The revolution of 1968 had two principal components, the African-American movement and the student anti-war movement. These two spawned a revitalization of the women’s movement and the emergence of the Native American movement, the Chicano movement, and the ecology movement.
The African-American movement emerged in response to the denial of fundamental rights to U.S. citizens of African descent, including legally sanctioned and mandated discrimination and segregation the U.S. South. The movement had originated in the urban North during World War I, and it expanded to the urban South in the 1950s, on the basis of the expansion and increasing strength of black churches, colleges and protest institutions in the urban South in the post-World War II era. From the outset, the movement was committed to the protection of the citizenship rights of all, regardless of race, and including social and economic as well as political and civil rights; and it called for foreign policies that respected the sovereign equality of all nations, including the nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the period 1955 to 1965, the movement gave strategic emphasis to civil and political rights in the South. Beginning in 1966, the movement turned to demands for black control of black institutions, in response to the failure of white allies of the period 1955-65 to support further reforms following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and it renewed its call for an anti-imperialist foreign policy, in reaction to the Vietnam War (see “The unresolved issue of race in the USA” 6/23/2015).
The student/anti-war movement emerged as a student movement in the early 1960s, and it evolved to become an anti-war movement in the late 1960s, as the U.S. war against Vietnam escalated. The movement emerged as a consequence of the contradiction between, on the one hand, U.S. pretensions to democracy, and on the other hand, and the denial of rights of black citizens and the unleashing of the colonialist war in Indochina. This contradiction was increasingly evident to white middle class students, who had internalized the democratic narrative of the nation, as a result the upward mobility experienced by their families, many of which were part of the great European migrations to the United States of the period 1865 to 1925 (see “The New Left and its errors” 5/13/2016).
The popular movement of the period 1966 to 1972 had all the elements necessary for a successful popular and democratic revolution. The key ideas were formulated: the need for the people to take power from the elite; the obligation of a democratic society to protect the political, civil, social and economic rights of all citizens; and the obligation of the nation to respect the sovereignty and equality of all nations. But such key ideas were expressed as part of a confused mix, which included critical strategic errors that limited the possibilities for the movement to gain greater support among the people. The charismatic leader who might have been capable of putting together the key pieces and unifying the movement toward the necessary road, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968. The black power movement was silenced by systematic oppression in the period 1970 to 1972, and the student/anti-war movement dissipated as the war wound down and the compulsory military draft for young men was eliminated.
Following the national and global turn to the right in 1980, Rev. Jesse Jackson attempted to resurrect Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign with a Rainbow Coalition, an alliance of the various popular sectors. Jackson understood that it was a question of the people taking power and directing the state to the protection of social and economic rights of all and to a foreign policy of cooperation with Third World nations seeking true independence. But a charismatic leader understands all that needs to be done, and Jackson did not grasp that the Rainbow Coalition must be developed as a mass organization and as an alternative political party.
Looking back on the fall of the Revolution of 1968, it is evident that white society did not learn from the insights of the African-American movement. White society did not discern the colonial foundation to U.S. economic development or the limited scope of the U.S. understanding of democracy, so fundamental to the black nationalist critique. Accordingly, white society has not embraced an anti-imperialist foreign policy or the concept of the protection of the social and economic rights of all.
As a result of the impact of the popular revolution of 1968, white society abandoned legally sanctioned racial discrimination, and white discourse rejected blatant forms of racism. But white society continued to be characterized by racism in a subtler form. The failure of white society to encounter the African-American movement and learn from its insights was itself a manifestation of a subtle form of racism. There were other signs as well, such as the tendency to attribute the lower educational and occupational attainment of blacks to a distinctive lower class black culture, thus nullifying a societal obligation to act decisively to protect social and economic rights (see “On racism and affirmative action” 6/26/2015).
But it was an error for the post-1965 African-American movement to focus on the new and subtler forms of racism, even though true. The focus should have been on the unfinished agenda of the African-American movement: the forming of a popular coalition for the protection of the social and economic rights of all and for an anti-imperialist foreign policy. If it were not for historic errors, the black and student movements would be vibrant today, supporting an alternative political party that is committed to the political education of the people and to policies of North-South cooperation and the protection of social and economic rights, offering an alternative to the “America First” mentality that looks for scapegoats.
Today, the Left frames issues in ways that are not intelligently formulated to create a broad-based popular coalition. It calls for the protection of the rights of immigrants without analyzing the causes of uncontrolled international migration and without offering proposals for its control. It condemns police violence against blacks, without acknowledging that police have killed more unarmed whites than blacks, and with apparent unawareness that the issue here is the militarization of the police in local communities in general (see Kuzmarov 2012). It has failed to formulate these issues in ways that are sensitive to the perception of them in the various popular sectors, with proposals for: cooperation with other nations in the development of policies designed to ensure legal, controlled and safe international migration; the promotion of economic and social development in peripheral nations, so that the problem of international migration (and also factory relocation) is addressed at its source; and programs of local community control of police and greater integration of police and criminal justice institutions in the community. The Left has framed these issues in a narrow way that promotes divisions among the people, which is the worst thing that a progressive movement can do, because divisions among the people invariably serves the interests of the elite.
In response to the national turn to the Right in 1980s, the Left has failed to formulate an historical, global and comprehensive analysis of the neocolonial world-system, explaining the sources of its contradictions from the vantage point of the popular sectors in both core and peripheral zones of the world-economy. The Left has moved to identity politics, rather than a concept of a popular coalition in the tradition of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Rainbow Coalition. Its critique is superficial; it condemns racism, the denial immigrants’ rights, and neoliberal policies, without explaining to the people that these phenomena are symptoms of a neocolonial world-system in prolonged, structural crisis. The Left offers no real remedies to the people (“The need for a popular coalition” 6/27/2015).
The election of Donald Trump, and the increasingly right-wing policies that are likely to follow (dressed in populist rhetoric), will perhaps be a wake-up call to the Left, leading to a critical self-reflection on its perspective, concepts, methods and strategies. What is needed today is an alternative political party of the Left that can offer an effective challenge to the Right, through a manifesto with such innovative explanatory power that it galvanizes the people to social movement and calls upon them to form a coalition that unites the various sectors of the people, a great popular coalition that seeks to take power in the name of the people, so that the rights of all persons and nations can be protected, and humanity can be saved.
Kuzmarov, Jeremy. 2012. Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century. University of Massachusetts Press.