1968 was a tumultuous year of radical struggle in the U.S. and internationally. For working people today, it provides a window into the power of mass movements.
Radicalizing Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements
1968 began with the astonishing spectacle of the North Vietnamese forces temporarily occupying the American embassy in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, on January 31. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s message that the end of the war was in sight and that 200,000 new troops would ensure victory was shattered.
Opposition to the brutal war in Vietnam exploded to become the dominant issue in U.S. politics. The ongoing civil rights movement, after defeating Jim Crow laws in the South was running up against structural racism in the North and was moving into a new more political phase.. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was taking an increasingly radical stand. He broke with the Democratic Party on the question of the Vietnam War and began speaking out about the broader economic inequality of capitalism. At the end of his life he was starting to draw socialist conclusions and pointing to need to organize the wider working class, especially its poorest and most oppressed layers. King launched the Poor People’s March on Washington. He was in Memphis playing a central role in building support for a mainly black sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
King’s assassination triggered an explosion of anger in the inner city black communities and fueled further radicalization. This was expressed in the growth in support for the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966, while the antiwar movement became more clearly anti-imperialist. Pushed on by the revolutionary general strike in France in May and major struggles around the world, including the student revolt Mexico, a debate sharpened on the left about how to achieve revolutionary change in America.
Public anger at the Vietnam War and racism also began to be reflected in the Democratic Party primaries. Two anti-war candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, were the dominant candidates. Due to his previous stand on civil rights and sympathy for his slain brother, Bobby Kennedy was drawing large crowds. He was going toe to toe with Eugene McCarthy, whose campaign was driven by tens of thousands of anti-war young people.
At the same time Lyndon Johnson was totally discredited. Seriously weakened by escalating a hated war in Vietnam, he declined to run. The Democratic Party establishment vacillated between trying to convince Johnson to run and backing vice-president Hubert Humphrey who declined to participate in the primaries. Also, right-wing American Independence Party candidate George Wallace ran an un-reconstructed racist campaign tapping into Southern opposition to civil rights legislation.
The Democratic Party primary season ended with Kennedy surging. But on the night of the California primary, June 5, Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated. His death, so closely following that of Martin Luther King, had a profound effect. Two men, broadly perceived as among the most powerful spokespersons for civil rights and against the war, had been gunned down in a period of months. Among other issues sharply debated among radicals was: can the Democratic Party be a vehicle for fundamental change?
1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago
This was to be answered in spectacular fashion in the national convention of the Democratic Party, held in Chicago in August 1968. Much has been written about the “Battle of Chicago.” There are certain similarities with 2016 Democratic Party convention, the outcome of the rigged primary when Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders who stood on a pro-working class program. In 1968, the establishment leadership ensured that their preferred candidate, the war-mongering Hubert Humphrey, was elected against the overwhelming opposition of activists in the party.
Democratic Mayor Richard Daley unleashed the police in a series of vicious attacks against those protesting the war outside the convention. This has been corrected described as a police riot.
These astonishing scenes of police violence set the stage for Republican candidate Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968. Nixon exploited divisions in the Democratic Party on the Vietnam war and civil rights by demagogically calling for “peace with honor” while also defining himself as the candidate of the law-abiding “silent majority.” This coded message against the “violence” of social movements in an increasingly divided America message was a precursor to the “Southern strategy” and dog-whistle politics that the Republicans honed in years to come to appeal to conservative whites alienated by social change.
While there were some moves to run left independents candidates during 1968, major sections of the liberal left and the labor movement still had illusions in the Democratic Party. Nevertheless the turmoil in society continued to be reflected inside the party.
Lessons of 1968
Having seen the Democratic establishment decisively turn their back on the left and the mass antiwar sentiment at the 1968 convention, the question for tens of thousands of young activists was how to struggle against a power structure that clearly did not want to be reformed. A sizeable section of the antiwar, black freedom, and radical women’s movement was starting to draw revolutionary conclusions; yet they were isolated from the majority of society. How could a radical minority change U.S. society?
In 1968, conditions for a revolutionary challenge to capitalism in America had not ripened. Capitalism, at the end of the postwar boom, was still perceived as delivering improved living standards for the majority of people, and crucially the majority of the working class. Unions were much stronger than today and there was a massive organizing drive in the public sector. Yet at the same time, the bosses were increasingly trying to push back against union strength, and young workers were becoming radicalized along with the rest of their generation. They were also profoundly affected by the losing war in Vietnam, which young working-class men could not escape unlike most of their middle-class college-student counterparts. Radicalized young veterans were to play a huge role in rank-and-file labor struggles in the early 1970s.
The Black Panther Party was to be at the center of explosive events in the coming year, and by 1971, one million blacks considered themselves revolutionaries. In 1968, neither the anti-war movement nor the radical women’s movement had reached their peak. Then, from 1973 to 1974 the political system was in crisis due to the collapse of the military in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal which forced Nixon to resign. In the mid-‘70s, the economy went into the sharpest downturn since World War II, signaling the end of the postwar boom. Society was faced an enormous social, political and economic crisis. By this point many of the precursors for a social revolution were in place in the U.S.
What was lacking was a revolutionary organization with real roots in the labor movement that could size up the situation and chart a bold course to link up the revolutionary-minded youth with the wider working class. This would have required bold demands that spoke to the interests of working people and the oppressed and pointed towards the need for a socialist transformation of society. This was the way to transform the sizeable layer of militant activists into a broader mass revolutionary party as millions moved into struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today, unlike in 1968, there is already widespread anger at the economy and the political system. With correct strategy and tactics this new generation of emerging activists won’t be as isolated from the general population as they were in 1968.