2 October marks 50 years since the 1968 massacre in Tlatelolco, Mexico, when the army was used to mow down student protesters on the eve of the Olympics. We publish this detailed article by Ubaldo Oropeza, editor of La Izquierda Socialista, about the movement, its origins, development and aftermath, as well as the main lessons that can be drawn from it.
"... the perspectives for the development of the movement that you lead are with the workers (...) in the big demonstrations that you carry out, the people throw pieces of plastic or paper from the buildings to cover themselves in the rain; when the poor people, who you can see from their clothing barely have what’s necessary to survive, approach the demonstrators, applaud them, accept their propaganda and try to reciprocate by distributing bread or fruit among them, when this happens, it is because the people, even without the control of their organisations, even without the possibility of making their voices heard, look for channels to express their support (...) Listen to the people, students!" (Mexican journalist Víctor Rico Galán, letter to the movement of 68 from the prison of the Lecumberri)
"It seemed that the strike had wanted to have a few random experiences and to be abandoned. But it was nothing but an appearance. Actually, the strike was going to unfold in all its amplitude (...) The strike dominates the situation and feeling on safe ground, annuls all the decisions taken until then by the spirit of moderation (...) As the number of strikers increases, its security becomes greater." (Leon Trotsky, 1905)
50 years ago, thousands of Mexican youth took to the streets to fight for democratic rights against their authoritarian government. It was a time when Mexican workers’ organisations had more than 3 million members under their control, when the youth organisations had been co-opted, either by bribery or repression by the ruling party (PRI) and when, at an international level, the revolution in France had come to inspire some student leaders.
The force and speed with which the mobilisation unfolded surprised not only the government, but the movement itself. All the schools of the University of Mexico (UNAM), the National Polytechnic Institute, Chapingo Autonomous University and even many of the private schools in Mexico City were placed under the control of strike committees formed as part of a plan for an indefinite general strike.
The support of workers came quickly. The democratic unions like the SME and the ordinary unions that, in previous years, helped struggle for union democracy, enthusiastically supported this movement. But they did not go beyond passive support. The ideal situation would have been the formation of a united front to link up the workers’ and students’ struggles. The support should have become a single struggle.
The response of the state was immediate repression. On the night of 26 July, there was talk of a thousand arrests — the prelude to a tragic end. However, as often happens, repression only emboldened the movement and forced the students to rise like giants to answer the aggression.
This dynamic of repression and protection, the need to push the struggle beyond the students and the need to counter all the trash that the media launched against the movement resulted in the need for a leading body that could be its voice. The National Strike Council (Consejo Nacional de Huelga: CNH) was formed from representatives elected by assemblies of each of the striking schools. It was tasked with making decisions for the movement, while cultivating the struggle’s general perspectives.
In more than one confrontation, it became clear that state violence would not end the strike. Younger students formed information brigades that on several occasions, due to the pressure of circumstances, were transformed into self-defence brigades. The Protest Committees displayed impressive bravery when the police and army tried to detain them in public squares or on public transport. The most emblematic example was the defence of the youth of Casco de Santo Tomás.
The surroundings of this school became a battlefield on the evening of 23 September. It is not known exactly how many died in the battle, but undoubtedly casualties weren't only on the side of the students.
On the morning of 2 October, talks were held between student representatives and the government. On the part of the CNH, there was a willingness to engage in public dialogue and end the conflict, in spite of the death toll and occupation of UNAM main campus and the Polytechnic. As a sign of willingness to resolve the conflict, the CNH suspended a mobilisation that was scheduled for that same day in the afternoon from the Plaza of the Tres Culturas to the Casco de Santo Tomás.
At 5 o'clock in the afternoon, a meeting was scheduled to publicise the government's proposals and draw up an action plan for the following days. More than five thousand young people, workers, housewives etc. attended. What happened after is well known: brutal repression that left hundreds dead, perhaps as many as 500. The deaths and arrests caused a state of shock, and fear seized many of those who managed to escape and forced them into hiding.
The blow was devastating. A few weeks after, the CNH voted to end the strike and dismantle the schools’ Protest Committees in order to supposedly regroup.
These events brought about many of the democratic freedoms and freedom of expression that Mexicans now enjoy. The student movement was the inspiration for the workers’ movement that, during the 70s, led the fight for union democracy known as the "Workers' Insurgency."
But the most important legacy of this movement was the experience for future generations. Those successes and mistakes must be understood. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat the same mistakes. This is a law of history itself.
In the following article, we will delve into the dynamics of this movement, its origins and the results from the repression exercised by the state. We will draw a balance sheet of the necessary lessons to help us face the upcoming battles and emerge victorious.
The authors of this document are now part of the only organisation that has survived the passage of 40 years: the Committee of Student Struggle of the ESIME (CLESIME). This is a small tribute to all our dead brothers and sisters who daily walked the universities’ hallways demanding to raise their flag, as well as all those comrades who through their effort and dedication have kept the wonderful Committee centre alive.
For our part, we are committed to not let this historical memory die as we draw the conclusions of our struggles. Our promise is to fight for the creation of a permanent, militant working-class party, with strong roots among the workers’ organisations that will tirelessly struggle to transform society. These are the most important conclusions of 1968.
The international context
1968 represented the peak of the post-war boom, which was accompanied by a massive development of the productive forces. In Europe specifically, the reconstruction brought huge investment in the means of production. This immensely transformed the class balance of forces in favour of the workers, which was totally unnoticed by the vast majority of ‘left’ leaders.
In Latin America, a nascent generation of youth was inspired by the events of the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the figure of Che Guevara, both of which fortified activism in the universities. The national liberation movements against imperialist intervention also played a key role in political agitation. One of the most emblematic of these was the war in Vietnam, due to its international significance. These youth mobilisations not only dragged new layers into political struggle, but on many occasions acted as historical accidents, spawning genuine mass mobilisations that, as in the case of France, ended in revolutionary developments.
Thanks to the boom, the bourgeoisie had the luxury of banging on about a new "great society", in which democratic freedoms would be ensured and preserved forever, at least in the United States. However, even in the US itself, all those freedoms were brought about by struggles in the streets, in which the civil rights movement fought fiercely in more than 100 cities.
In 1968, we saw mass mobilisations in many countries, first led by students and in some cases connecting with the working class. Capitalism’s recovery following World War II also strengthened workers in terms of numbers and confidence. Thousands of workers’ children entered the public universities that sprung up in practically every country.
These social changes created the basis for mass mobilisations in which the main slogans were the demand for more participation in society, democratic rights and freedom of expression. In many other places, mainly where the workers took the lead, the processes went beyond the framework of the struggle for democracy and became real revolutions that demanded a workers’ government and workers’ democracy, as was the case in France and Czechoslovakia.
The Prague Spring
The movement that shook Stalinist Czechoslovakia was a very important workers’ struggle to dismantle bureaucratic dictatorship and take steps towards a true workers' democracy.
In that year, the atmosphere among the intellectuals was critical of the Czech and Russian bureaucracy. For example, the Union of Writers supported a motion against censorship, which accelerated a series of crises that was developing due to the increasingly precarious economic situation. This ferment among the intellectuals quickly spread to the students who took to the streets to protest. The demonstrations were harshly repressed, but the courage of the youth prevailed. Far from being intimidated, students demanded that the government be informed of the objective of the demonstrations and the repression to which they had been subjected. If this was not assured by the government, the students threatened to go to the factories to inform the workers themselves.
From the very beginning, the bureaucracy’s response was fearful. Far from closing their eyes, they began to give tentative answers to the youth. Within the bureaucracy itself, these mobilisations catalysed a process of rupture. A section of "reformers," led by Dubcek, gained enough strength to oust Novotny from the government.
Dubcek was not a leader who wanted to push the masses towards political revolution. On the contrary, he persistently sought to maintain – and at no time put at stake – the interests of the Czech Stalinist bureaucracy. The purely economic measures that he wanted to implement initially were designed to give economic compensation to the administrative bureaucracy from the profits of the different industries. These measures were to the detriment of the companies that were not ‘profitable’ – all those that were under workers’ control. This would then serve as the justification for the closure of these branches of production and the dismissal of thousands of workers.
This is a classic policy of a Bonapartist who tries to balance between the different wings of a bureaucracy. With the policy of defending the differentiation of salaries through bonuses for factory managers, it can counterbalance the other wing (the state bureaucracy).
The bureaucracy didn’t fear the radicalisation of the intellectuals, or even of the students, but rather they feared that this atmosphere among the intelligentsia would reach the workers. Dubcek was very afraid that a wave of mobilisations by the workers would put him in the same situation as that of Hungary in 1956, when the workers organised themselves into real organs of workers’ power and fought for workers’ democracy.
To try to mitigate the danger, the Czech bureaucracy conceded to the intellectuals, signing a series of decrees that granted freedom of expression and other democratic rights.
The concern was that, if concessions weren’t granted, radicalisation would spread. But this would have happened even with the concessions. The Czech workers, seeing the opportunity to throw out the bureaucracy, took to the streets dramatically. Political discussions took place everywhere: in factories, in markets and public squares. Even within the Communist Party, the debates were very intense.
The Soviet bureaucracy was very concerned about what was happening in Czechoslovakia, not only because the reforms that were taking place there could unleash a series of petitions in Russia similar to those from the Czech intellectuals, but also because the reforms did almost nothing to stop the radicalisation process, and instead encouraged further debate among the workers.
In spite of the reforms that the Czech bureaucracy gave to the movement, it tried with all its might to raise the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956 as a warning that the movement should stop immediately.
By then the debate among the workers had reached a fever pitch, with one Czech newspaper publishing a series of articles on the need for workers’ democracy!
The Kremlin had to be decisive. Thousands of Russian soldiers and troops of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. The bureaucracy preferred that the Western media launch a smear campaign on the Soviet bureaucracy than risk letting the process go any further in Prague. The favourite slogan for the intervention, as it was during the events of 1956 in Hungary, was that the movement was directed by "destabilisers that want capitalist restoration.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
Whereas reformers like Dubcek did not want to question the privileges of the bureaucracy, the masses wanted workers' democracy – it was truly the beginning of a political revolution against the bureaucracy that threatened to spread to the USSR.
The cowardice of the Czech bureaucracy was very clear with its attitude to the occupation. Its members did not move a single finger and, in fact, did everything possible to demobilise the masses. If these ladies and gentlemen had been true revolutionary leaders upholding the traditions of Bolshevism, the occupation would have been transformed into a liberation war. They would have aimed to divide the Russian army with a campaign of agitation and fraternisation. But this leadership is precisely what the Czech masses lacked. As with so many other periods in history, this lack of revolutionary direction served as the fatal Achilles heel. Whenever the students and workers moved into the arena of struggle, again and again, the direction was not to go any further.
The French Revolution of 1968
In May of 1968, the most powerful general strike in the modern history of humanity took place. French workers took to the streets and paralyzed the whole country, took factories, controlled prices, and so on.
Young people are usually a very sensitive barometer of what’s happening in society. What began as a series of student demonstrations and university occupations across France in response to the authorities closing of Sorbonne University ignited the spark of the revolution on 3 May.
The conflict spread to the Latin Quarter, where clashes between students and neighbourhood residents against the police lasted practically all night. On the night of 10 May, there was another revolt in the Quarter and the barricades constructed by the students were ripped down with extreme violence by the police, after which there were numerous arrests.
Although at first the leadership of the unions and the workers' parties did not want to join the demonstrations, the pressure from the rank and file of the unions and from the population in general caused them, on 11 May, to call a general strike for 13 May, which was a complete success: more than a million people took to the streets.
When the workers entered the scene, they were not simply spectators. Despite the fact that France was in the midst of a boom, French businessmen applied a series of anti-worker policies that put ruthless pressure on workers. Under the surface, discontent was boiling over among the working class.
The strike of 13 May marked a turning point in the movement. The leaders thought that, with these mobilisations, they would take the pot off the heat. In reality, the result was quite the opposite. The strike spread massively. And although the number of militant, unionised workers did not exceed 3 million, the workers who joined the strike numbered more than 10 million.
"On the 14th, one day after the mass demonstration in Paris, the workers occupied Sud-Aviation in Nantes and the Renault factory in Cléon, followed by the Renault workers at Flins, Le Mans and Boulogne-Billancourt. Strikes hit other factories throughout France, plus the Paris public transportation, RATP and the state-owned railway company, SNCF. Newspapers were not distributed. On May 18th the coal mines stopped work and public transport was halted in Paris and other major cities. The national railways were next, followed by air transport, the shipyards, the gas and electricity workers (who decided to maintain domestic supplies), postal services and cross-channel ferries." (Alan Woods, The French Revolution of May ‘68)
The strike committee practically became the owner and lord of France. In collaboration with the farmers, it controlled the price of all key goods, as well as the supply of major industrial materials (gasoline, metals, etc.). Public nurseries and canteens were organised to feed the children of the strikers, while women created strikers' committees to coordinate food distribution. The atmosphere of debate and participation was so significant that, in the Latin Quarter, young Catholics occupied the church to demand a debate instead of mass!
A very important workers’ measure was to try to stop the machinations of the bourgeois media. Radio stations went on strike and in some bourgeois newspapers, the news had to pass through the editorial control of striking workers that also called for the publication of union resolutions.
Faced with this tremendous movement of the masses, the government was practically suspended in mid-air. There was news that the army and the police were divided with respect to the revolutionary conflict, the state could not use them to repress the movement. This would have meant the total fracture of the armed forces, with a large portion of soldiers and police moving to the side of the workers.
The regime's trap was the referendum President De Gaulle wanted to hold. However, it never took place due to the bold action of the working class.
The French government created the Republican Defence Committees as an attempt to mobilise the middle class against the workers, but the decisiveness and forcefulness of the workers was overwhelming. The middle classes turned to support them in their struggle.
Although the correlation of forces was enormously favourable for the workers, the leadership of the trade unions and the Stalinist leadership of the French Communist Party gave the opportunity for the bourgeoisie to recompose itself. According to Encyclopedia Britannica:
"De Gaulle seemed incapable of controlling the crisis or understanding its nature. However, the communist and union leaders opposing any further rising gave him respite, evidently fearing the loss of their followers to more extreme and anarchist rivals.”
The union and Communist Party leadership cravenly endorsed the government’s proposal to advance elections in order to end the mobilisation. They took to the factories to convince the workers that it was necessary to return to work and take the salary increase or the vacation week that the government promised.
A true revolutionary organisation would have directed the workers to give the coup de grace to the capitalist state. To all intents and purposes, the workers had the power. A serious call to the armed forces would have been necessary to bring a layer of the army into the revolutionary fold, which would have been the basis – together with workers – of a Workers’ State. But again, the reactionary policies of the leaders of the PCF played an extremely nefarious role to divert the masses from their fundamental task: the seizure of power.
The national context in Mexico (the post-Cardenista and stabilising periods)
The aforementioned events had an effect on the Mexican youth. That said, the country’s process of struggle had other origins and there are several factors that explain the youth mobilisations of the 1960s. One of the most significant was the need for democracy against an authoritarian state. The presidential regime granted practically no room for any opposition. The unions were tied hand and foot to the state and the tendencies or unions that fought against authoritarianism were harshly repressed.
This period was also characterised by what is called the “Mexican miracle.” This was a stabilising period in which economic conditions allowed an increase in workers’ living standards, as well as an investment in social spending by the state. That said, this reform period paled in comparison to what, in Europe, was known as the “Welfare State”, where large sums were invested in social development that provided workers with relatively decent economic stability.
But these reforms must be put in context. Although the Cárdenas government carried out a series of reforms in favour of the workers in the 1930s, the presidents who followed him did the opposite. The policies dictated by Ávila Camacho, for example, were aimed at undermining all the progressive reforms of the Cardenista period; between 50 and 60 percent of public investment was destined to favour private initiatives.
At the union level, this period was characterised by financing the incorporation of the unions into the same state that Cárdenas had created. The Communist Party gave up all its positions in the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers). Control passed to right-wing labour leaders Lombardo Toledano and then Fidel Velazquez, the latter of whom initiated a brutal purge of all honest workers who wanted to use the union as a militant tool of class struggle.
The international conjuncture of World War II allowed the expansion of exports and a development of the internal market, allowing the state to give significant concessions to the unions incorporated within it.
The arrival of Miquel Alemán to the presidency reflected the rise of the bourgeoisie that developed in the wake of the revolution of 1910-1920. He and his ilk were beneficiaries of the revolution and represented a part of the bureaucracy that became rich during this period.
Throughout the Alemán era, industry developed and diversified, while the economy continued to grow. Prosperity reigned while thousands of peasants migrated from the countryside to the city to join the expanding labour market.
At the same time, this industrialisation altered the class correlation of forces in Mexican society. The peasants, who were a huge majority only a few years previously, were now gradually being overtaken by the workers in the city. With this change, thousands of youths of peasant backgrounds were now searching for an education in the city, to which they had not previously aspired. In this period, the great majority of the students of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN – also known simply as the Polytechnic) – one of Mexico’s largest public universities – were young people from the provinces. These young people often went through difficult conditions in order to be able to study.
In this stabilising period (1940-70), the economy grew at an average rate of 6.2 percent and 1 percent per capita. Since capital goods were mainly from abroad, however, imports grew dramatically and with them, external indebtedness.
Even though the government tried to implement protective measures to maintain industrial growth, given the dependence on capital goods, these attempts did not bear much fruit – imports increased. There was no emphasis on the development of productive technologies, so the expectations of growth were subject to the international market. The government's recourse was the devaluation of the currency, which caused havoc with worker’s real wages.
The struggles prior to the student movement in the labour field
This was precisely one of the causes for workers to take to the streets. The devaluation of 1954 created the material impetus for the masses to mobilise. The process was developed mainly in the railroad sector, which in 1958 led a struggle that began with the formation of the Grand Commission for General Increase of Wages and culminated in the democratisation of the railroad union.
The experience of the Great Commission, as an independent and democratic body, had great repercussions in the organisation of opposition to the corrupt union leadership. Each of the members that made up this commission returned to their workplaces inspired and empowered to organise the struggle for better wages and against the union leadership. The latter wanted to sell out the workers by agreeing to zero wage increases, while stifling workers’ democracy.
On 26 July, a series of strikes began as part of the fight for wage increases and for the dismissal of corporate delegations. These struggles ended in a victory by passing over the Executive Committee of Samuel Ortega. The democratically elected representatives convened the Sixth Extraordinary Trade Union Convention, where a new executive committee was elected. At its head was Demetrio Vallejo, a communist militant from Oaxaca who joined the PCM in 1934. Although the union bureaucrats tried to declare this new leadership null and void, it was ratified by the rank and file.
The democratic movement was maintained until February of 1959, at which time the bosses began a series of provocations to which the union responded with the threat of strike action. The strike took place, but threats of army and police intervention proved too much. The union leadership was forced to back down and the strike was postponed until March. On the 25th and 26th, the postponed strikes broke out again. The Secretary of Labour declared the strike illegal and, two days later, the army occupied the facilities and arrested thousands of railway workers.
This movement ended in a disastrous defeat with the imprisonment and dismissal of about 9,000 workers. The main cause of the defeat can be attributed to the illusions of the union leadership. They believed in a so-called “progressive” wing within the bourgeoisie and government that could help resolve the conflict. The other cause of defeat was the failure of more unions to strike in solidarity with the railway workers. The union leaders believed that radical measures would push the “reactionary wing” of the ruling class to dominate the “progressive” wing.
Shortly before the railroad struggle, telegraph workers staged a series of similar mobilisations in the struggle for their own wage increases. Fuel was added to the fire when the bosses transferred 27 of the most radicalised workers to other facilities. A strike broke out on 6 February 1958, spurred on by the firing of the central administrator of the telegraph office. Again, the corrupt union leaders did not recognise the movement and launched insults at the strike leaders who were seeking to disaffiliate from the union and form a new democratic union. The strike lasted 16 days and the workers returned to work following a promise by the president to satisfy their demands.
Another key event in the pre-68 workers’ struggles was the mobilisation of teachers of Section 9 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) in Mexico City. The teachers took to the streets in 1958, leading one of the biggest mobilisations of the era. Demanding a 40 percent salary increase, the teachers struck for a month, occupying the courtyards of the Ministry of Public Education, and won an increase of $150 pesos per month. The most complete expression of the struggle occurred in the Revolutionary Teachers’ Movement. Like the railroad workers, the group achieved certain successes in their battles but their struggle was not even aimed against the imposed policies of the state but the corruption of the union bureaucracy. This movement also suffered bloody repression that made an organised retreat practically impossible.
It should be noted that, in all these struggles, the recommendations of the Mexican Communist Party clashed systematically with the movement and the interests of the workers. A large part of the railroad management belonged to the PCM and followed the typical two-stage Stalinist policy of tail-ending the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie.” As in so many instances of revolution and class struggle (in Cuba, Spain, China and the U.S., to name a few), the policy was extremely damaging in Mexico. In the railroad struggles, it was tragic and in the teachers’ struggle it was outright farcical. In the latter, the Stalinists first attacked the movement “in defence of the union,” and uncritically supported the bureaucratic leadership of the SNTE.
The increasing economic prosperity of the post-war boom provided a relative stability on which the bosses could lean. This, combined with the aforementioned repression resulted in a retreat of the workers’ movement that only ended in 1971. The only exception was the movement of doctors and medical students from Mexico City who radically organised in the mid-60s. This struggle, like the others, commenced with economic demands and coalesced into the demands for democratic rights in their unions. Historian Armando Bartra puts the situation in context:
“From 1962 to 1968 the popular forces experienced a period of relative stagnation. Naturally, the situation is not homogeneous and, in some states and in certain sectors, activity was maintained; thus, for example, student and popular movements were present in the provinces of Morelia, Sonora, Puebla, Durango, Nuevo León, etc. In Mexico City there was a movement of doctors, and in several states there were strong peasant movements, like those led by Rubén Jaramillo in Morelos or Genaro Vásquez in Guerrero. However, the working class, which had played a leading role in the last years of the previous decade, was experiencing a generalised retreat that only ended definitively in 1971. The student movement in Mexico City, despite the strike of 1966, remained generally stagnant until 1968. Finally, the peasant movement, in spite of its isolated struggles, did not take on the character of a national movement until 1972-73.” (Armando Bartra, The Communist Movement After 1958)
The correct lesson to be drawn from the experiences of this period should have been the need for a mass political organisation that could unify the struggles and transcend basic economic demands with political objectives. Unfortunately, the workers and youth did not draw this conclusion – quite the opposite. As a consequence of following the line of the Stalinist bureaucracy at the head of the PCM, the workers and youth faced a crisis period during the 1960s.
Public spending and the mass expansion of universities for workers’ children
Following the violent repression of workers, the government changed tactics. It began to give some concessions to the movement, aimed at deactivating some of the nascent protests in other sections of the class that were brewing under the surface. Among these concessions were modifications to the Federal Labour Law and the increase in social spending on education.
Barry Carr writes the following regarding educational investment in this period:
"In the case of the students and the newly radicalised health workers, the basis from which the new protagonists emerged was the rapid expansion of state spending in education and health. In 1960, there was one student in higher education for every 333 people; in 1970 1:125; in 1977, 1:55. The figures for the Federal District are even more impressive: 1 out of every 111 (1960); 1:66 (1970), and 1:33 (1977)."
These figures indicate a mass expansion of higher education. Thousands of worker and peasant émigré children, looking for work in the cities during the industrialisation process, were increasingly incorporated. They were mostly inducted into the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN). In 1968, the UNAM and Polytechnic had more than 200,000 and 100,000 students enrolled, respectively. These students did not live in a vacuum, and many were the sons and daughters of railroad workers, telecommunications workers, metalworkers and so on – those layers of the working class victimised by brutal state violence for demanding union democracy and questioning the status quo.
These young people who emerged from the period of stabilisation demanded a decent place in the capitalist system. But the regime was not interested in listening or granting concessions to their demands. While the problems of the state had so far been resolved by incorporating the workers’ movement into the state itself and by crushing the voices calling for union democracy, the youth movement would soon bring to the fore a rupture in Mexican corporatism and lead to a democratisation of society.
Characterisation of the Mexican State
Before continuing, it is important to analyse the Mexican state as it was constituted at the time. The regime was totally authoritarian, but those words do not go far enough.
For Marxists, the state is not an impartial arbiter between the classes — an apparatus that rises above society without considering the correlation of class forces therein. Neither is it independent of the classes. On the contrary, a state is the guarantor through which the ruling class (under capitalism, the bourgeoisie) can enforce its laws, morals, traditions and – above all – its regime of exploitation.
Now, a state can also be transformed according to societal circumstances, without a change in the economic base of support. For the capitalist, the perfect state rests on bourgeois democracy to maintain stability. But when workers and youth begin to question the extreme poverty they face, the capitalists and their lackeys will not hesitate to transform this ostensibly ‘democratic’ system into a bloody dictatorship.
In Mexico, one of the conditions for the consolidation of the capitalist state was the incorporation of the most important workers' organisations, especially the CTM. In this period, the workers did not have the strength, leadership or programme to take power into their own hands. Additionally, the national bourgeoisie did not have the strength or confidence to crush the workers’ movement and stand as the dominant class force in society.
The fundamental role of President Cárdenas was that of a Bonapartist. He balanced between the conflicting classes, supported striking workers and demonstrations, nationalised the oil industry and the railways, while relying on the economy to strengthen a national bourgeoisie against the imperialist powers. Cárdenas renewed the popular demand for education and used it as an instrument for creating a more educated workforce for Mexican capitalism to exploit. Trotsky characterised him as a sui generis Bonapartist:
“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character sui generis of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by manoeuvring with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it and thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom toward the foreign capitalists. The present policy [of the Mexican government] is in the second stage; its greatest victories are the expropriation of the railways and the oil industry.”
While its effects were not immediately felt, the integration of the unions into the state was a hard blow for the workers in that it closed off the trade unions as weapons of organised struggle for decades. Psychologically, this change also made the workers accustomed to negotiating rather than fighting for their rights, giving weight to a class collaborationist approach. Lastly, it is important to note that this occurred during a boom, giving the trade union leaders manoeuvring room to acquiesce to the ruling class’ bourgeois legality, aimed at cutting off mobilisation and repressing independent and democratic workers’ struggles.
Undoubtedly, some reforms within the Cardenista period were progressive and helped to solve certain problems faced by the workers. But what must be recognised is that the Cárdenas’ restructuring favoured the ruling class far more, and the bourgeoisie was consequently able to maintain relative stability for 60 years under the PRI regime. Even now, Mexico is experiencing the consequences of this restructuring.
This same state was maintained after Cárdenas left power but support for the mass movement vanished. The presidents who came after maintained a very rigid policy in controlling the workers’ movement through small, selective concessions and ongoing repression.
The pre-68 struggles within the universities
The student movement of 1968 was not the only one to take place in the 1960s, but it did have more general repercussions and national impact. Previous movements in different states penetrated deeper and, in some cases, gave rise to struggles of the entire population against the regional governors. This reveals how the events of the student movement of 1968 did not come suddenly like a bolt out of a clear blue sky; behind them lay hundreds of conflicts. Each had different characteristics but, in the essence of their demands and general trajectory, they pointed to the democratic participation of the youth in social life.
Even though the student struggles did not begin in the 1960s, it would be impossible to detail every conflict that ever occurred in the Polytechnic and UNAM in this period – not to mention the other states of the republic. In this case, we will only focus on the years immediately prior the student movement of '68.
In Morelia, a fairly intense struggle began in early 1961, ending with a military intervention in the universities and generalised repression of the Michoacán people in 1967. This movement was arguably one of the most important in breadth and depth, with multiple factors leading to the student mobilisation. In 1966, a fight against the increase in urban transport fares began. One student was killed on 2 October, and the funeral was accompanied by a strike in the schools and a massive demonstration. The Michoacán workers and peasants responded so resolutely that, in a few days’ time, the entire population demanded intervention by the senate over the state’s sovereignty. All the while, the demonstrations grew and the only response from the state was defamation.
The bourgeoisie sent in the army to demonstrate its strength. On 8 October, the army took over the university and the arrests and searches intensified. A youth meeting in response was dissolved by the cavalry, resulting in the taking of more than 600 prisoners.
It was in these conditions, in 1963, that the National Centre of Democratic Students (CNED) was founded. This was a democratic organisation, independent of the state, that mobilised and organised groups in various parts of the country. It can be said that it was the only organisation before 1968 that had a national affiliation and strong traditions among students from different states of the republic. In February of 1968 this organisation called the "march for freedom.” Its demand was the release of student political prisoners from all regions of the country. This mobilisation took place from February 3rd to 10th and its journey began in Dolores, Hidalgo and ended Morelia, where it was stopped by the army.
In Guerrero, there were also important mobilisations of students in 1961, 1966 and 1968. The effervescence that existed among the students of the southeast was such that the police had to take over the University of Chilpancingo, detaining and injuring many.
In Puebla, at the Autonomous University, the 1964 movement went even further when students and the dairymen joined together involved more sectors of the working class. Faced with the strong mobilisation of the population, the governor, Nava Castillo, resigned. Although this was the most important struggle up to that point, it followed other mass mobilisations in 1961. It was also in this state that one of the more repressive government tactics was implemented.
The Anticommunist University Front was a paramilitary organisation that dedicated itself to harassing and assassinating activists on the left in the UAP. The following year, a new rector took over. José F Garibay was put in charge of the university, but his reactionary politics rekindled a mobilisation and his mercenary groups actively participated to break the student strike. In 1967, there were armed clashes within the student organisation, the Student Directory. The confrontations that were caused by the rector and culminated in the call for his resignation.
In 1966, there were very important mobilisations in Ciudad Victoria, Tampico and Ciudad Madero, in Tamaulipas. These occurred due to the kidnapping of a professor from the Technological Institute of Ciudad Madero.
In Sinaloa, thousands of students took to the streets to protest the re-election of the rector. The fight culminated with the demand for greater participation by students in the decisions of the university. The movement, as on many other occasions, was harshly repressed. In addition, the slander campaign against leaders of the movement deliberately created an anti-communist atmosphere.
In another of the northern states, Sonora, the student mobilisations fought against the imposition of a candidate for the governorship in May 1967. The Sonoran youth took to the streets against the PRI policy and against the governor, Encinas Johnson. The youth, unwilling to stand idly in the face of state repression, began a series of violent acts: burning buildings, attacks on the houses of state officials, and so on. The clashes against the "green wave," paramilitary shock groups, followed shortly after. The most important demand of the whole town was intervention by the senate over the state’s sovereignty to ensure the governor’s resignation.
In this same year, the students went out to protest in Tabasco and in Veracruz. They demanded democratic elections in the Union of Oil Workers of the Mexican Republic, among other things. In Durango, the students demanded the nationalisation of the Cerro de Mercado. There was also the national strike of agronomy schools, beginning in Ciudad Juarez.
At the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, the students protested the "Elizondo plan" in mid-68, which consisted of an increase in students’ fees. The University Student Council was the organisation that took the lead. This struggle fostered confidence and inspiration that led to mobilisations years later, demanding democratic rights, not only for students, but also for workers.
In 1968, in Villahermosa Tabasco, mobilisations began for the improvement of the Benito Juárez University. A strike broke out after there was no response from the government. As a repressive tactic, the government again resorted to mercenary attacks, and one youth was murdered. As in other states, the movement grew in support and the struggle intensified. The resignation of the governor was the main slogan. In this struggle, the state violence was so grotesque that on the banks of the Grijalva River, dozens of students drowned trying cross to escape. The police continued to hunt the students to end the "red wave." This was the strongest repression of the students until the events in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City.
In 1967, a strike broke out at the Hermanos Escobar Agricultural School, supported by students from the Polytechnic and from the University of Chapingo.
In Mexico City, there were also a series of mobilisations of different magnitudes with students from different schools, mainly from the UNAM, the National School of Teachers and high schools. In this tense situation, the students demanded democratisation within the authoritative bodies of the universities, while the state’s response to every demand was the same: repression.
The beginning of the movement
As often happens in history, an accidental occurrence was the midwife of historical necessity. On 22 July, a gang quarrel at the Isaac Ochotorena High School (part of the UNAM and the Polytechnic) developed unexpectedly in the vicinity of Plaza de la Ciudadela. The origin (the result of a football match) was totally inconsequential.
The following day, the facilities of the aforementioned Polytechnic schools were stoned by gangs from the UNAM’s high schools. The police intervened, not to control the gangs, but to brutally repress them. On 24 July, two sections of the school were occupied by the police. The FNET (National Federation of Technical Students): a student organisation controlled by the PRI, called for a mobilisation on 26 July against the repression, while calling on the police to vacate the schools. The strike was first launched by the faculty of political and social sciences.
Just as the FNET demonstration was commencing, the Communist Party student front – the National Centre of Democratic Students (CNED) – began its annual march in commemoration of Castro’s assault on the Moncada barracks. When the demonstrators met, despite the FNET leadership’s desire to separate, the students united.
As one they marched to Mexico City’s main Zócalo square. They were met with unabashed repression from police, leading to clashes, arrests, assaults and disappearances. Thus began one of the most convulsive periods of student mobilisation and bloody repression in Mexican history.
At the same time as these confrontations were taking place, police raided the Communist Party building and took the printing presses of their newspaper, La Voz de México. Hundreds were detained, and not only communists, but anyone known to be a militant. Anyone who looked like a student passing through the conflict zone was stopped, and many were beaten.
The next day, students kicked off occupations at three of the major high schools in the city in protest against this brutal repression. The government’s response was to ramp up its assault, imprisonment and threats against the movement. 29 July is seen as the day in which the movement began in earnest. Although it first only occurred in some UNAM schools and vocational faculties, it spread like wildfire. All the tensions described above expressed themselves simultaneously. One by one, schools began convening student assemblies and voted for coordinated strike action. A day later, the army broke through the doors of one of the main high schools and raided four more schools.
The following weekend, every existing political group – as well as a new layer of students and activists – held meetings to prepare assemblies and the strikes.
The environment was radically transformed. As often happens in the fire of revolutionary events, previously politically apathetic students of working-class or peasant backgrounds were immersed in the movement. This layer had minimal experience but was learning quickly, immensely strengthening the movement. All that was needed now was coordination, direction and leadership to lend the struggle a voice.
The National Strike Council and its demands
The National Strike Council (Consejo Nacional de Huelga: CNH) was created on 2 August 1968 to coordinate, control and direct the strike movement. It was composed of recallable representatives of the major striking schools: UNAM, IPM, the College of Mexico, School of Agriculture of Chapingo, the Universidad Iberoamericana, the Universidad La Salle and others.
Although it was formed quickly, given the rapid pace of events, the CNH took control of the mobilisations, determined the next steps and gave a unified voice to the students in negotiations with the government. Its first list of demands included:
- Removal of FNET and ultra-right-wing shock groups from campus.
- Expulsion of the student members of the aforementioned organisations and the PRI.
- Indemnification by the government for the injured students and the relatives of those who were killed.
- Release of all detained students.
- Removal of the armed forces and other forces of repression (i.e. the police).
- Repeal of article 145 of the Criminal Code.
Thus, from the first moment, the fight had political overtones. On 4 August, this list was modified based on the experience of the clashes with the police on July 28th and 29th. The new list advanced upon the first by clearly stating the unity with other layers of society in permanent struggle against the repression of the workers' movement. The new list practically abandoned the slogans of the student sector, calling for:
- Freedom for political prisoners.
- The dismissal of the Generals Luis Cueto Ramírez and Raúl Mendiolea, and Lt. Col. Armando Frías.
- The abolition of grenadiers (the tactical police corps).
- Repeal of Articles 145 and 145b of the Penal Code (which sanctioned imprisonment of anyone attending meetings of three or more people, deemed to threaten public order).
- Compensation to the families of the dead and wounded victims of repressive acts since 26 July.
- Accountability for acts of repression and vandalism carried out by the authorities through the police, grenadiers and the army.
While the demands connected with certain sectors of workers, the programme lacked political vision. The slogans were purely reformist and did not include any demands that could bring workers into the struggle. In addition, none of these slogans called to break with the framework of bourgeois democracy. This was one of the most vulnerable points of the movement: without the support of the workers, it was doomed to a blind alley. If, on the other hand, the most pressing issues of the workers’ movement had been added, the struggle could have transcended the student sector to become a mass movement of the exploited against the government itself.
It is also important to note that, although democratic liberties were a necessary demand, the problem ran deeper than repressive policies and tactics. As we have explained, the state – that body of armed men responsible for enforcing the privileges of the ruling class – is not an arbiter between classes, much less at the moment when the classes are in conflict. It was inevitable that demanding the dissolution of repressive forces and laws would call into question the reasons for their very existence to begin with.
These slogans not only demanded more democratic rights, but implicitly questioned the whole repressive state apparatus. Without understanding this one cannot comprehend the dead end faced by the movement. The movement did not make a serious call to the other oppressed layers in society and it did not call for the overthrow of the state. From our point of view, this was a key factor in the movement’s defeat, in addition to its isolation from the working class.
This was understood by some members of the CNH, who began agitating for linking the student movement with the workers by expanding the list of demands, thus breaking the isolation that the government wanted to foster. However, in the CNH leadership the centre-right bloc had a majority and argued for “autonomy”: in other words, a student-only struggle. At the head of this wing were the rector of the UNAM, Javier Barros Sierra, professors of several schools of the UNAM and the Polytechnic, and honest but confused students who had not drawn the correct conclusions given their relative inexperience in politics.
The brigades in the streets
On 1 August, UNAM Rector Barros Sierra led 100,000 students in a peaceful protest against the repressive actions of the government and violation of university autonomy. On the 5th, another sizable demonstration marched, this time organised and run exclusively by groups at the Polytechnic. On 13 August, a demonstration completely filled the Zócalo of Mexico City.
These were the moments of great initiative as thousands of young people, trained in the atmosphere of struggle, were beginning to win sympathy from workers. The government even seemed to extend a possibility for public dialogue, as demanded by the movement, when it briefly stopped its repressive measures.
The Secretary of the Interior, Luis Echeverría Álvarez, read a press statement:
“The government of the Republic expresses its good faith to receive the representatives of the teachers and students of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the National Polytechnic Institute and other educational centres linked to the existing problem, to exchange impressions with them and know directly their demands and suggestions in order to resolve the conflict… We believe that a frank and calm dialogue will lead to the clarification of the origins and development of this unfortunate problem, of which many of its aspects still appear confusing or contradictory... The Federal Executive Power considers student unity desirable and [desires] that both teachers and students freely designate those who represent them while moving away from unrelated matters they have raised indirectly...”
Nevertheless, there was an urgent need for the students to provide a firm response to the misinformation the government was relaying via official media channels.
Around this time, the Coalition of Teachers of Middle and Higher Education for Democratic Liberties was formed, representing all polytechnic professors and the majority of the schools and faculties of the UNAM. The coalition endorsed the six points of the CNH petition and agreed to join the general strike decreed by the student movement. From this moment on, external support for the student movement increased.
The student brigades took to the streets in an incredible way, with thousands quickly calling assemblies, holding brigades at factory doors and markets, and painting on public transport vehicles to help systematically disseminate information and invite people to demonstrations. These actions represented the maximum expression of cohesion and ingenuity of these workers’ children. The intervention was not limited to the Federal District: the brigades went to the other states to explain the conflict and invite other universities to join the fight.
Ingenuity and spontaneity were the guiding principle of these brigades, which not only became a part of the structure of the struggle but the most important link with the workers:
“Under the CNH were grouped the coordinating committees or central committees of each teaching institution, each of which had a representative or delegate in the CNH and directed the student struggle in their sector. The schools and faculties were governed by permanent assemblies of students and strike committees, structured in the likeness of the CNH (in propaganda commissions, political brigades, finances, etc.) The members of the committees of each academic centre were directly appointed in the assemblies and some of them also integrated the CNH, which constituted by between 140 and 210 members: two or three for each of the 70 schools that had gone on strike."
Those responsible for organising these brigades were the committees of struggle in the schools. The committees were the basic cells of the movement. They planned and coordinated the work in each of the schools, and were made up of all those who wanted to participate more actively in the movement. In general, they were composed of the most politicised members and those most willing to take the struggle to its final conclusion. The most combative brigades and committees were mainly made up of Polytechnic upper secondary schools and some higher-level schools, supplemented by those in the humanities at UNAM. The reason for this was that these members were the closest to the working class. From the outset, these committees of struggle influenced the direction of the student body of the Polytechnic towards the FNET.
Each of these brigades was limited to five to 10 members to avoid being intercepted by the police. A few larger brigades of 30 or more left in trucks, making spectacular efforts to disseminate the demands of the struggle.
The presidential report
On 27 August, one of the largest and most important mobilisations took place. In an electrifying atmosphere, more than half-a-million workers and local residents marched through Mexico City and filled the Zócalo main square fit to bursting.
That same day, the resident and internal doctors at the general hospital struck in solidarity with the student movement, as did Section 37 of the Oil Workers Union of Mexico. The solidarity action spread as five schools of the University of Puebla and the Vocational School of Special Education decreed a ten-day strike. The Mexican Union of Electricians stated that the CIA tried to create the myth that Mexico was saturated with communists, and that there was a need for honest students to begin negotiations without delay.
In the central Zocalo square, speakers gave incendiary speeches while a red and black flag was hoisted on a flagpole. Meanwhile, the government had spread provocateurs throughout the demonstration to give cover and justification to any repressive measures with which they would respond. A recognised government infiltrator in the movement – Sócrates Campus Lemus — made a public call to demand that a dialogue be initiated on 1 September, the day of the presidential report. He even proposed that the square be guarded by permanent brigades until the aforementioned day.
At the end of the rally, the army forced the students to retreat. The demonstration stretched and loosened to hold its position. The brigadiers resisted every meter of the army attack until they managed to kick them out of the central square. The next day, the government wanted to make a demonstration of force by summoning government workers in a demonstration to support President Diaz Ordaz. But the rally quickly became a protest against him, with workers shouting and denouncing the government in chorus, yelling, “We are sheep!” referencing the fact they were being forced to rally in support of the government against their will. The army was again called out and brutally repressed this demonstration. A few days later, the Democratic Liberation Party Bureaucratic Committee was formed.
Immediately a wave of terror began that did not end until 2 October. The army and the police went out to the streets to arrest the youth, while the brigades and the schools were sprayed with rubber bullets.
On 1 September, Díaz Ordaz spoke about the movement for more than an hour. In his speech he said that he acted under the misunderstanding that protesters were motivated by communist political interests aimed at discrediting Mexico prior to the impending Olympic Games. In his concluding remarks, Ordaz remarked that he had been tolerant of excesses but that he could invoke constitutional Article 89:
"To ready the totality of the permanent armed force, that is, of the terrestrial army, the navy and the air force for the internal security and external defence of the Federation… We would not like to see ourselves taking these unwanted measures, but we will take them if necessary. Whatever our duty is, we will do it; if we are obligated to mobilise, we will.”
Ordaz foreshadowed the events to come over the next 31 days. Although the CNH had suspended all mobilisations, this did nothing to soften the violent measures being prepared by the government.
The role of the PCM
It’s important to understand the extent to which the Mexican Communist Party was involved with the mobilisation and its level of influence, given the government’s insistence that it was the puppet master.
Many times over, history has shown that when an organisation has a certain level of influence within a mass movement in struggle, its theoretical errors are extremely costly. The PCM was a bureaucratic party like all communist parties of the Third International. Since 1924, the Stalinist bureaucracy put its very particular stamp on all of its sections through its iron-fisted control. But what especially hurt the development of the PCM was its policy of shifting from ultra-leftism to reformism and vice versa, following the "theoretical" direction of the International. It was incapable of severing ties with the Stalinists that basically controlled it. Thanks to this and turns in national politics, the PCM was equally shameful as the corrupt union officials who helped bring the workers’ organisations under control of the state, while supporting the bosses and political candidates who furiously attacked them. The most emblematic case was the support given by the PCM to Miguel Alemán – president from 1946 to 1952, who took a fiercely anti-communist stance and supported the U.S. throughout the Cold War.
These sharp turns in policy resulted in split after split, with small groups, large workers' organisations and unions separating. In particular in the ‘60s, after its unfortunate participation in the Mexican state and terrible role in struggle of the railroad workers, there were several splits that in turn produced endless sects that swarmed about the left. They all hysterically attacked the politics of the PCM but none had a real connection to the movement, as they too had sectarian politics. They also fostered an atmosphere of apoliticism among the CNH – even contempt for political parties.
One of the most rigorous historians of the PCM, Barry Carr, describes in the following way the role of the party within the 1968 movement:
"Due to the anti-authoritarian and anti-bureaucratic style of the student mobilisation, they had no permanent direction or well thought out tactic by which the government could identify and neutralise the “ringleaders.” All the efforts to centralize decision making found tenacious resistance, due to the fear that the movement would be taken over by individuals or parties. Likewise, the delegates were subject to dismissal if they did not give an account of their actions before the assemblies.
“The groups and political parties were forbidden to appoint representatives to the CNH, as well as all “federally organised” organisations. This norm in effect excluded the national corporation of students like the National Centre for Democratic Students (CNED). The formal structures of the left therefore had little influence on the CNH or on the course of the movement itself. They would say what the government and the security forces said, the driving force of the mobilisations of the summer of '68 was not the Communist Party nor any other of the innumerable leftist groups that proliferated in the educational institutions, although many of the most prominent militants were or had been members of socialist organisations.
“In fact, the Communist Party, which had played such an important role in the resurgence of student organisations in the years that followed the creation of CNED in 1963, was already greatly weakened in educational institutions by 1968. Some voices of the PCM leadership still considered student militancy as petty bourgeois and divorced from the "real" subject of the revolution: the working class. In addition, CNED and the party youth organisation disagreed with the national leadership of the PCM on questions of autonomy. By mid-1968, the "autonomists" had lost the battle in the CNED, and the organisation had remained in the hands of a young communist, Arturo Martínez Nateras, who was very close to the party leadership. The result was the resignation or immobilisation of a large number of young communists. In the Polytechnic Institute, for example, Raúl Álvarez, Ángel Verdugo and Rafael Talamantes broke their ties with the PCM.
“In the National University, the Communist Youth was going through a serious crisis that dated from its second congress, in 1967. Thirteen base organisations of the JCM in the UNAM disbanded in 1968 to protest the paternalism and sectarianism of the national PCM. Although the party still had talents like Marcelino Perello and Eduardo Valle, neither the JCM nor the CNED were able to exert significant influence, let alone the control over the student movement when it erupted in July.”
Repression: the only response by the state (Occupying UNAM and IPN)
As arrests continued with an increasingly violent intensity, the street brigades had to continue keeping people informed while collecting funds – something that became more dangerous with every passing day.
Even before the presidential address, an internal debate in the CNH was increasingly sharpening into two clear wings. On one hand, there were those who thought that the conflict could only be resolved through dialogue. This wing included the rector of the UNAM, Barros Sierra, who called for a moratorium on strikes. On the other hand, the left wing drew the correct conclusion that the student movement needed to go further, while bringing more sectors of the working class into the struggle.
This debate did not crystallise outside of the CNH due to the repression that the government exerted it. The most advanced sections did not retreat from their position, but the majority believed they needed to continue the demonstrations before continuing the debate. They believed that they way to address the repression was to redouble the efforts to take brigades into the streets.
But the conciliatory wing could not carry a majority with their right-wing proposals. The call to postpone the strike was discussed within the school assemblies and all voted by majority to continue the strike. For the rank-and-file, the situation was immensely confusing. Among the leadership there were two very clear, polarised wings – one conciliatory and the other implacable – but in the middle were delegates who fitted into neither camp. They lacked the political level to draw the ultimate conclusion of widening the movement to include the workers.
On 4 September, the CNH reaffirmed its willingness to engage in dialogue, but the initiative was now being presented in a different way. The repression made the coordination of the movement immensely difficult, and for a few days a vacuum was created in which the UNAM rector brought to the public a manifesto that openly called for students to return to class, given that some their demands had been met:
"Our institutional demands… have been essentially satisfied by the Citizen President of the Republic, in his last report. It is true that there is still a lack of clarification of some important legal aspects related to autonomy, but this will be achieved by the appropriate means and methods… In my opinion – and I trust that the vast majority of university students will share it – it is necessary and urgent to return to normal.” (El Día, 10 September 1968)
The movement responded to this call by opening a dialogue with those students who returned to their lessons, and attempting to convince them to continue striking. The CNH tried to retake the initiative calling for a silent demonstration on 13 September. A reporter described it thusly:
"A total of 40,000 people arrived at the Plaza de la Constitución. It is estimated that 10 percent were female, 25 percent of the town in general, among these 100 taxi drivers with their families, oil workers, railroads, peasants of the Communist CCI, inhabitants of the town of Topilejo, small traders, street vendors, electricians, parents, etc. The rest were students of the UNAM, IPN, National Teachers, Chapingo, University of Puebla, Veracruz, Iberoamericana. From its inception, the march was conducted in all aspects in complete order, through a wise organisation, and given its direction, absolute silence maintained among all participants.”
Although it was reported that there were 40,000, the actual figure was closer to 200,000. This number, and the composition of the march, confirms that the movement had strong support among workers and students from other schools.
These new events caused crises in the participating organisations, specifically in the PCM. The position they defended was that the strike had to be ended because the demands could not be met and so there was no point in continuing the struggle. On 14 September, 150 young cadres of the Communist Party convened to discuss whether they had to call for a lifting of the strike. Their conclusion was a resounding no. Despite the insistence of the national leadership, these cadres were steadfast in their radical intransigence. Tragically, they were to be among the most severely repressed when the wave of state violence began, with many ending up imprisoned or killed.
The government’s tactics were clear: let the movement drown in internal conflicts and in the meantime, use the opportunity to harass, beat and torture the youth and break their resolve. Using this strategy, Díaz Ordaz thought that a forceful blow to the movement would break the will of the CNH. The army’s occupation of the main campus of UNAM, and the Polytechnic’s Casco de Santo Tomás and Zacatenco, on the 18th, 23rd and 24th of September respectively were all part of this strategy.
More than 10,000 soldiers, supported by tanks, entered the university. That same day, the CNH was meeting, and on its agenda, there was a crucial point for the movement. The CNH was to convene a commission to set up a worker-peasant-student alliance, but the delegate who was to bring forward this point was imprisoned. That day, the army seized the National School of Agriculture of Chapingo.
Many of the students managed to escape, the unfortunately, were rounded up in the middle of the campus, forced to kneel and cruelly beaten. Immediately, there was a hunt for activists, and a wave of searches and arrests. The invasion of the main campus was a blow, but the movement did not stop. On the contrary, this served as an impetus and immediately the brigades took to the streets. Fortunately, some committees of struggle had taken security measures that allowed them to remove printing presses before the crackdown and continue printing leaflets.
After this, it was only a matter of time before the army took the Polytechnic. 23,000 troops of the police and army surrounded the Casco de Santo Tomás. Confident that the students would not resist, the repressive forces began beating students indiscriminately – but they were met with heavy resistance.
The physician Justo Igor de León Loyola wrote in his book, La Noche de Santo Tomás (Saint Thomas' night):
"Today I have seen bloody fights, unequal battles: both sides are armed... but what a difference in the weapons, .22 caliber handguns against M-1 military rifles, bazookas against Molotov cocktails."
For more than six hours, the organised students resisted under a hail of gunfire. The death count isn’t clear – and those murdered were surely not only students. The next day, it was the turn of the committees of struggle in Zacatenco, which strongly resisted the onslaught of repression. Other intense areas of conflict were mainly in the undergraduate departments and high schools affiliated to the Polytechnic. Young people of ages 13, 14 and 15 fiercely resisted the blows of the state. These teenagers were titans.
The lack of an organised response to the threat of repression increased the ultimate number of casualties. The CNH should have foreseen these dangers, but as a body it was woefully underprepared, forcing local committees of struggle to improvise heroic responses to government assaults.
Other schools immediately coordinated solidarity action. In Baja California, Sonora, Yucatán, Nuevo León, Chihuahua, Veracruz, Puebla, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Morelos and Hidalgo, students came out to protest the acts of state violence in Mexico City. The federal government’s response was to surround these universities and technical schools.
The clashes spread through the city to working-class neighbourhoods like Iztapalapa, Tlatelolco and areas near the schools, where the army was met with barricades, boiling water poured on their heads and even bullets. According to a police report:
“In Iztapalapa at noon, the students began to commit disorders. Groups of 150 were dispersed by the police stationed there, so they entered the market where they were pursued by police elements. There [the students] were joined by others, including tenants numbering as many as 500. They attacked the police with stones, sticks and bottles, trying to seize the control of the area.
“From 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., army troops occupied the area adjacent to the Diana fountain on the Paseo de la Reforma in order to prevent a student rally from being held. Police units dispersed students from the vocational school #7 that tried to hold a rally in the Hemicycle to Juarez. Many were arrested.
“In the Plaza de Tres Culturas, about a thousand students held a rally. At the end they tried to march in demonstration towards the city center. They were dissolved by gunfire and tear gas discharges into the air. 60 students were arrested.
“On September 24, a rally took place, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Plaza de Tres Culturas, with an attendance of approximately 2,000 people, mostly parents and students of the Polytechnic.”
The semi-fascist shock groups also played their fully reactionary role by arresting leaders of the student movement and then handing them over to the police. For its part, the CNH tried to respond in desperation, but the repression was completely disorienting. Rector Barros Sierra presented his resignation, but it was not accepted by the University Council. On 27 September, there was a mass meeting at the Tlatelolco housing unit, where the CNH announced another rally on 2 October at 5pm.
2 October: the end of the movement
On 30 September, the University of Mexico campus was vacated by the police. Following this move, the government sought to reach out after striking a decisive blow. Diaz Ordaz thought that the movement had “learned its lesson,” and that the strike was lifted – case closed. But this tactic backfired. The students, although dispersed, were more radicalised than ever.
Due to the repression unleashed over the previous days, many young people were forced by their parents to leave the movement, while others were confined in states outside of the city. The measures that families took to save their children decimated participation. But of those who remained, their anger and boldness reached ever-greater heights.
On 1 October, the assemblies of the committees of struggle voted to continue the strike. It seemed they would recover from the repression and could rise again.
On the morning of 2 October, a CNH commission met with the government to negotiate a solution to the conflict. The CNH leadership didn’t recognise the veiled deception in the government’s willingness to negotiate and therefore cancelled the planned march for later in the day that was to go from the Plaza de Tres Culturas to the Casco de Santo Tomás.
Nevertheless, around 10,000 university and high school students gathered, along with many people who were totally unaffiliated with the movement: neighbours, bystanders and children. The students had congregated outside the Chihuahua Building, a three-tower, thirteen-story apartment complex in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Among their chants were ¡No queremos olimpiadas, queremos revolución! ("We don't want Olympics, we want revolution!").
Two helicopters – one police, and the other military – flew over the plaza. At around 5:55pm., red flares were fired from the nearby S.R.E. (Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations) tower. At 6:15pm. another two flares were shot, this time from a helicopter (one was green the other red) as 5,000 soldiers, and 200 armoured vehicles and trucks surrounded the plaza.
These flares were the signal for an undercover group dressed in civilian clothes called the Olympia Battalion to begin shooting at the crowd gathered at the rally. This secret government branch was composed of soldiers, police officers and federal security agents, and developed to provide security for the Olympic Games. It was ordered to arrest the leaders of the CNH and advance into the plaza. The Olympia Battalion members wore white gloves or white handkerchiefs tied to their left hands to distinguish themselves from the civilians and prevent the soldiers from shooting them.
The ensuing assault on the plaza left dozens dead and many more wounded. The soldiers fired into the nearby buildings and onto the crowd, hitting not only the protesters, but also bystanders. Demonstrators and passers-by alike, including students, journalists (including Italian news reporter Oriana Fallaci) and children, were hit by bullets, and mounds of bodies soon lay on the ground.
The death toll isn’t clear, but some calculations indicate 500 dead with more than 2,000 more injured, along with 2,000 more detainees. And this doesn’t include those who were disappeared during and following the massacre. One example was Héctor Jaramillo Chávez: a student at ESIME, who was arrested on 2 October in Tlatelolco. He was accused of planning to assassinate General Marcelino Barragán. The Federal Security Directorate had already been reporting on the activities of this student since 12 August, when he was arrested for distributing flyers in Hermosillo Sonora. He was arrested again in Mexico City on 23 January 1969 and was never seen again.
What was the reason for the now infamous Tlateloco Massacre? Many variables surely factor into the answer. Some say it was the proximity of the Olympics (12 October). Others attribute it to the nature of the authoritarian Mexican regime. Still others raise the hypothesis that the government was afraid that the atmosphere of struggle would spread among the workers and would have become similar to the situation in France. The answer is likely a mix of all of these.
What is certain is that this action was aimed at decapitating the movement. The army had enough ‘equipment’ to undertake a major offensive: measures had been taken to ensure that nearby hospitals were prepared to receive large numbers of wounded and room was made in prisons to allow for an influx of detainees. This operation of coordinated repressive forces was known as Operation Galeana.
Despite the massacre, the movement did not end immediately. It was a definitive blow, but there were efforts to reorganise. In this atmosphere of repression and persecution, assemblies were held at UNAM and the Polytechnic, maintaining the strike in an attempt to strengthen the committees of struggle. Despite the fact that several students were killed as examples, the propaganda brigades continued. But the movement was disjointed and plunged into an atmosphere of fear.
The students wanted to fight through the impasse created by the generalised misinformation in the movement, but infiltrators began to slander the struggle and justify the killings.
Socrates Campos Lemus, from jail, in his ministerial statements of 5 October, accused the CNH of having as its objective the destabilising of the country, handling of arms and organising shock columns to confront the police and the army. On 6 October, the newspaper Excélsior published an article entitled "Revelations of the movement", an ‘official version’ of events in which Campos Lemus was given a platform to fully justify the massacre.
The environment had grown incredibly difficult. The schools were taken over or cordoned off by the police, many students did not go to the assemblies or participate in any acts called by the CNH to raise money for the prisoners for fear of repression.
Despite all this, the decimated leadership of the CNH still sought dialogue with the government. But the government knew the movement was dying and only drew out the talks without making any concessions to further exhaust its energies.
On November 19th and 21st, the call went out to return to class. Although the Polytechnic students initially rejected the proposal, days later the decision to lift the strike was also made at their facilities.
The next step in dismantling the student movement was the dissolution of the CNH on 6 December, where it was agreed to strengthen the remaining committees of struggle as the last organs of the movement.
For the remaining committed and seasoned students, the atmosphere was one of frustration – but also continued defiance. The last demonstration, dubbed the “great march of protest”, was attended by these layers who again faced attacks from the police and semi-fascist shock groups. The vast majority of detainees this time were youth from Polytechnic vocational schools.
These 100 days represent one of the most important movements in the recent history of Mexico. They cannot and should not be reduced to the 2 October massacre. It would be a mistake on our part to say that the murder of those 500 comrades is what now encourages us to fight.
Within the collective memory of youth and workers we carry those dead as a symbol of the resistance and honour of the struggle.
But there were more: thousands of student cadres, trained in dramatic street battles not only against state repression, but against their own past. This formed a wonderful mosaic of experience, confidence and challenges.
Those young people who participated lived in a more closed and repressive society than we live in now. The democratic rights we enjoy are owed to our militant comrades.
This fight aroused huge aspirations in all the workers who were recovering from the defeats of the 1950s. The student movement inspired the wave of struggles known as the 1970s "Workers' Insurgency": heroic days in which workers directly struggled against the fusion of the trade unions with the state.
The so-called "Political Reform," which opened up space for opposition parties in elections, was also a result of this struggle. The experience of the participants also resulted in a ruthless criticism of the reactionary policies of the Stalinist Communist Party, with whom lay a huge responsibility for this movement’s defeat.
It was nauseating for the youth to hear people talk about the PCM, because it had made a pact with the bosses, ultimately betraying the workers’ and students’ struggle. This ongoing betrayal was also the cause of the apoliticism of many of the movement’s participants. Additionally, the PCM can be held responsible for many of the participants’ views following 2 October that guerrilla warfare might be an alternative form of struggle to mass mobilisation. It can be said, without absolving the murderous government of Díaz Ordaz one iota, that the Stalinist policy was simply a dead end for youth. The PCM was the only party that had the opportunity to invest forces in the movement. With a correct policy, its leadership could have helped turn the tragedy into a victory.
The imprint of the struggle of 1968 is not only reflected in the democratic traditions of new generations following a corrupt, rotten, authoritarian era, but also all of the experiences of those who participated in the CNH.
In fact, this experience prepared the present generations to start new struggles, like the one promoted in universities by the General Strike Council (CGH) in 1999-2002.
As mentioned, if there was one critical limitation of the movement, it was the failure to bring in the working class. Yes, the workers’ movement was at an ebb, given the repression of the past decade, but it was clear that the student movement enthused the workers (especially in the month of September) as contingents of workers and peasants attended CNH meetings on a regular basis. To the CNH, expanding their programme of struggle would have meant agitating for the participation of the workers, to not only support the struggle, but to integrate and defend its own demands. Unfortunately, this was the same reason for the defeated Mexico University struggle in 2000.
Any problems faced by youth in society cannot be resolved in isolation from the struggles of the working class. That is why the link with workers is so important. Understanding that a struggle in a school cannot solve societal problems definitively leads us to understand that the struggles of the youth — for better education and for democratic freedoms — is intimately linked to the struggle against the capitalist system and its million and one machinations that cause untold daily misery.
The slogans defended in 1968 have not changed much; today we have political prisoners (in Oaxaca and Atenco), the government wants to regulate our demonstrations, an anti-terrorist law has been approved that criminalises social struggle, the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) is a shock group that fights against young people and workers etc.
Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The traditions of past struggles will be taken up by the new generations. In the current, politicised environment, with the crisis of world capitalism lasting over a decade, a new mass student movement could be the spark that sets off a new revolutionary movement.
Our generation has the potential to become the standard-bearers of a new society, in which misery is banished and opportunities for youth are abundant. This can only be achieved under socialism.
We will have to overcome all obstacles and take up the collective memory of our class: the working class. That's why we say this 2 October:
Neither laugh nor cry: understand!
October 2 is not for celebration, it is for fighting and protest!
Not a minute of silence for the fallen, but a whole life of revolutionary struggle!
JOIN US AND FIGHT FOR SOCIALISM!!!