The 1960s: Lessons for Today

The Occupy movement has many people looking to past movements to see what we can learn from them that can help us in today’s struggles.  The period of the 1960s and early 1970s was one of upheaval around the world: May 1968, the Tet Offensive, the revolution in Pakistan, etc. The USA was not exempt from these powerful social movements. In the 1950s, the movement to end Jim Crow segregation helped to spur on movements against the U.S. imperialist war on Vietnam, large strike movements by the working class, and the movements for equal rights for women and the LGBT community.

In the early 1970s, the rank and file of the U.S. military was in revolt, in some cases killing their own officers with fragmentation grenades (called “fragging”). There were major strikes at General Electric and the U.S. Post Office. “Wild cat” strikes, in which the workers went out on strike without the support of the union leaders—and more often than not against the direct orders of the leaders—were quite common. Mass demonstrations took place in Washington DC and all across the country to end the U.S. military assault on Indochina. Thousands of American youth considered themselves revolutionaries.

Lenin and Trotsky always explained that to achieve a successful socialist revolution, four factors need to be present. The ruling class has to be divided and unable to rule in the old way. In the 1960s and 70s, this could be clearly seen with the splits that developed over Vietnam, the Nixon presidency, and his forced resignation.

The second factor is that the middle classes are vacillating from their support of the capitalist class and looking to the working class for an answer to the problems they face. At that time, large chunks of the middle class, especially the youth, were looking to the Left to change society.

The third factor is that the working class has to be engaged in a struggle against the exploitation and oppression that it faces daily. This factor was present as one can see from both the amount and the kinds of strikes referred to above. The advanced workers were beginning to draw the conclusion that they would have to fight to the end to truly improve their quality of life.

The above three factors are all objective factors. The final factor that needs to be present for the successful socialist transformation of society is the subjective factor: the conscious understanding by the working class that capitalism cannot be merely reformed, but must be replaced. For this to happen, the workers must have a Marxist leadership, steeled in struggle, imbued with the lessons of history of the international workers’ movement, and directing the workers’ struggle to the overthrow of capitalism. If such a leadership had existed, could there have been a different ending to that tumultuous period?  This, of course, involves some speculation. But one thing is clear: there was no subjective factor present and that period ended as a lost opportunity. We believe that if a genuine Marxist tendency with a certain specific weight had existed at that time in the U.S., it could have intervened in this movement and greatly augmented the forces that could go on to build the missing subjective factor.

The New Left

During the 1930s, world capitalism, including U.S. capitalism, was in the midst of a huge slump, caused by overproduction, known as the Great Depression. This led to World War II, in which 60 million people were killed. The spending on World War II and the subsequent destruction of Europe, Asia and Africa led to the post-war boom.  This boom extended from the end of the war to the recession in 1974–1975 (see Ted Grant’s 1959 article Will there be a Slump? for more explanation).

Trotsky’s assassination in 1940 had a devastating effect on his supporters in the Fourth International. The leadership was unable to understand his Marxist method of analysis and could not honestly face up to the changes in the world of the post-World War II period. Without exaggerating, we can say that only Ted Grant (one of the founders of the IMT) and his supporters in Britain were able to face up to this changed situation and maintain the Marxist method during a difficult objective situation. The leaders of the Fourth International were a small force and without an accurate perspective. They got blown off course politically, and became more and more marginalized as time went on.

Stalinism came out of the war as a major force in the world. In many countries, including the U.S., the Communist parties were the largest force on the Left.  However, the horrific bureaucracy and police state, living “high on the hog,” while workers dealt with daily sacrifice, was not an attractive alternative to most workers and youth in the U.S., especially with the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes.

As a result, a current developed known as the “New Left.”  Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and others played a role in the theoretical development of this tendency. The New Left, which did not examine capitalism in a scientific way, but observed empirically in the midst of its largest-ever boom, drew the conclusion that capitalism had resolved its economic contradictions and believed that large segments of the working class in the imperialist countries had been “bought off,” and were “bourgeoisified” and no longer the revolutionary agent. They looked to other social forces such as students, the lumpen-proletariat, etc.

The New Left clearly influenced the various Maoist groups of the period as well as the disoriented forces of the “Fourth International,” which claimed the mantle of “Trotskyism,” but had not understood the Marxist method.

Civil Rights Movement

150 years after the American Revolution and almost 100 years after the Civil War, the black population was treated as second-class citizens and faced constant racist terror from the white supremacists and the police. But the victories of the CIO in organizing workers across racial lines, and other protests against Jim Crow, led to movements such as the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama and the integration of the schools.

Many of the leaders of this movement came from the trade unions and the black churches. As the people fought on, they faced the wrath of the state apparatus and of the Klan, which worked with it. Fearing a broader uprising, the federal government eventually got involved to try to regain control of the situation.

The experiences of these movements radicalized the masses, and this had an impact on the leadership. The masses always learn through their experience in struggle. This is a major factor in how political consciousness develops. Martin Luther King Jr. started to link the civil rights struggle with the question of the unions and a broader poor people’s movement. He took a stand against the war in Vietnam, and even started talking about the need to look at “democratic socialism” as an alternative to U.S. capitalism. 

Malcolm X started as a black nationalist in the Nation of Islam. As he observed the situation, he came to look toward Marxist ideas and started to move away from some of his nationalist positions. As the movement became increasingly radicalized, this had a radicalizing effect on the leadership, which in turn further radicalized the movement. The danger this posed to the system led to the assassinations of both of these leaders.

The Black Panthers

In 1966, 5 people in Oakland, led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, formed the Black Panthers. Three years later, this organization had grown to 10,000 members throughout the country and their paper had a circulation of 250,000.

The Black Panthers were courageous revolutionaries. The development of this group shows how many workers and youth were learning from events and drawing conclusions. The Panthers looked for Marxist ideas, but as there was no powerful genuine Marxist tendency in existence, they drifted to Maoism, which was relatively large in the 1960s, and perceived as being to the “left” of the traditional pro-USSR Stalinism. The Panthers were pretty much on their own in terms of figuring things out, as no one was there to guide them.

The FBI, in coordination with state and local police departments, directed a large operation to destroy their organization. Some Black Panther Party members were killed, and others were thrown in jail on one charge or another.

Repression can do a lot of damage, but it cannot destroy a revolutionary organization that uses correct methods and connects with the masses. While we look with great respect to the Black Panther Party, we must also see that mistakes were made that led to the decline of the party in the 1970s.

First, the Panthers were nationalists, in the sense that although they would work with other communities, they founded their organization as a specifically black organization, as opposed to being multi-racial. In a country where blacks are a minority of the population, less than 15%, it must be acknowledged that allies are needed to win liberation. The force that can transform society and makes up the overwhelming majority is the working class, which in the U.S. is made up of many different ethnicities.

Racism was and remains a real issue in the white working class and in many unions. The challenge for the Panthers was to build a base among all workers and challenge those workers who hold up racism, showing them that racism is actually against their interests and ultimately weakens them as well. The CIO in the 1930s increased black membership in the unions, and the 1960s movements furthered increased this membership, including in powerful unions like the UAW. In fact, black workers are more likely to be represented by a union than any other layer of the working class, when compared to their numbers in the general population.

The link to the working class was also vitally important to help the Black Panthers in their fight against state repression. Ultimately, revolutionaries can only defend themselves with the support from the working class. Otherwise, cut off from popular support, we are “easy pickings” for the capitalist state apparatus.

Finally, the Panthers did not have a correct approach to the question of theory and building their organization, and they had many incorrect ideas on the question of women. Their treatment of women led many potentially great female comrades to leave. The Panthers saw the development of many different factions or tendencies, some a by-product of the confusing situation and lack of clarity, and some a result of conscious sabotage by the government.

This is why a revolutionary organization needs to base itself in theory and the Marxist method. A leadership must use this method to explain events as they happen and put forward perspectives for how things are likely to develop in the future. The perspectives must be reviewed and updated over time. When differences arise in the organization—which is inevitable—the leadership should encourage a full and healthy discussion, using this as a way to educate the membership and raise the overall theoretical level. When a leadership tries to deal with political differences by taking organizational measures, this always leads to the degeneration of the organization.

Therefore, the various factional battles in the Panthers led to its destruction, rather than a theoretical strengthening of the membership. The combination of repression and lack of a Marxist method led to the end of the original Black Panther Party. The courage of these revolutionaries and the lessons they leave for us must be studied by the present generation.


The Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, was the student wing of a group called the League for Industrial Democracy. The League was supported by the Socialist Party of America (as it was then known), and some trade unionists such as Walter Reuther, who had been a member of the SP in the 1930s.

When SDS had its first convention, in 1962 at the UAW summer camp located in Port Huron, Michigan, there were only 59 people present. The founding group adopted a statement known as the “Port Huron Statement.”  This document called for a society of “participatory democracy,” but steered clear of calling for socialism. At this point the goals of SDS were quite vague, but many members were involved in the civil rights movement and the free speech movement at UC Berkeley. 

In 1965, President Johnson, known as LBJ, set up the pretext of an alleged attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulk of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. LBJ used this as an excuse to increase direct U.S. military intervention in Indochina. By 1968, more than 500,000 troops were there. More bombs (by tonnage) were dropped by the U.S. on Indochina than all the bombs dropped by all sides during WWII!

As a steady stream of body bags came home, a large antiwar movement developed. SDS began to play a major role in this, and this led to growth. At the 1963 convention of SDS, there were 200 delegates.  In 1965, there were 360 delegates.  By the 1969 convention, there were 2,000 delegates in attendance!

As the SDS grew, the student activists started to draw conclusions about the society in which they lived. They could see that the Democratic Party led by LBJ, which claimed to be the party of peace against Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for President in 1964, was actually the party that escalated the attack on Vietnam, not to mention the military intervention in the Dominican Republic. It could be seen that imperialism was not merely a policy, but was part of the foundation of U.S. capitalism. Many students who got involved in SDS started seeing themselves as revolutionaries and looked for Marxist ideas.

A genuine Marxist tendency would have intervened in the SDS, especially when it started to radicalize and grow in 1965. Marxists could have linked up with those students looking for an explanation for why capitalism and imperialism lead to war and that socialism is the only way to bring about lasting peace. Marxists would explain that the class that can lead the socialist transformation of society is the working class. Marxists would explain that the capitalist boom would eventually end as the contradictions of capitalism built up, but also that the end of the boom is not a prerequisite for socialist revolution. Just look at France in May, 1968. In the middle of a giant capitalist boom, the workers could have taken power if only they had a leadership ready to face up to the tasks posed by history!

Instead, the SDS went on to split up and break apart. A section went in to ultraleft activity, forming the Weathermen and the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground was a terrorist organization that literally mostly killed themselves while they tried to build explosives. As they moved in this direction, they lost any chance of gaining popular support. Individual terrorism will never defeat the ruling class; only the mass power of the working class can do that.

With the correct methods, a Marxist tendency could have come out of the 1960s and 1970s with larger forces. Unfortunately, no serious Marxist tendency was present at that time, and a historical opportunity was lost. Today, those trying to build the subjective factor in the USA, the Workers International League, must redouble our efforts and learn these lessons from the past. We must look at the movements occurring today and see how they develop. We must remember that they can start out with many confused ideas, but that the participants will learn from their own experience. Our historical task is to participate in these movements and explain to all who will listen, that Marxist ideas and methods are necessary if the workers are to be victorious.

Source: Socialist Appeal (USA)

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