Revolutionary Movements in Advanced Capitalism: From the New Left to the Occupy Movement

Given the historical lack of revolution in capitalist democracies, it is natural to ask: what are the social conditions that would bring about such a revolution? This question is not only useful in trying to predict future revolutions but also in understanding civil disorder in typically stable countries.  By comparing post-2007 United States with the revolutionary wave of 1968, I will present that revolutionary movements in the industrialized world are determined by the strength of a revolutionary situation, created through student unrest, labor discontent and a weakening of the state’s claim to moral legitimacy while the revolutionary outcome is determined by the organizational strength of dissident groups and the level of police hostility. More simply, mass discontent becomes revolutionary when radical groups find a way to organize in spite of state opposition.

It will be useful to define a few terms before proceeding. An advanced capitalist society can be understood as a state with a high standard of living afforded by a market economy with private property and possesses a democratic form of government. Because of the inherent power of a modern military and the presence of free elections, a revolution in such a society would likely be brought about through non-violent means and with heavily reliance on electoral efforts. The Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia and Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela show that neither violence nor antidemocratic leadership is inherent to a successful revolution. It is therefore important to distinguish between revolutionary and reformist efforts. James DeFronzo provides the definition of a revolutionary movement as, “a social movement in which participants are organized to alter drastically or replace totally existing social, economic, or political institutions (DeFronzo, 10).”  Looking at the political climate of the mid to late sixties, this definition implies that the various movements designed to bring about racial and gender equality along with anti-war policies were largely reformist. It also means that the anti-austerity efforts today are reformist rather than revolutionary. However, these reformist efforts are crucial in creating a revolutionary situation by tapping into social unrest and challenging the legitimacy of the state.

The most successful revolutions took place either in largely agrarian societies or in societies with autocratic rulers. Countries like the United States and France meet neither of those conditions. This makes understanding the class composition of modern revolution all the more important. Western Europe[1968], Poland[1989] and Serbia[2000] give reason to believe that students and the working-class play a crucial leadership role in any peasantless revolution.

The level of youth discontent is a crucial factor in determining the shape of revolutionary movements. Students and the young are not intrinsically more revolutionary than general society but instead inherently have more opportunities to act out on discontent. This was true during 1968 where, “the great majority of American students were not alienated or sympathetic to radical causes”, while “surveys of French youth and students after the May 1968 events, indicated that the great majority were opposed to a “radical transformation of society”(Lipset, 61).”   They however proved crucial to the propagating the revolutionary waves during 1968. Students have fewer commitments than the average adult and thus can devote themselves to more radical action without concern for financially supporting a family. Universities also provide an easy environment for like-minded individuals to organize and experiment with ideas. Thus, students are more likely to act out on feelings of discontent. In regards to US protests of 1968, extensive polling from Gallup found little difference between age groups in their support for the Vietnam War (Lipset 39). This is important to know because if student opinions vary too far from the general population then it’s unlikely student actions will transform into a larger movement.

A revolutionary movement will not just depend on youth action but also worker involvement. Mai 1968 proved to be one of the closest instances of revolution occurring in an advanced capitalist society. France showed to the world, “the unsuspected fragility of the seemingly mighty modern industrial state. Ten Days of student rebellion followed by ten days of a general strike, and Gaulism was falling apart (Singer, 193).” In order to defuse the crisis President Charles de Gaulle was forced to call for parliamentary elections to take place in June and to concede to large wage increases for the unions. The elections however proved disastrous for the left with its disorganization and splintered nature leading to a loss in parliamentary seats.

The story was different in the US though. American unions were notoriously socially conservative, which is also one reason the new left gained so much traction among American youth. It was typical for unions in the US to be divided over the concerns of African-Americans, students and the poor. One poignant example is the 1970 Hard Hat Riot where AFL-CIO affiliated construction workers rioted and attacked a number of students who were protesting in the wake of the Kent State shootings. The conservative tendency of the American working class is one major reason why the protests at Columbia University and elsewhere did not have a similar impact on society as those in Paris.

Ultimately what prevented widespread revolution in the capitalist democracies of 1968 was lack of a cross-class cooperation. In France, political squabbling and division among the unions and professional leftists inhibited the Mai movement from achieving electoral success. The French revolutionary situation essentially vanished when, “the government finally came up with a package satisfying all labor demands…only a handful of younger workers gave a second thought to abandoning the students (Kurlansky, 235)”.  Similarly there was no revolution and only continued unrest in the US for, “young activists were turning towards revolution, but the larger public was only turning against the war (Epstein, 41).” For the US, 1968 radicalized the student movement but would prove the downfall to students organizing afterwards. The clearest example is the splintering of SDS[Students for a Democratic Society]. The rise in militancy among both student and black radicals essentially ended any momentum in public acceptance for these radicals.

The conditions for workers differ greatly today than they did 45 years ago. Organized labor in the US today has a much smaller role in the economy than during the Vietnam era and is especially weak when compared to the French unions that shook the world in 1968. However, the grievances of workers run much deeper today. In addition to the occupy movement that caught the attention of those on the East and West coasts, there were several large-scale labor confrontations that gripped the Midwest in 2011. The largest of these confrontations occurred in Wisconsin and Ohio. In both states, a newly freshman Republican governor pushed and signed legislation stripping public unions of collective bargaining rights. This led to protests and mobilization on a scale not seen in many years. In Wisconsin, protesters were able to force several recall elections while Ohioans were able to repeal the aforementioned legislation through a 2011 referendum. Similar to the French parliamentary elections of 1968, mass frustration was unable to be converted into political gain with both Wisconsin and Ohio state governments being completely controlled by the Republican Party in 2013. Although union membership continues to sharply decline, there has been resurgence in labor confrontations in the US due to worsening conditions in recent years.

I have discussed how the relationship between students and workers in affects the revolutionary process, but it does not address the motivating factors of dissent. There are several differences in structural factors between the contemporary United States and that of France, Western Germany and the United States in 1968. These structures are meaningful to explore because individual preferences for revolution have been found to be significantly related to several demographic characteristics: employment status, personal income, gender, religiosity and marital status (MacCulloch, 105). Currently, the US suffers from high levels of inequality both in absolute terms and relatively when compared to other nations and historical data. It is therefore important to note, “greater income inequality has marked and statistically robust effects on increasing the chance that an individual will support revolt (MacCulloch, 94).” Furthermore, the 2008 recession has hit hardest those younger than 25 as well as several industries[e.g. construction, manufacturing, government] with higher than average labor organization. The current economic situation varies vastly from that of the revolutionary wave of 1968.

However, economic factors played a minimum role in 1968. Western Europe experienced a modest recession starting from late 1966 to mid 1968. Only in West Germany did the state of the economy have any visible effect on the political environment:

For the West German public, which had not lived through a major recession for almost two decades, this was a considerable shock, and many unduly anxious observers began to draw parallels with the gloomy days of the Great Depression (Giersch, 145).

West Germany was incidentally one of the countries most affected by student protests of 1968. The United States would suffer a mild recession later from 1969-1970(NBER) and would not see an end to mass protests until 1972. There is therefore little evidence to say that economic conditions created the revolutionary situation in 1968. At best, it was one of many contributing factors that created a more structurally dissatisfied population. Instead, the revolutionary wave of 1968 was brought by the declining moral legitimacy of the cold-war world order.

The intensification of the War in Vietnam was major factor in the unrest of 1968. 1968 represented in Vietnam both a peak of US troop involvement[536,100] and US casualties[16,899](NARA). Part of the precipitous fall in support for the Vietnam War can be attributed to a string of defeats for the US during the first half of 1968. The Tet offensive completely shocked the US while the American military was forced to retreat from both Kham Duc and Khe Sahn. These battles exacted heavy casualties on all sides while publicly demonstrating the unwinnable nature of the Vietnam War. This intensification not only affected public opinion in the US but motivated protests across the world. For example in France, “[the Tet offensive] was directly responsible for the creation of the March 22 Movement, which was to be the driving force of the student revolt(Singer, 28).” Unsurprisingly, opposition to the war was a primary motivator for much of the organized action in the US including the unrest at Columbia University and the 1968 Democratic Convention.

In addition to anti-war sentiments, the movements around civil rights and women’s liberation were building on the deeper discontent around the lack of racial and gender equality. Race relations were tense with the assassination of Martin Luther King leading to riots in several cities. Also resulting from King’s death, the attempted Poor People’s Campaign fell flat on its face after sustaining a tent city in DC for six weeks. These political movements added greatly to the general discontent of 1968.

Because of the pivotal role that the Vietnam War played in the revolutionary wave of 1968, the natural question is what role does the War on Terror play today? At its peak the war on terror was nowhere as large or costly in either blood or treasure for the US as the Vietnam War. Additionally unlike Vietnam, the costs and continuation of the war on terror are much more nebulous. Although the war continues in Afghanistan and missions are carried out regularly against militants living between the Gulf of Aden and the Indus River there is little public attention paid. Because of the detached nature of the current war, the public does not have much opportunity to question legal and moral problems of the drone wars and the de facto suspension of due process for terror suspects. Therefore, it is safe to conclude opposition to US foreign policy is unlikely to create a revolutionary situation and at best be a mere contributing factor.

The organizations and strategies that revolutionaries use to mobilize mass discontent into action are crucial to gaining revolutionary momentum. However equally important is how these organizations and strategies interact with law enforcement. The question for radical groups then is what is the goal of engaging with the police: to provoke brutality and gain the sympathy of the public or organize without state obstruction? In the beginning the latter need to create police permissiveness appears far more important. In 1968, many of the escalations functioned only to marginalize the radicals. The confrontations at Columbia and the Hard Hat Riot two years later vividly illustrated the propensity of the working class and larger public to become “enraged at the privileged student radicals, who seemed so ungrateful for their opportunities(Unger, 113).” Meanwhile in France, many participants regretted the escalation with the police in the Latin Quarter believing the government, “allowed the demonstrators to rampage all over Paris so as to frighten the middle classes with an invasion of the “scum”(Singer, 179).” The revolutionary purpose of escalation is to delegitimize the state while avoiding alienating the public.

This dilemma remains an important challenge for contemporary groups and helps explain Occupy Wall Street. The occupy movement that sprung up in 2011 largely failed at morphing into a larger movement because of its failure to organize in the face of police. Extensively documenting the near simultaneous evictions across the country and police responses to the occupy movement Jeff Madrick remarked:

Taken together, the coordinated and disproportionate actions of the NYPD, the FBI, and Homeland Security represent a campaign of suppression without which OWS might well have evolved into something more formidable, even in the cold of New York City’s winter (Madrick)

The occupation of public spaces proved to be a tactic effective at gaining public attention. It is also a tactic, which puts the whole organization at the mercy of law enforcement. The police had the option to end the movement whenever they deemed convenient. However, the language and frustrations expressed by OWS will likely help form the next experiments in radical organization.

What does all this leave us to conclude of the revolutionary potential of the US today? The 2008 financial crises fundamentally changed the structure of the US labor market. This has put huge costs on those groups, students and workers, most pivotal in creating a revolutionary situation in an industrialized democracy. Furthermore, sources of dissatisfaction continue to increase in the US including rising inequality, wage stagnation, mass incarceration, war fatigue and environmental degradation. The beginnings of political mobilization occurred in 2011 with both the occupy movement and labor fights occurring. On at least the surface level, there is more solidarity and cooperation between student and worker groups today. However, “some reasonable alternatives must be presented to the discontented if they are to gamble their fate on some attempt at change (Regan, 297)”. Thus far, the aged labor unions, postmodern universities and Wall Street protesters have not provided sufficient alternatives to motivate people to move away from the current power structures. Perhaps it will emerge from the human rights movement or be inspired by a Rawlsian vision of the economy. Ultimately, where these alternatives will rise is anyone’s guess. However, it is fair to say that revolutionary potential today is just as great if not greater than the situation that brought the revolutionary wave of 1968.

The revolutionary wave of 1968 was largely prompted internationally by student rebellion and shaped nationally by worker involvement. The beginnings of revolutionary movement have begun to form in the wake of the Great Recession. If this develops into a revolutionary movement let alone a revolution has yet to be seen. I have argued that revolutionary movements in the industrialized world are determined by the strength of a revolutionary situation, created through student unrest, labor discontent and a weakening of the state’s claim to moral legitimacy while the revolutionary outcome is determined by the organizational strength of dissident groups and the level of police hostility. Mass discontent becomes revolutionary when radical groups find a way to organize in spite of state opposition. Only tomorrow knows what the next revolutionary wave will look like and what will change with it.

Works Cited

1. DeFronzo, James. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements. Fourth ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.

2. Epstein, Barbara. Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

3. Giersch, Herbert, Karl Paqué, and Holger Schmieding. The Fading Miracle: Four Decades of Market Economy in Germany. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

4. Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. New York: Ballantine, 2004.

5. Lipset, Seymour Martin. Rebellion in the University. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

6. MacCulloch, Robert. “Income Inequality And The Taste For Revolution.” The Journal of Law

and Economics 48, no. 1 (2005): 93-123.

7. Madrick, Jeff “The Fall and Rise of Occupy Wall Street.” Haper’s Magazine, March 2013.

8. Moore, Geoffrey H., 1983, Ballinger Publishing Co., Cambridge, and  MA.. “US Business

Cycle Expansions and Contractions .” The National Bureau of Economic Research.

9. National Archives and Records Administration. “Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War.” National Archives and Records Administration.

10. Regan, Patrick M., Daniel Just, and Aida Paskeviciute. “REVOLUTION: IMMUNITY FOR INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACIES?.”Journal Of Political & Military Sociology 35, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 281-298.

11. Singer, Daniel. Prelude to Revolution; France in May 1968. 2nd ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.

12. Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger. The Movement: A History of the American New Left, 1959-1972. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1974.

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