Throughout the fall semester, REEEC held a series of events to commemorate and understand the Russian Revolution of 1917. At a talk given by Tariq Ali on March 29 as a part of the Joint Area Studies Symposium, titled “The Broken Ladder: The Global Left Fifty Years After 1968,” Ali offered his interpretation of another momentous year.
Ali began by contextualizing the historical moment of 1968 within its wider scope. The arc towards 1968, he theorized, began in 1965, when the United States military faced a series of defeats in Vietnam against the Viet Cong. This military defeat led to a cascading wave of upheavals—including massive protests against the U.S. military by former GIs—up until the removal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1975. These waves of upheavals led to a transformative shift in political consciousness and culture, and allowed political-cultural movements like socialism and feminism to gain ascendancy.
It was these trends that led to 1968, a year that was marked by “school students confronting power articulations.” But, Ali noted, as the memory of events ossifies, moments that were important in the contemporary situation often fade to the background of historical memory. Today, 1968 (and the global 1960s as a whole) are largely remembered under the familiar motif of ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll.’ Meanwhile, what Ali argues was the most successful victory of 1968—a three month-long general strike in Pakistan in favor of a return to democratic practices—is largely forgotten.
The general strike in Pakistan was successful, Ali argued, because those who participated were willing to risk everything, including their own lives. “Once people lose their fear of death, they can accomplish miracles,” said Ali. The movement was also structured around concrete needs of people—“food, shelter, and clothing for all” was a popular slogan—and the rhetoric focused on how capitalism was not working for the average Pakistani. For all of these reasons, Ali called the Pakistani General Strike the last attempt to mimic the Russian and Chinese “old style” revolutions. And, indeed, it did largely accomplish its goal, as Ayub Khan was forced to cede power because of the strike.
However, elsewhere in the world, the “old style” revolution was becoming less and less tenable. In Portugal, where a domestic revolt overthrew the dictatorship and crumpled the Portuguese Empire from within, the rigidity and inflexibility of the Communist Party led to its quick marginalization. After the Communist Party of Portugal was sidelined, non-radical organizations quickly used the language and rhetoric of revolution to support their own goals.
It was at this point that Ali shifted the focus of his talk, and moved from discussing the events of 1986 to discussing how the legacy can inform our current actions. There is, he noted, a crisis in current revolutionary movements. Even a criticism frequently leveled against old-style revolutionaries—that they are dinosaurs—is inaccurate, because at least dinosaurs are popular. Meanwhile, the dual movements of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism have become dominant. The event of September 11 gave neo-conservatives their chance to impose their view on the world, and neo-liberalism and late stage capitalism have gained footholds in places like China.
There needs to be another movement to combat the hegemony of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, Ali argued. Marxism is largely dead. Social democracy (as practiced by politicians like Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party) is a particularly vibrant movement in the contemporary political scene, and its practitioners have been among the only leaders willing to fight the seemingly never-ending war machine. Whatever emerges to fight the status quo, be it social democracy or something else, will have to be flexible, adaptable, and powerful. But what it is, exactly, remains to be seen. In the closing words of Tariq Ali’s address: “Something has gone very wrong in this world. What no one know is what the answers are.”
Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman recently completed her PhD in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and will be a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in the fall. She is the Book Review Editor and Editorial Board member of The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review. Her research interests focus on modern Russian history, urban studies, and everyday life.