Did May 68 really mark the end of almost 50 years of counter-revolution?

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The ICC held public meetings in a number of cities across several countries to coincide with the 50th anniversary of May 1968. Generally speaking, those present broadly supported the way in which we characterised the movement:

  •  the historical significance of these events was expressed by the renewal of the class struggle, with the most massive workers' strike that ever existed until then – 10 million workers on strike –  a movement that owed nothing to the actions of the trade unions but was a spontaneous outbreak of struggle arising  purely from the initiative of the workers themselves;
  • this working class movement, while in no way inspired by the major student unrest of the time, was  partly catalysed by the brutal police attacks on the students that caused real outrage inside the working class;
  • this historical episode gave rise to an unprecedented atmosphere such as exists only during major working class movements: in the streets, in universities and in some occupied factories people spoke openly and there were intense political discussions;
  • this huge movement was the product of the return of the open economic crisis and its effect on the working class, and it freed the younger generation from the crushing weight of the of counter-revolutionary period;
  • this movement was therefore able to bring an end to an important blockage to the class struggle and to the overwhelming grip of Stalinism through its union transmission belts.

The idea that May 68 had signalled the development of a wave of struggles internationally was generally of no surprise to those present. But paradoxically, it was still not considered the case that May 68 marked the end of the long period of counter-revolution that resulted from the defeat of the first world revolutionary wave and which, at the same time, opened a new course towards class confrontations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In particular, a number of characteristics of the current period, like the development of fundamentalism, the spread of wars across the planet, etc., tended to be seen as indicating that we are still in a counter-revolutionary period. For us, this is a mistake which has its source in a twofold problem.

On the one hand, there is insufficient knowledge of what the period opening up the world counter-revolution was like following the defeat of the first revolutionary wave, and thus a difficulty to really grasp what such a period meant for the working class and its struggle, but also for humanity insofar as the barbarism inherent in capitalism in crisis was no longer bound by any limits. This is why in this article we have chosen to go back to examine this period in detail. On the other hand, with the period that opened with May 68, although it may seem more familiar to the generations who – directly or indirectly – know about May 68, grasping its underlying dynamic is not something that comes spontaneously. In particular, it may be obscured by events and situations which, although important, do not constitute the decisive factors. This is why we will also return to this period by highlighting its fundamental differences with the period of counter-revolution.

The history of class struggle comprises advances and retreats


Everyone was in agreement that, at an immediate level, after a struggle, a workers' mobilisation tends to fall back and often with it the will to fight, and this also exists at a deeper level throughout history. In fact, this gives validity to what Marx had pointed out on this subject in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that the proletarian struggle alternates between advances, often very dynamic and dazzling (1848-49, 1864-71, 1917-23) and retreats (in 1850, 1872, and 1923) which, moreover, have each time led to the disappearance or degeneration of the political organisations that the class had given itself during the period of rising struggles (Communist League: established in 1847, dissolved in 1852; International Workers’ Association: founded in 1864, dissolved in 1876; Communist International: founded in 1919, degenerated and died in the mid 1920s; the life of the Socialist International 1889-1914, having followed a broadly similar course but with less clarity[1]).

The defeat of the first international revolutionary wave of 1917-23 would open the longest, deepest and most terrible period of counter-revolution suffered by the proletariat, with the working class as a whole losing its bearings, with the few remaining organisations loyal to the revolution being reduced to tiny minorities. But it also opened the door to an unleashing of barbarism that would surpass the horrors of the First World War. On the other hand, since 1968 the opposite dynamic has developed and there is no reason to say that it has now been exhausted, despite the major difficulties experienced by the proletariat since the early 1990s and with the extension and deepening of barbarism across the planet.

The period 1924 - 1967: the deepest ever counter-revolution suffered by the working class

The expression “It is midnight in the century”, from the title of a book by Victor Serge,[2] applies perfectly to the reality of this nightmare that lasted nearly half a century.

The terrible blows struck early on against the world revolutionary wave that had opened with the Russian revolution in 1917 already constituted the antechamber to the long series of bourgeois offensives against the working class that would plunge the workers' movement into the depths of the counter-revolution. For the bourgeoisie, it would not only be a question of defeating the revolution but also of delivering blows against the working class that it would not be able to recover from. Faced with a world revolutionary wave that had threatened the global capitalist order, and this was indeed its conscious and stated objective,[3] the bourgeoisie could not simply be content with driving the proletariat back; it had to do everything in its power to ensure that this experience would leave such an image to the future world proletariat that it would never want to do it again. Above all, it had to try to discredit forever the idea of communist revolution and the possibility of establishing a society without war, without classes and without exploitation. For this reason, it was able to benefit from political circumstances that were considerably favourable to it: the loss of the revolutionary stronghold in Russia was not the result of its defeat in the military confrontation with the white armies that tried to invade Russia, but came from its own internal degeneration (to which, of course, the considerable war effort contributed greatly). So much so that it would be easy for the bourgeoisie to make the monstrosity that emerged from the political defeat of the revolution, the “Socialist” USSR, look like communism. At the same time, the latter had to be perceived as the inevitable destiny of any struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation. All fractions of the world bourgeoisie, in all countries, from the far right to the Trotskyist far left, would participate in this lie.[4]

When the World War was ended by the main bourgeoisies involved in it in November 1918, it was with the obvious aim of preventing new centres of revolutionary activity from swelling the tide of the revolution that had been victorious in Russia and was threatening in Germany, where the bourgeoisie had been weakened by the military defeat. This sought to prevent the revolutionary fever, incited by the barbarism of the battlefields and by the unbearable exploitation and misery behind the front lines, from also seizing hold in other countries such as France and Great Britain. And this goal was generally achieved: in the victorious countries, the proletariat, while it had fervently acclaimed the Russian revolution, did not show a massive commitment to the flag of revolution for the overthrow of capitalism in order to put an end forever to the horrors of war. Exhausted by four years of suffering in the trenches or in the arms factories, it sought instead to seek rest, “taking advantage” of the peace that the imperialist bandits had just delivered. And since, in the final analysis, in all wars the defeated parties get the blame, the Entente countries (France, United Kingdom, Russia) removed all the responsibility from capitalism as a whole, and laid all the blame onto the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary). Even worse, the bourgeoisie in France promised workers a new era of prosperity on the basis of the reparations that would be imposed on Germany. In this way, the proletariat in Germany and in Russia would be all the more isolated.

But what would really happen, in both victorious and defeated countries, was the future that Rosa Luxemburg had outlined in her Junius Pamphlet: if the world proletariat did not succeed through its revolutionary struggle in building a new society on the smoking ruins of capitalism, then inevitably the latter would inflict even worse disasters on humanity.

The story of this new descent into hell, which culminated in the horrors of the Second World War, is tied up in many ways with that of the counter-revolution that reached its peak at the end of this conflict.

The white armies' offensive against Soviet Russia and the failure of revolutionary attempts in Germany and Hungary

Very soon after October 1917, Soviet power was confronted with the military offensives of German imperialism, which was not going to listen to any talk about peace.[5] The white armies, with economic support from abroad, were being formed in several parts of the country. And then, new white armies, directly set up abroad, were unleashed against the revolution until 1920. The country was surrounded, hemmed in by the white armies, and was being suffocated economically. The civil war would leave the country totally devastated. Nearly 980,000 Red Army soldiers died and around 3 million from among the civilian population.[6]

In Germany, the axis of the counter-revolution was constituted by the alliance between two major forces: the traitorous SPD (Social Democratic Party) and the army. They contributed in setting up a new force, the Freikorps, the mercenaries of the counter-revolution, the nucleus of which would become the Nazi movement. The bourgeoisie would inflict a terrible blow on the Berlin proletariat by drawing it into a premature insurrection in Berlin, which was brutally suppressed in January 1919. Thousands of Berlin workers and communists – the majority of whom were also workers – were slaughtered (1200 workers were executed by firing squad), tortured and thrown into prison. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and then Leo Jogisches were murdered. The working class was losing a part of its vanguard and its most perceptive leader in the person of Rosa Luxemburg who would have been a valuable compass in the face of the looming turmoil.

In addition to the inability of the workers' movement in Germany to thwart this manoeuvre, it would also suffer from a glaring lack of coordination between the various centres of the movement: after the Berlin uprising, defensive struggles broke out in the Ruhr involving millions of miners, steel workers, textile workers from the industrial regions of the Lower Rhine and Westphalia (1st quarter of 1919), followed (at the end of March) by struggles in central Germany and again in Berlin. The Executive Council of the Republic of the councils of Bavaria was proclaimed in Munich and then overthrown, opening the door to brutal repression. Berlin, the Ruhr, Berlin again, Hamburg, Bremen, Central Germany, Bavaria, everywhere the proletariat was crushed, everywhere sector by sector. All the ferocity, the barbarism, the cunning, the calls of denunciation and the military technology were put at the service of repression. For example, “to take back Alexanderplatz in Berlin, battlefield weapons were used for the first time in the history of revolutions: namely, light and heavy artillery, bombs weighing up to one hundredweight, aerial reconnaissance and aerial bombardment”.[7] Thousands of workers were shot or killed in the fighting; communists were hunted down and many were sentenced to death.

In March the workers in Hungary also engaged capital in revolutionary clashes. On March 21, 1919, the Republic of Councils was proclaimed but it was crushed during the summer by counter-revolutionary troops. For more information, read our articles in the International Review.[8]

Despite the subsequent heroic attempts of the proletariat in Germany, in 1920 (in the face of the Kapp putsch) and 1921 (the March Action),[9] which testify to the persistence of a strong fighting spirit, the momentum was no longer towards the political reinforcement of the German proletariat as a whole, but the opposite.

The degeneration of the revolution in Russia


The ravages of the war against the offensives of the international bourgeoisie, including the considerable losses suffered by the proletariat, its political weakening with the loss of political power by the workers' councils and the dissolution of the Red Guard, and the political isolation of the revolution – all this constituted a favourable ground for the development of opportunism within the Bolshevik party and the Communist International.[10] The repression of the Kronstadt insurrection in 1921, which took place in reaction to the loss of power by the Soviets, was ordained by the Bolshevik party. From being the vanguard of the revolution at the time of the seizure of power, it was to become the vanguard of counter-revolution at the end of an internal degeneration that could not be prevented by the fractions that emerged within this party to fight specifically against growing opportunism.[11]

The broad masses that in Russia, Germany and Hungary had stormed the heavens were no longer present. They were blooded, exhausted, defeated, and could not take anymore. Within the victorious countries of the war, the proletariat had been unable to strike an effective blow. All this would signal the political defeat of the proletariat everywhere in the world.

Stalinism becomes the spearhead of the world bourgeoisie against the revolution

The process of the degeneration of the Russian revolution accelerated when Stalin took control of the Bolshevik party. The adoption in 1925 of the thesis of “socialism in one country”, which became the doctrine of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International, constituted a breaking point with no return. This betrayal of proletarian internationalism, the basic principle of the proletarian struggle and the communist revolution, would now be adopted and defended by all the Communist Parties of the world,[12] which was totally opposed to the historic project of the working class. And just as it signals the abandonment of the whole proletarian project, the thesis of socialism in one country corresponded with Russia's growing integration into world capitalism.

From the mid-1920s, Stalin would pursue a policy of merciless liquidation of all Lenin's former companions by making maximum use of the repressive bodies that the Bolshevik Party had set up to resist the white armies (notably the political police, the Cheka).[13] The whole capitalist world had recognised in Stalin the right man for the job, the one who would eradicate the last vestiges of the October Revolution and to whom it was necessary to give all the necessary support to smash and exterminate the generation of proletarians and revolutionaries who, in the middle of the world war, had dared to engage in a struggle to the death against the capitalist order.[14]

Revolutionaries were hunted down and suppressed by Stalinism, wherever they were, and this with the help of the great democracies, the same people who had sent their white armies to starve and try to overthrow the power of the soviets.

From this point, Stalin's USSR is seen as socialism, while any consciousness of the real proletarian project starts to disappear

Stalin's Russia was presented by the Stalinist bourgeoisie, as well as by the world bourgeoisie, as the realisation of the ultimate goal of the proletariat, the establishment of socialism. In this endeavour, all the factions of the world bourgeoisie collaborated, both the democratic factions and the various national Communist Parties.

The vast majority of those who still believed in the revolution would identify its purpose as the establishment of a regime like the USSR in other countries. The more the light was shed on the reality of the situation of the working class in the USSR, the deeper would be the division in the world proletariat: those who would continue to defend its “progressive” character (despite all its shortcomings), with the idea that there was “no bourgeoisie” in the Soviet Union; those for whom, on the contrary, the situation in the USSR was seen as a monstrosity, but against which they felt powerless to pose the alternative. Only a smaller and smaller minority of revolutionaries supported the proletarian project and stayed loyal to it.

The proletariat confronted with the crisis of 1929 and the 1930s

The years following the 1929 crisis dramatically affected the living conditions of the world proletariat, especially in Europe and the United States. But generally speaking its reactions to this situation did not provide a sufficiently dynamic class response that could challenge the established order. Far from it. Worse still, notable reactions in France and Spain were diverted into the impasse of the antifascist struggle.

In France, the great wave of strikes that followed the arrival of the Popular Front government in 1936 clearly demonstrated the limitations imposed on the working class by the leaden yoke of the counter-revolution. The wave of strikes had begun with spontaneous occupations of factories and did show a certain combativity of the workers. But, from the very first days, the left would use this gigantic mass to manoeuvre and to impose the measures of state capitalism on the whole French bourgeoisie, measures needed for dealing with the economic crisis and preparing for war. While it was true that for the first time in France there were factory occupations, it was also the first time that we would see the workers singing both the International and the Marseillaise and marching behind both the red flag and the Tricolour.[15] The apparatus constituted by the Communist Party and the unions was in control of the situation, managing to lock up the workers, who had let themselves be lulled by the sound of the accordion inside the factories.

The Spanish proletariat had stayed somewhat isolated from the First World War and the revolutionary wave,[16] so its physical forces remained relatively intact in dealing with the attacks that rained on it throughout the 1930s. There were nevertheless more than a million deaths between 1931 and 1939, of which the most important part would be a consequence of the civil war between the Republican camp and that of General Franco, which had absolutely nothing to do with the class struggle of the proletariat but was on the contrary made possible through its weakening. The situation was precipitated in 1936 with the coup d'état by General Franco. There was an immediate response from the workers: on 19 July 1936, the workers took strike action and went en masse to the army barracks to disarm the coup, without worrying about the contrary directives of the Popular Front and the Republican government. Uniting the struggle for demands with the political struggle, the workers held back Franco's murderous hand, but not that of the bourgeois faction organised in the Popular Front. Barely a year later, in May 1937, the Barcelona proletariat rose up again, but out of desperation, and it was massacred by the Popular Front government, the Spanish Communist Party with its Catalan branch of the PSUC at the helm, while the Francoist troops willingly halted their advance to allow the Stalinist executioners to crush the workers.

This terrible working class tragedy, which is still misrepresented today as “a Spanish social revolution” or “a great revolutionary adventure”, is a mark, on the contrary, of the triumph of the counterrevolution, with the ideological and physical crushing of the last living forces of the European proletariat. This massacre would be a dress rehearsal that paved the royal way to the unleashing of the imperialist war.[17]

The 1930s: the bourgeoisie has its hands free once again to impose its solution to the crisis

The Weimar Republic in Germany had distinguished itself with the introduction of extreme measures to exploit the working class alongside others that gave workers some representation in the company they worked for, with the sole intent of mystifying them.

In Germany, there was no real opposition between the Weimar Republic (1923) and fascism (1933): the former had permitted the revolutionary threat to be crushed, dispersing the proletariat, and clouding its consciousness; the latter, Nazism, would finish the process off, uniting capitalist society by using the iron fist to smash any remaining proletarian threat.[18]

Parties appeared in all the European countries claiming to be either pro-Hitler or pro-Mussolini and they all supported a programme of strengthening and concentrating political and economic power in the hands of a single party state. Their influence grew alongside a widespread anti-working class offensive by the repressive state apparatus reinforced by the army, and by the fascist troops where needed. From Romania to Greece, we saw the development of fascist-type organisations charged with preventing any working class reaction and with the collusion of the national state. The capitalist dictatorship became overt, and most often took the form of the Mussolini or Hitler model.

However, in the industrialised countries least affected by the crisis, retaining the framework of democracy was still possible. Indeed, this was necessary to mystify the proletariat. Fascism, having given rise to “antifascism”, had strengthened the ability of the “democratic powers” to use this mystification. The ideology of the Popular Fronts[19] made it possible to keep the workers disoriented behind the programmes of national unity and preparation for imperialist war; and, in collusion with the Russian bourgeoisie, most of the Communist Parties subservient to the new imperialist order organised a vast campaign on the rise of the fascist peril.[20] The bourgeoisie would only be able to wage war by deceiving the proletariat and making it believe that it was its war too: “With the halt to the class struggle, or more precisely the destruction of the class power of the proletariat, the destruction of its consciousness and the diversion of its struggles, the bourgeoisie used its intermediaries inside the proletariat to empty the class struggles of their revolutionary content and to derail them onto the paths of reformism and nationalism, which was the ultimate and conclusive condition for the outbreak of the imperialist war.”[21]

The massacres of the Second World War

The majority of the soldiers enrolled by both camps did not set out with much enthusiasm, still mindful of the deaths of their fathers just 25 years earlier. And what they were confronted with would not do much to raise their mood: the “Blitzkrieg” caused 90,000 deaths and 120,000 wounded on the French side, 27,000 dead on the German side. The debacle in France would see ten million people die under appalling conditions. One and a half million prisoners were sent to Germany. The conditions for the survivors were totally inhuman: the massive exodus of the people in France and the Nazi state terror bearing down on the German population.

In France as in Italy, many workers joined the maquis at that time. The Stalinist party and the Trotskyists had sold them a fraudulently distorted view of the Paris Commune (shouldn't the workers take a stand against their own bourgeoisie led by Pétain – the new Thiers – when the Germans were occupying France?) With the outbreak of the war and the population terrified and powerless, many French and European workers were recruited into the resistance groups and would now be killed believing they were fighting for the “socialist liberation” of France, Italy... The Stalinist and Trotskyist resistance groups were directing their odious propaganda around the idea that the workers would be “at the forefront of the struggle for a people's independence”.

While the First World War killed 20 million people, the Second World War would kill 50 million, 20 million of whom were Russians killed on the European front. 10 million people died in the concentration camps, 6 million of them as a result of the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews. Although none of the macabre abuses of Nazism are now unknown to the general public, unlike the crimes committed by the great democracies, the Nazi crimes remain an irrefutable illustration of the boundless barbarism of decadent capitalism, and the heinous hypocrisy of the Allied camp. Indeed, during the liberation, the Allies pretended to have just discovered the concentration camps. This was a pure masquerade to conceal their own barbarity by exposing that of the defeated enemy. In fact, the bourgeoisie, both English and American, had known perfectly well of the existence of the camps and what was happening in them. And yet, strange as it may appear, it did not talk about it throughout most of the war and did not make it a central theme of its propaganda. In fact, the governments of Churchill and Roosevelt feared like the plague that the Nazis would empty the camps and massively expel the Jews. And so, they refused offers of an exchange of one million Jews; even in exchange for nothing.[22]

In the final year of the war, the bombardments were directly targeted on areas where the workers were concentrated, in order to weaken the working class as much as possible by decimating and terrorising it.

The world bourgeoisie takes steps to prevent the possibility of a proletarian recovery

The objective was to prevent the repeat of a proletarian uprising like the ones in 1917 and 1918 in response to the horrors of the war. This is why the Anglo-American bombings – mainly in Germany but also in France – were purposely barbaric. The toll of what was undoubtedly one of the greatest war crimes, in the course of the Second World War, was around 200,000 dead,[23] almost all civilians. For example, the bombing in 1945 of Dresden, a hospital town with no strategic interest had no other purpose than terrorising the civilian populations.[24] By comparison, Hiroshima, another heinous crime, killed 75,000 people and the horrific American bombings of Tokyo in March 1945 caused 85,000 deaths!

When Mussolini was overthrown in 1943 and replaced by Marshal Badoglio, who was sympathetic to the Allies, the Allies although they already controlled the south of the country, were in no rush to move northwards. It was a case of letting the fascists settle scores with the working masses who were renewing the struggle against their class oppressors in the industrial regions of northern Italy. When asked about his passivity, Churchill replied: “Let the Italians stew in their own juice”.

From the end of the war, the Allies favoured Russian occupation, especially in areas where workers’ revolts had occurred. The Red Army was the best equipped to restore order in these countries either by slaughtering the proletariat or by diverting it from its class terrain in the name of “socialism”.

A similar division of labour was established between the Red Army and the German army. When it had already reached the suburbs of Warsaw and Budapest, the “Red Army” didn't lift a finger. It let the German army crush the insurrections that were poised to drive them out. Thus Stalin entrusted Hitler with the task of slaughtering tens of thousands of armed workers who could have upset his plans.

Not content with offering Stalin territories where there was a risk of social movements, the “democratic” bourgeoisie of the victorious countries called on the Communist Parties to join the governments in most European countries (notably in France and Italy), allocating them high-ranking positions in various ministries (Thorez – secretary of the French Communist Party – was appointed vice-president of the Council in France in 1944).

Terror was inflicted on the German population immediately after the war

In continuity with the massacres designed to prevent any proletarian uprising in Germany at the end of the war, those that took place after the war were no less barbaric and expeditious.

Germany was transformed into a vast death camp by the occupying powers of Russia, Britain, France and the United States. Many more Germans died after the war than in the battles, bombings and war concentration camps. According to James Bacque, the author of Crimes et Mercies: Le sort des civils allemands sous occupation alliée, 1944-1950”,[25] more than 9 million died as a result of the policy of Allied imperialism between 1945 and 1950.

It was only when this deadly objective had been achieved and American imperialism began to see that the post-war exhaustion of Europe could lead to the domination of Russian imperialism over the whole continent, that the policy of Potsdam was changed. The reconstruction of Western Europe depended on resurrecting the German economy. The Berlin Airlift in 1948 was the symbol of this change of strategy.[26] Of course, just like the bombing of Dresden, considered “...the most beautiful terror raid [that] the victorious Allies carried out in the whole war”, the democratic bourgeoisie did everything possible to obscure the true reality of the barbarism that was broadly shared by the two sides in the World War.

The proletariat was not able to rise up directly against the war

Despite the fact that struggles broke out from time to time in various places, particularly those in Italy in 1943, the proletariat was not able to visibly hold back the barbarism of the Second World War, as it had done with the First. 

The First World War had won millions of workers to internationalism; the Second World War cast them into the depths of the most despicable chauvinism, in the hunting down of the “Boche”[27] and the “collabos”.[28]

The proletariat was at rock bottom. What was presented to it, and what it interpreted as its great “victory”, the triumph of democracy over fascism, was in fact its most complete historical defeat. It made possible the consolidation of the ideological pillars of the capitalist order: the proletariat was overwhelmed by the feeling of victory and euphoria, the belief in the “sacred virtues” of bourgeois democracy – the same democracy that had led it into the butchery of two imperialist wars and crushed its revolution in the early 1920s. Then during the period of reconstruction, and the post-war economic “boom” and with it the short-lived improvement in its living conditions in the West, it was prevented from seeing the extent of the real defeat It had suffered.[29]

In the Eastern European countries, who were not beneficiaries of the manna of the American Marshall Plan because the Stalinist parties refused it on Moscow's orders, the situation took considerably longer to improve. The workers were presented with the mystification of “constructing socialism”. This mystification had some degree of success, such as in Czechoslovakia, where the “Prague coup” of February 1948 – i.e. the Stalinist take-over of the government – met with the approval of many workers.

Once this illusion began to wear thin, workers’ uprisings like the one in Hungary in 1956 broke out, but they were severely repressed by Russian soldiers.

The involvement of Russian troops in the repression then became an additional stimulus for nationalism in the Eastern European countries. At the same time, it was used extensively in propaganda by the “democratic” and pro-American sectors of the bourgeoisie of the Western European countries, while the Stalinist parties of these countries used the same propaganda to present the Hungarian workers' insurrection as a chauvinist, even a “fascist” movement, in the pay of American imperialism.

Moreover, throughout the “Cold War”, and even when it gave way to “peaceful coexistence” after 1956, the division of the world into two blocs was a major instrument for the mystification of the working class.

In the 1950s the working class was still divided and disoriented by the same kind of politics as existed in the 1930s: one part of the working class no longer wanted to know anything about communism (which was identified with the USSR), while the other part continued to suffer under the ideological domination of the Stalinist parties and their unions. Hence, following on from the Korean War, the confrontation between East and West was used to sow divisions inside the working class and to mobilise millions of workers behind the Soviet camp in supporting “the struggle against imperialism”.  At the same time, the colonial wars provided an additional opportunity to deflect workers away from their class terrain, once more behind the “struggle against imperialism” (and not the struggle against capitalism) in which the USSR was presented as the champion of the “rights and the freedom of the people”. This kind of campaign continued in many countries throughout the 1950s and 1960s, particularly during the Vietnam War, where the United States began its large-scale intervention in 1961.[30]

Another consequence of this very long and profound retreat of the working class was the organic rupture with the communist fractions of the past;[31] with the consequence that the burden of responsibility was passed onto future generations of revolutionaries to critically reclaim the acquisitions of the workers' movement.

May 68, the end of the counter-revolution


The crisis of 1929 and the 1930s had, at best, provoked a proletarian combativity as in France and Spain, but, as we have seen previously, these movements were diverted from the class terrain into antifascism and the defence of democracy, thanks to the grip of the Stalinists, Trotskyists and trade unions. This only contributed in a further reinforcing of the counter-revolution.

1968 was only the start of the return of the global economic crisis and yet, the effects in France (rising unemployment, wage freezes, the drive for increased productivity, attacks on social security) explain a large part of the rise in workers' combativity in that country from 1967 onwards. Far from being channelled by the Stalinists and trade unions, the renewal of workers' combativity was turning away from union-led strikes and “days of action”. As early as 1967, faced with the violent repression by the employers and police, there were some very fierce confrontations where the unions lost control on several occasions.

The purpose of this article is not to go back over all the important aspects of May 68 in France. For this reason, we refer the reader to the articles, “May 68 and the revolutionary perspective” written on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of these events.[32] Nevertheless, recalling certain facts is important to illustrate the change in the dynamics of the class struggle that took place in May 1968.

In May, the social atmosphere changed radically. “On May 13, every town in the country saw the most important demonstrations since World War II. The working class was massively present alongside the students. (...) At the end of the demonstrations, practically all the universities were occupied, not only by the students but also by many young workers. Everywhere, anyone could speak. Discussions were not limited to questions about universities and repression. They began to confront all the social problems: conditions of work, exploitation, the future of society. (…) On May 14 discussions continued in many firms. After the huge demonstrations the day before, with the enthusiasm and feelings of strength that emanated from them, it was difficult to carry on as if nothing had happened. In Nantes, with the workers of Sud-Aviation carried along by the youngest workers, a spontaneous strike broke out and they decided to occupy the factory. The working class had begun to take up the reins.”[33]

The traditional method of corralling the struggle used by the bourgeoisie wasn't much use faced with the spontaneity with which the working class entered the struggle. Thus, in the three days following the demonstration on 13 May, the strike spread spontaneously to workplaces throughout France. The movement overflowed the unions and left them behind. No specific demands were raised, but a common pattern existed: all-out strike, occupations that were not time-limited, management taken captive, red flags raised. In the end, the CGT called for spreading the strike, aiming to “move things along”.[34]  But even before the CGT's instructions were known, there were already a million workers on strike.

The working class's growing consciousness of its own power stimulated discussion and especially political discussion. This was to some extent reminiscent of the political life that the working class experienced in the revolutionary ferment of 1917, recorded in the writings of Trotsky and John Reed.

The veil of lies woven for decades by the counter-revolution and its supporters, both Stalinist and democratic, was beginning to get very thin. Amateur videos shot in the occupied Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes showed a passionate discussion among a group of workers about the role of the strike committees under “dual power”. The duality of power in 1917 was the product of the struggle for real power between the bourgeois state and the workers’ councils. In many of the factories on strike in 1968, the workers had elected strike committees. It was very far from being in a pre-revolutionary situation, but what was happening was an attempt by the working class to reclaim its own experience, its revolutionary past. Another example bears this out: “Some workers asked those who defended the idea of the revolution to come and argue their point of view in their occupied factories. In Toulouse, the small nucleus that went on to form the ICC's section in France was invited to expound its ideas about workers' councils in the occupied JOB (paper and cardboard) factory. And the most significant thing was that this invitation came from the union militants of the CGT, and those of the French Communist Party. The latter had to negotiate for an hour with the permanent officials of the CGT and the PCF who had come from the big Sud-Aviation factory to ‘reinforce’ the JOB strike picket to get authorisation to allow the ‘leftists’ to enter the factory. For more than six hours, workers and revolutionaries, sitting on rolls of cardboard, discussed the revolution, the history of the workers' movement, the soviets and even the betrayals... of the PCF and the CGT.[35]

Such a reflection allowed thousands of workers to rediscover the historical role of workers' councils, as well as the accomplishments of the working class struggle, such as the revolutionary efforts in Germany in 1919. Similarly, there was a growing criticism of the role played by the French Communist Party (which then defined itself as a party of order) not only in relation to the events of 1968 itself, but also since the Russian revolution. This was the first time that Stalinism and the Communist Party as guardians of the established order had been called into question on such a scale. The criticism also affected the unions, which increased when they openly showed themselves to be sowing divisions inside the working class in order to get it to go back to work.[36]

It was the start of a new era, characterised by a re-awakening of class-consciousness across the working masses. This break with the counter-revolution did not mean that the latter would not continue to weigh negatively on the subsequent development of the class struggle, nor that workers' consciousness was free of very strong illusions, particularly concerning the obstacles to be overcome on the road to revolution, and indeed it was much further away at the time than the great majority imagined.

Such a characterisation of May 68 as an illustration of the end of the counter-revolutionary period was confirmed by the fact that, far from remaining an isolated phenomenon, these events would on the contrary constitute the starting point for the resumption of the class struggle on an international scale, spurred on by the deepening of the economic crisis, whose corollary was the development of a proletarian political milieu on an international scale.[37] The founding of “Révolution Internationale” in 1968 was an illustration of this, since this group would play a leading role in the process that would lead to the founding of the ICC in 1975, in which Révolution Internationale became its section in France. Unlike the dark period of the counter-revolution, the bourgeoisie was now confronted with a class that was not ready to accept the sacrifices demanded from the economic war between states. It also obstructed the slide towards world war in opposing the sacrifices demanded by imperialist war; this would become clearer later, at least as concerned the main bastions of the class in Europe and the United States.

The international recovery of class struggle from 1968

The ICC has just devoted an article to this question, “The advances and retreats in the class struggle since 1968”,[38] which we recommend to our readers and from which we draw elements necessary to highlight the differences between the counter-revolutionary period and the historical period opened with May 1968. Simply put, the fundamental difference between the period of counter-revolution, starting from a heavy defeat of the working class, and the one that opened with May 68, lies in the fact that since this emergence of the struggle and despite all the difficulties with which the proletariat has been confronted, it has not suffered a decisive defeat.

The deepening of the open economic crisis, which was only in its infancy at the end of the 1960s, has produced a significant development of proletarian combativity and consciousness.

There were three successive waves of struggle over the two decades after 1968.

The first, undoubtedly the most spectacular, gave us the Italian “hot autumn” in 1969, the violent uprising in Cordoba, Argentina, in 1969 and struggles in Poland in 1970, and important movements in Spain and Great Britain in 1972. There was also a “hot autumn” in Germany in 1969 with many wildcat strikes. In Spain in particular, workers began to organise themselves through mass assemblies, a process that culminated in Vitoria in 1976. The international dimension of the wave was demonstrated by echoes in Israel (1969) and Egypt (1972) and, later, by the uprisings in the townships of South Africa, which were led by struggle committees (the Civics).

After a short break in the mid-1970s, there was a second wave with strikes by Iranian oil workers, steel mill workers in France in 1978, the “winter of discontent” in Britain, the dockworkers' strike in Rotterdam, led by an independent strike committee, and steel strikes in Brazil in 1979 which also challenged union control. In Asia there was the Kwangju revolt  in South Korea. This wave of struggles culminated in Poland in 1980, certainly the most important episode of class struggle since 1968, and even since the 1920s.

Although the severe repression of the Polish workers brought this wave to a halt, it did not take long before a new movement took place with the struggles in Belgium in 1983 and1986, the general strike in Denmark in 1985, the miners' strike in Britain in 1984-85, the railway and health workers' struggles in France in 1986 and 1988, and the movement of education workers in Italy in 1987. The struggles in France and Italy, in particular – like the mass strike in Poland – showed a real capacity for self-organisation with general assemblies and strike committees.

This movement of struggles in waves was not going nowhere; it made real advances in class-consciousness expressed in the following characteristics:

  • a loss of illusions in the political forces of the left of capital and mainly the unions, with illusions giving way to mistrust and increasingly open hostility;
  • the increasing rejection of ineffective forms of mobilisation, dead-ends into which the unions have so often channelled workers' combativity: days of action, demonstrations reduced to tame parades; long and isolated strikes...

But the experience of these 20 years of struggle had not only brought out the “negative” lessons for the working class (of what not to do). It has also provided lessons about what to do:

  • seeking to extend the struggle (Belgium 1986 in particular);
  • seeking to take the struggle into our own hands, by organising into elected and revocable assemblies and strike committees (France at the end of 1986, Italy mainly in1987).

Similarly, the more sophisticated manoeuvres developed by the bourgeoisie to deal with the class struggle also showed that there has been some development during this period. Thus, to face up to the growing disenchantment with the official unions and the threat posed by self-organisation, it developed forms of unionism which could even appear to be “outside the unions” (the 'Coordinations' set up by the far left in France, for example).

The proletariat puts a brake on war

During the twenty years after May 1968, the bourgeoisie, unable to inflict a decisive historic defeat on the working class, was incapable of implementing a mobilisation for a new world war, contrary to the situation of the 1930's, as we showed above.

In fact it was out of the question that the bourgeoisie would launch a world war without being fully assured of the docility of the proletariat, an indispensable condition for it to accept the sacrifices required for a state of war in which the mobilisation of all the living forces of the nation, as much in production as on the fronts, is demanded. Such an objective was totally unrealistic as long as the proletariat wasn't ready to submit itself obediently to the measures of austerity that the bourgeoisie had to take in order to face up to the consequences of the economic crisis. That's why a third world war didn’t take place during this period, a time where tensions between the blocs were at their height and the alliances amongst them were already firmly established through the two blocs. Further, in none of the historic concentrations of the proletariat did the bourgeoisie try to mobilise the proletariat as cannon-fodder in the local wars relevant to the east-west rivalry which, during this time, had bloodied the world.

This is particularly true of the working class of the West but equally applies to those of the East, although the latter were weaker politically, in the USSR especially, given the damage done by the steamroller of Stalinism. The Stalinist bourgeoisie, mired in a rapidly deteriorating economic swamp, was manifestly incapable of mobilising its workers in a military solution to its economic bankruptcy, a fact particularly illustrated with the strikes in Poland in 1980.

That being said, even if the working class was an obstacle to world war up to the end of the 1980's, given that it had been capable of developing its combats of resistance against the attacks of capital in the two decades after 1968 without submitting to a decisive defeat that would have overturned a global dynamic of towards confrontation between the classes, that's not to say that it was strong enough to prevent wars across the planet. In fact they never stopped during this period. In the majority of cases they were the expression of imperialist rivalries between East and West, not a direct confrontation between them but through client countries. And in these countries on the periphery of capitalism, the proletariat didn't have the strength to paralyse the armed force of the bourgeoisie.

The proletariat faced with the decomposition of capitalism

Despite the advances made in the class struggle, notably through the development of class consciousness and also the inability of the bourgeoisie to dragoon the proletariat into a new world conflict, the working class was nevertheless incapable of developing its perspective of revolution, of posing its own alternative to the crisis of the system.

 Thus, neither of the two fundamental classes could impose their solution to the crisis of capitalism. Deprived of any end result but still sinking into its long-term economic crisis, capitalism began to rot on its feet and this degeneration affected capitalist society at every level. Here capitalism enters into a new phase in its decadence, that of social decomposition. We've often showed how this phase is synonymous with the growing difficulties for the class struggle.[39]

Looking over the three last decades, we can say that the setback in consciousness has been profound, causing a type of amnesia in relation to the advances of the period 1968-1989. This is fundamentally explained by two factors:

  • the enormous impact that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989-91 had, lyingly identified by the campaigns of the bourgeoisie as the collapse of communism;
  • the characteristics of decomposition itself inaugurated by this collapse, particularly “the constant increase in criminality, inse­curity, and urban violence…the development of nihilism, despair, and suicide amongst young people … and of hatred and xenophobia…the profusion of sects, the renewal of the religious spirit including in the advanced coun­tries, the rejection of rational, coherent thought the invasion of the same media by the spectacle of violence, horror, blood, massacres…the development of terrorism, or the seizure of hostages, as methods of warfare be­tween states…”[40]

Despite the enormous difficulties that the working has experienced since 1990, two elements should be taken into account in order to get the whole picture:

  • the growing difficulties and even its partial defeats are not yet tantamount to a historic defeat of the working class and the disappearance of the possibility of communism;
  • subterranean maturation continues because, despite decomposition, capitalism goes on and the two fundamental classes of society continue to face one another.

In fact, in the last decades, there have been a certain number of important movements which tend to support this analysis:

  • in 2006, the massive mobilisation of high school and university youth in France against the CPE.[41] Its protagonists rediscovered forms of struggle which appeared in May 68, in particular general assemblies where real discussion took place and where the young were ready to listen to the witnesses of older comrades who had taken part in the events of 68. This movement, which had overflowed containment by the unions, held the real risk of drawing in the workers in a similarly “uncontrolled” way as in 68 and that is why the French government withdrew the law;
  • again in May 2006, 23,000 metalworkers in Vigo, in the Galician province of Spain, went on strike against work reforms in the sector and instead of staying bottled up in the factory went out to look for solidarity from other workers notably in the naval shipyard and the Citroen factories, organising demonstrations in the town to rally the whole population and above all organising public and daily general assemblies open to all workers whether active, unemployed or retired;
  • in 2011, the wave of social revolts in the Middle East and Greece culminated in the movement of the “Indignados” in Spain. The proletarian element in these movements varied from one country to the other, but it was strongest in Spain where we saw the spread of general assemblies, a powerful internationalist élan which saluted the expressions of solidarity of the participants from all parts of the world and where the slogan “world revolution” was taken seriously, perhaps for the first time since the revolutionary wave of 1917; a recognition that “the system is obsolete” and a strong will to discuss the possibility of a new form of social organisation. In numerous animated discussions which took place in the assemblies and commissions on the questions of morals, science and culture, in the all-present calling into question of the dogmas according to which capitalist relations are eternal – here we see once again the real spirit of May 68 taking shape. Evidently, this movement showed plenty of weaknesses that we have analysed elsewhere,[42] not least among those who saw themselves as “citizens” rather than proletarians and thus really vulnerable to bourgeois ideology.

The threats that the survival of capitalism holds over humanity shows that revolution is more than ever a necessity for the human race: from the expansion of military chaos to the ecological catastrophe; from famine to the development of unprecedented diseases. The decadence of capitalism, and its decomposition, certainly increases the danger that the objective basis of a new society could be definitively destroyed if decomposition advances beyond a certain point. But even in its latest phase, capitalism still produces the forces which can be used to overthrow it - in the words of the Communist Manifesto of 1848: “What the Bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers”.

Thus, with the entry of capitalism into its phase of decomposition, even if it brings with it greater difficulties for the proletariat, nothing indicates that the latter has suffered a defeat of irreversible consequences and, from this, has accepted all the sacrifices regarding its living and working conditions that would imply a mobilisation for imperialist war.

We don't know when or with what force the next manifestations of the potentialities of the proletariat will be produced. What we do know is that the determined and appropriate intervention of a revolutionary minority strengthens the future of the class struggle.

Silvio (July 2018)




[1]. See “The Historic Course”, International Review nº 18.

[2]              . Victor Serge is known chiefly for his famous narrative of the history of the Russian revolution, Year One of the Russian Revolution.

[3]              .  “A new era is born: the era of the disintegration of capitalism, of its internal collapse. The epoch of the proletarian communist revolution”. Letter of invitation to the First Congress of the Communist International. On this subject, read our article “Communism is not a nice idea, its on the historical agenda, iv: The Platform of the Communist International”. International Review nº 94.

[4]              . The Fourth International, by supporting imperialist Russia (after Trotsky's death), in turn betrayed proletarian internationalism. See our article  “Le trotskisme et la deuxième guerre mondiale” in our pamphlet Le Trotskysme contre la classe ouvrière.

[5]              .  This would lead to the need for the government in Russia to sign the Brest-Litovsk agreement in order to avoid the worst.

[6]              . Read our article “The world bourgeoisie against the October Revolution (Part I)”, in International Review nº 160.

[7]              .  Paul Frölich, Rudolf Lindau, Albert Schreiner, Jakob Walcher, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany 1918-1920, Marxist Science eds, 2013.

[8]              . Read our articles “German Revolution (iii): The premature insurrection” in International Review nº 83, and “Germany 1918-19: civil war” in International Review nº 136.

[9]              . Read our article “The March Action 1921, the danger of petty bourgeois impatience” in International Review nº 93.

[10]            . “Attempts to gain support of the masses in a phase of the declining activity of these masses led to opportunistic ‘solutions’ - the growing insistence on work in parliament and the trade unions, calls for the ‘Eastern Peoples’ to stand up against imperialism and, above all, the policy of the United Front with the socialist and social democratic parties that threw overboard all the hard-earned clarity about the capitalist nature of those who had become social patriots.”  “The Communist Left and the Continuity of Marxism” available on our website.

[11].           See our article “Communism is not just a nice idea, it's a material necessity, ix: 1922-23: The communist fractions against the rising counter-revolution” in International Review nº 101.

[12]            . Here again this was opposed by the left fractions. See the article “The Communist Left and the continuity of Marxism” on our website.

[13]            .  Read our article “How Stalin wiped out the militants of the October 1917 revolution”, in World Revolution nº 312.

[14]            . Thus, for example, from 1925 onwards Stalin received the full support of the world bourgeoisie for his struggle against the left-wing opposition within the Bolshevik party, which tried to maintain an internationalist position against the thesis of “building socialism in one country”. Read our article “Quand les démocraties soutenait Staline pour écraser le prolétariat” on our website.

[15]            . As our comrade Marc Chirik himself said: “To go through these years of terrible isolation, to see the French proletariat flying the Tricolour, the flag of the Versailles and singing the Marseillaise, all this in the name of communism, was, for all the generations that had remained revolutionary, a source of terrible sadness”. And it was precisely at the time of the war in Spain that this feeling of isolation reached one of its culminating points when many organisations that had managed to maintain class positions were dragged along by the “antifascist” wave. See our article “Marc: From the October 1917 revolution to the Second World War”, International Review nº 65

[16]            .  However, it should be noted that a large minority within the CNT had declared itself in favour of joining the Communist International when it was founded.

[17]            . See “The events of 19 July”, Bilan nº 36, October-November 1936, republished in International Review nº 6.

[18]            . On this subject see “The Crushing of the German Proletariat and the Rise of Fascism” in Bilan nº 16 (March 1935), republished in International Review nº 71.

[19]            .  For more information, see “1936: The Popular Fronts in France and Spain: How the bourgeoisie mobilised the working class for war”, International Review nº 126.

[20]            . On this subject see “The 1944 Commemorations: 50 Years of Imperialist Lies (Part I)” published in International Review nº 78.

[21]            . “Report on the international situation of the July 1945 conference of the Gauche Communiste de France”, republished in International Review nº 59.

[22]            . On this subject, see “Let us remember: the massacres and crimes of the ‘great democracies’” in International Review nº 66.

[23]            .  This is the figure put forward by American estimates made after the war.

[24]            . Read our article “Quand les démocraties soutenait Staline pour écraser le prolétariat.” Available in French on our website.

[25]            . This book is available in English under the title Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950. For the author, “More than 9 million Germans died as a result of an imposed famine of the Allies and the policies of expulsion after the Second World War - a quarter of the country was annexed and about 15 million people were expelled in the greatest act of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen. More than 2 million of them, including countless children, died on the road or in concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere. Western governments continue to deny that these deaths occurred.”

[26]            . See our article “Berlin 1948: The Berlin Airlift hides the crimes of Allied imperialism” in International Review nº 95.

[27]            . Boche is a derogatory term for a German soldier or a person of German origin, whose use by the French Communist Party in particular was intended to stir up chauvinistic hatred against Germans.

[28]            . This refers to those who, during the Second World War, “betrayed” by collaborating with the German enemy.

[29]            . Read our article “At the dawn of the 21st century: Why the proletariat has not yet overthrown capitalism (I)”, International Review nº 103.

[30]            . Read our article “At the dawn of the 21st century: Why the proletariat has not yet overthrown capitalism (II)”, International Review nº 104.

[31]            . Those that emerged from the former workers’ parties that degenerated with the defeat of the world revolutionary wave in 1917-23 .

[32]            . These were two successive articles: “The student movement in the world in the 1960s” and “End of counter-revolution, historical revival of the world proletariat” published in International Reviews nº 133 and nº 134 respectively.

[33]            .  “May 68 and the revolutionary perspective (I): The student movement around the world in the 1960s”.

[34]            . This would allow them to be present in the negotiations and to play a leading role in dividing up the movement to get a resumption of work, and to lead a series of separate negotiations in the various branches.

[35]            . “May 68 and the revolutionary perspective (II): End of counter-revolution, historical revival of the world proletariat”.

[36]            .   The emphasis here on challenging the leadership of the Communist Party and the unions should not, however, suggest that they remained inactive. In many occupied factories, unions did their utmost to isolate workers from any outside contact that might have a “harmful” influence on them (from those they called the “leftists”). They kept the workers occupied in the factories playing ping-pong all day long.

[37]            . This question justifies dedicating an article to it alone. We will do this later in an article on the evolution of the proletarian political milieu since 1968.

[38]            . See International Review nº 161.

[39]. See: “Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capitalism”. International Review nº 62.

[40]. Ibid.

[41].  The CPE was the French state's First Employment Contract whose aim was to make work more precarious for young workers. For an analysis of this movement, see “Theses on the spring 2006 student movement in France”, International Review nº 125.

[42].  See “The Indignados in Spain, Greece and Israel: from indignation to the preparation of class struggle”, International Review nº 147


ICC Public Meetings on May '68