revolution of similar shape (either globally or in Europe). Rather, they were the upshots of the policies and political dynamics of the cold war, and part of the causes of the turn of international capital away from these policies. Hence, to treat 1968 as a dress rehearsal for the future revolution is to disable analysis. Because of my background I am more familiar with the Mandelite version of ‘1968 as a dress rehearsal’ than with the Mao-spontaneist version. I therefore discuss mainly the Mandelite/Trotskisant variant of this ideology.

I address the problem as one in the history of ideas and ideologies, not in terms directly of the political-economic dynamics or the course of the immediate class struggle (either at the point of production or at the political level). I do so partly for reasons of space; but mainly because the problem I am addressing is precisely one of the ideas of the far left.

Real and important

I should emphasise that I do not mean to buy into the standard capitalist view of the events of 1968 as either trivial or disastrous. The year 1968 came at the end of a period in which the dominant ideologies asserted that the power of modern states ruled out their revolutionary overthrow. They claimed that the western working class had turned into a part of the middle class and would no longer engage in broad mass struggles against capital. And they said that ‘east’ and ‘west’ were ‘converging’ on a regime of Weberian bureaucratic rationality and the ‘positive politics’ of haggling between (non-class) ‘interest groups’.

The 1968 events brutally falsified all of these ideas. The Tet Offensive dramatised the vulnerability of the world’s most powerful state, the USA, and its South Vietnamese client regime, to guerrilla war. The May-June events in France (and their aftermath elsewhere, especially the ‘creeping May’ in Italy and the mass struggles in Britain in 1970-74) showed that class still mattered and the working class could still shake governments by broad mass struggles. The Prague spring showed the ideas of liberty and democracy could animate masses against bureaucratic ‘rationality’, and its outcome showed that ‘east’ and ‘west’ were not converging.

In one limited but fundamental sense 1968 and what followed it in the early to mid-1970s did foreshadow the nature of workers’ revolution. It showed, yet again, as 1848, 1916-21 and 1943-48 had shown before, that the class movement of the working class is international in character. Mass movements and revolutionary crises come in internationally coordinated ways, not in tempos dictated primarily by national politics and national specificities.

In the aftermath, however, the petty-proprietor class interests of the bureaucracies of the small far-left groups in their personal careers reasserted themselves, leading to denial of this obvious fact. Or else recognition of the international character of the class movement was turned into a reason for the formation of international bureaucratic-centralist sects which in fact are merely international extensions of national groups (whether the national groups in question are based in Britain, the US, France or Argentina).

Cold war far left

The ideology of 1968 inverted the negative gain of 1968 - decisive falsification of the ideologies of gradualist and bureaucratic statism - to make the events of the year into a positive image of the road to the seizure of power by the working class. It did so because this ideology was formed through the interpretation of 1968 through the prior frame of ideas developed in the late 1950s and 1960s.

As I have already said, between the 1950s and 1970s the dominant political ideology in the imperialist ‘west’ was reformism, or more exactly Fabianism in Europe, progressivism in the US; in social theory, the ‘anti-class’ theories of Weber and Durkheim were preponderant. The US state made a very substantial material investment in promoting these ideologies. This was mainly by concessions to the working class and the intermediate classes (welfare states, and so on). But there was also direct material support for the ideologies by subventions both in the academy and in the political parties. The latter became obvious when, in the late 1970s-80s, the US subsidies were shifted from right social-democrats to Hayekian, etc neoliberals.

As part of this orientation of capital, there could be, and were, trade unions with unusually high density of membership relative to the workforce, and mass workers’ parties with real roots in the unions and in the working class localities. Associated with these organisations was a real, if limited, class-political consciousness; although the main bearers of this consciousness were the older militants who had lived through the 1930s and the war. But the mass organisations were committed to the ideology of reform, either directly (Labour/socialist parties) or indirectly through coalitionism and the various equivalents of the British road to socialism (the western ‘official communist’ parties). Capital supported or at least accepted their existence, within limits: their bureaucratic discipline served it as a means of maintaining control over the working class.

Against this ideological formation, the far left was more or less inevitably driven to stress as the alternative to the existing order ‘revolution’, in a rather narrow sense as meaning an abrupt, rapid and complete transformation of society ‘from below’. This stress was more or less inevitable for three reasons. In the first place, nationalisations and planning had become part of the dominant ideology: it was hard work at the level of the economic to assert that the capitalist countries were still capitalist and that Marxist economics was still relevant.

Secondly, those tendencies which defended the ‘Leninist party’ (meaning the party as conceived in the theses of the 2nd and 3rd Congresses of the Communist International) were, as a result, debarred from defending consistently the radical-democratic alternative to the bureaucratic-coercive state urged by Marx and Engels. This was because the ‘Leninist party’ as conceived in 1920-21 was precisely a bureaucratic-coercive apparatus.

Thirdly, critics of the ‘Leninist party’ were unavoidably drawn either to Kautsky’s critique of the Russian Revolution (and as a result, following Kautsky’s statism, nationalism and fetishism of unity with the right, back into the Labour/socialist parties and so to Fabianism) or to the critique of the ‘left’ and ‘council’ communists. These tendencies inherited from the semi-syndicalist left wing of the Second International a fetishism of the anarchic creativity of the revolution, and the revolution as the leap into the unknown: the Second International left, in turn, inherited these ideas from the anarcho-syndicalists, who took them at one remove from Bakunin.

To defend ‘revolution’ in this sense as the alternative, required following one of three options to give the idea plausibility. The first was to assert that in future the apparent political stability of the imperialist metropolises would be destroyed, opening up the possibilities of revolution. This was the option chosen, in substance, by the majority of the ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ or ‘anti-Pabloite’ groups. It was criticised by its opponents as involving ‘Kautskyan automatism’ and ‘catastrophism’. It also suffered from the fact that most of its proponents took as good coin Lenin’s analysis of imperialism as the “highest stage of capitalism” and/or Trotsky’s characterisation of the (then) coming world war as the “death agony of capitalism”. The result was that they analysed the post-war boom as a short ‘replacement boom’ like that after World War I and anticipated a new 1929 in the short-term future: a prediction repeatedly made and as repeatedly falsified.

The second option was to appeal to the course of events outside the imperialist metropolises as validating the idea of ‘revolution’. The reference was especially to the political instability of most semi-colonial ‘third world’ countries. Maoists (of all varieties), some ‘anti-revisionists’ within the ‘official’ CPs but outside the immediate orbit of Maoism, and the Pablo-Posadas wing of the Trotskyists and, to a lesser extent, the Mandelites and (after the Cuban revolution) the US SWP and its co-thinkers - all shared this approach. It was expressed by Maoists as the idea of “surrounding the cities”; by ‘Pabloites’ as the idea that “the centre of gravity of the world revolution had shifted to the colonial revolution”. Trotskyists could add reference to the 1956 Hungarian revolution as showing political instability in the ‘eastern bloc’.

The third option was to go further down the road of the left and council communists - and behind them, the advocates of the general strike in the 1890s and 1900s, the Hegelian-Marxism of Sorel, and at one remove Bakunin - and see the problem as essentially one of political will. With the right will, and the readiness to act and agitate rather than waste time in propaganda, the mass movement could be triggered into action; and once the mass movement had begun, it would escape the trammels of commodity fetishism and with them of bourgeois ideology. This ‘direct actionism’ was the path of a substantial part of the student left, expressed in different forms by the situationists, yippies and so on.

Mandelite objective dynamics

The Mandelites developed a particular variant intermediate between the three approaches, expressed in the document Dynamics of world revolution today which formed the basis of the ‘reunification’ of the US SWP and its co-thinkers with the ‘Pabloite’ majority of the Fourth International (1963).2 This document was constructed on the basis of the existence of ‘three sectors of the world revolution’: the colonial revolution, the political revolution in the ‘eastern bloc’ states, and the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries.

The colonial revolution was characterised by the (alleged) fact that radical nationalists who were prepared to ‘go all the way’ would be driven to make an anti-capitalist revolution: witness Castro in Cuba, witness Ben Bella in Algeria (oops ... the oops has had to be repeated several times since). The same was true of ‘official’ CPs who ‘broke with Stalinism’ in the sense of not doing exactly what Moscow told them: witness Tito and Mao. The objective dynamic was thus dominant over subjective political choices.

The objective dynamic was similarly dominant in the ‘political revolution’. Economic development had given confidence to the masses, leading to pressure on the Stalinist leaderships. This objective tendency of rising pressure on the bureaucracy from the masses would lead in due course to the opening of the possibility of political revolution. A critical element in the Mandelites’ view was the aspiration to workers’ control of production: it was this, they said, that made ‘Titoism’ subversive in the eyes of the Moscow bureaucracy. The ‘reformist’ wing of the bureaucracy (for Maoists and ‘anti-revisionists’ in the ‘official’ communist movement, the ‘revisionists’) reflected this pressure of the masses. This was, and continued to be, an article of faith for the Mandelites: they were still using it to analyse the role of Yeltsin in 1991.

The prognosis for the imperialist countries needs quotation:

“… the economies of the imperialist countries have now entered a period in which the forces of expansion are slowly spending themselves and in which competition among the newly equipped imperialist countries is sharpening in a world market that is relatively smaller as a result of the victories in the colonial revolution and the economic expansion of the workers’ states. This increased competition, heightened still further by the constitution of the Common Market in western Europe, will strengthen the inevitable tendency for the average rate of profit to decline ...

“In reaction to these tendencies, the capitalist class will seek periodically to ameliorate its positions in the competitive struggle by slowing down the rate of increase of real wages, by freezing wages or even by trying to reduce real wages, especially in the imperialist countries, where the workers enjoy the highest relative wages. The response of the proletariat to these attacks can lead to great struggles that will tend to move toward pre-revolutionary and even revolutionary situations, provided that the working class, or at least its broad vanguard, has sufficient self-confidence to advance the socialist alternative to the capitalist way of running the economy and the country. This in turn hinges essentially on the activity and influence of a broad left wing in the labour movement that educates the vanguard in the necessity of struggling for this socialist alternative and that builds up self-confidence and an apparatus capable of revolutionary struggle through a series of successful partial struggles.”

Three points need to be made about this body of ideas. The first is that it was obvious to pretty much everyone outside the immediate orbit of the Mandelites that what the ‘colonial revolution’ was actually producing when it was successful was new members and allies of the ‘eastern bloc’, which shared with the ‘eastern bloc’ very similar police regimes and bureaucratic ‘planning’. You could approve this, if you were an ‘official communist’ or Maoist, or disapprove it, if you were a social democrat or ‘third campist’.

For the Mandelites’ line on it to make sense, you had to believe in both the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ theory and (related) in the possibility of political revolution. Otherwise, from a Marxist perspective (that the only road to socialism is through the self-emancipation of the working class), the ‘colonial revolutions’ would be a blind alley, not taking the working class the slightest step further forward. The alleged objective dynamic towards political revolution was thus essential to the whole framework of the Mandelites’ strategic perspective.

Secondly, the Mandelites’ strategic line in the imperialist countries managed to combine predicted instability in the future (due to competition and inter-imperialist contradictions) with a variant on the ‘left communist’ focus on the revolutionary will and on the entry of the masses into struggle. The entry of the masses into (mainly economic) struggles, and leading these struggles towards ‘dual power’, substituted for any substantive political line: “The objective is to stimulate and broaden mass struggles to the utmost and to move as much as possible toward playing a leading role in such struggles, beginning with the most elementary demands and seeking to develop them in the direction of transitional slogans on the level of government power and the creation of bodies of dual power (‘Labour to power’; ‘For a workers’ government’; ‘A workers’ and peasants’ government’; ‘A workers’ government based on the trade unions’; and other variants).”

The third is a point which was made by Cliff Slaughter and others at the time. The Mandelites’ perspective was at the end of the day both objectivist and passive. No tasks were posed for promoting the political revolution, and it was claimed that the weakness of the bourgeoisie meant that Stalinists and nationalists could play an objectively revolutionary role. Even in the imperialist countries, what was called for was “the activity and influence of a broad left wing in the labour movement that educates the vanguard in the necessity of struggling for this socialist alternative and that builds up self-confidence and an apparatus capable of revolutionary struggle through a series of successful partial struggles”.

The programmatic bases of this “broad left wing” were wholly indefinite: “the socialist alternative to the capitalist way of running the economy and the country”. The role the Mandelites envisaged for themselves was, in effect, merely as a minority ginger group within a broad left: not as an independent political party. This should be familiar: it is the more or less universal practice of the modern far left.

1968 as charter

The year 1968 became the charter for the Mandelites’ general orientation. It became a charter not primarily on the basis of the events in France (and afterwards in Italy, Britain, etc) as disclosing the possibility of broad mass struggles in the imperialist countries. Close analysis of these events would have revealed the eventually decisive role of political parties, as opposed to ‘broad left wings’ or ‘bodies of dual power’. Rather, the point was precisely the intersection of the objective dynamics of the colonial revolution (the Tet Offensive), the ‘political revolution’ growing out of the activities of ‘reformers’ in the east (the ‘Prague spring’) and the explosive broad mass struggles in the imperialist countries.

The events thus seemed to confirm the Mandelites’ general prognosis. (The same was true, in a different way, of the Mao-spontaneists.) May 68 in France looked, superficially, closer to the idea that the working class could break out of the dominance of commodity fetishism (‘consumerism’) and bourgeois ideology through entering into mass struggle than it did to the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ insistence on the coming crash. But it also reinforced the ideas of the colonial revolution and political revolution as distinct ‘sectors of the world revolution’.

The high point of both Mandelism and Mao-spontaneism was in the 1970s. At this period it really did seem as if 1968 was a ‘dress rehearsal for the revolution’. Mandelite and Mao-spontaneist ideas began to influence tendencies which were, at least formally or formerly, opposed to them. ‘Support for the colonial revolution’ began to become the common currency of the far left; and so did the rejection of the ‘propagandism’ and ‘Kautskyan determinism’ of the ‘old left’; so did the ‘social movements’; so did the idea of the “broad left wing in the labour movement”, successively recast as the ‘new mass vanguard’, as the Bensaïd/Jebrac version of the ‘united front’ and, in recent times, as ‘parties not programmatically delimited between reform and revolution’. And so on.

Meanwhile ...

Meanwhile, however, international capital had abandoned the orientation of the cold war and turned to a new one. In place of the Keynesian-welfarist consensus and US state support to right social democrats came the turn to financialisation. US state support was redirected to neoliberals.

In place of the confrontation of blocs came, first, efforts to break up the ‘eastern bloc’ by Nixon’s China turn and overtures to the Romanian and other bureaucracies, endeavouring to detach the satellites from Comecon by bringing them into the commercial loans system (which was also massively extended in order to detach the semi-colonial regimes from alliances with the USSR). Next came Carter’s ‘human rights’ offensive and - after it - Reagan’s ‘rollback’ policy.

At the same period, the US shifted from attempting to impose order in the ‘third world’ (as in Vietnam) to using indirect means to prevent any alternative order to its own being created. The US sponsored ‘terrorists’ or guerrillas, aka ‘freedom fighters’, in various parts of Africa, the Khmer Rouge as an alternative to the Vietnamese-sponsored regime in Cambodia, from 1978 the islamists in Afghanistan and from1979 the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua (there are other examples).

In place of the acceptance of bureaucratically run mass workers’ organisations as a negotiating partner, came a counter-offensive designed to break them up or at least weaken and further subordinate them.

The result of the new offensive was in the late 1980s an unexpectedly rapid collapse of the USSR and its eastern European satellite regimes, and the turn of the Chinese and, later, the Vietnamese, to free-market ‘reforms’.

In the core imperialist countries, the attachment of the labour bureaucracies to the state proved to have hollowed out the parties’ and unions’ ability to mobilise mass solidarity against new attacks - although they remained stronger in continental Europe than in the ‘Anglosphere’ and Japan. There was a real decline in the limited class-political consciousness which had been expressed by loyalty to these organisations.

Along with all this came fundamental changes in ideology. The imperialists now appropriated the far left’s criticisms of bureaucratic rationality. The ‘social movements’, too, could become a lever against class politics: for example, the US army began to deliver positive discrimination in favour of middle class blacks, while in Britain the remaining barriers to elite women’s education were dismantled. The dividend showed up early in the Eurocommunists’ use of the ‘social movements’ against class politics.

Aspirations to workers’ control at the point of production were deflected on the continent into ‘co-determination’ measures, another means of integrating the trade union bureaucracy in management at the expense of its relations with the masses. In Japan and the Anglosphere they turned into projects of management through ‘teams’ and ‘circles’, which gave a spurious control over the immediate job. In both ways, there was a shift from efforts to micro-manage the workers directly at the point of production to control through the market mechanism which would force the workers themselves to accept speed-up, job cuts, etc. This was radically new relative to the period of ‘Taylorism’, but not wholly novel: it was a new form of a pattern of direct labour-capital relations which, as Richard Price has argued, was dominant in British industry for much of the 19th century.3

Bureaucratic reformism ceased to be the dominant ideology. In its place came neoliberalism, a revived and extended version of the laisser-faire and ‘social Darwinism’ of the 19th century. Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, state and utopia - one of the most systematic ideological products of the period - openly appealed to the aspirations of American hippies and utopians.

Hostility to revolution now ceased altogether to be an element of the dominant ideology. The neoliberals represented themselves as revolutionaries, as the true heirs of the enlightenment and American revolution. The ‘human rights’ ideology provided a justification for the ‘overthrow’ of military regimes in Latin America (ie, withdrawal of US support enabling a ‘cold transition’ to parliamentarism). It was the ground of support to the islamist ‘freedom fighters’ in Afghanistan. The Czech ‘velvet revolution’ was to be the prototype of ‘colour revolutions’ more recently.

1968 as an obstacle

Under the new conditions the old ideas of the far left, formed in the cold war and purportedly confirmed by 1968, have become not merely useless, but a positive obstacle to the pursuit of the self-emancipation of the working class.

In the first place, whether ‘political revolution’ was ever possible or not, there is no doubt that in the early 21st century it is off the agenda.

Secondly, and connected, left and populist nationalism has proved to be a complete blind alley. The material division of labour is too internationalised. Too many levers of economic and military power are in the hands of the US imperialist centre - and, in countries with any significant local capitalist class, of their local capitalist allies (eg, Bolivia). The break with globalised capital will have to be on a continental scale at least: nationalists lead their peoples only to economic disaster (Zimbabwe, etc) or military disaster (Ba’athist Iraq, etc). ‘Permanent revolution’ in the Mandelite sense of an accumulation of national revolutions has been disproved, and so has ‘surrounding the cities’.

Thirdly, reformism proper is over. Loyalty to the nation-state and the constitutional order has so hollowed out the old mass unions and parties that they no longer perform the basic tasks for the working class that they used to perform: promoting class solidarity and, at a low level, class-political consciousness. The problem the far left now confronts in the continued mass votes for these parties is not reformism proper, but a lesser-evilism of the same sort that leads workers to vote Democrat in the US and that led them to vote Liberal in 19th century Britain.

Under these conditions these responsibilities, which formerly were performed (in a deformed way) by the social democrats, syndicalists and Stalinists, now fall on the far left. It is our job - no-one else will do it - to rebuild the basic idea of solidarity: to rebuild the unions, cooperatives and so on at the level of the rank and file. It is our job - no-one else will do it - to expose the corrupt, class character of the ‘media-advertising complex’ and of the legal system and legal profession, so that widening layers of workers begin to understand that these are enemy organisations. It is our job to promote understanding of the common experiences and interests of the working class internationally and to promote basic international proletarian solidarity.

To do these jobs requires - unavoidably - open political opposition to the existing nation-state and constitutional order. We cannot do them if we hold ourselves back politically to a role as a ‘revolutionary’ ginger group within a ‘broad left’ that remains committed to nationalism and bureaucratic rule and to representing itself as ‘old Labour’ or the equivalent elsewhere.

In this context the standing shibboleths of the far left, built up in response to cold war conditions and supposedly confirmed by 1968, stand in the way of us doing what we need to do - or even thinking seriously about how to do it.

The ‘anti-imperialism’ which consists in positive support for colonial nationalists (‘Victory to the NLF/Iraqi resistance’) is counterposed to promoting the international unity and solidarity of the working class - and to effective opposition to imperialism.

The cult of ‘struggle’, spontaneity, and ‘action, not propagandism’ (and the theories of Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, Luxemburg and the young Trotsky, which have been used to justify it) is counterposed both to the patient long-term work needed to rebuild solidarity in the workplaces and working class districts and to open defence of solidarity against the state, its media and its legal system.

The idea of the ‘broad left’, mutated into the Bensaïd-Jebrac version of the ‘united front’ and the ‘united front party’ and similar devices, operates simply as an excuse not to confront the political ideologies of the bureaucracies or openly defend the politics of Marxism.

As I said earlier, the problem is not the events of 1968. The problem is the ideas which 1968 has been taken to confirm. To abandon these ideas is the beginning of forming a positive perspective.


1. www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1475
2. www.trotskyism.org/document/fi/1963-1985/usfi/7thWC/usfi01.htm
3. R Price Labour in British society London 1986, chapters 2 and 4.

Print this page