May 1968 (part 4): The international significance of the general strike in France

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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 preceding articles[1], 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. That's what we are going to bring out, among other things, in the present article.

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 police 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 police 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" (Revolution Internationale [old series] no. 2, Spring 1969).

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, 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.

That is what we will look at in the next article.   Fabienne (1/6/8)

[1]  ‘May 68: the student movement in France and the world' (1 and 2), ‘May 68: the awakening of the working class', respectively in numbers 313, 314 and 315 of World Revolution.


Historic events: 


History of the workers' movement: