The Revolution of 1968: When Those from Below Said Enough!

Source: Americas Program

"There have only been two world revolutions. One took place in 1848, the second took place in 1968. Both were historic failures. Both transformed the world. The fact that both were unplanned, and therefore in a profound sense spontaneous, explains both facts—the fact that they failed, and the fact that they transformed the world." -Immanuel Wallerstein

"Historical Events are not points, but extend to before and after in time, only gradually revealing themselves." -Fredric Jameson

The four decades that have passed since the "Worldwide Revolution of 68"—a concept coined by Immanuel Wallerstein—seems like sufficient time to attempt to understand the direction taken from that moment on by the anti-systemic struggle in Latin America. In order to do that we must divert our attention from large epic events such as the Tet Offensive of the Vietnamese fighters, the May manifestations in Paris, and the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, just to recall three events that had an impact throughout the whole world.

The truth is that these three events do not account for all of the social and political energy that was circulating during those years. Thinking only about our continent, what must be added are the workers’ uprising in Córdoba—The Cordobazo of 1969—which forced the withdrawal of Juan Carlos Onganía’s military dictatorship; the onslaught of the urban struggles in Chile, which modified the structure of cities and brought Salvador Allende to the presidency in 1970; the farmers’ struggles in the Peruvian mountains, which forced out the military government of Juan Velasco Alvaro, starting in 1968, to carry out the largest agrarian reform of that time period after the Cuban agrarian reform; the impressive rise of workers and miners in 1970 in Bolivia who built a Popular Assembly, an organ with which they were able to contest the power of the dominant classes. In each country it is possible to include events and processes which can easily be linked to what has generically been merely referred to as "68."

Nevertheless, one must dig deeper in order to get to the bottom of the long-term changes that allow us to speak of a before and an after of those years. What remains if we take from ’68 the multitudinous protests on main avenues? If we leave the colossal although fleeting events of that period? Responding deeply involves us in a way of seeing the world differently than the hegemony, similar indeed to that which the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos practices. He maintains that, "The large transformations do not start from the top nor with monumental and epic events, but rather with movements that are small in form and that appear irrelevant for the politician and analyst at the top."1

These changes were not immediately made visible, but rather are spread out almost imperceptibly or through a progressive and ascending manner, from the periphery to the center, from remote rural areas to the cities, from daily life to recognized cultural forms. But they do not do it following European and North American sociology of analytical logic regarding "social movements." That is, analyzing the "characteristics of the organizations" that develop "cycles of protest" that start when "social actors" take advantage of "the structure of political opportunities" to deploy "repertoires of social action" that allow them to reach their "objectives and ends" in an "interaction with the state" and its allies. It is difficult for us to understand what is occurring in the basements of our societies by following this conceptual road.

One of the most notable results of the events of ’68 is the revelation of those from below, or rather their differentiation and visibility, to later rehearse the uprising or insurrection from the lowliest depths to proclaim "that’s enough!" Over time this evolved into the creation of another world, different from the hegemonic world. To see that, it is necessary to take a view similar to the one Marcos attributes to anthropologist Andrés Aubry, which implies going beyond the exterior and what is visible in order to understand the side of the people "that is closed off to the outside."2

A New Generation of Struggles

The first thing that stands out is the birth in large numbers of a new breed of organizations that embody social causes that are different from those that up to that moment had taken center stage, such as student and trade union movements. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, the CRIC (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca) was born in 1971 in Colombia, which later would contribute to the creation of the ONIC (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia). In 1972 Ecuarunari, the organization of mountain-dwelling Quichuas was created, which played a decisive role in the formation of the CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador). In 1973 the Tiahuanaco Manifesto in Bolivia was sent out by a group of students, teachers, and Aymara peasants, altering the history of social struggles by placing the issue of oppression next to exploitation, which up until that moment had been the exclusive focus. In 1974 The Indigenous Congress of San Cristóbal de las Casas took place in Chiapas, where for the first time diverse Indian languages interconnected with one another and thus overcame old divisions. All of these were initiatives linked to the indigenous and peasant worker world, which in those years was struggling to become independent from both church and state. The following years saw the onslaught of associations of a new class: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, in 1977, became the hinge and turning point for the new trade unions and Argentina piqueteros. Toward 1979 landless peasant workers in southern Brazil—whose organizational experience had been brutally severed by the dictatorship that came to power in 1964—started the first occupations of what would later be called the MST (Movement of Landless Rural Workers); that same year the "Katarista" current that rose up from the Tiahuanaco Manifesto was able to form an autonomous center, the Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers Unions (La Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia). These organizations grouped together long periods of construction and growth, but also served as trampolines for new advances that only time could unveil.

With all the new details that these movements took into account, it was nonetheless a first step. Unlike what happened when it was the party who had a leading position at the head of the movement, there was a strong dose of autonomous action in this new wave of organizations, even with those that converged with political organizations. And now we are before a new age that has produced a reaction that Wallerstein denominates an "endogenous illness" of the worker; at the same time that they fight against the traditional enemies—imperialism, capitalism, and local elites—their reactions embody the limits of the old left: "We cannot understand 1968 without simultaneously considering it as a cri de couer against the evils of the world system and as a fundamental questioning of the opposition strategy of the old left against the world system."3

In Latin America these new organizations started a multidimensional growth: they expanded their influence outward in a ripple-like manner, much like a rock tossed into a pond. Above all however, they started to stir the deep waters of social sectors that up until that moment had not made their voices heard independently. Instead, they had joined large conglomerates in which their voices were barely audible. Something that was occurring ever since the independence revolts was that these factions—popular, indigenous, and afro, not to mention women and other "minorities"—were risking their lives in wars that in the strict sense were not theirs.

What is true is that toward the 1970s, those who lived at the bottom of our societies started to construct their own organizations, without party, church, or strongman guidance. What’s more important, they started to make their voices heard using their own forms and manners. At the onset, they did it while appearing to respect the ways of the institutions, i.e. the hegemonic culture, but as they became more self-assured of their cause they started to demonstrate that they respected a different view of the world and were built upon different cultural bases.

Of the Land

The fight for land is a common characteristic for all actors from below. The recuperation of land is a necessary step in the long and winding process of confrontation. Since we learned that the land was not the final objective but rather the first step, the logic of land ownership in which we are immersed at the beginning of the millennium becomes apparent, because "the fight for land is the fight for a determined territory."4 Millions of hectares were recovered by farm-workers and indigenous peoples both legally and illegally, by agrarian reform or through invasions and seizures.

Although it is a process that started out in rural areas at the hands of homeless Indians and farm-workers, it has also spread throughout the large cities of the continent, in those centers of capital domination where neighborhoods and even entire cities that somehow replicate the rural experience have started to take form. The self-determined construction of popular neighborhoods at the peripheries of large cities, as signaled by work on Ciudad Bolivar in Bogotá, is "the prolongation of the fight for land that for decades has covered the countryside of our country, expressed now in a city in the form of a struggle for housing."5 The protestors’ neighborhoods, with their retaken factories, such as the hills of Caracas, the peripheries of São Paulo, Asunción, Bogotá, and Lima, show the strength of the poor in urban territory.

The real divergence from previous time periods is the creation of territories: the long process of conformation of a social sector that can only be built while constructing spaces to house the differences. Viewed from the popular sectors, from the bottom of our societies, these territories are the product of the roots of different social relations. Life is spread out in its social, cultural, economic, and political totality through initiatives of production, health, education, celebration, and power in these physical spaces. As Bernardo Mançano points out, "A social class does not act out in the territory of another social class."6 Somehow, the territorialization of social subjects is a response to the territorialization of urban and rural capital. It is also a replica of the poor’s "accumulation through dispossession," as geographer David Harvey interprets the neoliberal period, during which time capital tried to recover after the revolution of 1968.

For the first time in the history of capitalism a change was produced by which the workers were capable of causing the systematic crisis. Giovanni Arrighi tells us, "In previous hegemonic crises the intensification of the rivalry between the great powers preceded and structured the intensification from top to bottom of the social conflict, in the crisis of U.S. hegemony the latter completely preceded and configured the former."7 The crisis was provoked by "a wave of worker militancy" toward the end of the 1960s that "preceded and configured the crisis of Ford’s policies."

This fact is fundamental in order to understand two issues of great importance: Options used by capital to overcome the crisis and the consequential options of the popular sectors. The elites dismantled welfare and let go all pretense of integrating the dangerous classes, betting on war as a way of earning. That is neoliberalism. The lower classes, more and more conscious of the fact that the objective of those in power is to get rid of them—at least entire portions of them, specifically the youth—are turning their open spaces into trenches. "It’s the poor’s strategic response to the crisis of old territoriality of factories and ranches, and capital’s reformulation of the old methods of domination."8

I propose that in Latin America one differentiating feature of 1968 is the opening toward the territorialization of those involved: Indians, farm-workers, and popular urban sectors. However, the logic of territory is very different from that of the social movement. While one acts in accordance with the demands of the state, the other is "living space"9—characterized by the capacity to integrally produce and reproduce the daily lives of its members in a totality that is not unified but rather diverse and heterogeneous. Territory has a self-centered logic: although it formulates demands from the state it is not organized with this in mind.

While the forms of organization and the objectives and the construction of identities are the focus point for the social movement, the social relationships that are built upon the re-appropriation of land and the means of production are what are decisive for the "territories of emancipation"10—not the production of merchandise but rather values that the whole community can use, because those social relationships are not capitalist. While the social movement triumphs when it achieves its demands, the territories triumph by consolidating and expanding every day, making those islands surrounded by capitalism "not a refuge for self-satisfaction but rather a small boat to navigate from one island to another and another …" as Marcos has pointed out.

The territorialization of subjects in revolt, which is really what is happening on this continent, forms part of a deep political and theoretical revolution. It is a new form of practicing change whose best exponents are the Zapatistas. Setting up territories creates sovereignty, autonomy, self-determination—in sum, self-government. It has to do with different societies than those that are born in the bosom of capitalist society in decline. The communities of the "caracoles" and people’s governing assemblies of Chiapas, the indigenous assemblymen of Norte del Cauca, the Aymara housing communities in the Bolivian Altiplano, but also the slums of El Alto and many other cities are different and diverse forms of popular self-governance. Although different and diverse with different levels of development, they are born, live, and fight to grow down and to the left.

Territories, Power, Revolution

The cultural-political process initiated by the rebellions of 1968 is also modifying the imaginary process regarding the transition to a new world. Save for a small number of people, few doubted that the key to the construction of a better society lay in the conquest of state power, be it through institutional means, insurrection, or after a prolonged war. But the territorial logic modified this image born with the French Revolution.

Although the Zapatistas were the first to explicitly formulate that they were not trying to take state power but rather construct a new world (which of course included the creation of other powers not in line with the State), this idea was already implicit in the form of construction that the most important movements of the continent had already adopted. The construction of territories in which non-capitalist social relationships are able to nest started a process whose focus is the creation of other powers, and not conquering state power. Thus a chance "return" to one’s origins is recorded. At the beginning of the socialist movement, it was Carl Marx who time and time again returned to the theme of transition, imagining it always as a chance "birth." He defended the parable of social change in which the creation of a new world and revolution are two distinct entities, but not in the sense of those who propose a strategy in two steps—the seizure of power and then the construction of socialism—but rather something more complex and natural.

In The Civil War in France, upon evaluating the Paris Commune, Marx sustains: "The workers have no utopia that is ready to be implemented by the decree of the people (…) They do not have to achieve any ideals, but rather to set free the elements of a new society that the old antagonizing bourgeois society carried close to its chest."11 "Set free" or "liberér" is telling us that the new society already existed in its origin in the bosom of capitalism to some degree of development. That is why he also used the parable of birth. The revolution, as an act of force, forces the birth, sets free, and liberates that which already is living in an embryonic form so that it may continue to grow.

We can see these "elements of the new society" in the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas and in the shelters of Norte Del Cauca. And in an even more embryonic form, we can see them in thousands of landless settlements, in indigenous Aymara, Quechua, Mapuche, Ayamara, and tons of other native communities. We can also see them in very many urban peripheries. These are bits and pieces of the new world that must fight to grow. If the social movement continues to develop through resistance and struggle and through the non-capitalist social relationships that exist in the aforementioned territories, then capitalism will continue to dig itself deeper into crisis.

At some point "it will be necessary to break the chains" (Marx) that connect the capitalist social relationships. It will be a colossal fight, a true revolution that will contribute to the birth of the new world that the territorialized movements have been creating for a number of decades.

Translated for the Americas Program by Eliot Brockner.

Raúl Zibechi is Brecha de Montevideo journal’s international analyst, social movements lecturer, and researcher at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and consultant to several social groups. He is a monthly contributor to the Americas Policy Program (

End Notes

1. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, "Coloquio Aubry. Parte I. Pensar el Blanco," San Cristóbal de las Casas, 13 de diciembre de 2007.

2. Idem, "Parte VI. Mirar el Azul."

3.Immanuel Wallerstein, "1968: el gran ensayo" en Arrighi, Hopkins, Wallerstein, Movimientos Antisistémicos, Akal, Madrid, 1999, p. 99.

4. Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, "Territorios, teoría y política," intervención en el Seminario Internacional "Las configuraciones de los territorios rurales en el siglo XXI, Universidad Javeriana, 25 de marzo de 2008.

5. Corporación Taliber, "Potosí-La Isla. Historia de una lucha," Bogotá, 1998, p. 9.

6. Bernardo Mançano Fernandez, idem.

7. Giovanni Arrighi y Beverly Silver, Caos y orden en el sistema-mundo moderno, Akal, Madrid, 2001, p. 219.

8. Raúl Zibechi, "Los movimientos sociales latinoamericanos: tendencias y desafíos," en revista OSAL No. 9, Buenos Aires, Clacso, enero de 2003.

9. Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, idem.

10. Concepto acuñado por el geógrafo brasileño Carlos Walter Porto Gonçalves.

11. Carlos Marx, La guerra civil en Francia, Editorial Progreso, Moscú, 1980, pp. 68-69.