Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 19 July 2019


Abstract and Keywords

Around 1968 communism expanded as a global movement, especially in the developing world, while hitting a crisis of legitimation in Europe. In the Western world the late 1960s saw young people aspiring to revolutionary change that involved both individual liberation and social justice. Generational identity underpinned a revolt against authority, leading to acute political crises in France, Italy, and elsewhere. While presenting opportunities to communist parties, this revolt threatened, from Moscow’s perspective, a dangerous proliferation of ‘heterodox’ Marxist thought. In Eastern Europe rebellious populations in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia demanded greater rights of expression, causing the Soviet Union to intervene militarily in Czechoslovakia. By contrast, Maoism was able to capture the revolutionary, anti-imperialist spirit of the times. Claiming to offer an anti-bureaucratic alternative to the Soviet model, and resituating heroic agency at the heart of communist politics, Maoism appealed to Third World revolutionary leaders and radicals in the West.

Keywords: 1968, individual liberation, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Maoism, anti-imperialism

The ‘Spirit of 1968’: Cultural Revolt

On 24 August 1968, following news of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Fidel Castro appeared before the Cuban population to defend Moscow’s action. The invasion, he claimed, had been necessary, as ‘Czechoslovakia [was] moving toward a counter-revolutionary situation, toward capitalism and into the arms of imperialism’, although he also acknowledged that ‘frankly, [the invasion] has no legality’.1 Two months later, in October, mass youth demonstrations in Mexico City resulted in the largest massacre by state authorities in 1968: over 300 protesters were killed, over 2,000 wounded, and again around 2000 imprisoned.2 A protest movement that had started with a march in support of the Cuban Revolution, and had repeatedly sought Castro’s endorsement, was violently crushed with no sign of solidarity whatsoever from the Cuban leader. Castro’s responses to these globally resonating events illustrate the dilemmas facing communist parties and movements in the face of the student and worker protests of 1968. On the one hand, the Cuban Revolution, which had gradually been drawn into the ‘world communist movement’, appeared to symbolize the continuing ability of the latter to mobilize revolutionary impulses, especially in the Third World. On the other, communist regimes in 1968 were challenged by radical movements inspired by the discourses, imagery, and inspiration of various traditions within the historic communist movement. In contexts as diverse as Czechoslovakia, France, and China, official communist parties found themselves under fire from radical movements, especially of youth.

A snapshot of the state of communist parties and movements around 1968 might lead to the conclusion that in those parts of the world where communist ideology originated—the USSR and Eastern Europe—communist rule was in crisis and beginning a process of decline, whereas in the developing world, particularly Asia, it was a movement in expansion. As a summary, this is not untrue, but the situation was more complex. Communist ideology was able in the 1960s to inspire individuals and groups (p. 157) around the world where it resonated with calls for liberation and liberty, and where it was able to provide otherwise diverse revolutionary movements with a shared language and set of organizational principles. Communism was successful where it was able to capture a spirit of optimism and possibilities, of new beginnings, and where it responded to calls for bold agency and heroic action. Communism also appealed where it drew on elements of traditional and local culture. And finally, the spirit of revolutionary communism was influential where it responded to real social conflict and inequality and to resistance to old and new forms of privilege—be that in the context of colonialism, Western market-based economies, or communist regimes themselves. This article will attempt to demonstrate both the expansion and erosion of communism’s ideological and social power, by focusing on developments in Europe, the USSR, South East Asia, and China.

The 1960s were a decade dominated by the expression of desires for liberation and self-determination.3 Despite strongly varying local situations, ‘liberation’ emerges as a keyword that can meaningfully connect the mass social and political movements that destabilized the existing order in a number of countries. Out of very different political traditions, across Europe, Asia, and the Americas radicalized groups of people mobilized around new-found desires for self-expression, for recognition, for social justice, and for liberty. Such calls always contained a utopian element. The word utopia here connotes at least three elements: a call for the complete transformation of society, to be begun in the urgency of the here and now, and requiring collective rather than individual action.4 The utopian politics of 1968 included student and youth uprisings in Japan, France, Mexico, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), and Italy; massive workers’ protests and revived class conflict in France, Italy, and other European countries; reform and opposition movements in communist regimes such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia; the civil rights movement and Black Power in the USA; the guerrilla war fought in South Vietnam and anti-colonial struggles in South East Asia and Africa more broadly; and feminist movements in various parts of the world.5

Although the content of these struggles differed dramatically, forms of action and languages were to some degree shared across national boundaries. Such forms of action included, for instance, non-violent protests such as sit-ins at university campuses, and spontaneous work stoppages and workplace sabotage. Equally transnational was a body of texts, read by rebels and radicals across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East, and including, for instance, the writings by Asian communist leaders Mao Zedong and Hồ Chí Minh, Martinique-born French anti-imperialist thinker Franz Fanon, and Nation of Islam and Black Power leader Malcolm X. Common to rebellious movements across these different parts of the world was, further, the fact that the ‘spirit of 1968’ was carried by a yet unbroken link between political change and innovative cultural expression. Late 1960s radicalism cannot be understood without fully grasping the links between cultural and political critique. Some historians have separated culture and politics, arguing that while the desired cultural transformations were achieved, radical political programmes failed.6 More recently, however, scholars have re-emphasized the (p. 158) synergy between culture and politics, and concluded that the separation of the two has had more to do with how the legacy of 1968 has been constructed.7

In the West, the questioning of everyday life—and everything it meant in terms of established moral and sexual norms, social hierarchies, urban alienation, and work routines—was at the heart of this politico-cultural revolt. Such cultural critiques found their origins in earlier avant-garde art movements—the Situationists, a transnational Paris-based art group who in turn were inspired by Lettrism, Beat Poets in the US such as Allen Ginsberg, and the Amsterdam Provo movement—which adopted a more playful approach to politics, though not less serious in its interrogation of conformist lifestyles. Situationists intuited that the rapid rise of mass communications, including television, billboard advertising, and leisure press, had created a ‘society of the spectacle’, in the phrase coined by leading Situationist Guy Debord, in which ‘authentic’ social interaction had been replaced by its fictitious, commodified, and standardized representation.8 Similarly, as argued by US-based philosopher Herbert Marcuse, previously affiliated with the Frankfurt School, the neo-Marxist Institute for Social Research founded in 1923, mass consumption and mass production had created a culture in which people were driven by false needs.9 While Marcuse made use of both Marxist and psychoanalytical concepts, others, such as the French sociologist of everyday life Henri Lefebvre, found in Marxism the tools for a new cultural critique of capitalism.

Non-conventional forms of self-expression were not limited to cultural elites. Working-class youth from the 1950s distinguished themselves from what they understood to be the complacent generation of their parents by adopting provocative lifestyle elements (clothing, music, dance, and so on). The ‘Halbstarken’ in West Germany were an example of such rebelliousness, their cultural forms expressing a new awareness of both generational identity and class belonging.10 Class identity remained significant, but was infused with new forms of differentiation: in the UK, for instance, the Beat and pop music scene originated in working-class milieux yet eventually opened up a new terrain of experimentation with gender and sexuality. In some East European societies, too, such as East Germany, jeans and rock ’n’ roll became core elements of a new youth culture, offering transgressive models of femininity and masculinity.11

In the USA, unlike in Europe, Marxist thought and class consciousness had by and large been exhausted as sources of political rebellion. This, however, did not make the revolts there any less political. The rebellious spirit of the 1960s crystallized around two issues: the Cold War and intervention in South East Asia, on the one hand, and racial segregation and inequality, on the other. ‘Civil rights’ was established as a body of thought and practice, effectively exposing the limitations of individual and collective rights in the country that called itself the freest in the world. The ‘Free Speech Movement’ at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 inspired young people around the world by developing non-violent methods for exposing the limitations of the democratic state. Among African-Americans, civil rights activism gathered momentum by the mid-1960s, in no small way thanks to the leadership of the Revd Martin Luther King Jr., shot in 1964. By the late 1960s, however, numerous voices in African-American communities, and in radicalized student groups, were frustrated with continued white (p. 159) hegemony and with the limits of the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. The Black Panther Party argued against the earlier strategy of integration into mainstream society. Despite these different approaches, the question of racial equality formed a rallying point not only for African-Americans, but also for white students, intellectuals, leftists, and others wishing to oppose racial segregation, social inequality, cultural and sexual norms, or military intervention abroad. Opposition to the war in Vietnam radicalized what was originally a campaign against the draft and the loss of American lives, into a more radical movement against what was now referred to as US imperialism. The notion of colonization was a powerful one, describing at once intervention abroad, and racial inequality and a sense of powerlessness and alienation at home, for which the term ‘colonization of the mind’ was sometimes used.12

From the Soviet perspective, there was much to be welcomed in these processes of challenge to the status quo. Yet the cross-fertilization of various strands of radical thought threatened to undermine Moscow’s control over the European communist parties, both on the east and west of the continent. In addition, in the Soviet-led ‘world communist movement’ the events of 1968 marked the culmination of a process that had started in 1956, whereby a growing number of communist-inspired parties, movements, and regimes escaped Soviet attempts to impose discipline. The communist world was now characterized by ‘centrifugal tendencies’ or, as put more positively by the Italian communists, a tendency towards ‘polycentrism’. Especially in the Third World the appeal of communist ideology was such that an array of movements and leaders felt inspired by it, without fully accepting the doctrinal or organizational constraints imposed by Moscow, or indeed any other aspiring communist hegemon.

Communism on the ‘Old’ Continent: The Passing of the Post-War Era

Europe: East and West

Notwithstanding different contexts, a shared spirit of optimism prevailed across Eastern and Western Europe in 1968. The rise of the ‘new Left’ in Western Europe resulted from the coming together of various critical interrogations: the end of the British and French empires and the shift to a post-colonial world order; ongoing critiques of Soviet global strategies and domestic policies since 1956; a rediscovery of the early humanist Marx. Broadly defined, the new Left involved not only new political parties—such as the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in France and Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity (PSIUP) in Italy—but also an array of anti-imperialist, peace, and student movements.13 The Marxist revival was based on the exchange of texts and discourses across the continental divide, including for instance the rediscovery of Hungarian Marxist György Lukács in (p. 160) the West. It was most visible in journals such as New Left Review in the UK, Quaderni piacentini in Italy, and the Yugoslav Praxis. Although these East–West exchanges sometimes involved misunderstanding, a pan-European tapestry of ‘heterodox’ Marxism emerged.14 Central to it was a problem that had been marginalized from Marxist-based political programmes for too long: the place and meaning of individual liberty and individual agency in socialism.15 While in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia the key demands shared by reformers and opponents of the regime involved civil liberties such as freedom of speech, in France and Italy student protesters were driven by a reclaiming of individual liberty which they felt was being constrained by both traditional communism and market capitalism.

Among the most important ideological points of reference shared by oppositional movements in East and West were the early-twentieth-century experiments of council communism in Russia, Hungary, and Italy, anti-Stalinist Trotskyism, and Yugoslavian experiments in self-management. When during the French student and worker protests of May 1968 Daniel and Raphael Cohn-Bendit declared communism to be ‘senile’, they were not making a point about the entire political tradition carrying that name. Rather, they referred very specifically to the French Communist Party (PCF) and its policies since 1945.16 They, along with the bulk of the French student movement, sharply criticized the PCF for the absence of ideological renewal, its reformist strategy based on participation in state institutions, and its hierarchical structures. They also criticized it for its failure to distance itself from Moscow—notwithstanding its highly unusual, although rather meek, condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Elsewhere, too, in Western Europe student protesters and Left parties condemned the Soviet invasion, including the majority of communist parties, yet this did not imply a wholesale rejection of Soviet history.17 For most of the student and radical youth groups in France, the Revolution of 1917, and specifically the Soviets as the possible nucleus of a revolutionary uprising, remained a positive point of reference.18

Nonetheless, across Europe the general trend was towards a Marxism that was disconnected from the ruling ideologies and practices of communist parties whether in or out of power.19 In the East, aspirations towards the reform of communist rule, expressed with varying degrees of openness between 1956 and 1968, were motivated by a return to the revolutionary impulse of early communist thought and practice, and by the ambition to make the communist project more resonant with rapidly modernizing societies. The Prague Spring was the quintessence of these aspirations. Revisiting Czechoslovakia’s early communism as well as its democratic traditions, writers such as the influential Zdeněk Mlynář firmly believed Marxist concepts could be used to develop the idea that was at the heart of the critical revival movement underpinning the Prague Spring, namely that of a democratic form of socialism.20 To be sure, the Prague Spring partly escaped communist party control. While the new leadership of the Czech oslovakian Communist Party (CPCS) under Alexander Dubček from January 1968 devised and implemented a reform programme including introduction of market reforms, a new state-party relationship, and, crucially, the lifting of press censorship, it was the movement of cultural revival, carried out by members of the public, students, (p. 161) and intellectuals, which pressured the party leadership to maintain the momentum of reform, as well as giving people a flavour of democracy.

The Prague Spring was rooted in the new context of European détente, which involved state and non-state initiatives across the continent, and aimed at creating East–West cooperation in the economic, cultural, military, and diplomatic spheres. Much affinity existed between the ideas of democratic and gradual ‘roads to socialism’ as they were debated in the communist parties of Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The most original reform-communist projects pivoted on the idea that sociopolitical change in Eastern and Western Europe was a mutually dependent process.21 Somewhat simplified, the conviction was that while Western countries needed to be made more socialist, Eastern regimes needed to become more democratic. There was a striking resonance between the writings of Eastern and Western heterodox Marxists in this regard. Zdeněk Mlynář, among others, understood the Prague Spring as a return to European Marxist traditions, made possible by the onset of détente on the continent.22 In the Italian Communist Party (PCI), critical leftists such as Pietro Ingrao argued for firm solidarity with the Prague Spring, understanding it to be intimately linked to the recent processes of radicalization in the universities and the factories across Western Europe, all pointing towards new forms of ‘socialism from below’.23

The crushing of the Prague Spring provoked across the continent a loss of hope regarding the reformability of ‘really existing socialism’. Leonid Brezhnev’s justification for the invasion, known in the West as the Brezhnev Doctrine, asserted that the socialist states had an obligation to intervene, militarily if necessary, to safeguard a socialist regime in another country. It made explicit what had been clear since at least the invasion of Hungary in 1956: that communist rule in Eastern Europe was based not on democratic legitimacy but on the threat of military intervention.24 The great irony of 1968 was the fact that the Prague Spring had emerged from the only Warsaw Pact member where domestic support for communism had been substantial in 1948, and that it situated itself in local, and loyal, communist traditions.

The events in Czechoslovakia resonated across Eastern Europe. Polish cities saw student unrest from March 1968, following the ban by the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) of the nineteenth-century play Dziady (The Forefathers). Warsaw students made their anger known through letter-writing and rallies. Their actions were the start of a two-month wave of unrest involving the major universities, the Writers’ Union, and industrial workers. The events acutely exposed the PPR’s lack of political legitimacy and popular support.25 The authorities’ responses were particularly repressive: framing the protests as a ‘Zionist’ threat, Władysław Gomułka initiated an ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign, which saw the rampant purging of Jewish citizens from jobs and led thousands to emigrate. Taking advantage of anti-Semitism in Polish society, and building on the USSR’s breaking of diplomatic relations with Israel the previous year, the PPR was thus able to deflect the political crisis by scapegoating a particular section of society.26

A similar initial pattern of the dynamics of protest—triggered by students, spilling over to intellectuals and workers—occurred in Yugoslavia, although both the political meaning and the outcome of the Yugoslav summer of discontent were of a very different nature. Here, the student movement was explicitly loyal to a variety of communist (p. 162) traditions: Belgrade students in June 1968 renamed their faculty the ‘Red University Karl Marx’; nineteenth-century radicals such as Kropotkin were rediscovered; and Western Marxists such as Daniel Guérin were widely read. While Yugoslavia’s unique status in Cold War Europe gave its citizens greater access to Western debates than other East Europeans, its membership of the Non-Aligned Movement meant that radical anti-imperialist thought was influential here. Student and worker protests crystallized around the notion of self-management: a core concept of the official ideology of the Yugoslav League of Communists (LCY), the protesters denouncing the failure to fully implement it.27 Josip Broz Tito, while claiming to be supportive of the revival of Marxism across the globe, not least of the student protests in France, felt threatened. As a result, state responses were an ambiguous mix of political repression and discursive inclusion. Yet Yugoslav society was not pacified: Bosnian miners went on strike in June 1970, while students at Ljubljana University occupied their campus in May the following year. Open intellectual dissent in Croatia in 1971 grew into a wider ‘Croatian Spring’, enjoying the support of part of the Republic’s party apparatus. Discourses of dissent were here transformed: while the heterodox-Marxist protest basis was eclipsed, nationalism became the vehicle for opposition against the communist regime—a sign of things to come.28

Although accelerated by the events of 1968, the gradual abandoning of Marxist thought as a framework for transformative politics resulted, more fundamentally, from the absence of generational renewal. As argued by Marci Shore, communism in Eastern Europe was rooted in a generational identity: the generation shaped politically by the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the post-war establishment of communist rule, and Stalinism.29 In Czechoslovakia and to a lesser degree in other East European countries, many belonging to this core Stalinist generation had become convinced reform communists in the decade following 1956. As they approached retirement in the 1970s, the generation that succeeded them was shaped politically by the crushing of the Prague Spring. This generation did not have a strong memory of the 1930s–40s and its politics was not shaped to the same extent by anti-fascism. A similar generational shift occurred, perhaps less sharply, in Western Europe: In France and Italy, anti-fascism was now reclaimed by the radical Left and by the young rebellious, while the communist parties lost control over its historical interpretation and memory.30

The USSR: Towards Erosion

In the Soviet Union the long post-Stalinist period from 1953 to 1991, usually referred to in the historiography on the USSR as ‘late socialism’, is often understood in terms of two distinct phases: the years up to 1964/8, characterized by domestic and international thaw, and the period thereafter, characterized by stagnation. These phases broadly correspond to two generations, the first of which was politically shaped by the optimism and drive for reform of the Khrushchev era.31 Following 1956, Khrushchev attempted to replace Stalinism with a ‘purer’ interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, underpinned by a teleological belief in technological and scientific progress. Sections of the mid-ranking party (p. 163) apparatus and state bureaucracy felt encouraged to engage in a search for economic reform and, less explicitly, in explorations of democratic and party reform. Typically, these reformers belonged to families with a solid Bolshevik history.32 They adhered strongly to the discourse of ‘returning to Leninism’ and were in some cases inspired by the anti-Stalinist opposition of the late 1920s, notably Nikolai Bukharin. Their notion of reform, however, tended to be technocratic and bureaucratic, and involved little reflection on the revival of civil society or even the role to be played by workers.33

Parallel to this, a ‘spontaneous de-Stalinization’ manifested itself, mainly among urban intellectuals who engaged in debates on ‘truth’ and ‘sincerity’ in Soviet society. Thus, an alliance was formed from the early 1960s between reform communists and critical intellectuals, located mainly in the urban centres of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. Their shared optimism seemed to spring from real improvements in everyday living conditions and the opportunities to project Soviet global power created by decolonization.34 Suggestions for a rethinking of the role of the party emerged somewhat more mutedly, for instance in the writings of economist Vladimir P. Shkredov who proposed greater autonomy for economic actors vis-à-vis the party, including a mixed system of private and state ownership of enterprises, and for the party to return to its ‘original’ role as a vanguard organization, limiting its remit to education and overall guidance.35

Following Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964 political repression was intensified, culminating in the 1966 trial of Yuli M. Daniel and Andrei D. Sinyavsky, who were charged with ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’, marking a return to the era of show trials This led some members of the Writers’ Union and other intellectuals to express their opposition, and the nucleus of a human rights movement was born. Dissident nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, for instance, in his influential essay of May 1968, ‘Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom’, pointed to nuclear warfare as a global danger, requiring concerted action across the Iron Curtain.36 Ultimately, though, dissent had limited support among ordinary people—a situation that contrasts with Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. More generally, however, as in other communist regimes, there were growing signs among ordinary people of resentment of social inequality and privilege, especially as associated with the political leadership.37 One reason for the relative weakness of critical opinion in the USSR was that here the regime could more easily claim to be legitimate, owing to the fact that, unlike the regimes of the Eastern Bloc, it had emerged out of a genuine revolution.

If the majority of Russians seemingly accepted the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Kremlin’s justification, namely that there was a real danger that West Germany would engineer the ‘return’ to capitalism, the Czechoslovak crisis did help to erode confidence in communism here too. Critiquing classic historiographical interpretations that have presented the Soviet population’s attitudes towards the regime in terms of a sharp distinction between accommodation and resistance, Alexei Yurchak has argued that the erosion of allegiance to the system can be observed in the disintegration of stable meanings given to the words, rituals, and social exchanges of communist rule, and of communist party control over those meanings, leading to a situation in which they became ‘diverse, multiple and unpredictable’.38

(p. 164) Communism in the Third World: The Spectre of Decolonization

The processes of decolonization that swept the world following 1945 dramatically reconfigured the context in which global communism operated, reshaping its ideology, strategies, and bases of support. Communism came to be suffused with the language of anti-imperialism, and this not only in the Third World itself but also in the Northern hemisphere. ‘Decolonization’ and ‘self-emancipation’ became powerful visions, applicable to the most diverse contexts around the world, from guerrilla warfare in South East Asia to the Black struggle in the USA. It was, above all, developments in South East Asia during the 1960s that demonstrated to the eyes of the world communism’s potential to contribute to, or even guide, such calls for liberation. Here, communism’s ‘power of prophecy’ was able to capture the sense of an irreversible tidal wave of change, especially in Vietnam.39 Yet decolonization not only opened up new possibilities for the communist world, it also created ruptures. The most consequential such challenge was the conflict between the USSR and China. This resulted from a combination of great-power rivalry and ideological differences. Chairman Mao Zedong disapproved of Khrushchev’s foreign policy, particularly ‘peaceful coexistence with the West’ and the building of broad coalitions with non-communist forces in the Third World. Soviet experts were withdrawn from China by 1960, and three years later the alliance broke down completely.40 Although revolutionary leaders such as Hồ Chí Minh in Vietnam did not welcome the conflict between the two communist giants, it was this conflict that placed strategy in the Third World at the heart of communist debate globally.

Vietnam: The ‘People’s War’

In the second half of the 1960s ‘Vietnam’ became a powerful symbol for revolutionary change throughout the world, in a number of different ways. While to communist parties the events evidenced the expansion of the world communist movement, to resistance fighters in the (post-) colonial world it embodied the successes of a new revolutionary tide, whose point of gravity lay in Third World grass-roots mobilization of peasants and workers, rather than in a centralized global communist strategy. Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara at the 1967 Tri-Continental Conference in Havana accompanied his bold call for ‘two, three, many Vietnams’ with a sharp critique of both China and the USSR: ‘The solidarity of the progressive world with the Vietnamese people has something of the bitter irony of the plebeians cheering on the gladiators in the Roman circus.’41 The bitter disappointment at what was felt to be insufficient support from the two communist powers for Third World struggles was clear. Support from the USSR and China for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the North and for the armed struggle in South Vietnam was, although real, more limited than might have been expected, and rather (p. 165) late in coming. In 1960, both Mao and Khrushchev had warned the North Vietnamese Workers’ Party (VWP) against building an insurrection in the South. The USSR had abandoned its enthusiasm of the early 1960s for Third World revolutionary movements, as a number of communist defeats, most notably in Algeria and Indonesia in 1965–6, led the Soviet leadership to critically reconsider its earlier strategy of broad anti-imperialist alliances. Only from 1969 did Moscow adopt policies based on the possibility of communist victory in Vietnam. Its financial and military assistance, while significant, arose from a sense of duty rather than revolutionary enthusiasm, and Moscow increasingly understood its role in South East Asia as that of peacemaker. The role played by Maoist China, on the other hand, has been described by O. A. Westad as ‘high on rhetoric, low on action’.42 The struggle in Vietnam appeared to be everything Chairman Mao Zedong might have hoped for, offering a model and symbol for communist revolution in the Third World, as well as potentially serving to increase Maoist influence in the communist world. However, timing was bad for China. Weakened by the Cultural Revolution, Chinese policy in 1966–8 was fundamentally oriented towards domestic affairs. From 1968 Beijing, like Moscow, exercised a moderating influence on the Vietnamese communists.43

Despite its global impact, communism in Vietnam was successful primarily because its bases of support and policies were strongly locally embedded. In the context of French colonial rule during the interwar period, Indochinese communism had shaped itself as a popular movement enjoying support among a variety of social groups: peasants, students and intellectuals, urban workers, and the lower middle classes. Hồ Chí Minh, leader of the VWP from the 1940s to the 1960s, believed in an unbreakable bond between communism and liberation from colonial yoke, yet his politics contained a degree of ideological flexibility.44 His political project was centred on liberation from colonialism along with a radical improvement in people’s economic conditions, combined with a degree of political participation. A new generation of revolutionary cadres and activists had been shaped by the events of 1945, when the French attempted to restore the colonial order, triggering the start of a nine-year war. The Geneva Accords of 1954 had seen the division of the country into a communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North and a Western-backed Republic of Vietnam in the South. The start of revolutionary insurgency in the South in 1959 gave the VWP in the North a renewed sense of purpose.45 Following Ngo Dinh Diem’s death in 1963, the insurgency developed into a general uprising, based partly on Maoist notions of guerrilla combat and psychological warfare, and provoked a stepping-up of US military intervention in 1965. On 30 January 1968, the VWP’s People’s Army initiated a ‘General Offensive and Uprising’ in South Vietnam, known in the West as the Tet Offensive. As it gathered momentum, a multi-layered strategy involving combined guerrilla and conventional warfare destabilized the South Vietnamese regime. The USA sent increased ground troops in February and started bombing North Vietnam in March. From the autumn, peace talks began after the US suspended bombing of the North, but although the US began to withdraw ground forces, the war continued. Indeed it would be extended into Cambodia and Laos before a ceasefire finally came in 1973.

The grass-roots support enjoyed by Vietnamese communism was a classic case of strength through war mobilization. At the same time, it drew on elements of pre-colonial (p. 166) culture, notably a conception of revolutionary change as cyclical and as the restoration of a past golden age, and familism.46 During the 1950s–60s, North and South Vietnamese communists made frequent use of the metaphors of ‘blood’ and ‘family’ to harness grass-roots support; in rural areas, this to some degree substituted for ‘class’. Women’s revolutionary contribution was seen as vital, and they were explicitly called upon to fight colonial oppression and US intervention.47 The DRV ‘rewarded’ women’s economic, military, and political contribution to the building of socialism by granting new political rights in 1967, notably mandating women’s participation in political organs at all levels. In the South, despite great attempts at drawing women into revolutionary struggle, women’s social roles, although powerful in some respects, remained locked into traditional patriarchal society. In the ‘People’s War’, kinship lineages and village cohesiveness proved more important than ever.48 Here, the communist representation of the future utopia drew on elements of traditional culture and social structure rather than appeal to the promise of rapid modernization as communist regimes did elsewhere.

China: The Politics of Youth

Between 1966 and 1976, the People’s Republic of China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution. Provoking both admiration and perplexity in the communist and the Western world, the Cultural Revolution had a negative impact on all layers of the Chinese population, especially intellectuals, but not excluding workers in the cities and peasants. It involved a dramatic dismantling of large sections of the state and party apparatuses—something entirely without precedent in the communist world. Mao Zedong and his supporters intended to ‘revitalize’ all levels of administration by ridding them of what were perceived to be ‘capitalist roaders’. Mao believed that he would find natural allies among ‘the masses’—specifically youth, students, workers, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Instead, the exacerbation of conflict in, for instance, educational institutions, factories, and state and party institutions led the entire country into a near-general state of civil war. The Cultural Revolution was born out of Mao’s perception that in the wake of the disasters caused by the Great Leap Forward (1958–60), the relatively moderate policies pursued by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping threatened to undermine the revolutionary process and even push the country towards capitalist social relations. Following the Sino-Soviet split Mao came to the conclusion that in the USSR a privileged stratum of bureaucrats had emerged that had ‘converted the function of serving the masses into the privilege of dominating them’.49 Haunted by the USSR as a negative model, Mao seemed genuinely to fear the rise of what he understood to be ‘revisionist’ tendencies in China. In unleashing the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he hoped to combat growing bureaucratism by mobilizing young people to oppose those in authority. There was, the Chairman maintained, a need for ‘uninterrupted revolution’ at all levels of the state and party structures and in society at large.50 The Cultural Revolution, initiated as a top-down attempt to reshape the party and the state, soon got out of hand. Mao’s invitation to young people to unlimitedly challenge authority rebounded on him (p. 167) with a vengeance, as he lost control over some of the very youth and worker organizations that he had created. As student and worker factionalism descended into chaos in the spring of 1967, Mao endorsed the setting up of ‘revolutionary committees’ at the provincial level as a mean to restore order. As opposing ‘mass’ organizations slugged it out, thousands of civilians died in pitched battles. Paradoxically, as radical students in the West began to look to the Cultural Revolution to legitimize their struggles against authority, 1968 was the moment when in China a modicum of state authority over the radical movement was restored. In spring 1968 Lin Biao strengthened his control over the PLA and, with its backing, the ‘revolutionary committees’ were by autumn finally established in all provinces. Soon the dismantling of Red Guards began.51

It was in its voluntarism and emphasis on the immediacy of political agency, rather than in a more traditional Marxian emphasis on determining economic and social change, that Maoism proved attractive to radicalized youth in the Western world. They were excited by the ‘uninterrupted revolution’ being unleashed in the People’s Republic of China, which they contrasted to the bureaucratism of the USSR. Sectors of Western youth empathized with the millenarian rejection of anything ‘old’, with the fierce desire of Maoist youth to create a rupture with the past.52 Moreover, the political exaltation of revolutionary youth was accompanied by repoliticization of class politics. Whereas in the USSR class conflict had been declared resolved, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from the mid-1960s reinfused political conflict with the language of class, and citizens were called upon to identify and denounce those perceived to be ‘class enemies’. As happened elsewhere under communist rule, ‘class’ became the cloak under which variously motivated denunciations and purging occurred, but Mao’s insistence on the perpetual rejuvenation of class conflict and his understanding of class consciousness as a matter of choice rather than background appealed to radical youth in the West. Most West European parties, including the PCI, PCF, and the smaller Belgian, Dutch, and Scandinavian parties, were plagued by Maoist tendencies within the ranks, which led to small breakaway parties. But across Asia and parts of the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, Maoism was influential as a strategy for revolt in colonial contexts, a radical language, and a set of critiques of the USSR, causing a blow to Soviet-aligned communist parties.


Around 1968, communism as a set of ideologies and movements faced a number of opportunities and tensions, due to geographic expansion and diversification. In rapidly modernizing societies, not least in the post-colonial world, communism was able to bridge the past and the future. While in some contexts it successfully based its legitimacy on responsiveness to traditional social forms and cultures, in others, communist rule was able to capture the spirit of the times by projecting ‘the new’ and embodying future visions. Communist thought and strategy were thus renewed in 1968, but also fragmented, and their limitations were exposed. It is significant that revolutionaries and (p. 168) radical reformers around the world—in situations as diverse as Vietnam, China, Mexico, Italy, and Czechoslovakia—referred explicitly to the concepts of communism (such as ‘class’) as well as to its methods (for instance, factory councils and soviets), yet often to denounce the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the Soviet-led ‘world communist movement’. At the same time, communist thought and practice were, especially in the West, infused with new notions of revolution that were alien to the Soviet tradition: from ‘sexual liberation’ to psychoanalysis and anti-racism. Communist parties in power, such as the Soviet and Polish ones, and in some cases those not in power such as the French, sharply repressed what they understood to be ‘unorthodox’ revisions of communist strategy and ideology in 1968–9. In countries under communist rule this greatly contributed to the process of erosion of support for these regimes and for Marxist doctrine more generally.

Select Bibliography

Bishof, Günter Karner, Stefan and Ruggenthaler, Peter eds. The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2010).Find this resource:

    Bracke, Maud, Which Socialism, Whose Détente? West European Communism and the Czechoslovak crisis of 1968 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2007).Find this resource:

      Fink, Carole, Gassert, Philipp and Junker, Detlef, eds. 1968: the World Transformed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).Find this resource:

        Gildea, Robert, Mark, James, and Warring, Anette, eds. Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)Find this resource:

          MacFarquhar Roderick and Schoenhals Michae, Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard UP, 2005).Find this resource:

            Tai, Hue-Tam Ho, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).Find this resource:

              Yurchak, Alexei, Everything Was Forever, Until it Was no More. The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006Find this resource:


                (1) . Latin American Network Information Centre, Castro Speech Database, <>.

                (2) . E. Carey, Gender, Power and Terror in 1968 Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

                (3) . A similar framework is proposed in ‘Introduction’, in C. Fink, P. Gassert, and D. Junker (eds.), 1968: The World Transformed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1–27.

                (4) . On utopia and 1968, see L. Passerini, ‘Utopia and Desire’, Thesis 11, 68/1 (2002), 11–30.

                (5) . Jeremy Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); G.-R. Horn and K. Padraic (eds.), Transnational Moments of Change: Europe 1945, 1968, 1989 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004); M. Klimke and J. Scharloth (eds.), 1968 in Europe: A History of Protest and Activism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

                (6) . A. Marwick, The Sixties: Social and Cultural Transformation in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, 1958–1974 (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1999).

                (7) . For France: K. Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

                (8) . G. Debord, La Société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Castel, 1967).

                (9) . See especially Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964).

                (10) . T. Grotum, Die Halbstarken. Zur Geschichte einer Jugendkulturder 50er Jahren (Frankfurt: Campus, 1994), 84–5.

                (11) . U. G. Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

                (12) . T. Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).

                (13) . D. Gordon, ‘A “Mediterranean New Left?”, Contemporary European History, 19/4 (2010), 309–30.

                (14) . J. Mark and A. Von der Goltz, ‘Encounters’, in R. Gildea, J. Mark, and A. Warring (eds.), Europe’s 1968 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), with kind permission of the authors.

                (15) . M. Bracke, ‘French Responses to the Prague Spring: Connections, (Mis)perception and Appropriation’, Europe-Asia Studies, 60/10 (2008), 1735–47.

                (16) . D. and G. Cohn-Bendit, Le Gauchisme (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969).

                (17) . M. Bracke, Which Socialism, Whose Détente? (Budapest: CEU Press, 2007), 209–10.

                (18) . On the inspiration drawn from early twentieth-century workers’ councils, see F. Georgi (ed.), Autogestion. La Dernière Utopie? (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2002).

                (19) . A similar point, although referring only to Eastern Europe, is made in M. Shore, ‘(The End of) Communism as a Generational History, Contemporary European History, 18/3 (2009), 303–29.

                (20) . V. Kusin, The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 1–2.

                (21) . The understanding of European détente as an East–West interrelated process is discussed in R. Tokes (ed.), Eurocommunism and Détente (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1978); and J. M. Hanhimaki, ‘10: Détente in Europe, 1962–1975’, in M. P. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds.), Cambridge History of the Cold War, ii. Crises and Détente (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

                (24) . On the Brezhnev doctrine and its implications in communist Europe, see M. J. Ouimet, The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

                (25) . B. Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East–Central Europe (Budapest: CEU Press, 2003).

                (26) . D. Stola, ‘The Anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland, 1967–1968’, SIPA, School of International and Public Affairs, 2000.

                (27) . B. Kanzleiter, ‘1968 in Yugoslavia: Student Revolt between East and West’, in M. Klimke, J. Pekerlder, and J. Scharloth (eds.), Between Prague Spring and French May: Opposition and Revolt in Europe 1960–1980 (New York: Berghahn, 2011), 84–100. For a different view of socialist influences in the youth protests, see R. Pervan, Tito and the Students (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1978).

                (28) . L. Sekelj, Yugoslavia: The Process of Disintegration (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 6. The importance of ethnic conflict is emphasized in N. Miller, ‘Yugoslavia’s 1968, in V. Tismaneanu (ed.), Promises of 1968 (Budapest: CEU Press, 2011), 227–40.

                (30) . Phil Cooke, The Legacy of the Italian Resistance (New York: Palgrave, 2011).

                (31) . A. Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until it was no More (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 29–33.

                (32) . V. Zubok, ‘Soviet Society in the 1960s’, in G. Bishop, S. Karner, P. Ruggenthaler (eds.), The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2010), 82.

                (33) . M. Lewin, Stalinism and the Seeds of Soviet Reform (2nd edn., London: Pluto Press, 1991), 351.

                (34) . Zubok, ‘Soviet Society’, 75–102, at 76–87.

                (35) . Lewin, Stalinism, 240–1.

                (37) . V. A. Kozlov, S. Fitzpatrick, and S. V. Mironenko (eds.), Sedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 302–3.

                (39) . H.-T. H. Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 259–61.

                (40) . L. M. Luthi, The Sino-Soviet Split (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) stresses the ideological dimension in the dispute.

                (41) . Quoted in O. A. Westad, The Global Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 190.

                (43) . Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 176–92.

                (46) . On traditional cultures in the making of Vietnamese revolutionary thought: S. F. McHale, Print and Power (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2008).

                (47) . M. A. Tetreault, ‘Women and Revolution in Vietnam’, in B. G. Smith (ed.), Global Feminisms since 1945 (New York: Routledge, 2000), 45–64, at 47–51.

                (49) . M. Zedong, ‘On Khrushchev’s Phoney Communism’ (1964), <>, accessed 29 July 2012.

                (50) . R. MacFarquhar, Origins of the Cultural Revolution, iii. The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966 (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1997), 396.

                (51) . Y. Su, ‘Mass Killings in the Cultural Revolution, in J. E. Esherick, P. G. Pickowicz, and A. G. Walder (eds.), The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 96–123.

                (52) . L. T. White III and K.-Y. Law, ‘Explanations for China’s Revolution at its Peak’, in Law (ed.), The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 1–24.