Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

"1968" in Finland Risto Alapuro
1968 in 2018: The Resonance of a Rebellious Year Donatella della Porta
1968 - Revolution of Perception Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey
Permanent Reflection and Inclusion Boosts. The Heritage of the Generation of 1968 Armin Nassehi
Resistance, Transgression, Freedom Csaba Szaló
May 68: The Debate Continues! Michel Wieviorka
The Past in Action: Memories of 1968 in the Italian and Spanish Student Movements Lorenzo Zamponi

"1968" in Finland

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018

Risto Alapuro, University of Helsinki, Finland

Finland, as any other country that encountered the youth revolt in the 1960s, experienced it in its own, specific way. [1] The particularity of the Finnish case goes back to the Finnish civil war in 1918. Then a political culture was established, in which a strong domestic communist movement was coupled with an extremely anti-communist intelligentsia and educated class.
The unsuccessful attempt at revolution in 1917 was linked to the revolutionary process in Russia, and was seen by the bourgeois victors as a Liberation war against communist Russia and its Finnish allies. As a consequence the educated class, in post-civil war Finland, almost unanimously dreaded the Soviet-minded communist movement – for which the bloody suppression of the revolutionary attempt had created a fertile soil. When, after World War II the communists were able to rise from their clandestine position, they became a strong political force. In the 1960s the Communist Party of Finland (or to be precise, an electoral organisation dominated by it, the Democratic League of the Finnish People) held between 41 and 50 seats out of the 200 in Parliament; in the beginning of that decade it had more deputies than any other party.

This combination – a big communist movement but no leftist intellectual tradition, not to mention any communist intelligentsia – was unique in Western Europe. The two other countries in which the communist movement flourished – France and Italy – both had an established left-wing intellectual culture.

When they became a part of the international youth movement of the 1960s, Finnish students had to break the dominant nationalist and anticommunist tradition, and inevitably also to meet the Finnish worker’s movement, including its large extreme left-wing. The first attempts were made by the Communist party after its legalisation in the 1940s. The party tried to persuade intellectuals to move to the side of the “class-conscious working class.” These efforts had some modest initial success but soon came to nothing.

The change began in the 1950s, indirectly, in the cultural sphere. In literature, a demand was put forward that the language had to be cleared of all ideological ballast, including notably the big words of the pre-war nationalist culture, like “heroes” or “sacrifices.” In the social sciences, the same tendency appeared in pronounced positivism and empiricism. All this did not lead to a redefinition of relations with communists, but it contributed to a renewal in the attitude toward the Soviet Union, which the Finns had to get along with after World War II, as well as with the domestic communists.

In the next phase, the 1960s, the first steps toward a dialogue with communists were taken in the spirit of the previous decade. Young intellectuals and sociologists argued that political dissension resulted from the negative connotation of certain key terms, rather than from factual differences. It was held, for example, that “conceptual problems” complicated discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the forms of the transition to socialism. A small but growing number of intellectuals and students began to join parties of the Left, first the Social Democrats but then, especially from 1968, increasingly the Communist party or its electoral organisation.

The student movement climaxed in 1968, prompted both by international and domestic developments. Graphically the change of paradigm appears in the attitude towards the use of violence as a political weapon, or, more concretely, in attitudes towards the revolution.
In the emerging Finnish radicalism of the early 1960s non-violence and pacifism were the overriding principle, certainly aided by Finland’s delicate position between East and West in the cold war. The Finnish Committee of 100, modelled on the British anti-war group, was its most noticeable organisation. In 1966 and 1967, however, the principle of non-violence came to be questioned by a number of activists. In their opinion, the Committee should have openly criticised the American war in Vietnam and “imperialism” more broadly – that is, they should have adopted the position prevailing in the international student movement in general.

The militant opposition was defeated in the Committee but the issue of violence became a central theme of discussion and debate in 1968, leading, among other things, to the street demonstrations in that year, and to the foundation of a loose organisation called Tricont. It urged a common anti-imperialist front between the liberation movements in the Third World and their protagonists in developed capitalist countries. “The struggle of the national liberation movements in the Third World is an essential part of the contemporary revolutionary process in the capitalist world.” Thus a link was established between the Third World and Finland: “The anti-imperialist struggle in Finland amounts to struggling against Finnish high capital and capitalism.” [2]

On the one hand, then, the Finnish student movement joined the world-wide student revolt, for the revolution and against imperialism. But it had also an exceptionally sensible domestic point of reference in the form of a strong communist movement and a tradition of revolution. An appropriate illustration is provided by the development of another major student organisation of the epoch, called “The November Movement.” It was founded in 1967 on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia (!), and its purpose was to defend prisoners, the homeless, and other repressed groups, in line with the “overall goals of a pluralist society.” But, within one year, by the autumn of 1968, the central term describing the objectives became “revolution.” “The sector of [social control and regulation] is a sector of revolution. The objective is a great socialist revolution.” [3] Those representing the revolutionary orientation gained the upper hand in the executive committee, and at least five of them joined the Communist Party of Finland.
It is striking what a powerful and almost magical ring the term ‘revolution’ had to it in both of its manifestations. Part of its attractiveness undoubtedly lay in the fact that it was extremely vague and open to various interpretations by imaginative minds.

One example is the event in which the Finnish student movement climaxed and which in subsequent years acquired a quasi-mythical character. On November 25, 1968, one day before the centenary celebration of the Union of the Students of the University of Helsinki was to take place, in the students’ own club house (an imposing building in the heart of Helsinki), students occupied it. The official celebration, with a number of established guests, including the President of the Republic, had to be moved elsewhere. A banderol “Revolution has begun in the University!” was raised on the façade of the house, and the Internationale was sung inside. A special issue of the student magazine was published, with the poem “Revolution” as its editorial.

After 1968, the Finnish student movement developed in a direction not to be found elsewhere. Instead of continuing as an anti-imperialist movement showing solidarity with the Third World, criticising the Soviet Union and the communist parties in its tutelage, and adopting Trotskist and Maoist ideas, the dominant current in the Finnish student movement made a turn, which manifests, in a curious manner, the heavy weight of the traumatic civil-war experience, long repressed in the dominant culture. Students adopted a pro-Soviet line in its most orthodox, “Stalinist” form and joined the Party’s minority that stuck to it. Even the occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 had only a passing effect in slowing down the march to the orthodox communist camp.

This “proletarian turn,” as it was called, happened at the same time as the majority of the Communist party were distancing themselves from Soviet communism and approving a new programme (1969), in which the references to the proletarian dictatorship were removed. Communist students, instead, replaced the Third World perspective on imperialism with Leninist imperialism theory: “Now finally Marxism-Leninism has to be applied to Finnish capitalism, instead of attempting to invent revolutionary models for the states of South America”. Their organisation was considered as a “revolutionary student organisation, [whose task is] to mobilise students and educate them into Marxism-Leninism.” [4] By taking this step, provocative as it was, the movement advanced to the heart of the national trauma that went back to the year 1918.
However, in a few years it became clear that the proletarian turn was an epilogue to the past rather than the beginning of a new epoch. The encounter with the hidden history produced a Soviet-oriented student movement in a country that only a few decades earlier had barely saved itself in a war with the Soviet Union – a unique variety of the student revolt in the Western world.

[1] References can be found in Risto Alapuro, “Vuosi 1968 ja Suomi”, University of Turku publication (forthcoming 2018).
[2] Ilpo Halonen, “Opiskelijat imperialismin vastaisena voimana” [Students as an anti-imperialist force], Imperialismi ja opiskelijaliikehdinnät [Imperialism and student movements], Tricont no. 7 (stencil, s.a.) (the first quote); Tricont (brochure, 1969) (the second quote).
[3] Marraskuun liikkeen tiedote [Bulletin of the November Movement] no. 7, 1968, 7 (Martti Kuokkanen).
[4] Timo Linsiö, “Työväenluokka ja opiskelijat” [Working class and students], Soihtu 33, 1969, no. 1, 4 (the first quote); Juhani Ruotsalo and Kari Toikka, “Opiskelijaliike ja SOL” [Student movement and the Socialist Student League], Soihtu 36, 1972, no. 1, 65 (the second quote).