50 years of 1968
Robert Borba, Judith Shapiro, Jack Conrad, and Hillel Ticktin
Platypus Review 105 | April 2018
On February 16, 2018, as part of its Fourth European Conference, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion, “50 Years of 1968,” at Goldsmiths University. Moderated by David Faes of Platypus, the event brought together the following speakers: Robert Borba, supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP USA); Judith Shapiro, professor at the London School of Economics, former member of the Spartacist League, and adviser to the Russian Ministry of Finance; Jack Conrad, of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Weekly Worker; and Hillel Ticktin, honorary Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow University. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.
For half a century, 1968 has represented a high-water mark of social and political transformation, a year of social upheaval that spanned the entire globe. Ushered in by a New Left that sought to distinguish itself from the Old Left that emerged in the 1920s and ’30s, the monumental events of 1968 set the tone for everything from protest politics to academic leftism.
Today, with the U.S. entangled in a seemingly endless war in Asia and people calling for the impeachment of an unpopular president, with activists fighting in the streets and calling for liberation along the lines of race, gender, and sexuality, the Left’s every attempt to discover new methods and new ideas seems to invoke a memory of the political horizons of 1968. We can perhaps more than ever feel the urgency of the question, What lessons are to be drawn from the New Left, as another generation undertakes the project of building a left for the 21st century?
Robert Borba: What are the lessons of the struggle of the 1960s for young people who want to change the world today? Be realistic—demand the impossible! Nothing was sacred for the rebel youth back in the day. Tradition’s chains came under attack everywhere as masses of youth began to challenge mainstream politics. Even the personal became political. So you changed the way you wore your clothes and hair. You listened to a different beat. Women stopped shaving their armpits and legs. Eating brown rice became a political act. As Bob Dylan sang, the old order is rapidly ageing, the times are changing.
One of my first protests was 1968. The Vietnam War was raging. Hundreds of thousands had been slaughtered by the U.S. war machine. You are with us or against us. You are with America, or you are with oppressed humanity. One day I was a pacifist singing, “Give peace a chance”; the next I was contemptuously indicting the President of the United States, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” A few demos later I found myself marching alongside those wild-eyed radicals you read about in the press, chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win.” Taking another step onto the side of oppressed humanity I sided with America's enemy against America itself. Lenin called it revolutionary defeatism.
They called the rebel generation of the 1960s the New Left. And something new was desperately needed. The Old Left, the Trotskyists, and the great majority of the world’s communists, including Angela Davis, the Communist Parties of the U.S., Great Britain, France and Italy, etc., were all trying to make the bourgeois parliamentary system give birth to revolutionary offspring. It is like asking a pig to give birth to a swan. Real revolution was for later—much, much later. While they worked through the Democrats, or tried to push them to the Left, tens of thousands of us were storming the convention of the Democratic Party, the parliamentary left. Fighting in the streets.
It was easier for us. The whole world was swept up in liberation struggles, from Palestine to Vietnam, to the Cultural Revolution in China. In America, the Black Panthers stormed onto the steps of the California Capitol, guns in hand, distributing Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Real revolution—actually overthrowing the existing state power—had come home.
This brought me face to face with the scariest word that I had ever encountered: communism. It reminded you of hiding under your school desk as a little kid, because the commies were “gonna nuke us.” But Mao leading a socialist country and calling on the youth to overthrow the party itself was more appealing than Nixon bombing the Vietnamese people. Mao was talking about a world without rich and poor, without classes, without the oppression of one section of society by another.
The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) was founded out of this whirlwind of rebellion seeking to put the struggle in the United States on a new footing, by taking up the scientific theory of revolution. It is not just ideology. It is a science. If you are skeptical, simply consider that every state in the world today is a reflection and reinforcement of the capitalist relations of production and the ruling class. Clearly you cannot use this existing state power, for example Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, to make change. Occupy and too many others before them have discovered that you cannot do away with the capitalist system while working within the shadow of a state that will defend class society with the full strength of its apparatus of violent repression: the army and police.
This is the fundamental lesson we learned in the 1960s. The only solution to capitalism is a communist revolution that dismantles the existing state apparatus and establishes a new revolutionary state power unlike any other in history, a vehicle for continuing the world revolution in its elimination of class society and all the reactionary ideas that grow out of and serve it. Communism: a world where humanity cooperates in organizing itself and its relations with the rest of nature; where individuality flourished on the basis of collectivity; where who you are born to, your gender, or the color of your skin does not condemn you to a place in a social division of labor. It is a world worth dreaming of. It is a world I am willing to live for and ready to die for.
But imperialism proved a lot stronger than we had expected. In the decades that followed the tremendous upheaval of the 1960s, Bob Avakian led the RCP against the fierce anti-communist onslaught of the Reagan years. Following the defeat of Mao’s China, the defeat of their imperialist rivals in the Soviet Union, the triumphalism of the free market and the glories of democracy, and the relativism of radical academics, Avakian plunged deeply into summing up the experience of the Soviet and Chinese revolutions—their positive and negative experiences.
Today humanity faces the terrible danger of a fascist team that has won control of the White House in the U.S. and is hell-bent on installing a fascist regime there. The bulk of the Left has denied Trump's fascist character, just like their predecessors did in Germany in the 1930s. These forces have invested so much into trying to make capitalism and its system of parliamentary democracy do something it never has done and never will do.
Young people, rise to the unprecedented challenges facing you, with steadfast determination to defeat the looming threat of fascism, with a sweeping and irrepressible ambition to do away with everything reactionary and oppressive, so that future generations do not have to face what we are facing today. Malcolm X used to say, “We have a generation of young people today, who don’t give a damn for the fact that the cards are stacked against them.” You need some of that utopian spirit and fearless rebellion. But more importantly, get some scientific understanding about how to do this. Learn from the great revolutionary thinkers of the past: Marx, Lenin, and Mao. But learn most of all from Avakian’s new synthesis of communism, a precious, unprecedented, scientific understanding of the need, possibility, and desirability of revolution.
Judith Schapiro: It is with extreme restraint that I am going to give my talk, as if those remarks did not just happen. I did not realize when I agreed to this that I would be sitting next to a member of an organization that brings me back to all the things I used to believe in. I was in Los Angeles when we used to have to fight physically to be able to sell the Spartacist League paper, The Worker’s Vanguard, newspaper outside “the long march,” as it was called. And the long march was dedicated very seriously to beating up its opponents. This is not the kind of world I want to live in. I believe that the RCP prefigured, as they say, all these things.
I wish that right now I still believed in the things I used to believe in, and that I still had those values of egalitarianism, a sense of camaraderie, the feeling about what a better world will be. However, I do not see how we organize it. Everybody is capitalist because we have not got a better way yet. I say yet, because I do believe that capitalism is still developing the forces of production. Unfortunately, it is also creating these horrible dangers, so the idea that Rosa Luxemburg had, that we face “socialism or barbarism,” might be real. But, when I left the Spartacist League, I wrote in my resignation, “If it is going to be ‘socialism or barbarism,’ I am worried it is going to be barbarism—so I think I will enjoy the last couple of years.” I was being flippant, but I was and am serious that the reason I gave up being an organized Marxist was that I just did not see the way forward.
I studied economics before I became a Marxist. All that we might learn from Marx and Marxism, which I used to teach, are things that I value as ideas, as aspirations. But I just do not see how it can work. I do not mean it will be necessarily worse, but all the societies we have seen which we call Stalinist, and so on, they have not been able to show us a way forward aside from slogans.
I gave up completely the moment I stopped believing there was another way. In particular, I did not, and do not, see how the centrally planned economy can work under democratic control. I am waiting. It is possible that big data and computers will help us solve that problem. I would like to see more cooperatives, but that is not going to replace capitalism.
On November 7, 1989, I was in Kharkov, in the Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union. I saw a sea of Ukrainian yellow and blue flags fill the central square and that was the moment I knew it was over. I was with a Soviet friend who understood that too. At the train station, two days later, when I was going back to Moscow, she said to me, “Judith, must socialism be so much more inefficient than capitalism? Because if it was only 15 percent more inefficient, it would be worth it.” I loved that precision. But the reason it really bothered me was that the understanding of socialists, such as Lenin and Trotsky, that socialism will unleash the productive forces, which has been written about in the Platypus Review, turned out not to be true. Sometimes it is fairer, but it is not more efficient. The trouble is that, until we can deliver the goods, we cannot really get very far.
That question tormented me all night long on the train to Moscow. In the morning the friend who met me there whispered excitedly that they had just opened the Berlin wall. I thought, “The question is over for now.” Certainly, by then we already had China’s acceptance of market reforms. I still do not entirely understand what the Communist Party of China thinks it is doing, but it is running capitalism. And I wish there were a better way. I have read everything that Platypus has to say and I do salute the attempt to answer these questions. But to me, just like the talk before, it all just sounds like slogans.
Why did these other movements come out of the New Left? Identity politics, in my opinion, was part of a defeat. In my memory, the year 1968 was not actually a high point, except in France. In the United States one really has to look at the whole 1960s epoch. What mattered, but never seemed to affect the RCP, was that the American working class was beginning to express its opposition to the war and its opposition to racism. However, many people in the United States, and to some extent Britain, took the line that the working class is finished. In the words of a future RCP member whom I knew in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), “Life isn’t gonna be so good for the American working class under the dictatorship of the Third World proletariat.” That was the view that some of the sectarianism gave rise to and I do not think that was healthy.
On the other hand, even before the New Left really emerged, the developing struggles for some degree of racial justice and for women’s liberation were very powerful and important. Women’s liberation, in part, came out of the failures of the New Left, but it was also a success in understanding that socialism is not just about bread and butter. Socialism is, and has to be, about bread and butter. However, I want to see how the bread is going to be baked and how the butter is going to be put on the table. If we have another moment comparable to France in May of 1968, or if Corbyn and Momentum end up governing, people who have become dissatisfied will ask, “What is your alternative?”
I really appreciate the Platypus project for getting people to talk about these hard questions. It also means facing that we do not know the answers. We are still working on it. But we had better work harder, and more honestly, rather than just providing slogans. What destroyed the Spartacist League were the purges and the splits and so on. I think it is very important to build something that is open and respects other people’s points of view. And I am going to do try to do that here, myself.
Jack Conrad: I will treat 1968 as a metaphor. As someone who came to politics at that time, I have to say that I took it all as absolutely normal. What was going on in the world confirmed that things had to get better, that we were going to win. You could not find anywhere or anything that was not undergoing radical change. Everything was in turmoil. Everything was being questioned and there seemed to be radical forward movement. It gave me huge courage. I was on the winning side and I was prepared to give my life for that struggle! I have devoted myself to that struggle ever since, in spite of the fact, of course, that I was wrong. The fact of the matter is that the system I called socialist was not socialist. That was definitively proven from 1989 to 1991. It would be idiotic not to step back and reexamine that situation.
I am not quite sure what exactly one means by the New Left as opposed to the Old Left, because certainly the people I came across, as well as official communists, were Maoists. I do not know if they are part of the New Left; they seem to be quite Old Left to me. The Trotskyists I came across looked back to Karl Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. I was vaguely aware of some New Leftism in academia. But, to me, what you had was the organized Left with a huge variety of factions.
I saw the Vietnam War every night on TV. I made the same decision in that sense: I had to sympathize and identify with the oppressed. I was not able to take any other stand. Africa was in turmoil. Black people in America were being oppressed. I certainly remember the students, the occupation in Britain, and the establishment of the Schools Action Union. It tells you how deep radicalization went that radicals were leading strikes in schools. At the 1970 Miss World contest the women’s liberation movement came along and started throwing packages of flour onto the stage. My dad was appalled. I was absolutely delighted! I watched the next year’s Miss World expecting it to happen again. Unfortunately, I presume the security had increased.
It should absolutely not be forgotten what the working class was doing at that time: wildcat strikes. Alongside the upturn in radicalization, capitalism was visibly going into crisis. In Britain we saw a Labour government try to introduce legislation to stop the power of the trade unions called, “In Place of Strife.” It was introduced by Barbara Castle, who used to have a left-wing reputation. We saw mass political strikes against that legislation. That legislation lost. In the 1970s, when the Tories reintroduced that legislation, people like the Dockers made it inoperable. Five Dockers deliberately got themselves arrested and workers throughout Britain came out in solidarity with them. That was the 1960s, to me.
Should we then look back and say, “Those were the days!” and all the rest of it? No! Because what happened is that the Left drew the wrong lessons about the 1960s. The lesson the Left drew is that all we need is action, action, action. “Fight ‘em in the streets. Forget the Old Left, forget the working class. All of that stuff is passé.” There are good lessons to be drawn from 1968. But I do not think that the Left has actually learned them.
Hillel Ticktin: This has been a weird discussion. I had a normal political upbringing in the sense that I came from a country, South Africa, and a town, Cape Town. Though, it was possibly unique in the world, since in Cape Town the dominant left was Trotskyist. In the 1940s there were direct fights at the university between Trotskyists and Stalinists. It was real. The idea that we should ignore Trotskyism is nonsense. After all, consider how many were directly killed in Stalinism. I went not only to Cape Town University but also to Moscow University and Kiel University for a short time, where I discussed this with people in the Soviet Union. Not a single person actually supported it. Nobody. But nobody could say it.
In 1968, there was a clear change going on. Stalinism was in trouble. In 1956 you had an uprising in Hungary and in 1968, in Czechoslovakia. Soviet troops marched. People were looking at the way the Soviet Union oppressed peoples and individuals. The Left in 1968 by and large came out against Stalinism, and rightly so. Stalinism is the counterrevolution! It destroyed the revolution. That is what happened in 1923 to 1927. Trotsky, in one respect, was wrong, in that he thought the problem did not go the whole way back. Unfortunately, we have seen that it does go the whole way back. A society in which somewhere between 12 and 20 million people were simply purged—killed—is a devastating form of society. We cannot put our name to it, even as a deviation. We are totally opposed to it. It has nothing to do with us.
That terror which existed should never exist again. Stalinism was so extreme that it cannot be repeated. But, we do not have to beat ourselves up about it. This was nothing to do with the Left. It was a counterrevolution. Stalinism arose at the time when the capitalist powers directly fought against the Communist Party—the majority of the population in fact. In a sense, they were defeated by the sanctions applied and the absolute starvation they went through in this period. It is not surprising that there was a counterrevolution. However, it did not have to happen. The fault did not lie with the so-called perpetrators of the October Revolution.
The October Revolution is the greatest event that has happened to mankind for tens of thousands of years, opening the way to a genuine civilization. We have heard that socialism is impossible because there is basically no incentive. Consider what Marx said about socialism. Socialism is a society where work becomes humanity’s prime want. Is it possible to have work which people enjoy and which people want to perform in order to develop themselves, or to help mankind? Quite obviously, yes, because it already exists. Most people do not do that, but a minority do. Otherwise we would not have science at all. Of course, people understand the necessity for cooperation. We are talking of automation non-stop nowadays. What is actually happening is that society is becoming more and more socialized. We see it all around us, except it is developing slower than we would want it. That is the argument for socialism. It has nothing to do with the revolution or the power of a gun.
What we have is a direct clash between the social forces, which tend to compel society towards a much more human socialized form, and those which are against it. Workers’ control—that is, majority control—is a demand that continues to be made, corresponding to the increasing socialization of society. The ruling class was forced to concede in the post-war period, because it was too weak. We had full employment. Is full employment sustainable in capitalism? Of course not. They returned to unemployment. What has happened is a counterrevolution in response to what had been happening as a result of the reforms in 1945 and the direct action which took place at the time of 1968 onwards. To a degree the bourgeoisie has been successful.
The extent of privatization in Britain is unbelievable. We have a crazy situation where even the prisons are privatized. In an earlier period, a Conservative like Macmillan would regard that as stupid. In principle the working class—the vast majority of the population—opposes it, though it does not have an instrument at the moment. That is to say, there is no one party. There is no apparent direct force that can sweep away the bourgeoisies and bring the new society into being. However, we should not be that pessimistic. We did suffer a counterrevolution that has been lessened to a greater or lesser degree by the death of Stalinism, which had been essential in maintaining a conservative aura. I think we can be optimistic about the fact that the society itself will compel us to form a new party in order to change the society. When we have it, it will be a human one, let’s say. A human party, which, among other things, puts freedom of speech at its center.
RB: Imagine that the slave owners in the South had won the Civil War in America. The way history would be taught would be profoundly different. That is somewhat analogous to the history of the proletarian revolutions. They were defeated. However, the idea that somehow you rise up in one insurrectionary wave and transform everything about society to live in the communist world is implausible. The key lesson from the first wave of the communist revolutions is it will be a long, difficult, protracted battle. The one thing I agree with the other speakers about is that this requires a leading core, a communist vanguard, to enable the kind of criticism, dissent, and ferment that did not take place in that first wave.
Younger generations are being taught that communism was one unmitigated horror. Unfortunately, some of the other panelists are repeating that. The truth is much more complicated. Twenty-five years after the Chinese Revolution the life expectancy of a Chinese person had risen from 39 to 72. For the first time, the mass starvation that had plagued China for hundreds of years was eliminated as the party led the masses to transform their society and build self-sufficient agriculture. There were mistakes made along the way, no doubt. But when the bourgeoisie tells you that the lights were turned out in these socialist societies, just remember that hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants were educated.
I spent substantial time in the Soviet Union, as well. People’s thoughts about Stalinism were ambiguous. The Soviet Union had been fighting for existence for most of its life. In the face of National Socialism, the Soviets suffered 25 million casualties out of a population of 160 million in World War II. One out of every seven people in that country was killed. You had a party that became thoroughly revisionist, thoroughly capitalist. Czechoslovakia was a wake-up call.
Your generation may not recognize this, but when I listen to the other panelists, I hear exactly what we were up against in the 1960s: The Old Left is stupid for telling you about reformism and that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. But look at the Panthers who died fighting for the revolution. If you succeed in moving against the bourgeois state, they drop the velvet glove and they come out with the iron fist. You see it around the world, when they slaughter tens of thousands of Chileans, because they dare to nationalize the copper mines.
May 1968 in France the rebel youth rose up, they shook the streets of Paris. The radical threat was so heavy that Charles de Gaulle had to flee. And, yet, the reformist Communist Party of France sabotaged the whole movement in order to ingratiate themselves within the parliamentary system. We could not simply return to the Comintern. The Communist Party of the U.S. marched with the red flag in one hand and the Stars and Stripes in the other. The Stars and Stripes that stood for the slaughter and oppression and plunder of hundreds of millions of people, in war after war. They even named their bookstores after a slave-owner: Jefferson Bookstores.
Do you really think that workers are going to gradually, spontaneously get more control in factories in the age of Trump? It will be a rude awakening if you try to act on that. Then you will find out about the dictatorship of the proletariat and the fact that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. The revolutionary state power must not only encourage and welcome, but also institutionalize the liberation of dissent in order to draw in the proletariat—to draw in the brothers and sisters in the ghetto, who have been taught to be wage-slaves instead of thinking and participating in the critical, functioning of society and the world—and in order to overcome the differences between manual labor and mental labor.
JS: In China there may have been an increase in welfare, but there was also a horrendous famine. If you do the research you will not be able to dismiss that as simply a mistake, or if you can, there is something wrong with your ethics. Certainly, members of the Communist Party tried to come to terms with that. Every single attempt at socialism took place while surrounded by hostile forces, but that hardly provides a full answer.
I want to return to 1968. While we agree it is a metaphor, the defining characteristic today is understood to be the events in France. The 40th anniversary sort of spoiled it. I remember seeing a student come out of the lift in a shirt with one of the slogans. In Paris, on the anniversary they were selling these paving stones made out of chocolate for 50 quid a piece, as well as very expensive shirts by agnès b., and so on. It struck me that it had become a fashion statement. I had taken it seriously.
It absolutely had looked as though the people would win. If you did not live through it, I do encourage you to follow it online by reading the American Socialist Workers Party newspaper, The Militant. They sent reporters and had Ernest Mandel writing, and you can get a sense of that week-by-week excitement. It went beyond the students. It really did go to the factory. The ostensible sabotage the Communist Party carried out had to do with the fact they focused on a startling wage increase for the workers. As an economist, a 30 percent wage increase is simply beyond imagination. There is a sense to it, although an incoherent one.
My French comrades who had been in the Spartacist League used to say that when they became communists they believed they would be in power by the weekend. You have to be in it for the long haul. People will not be revolutionary most of the time. Learning how to educate people slowly, over time, is important. But we do not have the patience. The worst part of giving up a belief in the imminence of revolution was losing the sense that you had a reason to get up in the morning, but we find other ways.
The U.S. history Robert has described is not so hypothetical. Everyone our age, if they were south of the Mason-Dixon line, learned that the North was evil in school. The United States retains a serious historical problem: the legacy of slavery. It has not been overcome. The danger has changed. It is not that fascists want to put Trump in the White House. Forty percent of the population wanted that. They are happy with it, or they are so unhappy that they wanted to troll everybody else. It is a very serious problem.
JC: I have a problem with this idea that the Communist Party of France was traitorous. It is a bit like the old story of the Frog and the Scorpion. What else would one expect the Communist Party of France, considering its history, to do in 1968? That organization got huge wage increases, but it was not part of a strategy for socialism. It was neither revolutionary nor communist other than in name.
Similarly, if one is looking for socialism to come out from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, they are mistaken. By their very nature, of course they will not deliver. Does that mean that all one needs to do is group the small number of revolutionaries we have into one small organization, pick up our rifles and confront those who have tanks, aircraft, and nuclear bombs, like the Black Panthers and the students? The Black Panthers were heroic for taking on the NYPD and the LAPD, but the vast majority ended up either in prison or dead. Therefore, I do not think that is the correct lesson to learn. The students similarly had the right instinct, but when they demanded entry to car plants to speak to the workers they were turned away by the trade unions. It was, perhaps, plausible that they could overthrow Gaullism, but the idea they could overthrow capitalism is nonsense.
I am surprised by what you are saying, Judith. Perhaps you are eliding the idea of the October Revolution as the beginning of not only the European Revolution, but the World Revolution? The idea of building socialism in Russia would have been laughed at by any Marxist at the time. Of course, it is important that people live longer and that people are literate. One could give similar statistics of the increase of welfare in terms of British capitalism. But the job of socialism is to liberate humanity and it may have realistically been successful in Germany, and from Germany to the world. The problem in Russia was not that Lenin, Trotsky, or Zinoviev was stupid. The problem is that we lost in Germany. There were mass parties that were either formally or genuinely committed to socialism. That is what we do not have now.
At one level I agree with Hillel that Stalin’s purging and mass killings of revolutionaries had nothing to do with us. On the other hand, it was done in the name of the revolution and by people who were formerly revolutionaries. That makes our task inordinately more complex. The solution is not to renounce communism and Marxism. Rather, we need to genuinely, ruthlessly critique what has come before, in a process of cleansing our banner from the filth attached to it because of the 20th century.
I remain optimistic. I am well aware of the overwhelming nature of the tasks in front of us. But what else is there? Either we accept capitalism, which shows all signs of decay, or we go for a world that, as Hillel explained, is not an abstract possibility, but is easily realizable if we organize our forces appropriately: a fully democratic mass party that is part of the working class. It has to include millions of people. It cannot be some sect. That is what socialism is.
HT: It is true that 1968 did not come from nowhere and it no doubt will happen again. It was very widely supported. At the time, I was amazed by the number of people, most of them young, who came over to the Left. I could not believe the numbers. It was a mass phenomenon to such an extent that it became impossible for the city of London not to employ left-wing people. We even had the weird situation where left-wing people were writing editorials in bourgeois newspapers: They had to pretend they were right-wing in their writing. I think we ought to take heart from that wide support and see that it will happen again. It will not come from a small minority but from a majority of the population demanding socialism. And that will never happen if you have idiots walking around talking about taking power with the barrel of a gun.
Mao was not some sort of latter-day Stalin, but that does not alter the fact he caused nearly 50,000,000 people to die. We do not want a society where one man or a few people can cause that kind of result. We must have a society in which the majority rules. Clearly, we do not have it today in Britain. But you certainly do not have it in China either. The peasantry in China are very poor, the level of productivity is below that of the U.S. There is a level of science and productivity over the world in which different parts participate. The leading industrial country remains the U.S., whatever the political conditions. It is the imperial, hegemonic power. It was absolutely brilliant to see the president of China bow down to Trump, in a fully diplomatic way, as should happen with any two ruling class emperors.
Neither China nor the Soviet Union has anything to do with socialism. Socialism in one country is simply not possible. The nationalization of capital does not mean the country is therefore socialist, or even on the road to socialism. I do not know exactly what China is. I am not an expert. But everybody can see that it is not socialism. To regard it as a model is appalling.
Q & A
To me, 1968 meant the few months I spent in the Young Communist League. My decision to leave was a direct response to the Soviet tanks going into Prague. An older member of the Party explained to us, “This is not an invasion, comrades. This is determined assistance from the socialist countries to the Czech workers in their resistance to fascist restorationists who have taken power.” I was 16 and lacked the experience and knowledge to argue with this guy, but I was not buying a single word.
Before I joined it, my group had already decided in 1970 that the Labour Party was dead and should not be supported in a general election. We felt the Labour Party was irrelevant; we were ready to storm the barricades, after all. Unfortunately, the working class had not read the script. The Labour party did not die.
Our view of the world is radically different to the views of most people. We have to look at what Trotsky called the transitional method. Today, I would say that means looking at things that represent real change for sections of the working class. The CPGB’s paper, The Weekly Worker, often makes the point that the National Health Service (NHS) is not socialist. But people treasure the NHS because of the common provision of healthcare it provides free at the point of use. It may not be socialist, but it is something they cherish, which they see being threatened by this neoliberal monopoly. We have to learn from new people who come in from the movement around Corbyn. The Left is very puzzled. How do we talk to these people?
JS: What the NHS most needs, I think, is two percent more of the GDP. That will solve a lot of the problems. If we do not take advantage of this mass sentiment around the NHS in different ways, I think we are really missing a chance to meet with ordinary people, not unlike what the movement against the Vietnam war did. For my generation, you could not get up in the morning without thinking about the problem of racism and the war in Vietnam. A lot of ordinary people feel like that about the NHS right now. The movement can be hijacked, but we should be doing something more about it, which includes having some answers.
HT: The issue is not about providing an immediate solution; we are not even posing the problem properly. There has not been a genuine socialist party for many years. This is a massive problem, and I do not have an immediate solution for it. I am also unsure whether the answer is for us to go to “ordinary people,” whoever they are, and ask what their grievances are. Of course, we should support them in their grievances, but our goal is something bigger: a total change of this society.
We do not have a situation where the majority of workers in the United States and the UK are in larger factories, who can come out at a moment’s notice. Companies have deliberately downsized their workforce and cut it up to a large degree, so that they can control the working class as a whole. The bourgeoisie is neither inactive nor stupid. Their policies have had political consequences on the working class, as a class. How we cope with that, I do not know. But in principle one needs a party to be able to address it.
It is interesting that a panel about 1968 has mainly been about the question of Stalinism and the Old Left. I imagine that would be surprising to most young people today, who tend to think of 1968 in terms of identity politics, rather than the question of Stalinism. Something interesting that Judith Shapiro said was that identity politics in the 1960s was the result of a defeat. Could you expand on that?
JS: I should be clear that I am not pro-identity politics. That does not mean I am against the women’s liberation movement, or anything. However, I am struck by the accuracy of people who have said that the ultimate identity politics has been the Trump movement. White workers will decide that they have an identity, too. I emphasize internationalism and the idea of equality, so I am uneasy about some developments. Apparently, Young Labour excluded straight white men from attending their conference, for instance. This is crazy. It is not unlike what happened with the big movements after 1968. But May 1968 in Paris did not have much to do with anything—except freedom. It was real. And it was not identity politics.
HT: In terms of why the discussion has focused so much on Stalinism, I think we should remember how 1968 ended in France: The Soviet Union, in alliance with the Communist party, made a deal with De Gaulle. That is what happened—Stalinism brought it to an end. The importance of the Stalinist epoch may be coming to an end, if it has not already. However, if we are talking about 1968, we cannot bypass the Stalinist epoch, which lasted almost a century. You cannot leave it out.
What figured strongly for the New Left was Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and a sense that a new generation could respond to, and move on from, previous modes of thinking. Do you think that the New Left generation represented progress, or an advance, with respect to the Old Left? Had the New Left superseded the problems of a previous generation, and was facing new ones? How did that pan out?
HT: Eastern Europe was not like the Soviet Union, which had a dictatorial form the likes of which had never existed in history, and probably never will again. Eastern Europe was much easier. They certainly wanted change, given that freedom of speech was so limited. Some of those pushing for a change, particularly in Hungary in the 1970s, were putting forward left-wing programmes. The majority appeared to want a higher standard of living, which they associated with the West. What in fact happened is quite different, which is why you have had a move towards the far right in these regions. These countries have become relatively deindustrialized. The United States, Britain, and the hegemonic powers in general have seen to that. Consequently, the opportunities for ordinary people are in some ways worse than what they had under the USSR. In other words, the shift away from Stalinism has not been a success, either.
In a sense, even though it was defeated in its immediate aims, 1968 was still a success because a large number of people were politicized. That is why people joined all these different organizations on the Left. I do not think we should decry how many groups and factions there are. That just happens to be the case. It seems to be a characteristic of the epoch we are in.
JC: I still have difficulty distinguishing what is actually meant by “the New Left.” There is continuity. Contrasting the “New” against the “Old” Left does not really get us very far, I think. Nor is it a question of needing a “new” New Left. I would be quite happy with a much larger left, myself. A party needs to be understood as part of the class. According to the Marxist conception, a small group is not a party. At most, it represents a pre-Marxist conception of a party.
I would like to respond to the point about “political power growing from the barrel of a gun.” Nobody will deny the power of a gun. In terms of our strategy, the real question is, do we emphasize taking up the gun in the near future? No.—The real task for the Left is actually going out there and building the Left on a mass level. So, we cannot ignore the Labour Party. We can and should criticize it. It is not going to give us socialism. Nor will trade unions. But to turn our back on them means turning our back on millions of people who will be crucial to making socialism.
If you look at the Bolshevik party, it had the overwhelming support of the working class in Moscow and Petrograd at the time of revolution. The revolution was not the act of a minority. It was the act of a majority, as confirmed in the soviets—not only of the workers, but also the soviet of the peasants. Revolution, in the Marxist sense, is a forward movement of the majority, the conquest of political power by the majority, which leads to the flowering of democracy. In terms of the spirit, if you want to use that term, of 1968—yes, there was the flowering of freedom; the flowering of sexuality; the flowering of joy; and the flowering, in that sense, of our personalities. That is what a real revolution will look like. I think 1968 gave us a glimpse of it.
What is Stalinism? Have we, or did the New Left, overcome Stalinism? Secondly, how were Marxist ideas, such as the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, important for the New Left? Should they be important for us today? Do you think the New Left made any progress on Marxism, or on 19th century socialism in general?
HT: The most obvious definition of Stalinism is the doctrine of socialism in one country. Socialism in one country is impossible. Internally, Stalinism means the rule of a relatively small number of people. It cannot last; it is not viable. The argument has been, as Trotsky put it, that we are living in a transitional period. Stalinism is one of the peculiar forms that came into existence in this period. The movement from capitalism to socialism is going to take a period of time in which different forces show themselves, and then develop or fail to develop, before socialist forces eventually take over. Typically, the argument is that this did not have to happen, but was a consequence of the defeat of revolution—in essence, a result of the German Social Democrats’ refusal to take power. I think that account is more or less true. However you want to put it, the idea of a transitional period between one social formation and another is necessary, it seems to me, for any historian seeking to understand the movement from the ancient world to feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism, and hence from capitalism to socialism.
In the 1960s, many leftists were critical of the welfare state. When there was talk of actually dismantling the welfare state in the 1970s, almost the entire Left shifted to a one-sided defense of it, even denouncing as “fascists” anyone who questioned the welfare state. Today, we have people like Bernie Sanders calling for a “new New Deal,” and in Britain most of the Left wants the reinvigoration of the welfare state. What role did the 1960s play in relation to the welfare state at the time? What imagination regarding the welfare state was produced through the experience of 1968?
JC: Under present circumstances, we do have to defend the NHS. There was a healthy spirit of criticism about the welfare state in the 1960s. That does not mean we should chuck it away. It might mean democratization, because, speaking to people who work in the NHS, it is not like the only problem is lack of funding. It is top-down and bureaucratic. In a certain sense, if you look at quotas and all the rest of it, there is an eerie similarity to the Soviet Union, which should not surprise us. So, while defending it, we also need to criticize it, in order to improve it.
Some people have the idea that the worse it gets for the masses, the better it gets for the Left. In the 1960s and early 1970s, I remember thinking that, if unemployment went up in Britain to a quarter of a million, there would definitely be a revolution. People would not stand for it. Well, they did. The working class was weakened as a result. To me, that shows the greater necessity of politics, of organizing the workers around a political idea. Eric Hobsbawm liked to say that the working class movement in Britain was like syndicalists without a syndicalist theory. They had militancy and incredible power, but they did not know what to do with that, aside from trying to increase their living standards and defend shop stewards. We need a political idea. We need a political programme that is realistic, but that also addresses how we can link our efforts in Britain into a world revolution.
This brings us back to the question of the party. Any party will be a vanguard. A working class party, almost by definition, will be. But it will not be the caricature of Bolshevism that has been handed down to us. Actual Bolshevism modeled itself on the mass party in Germany. That is what it was in 1917. It was not a sect. There was full debate. There were opposition papers in the party. In my view, the dictatorship of the proletariat just means the rule of the working class. It has nothing else to it. It is not sinister. It is not about banning everybody. It is not about shutting people up. By the dictatorship of the proletariat, Marx meant only the rule of the majority and full democracy. It is about people finding their voice and taking control of their lives. That is what we saw a small glimpse of in 1968, in all manner of different fields—in art, in education, in sexual relationships, in politics. It gave us a glimpse that we would want to see again, with the hope that next time it moves onward to success, and not failure.
JS: The collapse of the USSR, the fact that there was no alternative, did enable the waves of neoliberalism that took apart the welfare state internationally. That is true. On the other hand, I remember in the dying days of the Soviet Union, we would have meetings like this, and a few Russians would come to visit. We would explain to them that they had to keep on going. They would say, “Give us a break. We have been supporting you for a long time.”
Hillel, you are exaggerating a bit. Today, in China, it is not so much the case that you are forbidden from speaking your mind. Yes, you can get in trouble, but in this regard it is just like late Stalinism. When you go too far, they come and tell you, “Maybe you need a rest.” That is why I am reluctant to define Stalinism too precisely. What we saw in “late Stalinism” was very different from what the USSR was like up until 1954.
The social democratic parties were horrified to discover that they lost in Europe after 1989 and 1990. The USSR was an empire, and it really came apart that way. It could no longer subsidize its proxies. The collapse was a long time in the making; after a certain point, it had to happen. But it is a shame it happened in the way it did.
RB: Hillel defined Stalinism as socialism in one country, which supposedly cannot exist. It is not viable. We should think seriously about what that means. Imagine you are Lenin in 1918. You have led a revolution. You are counting on the German revolutionaries to come to your aid, as you envision this whole process of revolution throughout Europe. But it does not happen. Now what do you do? Say, “This cannot exist, it is not viable,” and give up?
Lenin and the Bolshevik Party did not give up. The proletariat had taken power in one country. The imperialists were invading. They did the best they could for the world revolution. They retained a base from which to spread revolution. To give that up would harm the interests of oppressed humanity.
In October the Bolsheviks had grown astronomically, but their membership was still a very small minority of the total population of Russia. The 1917 revolution was not a coup. But it was also not the case that a majority of Russians seized power together in one homogeneous mass. The Bolsheviks were a small minority, overall, but they had the active support and participation of millions of people. A great number of others were lethargic. They seized power. Then they had to govern. Capitalism develops unevenly through crises and upheaval. You maximize at every point what you are going to do to advance the revolution in one country, in the service of the world revolution.
One of the big problems we face is the division between mental labor and manual labor. People in this room have an ability to study Das Kapital. You can deal with theory in a way that the great majority of people in this country and the world cannot. Lenin recognized that. You have a group of professional revolutionaries that are deeply studying the laws of society. How are we going to act on the contradictions of society to transform it through revolution? You have to break that understanding down and take it to the oppressed people, to the proletariat. There is always going to be leadership. If it isn’t you and the revolution, then it is going to be Jeremy Corbyn.
There are only two classes that can run a society today. Hillel is not sure what China is. Come on—it is a capitalist society, clearly. China is the workshop of the imperialist global system. It is run by capitalists. For the last hundred years, there have only been two classes that can run society. Either you represent the bourgeois class, operating according to the economic law of value, and you are linked in with the global imperialist market; or, like Lenin and Mao, you represent the proletarian class that is rupturing from the imperialist world market, and you are trying to dig up the divisions and inequalities in society that give rise to, reflect, and reinforce the operation of the law of value.
When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, it was an imperialist country invading and oppressing part of its empire. China today merely tarnishes the name of communism. It operates as part of the global imperialist system, part of the world market. The workers there are wage slaves.
Socialism is possible. The lesson of the 1960s is that when you become a revolutionary, you take on a great responsibility. You are going out and telling people that the world can be different. We are not religious nuts. We believe in science. But we are telling people, “Change your life. Give your life to transform the world through revolution.” We need to be clear about what that is. I will conclude by encouraging you all to go to our website, revcom.us, and to look at the works of chairman Bob Avakian. Let’s continue the discussion. |P
Transcribed by Danny Jacobs and Efraim Carlebach