The 1970s and Popular Struggle

Image of a protest on a street.

Image by Teemu Paananen.

The 1970s was a decade of changes. Capitalism had its wings clipped by workers who understood their power and responded with a new mutation that became known as neoliberalism. The old colonial empires—already fading—suffered defeat. Foremost among the latter was Portugal, which not only lost its colonies, but saw the fascist regime it had been under overthrown by a leftist and popular coup. The US military saw its Vietnam adventure end in a television news special broadcast I will never forget. On the other hand, a popular revolution at the ballot box and in the streets of Chile was overthrown by the unholy conspiracy of the CIA, the White House and various US corporations. Thousands died during the coup and thousands more were imprisoned. The architects of neoliberal capitalism moved in and caused the lives of millions more to change for the worse—all in the name of profit and control. Lots of profit.

As someone who began the 1970s in ninth grade at a school whose students were mostly children of US military men stationed in Frankfurt, BRD and ended the decade living with a half-dozen folks in a two-bedroom apartment next to the recycling center in Berkeley, CA., I feel I experienced the time through a variety of lenses. In his new book The Subversive Seventies, author Michael Hardt provides a similar experience to the reader. Also, like Hardt, my understanding of what was occurring around me and what I was often participating in was colored by a politically left and culturally underground perspective. Although I had attended a teach-in and vigil against the US war in Vietnam during the 1969 October Moratorium Against the War, the first large and militant protest I actually attended was a few days after the 1970 invasion of Cambodia by US forces. It began in downtown Frankfurt and made its way toward the headquarters of several US military commands that were housed in the IG Farben building—a building which was once the administrative headquarters of the war criminal chemical corporation IG Farben and was then where the US military ran its less than popular activities.

Hardt notes the shifting of the revolutionary focus from the industrial proletariat to students, lumpen, youth, women and third world movements that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. He points out that this was the case in every European nation except for Italy, where the workerist and Autonomen movements came out of the factories. In contrast to most other observers, Hardt argues that it was the intensified radicalization of workers that manifested itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s that convinced the capitalist class to shift their industrial activities overseas to places where there were few if any unions. As he reminds the reader, not only were the radical (even revolutionary) workers attempting to realign the factory floor via wildcat strikes and other “unauthorized” actions, these workers were also challenging the union bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies had given up their radical roots and political activities for decent salaries and complacent contracts. The radicals wanted more. They wanted to change society and the economic system that drove it. In other words, what had become a union conspiracy with capital needed to become an uprising against capitalism.

The Subversive Seventies is a global exploration. From the Fiat factory complex in Turin, Italy to the Lip watch factory in France; from the auto plants in Detroit to the auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio workers were on the rise. In the streets of Oakland, New York City, Chicago and many other US cities where the Black Panthers had organized to the streets of urban South Africa and Santiago, Chile, the revolutionary surge was both grassroots and widespread. Japanese radicals and farmers fought against an airport extension by camping on the land intended for the project. In Kwangju, Korea, the residents set up their own municipal government after being attacked and cut off by the regime in Seoul. It lasted less than a week, but it lives on in the spirit of the southern Korean left. The crackdowns by the states being challenged were quite often brutal and even murderous. Some on the Left responded with their own armed attacks—the Weatherman/Weather Underground chose targets chosen for their connection to the US war on the Vietnamese, Black Americans and US imperialism in general. In Germany, the targets of the Rote Armee Fraktion were US military installations, law enforcement and capitalists with bloody hands. In Italy, the fascists took advantage of the fear produced by the Italian media and politicians; fascist bombings were calculated to cause mass casualties and blamed on the Left. Meanwhile the Left armed militants of the Rote Brigada captured and killed a politician when their demands were not met. It is Hardt’s contention that these groups involved in armed struggle operated in ways which were appropriate to the situation, but it was the groups building popular organizations that held the key to a potentially new world. As we know, it was (and is) a world that the capitalists and their cohorts were intent on defeating.

Antinuclear struggles, feminist awakenings, gay liberation and liberation theologies are all incorporated into this clearly written and studiously researched discussion of the 1970s and the possibilities of popular power that decade represented. The fact that we are still fighting many of the battles introduced in this text does not detract from the successes of that decade or the lessons learned. It does remind us of the powers arrayed against; powers more entrenched and more desperate. This makes The Subversive Seventies both a history of the past and a portent of a potential future.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com