My '68: “My opinions snapped into focus”

Submitted by AWL on 6 June, 2008 - 11:21 Author: Martin Thomas

In 1968 I was student at Cambridge university. I had leftish opinions as a result of books I’d read and experiences between leaving school and going to university — but really they didn’t amount to more than a vague blur.

The French events of 1968 suddenly snapped issues into focus. To this day I can remember reading a big article in the Observer at the end of May by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville which explained how the French Communist Party was acting as a conservative force within the strike movement.

Even before that, I didn’t like the Communist Party or consider the regimes in Eastern Europe socialist. But that article in the Observer made the difference between vague suspicion and distrust and a settled conviction that the Communist Parties were an obstacle to working-class socialism.

Also sticking in my mind is a meeting of the university Labour Club, it must have been a few months later, when a single CPer, Martin Levy, made a desperate attempt to excuse the CP’s behaviour. “The French Communist Party is the party of the working class. It knows the working class. It knows the realities better than we can. It knows the difference between an economic struggle and a political struggle. We should trust it".

I admired the CPer for arguing his case in a very hostile meeting, but despised his arguments: that meeting set me irrevocably against conservative politics which excuse themselves with that sort of "workerist" rhetoric.

Conventional wisdom has it that all the left-wing students of the time were wildly ultra-left. Yet I remember at that same Labour Club meeting a proposal to change the name of the group to “Socialist Society” (already, the Labour Club’s secretary’s file carried, as a proud emblem stuck to the front of it, the official letter from the Labour Party disaffiliating the group).

The proposal was drowned in derision. Sue Himmelweit and others sarcastically counter-proposed that the name should instead be changed to something like “Guevara-Ho Chi Minh Society”, but the substance of their argument was entirely serious: that, whatever our hostility to the official leadership of the Labour Party, we had to look to the labour movement.

1968 set many of us re-thinking furiously about a vast range of issues. I was studying maths. A group of us wrote a critique of the university’s maths courses, and called (very well-attended) meetings of the maths students to discuss the critique and challenge the lecturers.

We forced the maths faculty to set up a committee to re-examine the courses and to hold elections for student reps to it. We ran a slate and, despite being accused by our opponents (and rightly) of trying to use legitimate academic criticisms for ulterior revolutionary social motives, swept the board. The courses were changed, though slowly and less radically than we wanted.

Many of the ideas we had were half-baked. But that is an inescapable part of any new radical ferment. Bakery products are generally half-baked before they become fully baked.

It is true that half-bakedness had a much bigger influence on left politics in the decade or so after 1968 than it should have. I would put the blame on the “old hands” of the revolutionary left, who could have helped us young ones to “bake” our ideas, and served us quite badly.

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