The French May

May 15, 2008

This month marks 40 years since the titanic struggles of May 1968 in France. What started with protests by students at a few universities set off a mass rebellion that paralyzed Paris and other cities--and the largest general strike in history to that point.

Joel Geier, the associate editor of the International Socialist Review, spoke on the French May and the other revolutionary events of 1968. His speech was the basis for an article in the ISR, "Year of revolutionary hope"--part of a series on 1968 that has appeared in the magazine. Here, we print an excerpt from that article.

1968 WAS a year of revolutionary hope.

Most of the time, people have little hope. They accept or adapt to existing conditions around them, even miserable ones. They feel powerless; they don't think they can change things.

Most of the time, revolutionaries are a small, marginalized minority, considered unrealistic and utopian. Revolution is seen as being impossible; people, we are told, are too apathetic or ignorant--they'll never fight back. The working class has been bought off, it's fat and contented; so forget it, relax, enjoy your own life, that's the best you can hope for.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, out of nowhere, there are huge explosions from below, in which millions of people heroically engage in radical struggles that totally transform the world, politics and themselves. They reach for revolutionary solutions to the oppressive conditions they live under, and large numbers of them come to revolutionary consciousness.

In this country, for example, millions of people thought of themselves as revolutionaries in the late 1960s. By 1970, 40 percent of all college students said a revolution was necessary in the United States. A majority of young Blacks identified with the Black Panther Party.

Confrontations between student demonstrators and the CRS, the hated French riot police, shocked the whole of French society
Confrontations between student demonstrators and riot police shocked the whole of French society

We're told those things can't happen in the United States--that millions of people could consider themselves to be revolutionaries--but they did. Large numbers of people wanted not just any change; they wanted a sweeping radical, revolutionary socialist change. They didn't just want to elect somebody different; they wanted to do away with rulers and ruled. They wanted to do away with rich and poor, with bankers and bosses. They wanted to run their own lives, in what was called participatory democracy.

Participatory democracy was the idea that we should have the right to make the most important decisions that affect our lives, and that we should determine the conditions under which we live. And the key word of 1968 was liberation--national liberation, Black liberation, women's liberation, and gay liberation.

As the French put it, "With the eating comes the appetite." As people began to see that there could be change, new movements that had not previously existed, like the women's and gay movements, arose. People began to speak of new needs, new demands--that all of us want change. We want an end to our oppression. We want an end to our exploitation. We want to run things. We want power to the people. We want popular power. We want workers' control.

What else to read

Joel Geier's article "Year of Revolutionary Hope" can be read in the International Socialist Review.

It is part of a series of articles in the ISR chronicling key points in the revolutionary year of 1968. Others include "Tet: Turning Point in the Vietnam War" by Joe Allen and "Martin Luther King's Last Fight" by Brian Jones.

One of the best histories of May '68 is Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 by Daniel Singer, which combines an eyewitness account of events with an analysis of the social forces at work. For another view, see Revolutionary Rehearsals, which contains a chapter on May 1968 by Ian Birchall.

The veteran revolutionary Tariq Ali chronicles the struggles of 1968 through prose and pictures in a book co-authored with Susan Watkins titled 1968: Marching in the Streets. Ali also writes about 1968 in his Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties.

Those ideas of the revolutionary socialist movement, which had been marginalized for a generation and have been marginalized for a generation again, became popular ideas for millions of people in 1968, and they spread everywhere.

I remember one of the slogans we used to chant on demonstrations: "London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, we will fight, we will win." Everyplace in Europe exploded, both sides of the Iron Curtain, in Poland and in Czechoslovakia; in Europe, in Italy and Spain; in Asia, in India and Pakistan; and in Latin America, in Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere.

Millions of people throughout the world burst into struggle. The global nature of the uprising raised the horizons of movement activists, turned us into internationalists and made us aware that we were allied to and part of the struggle for liberation everywhere--that we were the American arm of an international revolutionary socialist movement.

WHAT OCCURRED in May 1968 in Paris didn't just transform the French left. It altered the international left everywhere, including in the United States, where the 1960s student New Left finally had to confront the reality of class struggle.

Paris wasn't a planned revolt. It was a sudden spontaneous explosion, which was started by students. It spread to young workers, and from young workers it spread to the working class as a whole.

It began as a typical 1960s student struggle. After the Tet Offensive, students at Nanterre University outside Paris called demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese at various American targets in Paris, including the American Express office.

It led to confrontations and clashes with the police. The police arrested a few students. Protests erupted demanding their release. The students called for days of struggle at Nanterre University. The head of the university shut the university down; the action then shifted to the Sorbonne University in Paris itself. When it did, the head of the university there, in typical 1960s fashion, called in the CRS--the widely hated and brutal French riot police.

At the Sorbonne, the police came in and started arresting and beating everyone in sight. The ferocity of the police attack created mass support for the radical students and their demands. The students then called for a student strike on May 6, 1968. The riot police were brought in again. They fought with the students; 422 students were arrested. There were lots of casualties.

But what made this different from other student demonstrations until then was that the students, under socialist leadership, fought back, and 345 police were injured. In fighting the police, the students were repeating their actions against a series of strikes in the preceding months. The confrontations had begun in October 1967 at Le Mans, where young workers from Renault and Schneider battled with the police. That was followed in January 1968 at Saviem Truck in Caen, with violent clashes between young workers and the police, and finally in March at Redon, where similar fighting took place.

The day after the student strike, 30,000 students in Paris went into the streets chanting, "Power is in the streets" and singing the Internationale, the anthem of the socialist movement. Public opinion shifted sharply in favor of the students. The middle class in Paris was shocked by the police brutality against middle-class students that they had witnessed in the Latin Quarter, and they became supportive of the students.

The attitude of workers was somewhat different. They were totally impressed by the fact that students, even middle-class students, had fought back--that it was possible to fight back and perhaps win, as the students seemed to have the authorities over a barrel. Young workers started to pour into the Latin Quarter to take part in these demonstrations.

A few days later, all of the radical groups at the Sorbonne held a joint meeting and decided to call for a mass demonstration demanding the release of everyone who had been arrested. "Free our comrades" was the main slogan, and it led to a demonstration on Friday, May 10. Tens of thousands marched through the Latin Quarter. The riot police were brought out again. In the clashes with the police, the students started to set up barricades, to show their determination not to retreat on their demands.

The setting up of barricades is part of the French revolutionary tradition, and a historic link to the heroic fight of Parisian workers in 1871, known as the Paris Commune. You set up barricades to hold off and fight the police--barricades made up of cars, trucks, trees, anything. Fifty barricades were built in the Latin Quarter, which the demonstrators renamed The Quarter of the Heroic Vietnamese Fighters. The street cobblestones were broken up to throw at the police.

MAY 10 was the Night of the Barricades--of huge fighting between the police and students and young workers, and it had a wonderful impact, because the radio stations broadcast it live to millions of people who heard what was actually going on.

It shocked the entire country, so much so that the next day, on Saturday morning, the trade unions called for a one-day general strike and mass demonstration on Monday, May 13 in support of the students. It was the largest demonstration in Paris since the liberation from the Nazis--as a million people took to the streets to defend the students against the police.

The trade unions under the leadership of the Communist Party were chanting, "De Gaulle, goodbye"--he was the president of France--and "Ten years is enough," and the students were chanting, "All power to the workers," an omen of what was to come. This general strike and mass demonstration on May 13 marked the transition from a student uprising to a working-class revolt.

The next day in Nantes, at the Sud Aviation factory, where weekly symbolic strikes of 15 minutes to protest the cut in hours and wages had been going on for months, young workers under Trotskyist and anarchist influence, refused to return to work after the 15-minute stoppage and marched through the factory. They were feeling confident as a result of the biggest working-class demonstration since the liberation of France.

They marched through the factory, gathering support, and then they rounded up the managers and locked them up, while 2,000 workers barricaded themselves inside the factory. So a factory occupation was detonated by the militancy of the student struggle.

The next day, at the Renault plant in Cleón, the young workers did the exact same thing. They did so because this was a backward factory. Only a few of them had come out at the Monday demonstration. They felt ashamed, and they thought they had to make up for their poor behavior, so they took all the factory managers, locked them up, and barricaded the factory.

The next day, the strike spread to all of the Renault plants--six in total. That night, the main Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt, the largest factory in France, employing 35,000 people, and the most militant and historically important factory in France--was occupied.

The Communist Party (CP) attempted to stop the Boulogne-Billancourt occupation. The radical young workers, under the leadership of militants from the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Fight) and the Maoists, pushed it through, and the CP decided it was better to try to put itself at the head of the occupation than to continue opposition to it. The CP at that time was the main left-wing political group. It was a mass organization and controlled the leadership of many of the key trade unions.

The occupation of Boulogne-Billancourt was the turning point, the signal for the occupations to become general. The strike wave and factory occupations spread in the next few days to all of the important industrial plants in auto, steel, electric, chemical and so on--first, to all of the large factories, and the following week, to all the small factories; then it spread to the offices, to the banks, to white-collar workers, to teachers and so on.

By the end of the following week, 10 million people were out on strike and were occupying workplaces, in what was the largest general strike, the largest factory occupation, in history--and it was to go on until the middle of June.

The strikes led to a dramatic rise in working-class confidence and consciousness. The first night of the occupation of the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt, the workers put up a large banner over the factory. It said, "For higher wages and better pensions."

The second day, they took it down, and they put up a new sign over the factory, which raised the traditional left-wing slogan, "For a Socialist Party-Communist Party-trade union government." The third day, they took it down, and they put up another banner over the factory, and it said, "For workers' control of production." In three days, they had gone from higher wages to "we should be running the show."

There was this enormous leap in revolutionary consciousness. For the first time in 20 years, the working class was back as a revolutionary factor in politics, producing an enormous shift inside the left; not just in France, but also in the United States and everyplace else.

The idea revived that revolution is not just something that can happen in the third world; it can also happen in the advanced capitalist industrialized countries, but only as a working-class socialist revolution. The radical left began to argue that what was necessary was the organization of the working class for revolution.

Read the rest of this article, "Year of Revolutionary Hope," at the ISR Web site.

Further Reading

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