20 years since May 68: Class struggle: The maturation of the conditions for the revolution

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The 'official' commentators on history and the disappointed, nostalgic figureheads of the glory days of the student movement, in celebrating the 20th anniversary of May 68, are agreed on one point: the 'revolutionary dreams' of 68 were no more than dreams. The reality of the 20 years that separate us from the social explosion of May 68 have amply confirmed the utopian character of the idea of the communist revolution. Far from having ripened, the conditions for such a revolution have moved further and further away.

However, if you throw away the opaque glasses of ruling class ideology you can see that the real dynamic of these two decades expresses a maturation, unprecedented in history, of the conditions for a world communist revolution.

It is impossible here to deal in detail with these 20 years of class struggle, which are particularly rich in lessons. We will simply attempt to answer two questions: what was the significance of May? Have the conditions for a world communist revolution developed since then?


The break-through of May

Even though they took place in France, the events of Spring 68 had an international significance both in their roots and in their consequences. It was on a world scale that the relations between classes began to go through a profound change. These events simply concretised in an obvious manner a process that was unfolding on the scale of the planet, and it’s at this level that they have to be approached.

The mass strike in 68 in France, like nearly all the major workers’ strikes this century, was at the beginning totally spontaneous: it was not the unions which unleashed the movement, on the contrary. At the beginning they tried with all the means at their disposal to stop the growing mobilization.

On the immediate level, this mobilization was considerably amplified by the will to respond to the brutal repression with which the state dealt with the student demonstrations. Against this repression, on May 13, Paris saw one of the biggest demonstrations in its history. Then, in a few days, in hundreds of thousands, in all the towns in France, all sectors of the working class entered into struggle. The strike movement was the expression of the profound discontent accumulated throughout the working class. 10 million workers paralyzed the productive apparatus of French capital. The habitual arrogance of the ruling class give way to surprise and disarray in the face of this demonstration of strength by a proletariat which it believed had been definitively defeated and subjugated.

After having suffered the bloody defeat of the workers’ insurrections which took place at the end of the First World War; after living through the triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia; after being stricken, in the 30s, by the effects of an economic depression without having the means to respond to it; after having gone through a second world war whose horrors and barbarism had been greater than anything it could have  foreseen; after being subjected to 20 years of economic reconstruction founded on the most frightful robotisation and atomization of social life; after having spent nearly 40 years under the quasi-military control of the Stalinist, fascist or democratic parties; after having heard for years that it was becoming ‘bourgeoisified’: in sum, after decades of defeat, submission and disorientation, in May 68 the working class returned by the front door onto the scene of history.

While the student agitation which had been developing in France since the beginning of the spring had already changed the social atmosphere in the country, with the repeated confrontations with the forces of the state at the barricades, behind which there were not just students; while the first strikes (Sud-Aviation, Renault-Clear) had already taken place, presaging the coming storm, the massive entry into the struggle by the working class changed everything. The exploited class raised its head and this shook the social order to its very foundations.

‘Action committees’ in factories and neighborhoods, struggle committees and workers’ groups were formed all over the place, bringing together the most combative elements, those who were seeking to understand what was happening and to regroup independently of the union structures. Real communist ideas were once again given the right of entry.

However, the working class, which was certainly the first to be surprised by its very strength, was not, as a whole, ready to play for keeps in a revolutionary attempt. Far from it. It was merely making its first new steps, without experience and full of illusions.

The bourgeoisie, getting over its surprise, didn’t stand around with its hands folded. Putting into effect an unwavering cooperation between all its political sectors, from the right to the extreme left, from the forces of police repression to the union structures, it manage to regain control of the situation. There were the much-vaunted economic concessions granted to the accompaniment of calls for a return to work after the ‘victory of the Grenelle accords.’ There was the announcement of elections with the hardly-concealed aim of diverting the struggle from the terrain of the streets to the terrain of the polling booths. But above all there was the habitual combination of police repression with the sabotage of the struggle from the inside by the unions and the left forces of capital. From the beginning the unions oriented the workers towards the occupation of the factories, but this quickly showed itself to be a way of imprisoning the workers and isolating them from each other, under the pretext of ‘protesting the tools of labour from the student provocateurs.’ Throughout the movement, the unions applied themselves to keeping up this fragmentation and imprisonment of the workers’ forces. There were many direct clashes between the workers and the representatives of the unions, but the latter were ready to do anything to avoid losing all credibility. After the signing of the ‘Grenelle accords’, George Seguy, the main union leader, went to Renault Billancourt to get them accepted and to win a vote for a return to work but found himself being disowned by the general assembly.

It took all the tricks in the union’s book to finally get a return to work. Two concrete examples summarise very well the union’s efforts to ‘restore order’: in the first, the unions called for a return to work in the different rail and transport depots, lying that other depots had already gone back; in the second, at Sochaux, the biggest car factory in France, relatively isolated in the east of the country, when there were violent confrontations provoked by police charges aimed at reclaiming the factories (two workers were killed by police), the CGT materially sabotaged the organization of resistance in the factory, once again so as ‘not to give in to provocation.’

Many workers went back with anger in their hearts. Many union cards were torn up. The ‘serious’ newspapers eulogized the unions’ sense of responsibility. The bourgeoisie had managed to re-established order. Its order.

But the events of 1968 had irreversibly transformed the historical situation. 10 million workers, at the heart of the most industrialised are of the world, d loudly slammed shut a door of history: the door of nearly 40 years of triumphant counter-revolution. A new historic period had begun.

May 68 poses the question of the perspective of the revolution

Today the bourgeoisie no longer talks about 68 with the same hatred it inculcated into its police forces at the barricades or at Sochaux. The media today often talks in a kindly tone about the utopian hopes of the young people at that time. May 68 was a beautiful dream, but it wasn’t realizable. Because capitalism, of course, is eternal. It’s true that in May 68 the question of revolution once again became, for millions of people, an object of debate and reflection. It’s true that for some students, ‘the revolution’ was on the immediate agenda. They wanted everything, now. And that really was a utopia.

But the utopia wasn’t in the general idea of the necessity and possibility of the revolution – as the bourgeoisie claims – but in the illusion of believing, 20 years ago, that it was immediately realizable.

First a remark. For those students who did talk about ‘the revolution’ (a small minority, contrary to what certain legends would have us believe), the world revolution often didn’t mean very much. Before 68 in France, as in most countries, there had already ben student agitation. Many students were interested in the national liberation struggles in the less developed countries (because they thought nothing could come out of the ‘bourgeoisified’ proletariat in the industrialised countries); Che Guevara was the new idol; they often believed in the ‘socialism’ or ‘working class’ nature of the regimes in the east with some preferring China, others Cuba, others Albania…and when the idea of revolution wasn’t identified with Stalinist-typed state capitalism, it got lost in an artistic vagueness, throwing in schemes for self-management and the utopias of pre-marxist socialists; the stupidities of a Marcuse on the disappearance of the working class and the revolutionary nature of strata like the students enjoyed wide success.

Despite all this, despite all the confusions of the university milieu, reality posed the question of a revolutionary perspective. The forceful return of the proletariat onto the social scene, the fact that the class had shown in practice its capacity to seize hold of the whole productive apparatus of society, the fact that the arrogant rule of the dominant class suddenly lost its eternal, immutable, inevitable appearance – all this meant that the question of revolution was once again being raised in people’s minds, even if it couldn’t be realized straight away.

“…on closer examination, it will always be found that the problem itself only arises when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” (Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy).

A new development of the conditions for revolution was “in the process of formation” in 68. This same proletariat  which at several moments in history had been able to launch revolutionary assaults on this society of exploitation had come back, was once again preparing itself for new battles. But it was just at the beginning of the process.

What are the conditions of a revolutionary situation?

Lenin defined the conditions of a revolutionary situation by saying, in essence, that it was necessary that ‘those on top can’t rule as before’ and ‘those on the bottom can’t go on living as before.’ A social revolution implies a total overturning of the existing social relations in order to establish new ones. This requires revolutionary will on the part of the masses but (contrary to what anarchism claims) also an ‘objective’ weakening of the conditions for the maintenance of the ruling class’ power. This power has its foundations, in the last instance, in the capacity of the ruling class to ensure the functioning of the mode of production and thus the material subsistence of society. Thus there can be no real weakening of the established order without an economic crisis, whether this crisis takes on a ‘pure’ form or the ‘disguised’ form of war.

The economic crisis is also a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for the development of the revolutionary will of the working class. By aggravating its conditions of existence, the crisis pushes the exploited class to react and to unite on a world scale.

To these ‘objective’ conditions, is independent of the revolutionary class, must obviously be added those factors which measure the depth and extent of revolutionary will and consciousness within the class: disengagement from the grip of ruling class ideology, assimilation of its own historic experience, self-confidence, reappropriation of its historic programme.

In 1968 these conditions began to come together, but this development was very far from complete.

On the economic level, capitalism had only just come out of the period of relative prosperity due to the reconstruction. The recession of 1967, while it meant the end of something and the opening up of a new period of economic crisis, was still quite moderate. The bourgeoisie’s margin for maneuver began to shrink at an accelerating pace, but it still had the means to face up to the judderings of the economic machine, even if this was at the cost of economic manipulations by the state which were simply laying the ground for new and greater difficulties in the future.

For the world working class this situation meant that it could still have many illusions in the possibility of a new prosperity. The world-wide character of the economic crisis, so obvious today, wasn’t obvious then. It was still often thought that the problems were national in scope and that a better management of public affairs would suffice to re-establish the situation. In less developed countries there were all the illusions about so-called ‘national liberation struggles’.

Unemployment had begun to develop, hence a certain disquiet, but its level still remained close to that of ‘full employment’ (a term used at the time which has since more or less fallen into disuse). In general, while living standards were already falling, they were a long way from the violent slides they went through in the two ensuing decades (see the article in this issue on 20 years of economic crisis).

This general immaturity was also expressed in the level of autonomy attained by the proletariat vis a vis the union forces of capital. May 68, like all struggles in this epoch, was characterized by the intensification of open opposition between the workers and the union organisations. In May 68 as in 69 in Italy, the workers’ struggle often clashed violently with the unions. But here again this was just the beginning of a process. Despite a growing distrust, the workers still had considerable illusions in the unions, which tended to be seen as ‘working class, in spite of everything.’

But that the 1968 generation of workers lacked the most was the experience of struggle. However gigantic was the deployment of its forces in May 68, the working class as a whole was a long way from understanding what it had just done and even further from having a real mastery over its actions. In general, its immediate experience had been restricted to union promenades, to first of May funeral marches, to long and isolated strikes. No, May 68 was far from being a real revolutionary situation. The whole working class knew it, or felt it. And all the impatience of the rebellious petty-bourgeois intellectuals who wanted ‘everything now’ could not alter this.[1]

What the proletariat has learned. 20 years of capitalist decomposition.

Nevertheless, the conditions for a revolutionary situation on a world scale have not stopped developing and deepening over the past 20 years. Those who deny this today are often the same ones who believed that revolution was immediately realizable in May 68. And it is not by chance that in both cases the link between economic crisis and class struggle is ignored or denied.

The objective evolution of capitalist society over these last 20 years can be summed up in a balance sheet that is both catastrophic and menacing. The most frightful poverty humanity has ever known has spread right across the less developed areas of the planet, but also more and more into the central countries; the destruction of any future for an ever-growing number of the unemployed and a ruthless intensification of the conditions of exploitation for those still working; the permanent development of the war economy and the exacerbation of commercial and military rivalries between nations: the evolution of the economic and political life of capitalism over the past 20 years has once again brought to light the fact that the only ‘way out’ for this decadent social system is a new world war. From the Vietnam war to the Iran-Iraq war, from the destruction of Lebanon to the war in Afghanistan, capitalism more and more threatens to turn the whole planet into a bloodbath (see the article on inter-imperialist conflicts in this issue and the previous one). The evolution of capitalism itself ruins the basis upon which the power the ruling class stands.

These years have destroyed many illusions held by the workers and have developed some important convictions:

  • the irreversible and world-wide character of the capitalist economic crisis
  • the impossibility of any ‘national solution and the impasse of ‘national liberation’ wars
  • the impossibility of reforming a social system which is rotting away to its very foundations
  • the capitalist nature of the so-called ‘communist’ countries’.

It’s not so much the development of the necessity for revolution and of the proletariat’s awareness of this that is hard to see. What often does not appear to a  superficial glance is the way that, through 20 years of experience of class struggle in all countries, the possibility of this transformation has developed and matured.

20 years of struggles

During these years the class struggle hasn’t developed in a linear way. In the contrary it has gone through a complex, uneven development, full of advances and retreats, passing through successive waves interspersed with periods of calm and counter-offensive by the bourgeoisie. If you look at these 20 years of struggles on a global scale – the only way which allows you to grasp the dynamic of the proletarian struggle – you can distinguish three major waves of workers’ struggles.

The first wave opened up by May 68 lasted until 1974. For around 5 years, nearly all countries, both the industrialised and the less developed, in the east as well as the west, workers’ struggles went through a new development. Already in 1969 in Italy (the ‘hot autumn’) a powerful wave of strikes in which clashes between workers and unions multiplied, confirmed that May 68 had indeed started a new international dynamic in the class struggle. In the same year in Argentina (Cordoba, Rosario) the working class launched massive struggles. In 1970 in Poland, the workers struggles reached new heights: generalised street confrontations with the militia, the working class forcing the government to back down. For the workers in the eastern countries it confirmed that it was possible to fight against state totalitarianism; for the workers of the whole world, the myth of the working class nature of the eastern bloc countries suffered a new blow. Then, in this international context of class combativity, particularly significant struggles developed in Spain (Barcelona 1971, in Belgium and in Britain (1972).

However, after 1973 the mobilisation of the workers was to start slowing down. Despite the important struggles waged by the working classes in Portugal and Spain when the regimes in these countries were being democratized (1974-77), despite a new wave of strikes in Poland in 1976, on the global level – and in particular in western Europe – there was a clear reduction in the level of workers’ mobilisations.

But in 1978 a new wave of worker’ struggles exploded on an international scale. Shorter in time than the previous one, we saw, between 1978 and 1980, a new deployment of proletarian forces, striking in its international simultaneity. The massive strikes of the oil workers in Iran in 78, those of the German and Brazilian metal workers in 78 and 80; the miners struggle in the USA in 79 then the New York transport strike of 80; the violent struggles of the French steelworkers of 79 and the Rotterdam dockers’ strike in the same year; the ‘winter of discontent’ in Britain in 78/79 which led to the fall of the Labour government, and the big steel strike at the beginning of 1980; the strikes in Togliattigrad in the USSR in 80 and the struggles in South Korea at the same time … all these struggles confirmed that the social calm of the mid-70s had merely been provisional. Then, in August 80, the most important workers, struggle since 1920s broke out. Drawing the lessons of the experiences of 70 and 76, the working class displayed and extraordinary level of combativity, of organization, of control over its own forces. But the dynamic was to falter in front of two deadly obstacles: first, the illusions the workers in the east have in ‘western democracy’ and particularly in trade unionism; and secondly, the national framework. Solidarnosc, the new ‘democratic’ union, formed under the attentive eyes of the ‘democratic’ forces of the western bloc, zealously propagating the most inculcated nationalist ideology, was in the forefront of distilling and cultivating this poison. The failure of the mass strike in Poland, resulting in the military coup by Jaruzelsky in December 1981, clearly posed the question of responsibility of the proletariat of the more central countries, those sections of the class with the greatest historical experience: not only at the level of their capacity to advance the internationalization of the workers’ struggle, but also because of the contribution they can make to overcoming illusions in western democracy’ which still weigh heavily in many countries.

The fall of the Labour government in Britain in the face of a wave of strikes illustrated what was to be response of the bourgeoisie to this second wave: the ‘left in government had been discredited.. It was essential to put the left in opposition where it could carry out its sabotage from within the struggles, allowing the government, usually in the hands of the right, to speak the language of ‘truth.’ This strategy had, and still has, an effect.

After the period of relflux in the international class struggle following the defeat in Poland, a new wave of struggles began at the end of ’83 with the public sector strike in Belgium. In Hamburg in West Germany there was the occupation of the ship yards. In 1984 Italy saw a powerful wave of strikes against the elimination of the sliding scale, culminating in a demonstration of nearly a million workers in Rome.

In Britain there was the great miners strike which lasted a year and which, despite its exemplary courage and combativity, showed more than any struggle the ineffectiveness in our epoch of long isolated strikes. In the same year there were important struggles in India, USA, Tunisia and Morocco.

In 1985 there was the massive strike in Denmark, and several waves of wild cat strikes shook that the other ‘socialist paradise’, Sweden; the first big strikes in Japan (railways); strikes in Sao Paolo when Brazil was in full transition towards ‘democracy’; there were also important struggles in Argentina, Bolivia, South Africa, and Yugoslavia. 1986 was marked by the massive strike in Belgium in the spring, paralyzing the country and extending by itself in spite of the unions. At the end of 36 and the beginning of 87 the railway workers in France developed a struggle which was remarkable for the workers’ attempts to organize independently of the unions. In spring 87 there was a whole series of strikes in Spain directly opposing the plans of the ‘socialist’ government. Then there were the struggles of the miners in South Africa, the electricity workers in Mexico and a big wave of strikes in South Korea.

Through good part of the year there were also struggles of the school workers in Italy who managed to organize outside of and against the unions. Finally, the recent mobilisation of the workers of the Rhur in Germany and the resurgence of strikes in Britain in 1988 (see editorial in this issue) confirmed that this third international wave of workers struggles, which has now lasted for more than four years, is far from over.

What the proletariat has learned from its struggles

A simple comparison on the characteristics of the struggles of 20 years ago with those of today will allow us to see the extent of the evolution which has slowly taken place in the working class. Its own experience, added to the catastrophic evolution of the capitalist system, has enabled it to acquire a much more lucid view of the reality of its struggle. This has been expressed by;

  • a loss of illusions in the political forces if the left of capital and first and foremost in the unions, towards which illusions have given way to distrust and, increasingly, an open hostility;
  • the growing tendency to abandon ineffective forms of mobilisation, the dead-ends which the unions have used so many times to bury the combativity of the workers, such as days of action, token demonstrations, long and isolated strikes …

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

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

In general, the workers are resorting less to the strike as a form of struggle; when the combat is joined it tends to be massive, the ‘street’, political actions, are becoming increasingly important. That is the response to attacks which are increasingly massive and which show more and more pitilessly the total incompatibility between the interests of the workers and those of the existing social order.

Over the course of these 20 years, slowly, unevenly, the world proletariat has developed its consciousness by losing its illusions and gaining experience and determination.

What the bourgeoisie has learned

The world bourgeoisie has also learned a lot from these years. The problem of maintaining social order has become a priority. It has developed all the means of repression; over the last 20 years all the governments of the world have setup or-up of strengthened their riot police, invented new ‘civil war’ weaponry. Developed the political police… Many of them have used the despair of the petty bourgeois rebels who have taken then suicidal path of terrorism to reinforce a climate of repression. In the factories, the threat of unemployment has been used systematically as a means of repression.

But what the bourgeoisie has learned most has been how to use the political and union forces working inside the working class unions, left parties, organisations of the the extreme left. It has ‘democratised’ the regimes in a number of countries (Spain, Portugal, Latin America, Philippines…), not to lessen the weight of its dictatorship but in order to create union and political organs capable of completing the work that the army and the unions could no longer do on their own. In the countries with an old ‘democratic tradition’, faced with the wearing out of the official unions and left parties, it has resorted to ‘rank and file unionism’ or to its ‘extraparliamentary’ forces to drag struggle back onto the union and democratic terrain.

We’re a long way from the ‘surprise’ effect created by the workers struggled at the end of the ‘60s. But this ‘rearmament’ of the bourgeoisie actually expresses the need to resort to more and more extreme measures to deal with a situation that is increasingly difficult to control. Behind this ‘strengthening’ of the ruling class lies the disintegration of the real basis of its power.

Towards difficult but decisive confrontations

For the impatient petty bourgeoisie of the 60s, all this is too long, too difficult, and can’t lead anywhere. For them, everything seems to have gone backwards since 60s.

For Marxists, the evolution of those years has simply confirmed the view already formulated by Marx in the 19th century, of what is the struggle of the only class in history which is both exploited and revolutionary.

Unlike the revolutionary struggles of the bourgeoisie against feudalism, in which each victory meant a development of its real political power over society at the expense of the nobility, the revolutionary combat of the proletariat doesn’t win progressive and cumulative gains at the level of political power. As long as the proletariat has not obtained its final political victory, the revolution, it remains an exploited, dispossessed, repressed class. This is why its struggles can look like an eternal process of starting again from scratch.

Proletarian revolutions, however such as those of the nineteenth century, constantly engage in self-criticism, and in repeated interruptions of their own course. They return to what has apparently already been accomplished in order to begin the task again; with merciless thoroughness they mock the inadequate, weak and wretched aspects of their first attempts; they seem to throw their opponent to the ground only to see him draw new strength from the earth and rise again before them, more colossal than ever; they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals, until the situation is created in which any retreat is impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta.” (Marx, the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.[2]

Perhaps it is less easy to talk about revolution in 1988 than in 1968. But when today the word is shouted out in a demonstration in Rome where workers are denouncing the bourgeois nature of the unions, or at an unemployed workers demonstration in Bilbao, it has a much more profound and more concrete meaning than when it was banded about in the feverish assemblies, so full of illusions, of 1968.

1968 affirmed the return of the revolutionary objective. For 20 years the conditions for its realization haven’t stopped maturing. Capitalism’s descent into an impasse, the increasingly unbearable situation this creates for all the exploited and oppressed classes, the experience accumulated through the fighting spirit of the workers, all this is leading to that situation of which Marx spoke, “in which any retreat is impossible.”


[1] For a revolutionary history and analysis of the events of May 68 see Pierre Hempel, Mai 68 et la question de la revolucion, c/o Linear La Boulangera, 67, Rue de Bagneux, 32000, Montrouge, France.

[2] This refers to a Greek legend: a boaster who went around the towns of the Mediterranean saying that he had once made an immense leap in Rhodes one day found himself in this town and was told “Here is Rhodes, leap here and now.”



May 1968