1968: Revolution reaches the heart of Europe

May 10, 2018

Socialist Worker continues our series marking the 50th anniversary of the revolutionary year of 1968 with an article that tells the story of the French May.

IN MAY 1968, the British business magazine The Economist printed a special supplement on the French economy. In it, writer Norman Macrae argued that France's "pathetically weak" trade unions and high quality of managers could position the country for economic leadership in the post-de Gaulle era.

Capitalist publications were not alone in their assessment of the docility of the French working class. In fact, one of France's best-known leftists, André Gorz, had predicted in a January 1968 in Socialist Register 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."

But within days after Macrae's article hit the newsstands, France was astonishing the world--with the largest general strike in the whole of human history to that point.

More than 9 million workers were involved, in all branches of French industry, and in every reach of society, from the Meudon Observatory to the Follies Bergère. In most cases, workers were not simply striking, but challenging the sacred right of private property by occupying their workplaces.

Tens of thousands pour into the streets of Paris in May 1968
Tens of thousands pour into the streets of Paris in May 1968

Around the world, May '68 in France was a source of inspiration and euphoria. The mood of the time was captured by the banner headline on a British radical magazine: "We shall fight, we shall win, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin."

ALTHOUGH THE general strike took both the ruling class and much of the left by surprise, it did not emerge full-blown in May. In fact, for several years, class struggle in France had been building. Workers' discontent seethed under seemingly tranquil times in which employers seemed to have the upper hand, and in which the right wing, led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, dominated the country's politics.

In 1967 and in early 1968, a whole wave of strikes and lockouts, involving machinists, autoworkers, the steel and shipbuilding industries, and public-sector workers rolled through France. Between early March 1968 in early May, there were no fewer than 80 cases of trade union action at the Renault Billancourt plant outside Paris, with demands for higher wages, shorter hours and better conditions.

1968: A Revolutionary Year

Socialist Worker contributors remember the great struggles of the revolutionary year of 1968 — and the lessons they hold for today.

Slowly but surely, pressure was building up for a massive social explosion.

But the explosion didn't result from a simple quantitative increase in working-class militancy. Instead, history took a detour through another section of society--France's growing student population.

In an attempt to modernize French industry, the government had expanded the university system in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1958 and 1968, the number of students in French higher education had expanded from 175,000 to 530,000.

Students found themselves crushed into large, impersonal universities with scarce resources. Most students were destined to become technicians and administrators--perhaps a little more privileged than the working class, but not radically separate from it. Disaffection and criticism were rife.

At the same time, the international student movement, propelled in large part by the U.S. genocide in France's former colony, Vietnam, found adherents in France.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, students organized for the right of male and female students to visit each other in university housing. In addition, student activists at Nanterre, in the Paris suburbs, organized a "critical university" to discuss the ideological content of standard courses.

THROUGH EARLY 1968, demonstrations--on issues from Vietnam to student rights--mounted. On May 3, authorities, attempting to regain control of the universities, decided to close the Sorbonne in Paris.

This proved to be a colossal mistake.

For the next week, students skirmished with police. But the showdown came on the night of May 10, when the vicious riot police, the CRS, confronted students in Paris' Latin Quarter. By midnight, the students were building barricades, using cobblestones torn from the streets. From then on, the situation developed at great speed. Many bystanders joined students.

On-the-spot live broadcasts covering the battle were heard throughout France. A well-known soccer announcer covered the scene for one station:

Now the CRS are charging, they're storming the barricade--oh, my God! There's a battle raging. The students are counterattacking, you can hear the noise--the CRS are retreating...Now they're regrouping, getting ready to charge again. The inhabitants [of local apartments] are throwing things at the CRS--oh! The police are retaliating, shooting grenades into the windows of the apartments.

At that point, the station cut off the announcer.

That night, thousands of students and workers erected 60 barricades to beat back the police attacks. Human chains to move wood, metal and cobblestones to the barricades formed spontaneously. The "night of the barricades on" routed the CRS.

Having little choice, the government reopened the Sorbonne and released all imprisoned student activists. But its problems were not over.

The CRS's brutality had shifted public sympathy to the students' side. In response, France's trade union federations called a one-day general strike and mass demonstration in Paris for May 13. One million workers marched in Paris on that day.

The unions had hoped the one-day strike would be enough to call the movement. But the "night of the barricades" and the mass demonstration had swelled workers' confidence. No longer did they view de Gaulle as invincible.

On May 14, workers at the Sud Aviation aircraft factory in Nantes resolved to go on indefinite strike, occupying the factory. Workers locked up managers in their offices, forcing them to listen to recordings of The Internationale, the international working-class anthem, 24 hours a day. Within days, similar occupations were launched throughout France, mostly at the initiative of young militants.

IN HIS account of May '68 in the book Revolutionary Rehearsals, British socialist Ian Birchall writes:

Contemporary accounts lay much stress on the spontaneity of the strike, and it would be wrong to deny this. No national executive or central committee imagined the strike, let alone called for it; it was the initiative and determination of thousands of nameless militants made it possible.

Yet no action is purely spontaneous; millions of workers do not move unless a lead is given. In the early days, a crucial role is played by thousands of political activists who, by one means or another, sought to extend the strike.

Birchall quotes another historian on the importance of examples of militancy:

The psychological effect of the Renault [the government-controlled auto company] complex being part of the strike movement was decisive for the small plants around the Flins Renault factory; to this one must add the practical efforts of groups of young workers who went on a tour of all the small factories and were instrumental in bringing them out.

Equally important were the efforts of small groups of radical students--known as "groupuscules," many of them Maoists or Trotskyists--who visited factories, encouraging workers to join the movement.

Within two weeks, 9 million workers were on strike. The union bureaucrats, especially those of the Communist Party-affiliated CGT union federation, stepped in to encourage the strike. After failing to stop it, the union officials decided it was best to attempt to control the strike.

AN ORDINARY strike in one industry attempts to force management concessions with a total halt of production. But if the entire working class halts production, it condemns itself to starvation.

As Birchall writes: "The general strike therefore necessarily raises the question of control; some production and services must continue, but workers must decide which ones, and in what form. The last weeks of May brought these questions to the fore."

In a number of cases, striking workers continued to provide full or partial services. Gas and electrical workers joined the strike, but maintained supplies. They allowed a few brief power outages just to show the bosses who controlled France's power supply. Water workers ensured supplies for Paris under the direction of their strike committee. Agreements between truckers and farmers ensured that food supplies reached Paris.

CGT printers issued a statement saying that, in view of the gravity of the situation, they did not want radio or television channels, tightly controlled by the government, to have a monopoly over information. They agreed to allow newspapers to appear only if the press "carries out with objectivity the role of providing information which is its duty." In a few cases, printers refuse to print papers that published right-wing slanders.

May '68 transformed every section of French society. Debate and discussion raged around France. As student activist René Bourrigaud told Ronald Fraser in Fraser's oral history 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt:

The newfound ability for everyone to speak--to speak of anything to anyone. It was really another world--a dream world perhaps--but that's what I'll always remember: the need and the right for everyone to speak.

In a small, conservative town in western France, workers occupied a municipal theater, Bourrigaud recalled:

It became a permanent forum of debate. Workers came and took part--it was the first time they had ever set foot in this temple of bourgeois culture. Some of them spoke about their experiences in the popular front [factory] occupations of 1936.

In Nantes, the strike movement passed into the hands of the workers. For one week at the end of May, elected strike committees ran the city. Truckers and transport workers erected barricades on all roads leading into Nantes. Police looked on helplessly as workers controlled all traffic into and out of the city.

The central strike committee, controlled jointly by the CGT and the two other major union federations, made arrangements with farmers' organizations for food distribution. By cutting out the middle levels of the food distribution system, sharp price cuts were introduced.

THE STRIKE released the enormous potential of the working class. But it also showed--too clearly--the cramping effect of bureaucracy in the labor movement. By strengthening their own grip over the strike, the bureaucrats were able to stifle the strike's potential.

Only in a few workplaces did democratically elected strike committees control events. In most workplaces, especially those where the CGT dominated, union bureaucrats imposed strike committees. In these committees, union functionaries and loyalists predominated, and revolutionary workers were excluded.

Outside of the factories, political activists and workers set up "action committees"--democratic bodies which helped to run the strike. In Paris alone, 450 action committees emerged. These committees mainly reacted to events, helping to provide information and organize services like garbage collection.

Many of the action committees, suspicious of manipulation by the Socialist or Communist Parties, confined their activities to technical tasks. Others attempted to substitute themselves for the existing political parties. But none were able to develop a unified, national strategy to take the movement forward. Thus, political initiative fell to the union officials and the Communist Party.

On May 25-26, government negotiators, meeting with union leaders, agreed to a number of concessions. But when union officials presented the agreement to workers on May 27, workers turned it down. The strike continued.

By the end of May, the situation had reached crisis proportions for the ruling class. International capital was refusing to honor French currency; the rich were carrying suitcases full of francs to havens in Switzerland.

De Gaulle proposed a solution: a national referendum to end the strike with vague promises of reform. However, the president scuttled the referendum on May 30 after finding that no print shop in the country would print the ballots. When he attempted to get them printed in Belgium, Belgian printers struck in solidarity with their French brothers and sisters.

By the end of May, it seemed that the confrontation between the state and the movement was inevitable. De Gaulle disappeared, meeting secretly in West Germany with right-wing generals to plan a military coup. The Gaullist Prime Minister Georges Pompidou encouraged de Gaulle to return to France and take a hard line with the workers.

A VACUUM of power existed in France. The state was in disarray. But impending revolution was only a figment of the right-wing propagandists' imaginations.

The crucial question in the last week of May was not insurrection. It was how to establish genuine strike committees based on the rank and file in every workplace, and to link these up into local, regional and national councils of workers' representatives.

None of this came to pass--for while the state was in disarray, the workers also lacked decisive leadership. The vacuum was filled by the reformist trade union and political leaders who feared workers' power as much as the ruling class did.

The reformists, the Communist Party (CP) and the Socialist Party (SP) and their trade union affiliates wanted to take advantage of the shift to the left in public opinion to channel the movement in a parliamentary direction.

For the CP, this meant using their control over the CGT unions and strike committees to counter the influence of the revolutionary "groupuscules." CP literature denounced the students as middle-class poseurs.

The CP demanded participation in the government. The CGT used its weight to avoid "provocations" so that the movement would not escape constitutional fold. While negotiating with the government, it continued to attack the left.

The SP, much smaller than the CP, attempted to organize the non-Communist left, including many of the "groupuscules," to support its electoral efforts. Its presidential candidate François Mitterrand offered rhetoric about "reform" in an attempt to boost his electoral chances.

Unfortunately, the revolutionary left was too small and inexperienced to provide an alternative to the reformist intrigues. No one group of the smaller Maoist and Trotskyist groups established itself as a credible alternative to the reformists.

Secondly, the revolutionaries' denunciations of reformism were not enough to win the CP and SP rank and file to the revolutionary side. Only patient revolutionary propaganda, combined with joint action, could have won the respect of reformist workers.

But in the heat of the May events, the revolutionary left was never able to achieve this combination. Thus, it was unprepared when the right-wing counteroffensive mounted in the early days of June.

WHEN DE Gaulle announced parliamentary elections on May 30, the reformists were caught in a bind. They had denounced the referendum as a Gaullist trick; they could not renounce parliamentary elections around which their strategy for the movement revolved. Thus, they were forced to play the game on de Gaulle's terms.

On that same night, the French right mobilized 1 million people to demonstrate in favor of the government. Some of the most reactionary elements of French society showed their faces for the first time in weeks. One neo-fascist segment of the crowd chanted "Cohn-Bendit to Dachau." Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a well-known Jewish student activist.

The pro-government march and French military maneuvers, taking place in the countryside, gave new confidence to the right and the government. In early June, the government began to use riot police to clear the factories. And right-wing thugs attacked and killed several activists.

At the same time, the government and employers offered pay raises and other concessions to coax workers out of the factories. With elections scheduled for late June, the CP newspaper Humanité announced on June 6 "The Victorious Return to Work in Unity."

CGT bureaucrats, anxious to end the occupation in order to begin campaigning for CP candidates, used underhanded tactics to force votes ending occupations. In many cases, CGT officials told workers to settle since all other nearby workplaces had ended their occupations. Often, CGT officials simply lied.

The June elections proved a great victory for de Gaulle and the French right. The CP's opportunism cost it 600,000 votes. French electoral rules prevented some of the most radical segments of the movement--youth and immigrant workers--from participation.

The most basic lesson is that the working class was wrong to take on de Gaulle on his territory. Workers' unique strength lies in the workplaces, not in the ballot box. The electoral catastrophe was merely the confirmation of a defeat that had taken place in the first days of June during the return to work.

Yet May 1968 remains a crucial date in the history of the international working class. It was an experience from which a number of vital lessons were learned. It showed that the working class in a modern capitalist country, far from "disappearing," could shake the system to its roots.

It also showed that without revolutionary leadership, even the most radical movements can be confined within the existing order.

Even today, the memory of May '68 burns bright. It reminds us that there are moments when even the wildest dreams of revolutionaries become reality.

Further Reading

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