May Day Manifesto: The Legacies of 1968

The Raymond Williams Society is delighted to republish Owen Jones’s new introduction to the reissue of May Day Manifesto 1968. Originally edited by Williams, Stuart Hall, and E.P. Thompson, the manifesto was the work of a wide range of teachers, writers, and researchers who formed a ‘self-organizing, self-financed socialist intellectual organization’, as Williams explains in the 1968 preface. The group, which also included the likes of Iris Murdoch, Terry Eagleton, Dorothy Wedderburn, and Ralph Miliband, collaborated on what was a counter-statement, or challenge, to the policies and direction of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. Here, Owen Jones, in a different context, renews the call for an ambitious socialist programme, one which would aim to lay the foundations for radical, social transformation.

Owen Jones writes…

It was a time of rebellion, revolution, struggle, occupations, strikes – and of living, breathing hope that the old order was in collapse, and that a new society was possible. Nineteen sixty-eight is perhaps best remembered for les évenements of May and June in France: the tidal wave of street demonstrations, factory and university occupations, and barricades. The red flag was hoisted over factories, protestors sang The Internationale, and revolutionary slogans adorned posters and banners and were daubed on walls, like: ‘Humanity will not be happy until the last capitalist is hanged with the entrails of the last bureaucrat’.

With 150 million working days lost to strike action in France’s biggest ever industrial upheaval, Paris’s police warned of a pre-revolutionary situation, and the French premier, Georges Pompidou, declared on television that those in revolt were bent on ‘destroying the nation and the very foundations of our free society’.

In London, fireworks were thrown as thousands of anti–Vietnam War protestors attempted to storm the US Embassy. Across Italy, universities were occupied as the so-called Sessantotto movement challenged a rotten status quo. It proved to foreshadow the ‘hot autumn’ of the following year as Italian society was convulsed with strikes: sixty million working days were lost to industrial action.

In West Germany, tens of thousands of students and workers demonstrated against the Vietnam War, a right-wing media establishment which whipped up hatred against left-wingers, and the establishment’s continuity links with Nazism. In Mexico City, an insurgent student movement was met with sickening government brutality, with hundreds slaughtered by the regime. In Czechoslovakia, the so-called Prague Spring and the attempt to build ‘Socialism with a human face’ was suppressed by a Warsaw Pact invasion. The United States was convulsed by the struggles of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, mass student occupations, and protests led by the increasingly radical Students for a Democratic Society.

That’s the context in which this Manifesto should be seen. This was a time of ferment, of growing disillusionment with Keynesian consensus capitalism, Western imperialism, and Stalinist authoritarianism. The British New Left – which finds its definitive political expression in this Manifesto – cannot be divorced from these trends.

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Reading the Manifesto today, it is easy to be struck by the similarities and the differences. There is the obvious preoccupation with inequality of wealth and income, as well as poverty: back then, 14 per cent were classed as living in poverty, compared to over a fifth today. Today, most British households below the poverty line are in work. The Manifesto boldly emphasises ‘the need for socialist priorities within housing’. Today, the decimation of council housing has left millions languishing on social housing waiting lists or driven into an unregulated, insecure, often extortionate, privately rented sector. Rough sleeping has surged by 169 per cent since the Tories came to power in 2010.

The Manifesto rightly hails the NHS as a ‘major attempt … to establish a new standard of civilized community care’, but bemoans ‘dilapidated hospitals; bad pay and conditions’ as well as ‘the draining of the public sector for private medical provision’. Today’s NHS has been subject to privatisation and marketisation – under both New Labour and the Tories; the longest squeeze in funding as a proportion of the economy since its foundation; and growing pressures because of the attacks on social care funding. Its nurses are suffering a real-terms pay cut of 12 per cent over a decade while staff shortages and waiting lists represent growing crises.

Public ownership was supposed to mean ‘the substitution of communal co-operation for the divisive forces of competition’, declares the Manifesto. And indeed, the privatisation of utilities such as water, energy and rail has been nothing short of a disaster. Rail ticket prices are some of the highest in Europe and overcrowding blights the network, while subsidies are far greater than in the days of British Rail. Water privatisation is such a calamity that even the Financial Times considered the case for public ownership, declaring that the sell-off looked like ‘little more than an organised rip-off’. And the Manifesto launches an assault on the barbarous US assault on Vietnam. Today, the calamitous US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have left an unimaginable human cost – hundreds of thousands dead, millions injured and traumatised, millions displaced, trillions of dollars wasted, nations economically ruined – and driven the rise of extremist groups.

Of course, the differences between the age of this Manifesto and our current era are multiple. Stalinism is effectively gone, both as a really existing social system and a coherent mass political force in Western societies. When the Manifesto was written, a social-democratic consensus – a class compromise established in the aftermath of the Second World War – governed Britain and much of the Western world. It was inadequate, often plastering over deep injuries inflicted by capitalism with solutions that could be – and, in due course, were – stripped away. But with its fusion of strong unions, high taxes on the rich, nationalisation of sectors of the economy, and extensive state intervention, it did produce the greatest combination of economic growth and increased living standards in British history.

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The current one is no age of prosperity: we are still suffering the devastating economic consequences of a crash caused by an unregulated financial sector. Austerity has inflicted particular misery on low-paid workers, disabled people, and young people, while public services have been shredded. Our governing ideology, today, is neoliberalism, which champions the maximum elimination of the public sphere in favour of market forces, the slashing of taxes on the rich, mass deregulation, and the destruction of collective organising. The consequences have included the imposition on British workers of the worst squeeze in wages of any OECD country other than Greece, over the longest period since perhaps the eighteenth century.

There is one key similarity between the times. The Manifesto was written at a time of increasing left-wing confidence. As the Manifesto demonstrates, the left was carving out and articulating a coherent alternative to the way society was ordered. Until relatively recently, the contemporary left was fragmented and isolated, and in a defensive position, largely trying to preserve existing gains which were being rolled back. That has changed, and in a manner which would profoundly surprise many of the Manifesto’s signatories. The Manifesto was very sceptical about Labour’s potential as a vehicle for socialist transformation, casting scorn on the party’s much trumpeted status as a coalition, believing it was a ‘confidence trick’ that merely led to the left’s incorporation, taming, and sidelining from power and influence. It is somewhat astonishing, then, that in 2015 – when the Labour left was in its weakest position in the party’s history – it took party leadership in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. After eighteen months of internal struggle, the leadership was able to present a manifesto to the British public in the 2017 general election and win 40 per cent of the vote, consolidating its position within the party.

Britain is now in a different political age. The neoliberal consensus has collapsed. It is no longer regarded as an inevitable fact of life. Its champions have been forced to go back to basics, to defend their ideas and ideology, for the first time in a generation. Tory MPs are in a state of private panic, believing that the collapse of their government will usher in the end of Thatcherism and the dawn of a transformative socialist administration, of a sort which perhaps has never governed any Western society. And, just like this Manifesto, now is surely the time for the left to be ambitious in laying the foundations for an entirely new society, rather than tinkering with the bankrupt, decaying social order which currently rules us, which is at war with the aspirations and needs of millions of people. As this Manifesto rightly says, ‘only an advanced socialism offers any chance of the recovery of human control’.

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In 2017, Corbyn’s Labour manifesto fleshed out a radical, inspirational departure from neoliberalism. Taxes would be hiked both on the top 5 per cent of earners and on big business, while a financial transaction tax would be imposed on the City of London, all to invest in services like the NHS and education. A mass council house building programme would be initiated, and the private rented sector would be regulated. Utilities such as rail, energy and water would be brought under public ownership. Workers’ rights would be restored, shifting the balance of power towards labour. A statutory living wage would be introduced. Tuition fees would be abolished, ending the saddling of debt on young people for daring to dream of university education.

But this Labour manifesto should be seen as a modest beginning. A wider left should push for these proposals to go further, both before Labour assumes office and after it wins an election. Under pressure from a broad mass movement, Labour should be pushed to radicalise in power – and begin the process of definitively breaking with capitalism.

Take tax: Labour proposes a new income tax rate of 45 per cent for income over £80,000 – that is, the top 5 per cent of earners – and 50 per cent for income above £123,000 – that is, the top 2 per cent of earners. Corporation tax would be steadily hiked from 19 per cent to 26 per cent. But it’s important to note that for most of Thatcher’s reign, the top rate of tax was 60 per cent, and more prosperous nations – such as Denmark and Sweden – have top rates higher than 50 per cent. Even Labour’s increase in corporation tax would leave Britain with the lowest rate of the G7 industrialised nations. There is an overwhelming case, then, to promote even higher levels: to provide the funds to invest in services, transform the economy, and reduce grotesque levels of inequality. That doesn’t just mean income. Newly elected Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has proposed a wealth tax of 1 per cent for the richest 10 per cent: here is a policy which should surely be extended across Britain.

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Then there’s the issue of work. Historically, the labour movement and the left campaigned for a shorter working week. It’s a cause that needs re-energising. Technological progress could surely be harnessed to increase living standards while reducing working hours. As the 1968 Manifesto puts it: ‘In a class society, the majority of men are seen only as a work force, a labour market, and welfare is marginal to that.’ Surrendering so much of our lives to working for others robs us of freedom; it is detrimental to our mental and physical well-being; it steals from us valuable time which could be with our family and loved ones, or expanding our cultural horizons. Research suggests less working hours can improve productivity, reduce our carbon footprint, free up labour for those workers who are currently underemployed, and make us happier.

Then there is the issue of extending public ownership. The post-war top-down model of nationalisation was actually developed by the right of the party, not least by Herbert Morrison – grandfather of Peter Mandelson, no less. The Labour left – from Tony Benn to Jeremy Corbyn – long professed a different model: democratic public ownership involving workers, service users and consumers. The 1968 Manifesto itself talks about ‘redefining the concept of public ownership’. Labour’s proposal for public ownership of energy, for example, doesn’t involve the creation of a centrally controlled and directed national corporation, but rather local community ownership.

But if this model of public ownership could work for utilities such as energy, rail and water, why not elsewhere? Indeed, Labour has proposed a ‘right to own’: that is, giving workers the right to buy out their companies. The wider left should surely go on the offensive, making the case for the wider socialisation and democratisation of the British economy.

One precedent is Sweden’s so-called Meidner Plan in the 1970s, which planned to compel companies to give shares to wage-earner funds run by trade unions. These funds would gradually become majority shareholders. It is worth noting other examples, too: Singapore is often portrayed, somewhat bizarrely, as a libertarian paradise, even though virtually all land and housing are nationalised. Singapore is an example of state-led development, with state-owned enterprises playing a major role in the economy via holding companies managed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Such companies are held at arms-length to the state, and are highly efficient. Of course, Singapore is an undemocratic model, but the country illustrates the benefits of public ownership.

In a socialist Britain, such public ownership would be wedded to democratic principles. And then there’s a wider debate to be had. Could new technologies be harnessed in the interests of democratically planning the economy – and avoiding the tragic mistakes of the Soviet totalitarian command economy?

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The 1968 New Left Manifesto captured the spirit of the times. It acknowledged the growing appetite for a new social order that would transcend the limitations of Keynesianism, recognise the failures of Stalinism, and oppose the murderous rampages of Western imperialism. Today, a new left must confront our challenges, in the context of crumbling neoliberalism, the self-defeating disaster of austerity, and the calamity of the so-called war on terror.

A radical transformative socialist agenda is not only desirable: it is the only politically viable approach from the left. Europe’s centre left first accepted or resigned itself to the central tenets of neoliberalism, and then surrendered to – or even implemented – austerity. The electoral consequences? Disaster.

In the noughties, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party could expect to get 40 per cent or more of the vote. That collapsed to the twenties following a challenge by the insurgent radical left Podemos party. Greece’s Pasok party collapsed from over 40 per cent of the vote in 2009 to around 4 per cent in a matter of years. Germany’s Social Democrats under Martin Schulz – once hailed by Labour’s right as an example to emulate – amassed just 20 per cent of the vote in 2017, their lowest post-war share. The French Socialist Party won a derisory 6 per cent in the 2017 presidential election, completely eclipsed by the radical candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The Dutch Labour Party amassed a quarter of the vote in 2012; five years later, less than 6 per cent. We could go on. In this context, British Labour amassing 40 per cent of the vote seems near-miraculous: another exception being Portugal, where a radical left-backed Socialist government has repealed certain austerity measures.

Without a radical, transformative left project, the nativist, populist, anti-immigration right – headed by Donald Trump – is ready to the fill the vacuum. To coin a phrase, there is no alternative: only a new socialism can answer the injustices and grievances spawned by a decaying social order. As a YouGov poll found in June 2017, 43 per cent of Britons believed a socialist government would make Britain a better place to live; only 36 per cent opted for ‘worse place’. From public ownership to progressive taxation, British attitudes have long hardened in favour of a left agenda.

A socialist government is not inevitable, of course. The British Tories represent the most formidable electoral force on earth. They are panic-stricken and in chaos, but a profoundly polarised electorate means that the next election is not yet Labour’s for the taking. The vested interests that depend on the decaying status quo, and that invest so much of their money propping up the Tories, are not prepared to watch their ship sink without a fight.

But the lesson of the last few years is surely that only a confident, assertive, radical left that is prepared to go on the offensive can succeed. That is the spirit which runs through the 1968 New Left Manifesto. And its lessons and insights may belong to another era – but we have much to learn from them today.

Owen Jones is a writer, activist, commentator, and Guardian columnist. He is the author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class (Verso 2011) and The Establishment (Penguin 2014).

  • The 2018 reissue of May Day Manifesto 1968 is currently available for £5.50 in the Verso sale.

Thank you to Owen and to Verso for giving the Raymond Williams Society permission to republish this Introduction.

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