France, May 1968: The proletariat returns to centre stage

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Thirty years ago in France, nearly 10 million workers were engaged for a month in a great movement of struggle. For young comrades coming towards revolutionary positions today, it is very difficult to know what happened during that far-off month of May 1968. And this is not their fault. The bourgeoisie has always deformed the profound importance of these events, and bourgeois history (right or left, it is all the same) has always presented them as a "student revolt", when in reality it was the most important phase in a class movement which spread to Italy, the United States, and throughout the industrialised world. It is not surprising that the ruling class should try to hide the proletariat's past struggles. When unable to do so, it distorts them, presents them as something other than the signs of the historic and irresolvable antagonism between the main exploited class of our epoch, and the ruling class responsible for this exploitation. Today the bourgeoisie continues its work of mystifying history by trying to present the October revolution as a coup d'état by bloodthirsty, power-hungry Bolsheviks, the opposite to reality: the greatest attempt in history by the working class to "storm the heavens", to seize political power in order to begin transforming society into communism, in other words to abolish the exploitation of man by man. The bourgeoisie is trying to exorcise the danger of historical memory as a weapon of the working class. And precisely because the knowledge of its own past experience is vital to the working class in preparing the battles of today and tomorrow, it is up to the revolutionaries, the class' political vanguard, to recall this past experience.

On the 3rd May thirty years ago, a meeting of several hundred students was held in the courtyard of the Sorbonne in Paris, called by the UNEF (student union) and the "22nd March Movement" (formed a few weeks previously at the faculty of Nanterre in the Paris suburbs). There was nothing particularly exciting in the theorising speeches by the leftist "leaders". But there was a persistent rumour: the Occident will attack". This far-right movement gave the police an excuse to intervene to "separate' the demonstrators. The aim above all was to smash the student agitation which had been going on for several weeks at Nanterre. This agitation was simply an expression of student frustration, driven by such diverse motives as the contestation of academic mandarins or the demand for greater individual and sexual freedom in the daily life of the University.

 

And yet, "the impossible happened": agitation continued for several days in the Latin Quarter. It stepped up a level every evening: each demonstration, every meeting, attracted a few more people than the day before: ten, then thirty, then fifty thousand people. Clashes with the police became more violent. In the street, young workers joined the fight. Despite the open hostility of the PCF (Parti Communiste Francais), which slandered the "enrages" (literally, "the angry ones") and the "German anarchist" Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the CGT (the Stalinist-controlled union) was forced to avoid losing control of the situation by "recognising" the strikes, which had broken out unofficially and were spreading rapidly: ten million strikers disturbed the torpor of the 5th Republic, and marked the reawakening of the world proletariat.

The strike begun on 14th May at Sud-Avia-tion, and spread spontaneously. It was from the outset a radical departure from the "actions" organised hitherto by the unions. In the vital engineering and transportation sectors, the strike was almost total. The unions were overtaken by a movement which set itself apart from their traditional policies. The movement went beyond the control of the unions, marked from the start by an extended and often imprecise character, and often inspired by a profound, even if "unconscious" anxiety.

 

The unemployed, labelled as "declassed" by the bourgeoisie, played an important part in the confrontations. In fact, these "declassed", "misled" individuals were entirely proletarian. The proletariat consists, not just of workers and those who have already held down a job, but also of those who have not yet been able to work, and are already unemployed. They are the pure products of capitalism's decadent epoch. In mass youth unemployment, we can see one of the historic limits of capitalism, which because of generalised overproduction has become incapable of integrating new generations into the productive process. The unions, however, were to do everything in their power to regain control of this movement, which had started without them, and to some extent against them.

On Friday 17th May, the CGT distributed a leaflet which made quite clear the limits it intended to impose on its action: on the one hand, traditional demands coupled with agreements like those of Matignon in June 1936, guaranteeing the rights of union sections in companies; on the other, they called for a change of government, in other words for elections. Although they had been suspicious of the unions before the strike, had started the movement over the unions' heads, and had extended it on their own initiative, the workers behaved during the strike as if it was normal that it should be taken to its conclusion by the unions.

 

After being forced to follow the movement so as not to lose control of it, the unions finally pulled off a double coup with the precious help of the PCF: on the one hand, conducting negotiations with the government, while on the other calling the workers to stay calm, so as not to upset the serene holding of the new elections demanded by the PCF and the Socialists; at the same time they discreetly circulated rumours about the possibility of a coup d'état, and troop movements around the capital. In reality, although surprised and alarmed by the movement's radicalism, the bourgeoisie had no intention of using military repression. It knew very well that this could start the movement off again, forcing the union "conciliators" out of the game, and that a bloodbath would only have been much more expensive later on. It was not so much the CRS (Compagnie Republicaine de Securite, riot police) who attacked the demonstrations and dispersed demonstrators, but the much more skilful and dangerous union cops within the factories, who carried on their dirty work of dividing the workers.

The unions carried out their first police operation by encouraging the factory occupations, succeeding in shutting the workers up in their work place, thus preventing them from meeting, discussing, confronting each other in the street.

 

On the morning of the 27th May, the unions appeared before the workers with a compromise signed with the government (the Grenelle agreements). At Renault, the biggest company in the country and "barometer" of working class feeling, the CGT general secretary was shouted down by workers, who considered that their struggle had been sold out. Workers adopted the same attitude elsewhere. The number of strikers went on rising. Many workers tore up their union cards. This was when the unions and the government shared out the job of breaking the movement. The CGT, which had immediately disowned the Grenelle agreement - which it had itself signed - declared that "negotiations should be opened branch by branch in order to approve [the agreement)". The government and the bosses played along, making major concessions in some industries, which made it possible to begin a move back to work. At the same time, on 30th May, De Gaulle gave in to the demands of the left-wing parties: he dissolved parliament and called new elections. The same day, hundreds of thousands of his supporters marched down the Champs Elysees, It was a motley gathering of all those with a gut hatred for the working class and the "communists": the inhabitants of the wealthy districts, retired military men, nuns and concierges, shopkeepers and pimps. All this good society marched behind De Gaulle's ministers, led by Andre Malraux (the anti-fascist writer, well-known since his participation in the war in Spain in 1936).

The unions divided the work up amongst themselves: the minority CFDT took on a "radical" look, in order to keep control of the most combative workers. The CGT distinguished itself as a strike-breaker. In mass meetings, it would propose to bring the strike to an end, on the grounds that workers in neighbouring factories had already gone back to work: this was a lie. Above all, along with the PCF, it called for "calm" and a "responsible attitude" (even bringing up the bogey of civil war and repression by the army), so as not to disturb the elections to be held on 23rd and 30th June. The elections, when they came, resulted in a right-wing landslide, only adding to the disgust of the most combative workers who had continued their strike until they were held.

 

Despite its limitations, the general strike's immense élan helped the world-wide recovery of the class struggle. Coming after an uninterrupted series of retreats following the revolutionary events of 1917-23, the events of May 68 were a decisive turning point not only in France but in the rest of Europe and throughout the world. The strikes shook not only the state power, but also its most effective rampart, and the one most difficult to break: the left and the unions.

A "student" movement?

Once it had recovered from its surprise and its initial panic, the bourgeoisie set to finding explanations for these events which had disturbed its peace. It is therefore hardly surprising that the left used the student agitation to exorcise the real spectre that rose before the gaze of a frightened bourgeoisie - the proletariat - and that it limited the social events to a mere ideological quarrel between generations. May 68 was presented as the result of youthful boredom in the face of the modern world's dysfunctional changes. It is obvious that May 68 was marked by a definite decomposition of the values of the dominant ideology, but this "cultural" revolt was not the real cause of the conflict. In his preface to the Critique of Political Economy Marx showed that "with the change of the economic foundations the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations, the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophical - in short ideological - forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out".

All the expressions of the ideological crisis have their roots in the economic crisis, not the other way round. It is this state of crisis which determines the course of things. The student movement was thus indeed an expression of the general decomposition of bourgeois ideology. It was a straw in the wind announcing a more fundamental social movement. But because of the very place of the university in the system of production, it is only very exceptionally that it has any connection with the class struggle.

 

May 68 was not a movement of students and young people, it was above all a movement of the working class which was raising its head after decades of counter-revolution. The radicalisation of the student movement was precisely the result of this presence of the working class.

 

Students are not a class, still less a revolutionary social stratum. On the contrary, they are specifically the vehicles of the worst kind of bourgeois ideology. If in 1968 thousands of young people were influenced by revolutionary ideas, it was precisely because the only revolutionary class of our epoch, the working class, was in the streets.

This resurgence put an end to all the theories about the "bourgeoisification" of the working class, its "integration" into the capitalist system. How else can one explain how all these theories, which had been so dominant in the university milieu where they had been elaborated by the likes of Marc use and Adorno, melted away like snowdrops in the sun and that the students turned towards the working class like moths to a flame? And how else can one explain that, in the following years, while continuing to agitate in the same way, the students stopped proclaiming themselves revolutionaries?

 

No, May 68 was not a revolt of youth against the "inadequacies of the modern world", it was not merely a mental revolt; it was the first symptom of social convulsions whose roots lay much deeper than the superstructure, in the crisis of the capitalist mode of production. Far from being a triumph for the theories of Marcuse, May 68 was their death sentence, sending them back to the world of chimeras whence they had come.

No, the beginning of the historic resurgence of the class struggle

The general strike of 10 million workers in a country at the heart of capitalism meant the end of a period of counter-revolution that had opened up with the defeat of the revolutionary wave of the 1920s, and had continued and deepened through the simultaneous action of fascism and Stalinism. Just before this, the middle of the 1960s had marked the end of the period of reconstruction following the Second World War and the beginning of a new open crisis of the capitalist system.

 

The first blows of this crisis hit a generation of workers who had not known the demoralisation of the defeat that came in the 20s and who had grown up during the "economic boom". At that point the crisis was only touching them lightly, but the working class began to feel that something was changing:

 

"A feeling of insecurity about tomorrow is developing among the workers and above all among the younger ones. This feeling is all the sharper for having been unknown to the workers in France since the war ... More and more the masses feel that all this fine prosperity is coming to an end. Attitudes of indifference and 'I couldn't care less' among the workers, so characteristic and so widely decried, are giving away to a growing disquiet ... It has to be admitted that an explosion of this kind is based on a long accumulation of discontent in the masses about their economic situation, even if a superficial observer might have noticed nothing (Revolution Intemationale, 2, old series, 1969).

And indeed a superficial observer can grasp nothing of what's happening in the depths of the capitalist world. It's no accident that a radical group with no solid Marxist basis like the Situationist International could write about the events of May 68 " You could not observe any tendency towards economic crisis ... the revolutionary eruption did not come out of an economic crisis ... what was frontally attacked in May was a capitalist economy functioning well" (Enrages and Situationists in the Occupations Movement, Situationist International, 1969).  

 

Reality was very different and the workers were beginning to feel it in their bones.

 

After 1945, US aid made it possible to get production going again in Europe, which paid back a part of its debts by ceding its enterprises to American companies. But after 1955 the US stopped their "free" aid. The commercial balance of the US was positive while that of most of the other countries was negative. American capital continued to be invested more rapidly in Europe than in the rest of the world, which assisted the balance of payments in these countries, but soon unbalanced it for the US. This situation led to growing debts for the American Treasury, since the dollars invested in Europe or the rest of the world constituted debts for the latter towards the holders of all this money. From the 1960s, this external debt went beyond the gold reserves of the US Treasury, but this inability to cover the dollar did not yet put the US in difficulty as long as the other countries were indebted to the US. The US could thus continue to appropriate capital from the rest of the world by paying in paper. This situation only turned around with the end of the reconstruction in the European countries. The European economies were now able to launch products onto the world market in competition with those of the US: towards the middle of the 60s, the trade balance of most of the countries that had been assisted by the US became positive while after 1964 that of the US deteriorated more and more. This marked the completion of the reconstruction of the European countries. The productive apparatus now faced a saturated market obliging the national bourgeoisies to intensify the exploitation of their proletariats in order to confront the exacerbation of international competition.

France did not escape this situation and in 1967 France had to undertake unavoidable measures of restructuration: rationalisation, improved productivity, leading to an increase in unemployment. Thus, at the beginning of 1968, the number of unemployed went beyond 500,000. Partial unemployment appeared in many factories and led to reactions from the workers. A lot of strikes broke out, limited and still controlled by the unions, but expressing a certain malaise. The growth of unemployment was received badly by a generation produced by the demographic explosion that followed World War Two, and which was accustomed to full employment.

 

In general the bosses sought to reduce workers' living standards. The bourgeoisie and its government were mounting a growing attack on living and working conditions. In all the industrial countries, there was a tangible development of unemployment, economic perspectives were becoming more sombre, international competition sharper. At the end of 1967 Britain made its first devaluation of the pound in order to make its products more competitive. But this measure was annulled by the devaluations that took place in all the other countries. The austerity policies imposed by the Labour government of the day were particularly severe: massive cuts in public spending, withdrawal of British troops from Asia, wage freezes, the first protectionist measures.

The US, main victim of the European offensive, could only react severely and, from the beginning of January 1968, President Johnson announced a number of economic measures, while in March 1968, in response to devaluations of rival currencies, the dollar also fell.

 

These were the essentials of the economic situation prior to May 68.

A movement for immediate demands, but not just that

It was in this situation that the events of May 68 took place: a worsening economic situation which engendered a reaction in the working class.

 

Certainly, other factors contributed to the radicalisation of the situation: police repression against the students and the workers' demonstrations, the Vietnam War. Simultaneously all the post-war capitalist myths entered into crisis: the myths of democracy, economic prosperity, peace. This situation created a social crisis to which the working class gave its first response.

 

It was a response on the economic level, but not only on that level. The other elements of the social crisis, the discredit suffered by the unions and the traditional left forces, led thousands of young people and workers to pose more general questions, to look for answers about the underlying cause of their discontent and disillusionment.

Thus was produced a new generation of militants who were approaching revolutionary positions. They began to re-read Marx, Lenin, to study the workers' movement of the past. The working class not only rediscovered the dimension of its struggle as an exploited class but also began to reveal its revolutionary nature.

 

These new militants for the most part got derailed by the false perspectives of the different leftist groups and so were soon lost. While trade unionism was the weapon which allowed the bourgeoisie to block the mass movement of the workers, leftism was the weapon which broke the majority of militants formed in the struggle.

 

But many others managed to find authentically revolutionary organisations, those which represented the historic continuity with the past workers' movement - the groups of the communist left. While none of the latter were able to fully grasp the significance of the events, remaining on the side lines and thus leaving the field free to the leftists, other small nuclei were able to gather these new revolutionary energies together, giving rise to new organisations and a new effort towards the regroupment of revolutionaries, the basis for the future revolutionary party.

A long and tortuous historic resurgence

The events of May 68 represented the beginning of the historic resurgence of the class struggle, the break with the period of counter-revolution and the opening of a new historic course towards a decisive confrontation between the antagonistic classes of our time: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

 

It was a striking debut, which found the bourgeoisie momentarily unprepared; but the ruling class recovered quickly and was able to get the better of an inexperienced generation of workers.

This new historic course was confirmed by the international events which followed May 68.

 

In 1969, there broke out in Italy the great strike movement known as the Hot Autumn, a season of struggle which was to continue for several years during which the workers tended to unmask the unions and build their own organs for the direction of the struggle. A wave of struggles whose main weakness was to remain isolated in the factories with the illusion that a "hard" struggle in the factories was enough to make the bosses retreat. These limitations were to enable the unions to get their place back in the factories by presenting themselves in their new guise of "base organs", drawing in all the leftist elements who, in the ascendant phase of the movement, had played at being revolutionaries and who now found jobs as union hacks.

 

The 1970s saw other movements of struggle all over the industrial world: in Italy (the unemployed, the hospital workers); in France (LIP, Renault, the steelworkers of Longwy and Denain), in Spain, in Portugal and elsewhere. The workers were increasingly coming up against the unions who, despite their new "rank and file" garments, continued to look like the defenders of capitalist interests and saboteurs of workers' struggles.

In 1980 in Poland, the working class drew profit from the bloody experience it had been through in the previous confrontations of 1970 and 1976, organising a mass strike which blocked the whole country. This formidable movement of the workers in Poland, which showed the entire world the strength of the proletariat, its capacity to take control of its struggles, to organise itself through general assemblies and strike committees (the MKS) in order to extend the struggle across an entire country, was an encouragement for the working class everywhere. It was the trade union Solidarnosc, created by the bourgeoisie (with the aid of the western unions) to contain, control and derail the movement, which finally handed the workers over to the repression of the Jaruzelski government. This defeat led to a deep disarray in the world proletariat. It took it more than two years to digest this defeat.

 

During the 1980s, however, the workers began to draw on all the experience of union sabotage from the previous decade. New struggles broke out in the main countries and the workers began to take charge of their struggles, creating their own organs of struggle. The railway workers in France, the school workers in Italy, waged struggles based on organs controlled by the workers through strikers' general assemblies.

Faced with this maturation of the struggle, the bourgeoisie was forced to renew its own union weapons: it was in these years that a new form of "base unionism" was developed (the coordinations in France, the COBAS in Italy), disguised unions which copied the forms of the organs which the workers had created for the struggle, in order to drag the workers back into the union corral.

 

We have only touched upon what happened in these two decades after the French May. We think that it is enough to show that the latter was no mere passing incident, something specifically French, but really was the beginning of a new historic phase in which the working class had broken with the counter-revolution and had again appeared on the scene of history, starting out on the long road towards the confrontation with capital.

A difficult historic resurgence

If the new post-war generation of the working class managed to break with the counter-revolution because it had not directly known the demoralisation of defeat in the 1920s, it was lacking in experience and this historic resurgence of the struggle was to prove long and difficult. We have already seen the difficulties of settling scores with the unions and their role as defenders of capital. But an important and unforeseen historic event was to make this resurgence all the longer and more difficult - the collapse of the eastern bloc.

 

An expression of the erosion produced by the economic crisis, this collapse led to a reflux in the consciousness of the proletariat, a reflux which has been amply exploited by the bourgeoisie which has been trying to make up the ground it lost in the preceding years.

 

By identifying Stalinism with communism, the bourgeoisie presents the collapse of Stalinism as the death of communism, aiming a simple but powerful message at the working class: "the workers' struggle has no perspective, because there is no viable alternative to capitalism. It's a system with many faults, but it is the only one possible".

The reflux provoked by this campaign has been much more profound than the ones which took place in the previous waves of struggles. This time it was not a question of a movement that finished badly, of union sabotage succeeding in blocking a movement of struggle. This time, what was in question was the very possibility of having any long term perspective for the struggle.

 

However, the crisis which had been the detonator of the historic revival of the class struggle is still with us, resulting in ever more violent attacks on the workers' living standards. This is why in 1992 the working class was compelled to return to the fight, with the movement of strikes against the Amato government in Italy, followed by other struggles in Belgium, Germany, France, etc. A revival of combativity in the class which has not yet overcome the reflux in consciousness. This is why this revival has not yet gone back to the level it had reached at the end of the 80s.

Since then the bourgeoisie has not stood around with its arms folded. It has not allowed the proletariat to get on with its struggles and regain confidence through them. With even more strength and capacity to manoeuvre, the bourgeoisie organised the public sector strike in the autumn of 1995 in France: through a massive international press campaign, this strike was used to prove that the unions can organise the struggle and defend the interests of the proletariat. Similar manoeuvres took place in Belgium and Germany, resulting in a boosting of union credibility on an international scale, providing them with a renewed capacity to sabotage workers' militancy.

 

But the bourgeoisie does not only manoeuvre on this terrain. It has launched a series of campaigns aimed at keeping the workers stuck behind the defence of democracy (and thus of the bourgeois state): the "dirty hands" campaign in Italy, the Dutroux affair in Belgium, anti-racism in France - all these events had a lot of media publicity in order to convince the workers of the whole world that their problem was not the vulgar defence of their economic interests, that they should pull in their belts within their respective national states and rally to the defence of democracy, justice and other inanities.

But during these last two years, the bourgeoisie has also been trying to destroy the historic memory of the working class, discrediting the history of the working class and the organisations which refer to it. The communist left itself has been under attack, presented as the main inspiration for "negationism".

 

The bourgeoisie has equally been trying to distort the real meaning of the October revolution, which it presents as a Bolshevik coup, thus seeking to wipe out the memory of the great revolutionary wave of the 1920s in which the working class, though defeated, showed that it is capable of attacking capitalism as a mode of production and not only of defending itself against exploitation. In two enormous books originally written in France and Britain, but already translated into other languages, they are carrying on with the mystification that communism equals Stalinism, and is in fact responsible for all of Stalinism's crimes (see International Review 92).

But the future still belongs to the proletariat

If the bourgeoisie is so preoccupied with undermining the struggle of the working class, with distorting its history, with discrediting the organisations which defend the proletariat's revolutionary perspective, it is because it knows that the proletariat is not defeated; that, despite all its current difficulties, the road is still open to massive confrontations in which the working class will once again put the power of the bourgeoisie into question. And the bourgeoisie also knows that the aggravation of the crisis and the sacrifices it imposes on the workers will more and more force them to embark upon the struggle. It is through this struggle that the workers will rediscover confidence in themselves, that they will learn the real nature of the unions and find their own autonomous forms of organisation.

 

A new phase is opening up in which the working class will rediscover the road that was opened up 30 years ago by the great general strike of the French May.

 

Helios