In the 1960s American capitalism seemed to be stronger than ever. In a few short years, however, the country was gripped by upheaval and protest. In the second edition of our ’68 Legacies series, award winning historian Brian Kelly argues that “even regimes which appear stable and impregnable over long periods can find themselves tottering on the verge of collapse.”
It is not possible to fully appreciate the force of the rupture that 1968 brought to US politics without some sense of how barren the American political landscape had been for much of the postwar period. By the mid-1950s the Cold War was in full force and a fanatical anti-communism was rife. Both the main parties that governed on behalf of the US ruling class had signed up to global confrontation with Stalinist Russia, bringing far-flung ‘hotspots’ like Korea, the Congo, Guatemala, Cuba and of course Vietnam into the crosshairs of the powerful US war machine. Where popular anti-colonial movements had developed (or resumed) at the end of the Second World War, the US and its allies—viewing these through the prism of Cold War paranoia—saw only the potential for Soviet expansion, pouring vast resources into defeating them and in the process assuming the role of the old colonial powers. In Korea the Americans obliterated much of the country from the air, imposed partition and installed a vicious military regime dependent on the reviled Japanese imperial occupiers; in Cuba their influence rested with the gangster entourage propping up the hated dictator Batista; in Vietnam they financed and armed France’s attempts to retake its colony, and when that ended in debacle they doubled down, stepping in to prosecute a vicious, protracted war.
The Grip of McCarthyism
The effects of the Cold War within American society itself were equally profound. Against a backdrop of relentless obsession with Russian ‘communism’ the whole of the US establishment united to demand political conformity and marginalise dissent. Popular accounts of McCarthyism tend to focus on the repression meted out in Hollywood and against left-leaning artists and writers, but arguably the key target of the witch-hunts was the substantial layer of workers who had been radicalized during depression and war, and who had built up powerful industrial unions—a substantial number of them under left-wing influence.
The end of World War II had given rise to a major strike wave, and saw union organisation driven up to more than half the workforce: employers found this intolerable. Under the pressures of the Cold War (and with the consent of both main parties) these left-led unions were disbanded, left-wing officials barred from holding office, and the once-militant CIO was merged into a new trade union federation (the AFL-CIO) under the conservative leadership of the right-wing AFL bureaucracy. In the years ahead the AFL-CIO proved an unwavering ally in the wars being prosecuted by the American ruling class internationally. Domestically it held to a model of ‘business unionism’ that embraced all the main tenets of Cold War ideology: above all it dismissed any notion of the US as a class society.
There were occasional rumblings from within the political establishment about the excesses of McCarthyism, and liberals would later try to distance themselves in retrospect from the purges, but for the most part this intensive campaign to squeeze left-wing dissent out of American life proceeded without encountering serious resistance. This was possible because the political shift to the right coincided with a period of unprecedented economic expansion. In the early 1950s the US economy accounted for half of all world manufacturing, and there was then no reason to expect that this rosy scenario was only a temporary one. These were the boom years, when US capitalism boasted of its ability to ‘deliver the goods’ for a substantial portion of the American people, and when conditions for many workers seemed to confirm that optimism. Prosperity (unevenly shared though it was) underpinned the drive for political conformity.
Small groups of left-wing activists and intellectuals dissented from this upbeat depiction of postwar American life, but they had little real influence, and were vastly outnumbered by a more substantial trend among social democrats and those who had earlier been part of the New Deal coalition to embrace Cold War ideology. Their willingness to adapt became clear during the Vietnam War, when many of them fell in enthusiastically behind the US war machine.
The picture of universal prosperity that the Cold War consensus aimed to project reflected real changes in American economic life, but it deliberately ignored the unevenness in the way that wealth was distributed. The mobilisation of large numbers of women for wartime work in the factories and munitions plants had been deliberately reversed at the war’s end, and Cold War America aimed to banish women back to a stultifying life bounded by child-rearing and domestic submission—one in which they remained financially dependent on men. Cold War prosperity wore a white face but in Appalachia and in pockets all across the US many whites remained trapped in poverty. Destitution and alienation shaped the lives of native Americans on and off the reservations, and the growing ranks of Latino immigrants struggled against bigotry and low wages. Most significantly the depiction of postwar bliss ignored the persistent desperation that many African Americans faced in the urban North and across large swathes of the South—places marked by staggering levels of poverty and reinforced by deeply embedded racism, with those who objected risking brutality and often death at the hands of heavily-armed police.
The Black Freedom Struggle Breaks Through
When it finally burst open after a long period of gestation the upheaval of 1968 shattered this stifling conformity, but the first cracks in the edifice came from two main sources: the black freedom struggle and the deteriorating US position in Vietnam. Black Southerners had for nearly eighty years lived in many places in conditions of semi-slavery, and suffered daily indignity under a system of formal segregation known colloquially as ‘Jim Crow’. Legal challenges by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) had proven mostly ineffective over the years, and a tentative turn by the labour movement to take up civil rights as part of its attempt to organise workers across the colour line in the 1930s had flickered only briefly before expiring. The anti-communist campaign in the South had been led by the region’s most reactionary bigots, many of them later prominent in organising white resistance to civil rights, and they had laboured hard to establish a link in the public mind between sinister communists, trade union organisers and even the most moderate opponents of segregation.
Economic transformation of the South laid the basis for a new round of challenges, however, and across the region there were small groups of activists willing to step forward. Some of the first protests were led by black GI veterans, who presented themselves in their World War II uniforms at county courthouses seeking to register to vote, but the momentum increased in the mid-1950s—pushed forward by national reaction to the brutal murder of young Emmett Till in Mississippi and buoyed by a successful boycott of the segregated bus line in neighbouring Alabama.
By the early 1960s the movement had caught fire across the South, with black students organising lunch counter sit-ins as part of a growing movement. Publicly the media projected an image of a civil rights crusade led by middle-class male clerics grouped around Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but it was led at a grassroots level by audacious youth, by bus drivers and domestic workers, sharecroppers and the unemployed, who shared a determination to force a showdown with the old segregationist order. From the very outset there were tensions over how the fight against racism could be won—King and those around him were close to the Democratic Party establishment, and did their best to rein in the movement; others—particularly the younger elements around the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—were increasingly convinced that a revolutionary transformation of American society was needed. These divisions would deepen, and King himself would be compelled to shift and adapt.
The catalytic power and authority of the black freedom movement for the generation of young people who would launch the 1968 revolt cannot be overstated. As Joe Allen has put it, ‘There would have been no mass antiwar movement in the US without the civil rights movement.’ More than anything else it was the black freedom struggle that broke the grip of McCarthyism over American life, expanding the room for public dissent. Prominent activists from virtually every strand of the 1968 upheaval—antiwar militants and fighters for women’s liberation, American Indian activists and prisoner’s rights groups, pioneers in the emerging movement for LGBT liberation and even the small cohort of labour militants who would figure in rank-and-file movements that took shape in the unions in the early 1970s—all acknowledged the source of their inspiration in the struggle for civil rights.
Vietnam: The US Comes Unstuck
The other crucial issue—and one connected in important ways to the growing radicalisation among young blacks—was the deepening crisis of American power in Vietnam. SNCC had come out against the war in 1966; in a remarkable speech in Harlem, King broke forcefully with the Democrats a year later. Sections of the US military were compelled to acknowledge that the civil rights campaign had “introduced definite constraints on the military capability of the US…spearhead[ing] a shift in public opinion away from support for the Vietnam conflict.”
At the end of 1967 the US commander in Vietnam—General William Westmoreland—toured the US assuring anxious domestic audiences that victory in Vietnam was just around the corner. President Lyndon Johnson was disseminating the same optimistic message from the White House. A few months later their assurances were exposed as utter fantasy, when liberation forces launched a major offensive (known as the Tet offensive) against the US military during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, including an audacious attack on the American embassy in Saigon. The effects inside the US were to dramatically shift already developing public sentiment decisively against the war, to push the antiwar movement to a new round of popular mobilisations, and to deepen the already profound political crisis in Washington. Tet opened up a profound year of crisis and upheaval in the US, and in that context a new generation of revolutionaries was forged in confrontations with a panicked—but vicious—US ruling class.
The crisis detonated by Tet erupted in February. A month later Johnson declared that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for the national elections that were due to take place in November: just as King had forewarned, LBJ’s ambitious anti-poverty goals (building what he called ‘The Great Society’) had fallen victim to the war. In early April, King himself was assassinated in Memphis while there to support striking sanitation workers and re-launch his Poor People’s Campaign. Cities across the US went up in flames as seething resentment over racism boiled over, and the effects in Vietnam were even more deeply felt. There many of the tens of thousands of black troops drafted to fight were already questioning their role, and King’s murder pushed many to the conclusion that their enemy was at home: “half the brothers felt it wasn’t our war and were sympathetic to Ho Chi Minh,” one black GI recalled. King’s murder, one historian wrote, “intruded on the war in a way no other outside event had ever done.”
A New Radicalism
The crisis of the war and increasing domestic polarisation fed off one another, and played out against the backdrop of a wider, global upheaval. On the 5th of June, Democratic presidential contender Robert Kennedy—fresh from primary wins in South Dakota and California—was gunned down in Los Angeles. By the late summer of 1968 the seriousness of the crisis was on vivid display in the streets of Chicago, where the Democratic Party held their convention in August. It is worth remembering that almost the whole of the genocidal US intervention in Vietnam had until then been overseen by Democrats, with the clear assent of its liberal wing. The Democratic machine came to Chicago determined to block any attempt to commit them to an antiwar stance, and they used every manoeuvre in their arsenal to ensure the nomination of the old-line hack Hubert Humphrey. But the real drama took place outside the convention hall, where mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago police launched a vicious series of bloody assaults on protestors, journalists and anyone that got in their way. Together these antics broke for many any remaining faith in the Democratic Party, accelerating the push to the left. The black power protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics in Mexico two months later dramatically confirmed the depth of support for revolutionary change in the US.
After the long and stultifying decades of conformity, the upheaval of 1968 gave rise to an unprecedented radicalisation in American society. Again this was most advanced among black youth, who had broken from King’s attachment to non-violence and come around in increasing numbers to a revolutionary perspective on the solution to racism. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, formed in 1966 in response to endemic police brutality, won a wide following for a program that expressed solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle against imperialism and called for the revolutionary overthrow of American capitalism. Among whites the movement developed first on college campuses, but at the height of the upheaval between 1968 and 1971 it sunk deep roots across American society, including in working-class communities.
This context provided an opening for a revival of revolutionary socialist politics in a way that had not been possible since the Depression years. Large swathes of the emerging movement dismissed the US working class as a force for change and instead looked to struggles in what was then often called the ‘Third World’—developing countries that found themselves at the sharp end of imperialism—for transformation. This was the prism through which much of this New Left understood anti-racist struggles in the US: as movements by ‘colonised’ African Americans whose main potential allies lay outside the country. This left sections of the working class the easy prey of Richard Nixon and other reactionaries determined to stamp out the resistance.
’68: A Profound Moment
Caricatures of this aspect of the 1968 revolt in the US come cheap and fast, and abound in the memoirs of remorseful ex-revolutionaries who have retreated back to their middle-class roots. But the reality is that the explosion of 1968 shook to its very core the most powerful country in the world, forcing its once-invincible military machine into an embarrassing defeat and rocking the two-party system that had for so long kept American politics in a straitjacket. The coming years would see real opportunities for a growing left to connect to working class rebellions—most significantly in a series of rank-and-file led wildcat strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s—and to force further concession out of an establishment that found itself on the run. It would not be until the mid-1970s that America’s rulers could breathe easy again.
The playing out of the remarkable upheaval of 1968 in the US shows, above all, the potential for developments in one part of the world to directly shape politics thousands of miles away. The ‘68ers were not wrong to take inspiration from the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people—they shared the same enemies, as events revealed, and their fates were in many ways bound together.1968 also revealed that even regimes which appear stable and impregnable over long periods can find themselves tottering on the verge of collapse as problems built up over time burst out in profound crisis and, as Marx put it, ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Finally, the trajectory of revolutionary upheaval and re-stabilisation—the sharp rise and subsequent retreat of the New Left—points to the need for socialist organisation, the urgent necessity of building ahead of social explosions a principled politics that can provide a lead for people moving into action.