Theses on the spring 2006 students' movement in France

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These Theses were adopted by the ICC when the students’ movement was still under way. The 4th April demonstration dashed the government’s hopes that it would be less well attended than that of 28th March. In particular, there were even more private-sector workers in the streets. President Chirac, in his 31st March speech on television, had attempted a ludicrous manoeuvre, announcing at one and the same time both the application of the “Equal opportunities” law, and asking that the law’s 8th article (instituting the Contrat Première Embauche, which was the main target of the students’ anger) should not be put into effect. Far from weakening the movement, this pathetic squirming only spurred it on. It increased the likelihood of spontaneous walkouts in the productive sector of the economy, as in 1968. The government was forced to accept the fact that its wretched manoeuvres had failed to break the movement, and, as a result though not without a few final contortions, it withdrew the CPE on 10th April. The Theses in fact envisaged the possibility that the government would not give way. That said, the epilogue to the crisis, which saw the government retreat in this way, confirms their central idea: the depth and importance of the mobilisation of the young generations of the working class in these spring days of 2006.

Now that the government has retreated on the CPE, which was the movement’s leading demand, the latter has lost its dynamic. Does this mean that things will “return to normal” as all the fractions of the bourgeoisie obviously hope? Certainly not. As the Theses say, “[the bourgeoisie] cannot suppress all the experience accumulated through weeks of struggle by tens of thousands of future workers, their awakening to politics and their developing consciousness. This will be a real treasure-trove for the future struggles of the proletariat, a vital element in their ability to continue down the path towards the communist revolution”. It is of the greatest importance that the actors of this magnificent struggle make this treasure bear fruit, by drawing out all the lessons of this experience, in both its strengths and its weaknesses. Above all, they need to bring into the open the perspective that society is faced with, a perspective already contained in the struggle they have just undertaken: against the increasingly violent attacks that capitalism in its death crisis will inevitably unleash on the exploited class, the only possible answer for the latter is to intensify its resistance and to prepare the system’s overthrow. Like the struggle which is coming to an end, this reflection needs to be undertaken collectively, through debate, new assemblies, discussion circles as open as the general assemblies were to all who want to take part, and in particular to the political organisations that support the struggle of the working class.

This collective reflection will only be possible if its actors maintain the same fraternal attitudes of unity and solidarity that dominated in the struggle. In this sense, now that the great majority of those who took part in the struggle are aware that it is over in its previous form, this is not the time for rearguard actions, for ultra-minority “bitter-end” pickets which are anyway condemned to defeat and which run the risk of provoking divisions and tensions among those who have, for weeks, conducted an exemplary struggle of the working class. 18th April 2006

The movement’s proletarian nature

1) The current mobilisation of students in France is already one of the major episodes in the class struggle in this country in the last fifteen years. It is at least as important as the struggles of autumn 1995 against the reform of the Social Security system and as the one in the public sector in Spring 2003 on the issue of pensions. This affirmation may seem paradoxical, since it is not wage earners that are mobilising today (except for those participating in a certain number of days of action and demonstrations on February 7th, March 7th, March 18th and March 28th) but a sector of society that has not yet entered the field of work, young people in further education. However, this in no way puts into question the profoundly proletarian nature of this movement. This is for the following reasons:

  • in recent decades, changes in the capitalist economy have led to a growing demand for a more skilled and qualified workforce and a large proportion of university students (which includes the University Institutes of Technology responsible for providing relatively short training courses for future “technicians”, in reality qualified workers) will, when they finish their studies, rejoin the ranks of the working class (this is no longer confined to classic industrial blue collar workers but also includes office workers and middle management employees in private industry as well as nurses, the vast majority of teachers in primary and secondary education and others in the public sector);
  • at the same time, the social origins of students have also changed significantly, with a considerable increase in the number of students coming from the working class (in line with the above criteria), leading in turn to more and more students (about 50%) having to work in order to study or at least to achieve a minimum independence from their families;
  • the main demand of the students is the withdrawal of an economic attack (the new law, “Contrat de Première Embauche”, CPE) that affects the whole working class and not just today's students (i.e. tomorrow’s workers) or existing young wage earners, because the presence in the workplace of a workforce living under the Damoclean sword of immediate and unmotivated redundancy during first two years of employment can only bring pressure on other workers.

The proletarian nature of the movement has been evident from the start when most of the general assemblies withdrew exclusively “student demands” (like the demand to withdraw the LMD, the European system of diplomas that was recently imposed in France and penalises certain students) from their list of demands. This decision corresponded to a desire expressed from the outset by the great majority of students, not just to seek solidarity from the whole working class (the term “wage earners” was generally the one used in the general assemblies) but also for it to join the struggle.

The general assemblies are the heart of the movement

2) The profoundly proletarian character of the movement is also demonstrated in the forms of struggle adopted, notably the sovereign general assemblies which express a real life that has nothing to do with the caricatures of general assemblies so often called by the unions. There was clearly a great heterogeneity among the various universities at this level. Some assemblies were still very similar in many ways to union assemblies, while others were the living centre of an intense process of reflection, with a high degree of involvement and maturity on the part of the participants. However, despite this heterogeneity, it is remarkable how many assemblies managed to overcome these obstacles after the first days when they had gone round in circles on issues like “voting on whether to have a vote or not on a particular question” (e.g. on the presence or not of people in the assemblies from outside the university, or on whether they should be able to speak). This had led to the departure of a lot of students. There was also the problem that the key decisions were being taken by student union members or political organisations. Over the first two weeks of the movement, the dominant tendency was the presence of more and more students in the assemblies and their increasingly active participation in the discussions, with a corresponding diminution in the intervention of the union members and the political organisations. The fact that the assemblies were taking increasing control of their own activities was clearly expressed by the fact that the students at the presidium organising the debates tended less and less to be those with union or political affiliations and more and more to be individuals with no affiliations or any real experience before the movement started. In a similar way the best organised assemblies would change the teams (usually of three members) who were responsible for organising and animating the debates on a daily basis, while the least lively and less organised assemblies were “led” by the same team each day, which moreover was often overmanned compared to the former.  It is important to note that the tendency existed for the second type of assembly to be replaced by the former. One of the important aspects of this evolution was the participation of student delegates from one university in the assemblies of other universities. This, in addition to reinforcing the feelings of strength and solidarity between the different assemblies, has allowed those assemblies that were more hesitant to gain inspiration from the advances being made by those in the forefront.[1] This is also an important feature of the dynamic of workers’ assemblies in class movements that have reached a considerable level of consciousness and understanding.

3) One of the major expressions of the proletarian nature of the assemblies in the universities during this period is the fact that they were not only open to students from other universities, but were very quickly opened to people who were not students. From the start the assemblies called on people in the universities (teachers, technicians or office staff – the IATOS) to come and participate and to join the struggle, but they went even further. In particular, working and retired people, parents and grandparents of the university and school students in struggle, have in general been warmly and attentively welcomed by the assemblies whenever they made interventions that encouraged the movement’s extension, especially to the wage workers.

Opening assemblies up to people who are not employed in the company or in the sector immediately involved, not only as observers but as active participants, is an extremely important aspect of the movement of the working class. It is clear that when a decision has to be taken requiring a vote, it may be necessary to resort to certain ways of working so that only the people who belong to the productive or geographical unit that the assembly is based upon participate in making decisions. This prevents the professional organisers of the bourgeoisie and others in their service from “packing” the assemblies. To this end, a method used by many of the student assemblies was to count the student cards (different from one university to another) held up, not raised hands. The question of the openness of the assemblies is a crucial one for the struggle and for the working class. In “normal” times, i.e. outside periods of intense struggle, it is members of the organisations of the capitalist class (the unions or the “leftist” parties) who exert most influence among the workers, so that keeping outsiders out of assemblies is an excellent way for them to keep control of the workers, to obstruct the dynamic of their struggle and serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. The opening of the assemblies allows the most advanced elements of the class, and especially the revolutionary organisations, to contribute to the development of consciousness by the workers in struggle; and in the history of the class struggle this has always constituted a dividing line between currents who defend a proletarian orientation and those who defend capitalist order. There are numerous examples. Among the most significant is that of the Congress of Workers' Councils in mid-December 1918 in Berlin, after the November uprising of the soldiers and workers against the war had obliged the German bourgeoisie not only to bring the war to an end but also to get rid of the Kaiser and to hand political power over to the Social Democratic party. Because of the immaturity of consciousness within the working class, along with the methods used for appointing the delegates, this Congress was dominated by the Social Democrats who forbade the representatives of the Russian revolutionary soviets, and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, the two most eminent figures of the revolutionary movement, from taking part, under the pretext that they were not workers. This Congress took the decision in the end to hand over all its power to the government led by the Social Democracy, a government that was to assassinate Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht a month later. Another relevant example is that of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA - the First International). At its 1866 congress certain French leaders, like the bronze engraver Tolain, attempted to impose the rule that "only workers are allowed to vote at the congress" – a rule chiefly aimed at Karl Marx and his closest comrades. At the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx was one of its most ardent defenders while Tolain was in Versailles in the ranks of those responsible for crushing the Commune, with the massacre of 30,000 workers.

With regard to the current students' movement, it is significant that the greatest resistance to opening up the assemblies came from the members of the students’ union, the UNEF (affiliated to the Socialist Party) and that they are much more open where the influence of UNEF was least felt.

Unlike 1995 and 2003, the bourgeoisie was surprised by the movement

4) One of the most important characteristics of the current episode of the class struggle in France is that it took all the sectors of the bourgeoisie and its political apparatus (right wing and left wing parties and union organisations) almost totally by surprise. This is something that allows us to understand both the vitality and the depth of the movement as well as the extremely delicate situation that the ruling class in France is in at this time. In this respect we have to make a clear distinction between the present movement and the massive struggles in the autumn of 1995 and in the spring of 2003.

The mobilisation of workers in 1995 against the “Juppé plan” to reform the Social Security system had, in reality, been orchestrated by virtue of a very clever division of labour between the government and the unions. With typical  arrogance the then Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, combined the attacks against Social Security (which affected both employees of the public and private sectors) with specific attacks on the pensions of workers in the SNCF (the French railways) and other state sector transport workers. These workers were the spearhead of the mobilisation. A few days before Christmas, with the strikes a few weeks old, the government withdrew its special schemes for pensions leading, after an appeal by the unions, to a return to work in the sectors concerned. This return in the sectors most directly affected signified the end of the movement in all the other sectors. For their part, most of the unions (apart from the CFDT) had acted in a very militant way, calling for the extension of the movement and holding regular general assemblies. Despite its scale, the workers' mobilisation did not end in a victory but, fundamentally, in a defeat, since the basic demand, the withdrawal of the Juppé plan to reform the Social Security, was not achieved. However, with the government's withdrawal of its special pension schemes, the unions were able to dress the defeat up as a victory, enabling them to refurbish their image, tarnished by their repeated sabotage of workers' struggles during the 1990s.

The mobilisation in 2003 in the public sector was in response to the decision to increase the minimum number of years worked for entitlement to a full pension. This measure was directed against all state employees, but it was the teachers and other employees in the educational establishments, who, in addition to the attack on pensions, also suffered from a further attack under the cover of “decentralisation”. Teachers in general were not targeted by this latter measure, but they felt particularly affected by an attack on their colleagues and by the mobilisation of the latter. In addition, the decision to raise the minimum number of years in work to 40 years or even longer for some sectors of the working class (who because of the time they have to spend in training cannot begin to work before the age of 23 or even 25 years) meant that they will have to continue working in even more punishing and exhausting conditions well beyond the legal age of retirement at 60. Although he had a different style to that of Juppe, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin talked tough in the same way, declaring that "It's not the street that rules". Finally, despite the combativity of the education sector workers and their tenacity (some endured 6 weeks on strike), despite demonstrations that were among the biggest since May 68, the movement was unable to push back the government. All that happened was that the latter decided, when the mobilisation began to weaken, to go back on particular measures that affected non-teaching personnel from the education establishments, so as to destroy the unity that had developed between the various professional groupings and thus undermine the dynamic of the mobilisation. The inevitable return to work among the personnel of the schools signified the end of the movement; as in 1995, it had not succeeded in pushing back the main attack of the government, the one against pensions. However, whereas it was possible to present the episode from 1995 as a “victory” by the unions, which allowed them to strengthen their influence over all the workers, the return to work in 2003 was felt mainly as a defeat (notably for a large number of teachers who lost almost 6 weeks wages). This had a big effect on the workers’ confidence in the trade unions.

The political weakness of the French right

5) We can summarise the main characteristics of the attacks against the working class in 1995 and 2003 as follows:

  • both sprang from the unavoidable necessity for capitalism, faced with the world economic crisis and the deficit in public finances, to continue the destruction of the Welfare State apparatus put in place after World War II, and in particular the Social Security system and the pension system;
  • both had been meticulously prepared by the various organs of capitalism, in particular the right wing government and the union organisations, in order to inflict a defeat on the working class, both at the economic level as well as at the political and ideological level;
  • both used the method of piling up attacks on a specific sector, provoking a more general mobilisation, and then “withdrawing” certain specific attacks on this sector in order to disarm the whole movement;
  •             however, the political dimension of the attacks by the bourgeoisie, even if they drew on similar methods, was not the same in both cases, since in 1995, the result of the mobilisation had to be presented as a “victory” credited to the unions, while, in 2003, the obvious nature of the defeat was a factor of demoralisation and so discredited the unions.

Regarding the current mobilisation, a number of facts are clear:

  • the CPE was not at all an indispensable measure for the French economy: this is clearly illustrated by the fact that a large number of employers and right wing MPs were not in favour of it, just like the majority of members of the government, especially the two ministers directly involved, the Minister for Employment (Gérard Larcher) and the Minister for “Social Cohesion” (Jean-Louis Borloo);
  • together with the fact that this measure is not indispensable from the capitalist point of view, there was an almost complete absence of any preparation for getting it through; while the attacks of 1995 and 2003 were prepared in advance by “discussions” with the unions (to the point, in both cases, where one of the main unions, the CFDT, with its links to the Socialist Party, supported the government's plans), the CPE was a part of a series of measures that were grouped together under a law that was christened “Equal Opportunities”, submitted to parliament in a hurry and with no previous discussion with the unions. One of the most odious aspects of the law is the fact that it claims to be fighting job insecurity, while institutionalising insecurity for young workers under 26 years, and that it claims to be benefiting young people from the “problem” neighbourhoods who were in revolt in the autumn of 2005, while containing a series of attacks against the same young people, like putting youngsters of 14 years and older into work and those over 15 years into night work, under cover of doing apprenticeships. 

6) The government has been deliberately provocative in attempting to pass the law in such a cavalier way. It has used the provisions of the Constitution that allow it to by-pass parliament and decided to do this at a time when the schools and colleges were closed for the holidays. However, Villepin and the government have come unstuck with their “clever manoeuvre”. Rather than avoiding any reaction from students, they have made them even angrier and even more determined to resist this law. In 1995 Prime Minister Juppé's provocative declarations and arrogant attitude radicalised the strike action in a similar way. However, back then, the provocation was deliberate, since the bourgeoisie had foreseen the workers reaction and was confident that it could deal with it.  In a situation where the working class was still suffering from the weight of the ongoing ideological campaigns around the collapse of the so-called “socialist” countries (which was bound to reduce the possibility of developing the struggle), it had been able to manipulate these events in order to refurbish the unions’ credibility.  Today, on the contrary, Villepin had not anticipated that he would provoke the anger of the students, not to mention a large part of the working class, against this policy. In 2005, Villepin had succeeded in getting the CNE (Contrat Nouvelle Embauche) through parliament without any difficulty. This law allows companies with less than 20 employees to lay off workers of any age who have been employed for less than 2 years without giving a reason. It was expected that the CPE, which extends the provisions of the CNE to both public and private sector companies, but for workers under 26 years of age, would meet with a similar reception when it came in. Subsequent events have showed that the government made a serious error of judgement, since the media and all the political factions of the bourgeoisie agree that the government has ended up in a very delicate situation.  In fact, it is not only the government that is extremely embarrassed by this situation, but all the government parties (left and right), as well as the unions who are condemning Villepin’s methods. Moreover, Villepin himself has acknowledged his mistake to some extent by saying he “regretted” adopting this approach.

The government (and Villepin particularly) has clearly made mistakes. Villepin is presented by the left and the unions as a “loner”,[2] a “high-and-mighty” person, incapable of understanding the real needs of the people.  His “friends” on the right (especially, of course, those close to his great rival, Nicolas Sarkozy) point out that as he has never been elected to office (unlike Sarkozy, who has been a deputy [i.e. an MP] and a mayor of an important town[3] for many years), and that he has difficulty connecting with the ordinary voter and with the rank and file of his own party. It is also said that his taste for poetry and literature makes him a sort of “dilettante”, with an amateurish understanding of politics. However, the most common criticism directed at him, including by the bosses, is that he failed to consult the “social players” or the “intermediary bodies” (to use the terminology of the media sociologists), in other words the unions, before going ahead with this attack. The strongest criticism comes from the CDFT, the most moderate of the unions, which supported the government's attacks of 1995 and 2003.

We can say therefore that, in the circumstances, the French right has fully lived up to its reputation as the “stupidest” right wing in the world. More generally, it shows that the French bourgeoisie is, in a way, once again paying the price for the same inability to master the political game that has led to electoral “accidents” in the past, as in 1981 and 2002. In the first case, because the right was disunited, the left came into government, bucking the trend of the orientation in the other major countries in response to the unfolding social situation (especially in Great Britain, Germany, Italy and the US). In the second case, the left (because it too was disunited) failed to reach the second round of presidential elections which ended in a run-off between Le Pen (the leader of the far right) and Chirac. Chirac was re-elected with all the votes of the left, transferred to him as the “lesser evil”. Chirac was thus re-elected thanks to the left's, leaving him less room for manoeuvre than if he had defeated the champion of the left, Lionel Jospin. The reduction in Chirac's legitimacy goes some way to explain this government's weakness in facing up to and attacking the working class. That said, this political weakness of the right (and of the political apparatus of the French bourgeoisie in general) has not stopped it carrying out a massive attack on workers’ pensions. In this present case, this weakness in itself does not explain the scale of the current movement, notably the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of young future workers, the dynamic of the movement, and its adoption of truly proletarian forms of struggle.

An expression of the revival in workers’ struggles and the development of class consciousness

7) In 1968 too, the student mobilisation and the formidable workers’ strike (9 million on strike over several weeks – a total of more than 150 million strike days) resulted in part from the mistakes of the Gaullist regime at the end of its reign. The provocative attitude that the authorities displayed towards the students (the police entered the Sorbonne on May 3rd for the first time in hundreds of years and arrested and imprisoned a number of students who tried to object to being evicted by force) was a factor leading to the massive mobilisation of the students during the week of May 3rd to May 10th.  After the fierce repression of May 10th and 11th, and the affects it had on public opinion, the government decided to give way on two of the student demands: the reopening of the Sorbonne and the freeing of the students arrested the week before. This government retreat and the enormous success of the demonstration called by the unions on 13th May[4] gave rise to a series of spontaneous walkouts in some big factories, like Renault in Cléon and Sud-Aviation in Nantes.  One of the reasons for these walk-outs, mainly by young workers, was the latter’s realisation that if the determination of the students (who after all have no economic muscle) had been successful in forcing the government to back down, then it could also be forced to back down by the workers, who have a much more powerful means of exerting pressure – the strike. The example set by the workers of Cléon and Nantes spread like wildfire, outstripping the unions. Frightened of being completely overwhelmed, they were obliged to jump on the bandwagon after two days and called a strike that paralysed the national economy for several weeks, with 9 million workers involved. Even then, it would have been very short-sighted to think that a movement on this scale could be the product of purely local or national causes. It had to be the product of a very significant change in the balance of forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat at the international level, in favour of the latter.[5] This was to be confirmed a year later by the “Cordobazo” of May 29th 1969 in Argentina,[6] the “Hot Autumn” in Italy in 1969 (also known as “Rampant May”), then by the big strikes in the Baltic region, the “Polish winter” of 1970-71 and by many other less spectacular movements, all confirming that May 1968 was no flash in the pan but the expression of the historic recovery of the world proletariat after more than four decades of counter-revolution.

8) Nor can the present movement in France be explained by particular circumstances (Villepin’s “mistakes”) or purely national factors. In fact it is a striking confirmation of what the ICC has been saying since 2003: a tendency towards the revival of international working class struggles and a development of consciousness within the class: “The large-scale mobilisations of the spring of 2003 in France and Austria represent a turning point in the class struggles since 1989. They are a first significant step in the recovery of workers militancy after the longest period of reflux since 1968” (International Review n°117. “Report on the class struggle”) “In spite of all its difficulties, the period of retreat has by no means seen the ‘end of the class struggle’. The 1990s was interspersed with a number of movements which showed that the proletariat still had untapped reserves of combativity (for example in 1992 and 1997). However, none of these movements represented a real shift at the level of consciousness. Hence the importance of the more recent movements which, though lacking the spectacular and overnight impact of a movement like that of 1968 in France, nevertheless constitute a turning point in the balance of class forces. The struggles of 2003-2005 have the following characteristics:

  • they have involved significant sectors of the working class in countries at the heart of world capitalism (as in France 2003);
  • they have been preoccupied with more explicitly political questions; in particular the question of pensions raised in the struggles in France and elsewhere poses the problem of the future that capitalist society holds in store for all of us;
  • they have seen the re-emergence of Germany as a focal point for workers’ struggles, for the first time since the revolutionary wave;
  • the question of class solidarity has been raised in a wider and more explicit way than at any time since the struggles of the 80s, most notably in the recent movements in Germany;
  • they have been accompanied by the emergence of a new generation of elements looking for political clarity. This new generation has manifested itself both in the new influx of overtly politicised elements and in the new layers of workers entering the struggle for the first time. As evidenced in certain important demonstrations, the basis is being forged for the unity between the new generation and the “generation of ‘68” – both the political minority which rebuilt the communist movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the wider strata of workers who have been through the rich experience of class struggles between ‘68 and ‘89” (International Review n°122, “Resolution on the international situation”, 16th ICC Congress).

These characteristics, which we highlighted at our 16th Congress, have been amply demonstrated in the present movement of the students in France.

The link between the generations has been established spontaneously in the student assemblies: not only have older workers (including pensioners) been allowed to speak in the assemblies, they have been encouraged to do so and their interventions about their own experience of struggle have been listened to with great warmth and close attention by the younger generation.[7]

A concern for the future, and not just with their immediate situation, has been at the very heart of the movement, which has drawn in young people who will only be faced with the CPE in a number of years’ time (more than 5 years for many high-school students). This concern for the future already emerged in 2003 on the issue of pensions, where we saw many young people on the demonstrations; this was already a sign of solidarity between the generations in the working class. In the current movement, the mobilisation against job insecurity, and thus against unemployment poses implicitly – and explicitly for a growing number of students and young workers – the question of what future capitalism has in store for society, a concern expressed by many older workers who are asking “what kind of society will we leave to our children?”

The question of solidarity, in particular between the generations but also between different sectors of the working class, has been one of the key issues of the movement:

  • solidarity among the students themselves, in the efforts of those who are in the forefront, who are the best organised, to come to the aid of comrades facing difficult situations (by trying to reach out to and mobilise the more reticent students, in the way the general assemblies are organised, etc.);
  • calling on the wage workers by arguing that the government’s attack is aimed at all sectors of the working class;
  • the feeling of solidarity among the workers, even if this has not led to an extension of the struggle other than through participation in the days of action and the demonstrations;
  • an awareness among many students that they are not the ones most threatened by job insecurity (which affects young people without degrees or diplomas on a much more massive scale) and that their struggle is of even more concern to the most underprivileged young people, in particular the youth from the “problem estates” who were involved in the riots last autumn.

The young generation takes up the torch of struggle

9) One of the main characteristics of the present movement is the fact that that it is being led by the younger generation. And this is no accident. For some years the ICC has been pointing out that within the new generation there is an unspectacular but profound process of reflection going on, manifesting itself mainly in a much more noticeable tendency of young people to gravitate towards communist politics – some of them have already joined our ranks. This is just the tip of the iceberg of a development of consciousness going on in much wider sectors of the new proletarian generation, a process which sooner or later will feed into huge social struggles: “The new generation of ‘searching elements’, minorities moving towards class positions, will have a role of unprecedented importance in the future combats of the class, which will be faced with their political implications much more profoundly than the struggles of 1968-89. These elements, who already express a slow but significant development of consciousness in depth, will make a major contribution to the massive extension of consciousness throughout the class” (International Review n°113, “Resolution on the international situation from the 15th Congress of the ICC”).

The current movement of the students in France expresses the emergence of this subterranean process which got going several years ago. It is a sign that the main impact of the ideological campaigns set in motion in 1989 about the “end of communism” and the “disappearance of the class struggle” is now behind us.

Soon after the historic resurgence of the world proletariat in 1968 we noted  that “the situation of the proletariat is different from how it was during the thirties. On the one hand, like all the other pillars of bourgeois ideology, mystifications which in the past weighed down the consciousness of the proletariat, have in part, gradually been exhausted. Nationalism, democratic illusions, anti-fascism, were all intensively utilised over the past half century, but they no longer have the impact they once had. On the other hand, the new generation of workers has not suffered the defeats of its predecessors. The proletarians who today confront the crisis, if they do not have the experience past generations of workers had, are no longer ground down by the same demoralisation.

The formidable opposition with which the working class since 1968/69 has reacted against the first signs of the crisis, means that the bourgeoisie is not able today to impose the only outcome that, for its part, it could find for this crisis: a new imperialist holocaust. Before that can happen it must be able to defeat the working class. The perspective now is not imperialist war but generalised class war” (Manifesto of the ICC, adopted at its first congress in January 1976)

At our 8th Congress, thirteen years later, the report on the international situation completed this analysis in the following terms: “The generation which had been marked by the counter-revolution from the 30s to the 60s had to give way to one which had not been through it for the world proletariat to find the strength to overcome its impact. Similarly (although we have to moderate the comparison by underlining that between the generation of 68 and the one before it there had been a historic break, whereas there is a continuity with the one that followed it) the generation which will make the revolution cannot be the one which accomplished the essential historic task of opening up a new perspective for the world proletariat after the deepest counter-revolution in its history”.

A few months later, the collapse of the so-called “socialist” regimes and the important retreat by the working class that this brought about made it necessary to be more concrete about this prediction. With all due sense of proportion, the present revival of class combats can be compared to the historic resurgence of 1968 after 40 years of counter-revolution: the generations who had suffered this defeat and above all the terrible pressure of the mystifications of the bourgeoisie could not be at the forefront of this new episode in the confrontation between the classes. In a similar way, today’s generation, which was still at primary school when these campaigns were at their height, and was not directly affected by them, is now the first to take up the torch of the struggle.

A far greater awareness than in 1968 of being part of the working class

10) The comparison between the student mobilisations of today  in France and the events of May 68 enables us to draw out some of the more important features of the present movement. The majority of students in struggle today affirm very clearly “our struggle is different from 1968”. This is quite true, but it is important to understand why.

The first difference, and the most fundamental, resides in the fact that the movement of May 68 was situated at the very beginning of the open crisis of the world capitalist economy, whereas now, after worsening abruptly in 1974, the crisis is nearly four decades old. From 1967 on we began to see a rise in unemployment in several countries, notably France and Germany, which was at the root of the disquiet that was beginning to emerge among the students, and of the discontent which led the working class to enter the struggle. This said, the number of unemployed in France is ten times higher today than it was in May 68 and this massive unemployment (up to 10% of the active population according to the official figures) has already lasted for several decades. A whole number of differences result from this.

Even if these first effects of the crisis were an element behind the anger of the students in 1968, they were in no way comparable to the situation today. At the time, there was no major threat of unemployment or job insecurity at the end of your studies. The main concern for student youth at the time was that it would not be able to attain the same social status as the previous generation of people with university degrees. The 1968 generation was in fact the first to be confronted in a rather brutal manner with the proletarianisation of previously more prestigious job roles – a subject abundantly studied by sociologists. This phenomenon had begun a few years earlier, even before the open crisis had made its appearance, and followed a considerable increase in the number of students at the universities. This was the result of the needs of the economy but also of the hopes and desires of their parents, who had been through all the privations of the Second World War and wanted their children to reach a better social and economic situation than they had. This “massification” of the student population had been giving rise for a number of years to a growing malaise, particularly as a result of the persistence within the universities of structures and practices inherited from a time when only a chosen few could attend them, in particular a strongly authoritarian atmosphere. Another element in the malaise in the student world, which was expressed particularly in the USA from 1964 on, was the Vietnam war which undermined the whole myth of the “civilising” role of the great Western democracies, and which led large numbers of the student youth towards Third-Worldist ideas in their Guevarist or Maoist forms. These ideas were fuelled by the theories of pseudo-revolutionary thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, who announced the “integration of the working class” and the emergence of “new revolutionary forces” in the oppressed minorities (blacks, women, etc.), the peasants of the Third World, or indeed… the students. Many students at this time saw themselves as “revolutionaries”, just as they saw people like Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh or Mao as revolutionaries. Finally, one of the components of the situation at that time was the significant gap between the new generation and the previous one, which was the object of all kinds of criticisms. In particular, because this generation had worked hard to get out of the conditions of poverty and even famine resulting from the Second World War, it was reproached with being concerned only with material well-being. Hence the success of fantasies about the “consumer society” and slogans like “never work ever”. The product of a generation which had suffered the full force of the counter-revolution, the youth of the 1960s criticised the older generation for being conformist and submitting to the norms of capitalism. For their part many parents did not understand and could not accept the fact that their children were so contemptuous of the sacrifices they had made to give them a better life.

11) The world today is very different from 1968 and the student youth of today has little in common with that of the 1960s:

  • it is not simply disquiet about the deterioration of their future status which is affecting the majority of students today. As proletarians, they have often already had to work to pay for their studies and they have few illusions in the shining social privileges awaiting them at the end of their studies. They know above all that their diplomas will give them the “right” to join the proletarian condition in one of its more dramatic forms: unemployment or job insecurity, sending out hundreds of CVs that will not be replied to, long queues at job agencies waiting for a slightly more stable job after a period of slaving away in low-paid apprenticeships and short-term contracts, to end up in jobs which have little to do with their training and aspirations.
  • In this sense the solidarity which the students feel towards the workers today derives from their awareness that they belong to the same world, the world of the exploited, in struggle against the same enemy, the exploiters. It is very distant from the essentially petty bourgeois attitude of the students in 1968 towards the working class, an attitude which was marked by a certain condescension towards the workers even if there was also a certain fascination for the mythical blue-collar worker, the hero of rather ill-digested readings from the marxist classics, or of authors who weren’t marxists at all but Stalinists or crypto-Stalinists. The fashion after 1968 for intellectuals to go and work in the factories in order to “be with the workers” is not about to make a comeback today.
  • This is why themes like “the consumer society”, even if they are still being peddled by a few backward-looking anarchoid types, have no echo among the students today. As for the slogan “never work ever” it no longer looks like anything radical but more like a terrible and agonising threat.     

12) This is why, paradoxically, “radical” and “revolutionary” themes are not very present in the discussions and concerns of the students today. Whereas in 1968 they often turned the universities into permanent forums debating the question of the revolution, the workers’ councils, etc, the majority of discussions being held today are around much more “down to earth” questions like the CPE and its implications, job insecurity, the methods of struggle (blockades, general assemblies, coordinations, demonstrations etc.). However, their polarisation around the demand for the withdrawal of the CPE, which apparently reveals a much less “radical” ambition than in 1968, does not mean that the current movement is less profound than the one 38 years ago. On the contrary. The “revolutionary” preoccupations of the students in 1968 (in fact, of a minority who formed the “vanguard” of the movement) were certainly sincere but they were strongly marked by Third-Worldism (Guevarism or Maoism) or by antifascism. At best, so to speak, they were influenced by anarchism (in the wake of Cohn-Bendit) or Situationism. Their vision of the revolution was petty bourgeois romanticism, or simply a radical appendage of Stalinism. But whatever were the currents who were putting out “revolutionary” ideas, whether bourgeois or petty bourgeois, none of them had any grasp of the real process through which the working class can move towards the revolution, and still less of the significance of the massive workers’ strikes which were the first expression of the end of the period of counter-revolution.[8] Today, “revolutionary” preoccupations are not yet present to any significant degree in the movement but its undoubted class nature and the terrain on which the mobilisation is taking place – the rejection of a future of submission to the demands and conditions of capitalist exploitation (unemployment, precarious jobs, arbitrary action of the bosses, etc) – are part of a dynamic which will certainly result in important numbers of the present combatants becoming aware of the necessity for the overthrow of capitalism. This development of consciousness will in no way be based on chimaeras like the ones which prevailed in 1968 and which allowed many of the leaders of the movement to be recycled into the official political apparatus of the bourgeoisie (the ministers Bernard Kouchner and Joshka Fischer, senator Henri Weber, the European parliament’s spokesman for the Greens Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the press baron Serge July etc.) or which led others into the tragic dead-end of terrorism (the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Fraction in Germany, Direct Action in France). Far from it. This development of consciousness will be based on an understanding of the fundamental conditions which make the proletarian revolution necessary and possible: the insurmountable economic crisis of world capitalism, the historic impasse of the system, the necessity to see the proletariat’s defensive struggles as so many preparations for the final overthrow of capitalism. In 1968, the rapid hatching of “revolutionary” preoccupations was to a large extent a sign of their superficiality and their lack of theoretical-political consistency, corresponding to their basically petty bourgeois nature. The process through which the workers’ struggle becomes more radical, even if it can go through moments of surprising acceleration, is a much more long-term phenomenon, precisely because it is incomparably more profound. As Marx put it, to be radical is to go to the root”, and this is an approach which will necessarily take time and will be based on drawing lessons from a whole experience of struggles.   

13) In fact, the depth of the present movement can’t be measured by the “radical” nature of the discussions it has given rise to. The depth of the movement is derived from the fundamental question posed by the demand for the withdrawal of the CPE: the future of insecurity and unemployment which capitalism in crisis offers to the younger generations and which signifies the historic bankruptcy of the system. But to an even greater extent the depth of the movement is demonstrated by the methods of struggle and forms of organisation which were noted in points 2 and 3: general assemblies that are animated, open, disciplined, showing a real concern for reflection and for a collective control of the movement through the nomination of commissions, strike committees, and delegations responsible to the general assemblies, the will to extend the struggle to all sectors of the working class. In The Civil War in France Marx noted that the truly proletarian character of the Paris Commune lay not so much in the economic measures it adopted (the suppression of night work for children and a moratorium on rent) but in the means and mode of organisation it took up. Marx’s analysis can be applied very well to the present situation. The most important aspect of struggles that the working class wages is not so much in the contingent aims it may set itself at a given moment, and which will be left behind in more advanced stages of the movement, but in its capacity to really take charge of the struggle and in the methods it adopts to achieve this. It is these means and methods of struggle which are the best guarantee of the capacity of the class to move forward in future. This is one of the main points made by Rosa Luxemburg in The Mass Strike which drew the lessons of the 1905 revolution in Russia. Leaving aside the fact that the current movement is of course not at all at the same political level as that of 1905, we can say that the means it has adopted are, in an embryonic form, those of the mass strike, such as found expression in August 1980 in Poland.

14) The depth of the students’ movement is also expressed by its ability avoid falling into the trap of violence which the bourgeoisie set for it on several occasions, including the use and manipulation of the “wreckers”: at the occupation of the Sorbonne, at the end of the 16th March demo, the police charge at the end of the 18th March demo, the violence by the “wreckers” against the demonstrators on 23rd March. Even if a small minority of students, especially those influenced by anarchistic ideologies, allowed themselves to be pulled into the confrontations with the police, the great majority of them were well aware of the need not to allow the movement to get dragged into repetitive confrontations with the forces of repression. In this sense, the movement of the students today has shown greater maturity than that of 1968. In the period from 3rd May to 10th May 1968, violence – the confrontation with the CRS and the barricades – was one of the components of the movement which, following the repression of the night of 10-11th May and the evasiveness of the government, opened the gates to the immense strike of the working class. Thereafter, however, barricades and violence became an element which allowed the government and the trade unions to regain control of the situation, notably by undermining the considerable sympathy the students had initially obtained from the population at large and from the working class in particular. For the left parties and the unions, it became easy enough to draw an equals sign between those who talked about revolution and those who were burning cars and continually going off to battle the CRS. All the more so because in many cases it was often the same people. For the students who saw themselves as “revolutionaries”, the movement of May 68 was already the Revolution, and the barricades they built day after day were presented as the descendants of those of 1848 and the Commune. Today, even when they pose the question of the general perspective of the movement, and thus of the necessity for revolution, the students are quite aware that the strength of the movement does not lie in confrontations with the police. In fact, even if it is still very far from posing the question of the revolution, and thus of reflecting on the problem of proletarian class violence in the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, the movement was implicitly faced with this problem, and was able to respond to it in the spirit of the proletariat’s nature and struggle. The proletarian movement has been confronted from the beginning with the extreme violence of the exploiting class, with repression when it tries to defend its interests, with imperialist war but also with the daily violence of exploitation. Unlike exploiting classes, the class that is the bearer of communism is not the bearer of violence; and even though it has to make use of it, it does not do so by identifying with it. In particular, the violence it has to use in the overthrow of capitalism, which it will have to use with great determination, is necessarily a conscious and organised violence and must always be preceded by a whole process of growth in consciousness and organisation through the various struggles against exploitation. The present mobilisation of the students, notably its capacity to organise itself and to discuss and reflect upon the problems it faces, including the problem of violence, thus marks a much clearer step towards the revolution, towards the overturning of bourgeois order, than the barricades of May 68.

15) It is precisely this question of violence which provides one of the essential points of difference between the students’ movement of spring 2006 and the riots in the suburbs of autumn 2005. There is obviously a common cause at the origin of these two movements: the insurmountable crisis of the capitalist mode of production, the future of unemployment and precariousness which it offers to the children of the working class. However, the riots in the suburbs, which basically expressed total despair in the face of this situation, cannot be considered in any sense as a form of class struggle. In particular, the essential components of proletarian movements – solidarity, organisation, the collective and conscious attempt to take charge of the struggle – were completely absent from these riots. No solidarity was shown by these desperate young people towards the owners of the cars they were burning, who were and  are victims of unemployment and job insecurity. Very little consciousness was shown by the rioters, whose violence and destruction was carried out in a blind way and often in the form of a game. As for organisation and collective action, it took the form of street gangs directed by a chief who often owes his authority to being the most violent member of the gang, and who often competed among themselves to see who could burn the most cars. In reality, the approach of the young rioters of October/November 2005 not only made them easy prey for all sorts of police manipulation, but also give us an indication of how the effects of the decomposition of capitalist society can be an obstacle to the development of proletarian struggle and organisation.

Persuading the youngsters from the “problem estates”

16) During the present movement, bands of young street gang members have taken advantage of the demonstrations to come to the centre of towns and engage in their favourite sport: fighting the cops and smashing shop windows, and this to the great satisfaction of the foreign media who had already distinguished themselves at the end of 2005 by putting their shock-horror pictures of the riots on the front pages of the newspapers and on the TV. It is clear that the images of violence, which for a whole period were the only ones presented to workers outside of France, were an excellent way of reinforcing the black-out of what was really going on in France and so depriving the world working class of material that could serve the development of its consciousness. But the violence of the gangs was not only used against the proletariat of other countries. In France itself, they were used to present the struggle led by the students as a kind of remake of the violence of last autumn. This didn’t come off: no one fell for this story and this is why the Interior Minister Sarkozy rapidly changed his tune and declared that there was a clear difference between the students and the “thugs”. The violence was then stirred up to the utmost in order to dissuade as many workers, students and high school pupils as possible from participating in the demonstrations, especially on 18th March. The exceptional level of participation in these demos showed that this manoeuvre didn’t work. Finally, on 23rd March, with the blessing of the police, the “wreckers” attacked the demonstrators themselves, to rob them or beat them for no reason. Many students were demoralised by these attacks: “When it’s the CRS beating us, that makes us want to fight back, but when its kids from the suburbs, for whom we are also fighting, that’s a real blow to our morale”. However, once again, the students showed their maturity and their consciousness. Rather than trying to organise violent actions against the young “wreckers” as did the union stewards who on the March 23rd demo started beating them and pushing them towards the police lines, they decided in several places to nominate delegations who were given the job of discussing with the young people in the underprivileged neighbourhoods, in order to explain to them that the struggle of the students and the high school pupils was also a struggle for all young people sunk in the despair of massive unemployment and social exclusion. In an intuitive manner, without knowing the history of the workers’ movement, the majority of the students put into practice one of the essential lessons of this experience: no violence within the working class. Faced with sectors of the proletariat who may be drawn into actions which are contrary to the general interests of the class, persuasion and appealing to consciousness are an essential means of action towards them, providing these sectors are not simple appendages of the bourgeois state (such as the commando units of strike-breakers).

17) One of the reasons for the great maturity of the current movement, especially on the question of violence, is the very strong participation of young women and girls in the movement. It is well known that at this age, young women are generally more mature than their male comrades. Moreover, on the question of violence it is clear that women in general are less likely to be dragged onto this terrain than men. In 1968, female students also participated in the movement but when the barricades became its main symbol, the role they were given was often that of supporting the masked “heroes” standing at the height of the barricades, of being nurses to the wounded and bringing sandwiches so that the young men could revive themselves in between clashes with the CRS. This is not at all the case today. On the picket lines at the university gates, there have been many female students and their attitude has exemplified  the meaning that the movement has inspired in  the pickets: not a means of intimidation towards those who wanted to get to their classes, but a means of explaining, of arguing and persuading. In the general assemblies and the various commissions, even if, in general, the female students are less “loud-mouthed” and less involved in political organisations, they have been a key element in the organisation, discipline and effectiveness of the assemblies and commissions, as well as in their capacity for collective reflection. The history of the proletarian struggle has shown that the depth of a movement can be measured to some degree by the proportion of women workers involved in it. In “normal” times, working class women, because they are subjected to an even more stifling oppression than the men, are as a general rule less involved in social movements. It is only when these movements attain a great depth that the most oppressed layers of the proletariat throw themselves into the struggle and into the general reflection going on in the class. The high degree of participation by young women and girls in the current movement, the key role they are playing within it, is an added indication not only of the authentically proletarian nature of the movement but also of its depth.

18) As we have seen, the present movement of the students in France is a significant expression of the new vitality of the world proletariat over the past three years, of its growing class consciousness. The bourgeoisie will obviously do all it can to limit this movement’s future impact. If it is able, it will refuse to give in to the movement’s demands in order to maintain the feeling of impotence that has affected the working class in France since the defeat of 2003. At all events, it will do everything it can to prevent the working class drawing out its rich lessons, above all by trying to sap the movement and demoralise its participants, or by recuperating it through the unions and left parties. However, no matter how the bourgeoisie manoeuvres, it cannot suppress all the experience accumulated through weeks of struggle by tens of thousands of future workers, their awakening to politics and their developing consciousness. This will be a real treasure-trove for the future struggles of the proletariat, a vital element in their ability to continue down the path towards the communist revolution. It is up to revolutionaries to participate in it fully, both in order to draw the maximum benefit out of the present experience and to use it for the struggles of the future.

ICC, 3rd April 2006

[1] In order to enable the struggle to be as powerful and unified as possible, the students felt the need to set up a “national coordination” of delegates from different assemblies. In itself, this approach was absolutely correct. However, to the extent that a large number of the delegates are members of the bourgeois political organisations (such as the Trotskyist Lige Communiste Revolutionnaire) present in the student milieu, the weekly meetings of the coordination were often a theatre for the politicians’ manoeuvres of these organisations, who tried, so far without success, to form a ‘Bureau of the Coordination’ which would act as an instrument of their politics. As we have often noted in our press (especially during the strikes in Italy in 1987 and the hospital strike in France in 1988), centralisation, which is a necessity for any widespread struggle, can only really contribute to the development of the movement if it is based on a high degree of vigilance at the base, in the general assemblies. We should also note that an organisation like the LCR tried to provide the student movement with ‘mouthpieces’ in front of the media. The fact that there have not been any media-stars in the movement is not a sign of weakness but an expression of its real depth.

[2] We have even had a specialist in political psychology state on TV that he was a “stubborn narcissist”.

[3] The truth is that the vicinity of Neuilly-sur-Seine where Sarkozy was mayor, is a typically bourgeois town. So we can be sure that it was not with these electors that Sarkozy learned to “speak to the people”.

[4] This was a symbolic date since it marked the 10th anniversary of the coup d'Etat of May 13th 1958 that ended with De Gaulle coming back into power. One of the  demonstrators’ main slogans was “10 years is enough”.

[5] In January 1968, our publication in Venezuela, Internacionalismo (the only publication of the ICC existing at that time) announced the opening up of a new period of class confrontations at the international level:  We are not prophets, and we cannot pretend to know when and in what way future events will unfold. But with regard to the mess into which capitalism is sinking, we are convinced that this cannot be halted by reforms, devaluations, or by any other capitalist economic measures and it can only lead into the crisis. And we are also sure that the reverse process of the development of class combativeness, that we have seen develop at the general level, is going to lead the working class into a bloody and direct struggle to destroy the capitalist state.

[6] On this day, following a whole series of mobilisations in the workers' towns against the violent economic attacks and repression of the military junta, the workers in Cordoba completely overwhelmed the police and army (with its tanks) and took control of the town (second only to Buenos Aires). The government was only able to “restore order” the following day when the army arrived in force.

[7] We have moved a long way from the attitude of many students in 1968 who saw the older generation as “old fools” (who in turn often saw the students as “young idiots”)

[8] It is worth pointing out that this blindness about the real meaning of 1968 not only affects currents coming from Stalinism and Trotskyism, for whom there had not been a “counter-revolution” but a continuation of the “revolution” with the appearance after World War II of the “socialist” or “deformed workers” states and with the “struggles for national liberation” which began in the same period and which continued for several decades afterwards. In fact, the majority of the elements coming from the communist left, especially from the Italian Left, did not understand much of what happened in 1968 since both the Bordigists and Battaglia Comunista thought that we still had not emerged from the counter-revolution.


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