May 1968 was the greatest revolutionary general strike in history. This mighty movement took place at the height of the post-war economic upswing in capitalism. Then, as now, the bourgeois and their apologists were congratulating themselves that revolutions and class struggle were things of the past. Then came the French events of 1968, which seemed to drop like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky. They took most of the Left completely by surprise, because, they had all written off the European working class as a revolutionary force.
[This article was originally published in May 2008, to mark the 40th anniversary of the revolutionary events in France – and only months before the financial crash and the beginning of the Great Recession]
Foresight and astonishment
In May 1968, The Economist published a special supplement on France written by Norman Macrae to mark ten years of Gaullist rule. In this supplement, Macrae sang the praises of the successes of French capitalism, pointing out that the French had a higher living standard than the British; ate more meat; owned more cars and so on. And he cited the “great national advantage” of France over her neighbour across the Channel: its trade unions were “pathetically weak.” The ink was hardly dry on Macrae’s article when the French working class astonished the world with a social uprising unequalled in modern times.
The May events were not foreseen by the strategists of capital, either in France or anywhere else. They were not foreseen by the Stalinist and reformist leaders. Things were even worse when it came to the so-called revolutionary Left. The intellectual ladies and gentlemen who considered themselves Marxists (most of whom had spent decades arguing about “armed struggle,” insurrection and the rest) not only did not foresee any movement of the French workers. They specifically denied any such possibility.
Let us take one of the “theoreticians” of the academic Marxists, André Gorz. This individual wrote in an article that, “in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrections in support of their vital interests.” (A. Gorz, Reform and Revolution, in The Socialist Register 1968. Our emphasis). These lines were published in the middle of the biggest revolutionary general strike in history.
Gorz was not alone in writing off the working class. That “great Marxist” Ernest Mandel spoke at a meeting in London only one month before these great events. In the course of his lecture, he spoke about everything under the sun, but never mentioned a single word about the situation of the French working class. When this contradiction was pointed out to him by one of our comrades from the floor, his reply was that the workers were bourgeoisified and “Americanised” and there would be no movement of the French workers for the next twenty years.
What none of these gentlemen understood was that the long period of capitalist upswing after 1945 had transformed the class balance of forces and enormously strengthened the European working class. Before the Second World War the French ruling class tried to base itself on backwardness. After the experience of the Paris Commune the French bourgeois were mortally afraid of the growth of the proletariat and therefore developed a parasitic rentier economy based heavily on finance capital, banking and the colonies.
The development of industry means that the proletariat itself is much stronger than it was in the 1930s, let alone the time of the Paris Commune, when practically all the workers were in small workshops. Even in 1931 nearly two thirds of all industrial enterprises in France employed no wage-workers at all, and another third of them employed less than ten. Only 0.5% of industrial enterprises employed more than a hundred. However, after the Second World War there was a strong development of industry in France, which led to a rapid strengthening of the proletariat and the gradual decline of the peasantry.
At the time of the 1936 revolutionary crisis, half of the population of France earned its living from agriculture, whereas today the rural population is less than 6% of the population as a whole. By 1968 the wage-earning class had grown not only in numbers, but also in terms of its potential for struggle. The fundamental change was shown in 1968 in the key role played by giant factories such as the Renault works in Flins, with a total workforce of 10,500, of which 1,000 participated in pickets and a minimum of 5,000 attended daily strike meetings at that plant alone.
In 1936, when the correlation of class forces was infinitely less favourable, in a situation that was not one tenth as advanced, Trotsky said that the Communist Party (PCF) and Socialist Party (SP) could have taken power:
“If the party of Léon Blum was really Socialist it might, basing itself upon the general strike, have overthrown the bourgeoisie in June, almost without civil war, with a minimum of disturbance and of sacrifices. But the party of Blum is a bourgeois party, the younger brother of rotten Radicalism.” (Leon Trotsky, On France, p. 178, our emphasis.)
The relation of forces in 1968 was vastly more favourable. A peaceful transformation was possible, if the PCF leaders had acted as Marxists should act. It is essential to stress this. Only the betrayal of the Stalinist leaders, who refused to take power when the most favourable circumstances existed, prevented the French workers from taking power.
Role of the students
The students are always a sensitive barometer of the tensions building up in the depths of society. The wave of student demonstrations and occupations that preceded the May events was like the heat lightening that precedes a storm. In the months before May there was a ferment among the students that manifested itself in a series of demonstrations and occupations.
Faced with the rising tide of student protests the Rector of the prestigious Sorbonne University decided to close it down for only the second time in 700 years. The first time was in 1940, when the Nazis occupied Paris. The police attempt to clear the courtyard at the Sorbonne on May 3 was the spark that ignited a powder keg. Violence erupted in the Quartier Latin, resulting in more than 100 injured and 596 arrested. The next day courses at the Sorbonne were suspended. The main student organizations, the UNEF and the Snesup called for unlimited strikes. On May 6 there were new battles in the Quartier Latin: 422 arrests; 345 police and about 600 students were injured. The repression caused widespread indignation. Enraged students tore up cobblestones to throw at the police and erected barricades in the good old French tradition. Students at universities throughout France pledged support.
On the night of May 10 there was a full-scale riot in the Quartier Latin. The rioters erected barricades in the old French traditions, which the police assaulted with great violence. The armed thugs of the French riot police, CRS broke into private apartments and savagely beat up ordinary people, even a pregnant woman. But they got more than they expected. Ordinary Parisians bombarded the police with flowerpots and other heavy objects hurled from windows. Out of the 367 people hospitalised, 251 were police. Another 720 people were hurt and 468 arrested. Cars were burned or damaged. The Minister of Education insulted the protestors: “Ni doctrine, ni foi, ni loi” (No learning, no faith, no law).
During the first week, the PCF leaders had belittled the students and the union leaders had tried to ignore them. L’Humanité published an article by the future PCF leader George Marchais with the title False Revolutionaries to be unmasked. But faced with the general indignation of the population and pressure from the rank and file, the union bureaucracy was compelled to take action. On May 11, the main unions, the CGT, the CFDT and the FEN, called for a general strike on 13 May. About 200,000 demonstrators shouted slogans like “De Gaulle Assassin!”
Returning hastily to Paris, the then-Prime Minister George Pompidou, announced the re-opening of the Sorbonne for the same day. This was intended as a compromise gesture to head off a social explosion. But it was too little, too late. The masses saw it as a sign of weakness and pressed forward.
The ferment among the students was only the most evident manifestation of discontent in French society. Despite the economic boom, the French bosses had applied merciless pressure on the workers. Beneath the surface of apparent calm there was an enormous accumulation of discontent, bitterness and frustration. Already in January there were violent exchanges during a demonstration by strikers at Caen.
The general strike of May 13 marked a qualitative turning point. Hundreds of thousands of students and workers poured onto the streets of Paris. Some idea of this is conveyed by the following description of the mighty demonstration of a million, which took over the streets of Paris on the 13th of May:
“Endlessly they filed past. There were whole sections of hospital personnel in white coats, some carrying posters saying ‘Où sont les disparus des hôpitaux?’ (‘Where are the missing injured?’). Every factory, every major workplace seemed to be represented. There were numerous groups of railwaymen, postmen, printers, Metro personnel, metal workers, airport workers, market men, electricians, lawyers, sewermen, bank employees, building workers, glass and chemical workers, waiters, municipal employees, painters and decorators, gas workers, shop girls, insurance clerks, road sweepers, film studio operators, busmen, teachers, workers from the new plastic industries, row upon row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it, if it but decided to do so.” (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 12.)
The leaders of the unions hoped that this would be sufficient to halt the movement. The leaders did not intend for the general strike to continue and spread. They saw the demonstration as a means of blowing off steam. But once it started, the movement soon acquired a life of its own. The call for a general strike was like a heavy rock thrown into a tranquil lake. The waves spread to every corner of France. Although there were only about three and a half million workers organised in the unions, ten million went on strike and a wave of factory occupations began all over France.
On the 14th, one day after the mass demonstration in Paris, the workers occupied Sud-Aviation in Nantes and the Renault factory at Cléon was occupied by workers, 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 18 the coalmines 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.
Workers took control of petrol supplies in Nantes, refusing entry to all petrol tankers, which did not carry authorisation from the strike committee. A picket was placed on the only functioning petrol pump in the town, which made sure that petrol was only issued to doctors. Contact was made with the peasant organisations in the surrounding areas, and food supplies were arranged, with prices fixed by the workers and peasants. To prevent profiteering, shops had to display a sticker in the window with the words: “This shop is authorised to open. Its prices are under permanent supervision by the unions.” The sticker was signed by the CGT, CFDT and FO. A litre of milk was sold for 50 centimes compared to the normal 80. A kilo of potatoes was cut from 70 centimes to 12; a kilo of carrots from 80 to 50, and so on.
The students, teachers, professional people, peasants, scientists, footballers, even the girls of the Follies Bergères were all drawn into the struggle. In Paris students occupied the Sorbonne. The Theatre de l’Odéon was occupied by 2,500 students and the school students occupied the schools:
“Occupation fever gripped the intelligentsia. Radical doctors occupied the premises of the Medical Association, radical architects proclaimed the dissolution of their association, actors closed all the theatres of the capital, writers led by Michel Butor occupied the Societé des Gens de Lettres at the Hotel de Massa. Even business executives got into the act, seizing for a while the building of the employers’ association, Conseil National du Patronat Français, then moving on to the Confederation Generale des Cadres.” (David Caute, Sixty-Eight, the Year of the Barricades, p.203).
Since the schools were closed, teachers and students organised nurseries, playgroups, free meals and activities for the strikers’ children. Committees of strikers’ wives were set up and played a leading role organising food supplies. Not only the students, but also the professional layers were infected with the bug of revolution. The astronomers occupied an observatory. There was a strike at the nuclear research centre at Saclay, where the majority of the 10,000 employees were researchers, technicians, engineers or graduate scientists. Even the Church was affected. In the Latin Quarter, young Catholics occupied a church and demanded a debate instead of mass.
Power in the streets
The rioting in Paris continued, with workers and students braving tear gas and baton charges. In a single night there were 795 arrests, and 456 injured. Demonstrators attempted to torch the Paris Bourse (Stock Exchange), that hated symbol of capitalism. A Commissaire de Police was killed in Lyon by a truck.
Once in struggle the workers began to take initiatives, which went far beyond the limits of a normal strike. A key element in the equation was the means of mass communication. Formally these were powerful weapons in the hands of the state. But they also depend on the workers who operate the radio and television stations. On May 25 state radio and television – the ORTF – went on strike. The TV news at 8pm was blacked out. The printers and journalists imposed a kind of workers’ control of the press. Bourgeois papers had to submit their editorials for scrutiny, and had to publish the declarations of the workers’ committees.
The National Assembly discussed the university crisis and the battles of the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter). But the debates in the chambers of the Assembly were already an irrelevance. Power had slipped from the hands of the legislators and was lying in the streets. On May 24 President De Gaulle announced a referendum on radio and television. His plan to hold a referendum was frustrated by the action of the workers. General De Gaulle was unable even to get ballot sheets for a referendum printed because of the strike of the French printing workers and the refusal of their Belgian colleagues to scab. This was not the only example of international solidarity. German and Belgian train drivers halted their trains on the French border in order not to break the strike.
The forces of reaction, up till now in a state of shock and forced onto the defensive, began to get organized. The Committees for the Defense of the Republic – CDR – were launched in an attempt to mobilize the middle class against the workers and students. The class balance of forces is not purely a matter of the relative numerical strength of the working class as opposed to the peasants and middle class in general. Once the proletariat enters into decisive struggle, showing itself to be a powerful force in society, it quickly attracts the exploited mass of peasants and small shopkeepers who are crushed by the banks and monopolies. This was evident in 1968, when the peasants set up roadblocks around Nantes and distributed free food to the strikers.
The myth of the ‘strong state’
The movement caught the ruling class and the government entirely off guard. They were terrified of the movement of the students, as the then Prime Minister, Pompidou admitted in his memoirs:
“Some people … have thought that by reopening the Sorbonne and having the students released I had shown weakness and set the agitation going again. I would simply answer as follows: let’s suppose that, on Monday 13 May the Sorbonne had remained closed under police protection. Who can imagine that the crowd, swarming towards Denfert-Rochereau, would have failed to break in, carrying everything before it like a river in flood? I preferred to give the Sorbonne to the students than to see them take it by force.” (G. Pompidou, Pour Rétablir une Vérité, pp. 184-5.)
Elsewhere he adds:
“The crisis was infinitely more serious and more profound; the regime would stand or be overthrown, but it could not be saved by a mere cabinet reshuffle. It was not my position that was in question. It was General De Gaulle, the Fifth Republic, and, to a considerable extent, Republican rule itself.” (Ibid., p. 197, my emphasis.)
What did Pompidou mean when he said that “Republican rule itself” was in danger? He meant that the capitalist state itself was threatened with overthrow. And in this, he was quite right. After Pompidou tried to defuse the crisis by reopening the Sorbonne the movement merely acquired fresh momentum with a demonstration of 250,000. Terrified that the students would join forces with the workers and storm the Elysée, the presidential palace was evacuated.
De Gaulle initially placed his confidence in the Stalinist leaders to save the situation. He said to his naval ADC, François Flohic, “Don’t worry, Flohic, the Communists will keep them in order.” (Philippe Alexandre, L’Elysée en péril, p. 299.)
What do these words prove? Neither more nor less than that the capitalist system could not exist without the support of the reformist (and Stalinist) labour leaders. This support is worth much more to them than any amount of tanks and policemen. De Gaulle, as an intelligent bourgeois, understood this perfectly. In an attempt to show his supreme indifference to the events in France, President De Gaulle left for a State visit to Romania, where he was welcomed with open arms by the “Communist” Ceausescu. However, the General’s confidence did not last long.
The essence of a revolution is that the masses begin to participate actively in events, begin to take matters into their own hands. Back in France, the “Communist” leaders were losing control. Red flags flew over factories, schools, universities, labour exchanges, and even astronomical observatories. The government was powerless, left suspended in mid-air by the uprising. The Gaullist “strong state” was paralysed. Power was really in the hands of the working class.
The reports of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Paris shook De Gaulle. Faced with the growing tide of revolt President De Gaulle was forced to abandon the pretence of indifference, cut short his presidential trip to Romania and hurry back to France. At the Elysée palace, President De Gaulle uttered the immortal words: “La réforme, oui; la chienlit, non” (Reform yes, snotty nosed kids, no!). The word chienlit is difficult to translate but signifies an infant who has not yet learned to use a urinal.
By using such language, De Gaulle was expressing his contempt for the “kids” on the streets. But the movement had by now gone far beyond the stage of student demonstrations. It was like a huge snowball rolling down a steep mountain and gathering strength and momentum all the time. The most unexpected layers were being drawn into the maelstrom of revolutionary struggle. Cinema professionals occupied the Cannes Film Festival. Major French directors withdrew their films from the competition and the jury resigned, forcing the festival to close.
By May 20 an estimated 10 million workers were on strike; the country was practically paralyzed. On May 22 a censure motion by the opposition parties failed by only eleven votes to win a majority in the National Assembly. The government was tottering and De Gaulle was in despair. Yet precisely at this time the leaders of the union confederations threw a lifeline to De Gaulle, issuing a statement that they were willing to negotiate with the employer’s association and the government.
An amnesty for demonstrators was passed by the National Assembly. Naturally! Having failed to crush the movement by repression, the authorities resorted to concessions in an attempt to take the heat out of the situation and gain time. Thus, both the government and the union leaders collaborated to head off the revolutionary movement and lead it into safe channels. While offering concessions to the student and union leaders, the state nevertheless continued with selective repression directed against what it regarded as subversive elements. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the student anarchist had his residence permit withdrawn. This was a stupid move, since the actual influence of Cohn-Bendit on the movement was minimal. But the government’s action succeeded in provoking a mass demonstration in Paris to protest against it.
De Gaulle demoralised
De Gaulle’s biographer, Charles Williams, graphically describes his state of mind on the eve of his broadcast to the nation on May 24th:
“There is no doubt that, after the exhilaration of Romania, the General had been badly shaken by what he had found on his return to France. During the ensuing three days, he seemed to at least one visitor, who had not seen him for some time, to be old and indecisive, his stoop accentuated. It seemed as though it was all getting too much for him.
“The broadcast of 24 May, when it came, was a complete flop. The General looked, and sounded, shifty and scared. True, he announced a referendum on ‘participation,’ but it was not clear what the precise terms of the question would be, and it seemed to those who heard him to be suspiciously like a device. He said that it was the duty of the state to ensure public order, but his voice lacked its old resonance, and the phrases, although still in the same solemn language, somehow no longer carried conviction. He came across as an old man, tired and wounded. He knew it himself. ‘I missed the target,’ he said that evening. The best that Pompidou could say was: ‘It could have been worse.'” (C. Williams, The Last Great Frenchman. A life of General De Gaulle, pp. 463-4, my emphasis.)
“But De Gaulle’s mood, on the morning of the 25th, had turned for the worse. He was, in the words of one of his ministers, ‘prostrate-stooped and aged.’ He kept on repeating, ‘It’s a mess.’ Another minister found an old man who ‘had no «feel» for the future.‘ The General sent for his son Philippe, who found his father ‘tired’ and noted that he had hardly slept. Philippe suggested that his father might make for the Atlantic port of Brest – shadows of 1940 – but was told that he would not give up.
“From 25 to 28 May De Gaulle remained in a state of profound gloom. Pompidou’s negotiations with the trade unions had been a farce. He had simply given them all they asked for: sweeping increases in pay and social benefits, and an increase in the minimum wage of 35 per cent. The only snag was that, even after the deal had been signed, the CGT had insisted that it would have to be ratified by their membership. George Séguy, the CGT leader, hurried off to the Paris suburb of Billancourt, where 12,000 Renault workers were on strike. When the agreement was put to them, they humiliated Séguy by turning it down flat. The accords of Grenelle, as they were called, were stillborn.
“The Council of Ministers met at 3 p.m. on 27 May, soon after the Renault workers’ rejection of the Grenelle accords. The General presided, but it was noted that his heart and mind were elsewhere. He stared at his ministers without seeing them, his arms flat on the table in front of him, his shoulders hunched, seemingly ‘totally indifferent’ to what was going on around him. There was a discussion about the referendum; the General apparently heard only bits of it.” (Ibid., pp. 464-5, my emphasis.)
These extracts from a sympathetic biography paint a vivid picture of total disorientation, panic and demoralisation. According to the US ambassador, De Gaulle told him that “the game’s up. In a few days the Communists will be in power.” By May 27 the balance of forces had massively shifted in favour of the working class. Power was within their grasp. De Gaulle was utterly demoralised, but he had one key card he could play, the leadership of the Communist Party and the trade unions.
Matters had now reached a point where the issue could no longer be resolved by normal parliamentary means. What was to be done? Military intervention was one of the options considered by De Gaulle from the very beginning of the general strike. In the early stages of the strike, plans were made to arrest and imprison more than 20,000 left-wing activists in the winter stadium, where they were to have suffered a similar fate to that of their Chilean counterparts five years later.
But the operation was never put into practice. These plans of the French government are similar to the plans of every ruling class in history, when faced with revolution. The government of Tsar Nicholas (“the bloody” they called him) was not short of its military contingency plans before February 1917. But whether such plans can be put into effect is entirely another matter, as Nicholas found out to his cost. However, what is decisive in a revolution is not the plans of the regime, but the real balance of forces in society.
De Gaulle went to the brink, peered into the abyss and pulled back. Terrified at the vast scope of the movement, the General was utterly pessimistic. He was convinced that the communist leaders would come to power. Innumerable witnesses confirm that De Gaulle was completely prostrate and demoralised, and on at least two occasions he contemplated fleeing the country. His own son urged him to escape via Brest, and other sources state that he considered remaining in West Germany, where he had gone to visit general Masseu. De Gaulle was a clever and calculating politician who never acted on impulse, and rarely lost his nerve. If he told the US ambassador that “the game is up, and in a few days the Communists will be in power,” it is because he believed it. And not he alone, but the majority of the ruling class as well.
On paper De Gaulle had at his disposal a formidable machine of repression. There were some 144,000 police (armed) of various categories, including 13,500 of the notorious CRS riot police, and some 261,000 soldiers stationed in France or West Germany. If one approaches the question from a purely quantitative point of view, then one would have to rule out not just a peaceful transformation, but the possibility of revolution in general, and not just in France in 1968. From this point of view, no revolution could ever have succeeded in the whole of history. But the question cannot be posed in this way.
In every revolution, voices are raised which attempt to frighten the oppressed class with the spectre of violence, bloodshed and the “inevitability of civil war.” Kamenev and Zinoviev spoke in exactly the same way on the eve of the October insurrection. Heinz Dieterich and the reformists in Venezuela use the same line of argument today in their attempt to put the brakes on the Venezuelan revolution.
The enemies of the insurrection in the ranks of the Bolshevik party itself found, however, sufficient ground for pessimistic conclusions. Zinoviev and Kamenev gave warning against an under-estimation of the enemy’s forces:
“Petrograd will decide, and in Petrograd the enemy has… considerable forces: 5,000 junkers, magnificently armed and knowing how to fight, and then the army headquarters, and then the shock troops, and then the Cossacks, and then a considerable part of the garrison, and then a very considerable quantity of artillery spread out fanwise around Petrograd. Moreover the enemy with the help of the Central Executive Committee will almost certainly attempt to bring troops from the front…’.”
Trotsky answered the objections of Kamenev and Zinoviev as follows:
“The list sounds imposing, but it is only a list. If an army as a whole is a copy of society, then when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps. The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1042.)
In a state of panic, De Gaulle suddenly vanished. He travelled to Germany where he made a secret visit to General Masseu, the man in charge of the French troops stationed in Baden-Wurttemberg. The precise content of these conversations may never be known, but it does not require much imagination to work out what he asked him. “Can we rely on the army?” The answer is not contained in any of the written sources, for obvious reasons. However, The Times sent its correspondent to Germany to interview French soldiers, the big majority of whom were working class kids-conscripts. One of those interviewed by The Times answered the question whether he would fire on the workers thus: “Never! I think their methods may be a bit rough, but I am a worker’s son myself.”
In its editorial, The Times asked the key question: “Can De Gaulle use the army?” and answered its own question, saying that he could perhaps use it once. In other words, a single bloody clash would be sufficient to break the army in pieces. That was the appraisal of the most hardheaded strategists of international capital at the time. There is no reason to doubt their word on this occasion.
Crisis of the state
On 13 May a police union body representing 80 per cent of uniformed personnel issued a declaration that it
“…considers the prime minister’s statement to be a recognition that the students were in the right, and as a total disavowal of the actions by the police force which the government itself had ordered. In these circumstances, it is surprised that an effective dialogue with the students was not sought before these regrettable confrontations took place.” (Le Monde, 15 May 1968, my emphasis.)
If this was the position with the police, the effect of the revolution on the rank and file of the army would have been even greater. As it was, despite the lack of information, there were reports of ferment in the armed forces, and even a mutiny in the navy. The aircraft carrier Clemenceau, due to go to the Pacific for a nuclear test, suddenly turned back and returned to Toulon without explanation. There were reports of a mutiny on board and several sailors were said to have been “lost at sea.” (Le Canard Enchainé, 19th June, a fuller report was published in Action 14th June, but this was confiscated by the authorities).
According to the celebrated aphorism of Mao, “power grows from the barrel of a gun.” But guns have to be wielded by soldiers, and soldiers do not live in a vacuum, but are influenced by the moods of the masses. In any society, the police are more backward than the army. Yet in France the police, to quote the headline of The Times (31 May) were “seething with discontent.”
“They are seething with discontent over their treatment by the Government,” says the article, “and the branch dealing with intelligence about student activity has been deliberately depriving the Government of information about student leaders in support of an expenses claim.
“…Nor have the police been impressed by the Government’s behaviour since the troubles broke out. ‘They are terrified of losing our support,’ said one man.
“Such dissatisfaction is one of the reasons for the apparent inactivity of the Paris police in the past few days. Last week, men at several local stations refused to go on duty at the cross-roads and squares of the capital.” (The Times, 31.5.1968, our emphasis.)
A leaflet published by members of the RIMECA (mechanised infantry regiment) stationed at Mutzig near Strasbourg indicates that sections of the army were already being affected by the mood of the masses. It included the following section:
“Like all conscripts, we are confined to barracks. We are being prepared to intervene as repressive forces. The workers and youth must know that the soldiers of the contingent WILL NEVER SHOOT ON WORKERS. We Action Committees are opposed at all costs to the surrounding of factories by soldiers.
“Tomorrow or the day after we are expected to surround an armaments factory which three hundred workers who work there want to occupy. WE SHALL FRATERNISE.
“Soldiers of the contingent, form your committees!” (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 26.).
The production of such a leaflet was clearly an exceptional example of the most revolutionary elements among the conscripts. But, in the midst of a revolution of such massive proportions, is it possible to doubt that the rank and file of the army would have rapidly been “infected” by the bacillus of revolt? The strategists of international capital did not doubt it. Neither did their French counterparts.
Who saved De Gaulle?
It was not at all the army or the police (who were so demoralised that even the reactionary intelligence branch, as we have seen, was refusing to collaborate with the government against the students) that saved the situation for French capitalism. It was the conduct of the Stalinist and trade union leaders. This conclusion is not just ours, but finds support in the most unlikely source. In the entry on May 1968 in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we read the following:
“De Gaulle seemed incapable of grappling with the crisis or even understanding its nature. The Communist and Trade Union leaders, however, provided him with a breathing space; they opposed further upheaval, evidently fearing the loss of their followers to their most extremist and anarchist rivals.”
Forced into a corner, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou agreed to negotiate with everybody. When the ruling class is threatened with losing everything, it will always be prepared to give big concessions. In order to get the workers out of the factories, they fell over themselves to offer the union leaders things that were far in excess of what the latter had been asking for in the previous period: the minimum wage was to be raised, working hours cut, there would be a reduction in the age of retirement, and the right to organize restored. In an attempt to placate the students, Pompidou accepted the resignation of the Minister of Education.
Both government and the union leaders were alarmed at the scope of the movement and determined to call a halt. On May 27 agreement was reached between the unions, employer’s associations and the government. But the union leaders had a hard job selling the deal to the workers. Despite these huge concessions, the workers at Renault and other big firms refused to return to work. I was in Paris during those tumultuous events and I remember standing in a Paris bar with a lot of other people watching the televised mass meeting inside the giant Renault factory, where a huge number of workers were gathered, some of them sitting on the cranes and gantries, to listen to George Ségui the general secretary of the CGT, reading out a list of what the bosses were offering: big wage increases, pensions, a cut in hours and so on. But in the middle of his speech he was drowned out by the chanting workers: “Gouvernement populaire! Gouvermenent populaire!” As I remember he did not even finish his speech.
By this time the workers had developed a sense of their own power. They realized that they had power within their grasp and were unwilling to relinquish it. At 17.00, 30,000 students and workers marched from Gobelins to the Charléty stadium, where they held a meeting, attended by Pierre Mendés-France. A demonstration called for by the CGT brought at least half a million workers and students onto the streets of Paris. Once again, the aim of the union and Communist Party leaders was to provide a safety valve for a movement, control of which was slipping out of their hands.
Initiative passes to reaction
In a radio broadcast on May 30, President De Gaulle announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and said that the elections would take place within the normal timetable. Georges Pompidou would remain Prime Minister. He also hinted that force would be used to maintain order, if necessary. This was a message aimed at the leaders of the unions and the Communist Party. He was offering them the tempting prospect of elections and future ministerial office under the bourgeois regime, and at the same he was warning them that the bourgeoisie would not surrender power without a fight.
The cabinet was reshuffled and elections were announced for the 23 and 30 June. At the same time, De Gaulle attempted to mobilize his forces outside parliament. Some tens of thousands of government supporters marched from Concorde to the Étoile. Similar demonstrations of support for the government were held throughout France. But a glance at the photographs in the newspapers immediately revealed the true nature of these demonstrations: retired mayors bedecked with tricolour sashes, pot-bellied middle class citizens, old age pensioners, and other broken-down flotsam and jetsam of society.
Just to compare these photos to the massive proletarian demonstration a few days before was enough to expose the real class balance of forces. All that was living, strong and vibrant in French society was assembled under the banner of revolution, whereas all that was stale, dead and decaying stood on the other side of the barricades. One good push would have sufficed to bring the whole lot tumbling down. All that was required was the final coup de grace. But it was never delivered. The strong hand that wielded the power wavered and fell.
The working class cannot be maintained permanently in a state of white-hot excitement. It cannot be turned on and off in the same way as one opens and closes a tap. Once the working class is mobilized to change society, it must go to the end or else it must fail. It is the same in any strike. In the beginning the workers are enthusiastic and participate willingly in the mass meetings. They are prepared to fight and make sacrifices. But if the strike drags on with no end in sight, the mood will change. Beginning with the weaker elements, tiredness will set in. The attendance at the mass meetings will decline and the workers will drift back to work.
The union leaders made good use of the concessions that had been hurriedly thrown out by the capitalists, as a desperate man throws a lifebelt from a sinking ship. The minimum wage was raised to three francs an hour, wages were increased and other improvements made. In the absence of any other perspective, many workers accepted what the union leaders were presenting as a victory. On Tuesday, after the weekend holiday at the start of June, most of the strikes were gradually abandoned and workers returned to their jobs.
1968 was a revolution
What is a revolution? Trotsky explains that a revolution is a situation when the mass of normally apathetic men and women begin to participate actively in the life of society, when they acquire an awareness of their strength and move to take their destiny into their own hands. That is just what a revolution is. And that is what happened on a colossal scale in France in 1968.
The French workers flexed their muscles, and became aware of the enormous power in their hands. Here we saw the immense power of the working class in modern society: not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns, and not a telephone rings without the permission of the workers. May 1968 was the final answer to all the cowards and sceptics who doubt the ability of the proletariat to change society.
The class balance of forces was here expressed, not as a mere abstract potential or statistic, but as an actual power on the streets and in the factories. In reality, power was in the hands of the workers, but they did not know it. But like any other army, the working class requires leadership. And that was what was missing in May 1968. Those who should have provided leadership – the leaders of the mass organizations of the class, the trade unions and the Communist Party – had no perspective of taking power. Their sole concern was to terminate the strike as quickly as possible, hand power back to the bourgeoisie and return to “normality”.
A general strike is different from a normal strike because it poses the question of power. The question at stake is not this or that wage increase but who is master of the house? In the course of struggle the workers’ consciousness increased at a vertiginous speed. They came to understand that this was not a normal strike for economic demands but something far greater. They became conscious of the power in their hands and saw the weakness of those who were supposed to represent all the power of the state. All that was necessary was for every workplace to elect delegates and to link up the strike committees in every town and region, culminating in the formation of a National Committee, which could take power into its hands, consigning the old state power to the dustbin of history.
But none of this was done, and the enormous revolutionary potential of the movement was dissipated, just as steam is harmlessly dissipated in the air unless it is concentrated in a piston-box. In the end, the workers returned to work and the ruling class concentrated power back into its hands. Once the movement began to ebb, the state began to take its revenge. There were violent incidents, especially on 11 June when 400 were hurt, 1500 arrested and a demonstrator was shot and killed at Montbéliard. The next day, demonstrations were forbidden in France. The day after, students were evicted from the Odéon and two days later, from the Sorbonne.
Then the victimizations began. At the state radio and TV – the ORTF – 102 journalists were fired for activities during the events. Police were sent into the universities of Nanterre and the Sorbonne to control student ID cards and were not withdrawn until December 19. A package of austerity measures was adopted by the National Assembly on November 28. The state that had not hesitated to crack the skulls of demonstrating students and strikers now showed clemency to the fascists and members of the extreme right wing terrorist OAS. While Cohen-Bendit was expelled from France, Georges Bidault was allowed to return, and Raoul Salan was released from prison.
The reformist and Stalinist leaders were punished for their cowardice by being denied the fruits of office they so keenly desired. The election campaign started on 10 June. In the first round of the elections, the federation of Left parties and the Communists lost ground. In the second round a week later, the parties of the Right won an overwhelming majority. The Left lost 61 seats and the Communists lost 39. Pierre Mendés-France was not re-elected in Grenoble. The Communist Party, which in 1968 was the main party of the French working class, entered into decline and was eventually overtaken by the Socialist Party, which, with only four percent of the vote, had appeared defunct. The Communist trade union, the CGT, lost ground to the CFDT, which had a more militant position in 1968.
The marvellous movement of the French workers thus ended in defeat. But the traditions of May 1968 remain in the consciousness of the workers of France and the whole world. Today, after a long period of economic boom, the capitalist system is again entering into a crisis in which all the contradictions that have been building up for the last 20 years will come to the fore. Big class battles are on the order of the day all over Europe.
We have no time for those petty bourgeois ex-revolutionaries who talk about 1968 in sentimental and nostalgic terms as if it were ancient history of no practical relevance to the world we live in. Sooner or later the events of 1968 will reappear on an even higher level.
Which country is the most likely candidate for this scenario? It could well be France, but it could also be Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain or any one of a number of other countries, and not only in Europe. We look forward to this. We desire it and we are preparing for it. We are striving to prepare the vanguard so that the next time we will be successful. And on this glorious proletarian anniversary we say: The Revolution is dead. Long live the Revolution!