Twenty-five years after May 68: What’s left of May 68?

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Major workers' struggles do not leave many visible traces once they are over. When "order" returns, when "social peace" once again imposes its ruthless daily discipline, soon not much more than a memory is left. Some would say that a memory is very nice, but it does not count for much. In fact, it is a formidable force in the mind of the revolutionary class.

The ruling ideology always tries to destroy the images of those moments when the exploited raise their heads. It does this by falsifying history. It manipulates memory by emptying it of its revolutionary content. It generates distorted clichés, devoid of everything that these struggles contained by way of example, instruction and encouragement for the struggles to come.

When the USSR collapsed, the high priests of the established order leapt in joyfully with the filthy lie that identifies the revolution of October 1917 with Stalinism. They have been doing the same thing to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the events of May 68, albeit on a smaller scale.

These events, both because of the number of participants and their length, constituted the greatest workers' strike in history. But they are presented today as a bit of student rebellion, the product of the childish and utopian dreams of a university intelligentsia imbued with the Rolling Stones and the Stalinist heroes of the "Third World". What is left of all this today? Nothing, except one more proof that the idea of going beyond capitalism is an idle fantasy. And the media reinforce this by regaling us with images showing that the once "revolutionary" student leaders - actually the apprentice bureaucrats of the day - have now become conscientious and respectable managers of the capitalism they protested so much about. Cohn-Bendit, "Danny the Red", a member of parliament for Frankfurt; the others, special advisers to the president of the Republic, ministers, high-ranking officials, enterprise administrators, etc. As for the workers' strike, no one talks about it except to say that it never went beyond immediate demands. That it landed up with a wage rise which was wiped out by inflation within six months. In short, the whole thing was just a lot of hot air.

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What really remains of May 68 in the memory of the working class?

Certainly there are the images of burning barricades where, at night and in a fog of tear gas grenades, students and young workers confronted the police; images of the streets of the Latin Quarter in Paris, denuded of their cobblestones; of the mornings after, debris and upturned cars everywhere. And in fact the media showed plenty of images like this.

But the power of media manipulation has its limits. The working class possesses a collective memory, even if it is often "underground" and only expresses itself openly when the class once again manages to unite massively in the struggle. Apart from this more spectacular side, there remains in the workers' memory a diffuse but profound feeling about the enormous strength the proletariat has when it unites.

At the beginning of the events in May 68 there certainly was a student agitation, as there was in all the western industrial countries, fuelled to a large extent by opposition to the Vietnam war and by a new disquiet about the future. But this agitation was restricted to a very small part of society. It could often be summed up by the demonstrations in which masses of students intoned the syllables of one of the most murderous of the Stalinists: "Ho-Ho, Ho-Chi-Minh!". At the origin of the first disturbances in the student milieu in 68 in France, we find, among other things, the students' demand for access to the bedrooms of the female students in the university dormitories.... Before 68, on the campuses, student "revolt" was often asserted under the banner of the theories of Marcuse, one of whose essential theses was that the working class was no longer a revolutionary social force and had become definitively "bourgeoisiefied".

In France, the stupidity of General De Gaulle's government, which responded to the student ferment by a blind and completely disproportionate repression, brought the protest to the paroxysm of the first barricades. But this still remained circumscribed essentially to the ghetto of student youth. What changed everything, what transformed the "events of May 68" into a major social explosion, was the entry onto the scene of the proletariat. Things only began to get serious when virtually the entire working class entered the battle, paralyzing nearly all the basic mechanisms of the economic apparatus. Sweeping aside the resistance of the union machinery, breaking through corporatist barriers, nearly 10 million workers all stopped work at the same time. And by this alone they opened up a new period in history.

The workers, who a few days before had been a mass of scattered individuals, ignorant of each other and submitting to the weight of exploitation and of the Stalinist police in the workplaces; the same workers who were supposed to have become utterly bourgeois, suddenly found themselves reunited, with a tremendous power at their fingertips. A power which they were the first to be surprised by and which they did not always know what to do with.

The halting of the factories and the offices, the absence of public transport, the paralysis of the wheels of production, showed very clearly how, in capitalism, everything depends in the final analysis on the will and consciousness of the exploited class. The word "revolution" was on everyone's lips and the question of what was possible, of where it was all leading, of what had happened in the great workers' struggles of the past, became the central subject of discussion. "Everyone was talking and everyone was listening". This is one of the things one remembers the most. For a month, the silence which isolates individuals and keeps them atomized, this invisible wall which normally seems so impenetrable, so inevitable, so disheartening, had vanished. There was discussion everywhere: in the streets, in the occupied factories, in the universities and the high schools, in the youth centers, in the workers' neighborhoods, which had been turned into political meeting places by the local "action committees". The language of the workers' movement, which calls things by their real names - bourgeoisie, proletariat, exploitation, class struggle, revolution, etc - developed everywhere because it was naturally the only one that could get hold of reality.

The paralysis of bourgeois political power, the hesitations of the ruling class faced with a situation that had got out of control, confirmed the power of the impact of the workers' struggle. An anecdote illustrates very well what was felt in the corridors of power. Michel Jobert, the head of the cabinet under Prime Minister Pompidou during the events, in a TV program in 1978, devoted to the tenth anniversary of May 68, told how one day, looking through the window of his office, he saw a red flag flying on the roof of one of the ministerial buildings. He quickly phoned up to get this object removed because its presence made the official institutions look ridiculous. But after several calls, he had not managed to find anyone ready or able to carry out the job. It was then that he understood that something really new was taking place.

The real victory of the workers' struggles of May 68 was not in the wage rises obtained in the Grenelle agreement, but in the very resurgence of the power of the working class. It was the return of the proletariat onto the stage of history after several decades of triumphant Stalinist counter-revolution.

Today, when the workers of the whole world are suffering the effects of the ideological campaigns about the "end of communism and of the class struggle", the memory of what the mass strike in France 68 really was is a living reminder of the strength that the working class carries within itself. When the whole ideological machine tries to trap the working class in an ocean of doubt about itself, to convince each worker that he is desperately alone and can expect nothing from the rest of his class, this reminder is an indispensable antidote.

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But, they tell us, what does it matter if the memory lives on, when the thing itself will not appear again? What proof is there that in the future we are going to see new, massive and powerful affirmations of the fighting unity of the working class?

In a slightly different form, this question was being posed just after the struggle of spring 68: was this just a flash in the pan, something specifically French, or did it open up, on an international level, a new historic period of proletarian militancy?

The following article, published in 1969 in no. 2 of Revolution Internationale, set itself to answer these questions. Through a critique of the analyses of the Situationist International[1], it insisted on the need to understand the profound roots of this explosion and to seek them not, as the SI did, in "the most obvious manifestations of social alienation", but in the "sources which gave birth to them and nourished them". "It is in these (economic) roots that a radical theoretical critique must find the possibility of a revolutionary upheaval ... The real significance of May 68 is that it was one of the first and one of the most important reactions of the mass of workers to a deteriorating world economic situation".

On this basis it was possible to see ahead. By grasping the link between the explosion of May 68 and the degradation of the world economic situation, by understanding that this degradation expressed a historic turning point in the world economy, by seeing that the working class had begun to free itself from the grip of the Stalinist counter-revolution, it was easy to predict that new workers' explosions would rapidly follow that of May 68, with or without radical students.

This analysis was quickly confirmed. In autumn 1969 Italy went through its most important wave of strikes since the war; the same situation appeared in Poland in 1970, in Britain in 1972, in Portugal and Spain in 1974-5. Then at the end of the 70s, a new international wave of workers' struggles developed, culminating in the mass strike in Poland in 1980-81, the most important struggle since the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. Finally, between 1983 and 89, another series of class movements which, in the main industrial countries, showed on several occasions a tendency for workers to challenge the union straitjacket, to take the struggle into their own hands and to extend it.

May 68 in France was "just the beginning", the beginning of a new historic period. It was no longer "midnight in the century". The working class had thrown off the weight of the dark years that had lasted since the triumph of the social democratic and Stalinist counter-revolution in the 20s. By affirming its strength through massive movements that were capable of opposing the union machines and the "workers' parties", the working class had initiated course towards class confrontations that barred the way to a third World War and opened the way to the development of the international proletarian struggle.

The period we are in today is the one opened up by May 68. Twenty-five years after, the contradictions of capitalist society which led to the May explosion have not lessened - on the contrary. Compared to what the world economy is going through today, the difficulties of the late sixties seem insignificant: half a million unemployed in France in 68, more than three million today, to give but one example of the true economic disaster which has devastated the entire planet over the last quarter-century. As for the proletariat, through all the advances and refluxes in its militancy and its consciousness, it has never signed an armistice with capital. The struggles of autumn 92 in Italy, in response to the austerity plan imposed by a bourgeoisie confronted with the most violent economic crisis since the war, and where the union apparatus encountered an unprecedented challenge from the workers, has once again confirmed this.

What remains of May 68? The opening of a new phase of history. A period in which the conditions have been ripening for new working class explosions which will go much further than the groping steps of twenty five years ago.

RV, June 93



[1] The SI was a group which had a definite influence in May 68, particularly among the most radical sectors of the student milieu. It had its origins on the one hand in the "Lettrist" movement which, following in the tradition of the surrealists, aimed to make a revolutionary critique of art; and on the other hand in the milieu around the review Socialisme ou Barbarie, founded by the Greek former Trotskyist Castoriadis at the beginning of the 50s in France. The IS also laid claim to Marx but not to marxism. It took up some of the most advanced positions of the revolutionary workers' movement, particularly those of the German and Dutch lefts (the capitalist nature of the USSR, rejection of the union and parliamentary forms, necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat via the workers' councils), but it presented them as its own discoveries, mixed in with its analysis of the phenomenon of totalitarianism: the theory of the "society of the spectacle". The SI certainly embodied one of the highest points that could be attained by sectors of the radicalized student petty bourgeoisie: the rejection of their condition (the "end of the university") and the attempt to integrate into the revolutionary movement of the proletariat. But they never quite got away from the characteristics of their origins, as can be seen in particular by their ideological view of history, their inability to see the importance of the economy and thus the reality of the class struggle. The review of the SI disappeared not long after 68 and the group broke up in a convulsive series of reciprocal expulsions.