Fifty years ago, May 68: The advances and retreats in the class struggle since 1968

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Without the events of May 1968, the ICC would not exist. Marc Chirik had already helped to form a group in Venezuela, Internacialismo, which from 1964 onwards had defended all the basic positions which were to be taken up a decade later by the ICC. But Marc was aware from the start that it was the revival of the class struggle in the centres of world capitalism that would be decisive in inaugurating a change in the course of history. It was this understanding that propelled him to return to France and to play an active role in the movement of May-June, and this included seeking out contacts among its politicised avant-garde. Two young members of the Venezuelan group had already moved to France to study at Toulouse University, and it was alongside these comrades and a handful of others that Marc became a founder member of Révolution Internationale in October 1968 – the group that would play a central part in the formation of the ICC seven years later.

Since that time the ICC has never wavered from its conviction concerning the historic significance of May 68, and we have returned to the subject again and again. Every ten years or so we have published retrospective articles in our theoretical organ, the International Review, as well as material in our territorial press. We have held public meetings to mark its 40th and 50th anniversaries and intervened at events organised by others[1]. In this article, we begin by looking back at one of these articles, written at an anniversary which now has a definite symbolic value: 1988

In the first part of this new series[2], we concluded that the initial assessment made by RI -‘Understanding May’, written in 1969, according to which May 68 represented the first major reaction of the world working class to the resurfacing of capitalism’s historic economic crisis – had been entirely validated: despite capital’s often astonishing capacity to adapt to its sharpening contradictions, the crisis which at the end of the 60s could only be detected from its first symptoms has become both increasingly evident and to all intents and purposes permanent.

But what of our insistence that May 68 signalled the end of the previous decades of counter-revolution and the opening up of a new period, in which an undefeated working class would move towards massive and decisive struggles; and that in turn the outcome of these struggles would resolve the historical dilemma posed by the irresolvable economic crisis: world war, in the event of a new defeat for the working class, or world revolution and the construction of a new, communist society?

The 1988 article, ’20 years after May 1968 - Class struggle: the maturation of the conditions for revolution[3] began by arguing against the dominant scepticism of the day – the idea, very widespread in the bourgeois media and among a whole layer of the intellectual strata,  that May 68 had at best been a beautiful utopian dream which harsh reality had caused to fade and die. Elsewhere in our press around the same time[4], we had also criticised the scepticism which affected large parts of the revolutionary milieu, and had done so since the events of 68 themselves – a tendency notably expressed by the refusal of the main heirs of the tradition of the Italian communist left to see in May 68 anything more than a wave of petty bourgeois agitation which had done nothing to lift the dead-weight of the counter-revolution.

Both the Bordigist and Damenist wings[5] of the post-war Italian left tradition responded in this manner. Both tend to see the party as something outside of history, since they consider that it is possible to maintain it whatever the balance of forces between the classes. They thus tend to see the struggle of the workers as essentially circular in nature, since it can only be transformed in a revolutionary sense by the intervention of the party, which begs the question of where the party itself comes from. The Bordigists in particular offered a caricature of this approach in 68, when they issued leaflets insisting that the movement would only go anywhere if it put itself behind the banners of The Party (i.e, their own small political group). Our current, on the other hand, has always countered that this is an essentially idealist approach which divorces the party from its material roots in the class struggle. We considered ourselves to be carrying on the real acquisitions of the Italian communist left, in its most fruitful period theoretically – the period of the Fraction in the 1930s and 40s, when it recognised that its own diminution from the preceding stage of the party was a product of the defeat of the working class, and that only a revival of the class struggle could provide the conditions for the transformation of the existing communist fractions into a real class party.

These conditions were indeed developing after 1968, not only at the level of politicised minorities, which went through an important phase of growth in the wake of the 68 events and subsequent upsurges of the working class, but also at a more general level. The class struggle that erupted in May 68 was not a flash in the pan but the starting signal of a powerful dynamic which would quickly come to the fore on a world wide scale.

The advances in the class struggle between 1968 and 1988

Consistent with the marxist view that has long noted the wave-like process of the class movement, the article analyses three different international waves of struggle in the two decades after 68: the first, undoubtedly the most spectacular, encompassed the Italian Hot Autumn of 69, the violent uprisings in Cordoba, Argentina, in 69 and in Poland in 1970, and important movements in Spain and Britain in 1972 In Spain in particular the workers began to organise through mass assemblies, a process which reached its high point in Vitoria in 1976. The international dimension of the wave was demonstrated by its echoes in Israel (1969) and Egypt (1972) and, later on, by the uprisings in the townships of South Africa which were led by committees of struggle (the Civics)

After a short-pause in the mid-70s, there was a second wave, which included the strikes of the Iranian oil workers and the steel-workers of France in 1978, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in Britain, the Rotterdam dock strike, led by an independent strike committee,  and the steelworkers’ strikes in Brazil in 1979 which also  challenged the control of the trade unions. This global movement culminated in the mass strike in Poland in 1980, whose level of self-organisation and unification marked it as the most important single episode in the world class struggle since 1968, and even since the 1920s. And although the severe repression of the Polish workers brought this wave to a halt, it was not long before a new upswing which took in the struggles in Belgium in 1983 and 1986, the general strike in Denmark in 1985, the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984-5, the struggles of rail and then health workers in France in 1986 and 1988, and the movement of education workers in Italy in 1987. The struggles in France Italy in particular – like the mass strike in Poland – displayed a real capacity for self-organisation through general assemblies and strike committees.

This was not a simple list of strikes. The article also highlights the fact that this wave-like movement  was not going round in circles but was generating real advances in class consciousness:

  • “A simple comparison on the characteristics of the struggles of 20 years ago with those of today will allow us to see the extent of the evolution which has slowly taken place in the working class. Its own experience, added to the catastrophic evolution of the capitalist system, has enabled it to acquire a much more lucid view of the reality of its struggle. This has been expressed by;
  • a loss of illusions in the political forces if the left of capital and first and foremost in the unions, towards which illusions have given way to distrust and, increasingly, an open hostility;
  • the growing tendency to abandon ineffective forms of mobilisation, the dead-ends which the unions have used so many times to bury the combativity of the workers, such as days of action, token demonstrations, long and isolated strikes …

But the experience of these 20 years of struggle hasn’t only produced negative lessons for the working class (what should not be done). It has also produced lessons on what is to be done:

  • the attempt to extend the struggle (especially Belgium ’86);
  • the attempt by workers to take the struggle into their own hands, by organizing general assemblies and elected, revocable strike committees (France ’86, Italy ’87 in particular)”.

At the same time, the article did not neglect the bourgeoisie’s responses to the danger of the class struggle: although it had been surprised by the outbreak of the May 68 movement, resorting to crude forms of repression which acted as a catalyst for the extension of the struggle, it had subsequently learned or re-learned a great deal in how to manage the resistance of its class enemy. It did not renounce the use of repression, of course, but it found more subtle means to present and justify its use, such as the scarecrow of terrorism; meanwhile, it developed its arsenal of democratic mystifications to derail struggles – particularly in countries which were still ruled by overt dictatorships – towards bourgeois political goals. At the level of the struggles themselves, it countered workers’ growing disenchantment with the official unions and the threat of self-organisation by developing more radical forms of trade unionism, which could even include ‘extra-union’ forms (the ‘coordinations’ set up by the extreme left in France for example).

The article had begun by recognizing that much of the optimistic talk about revolution in 1968 had indeed been utopian. This was partly because the whole discussion about the possibility of revolution was distorted by leftist notions that what was happening in Vietnam or Cuba were indeed socialist revolutions to be actively supported by the working class in the central countries; but also, even when revolution was understood as something that really involved the transformation of social relations, because in 1968 the objective conditions, above all the economic crisis, had only just begun to provide the material basis for a revolutionary challenge to capital. Since then, things had become more difficult, but more profound:

  • “Perhaps it is less easy to talk about revolution in 1988 than in 1968. But when today the word is shouted out in a demonstration in Rome where workers are denouncing the bourgeois nature of the unions, or at an unemployed workers demonstration in Bilbao, it has a much more profound and more concrete meaning than when it was banded about in the feverish assemblies, so full of illusions, of 1968.
    1968 affirmed the return of the revolutionary objective. For 20 years the conditions for its realization haven’t stopped maturing. Capitalism’s descent into an impasse, the increasingly unbearable situation this creates for all the exploited and oppressed classes, the experience accumulated through the fighting spirit of the workers, all this is leading to that situation of which Marx spoke, ‘in which any retreat is impossible’.”

The turning point of 1989

There is much in this analysis that we can still stand by today. And yet, we cannot help but be struck by a phrase which sums up the article’s assessment of the third wave of struggles:

  • “Finally, the recent mobilisation of the workers of the Ruhr in Germany and the resurgence of strikes in Britain in 1988 (see editorial in this issue) confirmed that this third international wave of workers struggles, which has now lasted for more than four years, is far from over”.

In fact, the third wave, and indeed the entire period of struggles since 1968, was to come to a sudden halt with the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989-91 and the accompanying tide of campaigns about the death of communism. This historic change in the world situation marked the definitive onset of a new phase in the decline of capitalism – the phase of decomposition.

The ICC had noted the symptoms of decomposition earlier on in the 80s, and a discussion about its implications for the class struggle was already underway in the organisation. However, the article about May 68 in IR 53, as well as the editorial in the same issue, provide evidence that its deeper significance had not been grasped. The article on 68 has a sub-heading “20 years of decomposition” without providing an explanation for the term, while the editorial only applies it to its manifestations at the level of imperialist conflicts – the phenomenon which was then termed “Lebanonisation”, the tendency for entire nation states to disintegrate under the weight of increasingly irrational imperialist rivalries. It’s probable that these imprecisions reflected real differences which had appeared at the 8th Congress of the ICC towards the end of 1988.

The dominant mood at this Congress had been one of over-optimism and even a kind of euphoria. Partly this reflected the understandable enthusiasm created by integration of two new sections of the ICC at the Congress, in Mexico and India.  But it was expressed above all in certain analyses of the class struggle that were being put forward: the idea that new bourgeois mystifications were wearing out in a matter of months; exaggerated hopes in the struggles then taking place in Russia; the conception of a third wave that was marching ever onwards and upwards; and above all a reluctance to accept the idea that, in the face of growing social decomposition, the class struggle seemed to be “marking time” or stagnating (which, given the seriousness of the stakes involved, could only imply a tendency towards retreat or regression). This viewpoint was defended by Marc Chirik and a minority of comrades at the Congress. It was based on a clear awareness that the development of decomposition expressed a kind of historic stalemate between the classes. The bourgeoisie had not inflicted a decisive historic defeat on the working class and was not able to mobilise it for a new world war; but the working class, despite 20 years of struggle, which had held back the drive towards war, and which had indeed seen important developments in class consciousness, had been unable to develop the perspective of revolution, to raise its own political alternative to the crisis of the system. Deprived of any way forward, but still sunk in a very long-drawn out economic crisis, capitalism was beginning to rot on its feet, and this putrefaction was affecting capitalist society at every level[6].

This diagnosis was powerfully confirmed by the collapse of the eastern bloc. On the one hand, this momentous event was a product of decomposition. It highlighted the profound impasse of the Stalinist bourgeoisie, which was stuck in an economic mire but patently unable to mobilise its workers for a military solution to the bankruptcy of its economy (the struggles in Poland in 1980 had clearly demonstrated that to the Stalinist ruling class). At the same time, it exposed the severe political failings of this section of the world working class. The proletariat of the Russian bloc had certainly demonstrated its ability to fight on the defensive economic terrain, but faced with an enormous historical event which expressed itself largely at the political level, it was completely unable to offer its own alternative and as a class it was drowned in the democratic upsurge falsely described as a series of “people’s revolutions”

In turn, these events dramatically accelerated the process of decomposition on a world scale. This was most evident at the imperialist level, where the rapid break-up of the old bloc system allowed the tendency for “every man for himself” to increasingly dominate diplomatic and military rivalries. But this was also true in relation to the balance of class forces. In the wake of the debacle in the eastern bloc, the world bourgeoisie’s campaigns about the death of communism, about the impossibility of any working class alternative to capitalism, rained further blows on the ability of the international working class - notably in the central countries of the system - to generate a political perspective.

The ICC had not foreseen the events of 89-91, but we were able to respond to them with a coherent analysis based on previous theoretical work. This was true with regard both to understanding the economic factors involved in the downfall of Stalinism[7], and to predicting the growing chaos that, in the absence of blocs, would now be unleashed in the sphere of imperialist conflicts[8]. And on the level of the class struggle, we were able to see that the proletariat now faced a particularly difficult period:

  • “The identification which is systematically es­tablished between Stalinism and communism, the lie repeated a thousand times, and today being wielded more than ever, according to which the proletarian revolution can only end in disaster, will for a whole period gain an added impact within the ranks of the working class. We thus have to expect a momentary retreat in the con­sciousness of the proletariat; the signs of this can already be seen in the unions' return to strength. While the incessant and increasingly brutal attacks which capitalism can't help but mount on the proletariat will oblige the workers to enter the struggle, in an initial period, this won't result in a greater capacity in the class to develop its consciousness. In particular, re­formist ideology will weigh very heavily on the struggle in the period ahead, greatly facilitating the action of the unions.
    Given the historic importance of the events that are determining it, the present retreat of the proletariat - although it doesn't call into question the historic course, the general perspective of class confrontations - is going to be much deeper than the one which accompanied the defeat of 1981 in Poland. Having said this, we cannot foresee in advance its breadth or its length. In particular, the rhythm of the col­lapse of western capitalism - which at present we can see accelerating, with the perspective of a new and open recession - will constitute a de­cisive factor in establishing the moment when the proletariat will be able to resume its march towards revolutionary consciousness[9].

This passage is very clear about the profoundly negative impact of the collapse of Stalinism, but it still contains a certain underestimation of the depth of the retreat. The estimate that this would be “momentary” already weakens the ensuing statement that the reflux will be “much deeper than the one which accompanied the defeat of 1981 in Poland”, and this problem was to manifest itself in our analyses in the years that followed, notably in the idea that certain struggles in the 90s – in 92, and again in 98 – heralded the end of the retreat. In reality, looking back over the past three decades, we can say that the retreat in class consciousness has not only continued, but has got deeper, resulting in a kind of amnesia about the acquisitions and advances of the 1968-89 period.

What are the main indicators of this trajectory?

  • The impact of the economic crisis in the West has not been as straightforward as the above passage implies. The repeated convulsions of the economy have certainly weakened the boasts of the ruling class in the early 90s that, with the end of the eastern bloc, we would now enter a period of unmitigated prosperity. But the bourgeoisie has been able to develop new forms of state capitalism and economic manipulation (typified in the concept of “neo-liberalism”) that have maintained at least an illusion of growth, while the real development of the Chinese economy in particular has convinced many that capitalism is infinitely adaptable and can always find new ways of extricating itself from its crisis.  And when the underlying contradictions returned to the surface, as they did with the great financial crash of 2008, they may have stimulated certain proletarian reactions (in the period 2010-2013 for example); but at the same time, the very form this crisis took, a “credit crunch” involving a massive loss of savings for millions of workers, made it harder to respond to it on a class terrain, since the impact seemed to be more on individual householders than on an associated class[10];
  • Decomposition undermines this self-awareness of the proletariat as a distinct social force in a number of ways, all of which exacerbate the atomisation and individualism inherent in bourgeois society. We can see this, for example, in the tendency towards the formation of gangs in the urban centers, expressing both a lack of any economic prospects for a considerable part of the proletarian youth, and a desperate search for a replacement community which ends up creating murderous divisions between young people based on rivalries between different neighbourhoods and estates, on competition for control of the local drug economy, or on racial and religious differences. But the economic policies of the ruling class have also deliberately attacked any sense of class identity – both through breaking up old industrial centers of working class resistance and through introducing much more atomised forms of labour, as in the so-called “gig economy” where workers are routinely treated as self-employed “entrepreneurs”.
  • The mounting number of bloody and chaotic wars that characterize this period, while again flatly disproving the assertion that the end of Stalinism would gift humanity with a “peace dividend”, do not provide the basis for a general development of class consciousness as they did, for example, during World War One when the proletariat of the central countries was directly mobilised for the slaughter. The bourgeoisie has learned the lesson of past social conflicts provoked by war (including the resistance against the Vietnam war) and, in the key countries of the West, has done its best to avoid the use of conscript armies and to quarantine its wars in the peripheries of the system. This has not prevented these military confrontations from having a very real impact on the central countries, but this has mainly taken forms which tend to reinforce nationalism and reliance on the “protection” of the state: the enormous increase in the number of refugees fleeing the war zones, and the action of terrorist groups aiming to hit back at the populations of the most developed countries[11].
  • At the political level, in the absence of a clear proletarian perspective, we have seen different parts of the working class being influenced by the phony critiques of the system offered by populism on the one hand and jihadism on the other. And the growing influence of “identity politics” among more educated layers of the working class is a further expression of this dynamic: the lack of class identity is made worse by the move towards fragmentation into racial, sexual and other identities, reinforcing exclusion and division, when only the proletariat fighting for its own interests can be truly inclusive.

We have to face the reality of all these difficulties and to draw their political consequences for the struggle to change society. But in our view, while the proletariat cannot avoid the harsh school of defeat, growing difficulties and even partial defeats do not yet add up to a historic defeat for the class and to the obliteration of the possibility of communism.

In the last decade or so, there have been a number of important movements which provide support for this conclusion. In 2006, we saw the massive mobilization of educated youth in France against the CPE[12]. The ruling class media often describes struggles in France, even when they are tightly controlled by the unions as in the most recent case[13], as raising the spectre of a “new May 68”, the better to distort the real lessons of May. But the 2006 movement did, in a sense, revive the genuine spirit of 68: on the one hand, because its protagonists rediscovered forms of struggle that had appeared at that time, notably general assemblies where real discussions could take place and where the young participants were eager to hear the testimony of older comrades who had taken part in the events of 68. But at the same time, this student movement, which had outflanked the trade unions, contained the real risk of drawing in the employed workers in a similarly “uncontrolled” way, precisely as in May 1968, and this is why the government withdrew the CPE legislation which had provoked the revolt in the first place.

Also in May 2006, 23000 metal workers in Vigo, in the Galician province of Spain, came out on strike against new labour rules in this sector, and instead of remaining shut up in the factories went to look for solidarity from other enterprises, in particular the shipyards and Citroën factories, organising demonstrations in the town to rally the whole population, and above all creating daily public general assemblies completely open to other workers, employed, unemployed and pensioners. These proletarian assemblies were the lungs of an exemplary struggle for a week, until the movement was caught between violent repression on the one hand and the negotiating manoeuvres of the unions and bosses.

In 2011, we saw the wave of social revolts in the Middle East and Greece, culminating in the Indignados movement in Spain and “Occupy” in the USA. The proletarian element in these movements varied from country to country, but it was at its strongest in Spain, where we saw in the widespread adoption of the assembly form; a powerful internationalist impulse which welcomed expressions of solidarity by participants from all round the world and where the slogan of “world revolution” was taken seriously, perhaps for the first time since the 1917 revolutionary wave; a recognition that “the system is obsolete” and a strong will to discuss the possibility of a new form of social organisation. In the many animated discussions that took place in the assemblies and commissions about questions of morality, science and culture, in the ubiquitous questioning of the dogma that capitalist relations are eternal -  here again we saw the real spirit of May 68 taking shape.

Of course, most of these movements had many weaknesses, which we have analysed elsewhere[14] , not least a tendency for the participants to see themselves as “citizens” rather than proletarians, and thus a real vulnerability to democratic ideology, which would enable bourgeois parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain to present themselves as the true heirs of these revolts. And in some ways, as with any proletarian defeat, the higher you climb, the further you fall: the reflux of these movements further deepened the general retreat in class consciousness. In Egypt, where the movement of the squares inspired the movement in Spain and Greece, illusions in democracy have prepared the way to the restoration of the same kind of authoritarian rule which was the initial catalyst of the “Arab spring”; in Israel, where mass demonstrations once raised the internationalist slogan “Netanyahu, Mubarak, Assad, same enemy”, the brutal militarist policies of Netanyahu’s government have now regained the upper hand. And most serious of all, in Spain, many of the young people who took part in the Indignados movement have been dragged towards the absolute dead-ends of Catalan or Spanish nationalism.   

The appearance of this new proletarian generation in the movements of 2006 and 2011 also gave rise to a new search for communist politics among a minority, but the hopes that this would give rise to a whole new influx of revolutionary forces have not, for the present at least, been realised. The communist left remains largely isolated and disunited; among the anarchists, where some interesting new developments began to take place, the search for class positions is being undermined by the influence of identity politics and even nationalism. In a third article in this series, we will look in more detail at the evolution of the proletarian political camp and its environs since 1968.

But if May 1968 teaches us anything, it shows that the working class can arise again from the worst of defeats, return from the deepest of retreats. The moments of proletarian revolt which have taken place despite the advancing threat of capitalist decomposition reveal the possibility that new movements will arise which, by regaining the perspective of revolution, can forestall the multiple dangers that decomposition poses for the future of the species.

These dangers – the spread of military chaos, of ecological catastrophe, of starvation and disease on an unprecedented scale – prove that revolution is more than ever a necessity for the human race. Capitalism’s decline and decomposition certainly magnify the threat that the objective basis of a new society will be definitively destroyed if decomposition advances beyond a certain point. But even in its last phase, capitalism still produces the forces that can be used to overthrow it – in the words of the Communist manifesto of 1848, “what the bourgeoisie produces, above all, is its own gravediggers”. Capitalism, its means of production and communication are more global than ever – but then so is the proletariat more international, more capable of communicating with itself on a world wide scale. Capitalism has become increasingly advanced technologically – but then it must educate the proletariat in the use of its science and technology which can be taken in hand ina future society for human needs rather than for profit. This more educated, internationally minded layer of the class  made its appearance again and again in recent social movement, above all in the central countries of the system, and will certainly play a key role in any future resurgence of the class struggle, as will the new proletarian armies created by capitalism’s dizzying but diseased growth in Asia and other previously “underdeveloped” regions. We have not seen the last of the spirit of May 68.

Amos, June 2018

[3] International Review 53, second quarter 1988. The article is signed RV, one of the young ‘Venezuelans’ who helped to form RI in 1968. 

[5] See in particular "The 1950s and 60s: Damen, Bordiga, and the passion for communism", International Review 158.

[6] For a more developed balance sheet of the struggles of the last few decades, which takes into account tendencies in our analysis to overestimate the immediate potential of the class struggle, see ” Report on the Class struggle” from the 21st ICC Congress, IR 156, Winter 2016.

[8] See in particular “Orientation text: Militarism and decomposition”, IR 64, first quarter 1991.

[9] “Theses on the economic and political crisis in the eastern countries”

[11] See points 16 and 17 of the above resolution

[14] See “The Indignados in Spain, Greece and Israel: From indignation to the preparation of class struggles”, IR 147, first quarter 2011