Tanks for the memory
By Gwydion M. Williams
Twenty years is one generation, and the generation of American and West European radicals who were young in 1968 have naturally chosen this year to remember their past. Dozens of programmes have been made about what it was like to be a student radical in Wes tern Europe or the USA.
But other things happened in 1968. It was also the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, which persuaded a majority of Americans that the war was unwinnable. And it was the year in which the “Prague Spring” was crushed.
History since 1968 has been dominated by the outcomes of these three events. America’s failure and final defeat in Vietnam, plus the student uprising, forced a big re-think and shift of values in the West. The crushing of the Prague Spring led to a freezing-up in Eastern Europe. What Gorbachev is promising to do in 1988 is far less radical that what Czechoslovakia was actually doing in 1968.
During the 1970s, the left in Western Europe had an immense opportunity – and largely wasted it. Socialism was divided between “idealists” who phrase-mongered about revolution and “pragmatists” who were content to run the existing capitalist system, and in fact ran it rather badly. The middle ground – those who could devise practical reforms, and push them through – was too weak numerically to put its ideas into practice. In Britain, the best opportunity was Workers’
Control, in particular the Bullock proposals. But Workers’ Control was blocked by an alliance of Labour Left and Labour Right. This failure to do anything coherent with the massive trade union power of the 1970s tarnished the image of West European Socialism. Soviet-style Communism had lost the last of its credibility in 1968. Vietnam, dear to our hearts in the 1960s and early 1970s, got involved in an invasion of Kampuchea and a senseless border war with China. Thatcherism triumphed almost by default!
This is an extract from Newsnotes, which appeared in July 1988, in Issue 7 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. One of many old articles now on the web.