The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

April 4, 1968:
The End and a Possible Beginning

Apr 2, 2018

The Spark #580, March 30-April 13, 1998:

April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee.

This political murder came at the height of the black movement which stretched back to World War II. At the same time, it was a turning point for that movement. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., laid to rest, once and for all, the hope fostered by black ministers, including King himself, and other professional people that segregation and racism could be overcome by methods of “passive resistance.” King’s assassination proved, as had all the other assassinations which preceded King’s, that the black movement was coming up against a system ready to use whatever violence was necessary to maintain its power.

The black population gave an immediate answer to the assassination of King. Hundreds of cities throughout the country were rocked by revolt. As the cities burned, the National Guard, police and other troops patrolled.

The cry of the black population, which had once been “We Shall Overcome,” by 1968 had become, “Black Power.”

With their raised fists, young black people were expressing their desire to be free of the existing power and to build up a new power independent of the American ruling class, which was both bourgeois and white.

At the same time, the working class, black and white, had once more begun to carry out tough and militant strikes, often going beyond the unions’ apparatuses which had long kept things in check.

For the first time, it seemed as though social revolution might shake the United States, the citadel of imperialism, the one power which had always seemed too powerful to be shaken.

A World-Wide Struggle

This determined struggle in the U.S. found its parallel or its echo in countries around the world.

The Vietnamese people, who had been fighting against foreign domination of their country since before World War II, by 1968 were showing that they could take on forces of the biggest imperialism, the U.S. The Vietnamese carried out an almost 3-month-long siege of the U.S. base at Khe Sanh. During Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, Vietnamese forces overran the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, as well as 36 out of 44 provincial capitals, including the old capital of Hue.

These battles were fought not only by regular military forces, but by large parts of the Vietnamese population, which acted as an unseen army, striking out when American troops least expected to come under attack.

It seemed that, in every country, 1968 marked a high point of struggle. In France, workers carried out a vast general strike in May and June. In Czechoslovakia, a series of student protests and workers’ strikes broke out, aimed at driving out the Soviet army. Demonstrations of solidarity spread into Poland. A series of strikes in Jamaica brought down that government. In Africa, strikes and protests spread through Senegal; and guerilla struggles had begun in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe. Students in Mexico, Japan, Spain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, as well as the U.S., carried out a series of protests against the actions of the government of their own country.

Revolution Was Possible

Workers, peasants, young people from every class – in 1968, all these social layers were expressing their anger against a society based on exploitation and kept in place by oppression.

The young saw themselves as a new generation, ready to put aside personal ambition in exchange for the chance to fight for the welfare of humanity. Workers in many countries re-discovered something of their power when they massively took to the streets.

In 1968, the bourgeoisie – American, European and Japanese – did not have the opportunity, as they usually do, to combine their forces to destroy one small country, or to dominate one section of their own working class. Instead, they faced problems from every corner, including even in their own armies.

1968 might have been the year when the working class began the final struggle to toss capitalism on the scrap heap of history forever. 1968 could have been the year which ushered in the work to organize a socialist society.

Instead, 1968 became simply a highpoint of struggle, a chapter in history books.

The chance for revolution in the United States, which the rebellions of 1968 and the demand for black power had made into a possibility, was turned aside.

Repression played a role, of course. But people, in fact, were showing that it was possible to overcome repression.

Reforms also played a role in suppressing this vast mobilization. In this country, the bourgeoisie began to grant a number of concessions to the black population; at the same time, it accepted and even established a layer of black politicians, who stood as a proof that the system was finally responding to the needs of black people. Behind this claim lay the idea that the black population could now turn its future over to the politicians.

But this maneuver did not work because people were so easily “bought off” by crumbs. It worked because there was no revolutionary proletarian party which called on the masses to organize their own power. Certainly, there were militants who said to the black population, “We will destroy this system if it doesn’t give us what we want.” But there was no organization which said to the black workers that unless they were ready to take on the system and destroy it, they would not get and keep what they needed.

Around the world, the situation was similar. No place were there organizations which led struggles with the aim of preparing the laboring people to get rid of capitalism once and for all.

In Vietnam, those who led the struggle wanted essentially only recognition of their right to run their own country within the world-wide capitalist framework.

In no country were there enough people who proposed to the laboring people to set up their own power, to create their own society. But without such people, without the nucleus of a revolutionary party, the massive social struggles which spread throughout the world were eventually contained. The threat to bourgeois order receded.

Sooner or later we will see this same situation again. The ever increasing desperation of vast numbers of people, including in this country, show that a new social explosion is simmering below the surface, waiting to break out.

We need to remember the lessons of 1968, the year when King was killed. Massive social struggles like those which broke out in some countries can quickly bring forth equally massive struggles in other countries. The spreading of social struggles evens the odds.

But the laboring people have to be conscious of the possibilities, ready to take advantage of the opportunities when they appear. For those things to happen, there have to be revolutionary workers’ organizations built up ahead of time.

In the years preceding 1968, activists had written off the working class; they had decided it would never struggle again. They did not do then, what must be done now. They didn’t do the work in advance to create revolutionary groups whose goal is to prepare the working class to take power.

Small though they might be, if such groups really exist in a number of countries, they can make the difference. They can be the factor which turns the next wave of struggles into a successful, world-wide working class revolution, rather than one more memory.