July 4, 1968. Forty years on! (An Australian perspective)

July 4 1968 – 40 years on! (An Australian perspective)

The rebellious spirit of 1968 tends to focus on events overseas in May, such as the Paris uprising by workers and students, but Australia joined this international rebellion in July, when thousands of Australians took to the streets to protest against conscription and the war in Vietnam and in solidarity with the Vietnamese people. The demonstration on July 4, 1968, in Melbourne shook Australia with both its militancy and the large numbers in attendance. The Riot Act was read and many people arrested and beaten up by the police. The previous year, protests against the Vietnam war had consisted of small silent vigils outside the US consulate. The times were truly a-changin!

I was there, as a student in my final year of high school, in my school uniform. My father marched too, with a group called “Ex-Servicemen against the War”. I remember some had their World War Two war medals and others their Returned Services Leauge badges. Similar demonstrations, though not as violent, occurred in Sydney, Canberra, and the other capital cities. A militant national movement was born and, within it, were people talking about revolution. The Labor Party, under Whitlam, had shifted position from Calwell’s unconditional demand for a withdrawal of all our troops to one of ‘holding operations’ and peace talks. This fuelled the extra-parliamentary mood. While opponents on the Right saw communist manipulation behind the new militancy and direction, the Communist Party of Australia was frequently the target of the young rebels, as it tried to moderate and control the action from above.

Vietnam was the catalyst but it was about more than that. “Sous les paves, la plage!” (Beneath the paving stones lies the beach!), the slogan of the Parisian left, resonated with millions of young people around the world. From Prague to New York, London to Mexico and Melbourne, we were in revolt not just against the Establishment but also against the stultifying leadership of the traditional left.

This youth rebellion represented the coming together of a range of different outlooks. Counter-culturalists opposed consumerist capitalism and sought to change society through alternative lifestyles. Revolutionary Marxists saw wage slavery as the problem and sought to overthrow it in the quest for human liberation. The unifying factor was a burning desire to break the grip of old conservative ways of thinking and living.

1968 was an excellent year for the left, internationally, with advances by the Vietnamese people against an aggressive US imperialism and mass mobilizations not just for ‘peace’ but in solidarity with Vietnam.

The young rebels of 1968 were not dupes of the old communist parties. Here in Australia we had to push the communist party and other traditional “left” leaders out of the way. When a revolutionary leadership fails, and turns into its opposite, you can either submit to the established order – or overthrow it.

At one level, the 1968 rebellion was about imagining something better, thinking outside the limits of what is. But it was also much more than that and the essential ingredient was the realization that we could challenge authority and take things into our own hands. In the ferment that ensued, many of us not only took to the streets but thought deeply about what needed to be changed and how it could be achieved.

We were not in the game of simply complaining about how bad things were but trying to build a movement which could actually liberate people. We were prepared to get out there and fight to make things different – it was not a movement of passive whiners who expected the government to give them funds or take care of the problems, and it was an optimistic, hopeful movement rather than a fear-filled reaction to current reality.

We rejected capitalism not because we were anti-consumerist but because we saw private ownership of social wealth as a fetter on production, retarding human creativity and genuine free enterprise; an obstacle to the achievement of a world of abundance for all. We were not cultural relativists but radicals with a sense that justice and rights were universal, as applicable to Polish workers as to blacks in South Africa.

As a scrawny 17 year old wannabe Marxist, I was very much part of the political resistance of that period. I lived a fairly normal life as a working-class lad in Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia, but going to La Trobe University meant meeting kindred spirits with similar capacity for imagination and struggle. These were times of intense debate, argumentation, seeking knowledge through personal research and teach-ins.

How does the rebellious political imagination of 1968 compare to the politics of the left today? I think that what passes for left-wing 40 years later should not even be described in that way. Leftwing politics are based on two foundations: solidarity with the oppressed and commitment to material progress. The left-wing position, no less than the right-wing one, requires theory. In the absence of a genuine left voice, all sorts of essentially conservative and reactionary ideas have filled the vacuum. That is why I think politics cannot be understood today without the concept of the ‘pseudo-left’.

Whereas the left of 40 years ago was vibrant and optimistic; today’s pseudo-left leads the doom-and-gloom brigade, bemoaning that their world isn’t how it used to be. The embrace of green politics reveals its essentially reactionary nature. The left-wing position of support for the unleashing of the productive forces that are held back by capitalism has been replaced with the elevation of an alarmist environmentalism over material progress. Genuine leftists take Marx’s famous statement ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ further by adding ‘and wildest fantasies’ to ‘needs’. The pseudo-left is far removed from this spirit, preferring instead ‘Small is beautiful’. Cultural relativism is perhaps the most pernicious aspect to the pseudo-left. As journalist Pamela Bone has asked so often: where are the demonstrations in solidarity with oppressed women in Muslim countries?

The left of 1968 was the antithesis of fascism. Today’s pseudo-left sympathizes with oppressive regimes from Vietnam to Cuba and China. The pseudo-left’s reactionary conservatism was perhaps best revealed in its bewailing of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of the embryonic democracy in Iraq. Echoing the palaeo-cons who brought us the Vietnam War, they wailed about the “destabilization” of the Middle East. Someone should remind them: it’s the left that supports the destabilization of tyranny. Everywhere.

In 1968, young people needed to reject a pseudo-left leadership and create a new movement. We are in that situation again today.


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