1968: U.S. Radicalism Explodes and Transforms

This article appears (in French translation) in the French journal Contretemps, Number 22/May 2008. Go to http://www.editionstextuel.com/index.php?cat=020362&id=376 for full information.


By Max Elbaum

Shaken by the Vietnamese Tet offensive, harried by antiwar protesters, and facing rebellion in his own party, a beleaguered Lyndon Johnson addressed the country March 31, 1968. The President shocked his audience by announcing that he was abandoning his re-election campaign and that peace talks with the Vietnamese liberation forces would soon begin. Within minutes, cheering broke out at campuses nationwide. Thousands were overjoyed that their years of chanting “Hey, Hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?” had helped unseat a U.S. President.

Four days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., paramount leader of the African American freedom movement, was assassinated. King was cut down in Memphis, Tennessee where he had gone to support a strike of Black sanitation workers. In the days following his murder, Black rebellions broke out in more than 100 cities, flames reached within six blocks of the White House. It took 70,000 federal troops to restore order.

The Black uprisings of April 1968 constituted only a third of the 300 urban rebellions that had taken place since summer 1964. According to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, almost one out of every five residents within the affected areas (over a million people) participated. A majority of African Americans felt that the rebellions would have a positive impact on Black economic and social conditions.3

These two political jolts – for all their unique features and impact – were far more than individual events. They were reflections of large-scale social forces whose conflict in 1968 had reached a fever pitch. They were the sharp edges of the two central polarizations – around racism and the Vietnam War – which shook U.S. society to its core during the late 1960s.

The social struggle in and around 1968 permeated and changed every U.S. institution and popular organization. Battles for Black equality and against the Vietnam War reawakened freedom struggles in all U.S. communities of color, sparked a reborn movement for women’s liberation and a new movement for gay and lesbian rights. Connecting to that year’s upsurge across the globe, they fostered a new spirit and practice of internationalism.

The upheavals of 1968 also reshaped the U.S. left. The most obvious shift was an explosion in its size. Tens of thousands of young people embraced radical politics. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for example, tripled its membership, growing to nearly 100,000 by the end of the year.

Even more important were changes in the left’s politics and strategy. The events of 1968 spurred key organizers from the dynamic but anti-ideological 1960s “New Left” to engage with more systematic perspectives, Marxism prime among them. In particular, variants of Marxism that foregrounded anti-imperialism and anti-racism and looked to Communist Parties in the Third World for inspiration began to acquire substantial influence. Partisans of these perspectives began to form new Marxist-Leninist organizations or join existing socialist groups with an “Old Left” heritage. And for a few years following 1968, it appeared that the efforts of these groups to sink roots among workers and racially oppressed peoples and forge a durable radical trend within the U.S. working class were going to bear fruit.

It was not to be. As in many other countries, the U.S. left which emerged from 1968 proved unable to successfully navigate the economic and political shifts of the late 1970s and ’80s. Instead, its strength dissipated as the bloc that took power under the banner of Reaganism (neoliberalism) moved U.S. politics in a very different direction.

Still, the changes of 1968 marked a qualitative change in the U.S. left. No attempt to revitalize radicalism today will succeed without building on the lessons, expanding on the achievements, and overcoming the weaknesses of the transformed left which emerged from the cauldron of mass upsurge 40 years ago.


The explosions and transformations of 1968 did not break out overnight. They were the fruit of a decade of sustained mass protest during which tens of thousands of people learned life-changing lessons about politics, activism and capitalism. 6

The driving force was the Black-led Civil Rights Movement. First coming to prominence via the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56), the Civil Rights Movement played a decisive role in reopening space for all dissent in the wake of McCarthyism. Martin Luther King’s clergy-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the grassroots, youth-based Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) spearheaded the struggle. The movement’s fight to end legal segregation and the white monopoly on political power was protracted and bitter. Its success – legislatively expressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – was a monumental achievement.

Breaking Jim Crow opened the path to gains for all democratic movements. Further, by sweeping away legal segregation, the movement pushed millions toward recognition that racial inequality was not simply a matter of unjust laws or individual prejudice, but was related to the country’s socio-economic structure.

On another front, the victory of the Cuban Revolution January 1, 1959 focused youthful protesters attention on the national liberation movements then sweeping Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Against this backdrop, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) developed as the main expression of early 1960s radicalism among white students. By 1964 SNCC and SDS had established themselves as the two premier organizations of a growing New Left. Neither group was explicitly anti-capitalist and most of their members did not consider the working class a prime agent of revolutionary change. But both organizations were characterized by a commitment to direct action, by a radical sensibility, and by enthusiastic challenges to all unequal and oppressive power relations.

When the first major escalations of the Vietnam War came in 1964-65, SNCC was one of the earliest organizations to take an antiwar stance. SDS played a key role in spurring protest among white students, who made up the largest single constituency attending anti-war marches and rallies for the next decade.

Between 1964 and 1967, the movements against racism and war expanded. Participants made connections between militarism, racism, poverty and capitalism itself. The political trajectories of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – the central figures in the evolution of 1960s U.S. radicalism – both spurred on and reflected the ideological changes underway.

In 1965 Malcolm broke away from the Nation of Islam and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity to give organizational expression to the revolutionary internationalist outlook that characterized the last year of his life. After Malcolm’s assassination (February 21, 1965) and the publication of his Autobiography, his views on internationalism, self-determination and Black Power began to reshape the thinking of thousands of young activists.

Two years later, Martin Luther King defied intense pressure from both the administration and much of the Civil Rights establishment to publicly condemn the Vietnam War. In his watershed “Breaking Silence” speech that April, he not only termed the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” but proposed an across-the-board challenge to war, racism and poverty. He wrote that the U.S. needed a “revolution of values” and speculated that the country might have to move toward democratic socialism to ensure justice and freedom for all. During the last year of his life, King immersed himself in organizing a militant Poor People’s Campaign in at attempt to translate his increasingly radical analysis into a powerful mass force.

Many of the young activists influenced by Malcolm and Martin began to go even further. They began to think it significant that, although students were the majority at antiwar demonstrations, opinion polls showed antiwar sentiment ran strongest among workers, poor people and peoples of color. Engagement with liberation movements in Africa and Latin America opened many to more favorable views of Marxism. This meant that as 1968 approached, U.S. protest movements were characterized not only by steady expansion, but by many of the most dedicated militants aggressively seeking new perspectives.

The energy of protest movements was also buoyed by the tremendous cultural ferment taking place among youth of all backgrounds. During the late 1960s political protest overlapped and intersected with a generalized youth rebellion and a burgeoning “counter-culture” in complicated ways, with folk music, rock n’ roll, and rhythm and blues often serving as a sound track for a generational challenge to existing social mores and culture as well as to political authority.


The year’s first major shock – the Vietnamese Tet offensive – was all the greater for being a near-complete surprise. Beginning January 30 the National Liberation Front launched a coordinated nationwide assault that turned into the war’s major turning point. Tet revealed the failure of Washington’s policy and shattered the consensus that had prevailed within the U.S. elite. An antiwar rebellion began within Johnson’s own party, which found expression in Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to the sitting President in that spring’s Democratic primaries.

Tet forced Johnson to convene an extraordinary advisory group of Washington powerhouses – the so-called “Wise Men.” They told Johnson that the war could not be won. This report combined with the growing strength of antiwar protest was the immediate trigger for Johnson’s dramatic withdrawal from the presidential race. Just four years earlier Johnson had been elected in a landslide but now he had been driven out of office. For a few heady days, opposition movements savored the moment and anticipated greater victories to come.

Then came King’s assassination. Besides triggering 100 urban rebellions within a few hours, this murder had a profound ideological impact. It convinced tens of thousands who had taken part in or supported protest movements that “the system” could no longer be reformed via elections or non-violent protest: it had to be forcibly overturned.

Such sentiments were reinforced just two months later by the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. The brother of assassinated President John Kennedy had belatedly picked up the antiwar banner and claimed sympathy with the downtrodden and racially oppressed. With King murdered, Kennedy had been considered by large numbers to be the “last hope” for change via traditional channels. The radicalization process accelerated again two months later when Johnson’s loyal war maker vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, won the Democratic presidential nomination as police rioted and beat demonstrators in the streets of Chicago.

For the growing ranks of young militants, it wasn’t only anger at an unresponsive and murderous system that was driving their radicalization. It was a growing sense that there was actually a chance to achieve revolutionary change. Tet had shattered the notion of an invincible U.S. empire. Then the millions-strong French upheaval in May seemed to put revolution on the agenda in the very heartlands of advanced capitalism. What really drove Paris’ intoxicating message home were the eyewitness accounts of student-worker alliances and rapidly growing revolutionary organizations from French or U.S. activists who toured U.S. campuses after being on the scene.

(On a personal note, I remember being riveted as a member of my SDS chapter who spent spring 1968 in Paris gave a participant’s account of the famous “night of the barricades.” This was an important factor in my own decision to make radical activism my life’s central thread. Thank you students and workers of France!)


The year 1968 also marked a watershed for other constituencies and movements.

Until 1968, organizations of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, or other U.S. residents of Asian descent had existed only on a nationality-specific basis. That spring a new dynamic was set in motion when groups defining themselves as Asian American formed on a number of West Coast campuses. Summer 1968 saw the first nationwide Asian American student conference and by the end of the year a new and radical Asian American movement was spreading nationwide.

On March 3, 1968, over 1,000 Mexican American students walked out of Lincoln High School in Los Angeles in the first of a series of high school “blow-outs.” These spurred a large-scale revival of the Mexican-American community’s militant history of resistance, including the formation of the militant Brown Berets group and of CASA-Hermandad General de Trabajadores, a socialist-led group based among Mexicano workers.

On September 23, 1968 tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans marched on the island to mark 100th anniversary of El Grito de Lares, the 1868 uprising that first proclaimed the independent republic of Puerto Rico. Soon El Nuevo Despertar (The New Awakening) was sweeping Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. with radical activists in the lead.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was also formed in 1968, revitalizing the long struggle for Native American sovereignty.

Fall 1968 saw the first nationwide conference of a new self-identified Women’s Liberation Movement. Over the next decade “second wave feminism” would become a millions-strong phenomenon and demolish many longstanding sexist barriers, unalterably transforming the cultural and political landscape.

College campuses simmered with protest throughout 1968, with students of color frequently in the forefront. The first-ever building takeover on a U.S. campus took place in March 1968 at Howard University with the Black student militants winning most of their demands. At Columbia in May, 1,000 students occupied five buildings in protest of the University’s plans to displace residents of the adjoining Black community as well as its ties to the Vietnam War-linked Institute for Defense Analysis. At San Francisco State the Third World Liberation Front launched a four-and-half month long strike that forced the administration to set up one of the first Ethnic Studies programs in the U.S.

The African American struggle remained in the forefront. By 1968 the Black Panther Party (formed in 1966) had members advocating its program of Black self-determination, anti-capitalism and internationalism in every major U.S. city. The Panthers’ membership at its height approached 5,000. In September 1968 FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover publicly termed the Panthers “the greatest [single] threat to the internal security of the country” and ordered the intensification of efforts to destroy the party via the FBI’s infamous Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).


Organized labor was sadly quiet into the late 1960s. The leadership mostly gave formal support to Civil Rights initiatives but (with a few honorable exceptions) practiced extensive discrimination within labor’s own ranks. Likewise, most of labor’s leadership remained trapped in Cold War anticommunism and supported the Vietnam War. A few unions like the West Coast Longshoremen and New York’s Hospital Workers dissented, and within the ranks pockets of workers – especially Black workers – brought the anti-racist, antiwar energy of the 1960s into the mix.

A turning point took place in 1968 in Detroit, capital of the U.S. auto industry. On May 2, a group of Black activists organized as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) spearheaded the first wildcat strike in 14 years to close the huge Dodge Main plant. Within weeks, hundreds of workers were challenging the United Auto Workers leadership and flocking to newly formed Revolutionary Union Movements (RUM’s) at other facilities. The resulting shock waves extended into the inner sanctums of corporate America, with the Wall Street Journal writing that “the Black revolution of the sixties had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system – the point of mass production, the assembly line.”

DRUM was in the forefront of a new militancy among Black workers nationwide. Black resistance began to connect, if unevenly, with rebellious sentiments among young white workers, many of them Vietnam vets. This was also the period in which the farm workers movement in California under the leadership of Cesar Chavez mobilized Mexican-American workers into a newly powerful force.

These upsurges from below contributed heavily to the fact that unions conducted more and harder-fought strikes in 1969 and 1970 than in any year since 1946. Further, within labor’s own house, rank and file groups emerging from the battles of 1968-1972 carried the fight against discrimination into the next decade and soon were able to end a host of racist practices.


Within the left, the new militancy exhibited by workers at the point of production had an immense impact. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Vietnamese struggle, and their own experience had already put internationalism/anti-imperialism and the connections between war, poverty, racism and capitalism on young activists’ agendas. The success of the Black Panther Party – a disciplined, cadre group – was leading many to re-examine New Left aversion to highly structured organizations. The role of workers in the French May (and in 1969 Italy’s “Hot Autumn”) tantalized young U.S. radicals: perhaps the working class in the imperial heartlands was not hopelessly “bourgeoisified” after all? And now workers were stirring right here in the U.S.! As this realization set in, engagement with Marxism accelerated rapidly, and it became common to find prominent New Leftists who in 1966 had dismissed Marxism as “old left dogma” now calling themselves “revolutionary communists.”

A dedicated but relatively small proportion of those turning toward Marxism gravitated toward the Communist Party USA. The 1968 Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia discredited “pro-Soviet” communism for most of a generation whose radicalization was bound up with support for national self-determination.

Various Trotskyist tendencies – with their sophisticated critiques of Soviet society (as well as their tenacious work within the antiwar movement) attracted more young militants. But the most explosive growth of all was that of new currents that identified with revolutionary parties in the Third World. China’s Cultural Revolution (promoted as grassroots socialism-from-below) and Che’s “create two, three, many Vietnams” internationalism were tremendous poles of attraction. Hence a current most accurately described as “Third World Marxist” (and sometimes self-described as a “new communist movement”) took shape beginning in 1968. By the early 1970s it was the fastest-growing and most multi-racial trend on the U.S. socialist left. It was no accident that Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers which emerged out of DRUM was roughly identified with this current. Layers of 1968 radicals of all racial backgrounds believed the League had the most advanced on-the-ground experience yet organizing at the intersection of class exploitation and racial oppression. And success at that pivot was widely regarded as the key to unlocking the revolutionary potential of the U.S. working class as a whole.

All these Marxist tendencies had high hopes. Polls taken in fall 1968 showed more college students (20%) identifying with Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara than with any candidate for the U.S. presidency. More than one million students saw themselves as part of the left. Among African Americans revolutionary sentiments contended not just for influence but for pre-eminence, at least among those 30 years old and under. All other communities of color had growing radical currents. And for the first time since the anticommunist purges of the late 1940s, radicalism was on the upswing within the trade union movement.

This popular upsurge drove an expansion of important radical currents well beyond those that self-identified as Marxists. Dynamic nationalist currents with varying political viewpoints expanded among activists of color, African Americans and Chicanos in particular. A host of seasoned 1960s activists plunged into and revitalized the community organizing tradition. Many Civil Rights veterans and others brought their progressive outlook into electoral politics, winning office on the local level and in some cases beyond. Michael Harrington, a layer of talented New Leftists and others took the first steps that led to a 1970s renewal of U.S. “democratic socialism.” The year 1968 was pivotal in various ways for the ensuing explosion in the size and reach of the left in academia, the expansion of a faith-based left and liberation theology, the surge of many activists into health care professions, teaching, social work and related fields. The work and legacies of all these trends, and others, are of vital importance to the new reshaping of U.S. radicalism that is underway today.


For several years after 1968 mass action continued and the left continued to grow.

Antiwar actions were larger 1969 and 1970 than 1968. The biggest explosion took following the May 1970 invasion of Cambodia, which reflected the failures of Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy. Confrontations with police and National Guard took place from coast to coast; four white students were killed at Kent State and two Black students at Jackson State. Strikes and protests took place at over 440 U.S. campuses, with four million students and 350,000 faculty taking part in what amounted to a campus general strike.

For the first time there was a large-scale split in the trade union leadership regarding the war. An antiwar statement was signed by 250 State Department employees and Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying, “The very fabric of government was falling apart.”

Nixon was forced to backtrack and promise withdrawal of troops from Cambodia within 30 days. It was a direct forerunner to the Watergate crisis and Nixon’s 1974 resignation in disgrace.

In Vietnam, the U.S. military itself was coming apart. Soldiers were refusing to fight in what was at bottom a Black-led, working class movement against racism and war. Army records showed thousands of cases of troops refusing orders and 551 assaults on superiors with explosive weapons between 1969 and July 1972. The depth of the military’s crisis was revealed by a U.S. Army Colonel writing in the June 1971 Armed Forces Journal: “the U.S. army in South Vietnam is approaching a state of total collapse, with individuals and units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited, where not near mutinous…. the morale, discipline and battle-worthiness of the U.S. armed forces are…worse than at any time in this century and possibly the history of the U.S.”

By this time Vietnam Veterans Against the War numbered 11,000 members, fielded 26 regional coordinators, and included a left wing which called for victory to the National Liberation Front.

Post-1968 a radical movement developed among prisoners. There were at least 16 prison rebellions in 1970 and in 1971 came the bloody confrontation at Attica: 1,200 inmates seized control of half the prison and took hostages. In the ensuing assault 29 inmates and 10 hostages were killed – all by gunshot wounds inflicted by the attacking police. An official commission stated that “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late nineteenth century, the State Police assault was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

The Women’s Liberation Movement grew by orders of magnitude and penetrated the mainstream. The Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in June 1969, which pitted thousands of gay people against a police force which had long considered anti-gay harassment standard operating procedure, launched the modern lesbian/gay liberation movement.

Perhaps fittingly, the last dramatic upsurge of what’s called “the sixties” was the work of the people who had been here first. Beginning February 27, 1973, American Indian freedom fighters occupied Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. For 71 days an alliance of traditional Indian elders and younger militants defied a siege by the FBI, local goon squads and federal troops.

By this time the Marxist organizations which had grown or been formed since 1968 were immersed in working class organizing. The CPUSA attracted a wave of new recruits during its (successful) campaign to free prominent member Angela Davis, who had been charged with aiding an attempt to free prisoners. The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party was reaching the height of its post-World War II membership in the wake of its leading role in one of the two main anti-Vietnam War nationwide coalitions. The smaller “third camp” International Socialists was making headway in getting members rooted in heavy industry. Dozens of “new communist” organizations and collectives, based around different versions of Third World-oriented Marxism including Maoism, briefly seemed to be cohering into the strongest pole on the anti-capitalist left.

Though each of these formations had their own strengths and weaknesses, taken as a whole the scope and quality of their working class organizing went beyond anything else that had existed since the McCarthy period. These groups addressed the intersection of race and class both theoretically and practically, and functioned as cohesive bodies able to conduct coordinated campaigns and operate with a sophisticated division of labor. In these areas they were a marked advance over most of the earlier New Left. A full balance sheet, however, would have to note that the Marxist tendencies that grew out of the late 1960s left behind important New Left strengths as well as nagging weaknesses: flexibility, creativity and a genuinely democratic spirit were all too often replaced by dogmatism, sectarianism and top-down structures which stifled grassroots initiative.

These problems were in the background as the generation of 1968 entered the 1970s flush with enthusiasm. They felt optimistic about expanding the foothold they were gaining in the multiracial working class, and took heart from broad-based radical sentiment. In a 1971 opinion poll, upwards of three million people said they thought a revolution was necessary in the U S.

A decade later, the radical generation from the late 1960s was forced to confront (unexpected) failure rather than (anticipated) growth. But their experience in the 1970s and after is also a rich source of lessons for today’s new generation. None of it would have been possible without the upheavals and transformations of 1968.