Forty Years Later

Susan Dubrofsky Editorial cartoon.jpg
Cartoon by: Susan Dubrofsky

On the 25th of May in 1967 in a remote hamlet, in a district called Darjeeling, in India, in the police station areas of Naxalbari, Phansidewa and Khoribari a minor but significant incident had occurred. A handful of  tribal peasants, backed by a breakaway faction of the ruling Communists in power in West Bengal,  had managed to explode on to the faces of the old left with a militant land occupation movement. This was a year before the May soixante-huitards of Paris had discovered and coined the expression “the New Left”. In very few places until that time,  had the traditional left been challenged, stood up to and shaken down in an actual area of struggle by their own cadre. Debates — there had been plenty of– between the “Russian line and the Chinese line”.  All in magazines,  journals, in inner party sanctums and academic exercises. Nine peasant women and their children were shot down by the police of a Left wing government in power in West Bengal. They had been shot down for occupying (with spears, bows and arrows) the land they tilled and which was illegally held by local landlords with the help of the police forces ( with guns).  Thousands of peasants rallied in support all over the Terai prairie and the tea garden workers rallied in support.

Years on, the incident was dismissed/analyzed/dissected/demystified and rejected (and occassionally eulogized as well), by latter day Monday night quarter-backers with 20/20 retro vision as a “nothing” incident or sometimes as a “spark”. But that nothing incident, despite all the setbacks, romanticist and silly deviations, paranoid divisiveness and inept organizational chaos that followed, was indeed a spark. It was a spark for those who wanted exciting changes in the way India was governed, in the way relationships existed between the left and the right, between teachers and students, between course material that had not evolved and university students who had, between parents and children, between the old and the new, between tradition and non-conformance, between boring platitudes and exciting visions and between those who wanted to be participatory in politics beyond parliamentary electioneering and those who woke up  every four years to canvass for a seat amongst criminal politicians in a parliament full of crooks, gangsters and petty thieves.

It was at this same time, worldwide, a coming together was happening. A reaction to the paranoia-bound Cold War and the post-McCarthy era of numbness and torpor.  A large number of people, especially youth,  in the Western world had emerged, firmly believing that ideas were important for implementation and change and justice was overdue in the world.  This was at the time when  a four year old Barack Obama was probably going to a childrens’ madrassah in Indonesia. The Vietnam War was a catalyst.  The anti-War movement  happenned and the rest is known to many of us and the US was defeated in Vietnam (and the seeds of the neo-con movement were also sown).  And while today one hears less of Danny Cohn-Bendit, Alain Krivine, Alain Geismar, Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Bobby Seale, the Panthers, (Tariq Ali, being the exception, continues to be a prolific producer of political and literary treatises  at a nearly incessant tempo), the term Naxalites (after the Naxalbari incident) is not simply confined to a song by the Asian Dub Foundation. Forty years later, the Prime Minister of India has declared the Naxalites, who are supposedly active in nearly 11 provinces and 128 districts of India and have actually established a corridor that stretches through 509 police station areas, as the biggest threat to India’s internal security. Irrespective of the politics the Naxalites believe in, no one claims that they have disappeared. They are a continuity of the so called “sixties”. In the West, in Europe and North America, the soixante-huitards did not leave behind an organized following, a movement that was a continuity of its spirit.  Many groups did emerge, many artists spoke out, many organizations followed or led unique causes, many radio shows continued to do the important discussions and interviews, many websites, many magazines like Serai continue to attempt to speak out against marginalization and seeking out the truth.  Like Truthout, Countercurrents, Counterpunch, In These Times, Rabble, Canadian Dimension , Democracy Now!, The Progressive,  The Nation.  Sometimes we are solitary figures and disparate groups with perhaps a good readership.  We monitor hits. We do not seem to have a movement ahead of us or behind us, that draws a lineage from the soixante-huitards.

In 1967, Che had not yet become a legend. But his murder had already brought the Cuban revolution into a reprint edition. The Tet offensive had not yet happened but the Americans were already cutting a sorry figure in the Mekong delta, fighting a war, using the poor of America who had no knowledge where they were and why. The civil rights movement had started a while back and Watts had already happened and by 1968, college students in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Madrid, Berkeley, Barcelona, Columbia and Mexico City were barricading, blockading and bleeding to ask for changes in the way their society governed and looked at them. Yes, there was sex and drugs and rock and roll and there was the unforgettable Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors, the Stones, Joan Baez, Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, Herbert Marcuse and earth-mother early feminists (“men got real orgasms, women had to fake ’em “)  and of course the unforgettable rebel Abbie Hoffman and The Who and Woodstock. No one who survived the sixties in America and is around today despises or regrets what happened or had to happen then, except perhaps a navel-gazing post-mortemist like Christopher Hitchens whose haughtiness does well for him in the “non-partisan” mainstream media, even though he pretends he was an “insider” during the “sixties.”  Western civilization loves to luxuriate in self-examination, anyway.  The “Third World” has to eat, slog, innovate, fight, beat-back, re-invent and come up with new variations, to keep their movements alive.

Everyone then believed sincerely that a change was  coming and the wind was blowing from a different direction. From all these sixties groups and radical organizations, not too many evolved to became part of a giant movement or maintain a continuity. Malcolm X perhaps was an exception in that respect. He evolved. And, of course they did not let him live, beyond 1965. But everyone remained true believers in change, albeit nostalgic at times. So the camp of the dissenters in the West and Europe in general, were unable to maintain a continuity and neither the fall of Franco’s fascism, the overthrow of the Greek generals, the anti-colonial revolts in Africa that brought down the Portuguese dictatorship, could spawn and give birth to a real new and continuously progressive force. Despite some hopes during the anti-globalization movement, thirty five years later, and despite the X, Y, Z generation’s excessive eagerness to  dismiss the “boomer left”, a substantial movement is yet to emerge against the new cold war and the arms race that is in full swing in Europe, today.  Suddenly, in less than a month, the media has switched to their new darling Georgia and Iran, Iraq, al-Qaeda somewhat are less in the news. Why? Because, in the final analysis,  old  Uncle Sam still tries to run the agenda through purple, yellow, orange  and other assorted manipulated “movements” through its cronies in Eastern Europe. And the agenda right now is more to contain Russia and its growing strength and tenacity, than either Iran or North Korea. For those who remember the Cuban Missile crisis and the issue that was made out of it, should now look into what the United States is installing in terms of Missile Defence right on Russia’s border in the Czech republic. The much hoped for, Barack “Change” Obama, talks today about Russia’s “aggressiveness”, caters to the notion of McCain being a war hero (What on earth is heroic about bombing children in Hanoi from 10000 feet? ), knowing fully well that it was the United States that instigated Shakashvilli to launch the attacks on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Obama, of course, was never part of any movement. He has always been a career politician, at least by his personal goals. The “sixties”had little influence on him.

Where then is the continuity? Where is the relationship between the revolts of the sixties and the current trends in politics? Frankly speaking, in the West, there is very little, irrespective of how sociologists might find some dialectical evolution in the way politics is panning out today.  And there is not much point in being romantic and nostalgic and staring out over the horizon, as the grandchildren tumble over each other in the patio, playing with Squeeze-Bush dolls. Because, those who organized then, and evolved in the seventies and eighties, were unsuccesful in bringinging a continuity into their thought processes.

In Latin America they did maintain continuity. That is why In Latin America, Chavez, Morales, Lula, Correa and some other national leaders have begun to assert in clear terms that Latin America is not the backyard of the United Staes anymore. In Nepal they did. There is a Maoist government in power, who are still labelled as “terrorists”by the US. Now the UN General Assembly has to listen to the new Maoist Prime Minister of Nepal. In India, they are doing things as well, all in continuity of the same spirit.  And so also, in the Phillipines.  In fact, in the Third World, they continue to wrestle with reality. In Canada, we are locked in debate over a two-tier health system, instead of reinforcing what was already a groundbreaking public health system, we still debate if Palestinians have a cause and use worn and sweeping clichés and condemnations  to describe any antipathy towards Israel.  We cannot get a movement together to oppose the totally unjustfied presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

So in this issue we have combined some extraordinary essays of individuals who were in the thick of things, be it in California or in Montreal, New York City or in Mexico City- remembrances of personal experiences and  reflections on the horizon ahead. Of course our hallmark video opener is a poignant, symbolic and soul stirring reminder of the Mexico City Olympics.