This piece featured in my column in the latest issue of Seren, the newspaper of Bangor Students Union.
Usually these political columns tend to talk about purely current events. But if you look at history you’ll find that there are patterns and precedents for various things. To give an example close to the minds of students let’s look at tuition fees, Now fees were introduced by the government in 1997, just over ten years ago and were increased with top-up fees a few years ago and today the National Union of Students (NUS) in the face of this onslaught says fees are inevitable and we need to find a ‘fair funding system’ that will include fees. However, what you may not know is that about 40 years or so ago saw the birth of a somewhat more radical NUS emerged (although NUS had existed since the 1920’s), which amongst it’s achievements was the scrapping of tuition fees and the introduction of grants. This was against a backdrop of a deep radicalisation within society, which saw a mass movement against the war in Vietnam and largest membership of trade unions.
The year 1968 in particular, however, was a year of rebellion across the world. Many momentous things happened that year, the assignation of Martin Luther King Jnr. whilst he was speaking at a rally supporting striking workers, the ‘Prague Spring’ revolt against Stalinism in the former Czechoslovakia, gunned down protests in Mexico, the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that marked a turning point in that war, the beginnings of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. But by far the most impressive event, saw the 10 million strong general strike that swept France from May until June, and led to General Charles de Gaulle, the repressive president of France at the time, fleeing the country and
The workers had initially gone on strike in support of the right of students to protest. Students from Nanterre and Sorbonne in Paris had been protesting against the trial in the university court of some students for ‘disruptive behaviour’ on a previous protest. The heavy-handed response of the authorities was to send in the riot police (the CRS) and hundreds of students were arrested, a response which saw lectures cancelled at these universities and lecturers striking in response. The following day those arrested were summarily imprisoned and fined and all hell let loose. Demonstrations were banned but this just led to strikes spreading from the university to secondary schools, and a demonstration on May 6th was attacked by the riot police eliciting mass sympathy from the rest of the population.
But it wasn’t just the students that were colliding with the government over issues such as wages, hours of work, unemployment (particularly for young people) and social security. 100,000 demonstrated on May Day (also known as International Worker’s Day) in Paris, and over the next week or so aircraft factory workers, printers, agricultural workers, meteorologists, miners. Air traffic controllers, taxi drivers and even the police were considering taking action. The movement came to a head with a 24-hour general strike on May 13th. Although most went back to work the following day, by May 21st 10 million were on strike, forming factory committees and beginning to take control over society, students had done similarly in the universities in the aftermath of May 13th.
So what happened next, De Gaulle had fled, power lay in the balance. The workers, students and all others trodden on by De Gaulle could have taken power. But they were betrayed by their own leaders, particularly in the trade unions and the leaders of the Communist Party. Why? Well the reason is different for each, but for both it relies on their positions within society. For the leaders of the trade unions, their position at the top of their bodies in periods of social lull gives them a certain amount of comfort in their bureaucratic positions. Thus they can act as a brake on action taken by those they are supposed to represent. In 1968 the French workers put their trust in them, but instead of leading them they were keen to negotiate with a government that had in reality ceased to rule France. The Communist Party on the other hand was one of the most bureaucratic in Europe, its aim and point of existence was to help keep the deformed Stalinist regime in the Soviet USSR in power – which meant rather than encouraging a revolutionary change of society (which would have threatened the bureaucratic privileges of the regime in the USSR) they needed to help keep the capitalist system in power (which at least tolerated the existence of the USSR). The Times had declared that capitalism was dead in France, but these so-called leaders let it back in, with a leadership that would struggle for the needs of workers and students the situation could have been different. Nevertheless, huge concessions were won which saw wages increase drastically as a result of the threat that action committees consisting of workers, peasants and students would link up across the country imperilling the capitalist system that had driven them into such intolerable conditions. Even today the current right-wing president Sarkozy speaks of ridding France of the legacy of 1968.
Forty years ago the post-war economic upswing was still in full flow, unlike today when the debt-fuelled boom is coming to an end. But many of the issues of then are similar today, the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK is the largest ever and disputes are occurring with half a million workers recently taking strike action against this on April 23rd. Likewise the right to protest is under threat with increasing attacks on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, and on April 22nd the riot police were deployed to try to disperse protests of students against cuts at Manchester University. Today any alternative to the current capitalist system is seen impossible, but the demand of the students from 1968 to “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” is as true today as it was then.
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