by Scott Mclaughlan

1968 has been characterised as the ‘year of revolt’ in the popular progressive imagination. Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of this remarkable period. Yet to the bitter disappointment of many, the revolutionary spirit of the left was conspicuously absent in the face of rising xenophobic sentiment and national-populist triumphalism.  

In the UK, fast forward to February 2019 and British capitalism continues to splutter on. The supposed ‘recovery’ after the 2008 crash has worked to further entrench inequality through fiscal austerity. The social costs of Tory policy can no longer be ignored… Indeed, according the UN’s own Special Rapporteur, the “punitive, mean spirited and often callous” politics of austerity has “inflicted great misery” on the British people.


Meanwhile, the Brexit debacle has shown up the present government to be perhaps the most incapable and myopic in modern history. While the fractured parliamentary labour party continue to dilute the message that Jeremy Corbyn (and the vast majority of the membership) are trying to get across. As a result – unbelievably – it appears that the government’s post-Brexit vision of a thousand-year Tory Reich has yet to be blown out of the water.


In today’s bleak political landscape, for many, the radical utopian dreams of the left are tediously outdated. What people want (we are told) is sound economic management, social mobility and security in a dangerous world. There is of course a grain of truth in this. But it is also true that such ideas at best forward a partial diagnosis of our contemporary predicament.


Transnational solidarity with working and oppressed people by no means erases our attachment to local culture, identity and place.


It is certainly true that human beings have an innate need to belong to a community, ‘ethnic’ group or nation. “Belonging”, it would appear, is an enduring and pervasive feature of modern life. However, this is not to say that that our yearning to belong is a point of political mobilisation destined to be monopolised by the nationalist right, as opposed to the internationalist left. Transnational solidarity with working and oppressed people by no means erases our attachment to local culture, identity and place.


Let’s rewind to May 1968. Major general strikes, student occupations and riots shook Paris and other major French cities, in a series of events that rocked the very foundations of the political establishment. A radical assault was launched against the conservatism of post-war society; the progressive colonisation of everyday life by consumer capitalism; the creeping authoritarianism of president Charles de Gaulle. The ‘old’ French left were not immune from critique. In fact, the French Communist Party (PCF) did its best to put the brakes on a potential revolution. The legitimacy and authority of the institutions of government and state, including those of the ‘left’ were challenged on all fronts. The rallying cry “be realistic, demand the impossible!” captured the radical mood in a nutshell.


And here is the rub: it is a common mistake to reduce this revolutionary spirit to the events in France. Fury at the American war in Vietnam fuelled popular outrage across the globe. The infamous Tet Offensive, that launched guerrilla strikes against American troops in all the major cities of South Vietnam proved to be the spark. 1968 was the year of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and multiple uprisings in former satellite states of the Soviet Union. Civil rights movements in the United States and Northern Ireland were energised. In November, a mass student movement gained popular support after launching an uprising against the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan, then president of Pakistan. While this list is of course far from exhaustive, it is clear that political will for a better world was mobilised into a progressive global movement, collectively organised and committed to the spirit of a left internationalism.


Today the question we must ask is this: should progressive minded people of all stripes pro-actively organise to create new possibilities for radical change in the present, or should we dig in and prepare for the worst, as the influence of the global far right continues to grow?


One thing is certain: “those who do not move, do not notice their chains”


To be sure, in the affluent world and beyond, consumption in its myriad forms provides us with kind of balm, that (however temporarily) appeases the sense of lack and absence of meaning that we feel in our daily lives. Some find solace in religious faith, box-sets and Yoga. Others find themselves in music, writing and art. And then of course the age-old boredom cure: drugs. It is a known truth that the vast majority of people are rather partial to a brief holiday from the facts of reality. Whether your tonic is a couple of glasses of wine after work, or a dedicated weekend mission to get chemically inconvenienced in the countryside. What happens the morning after?


A degree of pragmatism and compromise will almost certainly be necessary over the coming year and there will be hard times ahead. But rest assured, this is no time for left melancholia.  One thing is certain: “those who do not move, do not notice their chains”. When push comes to shove the choice is the same, socialism or barbarism.


Featured image credit: Runner in the City, El Lissitzky 1926 (courtesy of the Met’s Public Domain Collection)


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