Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible
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France was grinding to a halt.
Revolution was in the air. It was the high point of a wave of radicalism that had been sweeping the world since the mids. One editorial in a French newspaper said, almost in disbelief: " "Now we know that a socialist revolution is not impossible in a Western European country, and perhaps in two or three. At that time social democracy was seen as complicit in the maintenance and defence of the status quo - a status quo that offered little in the way of a qualitatively different and better future.
Be realistic, demand the impossible
Social democracy claimed that it wanted a 'capitalism with a human face'. Its proponents considered themselves to be progressive but, in practice, they defended the capitalist order and its accompanying exploitation and inequality, the rule of a tiny elite. Ostensibly on the side of the working class, social democracy, as it always did, defended the interests of the capitalist class.
Social democracy, echoing its 'inspiration', the mediocre 19th century theorist Eduard Bernstein, claimed it could bring fundamental political and social change through the ballot box. But all that 'inspired' was the politics of spectacle.
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The working class was expected to vote for one of a set of political parties that offered little more than business as usual, couched in the language of 'pragmatism' and 'compromise'. Che Guevara : "Be realistic, demand the impossible. Instead the words of revolutionary Che Guevara rang out:"Be realistic, demand the impossible'.
Less than a year earlier on October 9, , the world had learnt of the murder of Ernesto Che Guevara. The words of Leon Trotsky, writing about the Russian Revolution, spring to mind:. Paris though did not because St Petersburg. May did not become October The Fourth International leader Ernest Mandel observed that the events of May lacked "the conscious leap' to revolutionary change. But even though there was no revolution, the lives of millions of people were changed forever. Student movements in the U.
Then French students began protests against the educational system, which was highly centralized, elitist and conservative. Students demonstrated and organized meetings and occupied their universities. The protests about education quickly spread to broader issues.
This won the students support from other sections of the population. Activists wrote and printed , copies of different posters, printed at the Ecole des Beaux Arts that they pasted up on the walls of Paris. Journalists and technicians also produced films that chronicled these events. The students fought against the police behind barricades with cobblestones.
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The pitched battles in the student Latin Quarter on the Left Bank affected the rest of the French population. After police repression on the night of May 11, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the student leaders, called on the rest of the population for support. Two days later the student struggles ignited a general strike by French workers. Not since the s had there been real open opposition movements to Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.
see url The changes initiated by CP reformers followed several years of struggles to win economic and political reforms. They were supported and extended by a movement of young people and a big part of the population, who actively challenged state censorship, pushing for a free press and open discussions on radio and TV. The Prague movement continued for seven months. This act of courage by the people of Czechoslovakia inspired people all over Eastern Europe. The movement was eventually put down by a Soviet invasion in August with tanks and half a million troops.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, like that in Hungary in , exposed the hypocritical claim that the Soviet Union represented socialism and the interests of the workers of the world. In the summer of , students in Mexico City began a movement in response to the violent repression by the Institutional Revolutionary Party PRI government, which had been in power since the end of the Mexican Revolution in Students occupied schools and universities around the country to demand change.
On the eve of the summer Olympics in Mexico, there was a brutal attack by the Mexican police and armed forces. They fired on a crowd of 15, in Mexico City, killing hundreds of people and arresting thousands. It is believed that some bodies were dumped in the Gulf of Mexico. The PRI government was desperate to hide their crimes from their own people as well as the international athletes and world dignitaries and press arriving at the Olympics. In many other countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East, there were also student demonstrations, marches and protests, as well as strikes and rebellions involving workers and the general population.
A global movement supported the struggle of the people of Vietnam against U. It inspired students and many others. An entire generation, on every continent, shouted similar anti-war slogans. Many militant Black activists in the U. During , a number of different movements began to work together. The Peace and Freedom Party in California created an alliance between Black activists and white activists from different movements who were fed up with the limited choice between the Democrats and Republicans.
This effort spread to other places and raised the idea that third party politics were possible. Black athletes called for an international boycott of the summer Olympics in Mexico because the Olympic Committee had agreed to allow an all-white South African team to compete. Their boycott was supported by some African countries and by other athletes from around the world.
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This protest was not well-known until two Black U. The French example inspired youth around the whole world. As they watched the French events unfold, they had the feeling that anything was possible. In France, the struggles by students led to a general strike involving seven million workers. The strike by woman factory workers in a Ford plant in Dagenham, England quickly showed the linkage between the struggles of the working class and the fight by women for equal rights. When Danny Cohn-Bendit, an anarchist activist, was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, he appeared in court at the same time as a trial began for student activist leaders in Warsaw, Poland.
The war and the resulting dissent caused divisions in the U. Robert Kennedy, seeing the disarray, proclaimed his candidacy and began his campaign, only to be assassinated in June in California. After King, he became the second major U. People watched the Convention and the police riot on TV. After this fiasco, and the refusal of the Democrats to oppose the war, many decided that they would refuse to vote in the coming election. When the dust settled, it was the right-wing Republican, Richard M. Nixon, who won the presidency.
In , much like today, it was much easier for people to agree on what they were against than to decide exactly what they were for. The distrust of organizations and leaders often meant a lack of order and cohesion. Anarchist militants like Danny Cohn-Bendit were seen as spokespeople, particularly in the media. The lack of viable alternative groups and new leaders allowed the existing major political parties and personalities to continue to dominate the political scene.
Some well-known activists of later became politicians, enthusiastically serving the ruling class. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a Marxist intellectual, became a neo-liberal President of Brazil in the s, and Chandrike Bandaraike, a Sri Lankan student activist in Paris in , became the neo-liberal anti-union president of Sri Lanka. Tom Hayden, one of the main U. The movement of modified the map of the French left, giving a boost to the revolutionary groups.
Looking back, we can see that the events in Czechoslovakia were a major contributing factor to the next 20 years of opposition that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet empire. While the PRI continued in power for decades, the student struggles in Mexico further undermined its legitimacy. And after , it was no longer able to continue its rule unopposed. For young people looking for revolutionary ideas, Maoism held a great attraction. Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and ruler of the Chinese state, had openly declared his opposition to imperialism, supported the Vietnamese NLF, and even declared his support for Black liberation in the U.
Maoist groups proliferated around the world, either as nationalist movements, splits from the official Communist Parties, or parties formed from scratch by young activists. These organizations carried out a range of daring activities. In the U. They organized resistance within the U.
The collapse of grand narratives
Some groups, most famously the Weathermen, carried out bombings and attacks on the symbols of U. Other Maoist organizations carried out important activity in the working class, in factories and coalmines, and some of the best militants of the Black struggle were drawn to these groups. But in spite of their heroic and honest attempts at revolutionary activity, these groups were hampered by their political framework. Maoism was a nationalist movement developed in the midst of the struggle of the Chinese peasantry against colonial domination, and had little to offer strategically to the working class in the industrial centers of Europe and the United States.
They had little impact in the working class, focusing instead in the student and middle-class movements of the time. Even worse, when the Trotskyist movement did have an influence, it often looked to social forces other than the working class, claiming they were the new revolutionary vanguard. They romanticized guerilla warfare or terrorist activity. And in the West they often continued to look to traditional Left and social democratic organizations like the Greens, Socialist Parties SPs , or in the U.