The 1968 Flop

[Editor’s note: what follows is Peter Linebaugh’s keynote to the Global ’68 Conference at the Collège d’Études Mondiales, Paris, on May 2, 2018]

It was the year of the Great Refusal, a “public moment” to quote Saint Just, when the social contract was challenged. Allen Ginsberg chanted “Om” amidst the police riot at the Chicago Democratic convention. The Beatles released “The White Album.” Muhammad Ali, the heavy weight champion of the world, was not permitted to fight owing to his opposition to the war in Vietnam. The Women’s Liberation Party protested the Miss America pageant affirming that women are people not livestock. Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley made reggae music in Jamaica that made the whole world dance. The fastest men alive bowed their heads and raised their arms and joined their fingers into fists of black power and workers’ struggle.

Rebels could read the writing on the walls as the graffiti of Paris took the imagination to unprecedented heights against the imperialist Leviathan. “The whole world is watching.” To turn the world upside down required taking the police command—“Up against the wall, motherfucker”—and applying it to the commanders of the police. Below it all was an infrastructure depending on rubber, iron, chrome, coal, oil, and built on them was the Keynesian model of economic development and a method of work known as Fordism. The speed-up on the auto assembly line killed the workers and stuffed huge numbers of gas-guzzling vehicles onto the asphalted highways. Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible.

I am going to speak about two big themes and two little ones. I am going to do this partly as reminiscence and partly as commentary on two revolutionaries of the time, Walter Rodney and Grace Lee Boggs. My two little themes, the “flop” and “R.B.,” will come at the end. My two big themes are thanatocracy and the commons. Thanatocracy and the commons are notions that I apply in retrospect: Their seeds were sown in ’68, as I learned from my comrades and colleagues in the struggle.

I speak as an historian who in 1968 was an apprentice learning my craft as a graduate student. I helped occupy one of the buildings taken at Columbia University in April 1968.[1] Five buildings were occupied, the first one Hamilton Hall, named after Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the USA and the key figure organizing in 1792 the capitalist transition from the slavery of the Caribbean sugar plantation to the slavery of the USA cotton plantation. Walter Rodney was a descendant of those sugar-producing slaves; Martin Luther King was a descendant of the cotton producing slaves. It was with poetic justice that Hamilton Hall was occupied by the descendants of slaves, the Student Afro-American Society. The Students for a Democratic Society took the next building (Low) and then another (Math). Architecture students took a fourth building (Avery), and a fifth (Fayerweather) by graduate students including us history students.

We opposed the University plans to enclose a commons, park used by Harlem residents in order to build a gymnasium used by the well-to-do white students of the University. We also opposed the University’s association with the Pentagon and the imperialist war machine. Our actions followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a few weeks earlier and the rebellions of outrage that erupted in city after city. Our actions also followed by two months the commencement of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the stunning capture of the cultural and ancient capital of Vietnam, Hué.

On the night before the surprise attack on Hué commanders of the liberation front told their troops that the battle “will bring forth world-wide change,” and so it proved. The strategy in the battle for Hué when poorly armed foot soldiers held off the artillery and bombing of a technological giant was simple, “Hold tight to the enemy’s belt,” that is, get so close that for fear of bombing its own it will not bomb the city. The strategy was good enough for long enough to fulfill that “world-wide change.”

Bill Sales from the Student Afro-American Society spoke to us: “You strike a blow at the gym, you strike a blow for the Vietnamese people. You strike a blow at Low Library and you strike a blow for the freedom fighters in Angola, Mozambique, South Africa.”

We seized five buildings and held them for a week. We also seized, if I may put it this way, faculties of knowledge. The bourgeoisie maintains its dominance by the nature of the knowledge it imparts to students.[2] This includes white supremacy. Again, the students in Hamilton Hall led the way by renaming the building “Nat Turner Hall of Malcolm X University,” two names inseparable from the militance of revolutionary change, Nat Turner killed in 1831 and Malcolm X killed in 1965.

Few people in 1968 had learned from Malcolm’s injunction to study history. He showed that the ideologies and culture of white supremacy depended on deliberate ignorance and cultivated amnesia in the service of slavery. In the universities, in the schools, in the libraries, in the movies, radio, and TV there was no Afro-American history to speak of. Few people knew that history or that Nat Turner had led a rebellion of liberation based on his experiences on a slave plantation and his reading of the Bible. The critique of ideology and the occupation of buildings went hand in hand.

For me this meant history. Only a month prior to King’s murder (4 April) The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders had released its report (the “Kerner Report” it was called after its chairman, the governor of Illinois) with its famous conclusion, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” What about class analysis, I wondered? N’oublions jamais la lutte des classes.

I went into 1968 as a New Leftist. My goal was the human equality and dignity which true communism at least in theory promised. The means of attaining it was by means of the working-class who alone could expropriate the expropriators. Struggle was a process, and it obviously included slavery, and perhaps even more obviously but rarely admitted it included the labors of reproduction, i.e. the unpaid labor of women. This is obvious to us now only because a generation of Afro Americans and of women scholars have fought the battle of ideas. ‘68 had to do with “history from below” (l’histoire par en bas), and the struggle to establish Afro-American history, women’s history, and labor history.

As an apprentice historian I was repelled by the conservative nature of the Columbia professoriat, and blown away The Making of the English Working Class by the English historian, E.P. Thompson. His book restored the redemptive power of the working-class in its struggles. The Autobiography of Malcolm X had pointed to something similar where the ‘criminal’ becomes a figure of social change. I found these two themes combined in the 18th century. Not only Thompson but Marcuse too reached back to the 18th century, “the ghettos can be compared with the faubourgs of Paris.” The class struggle was fought in terms of Tyburn where public hangings took place, and crowds assembled as frequently as eight times a year.

Already in the Fayerweather Commune, as we styled ourselves, exuberance, love, and solidarity were the mood, despite the terror that awaited us from nocturnal police violence and their matraqs. At Fayerweather Hall the food was brought into the building in baskets pulled up from generous providers on Amsterdam Avenue. We were not the only building provisioned by the Harlem community. “We knew we were catching a peek of another universe, and that glimpse would keep us solid, whole, honest—and that vision turned us into a commune.”[3]

When we called ourselves at Columbia a “commune” it was in conscious solidarity with the communards of Paris. At the time we were just barely beginning to think about the relationship between the actual practices of commoning as a means of social subsistence and the commune as an attempt to scale up principles of mutuality and equality to society as a whole.

We saluted Paris. With a wide paintbrush I painted across the wall “Dessous les pavés c’est la plage.” And Paris saluted us. Che Guevara was murdered by agents of American imperialism in the Bolivian highlands in the previous autumn. He had said “Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams!” So, we were thrilled when newspapers in Paris printed a photo of a French student holding a placard with a new version of Che’s slogan, “Create Two, Three, Many Columbia’s!”

I don’t know whether Walter Rodney met with Che Guevara when the young, brilliant, revolutionary, history student visited Cuba in 1962. I do know that Walter Rodney’s talks to students, to Rastafarians, to the poor people of Kingston’s gullies, to the followers of the Reverend Henry, R.B., so frightened the Jamaica authorities that in October 1968, one year after Che’s death, they declared him persona non grata. Rodney called his talks “groundings.” What frightened them so? Perhaps it was that Rodney too was a “repairer of the breach,” i.e. shared the vision described by the prophet, “And they shall be of thee, that shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations for many generations, and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach, and the restorer of streets to dwell in.” Rodney answered the question himself. “What was discussed obviously bothered the regime, because I did not hesitate to raise the question of revolutionary social change.”

Rodney was invited to the Congress of Black Writers meeting in Montreal. The letter of invitation called attention to the “fantastic outburst of the peoples of the world.” It asked, “Where then does the Black emancipation movement fit into this objective world situation? … What must we do and how must we achieve our objectives as Black people in a changing objective world? This is the purpose of the Congress of Black Writers.”[4]

Two remarks from these groundings have general significance. The first arises from a talk early in 1968 when he observed that “the consciousness among students as far as racial question is concerned had been heightened by several incidents on the world scene—notably, the hangings in Rhodesia and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

We had heard about the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because many of us had joined with him and accepted in our philosophical discussions the goal of “the beloved community.” We knew he opposed imperialism, as he opposed racism and the consumer society, the triplets of evil. King’s goal “was integration but his strategy was confrontation, and in the actual struggle the first was turned into its opposite by the second.” We knew he was murdered while advocating for the sanitation workers who had been subject of exploitation and mechanical forms of violence.

But what were “the hangings in Rhodesia”? We in white America at the time had not heard about it. Three men were hanged on 6 March 1968, James Dhlamini, Victor Mlambo, and Duly Shadrack. Dlamini and Mlambo, who were in a black nationalist commando unit (“Crocodile Gang”), formed 1964 in Zambia (exile). They killed a white motorist four years earlier. The victim, Pieter Obeholzer, was a foreman at a wattle company on 4 June 1964. Although the Queen reprieved them, the lawless white supremacist regime of Rhodesia hanged them anyway.

Outside the USA the hangings were an international issue, global news, the issue of the day. There was a moment of silence in Indian parliament, rioting took place in Accra, questions were asked in the House of Commons in the UK. UDI itself was a huge political issue, being raised in the UN by e.g. Kwame Nkrumah, threats by the OAU to break off ties with the UK, so it threatened the whole Commonwealth project and it questioned UK commitment to a fair deal for colonial and former peoples.

The Wattle Company of eastern Zimbawe was founded in 1945 producing kiln dried timber for export. It managed forestry, and as such may have been part of forest expropriation of prior users. In 1956 its factory for producing wattle extract was commissioned in Chimanimani. The tannin from the black wattle tree is used for tanning leather (les sacs de cuire?). Extraction of forest products depended on the 1951 Native Land Husbandry Act which was “based on the premise that production in the African reserves would be boosted by a system or private ownership of land rather than the communal or customary rights to land that had existed hitherto.”[5] State terror in the form of hanging was associated with the enclosure of the common lands.

Murder and hanging raised the consciousness of the Jamaican students. Looking back on it we can see them as aspects of thanatocracy. The USA ruling class thought in terms of death and data, “body counts” and “kill ratios.” The massacre at My Lai took place 16 March 1968. Perhaps the most famous photo of the Vietnam War appeared on February 1. It showed the South Vietnamese police chief shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head at point blank range.[6] The number of people on death row in the USA in 1968 was 517. By 1982 it had doubled to 1,050. Within a very few years it had doubled again, so for instance in 1988 death row contained 2,124 people. At the beginning of this century it included three and a half thousand.[7] It has since hovered around 3,000. The historical parallel is lynching. The forms of social and political death belong to the science of thanatocracy, and they have a deep historical continuity as well as a vivid presence in, for example, Black Lives Matter. Rodney was fully alive to such summations of social oppression. The Rhodesian hangings on 6 March and King’s assassination one month are symptoms of a civilization based on death. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse, inspired by the contradictions of 1968, attempted to sum up human history as a conflict between two human instincts, Eros and Thanatos.[8]

Impelled by these findings a new look was cast on John Locke, the political theorist of private property. His comments on the death penalty no longer were theoretical. Sovereignty itself depended upon it. The power of legislation was defined by it. It could be executed for stealing a coat. This was the Caesar-like theory of thanatocracy, or government by death, symbolized by icons of church and state, as the sticks and axe of the fasces or the cross bars of the crucifixion show.

Percy Shelley said, “The first law which it becomes a Reformer to propose and support, at the approach of a period of great political change, is the abolition of the death penalty.” The first act of the Paris Commune in 1871 was the destruction of the guillotine and the abolition of the death penalty.

The May events broke through “the memory repression of organized labor.” Rodney was fond of quoting Che Guevara’s advice that every activist should carry a serious book in their knapsack. In 1972 Rodney published How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. He was assassinated in 1980.

At that writer’s conference in Montreal Walter Rodney called his presentation “History is a Weapon: African History in the Service of Black Liberation,” 12 October 1968.[9] In the spirit of 1968 which challenged the total society, Rodney began by showing civilization, at least white man’s civilization, for the fraud that it was. He then contrasted its slavery and individualism with a true civilization whose characteristics could be found in African history before European slavery and colonization. It had three characteristics.

“I’m talking about a hospitable society, not the odd individual,” Rodney said. “The whole society is geared towards a reciprocal relationship with those around. And this, to me, is very striking, and it seems to me that, as a principle for human organization, it is one of the facets about African cultural development to which greater attention should be paid.” This is what we are doing now. His evidence was from European documents. Hospitality “was rooted in the nature of their social organization, for instance the family was an agency of social relief, and the principle scaled up to the clan, and then to whole social organization. This was one characteristic of African civilization.

A second observed that human beings are always growing, always learning, until death. And that is why field researchers have found that when you go into an African society “you can go and find any old man. Find him, he might be sixty, he might be seventy, and with perspicacity he will point out to you elements of the culture and recall episodes of history going back more than a hundred years—in other words, more than his lifetime. Now this, to me, is tremendous.”

A third characteristic was self-rule by custom rather than by legislative statute. “How can we travel such huge distances from one end of the Empire of Mali to another and we don’t find any robbers, we don’t find any vagrants. If we lose something, when we turn up at the court of the king we find that thing has been transmitted there to be given to us.” It was amazing to [Europeans] because they were operating from the background of brigandage in Europe, highway robbery. I mean our society—well, capitalist society—is a robber society, so this explains the whole thing.” “So it was a question of restitution rather than retribution being meted out to him. It meant that if he stole, the object was to replace what he stole, not to put him into jail. I have never ever read of a jail in traditional African society.

They bring us to the second point we can take from Rodney in 1968. The first was thanatocracy. The second is the commons.

Grace Lee Boggs spoke in Detroit in November 1968 on “The Black Revolution in America.” “1) A revolution … involves a rapidly escalating struggle for power culminating in the forced displacement of the social groups or strata who have held economic and political power, 2) the destruction of one form of social organization which has been developed to meet the needs of a given society….” Looking back on the past 13 years, she discerns “a movement involving ever deeper layers of the oppressed masses whose grievances are deeply rooted in the nature of the system,” “a relatively brief period in the lifetime of a revolution.”[10] “Thus, in the course of the struggles for Black Power, there are beginning to emerge the elements of a new vision of society in which all the institutions of 20th century America are completely transformed.” Young Blacks do not have “that Founding Father complex which characterizes the average white American.” “… the Black revolution [is] the heart and core of the American revolution …”

The white power structure aims at making a Black middle class. The Black youth of the cities recognize “that they have become expendable to a highly automated and cybernated society and that they will have to destroy this society or be destroyed by it.” She spoke of the Black Panthers, DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), and FRUM (Ford Revolutionary Union Movement) and the auto workers of Detroit who fought to control of police, industry, housing, health; against the whole power structure, elimination of the profit system, anti-imperialist “following in the footsteps of Malcolm”

Grace Lee Boggs said that the USA is economically advanced and politically backward. The country is ripe for communism having “essentially solved the problem of developing the productive forces.” We longed that l’imagination prend le pouvoir. CLR James in his Notes on Dialectics (1948) wrote that workers are preparing a “to LEAP from objective conditions.” Four times on four separate lines he wrote,


James was requiring us to take leaps in our thinking. Æsop told a fable about leaping which Erasmus, Hegel, and Marx used to quote. It concerned a man who bragged in Rome about his great jump back in Rhodes, a thousand miles away. So to take him down a notch or two a bystander challenged the braggart with, hic Rhodus, hic salta (here’s Rhodes, jump here). Marx cites the challenge as a way to solve the riddle of surplus value which given the exchange of equivalents seems to produce something from nothing. Yes, your profit, rent, and interest—your surplus value—seems like this great leap, from a given quantity to a return on investment greater than that given. This is the illusion of financialization. We must leave the sphere of circulation where the exchange of equivalents is the rule, and finance is its most advanced form, and enter the sphere of the production.[11] If surplus value seems to originate in “nothing,” then the people of the planet are nothing too, for it is they who produce everything. This is precisely what Walter Rodney and Grace Lee Boggs said over and over again.

In 1968 “man” had never leapt so high as he did in October when Dick Fosbury set a world record in the high jump (7’ 4”) in Mexico City Olympics by going over the bar backwards, that is, facing not terra firma but the heavens. This style of jumping became known as the “Fosbury flop.” And not by “man” alone, for by amazing coincidence Debbie Brill of Canada had developed the same method of jumping at the same time, called the “Brill bend.” Her first international competition was in 1968 at age 15 when she jumped six feet.[12]

I take Fosbury’s Flop as a symbol for the year. “To flop” is to sleep as you might do in a “flop-house,” and it is also to be relaxed as when you walk around in flip-flops. 1968 was a failure in some respects, a flop. The Sixty-Eighters did not turn the world upside down. The people of the southern half of the planet are poorer than ever, and those of the north richer. Yet the north has extracted wealth from the South.

The world needs turning upside down in two senses: first, in a social-political sense by the abolition of classes and thanatocracy, and second, in a planetary-geographical sense to restore the commons which has been breached. I conclude with the efforts to restore the breach. Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King sought a means of doing this with a poor people’s campaign. This year it is being commemorated with a new Poor People’s Campaign led by Reverend Barber. The campaign shall be extended to twenty state capitols in the USA beginning on Mother’s Day 2018 to “repair the breach and restore the streets to dwell in.”


[1] See the oral history with testimony from more than sixty participants, strikers, sitters-in, occupiers, and others in Paul Cronin (ed.), A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68 (Columbia University Press, 2018).

[2] Perry Anderson quotes Louis Althusser that “the true fortress of class influence is the university.”

[3] Hilton Obenzinger, Busy Dying (Tucson: Chax, 2008), p. 88.

[4] Michael O. West, “Walter Rodney and Black Power: Jamaican Intelligence and US Diplomacy,” African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies. Vol. 1, No. 2 (November 2005)

[5] Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo (eds.), Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from the Pre-colonial Period to 2008 (Weaver Press: Zimbabwe, 2009), p. 123.

[6] Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executes Viet Cong Captain Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém.

[7] Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Capital Punishment” for Years 1968—2013.

[8] An Essay on Liberation (Beacon Press, 1969), p. 26.

[9] Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers (Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications: London, 1969).

[10] Toni Cade Bambara, The Black Woman: An Anthology (1969).

[11] This is why the next chapter, chapter six, is called “The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power.”

[12] The important thing to understand concerns not the ascent but the descent. A fall from over seven feet can break bones. These jumps depended on soft landings.

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