An International Outlook

Chapter Two


MILITANT HAS never been at all parochial or limited to just national horizons. Even when Militant had very few co-thinkers outside Britain, it always proceeded from an international standpoint. Socialism is international or it is nothing.

The great historical merit of capitalism was to develop the world market which made possible world history for the first time. In linking all countries together in one interdependent whole, it also developed the working class, whose interests transcended national boundaries.

“…To robbery, butchery and rapine, they give the lying name ‘Government.’ They create a desolation and call it peace.” (Tacitus in 98 AD, on the Roman Emperors) Alan Hardman anti-Vietnam cartoon.

“Imperialism” is used by Marxists to describe the economic domination (and in the past direct military control also) of the advanced industrial countries of Europe, America and Japan over the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. If anything their economic weight compared to the ex-colonial world has grown enormously in the last few decades.

The giant transnationals both exploit the workers in the advanced industrial countries and super-exploit those in the “Third World”. In the age of ‘globalisation’, of the General Agreement on Tariffs arid Trade (GATT), of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), of the shifting of capital from one country to another, it is evident that the working class needs to organise: first on a continental and then on a world scale. This is obviously necessary at the level of trade unions. The transnationals close down factories in the advanced industrial countries, shifting them to areas of ‘low labour costs’.

Some workers are beginning to see the need to put forward the common claims of workers on a continental basis – in Europe this ill be the trend in the next period. A worldwide trade union drive is also necessary. 

No less is the need to organise politically on a world scale. Right from the outset Militant, perhaps more than any other journal in Britain, gave a big part of its pages over to international coverage. 

In our second issue we covered the fall of Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union. “Stalinism” is a term used by Marxists since the time of Leon Trotsky in the 1930s to describe the political regimes of Russia, Eastern Europe, Cuba, China, etc, which rested on nationalised planned economies. They were one-party totalitarian regimes, where a privileged bureaucratic elite dominated the state and society. The development of these countries, particularly of the USSR, was a big issue for Marxists. Militant pointed to the achievements of the USSR:

On the one side enormous scientific achievements enabling the USSR to challenge, and, in terms of the more modern branches of science, to outstrip the strongest capitalist power. On the other side, a political structure which allows the total removal of the seemingly all-powerful head of state, whilst the masses, including the rank and file of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, stand by as passive observers.

Militant stood by Trotsky’s analysis, supporting the gains of the planned economy but calling for an additional political revolution to bring about genuine socialist democracy.

The crisis within the bureaucratic elite, reflected in the removal of Khrushchev, indicated:

the contradiction between socialised and planned production and the stranglehold of a bureaucratic caste. The new leadership, faced with the same problems, will give the same answers, zig-zagging between the right and left, concessions and repression. (1)


In the first formative years of Militant the key international issue was the Vietnam war. In the analysis of the causes of the war, as well as the formulation of demands to be taken up by the labour movement, Militant’s coverage, while not as comprehensive as other journals, stands out as a shining example of the ability of Marxism to analyse and foresee events. As early as 1967, we pointed out:

The mightiest war machine the world has ever seen is actually losing the war to an army of poverty-stricken peasants, to the people of South Vietnam. (2)

Lyndon Johnson, the US president who had replaced Kennedy after his assassination in 1963, had found his promise of a ‘great society’ being wasted away in the paddy fields of Vietnam. Even mighty US imperialism could not pursue a policy of ‘guns and butter’. Arthur Schlesinger, former special assistant to Kennedy, wrote in 1967:

The fight for equal opportunity for the negro, the war against poverty, the struggle to save the cities, the improvement of our schools – all must be starved for the sake of Vietnam… The Great Society is now, except for token gestures, dead. (3)

Thus early on, Militant pointed to the colossal contradictions in the position of US imperialism. If the US continued the war, it would mean a huge increase in arms expenditure, which in turn would mean a slashing of social expenditure at home, which was bound to lead to a revolt, particularly of the poor in the US. There would inevitably be more and more US fatalities. This would open up huge social divisions which could paralyse the military intervention in Vietnam.

No other political grouping was prepared to make such a bold prediction at a very early stage in the war. The victory of the Vietnamese would be a shattering blow to imperialism, particularly to the US giant, giving enormous impetus to the struggles of the workers and peasants throughout Asia. However, while Militant supported the struggle of the workers and peasants in Vietnam for national and social liberation, it did not uncritically support, as others did, the Stalinist leaders in North Vietnam and their counterparts leading the movement in the South.

Because of the social forces involved, predominantly peasant masses struggling for land and freedom from imperialism, any successful regime which would emerge from this struggle would not be a ‘socialist’ one. It would be a regime on the model of China or the Soviet Union, with a planned economy but ruled by a one-party totalitarian regime.

Others, claiming to be Marxist or even ‘Trotskyist’, gave uncritical support to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF). Because of the prevailing mood of uncritical adulation of the NLF leader Ho Chi Minh, on demonstrations the students mindlessly chanted ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh”. Some found themselves at the head of big movements of the youth in opposition to the Vietnam war, but they were not capable of substantially increasing their forces because their intervention was based on a false premise. As they were uncritically tail-ending the Stalinist leadership of the NLF, something they would repeat in all movements of a ‘national liberationist’ type, what point was there in workers or youth involved in that struggle joining them? Far better to identify with the real McCoy, that is Stalinism itself.

Militant’s slogans were clear: ‘For the withdrawal of US imperialism and all imperialist forces.’ The result of this would have been the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime, as subsequent events demonstrated. It was a puppet regime propped up by US bayonets.

The Working Class

Marx did not refer to the organised working class by accident. Only this class, organised and disciplined by large-scale production and industry, could develop the necessary social cohesion and combativity to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution. The peasantry, by its very nature, is divided into different strata, the upper levels tending to merge with the capitalists. The lower levels of the peasantry are closer to the working class and, through economic ruin, tend to fall into the ranks of the working class. The same holds for the modern middle classes, both of the town and country areas.

Echoing the arguments of the ruling class, many ‘Marxists’ considered that the working class in the advanced industrial countries had been bought off, become ‘bourgeoisified’, and was therefore no longer the main agent for socialist change. This led them to seek salvation elsewhere, either in Tito in Yugoslavia, hailed as an ‘unconscious’ Trotskyist, or Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro. Echoing the false theories of those like Frantz Fanon (who based himself on the experience of the Algerian Revolution), the poor peasantry, the ‘Fedayin’ and guerrilla armies were seen as the forces to liberate the world from the yoke of landlordism and capitalism. The ‘epicentre’ of the world struggle for socialism now lay in the colonial and semi-colonial world.

Militant explained the significance of the events in the colonial and former-colonial world. The movement for national liberation, involving two-thirds of humankind, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s represented one of the most splendid movements in history. Millions of imperialism’s slaves in Asia, Africa and Latin America threw off the chains of direct imperialist military domination, stepped onto the scene of history and tried to take their fate into their own hands.

Nevertheless, from a world point of view, the decisive forces for socialist change were still concentrated in the advanced industrial countries. This did not mean that the masses in the colonial and semi-colonial world should ‘wait’ until the workers of Europe, Japan and North America were ready to move into action. On the contrary, Militant gave support to the movement of the colonial peoples, both politically and organisationally, even when it was under the leadership of bourgeois or pro-bourgeois forces. This was done in solidarity with this movement and also because all blows against imperialism in the ‘underdeveloped world’ would ultimately benefit the struggle for socialism in the advanced industrial countries and on a world scale.

Because these movements were largely based on the peasants they were by their very nature limited. Even at that stage, Militant pointed to the future awakening of the working class in the former colonial and semi-colonial world. Decades of industrialisation and urbanisation had developed to the point where the strengthening proletariat was potentially the most powerful movement for change.

Even in the 1960s, Militant also pointed to the increased social tension, bordering on civil war, between the classes which had developed in some of the advanced or semi-advanced countries of Europe.

Turning Point: France 1968

In April 1968, Ernest Mandel, leader of the Trotskyist United Secretariat of the Fourth International, spoke at a meeting in Caxton Hall, London, to his followers. On behalf of Militant, I spoke from the floor, questioning Mandel’s writing-off of the working class of the industrial countries. Mandel’s reply was that the working class of the advanced industrial countries was quiescent, was likely to remain so as long as the US dollar remained stable, and that this situation would not change for at least 20 years. His conclusion was that the ‘epicentre’ of the world revolution had shifted to the former colonial and semi-colonial world.

One month later, events erupted in Paris which were to culminate in the greatest general strike in history. Ten million workers occupied the factories and even the representatives of the French ruling class believed they faced overthrow.

Militant hailed the movement in France with the front-page slogan: “All power to French workers!”

Ten million workers out! Hundreds of factories occupied and controlled by the workers! Schools taken over by pupils and progressive staff! Capitalist newspaper lies ‘censored’ by printing workers! TV lies censored by reporters and technicians! Universities taken over! Docks, post offices, ships, taken over! What a mighty demonstration of the invincible power of the working class when it begins to move! 

What a crushing blow to the cynics, sceptics and apologists for big business who have written off the working class as ‘apathetic’, ‘bought off’, etc and to the professional, orthodox economists none of whose arduous study of the complex mechanics of capitalist economics could enable them to discern the gigantic force beneath the surface of modern society: the creator of the new society to come – the working class. How clear it should be to even the most politically uneducated workers that their French brothers would be in power today, but for the cowardly policies of the French labour and trade union leaders. (4)

The student movement began around relatively minor demands in one area, but after being attacked by the police, rapidly became a national mass campaign which preceded the movement of the working class:

The Daily Express reported that 80 per cent of the population was for the students. The industrial workers and particularly the young ones were emboldened by the success: ‘The students came first. They acted as a spark. They caused the government to yield… they gave us the feeling that we could go ahead,’ said one of them to a Times reporter. (5)

Militant reported:

Even the farmers were in revolt at the rapid decrease in their incomes…A gigantic wave swept from one end of France to the other. Not only the industrial workers but the bank employees, white-collar workers, and the catering workers have responded to the call to strike. While only ten per cent were unionised, over 50 per cent of the labour force is involved which is incontestable proof of the revolutionary energy and determination that has been unleashed. 

As in all revolutions, from the cracks and depths of society the formerly politically backward workers, the sweated and impoverished, the demoralised and cynical, have been brought to their feet. The poor farmers have set up barricades around the city of Nantes and other cities ‘in support of the workers and students’ (The Times, 21 May,1968). Exemplary order is maintained and, as even the capitalist press has been forced to admit, the workers ‘check and grease factory machines that are lying idle.’ (6)

Our conclusion was:

All the conditions for a successful overturn are there: the workers are determined to go the whole hog. The middle class, particularly its lower layers, look with profound sympathy on the strike wave and in many cases join in e.g. on the ships, “even the officers have joined in the sit-ins begun by the crews.” (The Times, 23 May 1968).

It is the working class which has the effective power in the factories, the ports, the mines, and the streets. A classic revolutionary situation exists. Even the televising of the debate in the National Assembly was only done by permission of the workers’ organisations, as even a Gaullist MP was forced to admit. Those instruments of state repression which are still in the hands of the government, the police and the army, are completely unreliable. 

The police themselves have been touched by the hot flares of revolt. Their union issued a warning to the government that the ‘police officers thoroughly appreciated the reasons which inspired the striking wage earners and deplored the fact that they could not by law take part in the same way in the present labour movement… the public authorities will not systematically set the police against the present labour struggles.” (The Times, 24 May 1968) In the event of a clash, many serious matters would arise, in other words, many sections, if not the majority, would go over to the workers. 

The army also would be split from top to bottom if the officer caste sought to intervene. This is shown by the comments of the national serviceman when he was “asked if he would fire on the students and workers, he replied: ‘Never. I think their methods may be a bit rough but I am a worker’s son myself'” (The Times, 25 May, 1968) If ever there was a time when the working class could take power peacefully, that time is now. (7)

Militant called for the organisation of councils of action to be spread in every factory and workplace, to be linked together on a district, regional and national level.

Unfortunately, the French ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’ leaders were more terrified of the movement than the government and the French ruling class. After the events, The Economist commented:

They [the Communist Party] acted like Fabians, not like revolutionaries. And ever since they have emphasised that their party is one of law and order. They kept silent when the police occupied the Sorbonne. They dissociated themselves from the ‘rabble-rousers and ultra-left provocateurs’ and acquiesced in the government’s decision to ban all the small left-wing revolutionary movements. (8)

And yet de Gaulle, President of France, in the midst of these events, admitted to the US Ambassador to France at the time Sargent Shriver: ‘As for the future, Mr Ambassador, it depends not on us, it depends on God!’ 9 He believed that ‘communism was about to triumph in France and accordingly fled to Baden Baden in West Germany. There he conferred with the commander of the French NATO troops, General Massu. In exchange for de Gaulle’s promise to free some of the right-wing generals and army officers involved in the military revolts in Algeria in the early 1960s, Massu promised, if necessary, to march his troops on Paris. Massu had himself been implicated in these military revolts and linked to these generals

But his help was not needed. To the astonishment of the representatives of the ruling class, the Communist Party competed with the Gaullists as the party of law and order. Later their election posters declaimed: “Against disorders, and against anarchy – vote Communist”.

Revolution Derailed

The movement was derailed by a combination of the cowardice of the workers’ leaders and the promise of elections by de Gaulle. The disappointment of the working class, and sections of the middle class, at the failure to capitalise on the revolutionary opportunity which existed in May-June 1968 led to the defeat of the workers’ parties in the subsequent election. Nevertheless, as we pointed out:

One thing is certain – the Gaullist ‘invincible’ regime is finished. Whenever its demise comes, within weeks or months, its position has been irretrievably damaged. The French workers will not only have succeeded in bringing about its downfall, but also in beginning to undermine all the honeycombed theories of ‘social peace’ which have proliferated in the western labour movement in the last 20 years. (11)

The French revolution – and that is what the May-June events represented the beginning of – was a turning point for the labour movement in France and internationally. It put to the test all trends and groupings. 

Not just the official leadership of the movement, but all the numerous groupings of various sizes were found wanting. One of the largest, the LCR (Revolutionary Communist league) in France, based its approach on the absolutely false theory that the students were the ‘leaders’ and detonators of the revolution. They advanced some hare-brained ideas in the course of the May-June events. 

Ten million workers had spontaneously occupied the factories. And yet this tendency produced a leaflet distributed to the workers of Paris with a quote from Lenin from 1901 alleging that ‘socialist consciousness could only be brought to the working class from the outside, that is by the intellectuals.’

This quote, subsequently repudiated by Lenin, has been used by some organisations to try and justify their attempts to impose their own brand of ‘leadership’ on the labour movement. The history of the working-class movement shows that this idea is absolutely false.

Chartism, the first independent working-class political movement, took shape before Marx had developed the ideas of scientific socialism. The ideas of socialism existed in both the German and French workers’ movements before Marx and Engels. The Paris Commune was not an invention of Marx, but arose from the experiences of the French Parisian masses through the Franco-Prussian war and subsequent siege of Paris.

Marx generalised the experience of the working class, as did Lenin and Trotsky. But it was not they who, for instance, invented the idea of ‘Soviets’ but the workers of St Petersburg in the 1905 Russian revolution. Marxism can sum up the experiences of the working class in the form of a perspective and programme. But genuine Marxism has nothing in common with the those who believe that the working class and the labour movement is merely putty to be moulded at will by ‘socialist intellectuals’. The workers of Paris, when they read the LCR leaflet, looked at the LCR members in puzzlement, shrugged their shoulders, and got on with the business of trying to carry the movement forward.

Revolutionary Wave

The events of the 1960s left an indelible impression on the consciousness of all who lived through them. In France it led directly to a movement on the political plane with the reformation and filling out of the Socialist Party in the early 1970s.

It also had a profound effect in Britain. Youthful supporters of Militant reported that their rather conservative parents and the older generation in general were enormously revived by the French events. Many dared to hope during May-June 1968 that a new, socialist society was finally within the grasp of the working class. 

There is little doubt that if the French workers had taken power it would have spread like a prairie fire throughout the whole of Europe. This was shown by the upheavals which were taking place in Italy almost on the level of France. There was also turmoil in Germany where the student movement initially was, if anything, on a more advanced level than that in France in May-June 1968. There was also the rumbling opposition to the Franco dictatorship in Spain and the Caetano authoritarian regime in Portugal. Both regimes were on their last legs and a new generation of workers inspired by socialist and communist ideas had arisen.


1968 will be forever remembered as a political turning point in the post-1945 period. The outlook of millions of workers throughout the world profoundly changed.