40 years on: The 1968 Mexican student rebellion

– Tim Bowron

Orginally published at Socialist Democracy.

The situation in most of Latin America in 1968 was vastly different to that in Europe, the United States and South East Asia. Throughout most of the continent the revolutionary dynamic seemed to be running in reverse – since the 1959 Cuban Revolution the left seemed to be everywhere on the retreat, with right-wing military dictators ruthlessly crushing any opposition.

It was not as though the left suffered from any shortage of militancy – in Venezuela and Colombia communist cadre inspired by the example of Ernesto “Che” Guevara fought heroically to overthrow capitalism by setting up guerrilla foco in the countryside. However unlike their Cuban comrades they failed in the vital task of building a parallel mass underground movement among the urban working class, and consequently were left isolated.

An attempt by Guevara himself to lead a guerrilla insurgency in Bolivia in similar conditions led to his capture and execution at the hands of local military and US intelligence officers in 1967.

In Peru the peasant leader Hugo Blanco had led a relatively successful guerrilla campaign in the early 1960s which had mass support among the indigenous population of the Cuzco region, but by the mid 60s Blanco was in jail and the insurgency crushed.

In 1968 a left-wing army officer named General Juan Velasco Alvarado took power in Peru in a coup d´état, however despite implementing land reform and some other progressive measures the workers and peasants continued to be marginalised under his regime.

In Argentina too a military regime was in power throughout the period and the left driven largely underground for most of the decade. Only in 1969 would the class struggle briefly reassert itself with the urban uprising known as the Cordobazo.

However, in the continent of Latin America there was one key flashpoint in 1968 – Mexico.

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France 1968 – on the brink of revolution

– Mike Kay

On May 1st 1968, Paris erupted. There had been a few big strikes in the years leading up to it, but by and large the upsurge took all by surprise.

It was the tenth anniversary of the day General De Gaulle had seized presidential power in France by an unresisted military coup. The parliament, feeling helpless to deal with the escalating war in Algeria, had voted over its powers to De Gaulle. The Fifth Republic that he established included wide-ranging presidential powers, reducing parliament to little more than a rubber stamp. During the Algerian war, protests were suppressed with lethal force.

The 1968 protests started with the students at Nanterre on the outskirts of the city. They had begun a campaign to visit each others’ rooms in halls of residence after 11pm, in defiance of their administration’s curfew.

Their campaign drew in students from all over France, who added their own grievances and demands. The immediate issues were the dereliction and overcrowding of universities, which were bursting at the seams due to the trebling of the number of students in less than a decade, and the government’s plans to impose exams in order to reduce the numbers of first-year students.

Violent state repression only served to spread the movement. The daily demonstrations and occupations soon inspired workers to strike in industries from car production to banking. The workers’ demands were at first minimal – for wage concessions and greater social security. However, as a mass strike wave developed and continued throughout May, many long-germinating working-class aspirations came to the fore and began to lead to much more revolutionary demands.

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