I’ve long wondered why, exactly, everyone went crazy in 1968–not just in the US, but around the world.
The answer, I think, is Cultural Maoism. Wikipedia, on the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution:
On May 25,  under the guidance of Cao Yi’ou—wife of Maoist henchman Kang Sheng—Nie Yuanzi, a philosophy lecturer at Peking University, authored a big-character poster (dazibao) along with other leftists and posted it to a public bulletin. … Nie insinuated that the university leadership, much like Peng Zhen, were trying to contain revolutionary fervour in a “sinister” attempt to oppose the party and advance revisionism.
Mao promptly endorsed Nie’s dazibao as “the first Marxist big-character poster in China.” Nie’s call-to-arms, now sealed with Mao’s personal stamp of approval, had a lasting ripple effect across all educational institutions in China. Students everywhere began to revolt against their respective schools’ party establishment. Classes were promptly cancelled in Beijing primary and secondary schools, followed by a decision on June 13 to expand the class suspension nationwide. By early June, throngs of young demonstrators lined the capital’s major thoroughfares holding giant portraits of Mao, beating drums, and shouting slogans against his perceived enemies.
There are no hard numbers on how many people died during the Cultural Revolution. Some were executed. Others were tortured to death. Some committed suicide to stop the torture. Others were sent to the countryside, where they were worked to death. The most likely death tolls are estimated around 3 million people.
…in the Western countries, the Maoism of China acquired an intellectual panache. The flower of French intellectual life—Sartre, Foucault, and many others—aligned themselves with the Maoist cause in the various ways that Richard Wolin has described in his book, The Wind From the East. The intellectuals, some of them, may even have derived from their Maoism, or to have attributed to it, a number of clever cultural insights, which made for an odd moment in the Maoist craze, a confluence of novelty and nonsense. …
The original Maoist movement in the United States was a tiny splinter of the Communist Party USA, which itself was none too big by the 1960s. The splinter group eventually called itself the Progressive Labor Party, or PL, and it inspired the creation of a couple of other tiny Maoist parties after a while. …
In France, the Maoists established a political base at the École Normale Supérieure, which is the elite college where Louis Althusser provided philosophical guidance … And, in the United States, the Progressive Labor Party established its own base in the student movement at Harvard. The supremely brilliant young philosopher Hilary Putnam was one of PL’s Harvard intellectuals. And from those origins, PL succeeded, in 1969, in taking over a genuinely mass and popular American organization, Students for a Democratic Society, originally a social democratic organization with roots going back to Jack London in 1905, and just then at its highpoint, with a national membership somewhere around 100,000 people. …
In the United States, the people who felt the allure [of Maoism] responded, however, mostly by constructing Americanized and slightly watered-down Maoisms of their own, distinct from PL. There was a version that melded the orthodox Maoist vision of a Chinese alternative universe with the hippie world of drugs and rock ’n’ roll. This was the version of one of the largest factions within Students for a Democratic Society, the “Revolutionary Youth Movement 1,” which was anti-PL, whose purpose was to create its own guerrilla mini-army, the Weather Underground, with a politics of countercultural Maoism. SDS’s “Revolutionary Youth Movement 2,” meanwhile, generated a more conventional Maoist faction in California, the Revolutionary Communist Party, which still survives. The paramilitary Black Panther Party offered another version, with its own fully-military-armed guerrilla subsplinter, the Black Liberation Army. And still other factions and armed factions arose in the same Mao-in-America style, sometimes expressing a North Korean variation on Maoism (quite strong in the Black Liberation Army), or with a touch of Cuban Guevarism. …
The gay-liberation movement, in the early phases of its eruption into public affairs in 1969, was visibly tinged with Maoist inspirations (even if, in the Maoist China that actually existed, homosexuality was monstrously punished).
“When I came to Berlin, there were many Marxist-Leninist organizations. Many students were taking part in training sessions, reading Marx’s ‘Capital’ and texts about the workers’ movements etc. And China and the Cultural Revolution played an important role,” said Gottfried SchmittToday, he still has a copy of Mao’s bible in his bookcase. The other shelves are full of literature and art books. Mao sits besides Picasso and Giacometti. Schmitt’s “Red Book” is a well-maintained pocket-edition from 1968. The collection of quotations and texts by Chairman Mao Zedong was printed and published in the People’s Republic of China.
“Maoism and the Cultural Revolution were interesting because they were an attempt within the Communist Party of China to put into practice the model of perpetual disempowerment of the elites. The keyword was permanent revolution. Even in socialist societies, there is a tendency for established bureaucracies to develop and basically rehabilitate the old bourgeois structures. Mao saw that very clearly. In Berlin, we had the so called real socialism of the German Democratic Republic before our eyes. But it didn’t provide a model of society that was attractive to young angry and rebellious students.”
In 1967, 159 race riots burned through American cities. The Detroit Riot alone left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings. (And since 1967, employment in Detroit has plummeted as businesses have fled the area for more hospitable climes. The city, once one of the richest in the world, is now one America’s poorest and most violent.)
In Avondale, Cincinnati:
… a thousand rioters smashed, looted and attacked cars, buildings and stores. A witness reported, “there’s not a window left on Reading Road or Burnett Avenue. The youths are doing it and adults are standing by and laughing.”…
Avondale’s flourishing business district along Burnet Avenue was eradicated by the riots of 1967 and 1968. Many of the damaged areas were left vacant for a decade. The riots helped fuel beliefs that the city was too dangerous for families and helped accelerate “white flight” to the suburbs. Between 1960 and 1970 the city of Cincinnati lost 10% of its population, compared to a loss of just 0.3% from 1950 to 1960. Cincinnati would continue to lose residents every decade afterwards. Many of the neighborhoods around Avondale experienced steep urban decline, including Avondale itself, which has never recovered from the riots.
black residents, outraged by the slow pace in ending housing discrimination and police brutality, began to riot on the evening of July 30. The inciting incident was a fight between teenagers, which escalated into full-fledged rioting with the arrival of police. Within minutes, arson, looting, and sniping was ravaging the North Side of the city, primarily the 3rd Street Corridor. …
In 1980, twelve years after the passage of Milwaukee’s equal housing ordinance, the city ranked second nationally among the most racially segregated suburban areas.:394 As of 2000, it was the most segregated city in the country according to data gathered by the US Census Bureau.
Rinse and repeat, 159 times.
In 1968, things got crazier:
The protests of 1968 comprised a worldwide escalation of social conflicts, predominantly characterized by popular rebellions against military and bureaucratic elites, who responded with an escalation of political repression.
… In reaction to the Tet Offensive, protests also sparked a broad movement in opposition to the Vietnam War all over the United States and even into London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. Mass socialist movements grew not only in the United States but also in most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of this were the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with wildcat strikes of up to ten million workers, and for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government. In many other capitalist countries, struggles against dictatorships, state repression, and colonization were also marked by protests in 1968, such as the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, and the escalation of guerrilla warfare against the military dictatorship in Brazil.
In the socialist countries there were also protests against lack of freedom of speech and violation of other civil rights by the Communist bureaucratic and military elites. In Central and Eastern Europe there were widespread protests that escalated, particularly in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, in Warsaw in Poland and in Yugoslavia. … The college students of 1968 embraced the New Left politics. Their socialist leanings and distrust of authority led to many of the 1968 conflicts. The dramatic events of the year showed both the popularity and limitations of New Left ideology, a radical leftist movement that was also deeply ambivalent about its relationship to communism during the middle and later years of the Cold War.
What was the New Left?
The New Left was a broad political movement mainly in the 1960s and 1970s consisting of educators, agitators and others in Western world who sought to implement a broad range of reforms on issues such as civil rights, gay rights, abortion, gender roles, and drugs, in contrast to earlier leftist or Marxist movements that had taken a more vanguardist approach to social justice and focused mostly on labor unionization and questions of social class. Sections of the New Left rejected involvement with the labor movement and Marxism’s historical theory of class struggle, although others gravitated to variants of Marxism like Maoism.
The “vanguard” are proletariat, working-class revolutionaries–your traditional Marxists–concerned with labor union issues. The New Left is composed of university students and educators–“Cultural Marxists”–concerned with social issues like abortion, gay rights, race, and identity politics.
The ideology developed at the Frankfurt School is also known as “Cultural Marxism,” though Wikipedia insists on referring to it as a “conspiracy theory.” There is much debate on this topic, though I am personally of the opinion that “Cultural Marxism” is as good a phrase as any to describe what Marxism became in the US as it ceased to focus on unions and began focusing on feminist, LGBT and racial issues.
Part of the underlying political developments of the 1960s was the USSR’s movement away from Stalinism, which made lots of people feel confused and disenchanted. Somehow worldwide revolution wasn’t happening, workers were still oppressed, the Soviet Union hadn’t become a paradise, etc. This prompted Mao to repudiate Khrushchev and spawn the Cultural Revolution to protect China against Khrushchev-esque “reactionaries,” a move that probably had less to do with ideological purity than ousting Mao’s enemies and returning him to power.
Outside of the Iron Curtain, Communists were split between those who were disenchanted by the USSR’s stagnation and those who were inspired by Mao’s revolutionary fervor.
As the campus orientation of the American New Left became clear in the mid to late 1960s, the student sections of the British New Left began taking action. The London School of Economics became a key site of British student militancy. The influence of protests against the Vietnam War and of the May 1968 events in France were also felt strongly throughout the British New Left. Some within the British New Left joined the International Socialists, which later became Socialist Workers Party while others became involved with groups such as the International Marxist Group. The politics of the British New Left can be contrasted with Solidarity, which continued to focus primarily on industrial issues. …
Many New Left thinkers in the United States were influenced by the Vietnam War and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Some in the U.S. New Left argued that since the Soviet Union could no longer be considered the world center for proletarian revolution, new revolutionary Communist thinkers had to be substituted in its place, such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. …
The Troubles began in Northern Ireland more or less in 1968, with the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1966, a civil rights march in Derry on October 5th, 1968, and the ‘Battle of the Bogside‘ in August, 1969. The violence eventually took 3,500 lives.
As far as Marxist-inspired violence goes, the US got off relatively easy. The Weather Underground set off a couple dozen bombs, but primarily targeted property, not people. (Approximately 1,500 bombs were set off by political activists in 1972 alone.)
The Black Panthers:
Curtis Austin states that by late 1968, Black Panther Party ideology had evolved to the point where they began to reject black nationalism and became more a “revolutionary internationalist movement”:
“[The Party] dropped its wholesale attacks against whites and began to emphasize more of a class analysis of society. Its emphasis on Marxist–Leninist doctrine and its repeated espousal of Maoist statements signaled the group’s transition from a revolutionary nationalist to a revolutionary internationalist movement. Every Party member had to study Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book” to advance his or her knowledge of peoples’ struggle and the revolutionary process.“
I don’t know how many people were murdered (or attempted) by the Black Panthers, but a quick scan of their article gives the impression that they killed each other more often than they killed non-Panthers. The Black Liberation Army has been accused of committing 13 murders and hijacking an airplane.
The Zebra Murders of at least 15 (and potentially 73) people by black Muslims paralyzed San Francisco in the early 70s, but pale in comparison to Maoist guerrillas in Peru, where the Shining Path has killed over 37,000 people, or the Maoist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which killed an incredible 1/3 of their country.
Anonymous blogger Zaphod has collected every article published in The Harvard Crimson between 1973 and 1976 that mention the Khmer Rogue. These articles, representing the opinions of some of the finest Cathedral minds in the country, are horrifyingly supportive of one of history’s most murderous regimes:
Congress and the public have come to accept that the U.S. must stop interfering in Cambodia’s affairs, which will surely result in well-deserved victory of the revolutionary forces led by Prince Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge.
News of U.S. bombing in Cambodia drones on. U.S. support for political repression in Vietnam continues. …
The bombing, as some belated reporting from the area is starting to show, is directed against an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement, the Khmer Rouge, a force numbering in the hundreds of thousands which is attempting to topple the Lon Nol regime, Nixon’s two-year-old creation. …
For nearly a decade, The Crimson has called for an end to American involvement in Indochina. We repeat that call today. The war has brought more death and destruction to one area of the globe since Adolf Hitler’s armies devastated Europe in World War II. The United States should cease its bombing and all other overt and covert military operations in Indochina. The genocide must stop.
Reporting from Cambodia is scanty and shoddy, the outlines of the political dispute there are hazy, and the revolutionary Khmer Rouge, to which many Harvard students would be attracted, is still a shadowy and elusive force.
As a consequence, Watergate, which is close to home, has gripped students here as well as the rest of the nation while the more monstrous Nixon crimes go unnoticed.
Of course, once the US withdrew, the Khmer Rogue committed one of the worst genocides in history. The Crimson reflected:
What was happening in Vietnam and Cambodia meant a lot to us at The Crimson; for us it seemed to be the first good news from Indochina in years. Since late in the 60s we had editorially supported the Khmer Rouge and National Liberation Front in Vietnam, both nationalist groups affiliated with foreign Communist parties, and both of those characteristics–the independence and the socialist egalitarianism–appealed to us. …
At first The Crimson was against the war because it was a bad and wasteful thing for America to do; supporting the liberation movements, a step most of the anti-war movement didn’t take, was for us a logical next step.
I don’t know what we all expected the Khmer Rouge to do when it came to power. …
With Cambodia it’s an old dilemma–do we look at events in Indochina as Americans with liberal values or as the Indochinese must look at them? The Khmer Rouge can certainly no longer meet with our approval on our own terms, because they violate our feeling that anything worthy need not be accomplished through violence and cruelty. On their own terms they continue to be most of what we supported them for–staunch nationalists, socialists, remakers of their own society. It is a conflict that I am not ready to resolve. Although The Crimson has yet to commit itself, I continue to support the Khmer Rouge in its principles and goals but I have to admit that I deplore the way they are going about it.
1940-70: Millions of black people move from the mostly rural South to Northern cities in the Great Migration
In 1963, a Communist assassinated Kennedy, making LBJ president.
1964: LBJ’s Civil Rights Act passed
1965: LBJ’s Immigration Act passed
1966: Cultural Revolution began
The global Left, feeling disenchanted due to the USSR’s failure to achieve a utopia and repudiation of Stalinism, turns to China for inspiration. It abandons proletarian-driven communism in favor of student-driven communism.
1967: 159 race riots burn down American cities, protesting segregation and police brutality. Many cities never recover.
1968: World goes crazy. Maoists murder millions of people.
Over the next few decades, schools are integrated, legal segregation is dismantled, and the police back off black communities. As a result, urban crime skyrockets:
Whites flee the violence, contributing to a culture of rootless anomie, dispersed families, and lost wealth as property values plummet.
1973: Harvard Crimson accuses Nixon of genocide for opposing the Khmer Rouge
1974: Nixon forced out of office by the media
1975: Cambodian Genocide begins: Khmer Rouge kills 1/3 of their country
The version of this story we usually hear:
Whites were mean and wouldn’t let blacks live in their cities. They forced blacks into ghettos, which were mysteriously full of crime and oppressed by the police. Everything in the ghetto fell apart and the students couldn’t learn anything. After MLK was murdered, integration began, prompting evil white flight. Today, the police are still oppressing black people.
The version you don’t hear:
The “Great Migration” started an urban crime wave that lasted for 3 decades, destroying inner cities and murdered thousands of people. Black rioters in the 60s and 70s burned down thousands of buildings, driving businesses out of black neighborhoods. Factory owners decided to relocate to China to import Mexicans to avoid hiring blacks, decimating the working class.
The version you hear:
Nixon was a bad man who authorized the Watergate Hotel break-in.
The version you don’t hear:
Nixon was fighting the Maoist Khmer Rogue. The media’s campaign to drive Nixon from office resulted in one of the worst genocides in human history.
I haven’t even touched Sayyid Qutb, yet.