1968: the Year that Never Ended

What follows are the primary ingredients of the "political-cultural stew" in which the Mexican historian and essayist Paco Ignacio Taibo says that he and many other militant students involved in the 1968 Movement "came of age": Che Guevara, Che's face, Guevarism, the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnamese resistance, the Spartacists, Lenin, Mao, Maoists, neo-Maoists, Trotsky, four different species of Trotskyism, no sex, no drugs, "rock" musicians such as Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul & Mary, Donovan, the Beatles, Donovan . . . shall I go on? I didn't think so.

What a bizarre combination of the repulsive and the utterly bland! On the one hand: where are Emilio Zapata, the young Karl Marx, forty different species of anarchism, Blanqui, Durruti, Nestor Mahkno, Kropotkin, the Paris Communards, the Kronstadt sailors, Rosa Luxemburg, the Spanish anarchists of 1936 and Wilhelm Reich? And, on the other hand: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks and the Velvet Underground? All missing.

But Taibo's brand-new book, '68 (Seven Stories Press, 2004), doesn't deserve the scorn and insults that are heaped upon repulsive/bland student radicals in the Situationist International's 1966 pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life. Originally published under the title Fantasmas nuestros de cada dia (Our Everyday Ghosts) in 1991, supplemented by two epilogues, and translated from the Spanish by ex-situationist Donald Nicholson-Smith, '68 is an exemplary exercise in constructive self-criticism:

Our militancy was old-style even as we aspired to the new. We were sectarian. The enemy was powerful, alien, and far away. The State was a bookish abstraction, so it made more sense to devote ourselves to interminable disputes with our pseudo-allies -- the militants of the neighboring party, the next sect along, the devotees of some parallel cult. We were absorbed by ideological warfare, and we produced unreadable newspapers laden with quotations from Lenin or Mao, Trotsky or Bakunin -- depending on which particular club we belonged to [...] In the working-class neighborhoods we visited on occasion (after all, the manuals we had been reading and quoting until we bored ourselves stiff decreed that it was up to the working class to make the revolution), we were strange birds who showed up, then took off after showering the factory with unreadable pamphlets that the employees of the Azcapotzalco refinery or the workers at the Vallejo or Xalostoc plants would later use for ass wipes [...] We were barely aware of the railroad-workers' movement and its jailed leader Demetrio Vallejo [...] We felt absolutely no connection to Morelos, Zapata, [and] Villa.

Over the course of Taibo's recollection of the three months' of strikes, rallies and marches that preceded the massacre of 2 October 1968, "we" begin to develop a new "style" of militancy, remember "a lost language in which we could converse with the rest of the people," and have real conversations. During a massive demonstration in late July 1968,

one brigade of left-wing militants from the Department of Sciences found itself surrounded [and protected] by a group of vocational students who had learned to belt the riot police with stones using slingshots, then take refuge in the courtyards of their school. The militants taught the vocational students how to produce fliers and organize propaganda brigades. And the militants in turn learned that even bricks need to be aimed high and that Molotov cocktails should have very short fuses [...]

And then, in late August 1968: "Groups of workers started showing up at the schools, and workers' committees for solidarity for the students started to form." By September, "we had taken over the street, a street that led to other places, to points of no return, to the end of the world." Taibo asks,

Could the government see further than us? Did they anticipate the emergence of a vast student movement, and were they out to strangle it in its infancy? Was one faction of the government using this as a stick with which to beat another in the presidential race? [...] The May [1968] events in France had made headlines in all the papers, as had the Prague Spring, the student mobilization in Brazil, the occupation of Columbia University in New York, and the Cordoba uprising in Argentina. Did these idiots [in Mexico] really think that some sort of international contagion was at work?

Yes, that's exactly what those idiots thought. And they also believed that, with the Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Mexico City on 12 October 1968, they had to act quickly and effectively. "We expected the blow," Taibo writes, "but we did not know how brutal it would be."

On 2 October, the Mexican Army, under the command of General Crisoforo Monzon, confronted the hundreds of thousands of striking students and workers who'd assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. Though the truth was denied for a very long time, "today," Taibo writes, "everybody knows that the provocateurs were soldiers disguised as civilians, each wearing a single identifying glove, soldiers from the Olimpia Battalion. Today everyone knows that flares thrown from a military helicopter were the signal to open fire, the signal for the army to begin to shoot into the unarmed crowd." Over a 1,000 people were seriously injured; hundreds more were killed.

As if it were trying to demonstrate the ruthlessness of its special forces, showcase the modernity of its spectacle, and/or destroy all of the evidence of the terrible crime (mass murder) that it had just committed, the Mexican Army collected the dead bodies, took them to a hangar in the military part of a near-by airport, and loaded them into planes that eventually dumped the bodies into the Gulf of Mexico. Judicial-police officers visited near-by hospitals, looking for survivors of the massacre who'd sought treatment for their injuries, and either arrested, tortured or "disappeared" the survivors that they found. (The next day, President Diaz Ordaz could "plausibly deny" that the massacre even took place.) And so a terrible question gets asked at the beginning of Taibo's book, never gets answered, and so continues to echo and resound throughout what follows: "Where did they throw our dead? Where did they toss our dead? Where, for fuck's sake, did they throw our dead?" This echo is the sound of 1968, the year that never ended.

"In memory," Taibo says, "the second of October has replaced the hundred days of the strike [that preceded it]. The black magic of the cult of defeat and of the dead has reduced '68 to Tlatelolco alone." But Taibo knows that the 1968 movement was much more than just 2 October, that it was also about "real democracy practiced for 123 days [...] of university occupations and assemblies at all levels." And so he reconstructs '68, both with and against his memories of it. "Memory tends to simplify," Taibo says, "whether by retaining absurdly trivial anecdotes or by seeing the big picture strictly in black and white terms." The key to the reconstruction of '68 is combining the anecdotal with the analytical, the "the poetry of everyday life" with the critique of the State. In regards "[c]ollective memory, but also even the tiniest, most insignificant memory of a personal kind," Taibo says, "I suspect, in fact, that the one can barely survive without the other, that legend cannot be constructed without anecdote" (emphasis added).

The reconstructed '68 must be more than just history: it must also be a legend, a living legend of freedom. Otherwise, it will disappear. In his 1993 epilogue, Taibo explains that, in response to the first edition of his book and the political activism that accompanied the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the massacre, there was a concerted attempt to produce an "objective" or "digestible version of the facts that would in no way upset the present of the yuppies of Ali Baba and his forty (PRI-ist) thieves," a version of the atrocity that could be "aired in public in all its certitude, then duly vanish from the popular middle-class imagination." To keep '68 true to itself and safe from these "objectivity hounds," Taibo declares, "I am thus in favor of the fantasy, the antiauthoritarian myth of the Movement [...] As for objectivity, I don't give a royal shit about objectivity. Because, when you get down to it, this is a myth that gives them [the government] a major pain in the ass."

A great writer, Taibo gets the balance between the anecdotal and the analytical right every time. Of particular delight are his chapter titles. Some are one or two words long, and function like index entries or file names, such as "Confetti" and "Nabbed"; others are longer and descriptive, such as "Wherein We Learn That the Tanks Have Arrived" and "When Maricarmen Fernandez Grabbed My Ass"; still others -- the best ones -- don't name or describe the action about to unfold, but float above or around it, like titles for or lines from poems ("It is Made Clear that Barricades, Once Built, Lodge Immediately in Memory" and "Memo to Amnesiacs on How to Dent the Armor of a Tank with a Metal Pipe").

Some of Taibo's chapters are devoted to the "big picture" of the Movement's development; others are devoted to details or stories along the way. In one remarkable chapter, "Menu" (quoted below in its entirety), these two orders of memory are presented on the same dish:

Menu for the Nguyen Van Troi Cafeteria, Department of Political Sciences, in early August 1968. Cooks: a Maoist, a leftist Christian Democrat, a Trotskyist, two miniskirted Guevarists. To drink: agua de Jamaica (hibiscus flower tea). To eat: chicken soup, boiled potatoes with salt, and bananas for dessert. Menu remains unchanged for four days, until food donated by Mixcoac Market vendors is finished. No siesta. Brigade activity in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl: newspaper distribution, factory visit, assembly. At night: massive graffiti-painting campaign. There are one hundred painting brigades in this school. Thousands of painting brigades to paint the entire humanities wing. The city as rainbow. A quick slogan: HOCICON! (Big mouth -- in reference to the supremo of the Republic). A not-so-quick slogan (because it has one letter more): LIBERTAD!

But the greatest thing about Taibo is that, despite all the twists and turns, he never gets distracted from what's important. In the 1993 epilogue, he wants a "Truth Commission" and he wants it to deal with the following six issues:

1. Clarification of the charge against the Movement that it was the outcome of a plot or conspiracy.
2. Origins and motives of the repressive action of July 1968.
3. Genesis and unfolding of the events of 2 October 1968 and the identification of those responsible.
4. Clarification of the contradictory information released concerning those killed and wounded during the '68 movement.
5. Legitimacy of the penal judgments passed as part of the repression of the Movement.
6. Definitive assignment of responsibility for those events.

Ten years later, in his epilogue dated November 2003, Taibo is still saying, "However, as long as the murderers are not brought to justice, the wounds will fester [...] As for us, obdurate as ever, thirty-five years down the line, we are back in the street yet again."

--26 June 2004.

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