Faced with all the lies about the events of May ‘68, it is necessary for revolutionaries to re-establish the truth, to draw the real lessons of these events and prevent them being buried under an avalanche of flowers and wreaths.
That's what we have begun to do in publishing the previous article that retraced the first component of the "events of ‘68", the student revolt. We are turning here to the essential component of the events: the movement of the working class.
This first article concluded: "May 14, discussions continued in many firms. After the immense demonstrations of the previous evening (in solidarity with the student victims of repression), with the enthusiasm and feeling of strength that came out of them, it was difficult to go back to work as if nothing had happened. In Nantes, the workers of Sud-Aviation, led by the youngest among them, unleashed a spontaneous strike and decided to occupy the factory".
This is the point at which we take up the story.
The general strike in France
The extension of the strike
In Nantes, it was the young workers, the same age as the students, who launched the movement; their reasoning was simple: "if the students, who can't pressurise with strikes, have the strength to knock back the government, the workers can also make it retreat". For their part, the students of the town came to show solidarity with the workers, mingling with the pickets: fraternisation. Here, it was clear that the campaigns of the PCF and the CGT warning against "leftist provocateurs in the pay of the bosses and the Interior Ministry" had only a feeble impact.
In total, there were 3,100 strikers on the evening of May 14.
May 15, the movement reached the Renault factory at Cléon, in Normandy as well as two other factories in the region: total strike, unlimited occupation, locking up the management and the red flag on the gates. At the end of the day, there are 11,000 strikers.
May 16, the other Renault factories join the movement: the red flag at Flins, Sandouville, le Mans and Billancourt. That evening there were only 75,000 strikers in total, but Renault joining the struggle is a signal: it's the biggest factory in France (35,000 workers) and for a long time the saying was: "When Renault sneezes, France catches a cold".
On 17 May 215,000 were on strike: the strike was beginning to spread across France, especially in the provinces. It was a totally spontaneous movement; the unions were just following it. Everywhere, the young workers were at the forefront. There were numerous cases of fraternisation between students and young workers: the latter went to the occupied faculties and invited the students to come and eat at their canteens.
There were no specific demands. It was just a general feeling of being fed up. On the walls of a factory in Normandy it said, "Time to live and with dignity!" On that day, afraid of being outflanked from below and also by the CFDT, which was much more involved in the early strikes, the CGT called for the extension of the strike. It had "jumped on the bandwagon" as was said at the time. Its communiqué wasn't known about till the next day.
On the 18 May, a million workers were on strike by midday, even before the CGT line was known about. By the evening it was 2 million. By Monday 20 May there were 4 million on strike and 6 and a half million the day after that.
On 22 May, there were 8 million workers on indefinite strike. It was the biggest strike in the history of the international workers' movement. It was much more massive than the two previous benchmarks: the May 1926 General Strike in Britain (which lasted a week) and the May-June strikes in France in 1936.
All sectors were involved: industry, transport, energy, post and telecommunications, education, administration (several ministries were completely paralysed), the media (national TV was on strike, with workers denouncing the censorship imposed on them), research labs, etc. Even the undertakers were out (it was a bad idea to die in May ‘68!). Even professional sports people joined the movement: the red flag flew over the building of the Fédération Française de Football. The artists didn't want to be left out and the Cannes Festival was interrupted on the initiative of the film directors.
During this period the occupied faculties (as well as other public buildings, like the Odéon Theatre in Paris) became places of permanent political discussion. Many workers, especially the younger ones but not only them, took part in these discussions. Some workers asked those who defended the idea of revolution to come and argue their point of view in the occupied factories. In Toulouse, the small nucleus which went on to form the ICC's section in France was invited to expound its ideas about workers' councils in the occupied JOB factory. And the most significant thing was that this invitation came from militants of the CGT and the PCF. The latter had to negotiate for an hour with the permanent officials of the CGT, who had come from the big Sud-Aviation factory to "reinforce" the JOB strike picket, to get authorisation to allow the "leftists" to enter the factory. For more than six hours, workers and revolutionaries, sitting on rolls of cardboard, discussed the revolution, the history of the workers movement, soviets, and even the betrayals...of the PCF and the CGT.
Many discussions also took place in the street, on the pavements (the weather was good all over France in May ‘68!). They arose spontaneously; everyone had something to say ("We talk and we listen" as one slogan had it). Everywhere there was an atmosphere of festival, except in the rich neighbourhoods where fear and hatred were building up
All over France, in the neighbourhoods and in or around certain big enterprises, "Action Committees" were formed. Within them there were discussions about how to wage the struggle, about the revolutionary perspective. They were generally animated by leftist or anarchist groups but many more were brought together outside of these organisations. At ORTF, the state radio and television station, an Action Committee was created by Michel Drucker, and the hard-to-describe Thierry Rolland was also part of it.
The reaction of the bourgeoisie
Faced with such a situation, the ruling class underwent a period of disarray, expressed in muddled and ineffective initiatives.
Thus, on May 22, the National Assembly, dominated by the right, discussed (before rejecting it) a motion of censure tabled by the left two weeks earlier: the official institutions of the French Republic seemed to live in another world. It's the same for the government that took the decision to forbid the return of Cohn-Bendit who had been to Germany. This decision only increased discontent: May 24 saw multiple demonstrations, notably denouncing the prohibition of Cohn-Bendit: "Frontiers mean fuck all!" "We are all German Jews!" Despite the cordon sanitaire of the CGT against the "adventurers" and "provocateurs" (that's to say the "radical" students) many young workers join up with the demonstrations.
In the evening, the President of the Republic, General de Gaulle, gave a speech: he proposed a referendum so that the French could pronounce on "participation" (a sort of capital and labour association). He couldn't have been further from reality. This speech fully revealed the disarray of the government and the bourgeoisie in general.
In the street, demonstrators listened to the speech on portable radios, anger still mounting: "His speech is shafting us!" Confrontations and barricades were mounted throughout the night in Paris and several provincial towns. There were numerous windows broken, some cars burnt, which had the effect of turning part of public opinion against the students who were seen as "hooligans". It's probable, moreover, that among the demonstrators were mixed in Gaullist militias or plain-clothes police in order to "stir things up" and frighten the population. It is clear that a number of students thought they were "making a revolution" by throwing up barricades and burning cars, symbols of the "consumer society". But above all these acts expressed the anger of the demonstrators, students and young workers, in the face of the risible and provocative responses of the authorities to the biggest strike in history. An illustration of the anger against the system was the setting alight of that symbol of capitalism, the Paris Bourse.
It was only the following day that the bourgeoisie finally took effective initiatives: on Saturday May 25 the Ministry of Labour (Rue de Grenelle) opened negotiations between unions, bosses and government.
Straightaway, the bosses were ready to give much more than the unions imagined: it's clear that the bourgeoisie was afraid. The Prime Minister, Pompidou presided: on Sunday morning he had an hour-long one to one session with Seguy, boss of the CGT: the two main people responsible for the maintenance of social order in France needed to discuss without witnesses the means to re-establish this order.
The night of May 26/27 the "Grenelle Accords" were concluded:
7% wage increases for all from June 1st; then 3% from October 1st;
increase of the minimum wage in the region of 25%;
reduction of patients' contributions from 30% to 25% (not paid for by social security);
union recognition within the firm;
a series of vague promises of negotiations, notably on the length of the working day (which was 47 hours a week on average).
Given the importance and strength of the movement, it was a real provocation:
the 10% would be wiped out by inflation (which was quite high during this period);
nothing on safeguards against inflation in the wage packet;
nothing concrete on reduction of the working week; they talked about aiming at "the progressive return to 40 hours" (already officially obtained in 1936!); in the time scale proposed by the government it will take... 40 years!
the only workers who would gain significantly were the poorest workers (dividing the working class by pushing them back to work) and the unions, rewarded for their role as saboteurs.
On Monday May 27 the "Grenelle Accords" were unanimously rejected by the workers' assemblies.
At Renault Billancourt, the unions organised a grand "show" amply covered by television and radio: coming out of negotiations, Seguy said to journalists: "The return to work won't be long" and he hoped that the workers at Billancourt would give the example. However, 10,000 of them, meeting at dawn, decided to continue the movement even before the arrival of the union leaders.
Benoit Frachon, "historic" leader of the CGT (who had been present at the negotiations of 1936) declared: "The Grenelle accords will bring millions of workers a comfort that they couldn't have hoped for": this was greeted by a deadly silence!
Andre Jeanson, of the CDFT, expressed satisfaction with the initial vote in favour of continuing the strike and talked of solidarity of the workers with the students in struggle, bringing the house down.
Seguy, finally, presented "an objective account" of what "had been gained at Grenelle": whistles then general booing for several minutes. Seguy then made an about turn: "If I judge from what I hear, you will not let it happen": applause but in the crowd you could hear remarks like "He's fucking us about".
The best proof of the rejection of the "Grenelle Accords": the number of strikers increased still more on May 27 to reach 9 million.
This same day at the Charléty Stadium in Paris, a big meeting took place called by the student union UNEF, the CDFT (which went one better than the CGT) and the leftist groups. The tone of the speeches was very revolutionary: it was a question of giving an outlet to growing discontent against the CGT and the French Communist Party. Aside from the leftists there was the presence of social democratic politicians like Mendes-France (old boss of the 50s government). Cohn-Bendit made an appearance (he'd already been at the Sorbonne the night before).
May 28 was the day the parties of the left began their games:
In the morning, François Mitterand, President of the Left Democratic and Socialist Federation (which brought together the Socialist Party, the Radical Party and divers small groups of the left) held a press conference: considering that there was a vacancy for power, he announced his candidature for the Presidency of the Republic. In the afternoon, Waldeck-Rochet, boss of the PCF, proposed a government with "Communist participation": it was important for them not to allow the social democrats to exploit the situation solely for their own benefit. This was relayed the next day, May 29, through a large demonstration called by the CGT demanding a "popular government". The right immediately cried "a communist plot".
This same day, we had the "disappearance" of General de Gaulle. There were rumours that he had withdrawn but, in fact, he went to Germany to make sure of the support of the army through General Massu who commanded the occupation troops in Germany.
May 30 constituted a decisive day in the bourgeoisie taking the situation in hand. De Gaulle made a new speech: "In the present circumstances, I will not withdraw (...) I am today dissolving the National Assembly..."
At the same time in Paris, an enormous demonstration in support of De Gaulle took place on the Champs-Élysées. It mobilised those from the posh and wealthy districts and rural areas, thanks to army trucks. The "people" came, the wealthy, the well-heeled, and the bourgeois; representatives of religious institutions, high level bureaucrats imbued with their "superiority", small businessmen trembling for their shop windows, old combatants embittered by attacks on the French flag, veterans of French Algeria and the OAS, young members of the fascist group Occident, the old nostalgic for Vichy (who, however, detested de Gaulle); this whole, beautiful world came to proclaim its hatred for the working class and its "love of order". In the crowd, alongside the old combatants of "Free France", you could hear chants like "Cohn-Bendit to Dachau!"
But the "party of order" couldn't be reduced to those who demonstrated on the Champs- Élysées. The same day, the CGT called for negotiations branch by branch in order to "ameliorate the acquisitions of Grenelle": it was the tactic of dividing the movement so as to finish it off.
The return to work
Elsewhere, from this date (it was a Thursday), the return to work began to take place, but slowly because on June 6 there were still six million on strike. The return to work was made in a dispersed fashion:
May 31: steel in Lorraine, textiles in the north,
June 4: weapons manufacturers, insurance,
June 5: EDF, coal mines,
June 6: post, telecommunications, transport (in Paris, the CGT pushed the return to work: in each depot the union leaders announced that other depots had returned to work, which was not true);
June 7: primary teachers;
June 10: the police forces occupy the Renault factory at Flins: a student charged by the police falls into the Seine and drowns;
June 11: intervention of the CRS at the Peugeot factory at Sochaux (second largest in France); 2 workers are killed.
We then see new demonstrations of violence throughout France: "They have killed our comrades!" At Sochaux, facing the determined resistance of the workers, the CRS evacuated the factory: work only resumed 10 days later.
Fearing that the indignation would only re-launch the strike (3 million still remained on strike), the unions (with the CGT at their head) and the parties of the left led by the PCF, insistently called for a return to work "so that the elections can take place and complete the victory of the working class". The Communist Party daily, l'Humanité, headlined: "Strong with their victory, millions of workers go back to work".
The systematic appeal for a strike by the unions from May 20 now has its explanation: they had to control the movement in order to provoke the return of the less combative sectors and demoralise the others.
Waldeck-Rochet, in his speeches on the electoral campaign declared that: "The Communist Party is the party of order". And, little by little, bourgeois order returned:
June 12: secondary teachers return;
June 14: Air France and merchant marine;
June 16: the Sorbonne is occupied by the police;
June 17: chaotic return at Renault Billancourt;
June 18: de Gaulle frees the leaders of the OAS who were still in prison;
June 23: first round of the legislative elections with gains for the right;
June 24: return to work at the Citroën Javel factory (Krasucki, number two of the CGT, spoke at an assembly calling for an end to the strike);
June 26: Usinor Dunkirk goes back;
June 30: second round of the elections with a historic victory for the right.
One of the last firms to go back to work was the ORTF on July 12: numerous journalists didn't want to return to the restrictions and censorship that they submitted to before from the government. After the return, many of them would be sacked. Order returned throughout, including with the news items that the state judged useful to broadcast to the population.
Thus, the greatest strike in history ended in defeat, contrary to the affirmations of the CGT and of the PCF. A crushing defeat sanctioned by the return in force of the parties and of the "authorities" that had vilified the movement. But the workers' movement has known for a long time that: "The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers" (Communist Manifesto). Also, beyond their immediate defeat, the workers in France, in 1968, gained a great victory, not for themselves but for the whole of the world proletariat. That is what we are going to look at in the next part of this article where we are going to try to show the fundamental causes, as well as the world and historic stakes, of France's "merry month of May".
The international significance of the May ‘68 strike
In the majority of the numerous books and television programmes on May 1968 that have occupied the media recently, the international character of the student movement that affected France during the course of this month has been underlined. Everyone knows, as we've also underlined in our previous article, that the students in France were not the first to mobilise massively; that they had, in a manner of speaking, "jumped on the bandwagon" of a movement that began in the American universities in Autumn 1964. From the United States, this movement affected the majority of the western countries, and in Germany 1967 it went through its most spectacular developments, making the students of this country the reference point for other European countries. However, the same journalists or historians who are happy to underline the international breadth of student protest in the 60s in general don't say a word about the workers' struggles that unfolded all over the world during this period. Evidently, they couldn't simply ignore the immense strike that was so obviously the most important aspect of the "events" of ‘68 in France: it would be difficult for them to blot out the greatest strike in the history of the workers' movement. But, if they talk about it, this movement of the proletariat is seen as a sort of "French exception".
In reality, and perhaps even more than the student movement, the movement of the working class in France was an integral part of an international movement and one can only really understand it in this international context
France was no exception
It's true that in May ‘68 in France there existed a situation that wasn't found in any other country, except in a very marginal fashion: a massive movement of the working class developing from a student mobilisation. It is clear that the student mobilisation, the repression that it suffered - and which fed it - and the final retreat of the government after the "night of the barricades" of May 10/11, played a role, not only in unleashing the movement, but also in the breadth of the workers' strike. That said, if the proletariat of France entered such a movement, it was surely not "to do the same as the students", but because of the profound and generalised discontent that existed within the class, and also because it had the political strength to engage in the fight.
This fact is not in general hidden in the books and TV programmes dealing with May ‘68: it's often recalled that, from 1967, workers undertook important struggles, the characteristics of which broke with those of the preceding period. In particular, whereas the very limited strikes and union days of action did not arouse any great enthusiasm, we saw some very hard, very determined struggles facing a violent repression from the bosses and the state, and with the unions being outflanked on several occasions. Thus, from the beginning of 1967, important confrontations occurred at Bordeaux (the Dassault aviation factory), at Besançon and in the Lyonnaise region (occupation and strike at Rhoda, strike at Berliet leading to a lock-out and to the occupation of the factory by the CRS), in the mines of Lorraine, in the naval dockyards of Saint-Nazaire (which was paralysed by a general strike on April 11).
It was in Caen, Normandy, that the working class engaged in one of the most important combats before May ‘68. On January 20 1968, the unions at Saviem (trucking) launched the order for an hour-and-a-half strike; but the workers, judging this action insufficient, spontaneously struck on the 23rd. Two days later, at four in the morning, the CRS dispersed the strike picket, allowing the management and "scabs" to enter the factory. The strikers decided to go to the town centre where workers from other factories also on strike joined them. At eight in the morning, 5000 people peacefully converged on the central square: the Gardes mobiles charged them brutally, even firing on them. On January 26, workers from all sectors of the town (including teachers) as well as numerous students, demonstrated their solidarity: a meeting in the central square brought together 7,000 people by 6 o'clock. At the end of the meeting the Gardes mobiles charged in order to evacuate the square but were surprised by the resistance of the workers. The confrontations lasted through the night; there were 200 wounded and dozens of arrests. Six young demonstrators, all workers, got prison sentences of 15 days to 3 months. But far from the working class retreating, this repression only provoked the extension of the struggle: January 30 saw 15,000 on strike in Caen. On February 2nd, the authorities and the bosses were obliged to retreat, calling off the repression and increasing wages by 3 to 4%. The following day, work restarted but, under the impulsion of the younger workers, walkouts continued at Saviem for a month.
Saint-Nazaire in April ‘67 and Caen in January ‘68 were not the only towns to be hit by general strikes of the whole working population. It was also the case with towns of lesser importance such as Redon in March and Honfleur in April. These massive strikes of all the exploited of one town prefigured what would happen in mid-May in the whole country.
You couldn't say that the storm of May 1968 had broken out from a clear, blue sky. The student movement had set the land on fire, but it was ready to burst into flames.
Obviously the "specialists", notably the sociologists, tried to show the causes of this French "exception". They talked in particular about the raised tempo of industrial development of France during the 1960s, transforming this old agricultural country into a modern industrial power. This fact explained the presence and the role of an important number of young workers in the factories who were often ill-adjusted. These young workers, frequently coming from a rural milieu, weren't unionised and found the barracks discipline of the factory difficult. They also generally received derisory wages even when they had professional certificates. This situation helps us to understand why it was the youngest sectors of the working class who were the first to engage in combat, and equally why the majority of the important movements that preceded May ‘68 took place in the west of France, a rural region relatively lately industrialised. However, these explanations by the sociologists fail to explain why it wasn't only the young workers that entered into struggle in May ‘68 but the very great majority of the working class of all ages.
The international significance of the May ‘68 strike in France
In fact, behind a movement of such breadth and depth as May ‘68, there were much more profound causes that went beyond, very far beyond, the framework of France. If the whole of the working class of this country launched itself into a general strike, it's because all its sectors had begun to be hit by the economic crisis which, in 1968, was only at its inception, a crisis that wasn't "French" but of the whole capitalist world. It's the effects in France of this world economic crisis (growth of unemployment, freezing of wages, intensification of production targets and attacks on social security) that to a large extent explains the workers' combativity in this country from 1967:
"In all the industrial countries of Europe and the USA, unemployment is developing and the economic prospects are becoming gloomy. Britain, despite a multiplication of measures to safeguard equilibrium, was finally forced to devalue of the pound in 1967, dragging along behind it devaluations in a whole series of countries. The Wilson government proclaimed a programme of exceptional austerity: massive reductions of public spending... wage freeze, reduction of consumption and imports, efforts to increase exports. On January 1st 1968, it was the turn of Johnson [US president] to raise the alarm and announce indispensably severe measures in order to safeguard economic equilibrium. In March, a financial crisis of the dollar broke out. The economic press became more pessimistic each day, more and more evoking the spectre of the 1929 crisis (...) May 1968 appears in all its significance for having been one of the most important reactions of the mass of workers against a deteriorating situation in the world economy".
In fact, particular circumstances saw the proletariat in France leading the first widespread battle against the growing attacks launched by capitalism in crisis. But, quite quickly, other national sectors of the working class entered the struggle in their turn. From the same causes come the same effects.
At the other end of the world, in Argentina, in May 1969, there took place what is remembered as the "Cordobazo". On May 29, following a whole series of mobilisations in the workers' districts against the violent attacks and repression by the military junta, the workers of Cordoba had completely overrun the forces of the police and the army (even though they were equipped with tanks) and were masters of the town (the second largest in the country). The state was only able to "re-establish order" the following day thanks to massive troop deployments.
In Italy, at the same time, there was a movement of workers' struggles, the most important since the Second World War. Strikes began to multiply at Fiat in Turin, first of all in the principle factory of the town, Fiat-Mirafiori, spreading to other factories of the group in Turin and the surrounding areas. On July 3 1969, at the time of a union day of action against an increase in rents, workers' processions, joined by those of students, converged toward the Mirafiori factory. Violent scuffles broke out with the police. They lasted practically the whole night and spread to other areas of the town.
From the end of August, when the workers returned from holidays, strikes took off again at Fiat, but also at Pirelli (tyres) in Milan and in many other firms.
However, the Italian bourgeoisie, learning from the experience of May ‘68, wasn't taken aback as the French bourgeoisie was a year earlier. It was absolutely necessary for it to prevent the profound social discontent from turning into a generalised conflagration. It's for that reason that its union apparatus took advantage of the expiry of collective contracts, notably in steel, chemicals and building, in order to develop its manoeuvres aimed at dispersing the struggles and fixing the workers on the objective of a "good contract" in their respective sectors. The unions used the tactic of so-called "linked" strikes: one day metal workers on strike, another for chemical workers, yet another for those in building. Some "general strikes" were called but by province or even by town, against the cost of living and the raising of rents. At the level of the workplace, the unions advocated rolling strikes, one factory after another, with the pretext of causing as much damage as possible to the bosses with the least cost to the workers. At the same time, the unions did what was necessary to take control of a base that tended to escape them: whereas, in many firms, the workers, discontented with traditional union structures, elected workshop delegates, these latter were institutionalised under the form of "factory councils" presented as "rank and file organs" of a unitary trade union that the three confederations, CGIL, CISL and UIL said they wanted to construct together. After several months in which the workers' combativity exhausted itself in a succession of "days of action" by sectors and "general strikes" by province or town, collective contracts of sectors were signed successively between the beginning of November and the end of December. And it was a little before the signature of the last contract, the most important since it concerned the private steel sector, the avant-garde of the movement, that a bomb exploded on November 12 in a bank in Milan, killing 16 people. The attack was attributed to anarchists (one of them, Guiseppe Pinelli, died in the custody of the Milanese police) but it was learned much later that it could be traced to certain sectors of the state apparatus. The secret structures of the bourgeois state had lent a strong hand to the unions in order to sow confusion in the ranks of the working class at the same time as strengthening the means of state repression.
The proletariat of Italy wasn't alone in mobilising during autumn 69. On a lesser, but still significant scale, German workers came into struggle when in September wildcat strikes broke out against the signing of agreements by the unions for "wage moderation". The workers were supposed to be "realistic" faced with the degradation of the German economy, which, despite the post-war "miracle", wasn't spared the difficulties of world capitalism that had started to develop after 1967 (the year that the German economy saw its first recession since the war).
This awakening of the proletariat in Germany, even if it was quite tentative, had a particular significance. On one hand, this was the most important and most concentrated sector of the working class in Europe. But above all, this proletariat had in the past, and will have in the future, a position of prime importance within the world working class. It was in Germany that the fate of the international revolutionary wave was played out, which, from October 1917 in Russia had threatened capitalist domination throughout the world. The defeat suffered by the German workers during their revolutionary attempts between 1918 and 1923 opened the door to the most terrible counter-revolution of its history. And it was where the revolution went furthest, Russia and Germany, that this counter-revolution took the deepest and most barbarous forms: Stalinism and Nazism.
The immense strike of May ‘68 in France, then the Hot Autumn in Italy gave proof that the world proletariat was coming out of this period of counter-revolution. It was confirmed by the German workers' struggle of September 1969, and on a still more significant scale, by the struggle of the Polish workers on the Baltic during winter 1970-71, which obliged the authorities, after a brutal initial repression (300 deaths), to step back and abandon the price increases of basic goods that had provoked the workers' anger. The Stalinist regimes constituted the purest incarnation of the counter-revolution: it was in the name of "socialism" and of the "interests of the working class" that the latter suffered the worst terrors of all. The "hot" winter of the Polish workers proved that here, where the counter-revolution maintained its heaviest weight, i.e. in the "socialist" regimes, the class struggle was back on the agenda.
We can't enumerate all the workers' struggles that, after 1968, confirmed this fundamental change of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat at a world level. We will only give two examples, those of Spain and Britain.
In Spain, despite the ferocious repression exercised by the Francoist regime, workers' combativity expressed itself in a massive fashion during the year 1974. The town of Pamplona, in Navarre, saw a number of strike days per worker higher than that of the French workers of 1968. All industrial regions were hit (Madrid, Asturias, Basque Country) but it was in the immense workers' concentrations of Barcelona that strikes took their greatest extension, touching all the firms in the region, with exemplary manifestations of workers' solidarity (often, a strike unfolded in one factory solely in solidarity with the workers of other factories).
The example of the proletariat in Britain is equally very significant since this was the oldest proletariat in the world. Throughout the 1970s, it led massive conflicts against exploitation (with 29 million strike days in 1979, workers in Britain are in second place statistically behind workers in France in 1968). This combativity even obliged the British bourgeoisie to twice change Prime Minister: in April 1976 (Callaghan replaced Wilson) and, at the beginning of 1979 (Callaghan was toppled by Parliament).
Thus, the fundamental historical significance of May 1968 is neither found in "French specificities", nor in the student revolt, nor in a "moral revolution" that we are told about today. It is in the emergence of the world proletariat from the counter-revolution and its entry into a new historic period of confrontations against capitalist order. In this period, proletarian political currents, that previously had been eliminated or reduced to silence by the counter-revolution, began to develop - including the ICC.
The international resurgence of revolutionary forces
The ravages of the counter-revolution in the communist movement
At the beginning of the 20th century, during and after the First World War, the proletariat engaged in titanic battles. In 1917, it overthrew bourgeois power in Russia. Between 1918 and 1923, in the principal European country, Germany, it undertook numerous struggles in order to achieve the same aim. This revolutionary wave reverberated throughout the world wherever a developed working class existed, from Italy to Canada, from Hungary to China.
But the world bourgeoisie succeeded in containing this gigantic movement of the working class and it didn't stop there. It unleashed the most terrible counter-revolution in the whole history of the workers' movement. This counter-revolution took the form of an unimaginable barbarity, of which Stalinism and Nazism were the two most significant representatives, precisely in the countries where the revolution went furthest, Russia and Germany.
In this context, the Communist Parties that had been at the vanguard of the revolutionary wave were converted into parties of the counter-revolution.
When the socialist parties, faced with imperialist war in 1914, betrayed the working class, this gave rise to currents within these parties that were determined to pursue the defence of proletarian principles: these currents had been instrumental in the foundation of the communist parties. In turn, when the latter also betrayed, we saw the appearance of left fractions committed to the defence of real, communist positions. However, while those who had struggled within the socialist parties against their opportunist slide and betrayal had gained strength and a growing influence in the working class, to the point where they were able to found a new International after the Russian revolution, it was nothing like this for the left currents that came out of the communist parties, because of the growing weight of the counter-revolution. Thus, although at the beginning they regrouped a majority of the militants in the German and Italian parties, these currents progressively lost their influence in the class and the greater part of their militant forces, or were scattered into multiple small groups, as was the case in Germany even before the Hitler regime had exterminated them or sent the last militants into exile.
In fact, during the 1930s, aside from the current animated by Trotsky more and more eaten up by opportunism, the groups who continued to defend revolutionary positions, such as the Group des Communistes Internationalistes (GIC) in Holland (that advocated "Council Communism" and rejected the necessity for a proletarian party) and the Left Fraction of the Italian Communist Party (which published the review Bilan) only counted some dozens of militants and no longer had any influence over the course of the workers' struggle.
Contrary to the first, the Second World War didn't result in an overthrow of the balance of forces between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary. Learning from the historic experience and with the precious support of the Stalinist parties, the bourgeoisie was careful to kill at birth any new uprising of the proletariat. In the democratic euphoria of the "Liberation", the groups of the communist left were still more isolated than they were in the 1930s. In Holland, the Communistenbond Spartacus picked up from the GIC in the defence of councilist positions, positions that were equally defended from 1965 by Daad en Gedachte, a split from the Bond. These two groups did much publishing work although they were handicapped by the councilist position that rejected the role of an organisation of the avant-garde of the proletariat. However, the greatest handicap was from the ideological weight of the counter-revolution. This was also the case in Italy where the constitution in 1945, around Damen and Bordiga (two old militants of the Italian Left in the 1920s) of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (which published Battaglia Comunista and Prometeo), didn't fulfil the promise its militants expected. Although this organisation counted 3000 militants at its foundation, it progressively weakened, a victim of demoralisation and splits, notably the one in 1952 which led to the formation of the Parti Communiste International (which published Programma Comunista). The causes of these splits also lay in the confusion that reigned over the regroupment of 1945, which was made on the basis of the abandonment of a whole series of acquisitions elaborated by Bilan in the 1930s.
In France, the Gauche Communiste de France (GCF), which had been formed in 1945 in continuity with the positions of Bilan (but also integrating a certain number of programmatic positions of the German and Dutch Left) and which published 42 numbers of the review Internationalisme, disappeared in 1952. In the same country, outside of some elements attached to the Parti Communiste International, who published le Proletaire, another group defended class positions up until the 1960s with the review Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB). But this group, coming out of a split from Trotskyism after the Second World War, progressively and explicitly abandoned marxism, which led to its disappearance in 1966.
We can also cite the existence of other groups in other countries. But what marked the situation of currents that continued to defend communist positions during the course of the 1950s and beginning of the 60s, was their extreme numerical weakness, the confidential character of their publications, their international isolation, as well as various political regressions. These led either to their disappearance pure and simple or into a sectarian withdrawal, as was notably the case with the Parti Communiste International that considered itself to be the only communist organisation in the world.
The renewal of revolutionary positions
The general strike of 1968 in France, then the different massive movements of the working class, which we've mentioned previously, put the idea of communist revolution, back on the agenda in numerous countries. The lie of Stalinism, which presented itself as "communist" and "revolutionary", had begun to fall apart. This evidently profited the currents who denounced the USSR as deviating from the ideals of the ‘Socialist Fatherland', such as the Maoists and Trotskyists. The Trotskyist movement, particularly because of its history of struggle against Stalinism, went through a second youth from 1968 and came out of the shadows cast up to then by the Stalinist parties. Its ranks were swollen in a spectacular fashion, notably in countries like France, Belgium and Britain. But since the Second World War this current had ceased to be part of the proletarian camp, above all because of its position on the defence of the alleged "workers' gains" in the USSR, i.e. the defence of the imperialist camp dominated by this country. In fact, the workers' strikes that developed from the end of the 60s showed the anti-working class role of the Stalinist parties and the unions. They also showed the electoral and democratic farce as instruments of bourgeois domination and this led to numerous elements around the world turning towards political currents which, in the past, had most clearly denounced the role of the unions and parliamentarism and which had better incarnated the struggle against Stalinism - the currents of the communist left.
Following May 68, the writings of Trotsky were distributed massively. Also those of Pannekoek, Gorter and Rosa Luxemburg who, shortly before her assassination in January 1919, was one of the first to warn her Bolshevik comrades of certain dangers that menaced the revolution in Russia.
New groups appeared that drew on the experience of the communist left. In fact, the elements who understood that Trotskyism had become a sort of left wing of Stalinism turned much more towards councilism than towards the Italian Left. There were several reasons for this. On one hand, the rejection of the Stalinist parties often accompanied the rejection of any idea of the communist party; and the fact that the Bordigist current (the sole descendent of the Italian Left that had any real international extension) defended the idea of the taking of power by the communist party and defended the idea of "monolithism" in its own ranks, strengthening mistrust towards the historic current of the Italian Left. At the same time, the Bordigists completely overlooked the historic significance of May 68, seeing only the student dimension.
While new groups inspired by councilism began to appear, those who had existed beforehand experienced an unprecedented success, seeing their ranks strengthen in a spectacular fashion at the same time as being capable as acting as a pole of reference. This was particularly the case for the group Informations et Correspondances Ourvieres (ICO) coming out of a split from SouB in 1958. In 1969, this group organised an international meeting in Brussels attended by Cohn-Bendit, Mattick (an old militant of the German Left who had emigrated to the United States where he published diverse councilist reviews) and Carlo Brendel, animator of Daade en Gedachte. However, the success of "organised" councilism didn't last long. Thus, ICO pronounced its self-dissolution in 1974. The Dutch groups ceased to exist as their main animators grew too old or passed away.
In Britain, the group Solidarity, inspired by the positions of Socialisme ou Barbarie, after a success similar to that of the ICO, underwent a split and exploded in 1981 (although the group in London continued to publish a magazine up to 1992). In Scandinavia, the councilist groups which had emerged after 1968 were capable of organising a conference in Oslo in September 1977, but it didn't lead to much.
In the final account, the current which developed the most during the course of the 1970s was the one which attached itself to the positions of Bordiga (who died in July 1970). It benefited largely through an influx of elements coming out of the crises that had hit certain leftist groups (notably the Maoists) in this period. In 1980, the International Communist Party, was the most important and influential group of the communist left at the international level. But this opening out of the Bordigist current to elements strongly marked by leftism led to its explosion in 1982, reducing it to a myriad of small sects.
The beginning of the International Communist Current
In fact, the most significant long term expression of this renewal of positions of the communist left has been our own organisation. It was first constituted 40 years ago, in July 1968 in Toulouse, with the adoption of a first declaration of our principles by a small group of elements who had formed a discussion circle the year beforehand with a comrade, RV, who had entered political life in the group Internacionalismo in Venezuela. This group had been founded in 1964 by Marc Chirik who had been the main animator of the Gauche Communiste de France (1945-52), after having been a member of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left from 1938 and having entered into militant life from 1919 (at the age of 12), first of all in the Palestinian Communist Party and then the French Communist Party.
During the general strike of May 1968, elements of the discussion circle published several leaflets signed Movement for the Founding of Workers Councils ((MICO) and undertook discussions with other elements which then finally formed the group that published Revolution Internationale from the end of September 1968. This group made contact and discussed with two other groups belonging to the councilist movement. One was l'Organisation conseilliste de Clermont-Ferrand and the other published Cahiers du communism de conseils and was based in Marseilles.
Finally, in 1972, the three joined together in order to constitute what was going to become the section in France of the ICC and which began the publication of Revolution Internationale (new series).
This group, in continuity with the policy undertaken by Internacionalismo and Bilan, engaged in discussions with different groups who had appeared after 1968, notably in the United States (Internationalism). In 1972, Internationalism sent a letter to about twenty groups claiming links with the communist left, calling for the constitution of a network of correspondence and international debate. Revolution Internationale responded warmly to this initiative while proposing that the perspective should be of holding an international conference. Other groups belonging to the councilist movement also gave a positive response. For their part, groups claiming the heritage of the Italian Left were either deaf, or judged this initiative premature.
On the basis of this initiative several meetings took place between 1973 and 1974 in England and France, involving World Revolution, Revolutionary Perspectives and Workers' Voice, the first two coming out breaks with Solidarity and the last coming out of a break with Trotskyism.
Finally, this cycle of meetings ended in January 1975 with the holding of a conference where the groups sharing the same political orientation - Internacionalismo, Internationalism, Revolution Internationale, World Revolution, Rivoluzione Internazionale (Italy) and Accion Proletaria (Spain) - decided to unify within the International Communist Current.
The Current decided to pursue this policy of contacts and discussions with other groups of the communist left. This led it to participate in the 1977 Oslo conference (at the same time as Revolutionary Perspectives) and to respond favourably to the initiative launched in 1976 by Battaglia Comunista with a view to holding an international conference of groups of the communist left.
The three conferences that took place in 1977 (Milan), 1978 (Paris) and 1980 (Paris) aroused a growing interest among elements claiming links with the communist left but the decision by Battaglia Comunista and the Communist Workers' Organisation (coming out of a regroupment of Revolutionary Perspectives and Workers' Voice in Britain) to henceforth exclude the ICC sounded the death knell for this effort. In a certain way, the sectarian closing up of BC and the CWO (who regrouped into the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party in 1984), at least towards the ICC, was an indication of the exhaustion of the initial impulsion given to communist left by the historical resurgence of the world proletariat after May 1968.
However, despite the difficulties that the working class has met these last decades, notably the ideological campaigns on the "death of communism" after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, the world bourgeoisie has not succeeded in inflicting a decisive defeat on it. That is shown by the fact that the current of the communist left (represented principally by the IBRP and above all by the ICC) has maintained its positions and is now experiencing a growing interest in them from elements who, with the slow reappearance of class combats since 2003, are turning towards a revolutionary perspective.
Fabienne (July 6 2008)
. International Review n° 133.
1. French Communist Party
. Confederation Generale du Travail. The most powerful main union, notably among the workers of industry and transport as well as public sector workers. The French Communist Party controls it.
. Confederation francaise democratique du Travail. This main union was at first of Christian origins but at the beginning of the ‘60s, it rejected references to Christianity and was strongly influenced by the Socialist Party as well as by the small Unified Socialist Party (now disappeared).
. Broadcaster of animation.
. Sports commentator of unbridled nationalism.
. The day after this speech, local authority workers in many areas announced that they would refuse to organise a referendum. Similarly, the authorities didn't know how to print the ballot papers: the national print works was on strike and private printers who weren't on strike refused: the bosses didn't want any more trouble from their own workers.
. Georges Seguy was also a member of the political bureau of the PCF.
. It was later learnt that Chirac, Secretary of State for Social Affairs, had also met (in a granary!) Krasucki, number two of the CGT.
. Organisation armee secrete: a clandestine group of military and partisans for the maintenance of France in Algeria which showed itself at the beginning of the 60s through terrorist attacks, assassinations and even an attempt to assassinate de Gaulle.
. Electricite de France: electrical supply company.
. Compagnies republicaines de Securite: national police force specialising in the repression of street demonstrations.
. Forces de la Gendarmerie nationale (ie, the army) having the same role as the CRS.
. Revolution Internationale (old series) n° 2, Spring 1969.
. The two principal theoreticians of the Dutch Left.
. For a more complete history of the ICC, read our articles "Construction of the revolutionary organisation: 20 years of the International Communist Current" (International Review n° 80) and "30 years of the ICC: learning from the past to build the future" (International Review n° 123).
. Regarding these conferences see our article "The international conferences of the Communist Left (1976 - 1980) - Lessons of an experience for the proletarian milieu" in International Review n° 122.
. The fact that the IBRP has grown less compared to that of the ICC is principally down to its sectarianism as well as its political opportunism regarding regroupment (which has led it to build on sand). On this subject see our article ‘An opportunist policy of regroupment that will only lead to ‘abortions'' (International Review n° 121).