May 1968: A revolutionary opportunity wasted
Chronology of events surrounding May 1968
March 22 Nanterre University is occupied by students. Courses suspended until 1 April.
May 1 Major May Day demonstrations. Workers take up the chant ‘Dix ans, c’est assez’ – 10 years is enough. (De Gaulle came to power in 1958)
May 3 Violent CRS (riot police) attack students occupying the Sorbonne University.
May 6 Further violent clashes around the Sorbonne, marked by extreme CRS violence. Two union federations, CGT and CFDT, declare solidarity with ‘the struggle of the students and teachers.’
May 10 & 11 Barricades set up in the Left Bank. The CGT, CFDT & FEN federations call a general strike against police violence.
May 12 Growing rift over the handling of the crisis between President de Gaulle and Prime Minister Pompidou with the latter declaring ‘The General doesn’t exist anymore; de Gaulle is dead.’
May 13 Transport and electricity workers go on strike in Paris. Big demonstrations in Paris and other cities calling on de Gaulle to go.
May 14 Occupations of Renault factories and two aviation plants begin.
May 15 – 17 Strikes and occupations spread across France. CGT leaders, under Communist Party direction, try to ensure the demands of the strikers are limited to improving pay and conditions.
May 20 Number of strikers reaches 6 million. Some of the wealthy start to leave for Switzerland with cash and valuables.
May 24 Farmers join workers in taking action, with security and distribution in Nantes effectively coming under the control of an elected workers and farmers’ committee
May 25 France’s state radio and TV on strike
May 27 Number of strikers reaches 10 million. Government announces a deal with unions and employers. However, immediate reactions from workplaces are hostile. PSU convenes a meeting of 50,000 in Paris opposed to the deal.
May 29 CGT organise a demonstration of hundreds of thousands in Paris. De Gaulle secretly flees France, and tells Army Chief General Massu ‘Everything is done for’
May 30 De Gaulle is persuaded to return to France and mobilise the forces of counter-revolution. National Assembly is dissolved – elections called.
June 10 Return to work gathers speed. Election campaign starts, which is won by the right wing.
June 12 Demonstrations banned nationally.
The events of May 1968 in France represented much more than simply a student rebellion. The youth demonstrations in Paris served as the trigger for an enormous strike movement from below. By the end of May at least ten million workers were on strike. A new society was being created in the workers’ committees and assemblies. A peaceful handover of power from the bourgeois to the working class was entirely possible. And yet this uniquely favourable situation was squandered, not through misjudgment, but through the deliberate strategy and tactics of the leadership of the main workers’ party, the PCF, Parti Communiste Français.
France 1968 is a confirmation that a revolutionary situation requires a revolutionary party for a socialist transformation to be successfully carried to fruition.
The Background to the events
The post Second World War expansion of higher education in France meant that there were over half a million students by 1968, many from the families of workers or the lower middle class. While the numbers studying might have grown, their facilities and resources had not. There were also stiflingly authoritarian rules that prevailed in many HE institutions, e.g. restrictions on socialising between genders on campus.
Internationally the movements of 1968 were marked especially by the radicalisation of the youth, partially triggered by the movement against the American imperialist war in Vietnam.
But the months leading up to May 1968 in France were also marked by growing worker militancy. Official and unofficial strike action, throughout ’67 and into ’68 had spread across many sectors of French industry, especially the car and linked industries. Militant strikes and occupations, particularly in and around Caen, Rouen and Paris, were part of a general upsurge of worker militancy. This reflected both a confidence resulting from the economic upswing and relative job security of the era, and a frustration with the status quo, particularly the economic inequalities in French society.
The Strong State
President De Gaulle, who had come to power in a soft coup in 1958, presided over a (supposedly) strong state. The state machine, and especially the armed bodies of men that protected French capitalism, were particularly brutal and often a law unto themselves.
Less than seven years earlier, in October 1961, the Paris police had launched a savage attack on a demonstration in support of the Algerian independence struggle which resulted in up to 300 deaths, with bodies of victims being thrown into the Seine.
An attack on a CGT demonstration in February 1962 had resulted in 8 deaths. Such was the murderous history of the Parisian police. Yet by 22 May, as the wildfires of revolt spread, police unions themselves were talking of preparing for strike action, which objected to being used as De Gaulle’s henchmen. The ‘strong state’ of De Gaulle was dissolving in the heat of the revolutionary cauldron.
By the last week of May 1968, there was a paralysis of the organs of state. There is strong evidence of revolts occurring both in the army and navy, both largely conscript forces whose families were often on strike themselves. At this juncture a decisive lead from the PCF was required, calling for the extension of workers’ committees to all areas, uniting workers, farmers, young people and small businesspeople, and for these committees to coordinate the seizure of power and put in place a workers’ government. But, the PCF leadership failed to lead the masses to socialism.
The Role of the PCF
Numerically and politically, the most important organisation of the French left in May 1968 was the Communist Party (PCF). It consistently secured around 20 percent of the vote in national elections, and it exercised control of the biggest trade union federation, the CGT. It was a party with a formidable apparatus, a daily newspaper, an embedded base in the working class – but a revolutionary party it was not.
When the student movement had erupted in the first days of May, the attitude of the PCF was one of sectarian hostility. On 3 May 1968, Georges Marchais, later to become party leader, wrote attacking the revolutionary groupings active among the students, dismissing them as children of the rich who would soon “dampen their ‘revolutionary flame’ to go and run Daddy’s business”.
However, if the PCF had been a genuinely revolutionary organisation, it would have taken up the task of formulating a set of demands that could link the demands of the workers with those of the students, and the youth in general.
As the movement intensified during May, the PCF were forced to modify their line, in order to maintain some credibility. That applied particularly in relation to their role in the workers’ movement, where the general strike was spiraling out of (their) control but they were determined to place limits on how it developed, only providing a lead in order to derail it.
On 17 May Georges Seguy, leader of the CGT and a PCF member, explained, “This general strike is developing without our having called it, and it is developing under the responsibility of the workers themselves.” The PCF were beholden to the interests of the bureaucracy at the helm in the USSR, and the leadership in Moscow did not want a threat to the status quo in France. Moscow liked the fact that de Gaulle often publicly attacked the US government over foreign policy issues. The bureaucracy in Moscow feared the prospect of a healthy workers’ revolution, which would have been a mortal threat to their status and privilege. Everything was subsumed to the short-term needs of the Soviet bureaucracy, an outlook which had been embedded in the approach of the official Communist international since the triumph of Stalin in Russia in the mid-1920s. So the PCF limited the movement to a fight for higher wages and better conditions, secretly negotiating with Government representatives on a deal in order to provide the cover to close down the movement.
In June the PCF turned its energies into the election campaign. The election results, however, were a disaster for the left, including the PCF. On the left, only the small PSU achieved any significant increase in votes – though not in seats. Instead of admitting its own failings in assisting the victory of reaction, the PCF blamed the far left. An editorial in L’Humanité of 24 June stated:
“The extravagances, the provocations, the useless violence – naturally deliberately magnified and expanded in the government’s propaganda – committed by the leftist groups manipulated by the Minister of the Interior, resulted as could be expected… Each barricade, each automobile set on fire, turned several hundred thousands of votes over to the Gaullist party.”
The left outside the PCF
The official Socialist Party was a small and relatively insignificant force in society, playing little role in the May events. In the longer term, however, social democracy and the Parti Socialist (reformed in 1973) gained from the general radicalisation in society. In that sense social democracy, and specifically the PS was the main beneficiary of May1968.
Trotskyism, although it had a long history in France, was weak and divided – competing small groups with no or minimal influence in the broader working class. Nonetheless with a correct programme and orientation, it would have been possible for a Trotskyist organisation to have exerted a very big influence on the course of events, and to have grown rapidly.
The most important of the groups was based around the Fourth International under the direction of Ernest Mandel. Its youth wing, the JCR, played a significant role in the streets and universities in May and June, politically and organisationally. Often, they acted with considerable personal bravery and at personal cost.
They had concluded that there was no basis for a workers’ led revolution in advanced countries such as France – a perspective spectacularly exposed by May itself! They had succumbed to ultra leftism and ended up tailing Castroism and third wordlist ideas and. A JCR statement of 9 May 1968 stated:
“The heroes of this new generation of militants are not Mitterrand or Waldeck Rochet. They are Che Guevara and Vo Nguyen Giap … To the dull reformism offered by the PCF they prefer the heroic determination of the Vietnamese revolutionaries. To the tarnished image of socialism offered by the workers’ states, they prefer the active internationalism of the Cuban revolution.”
Although they gained a certain base amongst students, the JCR remained very detached from the working class. They denounced the PCF leadership in an ultra-left manner, which tended to undermine their credibility with worker militants, and reinforce the anti-student rhetoric of the PCF. If they had had a base in the workplaces and factories working along CGT worker militants, they would have been much better placed to have countered a revolutionary strategy to a Stalinist strategy step by step, event by event.
May 1968 and the revolutionary party
All the necessary conditions for the existence of a revolutionary situation were present in France in May and June.
The ruling class was weakened and divided and had shown itself unable to continue to rule in the old way. The middle class and its political representatives were discredited. Within the working classes there was a decisive mood to change the way society was organised. The armed forces were increasingly unreliable.
In Russia in 1917 there had been a political party, the Bolsheviks, which was able to take advantage of these favourable conditions to lead the working class to power. The tragedy of May 1968 was that no such party existed in France. Rather, when the opportunity arrived to lead the French working class in taking power, the PCF not only acted as a brake on the movement, but consciously and deliberately did all in its power to ensure the continuation of capitalism.