We Who Knew it all – Comments on a Book About the ’68 Movement

by Lasse Wilhelmson

A book about the ’68 movement was published in 2008, We who knew it all – Memories of the 1960s Left Movement (Atlantis, 366 pages). The author is historian Håkan Arvidsson (HA) long-time researcher and tutor at the university of Roskilde in Denmark. The book is mainly a personal account of his experiences of the revolutionary student movement in Lund, in the south of Sweden, and how he gradually came to leave Marxism for an academic career and was eventually hailed as an esteemed writer by the establishment he had deplored in his youth.


I have been curious about this particular book for some time because I am the same age as the author and was part of the same movement. However my main areas of activity, Vietnam and the trade unions were outside the Stockholm student movement and gave different and added aspects to the ’68 Movement. I myself was extremely active although, unlike HA, for various reasons I never pursued a career within the Marxist-Leninist movement. Now I have at last read the book this summer of 2010, almost 40 years after the zenith of the ’68 movement.

The book is well-written, easy to read and comprehensive. However, enjoyment is somewhat marred by too much emphasis on ”I who was always right” (is HA never wrong?) instead of on what ”We who knew it all” actually achieved. The reader is forever waiting for examples of what the author actually did to promote the changes required by the movement – apart from the internal discussions that decided the pecking order in the organisation. Unfortunately, the reader waits in vain. Thus, the picture that emerges of this extensive and revolutionary movement that shook the establishment in the 1960s and 70s is unnecessarily limited and self-centred. It is liberating, however, that HA does not demean himself by expressing regret at having been involved in the movement of ’68 . It was right then, even if it became wrong.

Many of those mentioned in the book are still active, involved in the left-wing magazine Clarté or the solidarity movements for Palestine and Iraq. I know most of them because I was there myself. And HA describes them well without malice but possibly somewhat laconically. This does him credit I think. However, exerting great self-control, I resist the temptation to discuss them in this context.

HA is quite successful in describing the atmosphere and the discussions within Clarté and he is especially good at describing the left movement in Lund, but less so within the communist movements KFML/SKP, KFML(r) and more. But Lund, together with Uppsala and Umeå were, and are, typical university towns with their special student way-of-life, as opposed to Stockholm and Gothenburg. I would go as far as to say that political activity was considerably more practical where I worked than it was at that time in the student movement in Lund as described in HA’s book.

In my greater Stockholm of ´68 we worked to create change for people in general by joining workers’ unions and tenants’ associations, together with forming so-called action groups demanding more pre-schools and the protection of natural environments and other concrete issues, but also within the Swedish Cooperative Union. Much effort was put into reviving popular movements, holding high the flag of democracy. It is surely no coincidence that the fanatic rebel movement evolved mainly from the student ghetto in Uppsala and in only a very limited circle in Stockholm.

Indeed, I think the so-called rebels who waved Mao’s Little Red Book have been given far too much attention in the public debate 40 years on. The only time I ever met any rebels was during the so-called occupation of the Student Union premises in Stockholm 1968 when some rebels from Uppsala travelled down and sought to deliver us, with very little success. Anders Carlberg who led the ”occupation” not only had the gift of the gab but also conveyed a concrete message. His authority and humour outwitted their gibberish  – as I recall.

However, HA does not mention the occupation of the Student Union at all (how do students occupy their own union premises?) although it got huge warlike headlines in all the newspapers. Perhaps he wasn’t there and is thus forgiven. He does discuss the student protests against Olof Palme’s plans for reforming the universities, but misses the point. We were protesting against what we considered a threat to academic freedom which was to be replaced by the needs of corporate capital, to the detriment of independent scientific truth-seeking; for us it wasn’t about students being ”useful” or not. It was about to whom we would be ”useful”. To capitalism or to the people? Nota bene, the independence we advocated would of course be founded on Marxism-Leninsm as we saw it then, given that all else was unscientific bourgeois idealism.

I believe however that HA is correct in stressing the importance of Vietnam as significant  in sparking off the ’68 Movement. This was a far more fundamental issue, not only for youthful idealistic activity but also for politics in general. The Vietnam issue’s prominent place in the ’68 Movement made matters of solidarity real. In my home county Täby for example we formed an FNL support group to protest against the sectarian rantings of a circle leader from Clarté who caused confusion and dismay by speaking well of socialism and the Culture Revolution in China while condemning our Swedish culture revolutionaries; the rest of us wanted to study how to help the people of Vietnam. Rebels, be they here or there, were of no interest at all to us.

Within a few years there were FNL groups in every county north west of Stockholm. Täby had groups at all secondary and some primary schools. Pupils challenged head teachers, who waved school legislation at them, for their right to use the schools’ notice boards to inform about their activities. FNL groups led the campaign for the right to call the indoor shopping mall in Täby a public place for raising awareness, together with residents of Täby campaigning for more rapid expansion of local water and sewage, preserving local commuter trains and pushing for more pre-schools.

It was solidarity with the people of the third world, especially Vietnam, that energised and inspired  so-called ordinary people to commit themselves to other issues – not Marxism. People who weren’t traditionally members of political parties but who found the songs and the pleasure of working in aid of a small country far away exhilarating. Most of the work was done by dedicated young people who brought their parents along.

Solidarity, joy, music, theatre, hope for a better future for all, insight into the downsides of capitalism and the in-defensibility of imperialism made up the bright side of this movement that hoped for a better world for the oppressed. The feeling that the future belonged to us carried the movement. The side that is not really linked to any specific political ideology or political party. Indeed, it is what can actually be achieved for society that will, at the end of the day, determine what is good and what is bad, not the name of the ideology or, for that matter, religion.

The dark side that led to the downfall of the movement was its inability to see this and attempts to hijack the movement for the One True Doctrine. Choosing the map instead of reality when they didn’t match. HA could have clarified this.  The movement died when the people became a means to the success of the doctrine instead of the opposite.

We rightly saw Vietnam as the focal point of the contradiction between US imperialism and the people of the world. They were defending their right to independence, thus their fight was also ours, and this became the linchpin of the critique of imperialism. Because this critique was not necessarily socialist it came, of course, to include criticism of red- flag-waving Soviet imperialism and its neocolonial policies in Europe and Africa.

The crucial time came when five countries led by the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Small nations’ independence up against the two super powers’ imperialism linked Vietnam  to Sweden. In this respect, we should have recognised an ally in Olof Palme – but we didn´t, with the exception of the chairman for the united FNL groups in Sweden, Ulf Mårtensson. He understood this intuitively. He initiated extensive manifests for Vietnam which, however, never really had wide support from other sectors of society.

The leading cadre of KFML/SKP (Swedish Communist Party) consisted initially of people who had gained political experience by working alongside people who were not ”socialists” in the Swedish Vietnam movement. China’s criticism of Soviet imperialism also served as a wake-up call. At that time, we saw China’s struggle to remodel a feudal farming society, diminished by western colonialism, into a country of equals, as a chance to create a new world.

Somewhat surprised I read that HA sees what he calls the fundamental expression of solidarity within the Vietnam movement ”Support the People of Vietnam on their Own Terms” as an example of ”the left’s biggest weakness” resulting in ”loyalty beyond critical reason”. The unconditional support did not mean that we supported every single action the Vietnamese undertook, but that we did not judge how they themselves chose to fight their struggle. The money we collected never held conditions as to how it was to be used. The conditional support that he, and the majority of the left today advocate, goes completely against the independence that is the objective of the struggle that they wish to support. HA’s muddled conclusion is

… independence is only possible in a democracy that guarantees each citizen the right to express what he means by independence. In any other context, independence is an oppressive privilege reserved for an elite. (page 353)

Independence is of course possible regardless of method of government because it concerns a nation’s relations with other nations, in this case the so-called super powers. I wonder if HA’s reasoning here is simply a polite way of saying that it is quite all right if an occupation is undertaken in the name of democracy? In the name of western liberal parliamentarism that is.

The Swedish Vietnam movement supported the FNL in South Vietnam. The FNL was an umbrella organisation whose goal was a unified and independent Vietnam. The FNL groups’ leadership, of which I was part at that time, was under much pressure from North Vietnam’s ambassador in Moscow to cease criticising the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. We kept this from the public because we thought it might weaken Vietnam’s struggle if it got out. I think this was a mistake, especially since North Vietnam’s communist party, loyal to Moscow, came to rule the whole of Vietnam after the liberation in 1975 and shortly after, in 1977, started a war of aggression against China-friendly Cambodia. Our silence probably benefited this aggression more than the liberation of Vietnam.

Later on, when the rule of the Khmer Rouge came to resemble Stalin’s terror against the people and the Culture Revolution in China degenerated, the ’68 Movement was at a loss, lacking its own independent Swedish policy. There is a close connection between the fall of the’68 Movement and the fall of China’s revolution. Reality relentlessly revealed the shortcomings of the map.

Furthermore, I do not think HA has succeeded in capturing the formidable impression the so called New Left made on the trade union movement in Sweden. He misses completely the connection between the ’68 Movement and the great strike at the ore mines 1969 to 1970. But there was an overall surge of union activity. Both were typical of the times. Many of us achieved a great deal in the trade union movement and took the lead because of this, especially at levels where members voted for their own leaders in direct elections.

Judging by his own story, HA never seems to have become very involved in the practical activities of the Vietnam and trade union movements; perhaps this explains why his account of these issues, so fundamental to the ’68 Movement, is so limited.

However, HA succeeds very well in capturing the intellectual culture that came to dominate the ’68 Movement and which led to its own destruction, namely ”We knew it all”, and that the answer to every important question could always be found, above all, in works of Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung (at a pinch Stalin). Soon, those who had read the most books, not those who had been most successful at practical political work, came to dominate the Movement’s leadership and the internal disruption that eventually led to disintegration. There was an inability to comprehend ideologies as, according to Marx, false consciousness. The fact that ideologies, like religions have light and dark sides, applied to all but their own ideology. Thus they did not seek the truth and ideological/political advancement.

HA does not mention why the ’68 Movement never seriously discussed the Russian revolution or the two World Wars. Of course we knew that history is written by the conquerors in the interests of their own politics and ideologies. I would argue that the left in ’68 knew more about the political struggles and interests of the different groups in Vietnam, and the conditions under which farmers lived in China, than they did about a Europe that had endured two World Wars and was the context in which our own movement came to life.

By and large, we accepted the demonisation of Hitler and Nazism and the history written by Soviet, British and American historians where Churchill and Stalin, although not quite heroes, were the ones who saved us from the evil of Hitler. The simple matter of why Hitler, and not Stalin, had people’s support or whether it mattered who was elected by the people was never an issue. Or whether Churchill was less racist than Hitler – just to mention a few things.

We never really questioned history written by the conquerors, we were history-less. As I recall, we never discussed the allies’ terror-bombing in Germany’s cities, or the Soviet army’s systematic raping of millions of the German women they came to ”liberate”. Or the fact that the Soviet Union pushed for the Jewish state to become a member of the UN in 1948, despite the fact that this was an obvious contradiction of an anti-colonial and anti-imperialistic point of view?

Why did we never discuss how Israel had become a utopian socialistic project (according to the Zionists themselves) and that it was Jewish Marxists from eastern Europe who led the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians? Or that the kibbutzim were socialist experimental societies only for Jews? Therefore racist. Nowhere in his book does HA concern himself with how the left viewed the Palestine question or Zionism.

It was late in life when I myself unearthed the history that shows that Moses Hess was the ”founder” both of Zionism and socialism and furthermore Karl Marx’s mentor. Only a few years back, I became aware of the existence of The Transfer Agreement and the circumstances that led up to it during the Second World War. With my background, this was something I should have long been very familiar with. We never asked ourselves questions, or investigated what interests businesses, banks and people could have had in funding the Russian Revolution and both the World Wars – often both sides. The historian Antony Sutton’s books from 1973 and onwards perhaps came too late.

Should this not be of interest to a historian who has renounced Marxism? HA has thrown in the towel and given up the hallmark of a historian – to never stop re-appraising history. However, he is in good company as far as keeping silent on these matters goes, both of his old friends in the ´68 Movement and his new ones in the culture elite, where incidentally many have reunited. They are all agreed that Zionism is a non-question, although – or perhaps because – of the fact that today it is the most significant expression of Anglo-American imperialism. Instead, HA the historian worries that ”historylessness” in the shape of ”memory loss” has become widespread – the memory that the conquerors have written down, not what has been ”forgotten”.

When reading this well-written, and in parts very informative book about the ’68 Movement, especially the occasionally very interesting reflections at the end, I get the impression that HA is stuck in a right/left paradigm. Large sections of the ’68 Movement have tried to break with this, something he does not mention at all. For him the question of whose interests dominate world politics today and who the leaders are, boils down to a matter of the perils of so-called conspirators. Here, he does not mean the conspiracies that ”the powers that be” are always busy with, but the attempts of the ”powerless” to analyse them.

Eventually he ends in cynical reasoning that a global Leviathan-socialism, bearing an unmistakable resemblance to the New World Order the power elite of today strives towards, will probably be necessary, even if he doesn’t like it himself.  He is of the opinion that the oldest conflict in the history of man, between state and civil society, takes precedence over the conflict between labour and capital and this is well worth discussion; also taking into account the current trend towards de-nationalised Big Brother societies.

HA has moved from ”left” to ”right” within the same political/ideological paradigm; he has never discussed – along with the current left and his mates from the ’68 Movement – let alone questioned the historic connection between Zionism and socialism, or between Zionism and national socialism. (1).

In this, he is fairly typical of those who think it necessary, in order to uphold their position in the current academic and culture elite, to place themselves on a balanced level with the Zionist whips who regularly name nonconformists  ”anti-Semites”, ”Holocaust deniers” and ”conspiracy theorists”. The elite that must carefully read the leading newspapers’ culture supplements in order to know how to formulate the problems they write about, and who make their living by fishing in the intellectual duck pond that seems to be as specifically Swedish as the Welfare State.

The international picture is completely different. There we find for example the two heavyweights Paul Craig (traditional right-wing) and James Petras (traditional left-wing) criticising ”the globalists” – the new power elite – against the grain of mainstream media.

Although it was Mao Tse Tung who coined the phrase ”It is right to rebel”, it is possible today to ask what this would entail – even for an ex Marxist Leninist.

I know because I have done it myself.

1. What is Sionism?

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