France 1968 and the Historic Role of the Working Class

Published On October 27, 2018 | By Patrick Ayers | History, Top Stories

Because of the continuing significance of the events in France in 1968, Socialist Alternative is republishing the pamphlet France 1968: Month of Revolution written by Clare Doyle of the Committee for a Workers International with which we are in political solidarity. First published by the Militant Tendency in 1988 for workers in Britain, we believe the lessons drawn out by the pamphlet will be of enormous interest to radicalizing youth and workers who are asking questions about how society can be changed. Below is an extensive new introduction to the pamphlet which connects these world historic events to debates on the left today.

The greatest general strike in history happened in France in 1968. Over ten million French workers went on indefinite strike for several weeks between May and June. At the height of the movement, President Charles de Gaulle, who had built his image as a strong authoritarian leader, fled the country in despair over his failure to bring the movement to heel.

The legacy of these events is still important for a new generation. Earlier in 2018, France was once again gripped with mass strikes in opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for neoliberal workplace reforms. Almost immediately, memories of the events in 1968 were evoked. In the U.S., a new generation has become politically awakened by the crisis of capitalism and they too will look to the history of 1968 for inspiration in the struggles ahead.

In the last week of May 1968,” writes Doyle, “a rallying call to the working class to take political power into their hands would have tolled the death knell of capitalism on a world scale.”

While there had been many revolutions and upheavals in neo-colonial and developing countries in the post World War II period, most left-wing thinkers, both today and in 1968, have serious doubts that revolution led by the working class is possible in advanced capitalist countries.

But in France in 1968, the working class was looking to what would have been a revolutionary solution – i.e. a “people’s government” – and they had the support of a decisive majority of society. It was one of the most favorable situations ever for the working class to take power away from the corrupt capitalist class and reorganize society.

The only ‘force’ needed in these circumstances was that of forceps applied at the correct moment,” argues Doyle. “The general strike of ten million workers had done the lion’s share of the job of transferring power from one class to another.”

Why didn’t the transfer of power to the working class happen? Doyle explains that it was the lack of a leadership prepared to carry through the struggle to the end which held back the working class from going the whole way.

What Was Possible

What is unique about the CWI’s pamphlet is that it provides an explanation for what a revolutionary leadership could have done. This is important because as the crisis of capitalism deepens today, many of the questions from 1968 will arise anew. In fact, with the socialist movement growing today in the U.S., the age old questions of reform and revolution have come to the surface again.

Naturally we are not comparing the situation in the U.S. today directly to that in France in 1968. However, we are now in the midst of a huge social and political crisis flowing from the massive growth of inequality and decades of neo-liberal attacks on the living standards of working people and social services. Confidence in capitalist institutions has been profoundly undermined leading to unprecedented political polarization, waves of protest and the growth of both left and right populism. We now see a clear potential for the re-emergence of class struggle. The next historical period in the U.S. and internationally clearly points to new revolutionary crises like 1968.

In the Spring 2018 issue of the left-wing journal Jacobin, Jonah Birch contributes a lively and well-written piece on the events of France 1968. He writes “nowhere else in the Western world over the past century was such a threat to capitalism posed.”

Yet he concludes: “However, that does not mean that revolution was on the agenda.” Indeed, capitalism was not overthrown in France but that hardly exhausts the question.

He quotes former leaders of the self-described French Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist League, Alain Krivine and Daniel Bensaid: “The strikers in their mass wanted to settle a social problem, shake the yoke of an authoritarian regime. From there to revolution there was still a long way to go.”

It needs to be noted that this quote is taken out of context. Krivine and Bensaid were making a bigger point in the same text that there was no revolutionary party in France 1968 and the forces of the LCR were too small. Doyle deals with the role of the LCR in Month of Revolution, but what matters here is Birch’s choice to use this quote. Because, in fact, the leaders of the French Communist Party (PCF) said a similar thing on June 8, 1968 in their newspaper:

It is not enough that the main forces of the nation should be in movement – which was the case – it is also necessary for them to be won to the ideas of a socialist revolution. But this was not the case for all the ten million workers on strike – even less so for the middle sections particularly the peasants.”

The question is: What more was needed to win French workers to the idea of socialist revolution? Ten million workers were on indefinite strike and demanding a “people’s government”!

Certainly if any party was in a position to lead the working class toward revolution in France in 1968 it was the French Communist Party. It was one of the largest workers parties in Europe and it grew rapidly during the general strike. Birch criticizes the PCF leaders but, by echoing their arguments, he lets them off the hook for failing to seize a historic opportunity.

While revolution was ruled out, “that doesn’t mean a better outcome was impossible,” says Birch. “What that might have looked like is up for debate.” Birch doesn’t offer answers himself to the question of how the policy of the leaders of the movement in France could have been better. He speculates that maybe more reforms could have been won.

In fact, workers did win significant gains in 1968 because the ruling class was petrified of revolution. Arguably, they could have won even more, short of revolution. But if we are talking about more profound change that would encroach on the capitalists’ control of the economy this would have required the working class taking power.

Birch and many others on the left implicitly or explicitly do not believe in the ability of the working class to reorganize society along socialist lines. Rather they believe in radical reforms – won at least in part through working class mobilization. But unless capitalism is actually overturned, reforms can be clawed back later – which is precisely what happened internationally in the neo-liberal era. This is even more true today than in 1968 during the later stages of the postwar economic upswing when there was more room for the capitalists to make concessions such as expanding social services and the “welfare state.”

To root out the power of the billionaire class today, we call for taking the top 500 corporations into public ownership and developing a democratically planned economy organized to meet the needs of people not profit. We point out that such a development is only possible by the working class coming to power and replacing the existing capitalist state with a workers state that radically expands democracy, including into the workplace. This contrasts with the vision outlined by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara in an article in  the New York Times last year on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He essentially explains that socialism would entail a radical overhaul of capitalism without ending capitalism per se: “Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth,” (“Socialism’s Future May Be It’s Past,” NY Times, 6/26/2017).

As we pointed out in replying to Sunkara’s piece:

Without a doubt, such changes would represent a significant step forward despite being under threat of attack every time capitalism entered into one of its periodic crises. But this is not the same as the goal of socialism: a global, classless society which does away with capitalism’s organized apparatus of repression and replaces it with a new political order based on mass democratic organs of working people and the oppressed. This has always been the destination called for by the socialist and Marxist movement. Many today, even on the left, may see this vision as hopelessly utopian. But as Marx argued, it is the massive development of human productivity under capitalism which has laid the material basis to eradicate class division and oppression rooted in scarcity,” (SocialistAlternative.org, 9/30/2017).

The Role of Leadership

The question of the aim and program of the workers movement and working-class parties is a decisive question. This was shown in France ‘68. As Doyle points out, the PCF, in reality, was led by a reformist leadership who had no intention of preparing the mass of the French working class for what would be necessary to carry out a socialist transformation of society. The French workers were far more interested in carrying through a decisive struggle against the regime than the leaders of the PCF. An agreement negotiated by union leaders with close ties to the PCF was overwhelmingly rejected by workers at the end of May. The PCF leaders later disappeared from view and their absence paralyzed the movement. The government was able to then reassert itself and the PCF helped direct the movement off the streets and toward elections in which they lost more than 600,000 votes due to workers’ disappointment.

However, it’s utter nonsense to say, as the PCF did, that revolution was not possible because “all the ten million workers on strike” had not been “won to the ideas of a socialist revolution.” Leon Trotsky answered such arguments in his classic article “The Class, The Party, and the Leadership” written after the defeat of the the revolutionary movement in the Spanish state in 1936-1937:

The historical falsification consists in this, that the responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish masses is unloaded on the working masses and not those parties which paralyzed or simply crushed the revolutionary movement of the masses.”

Trotsky wrote extensively about the role of leadership in the Russian Revolution, to date the only successful workers revolution in modern history. In the introduction to his History of the Russian Revolution, he writes: “The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses.”

But Trotsky was also at pains to stress that the central role of a tested revolutionary leadership in no way changes the fact that working class is the key force in its own liberation: “[leaders and parties] constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” In fact, at key points in 1917, the masses were ahead of the ranks of the Bolsheviks who in turn were ahead of the majority of the party’s leadership.

Doyle writes about France 1968: “The French workers in their great mass wanted better conditions, big increases in wages, the eradication of slums, a decent education for their children, a massive boost in spending on social services, etc. At the same time they had instinctively understood that no matter what short term concessions were extracted from the capitalists, these would be snatched back unless a fundamental transformation of the situation was carried through.”

Later she continues, “The chief role of a revolutionary party in this situation is to imbue the masses with a sense of their own power, to make conscious what was already unconsciously at work in the minds of the masses. Unless a systematic and unswerving plan for the conquest of power is prepared and carried out in good season, an ebb will set in. The masses lose faith, begin to fall into indifference, and the forces of the counter-revolution begin to raise their heads.”

While there are obviously no guarantees that France ‘68 would have resulted in a successful revolution with a better and more determined leadership, the point is that the objective situation was not the key limitation. At the height of the movement, the working class was well organized and prepared to struggle; it had the vast majority of people on its side and the ruling class was split and unable to contain the crisis. The missing element was a revolutionary leadership with real roots in the working class. This lesson is crucial to draw out for the new generation attracted to socialist ideas today.

Skepticism Then And Now

As Clare Doyle points out, before the French general strike there was widespread skepticism about the possibility of working-class action on this scale, at least in the West. This flowed from the popular idea on the radical left in the 1960s that the working class had been “bought off” and revolutionary working-class movements in the West were ruled out for the foreseeable future. Just months before the outbreak of the movement in France, both Ralph Miliband’s Socialist Register – which in many ways is the forerunner of Jacobin – and leaders of the Fourth International, of which the LCR in France was part, made comments to the effect that such events were off the agenda.

Instead, many on the left in the 1960s looked to other forces including students and peasant-centered struggles in the neo-colonial world as the decisive force to challenge capitalism. This, in effect, meant that much of the “revolutionary left” had turned away from seeing the working class as the key force for changing society. The Marxists who founded the CWI and later Socialist Alternative in the U.S. left the Fourth International in 1964. They set out to build a new international organization of Marxists rooted in the working-class movement and defending the central role of the working class in the struggle for revolutionary change.

As Marxists, we believe the capitalist system in its early development represented an enormous step forward in the development of productive forces despite the enormous brutality entailed in early capital accumulation. However, capitalism now represents an absolute barrier in the development of human economy and society. Capitalism also creates the modern working class, the social force which can end savage exploitation and class oppression, or as Marx put it, capitalism’s “gravediggers.”

Through its ability to shut down the economy and to organize and implement a program for transforming society, it is the historical task of the working class to unite all those oppressed by this system, in reality the overwhelming majority of society, around a program for fundamental change.

This was posed in France. The heavy battalions of workers shut down the key industries of French capitalism and demonstrated how the organized working class was a powerful backbone for a revolutionary transformation of society.

The Working Class Today

Similarly to 1968, many on the left today have doubts about the revolutionary potential of the working class in the U.S. in 2018. This is understandable given the role of conservative trade union leaders in the past decades that have contributed to defeats for working people and a massive retreat of the labor movement. Some people question whether the working class is a key force for change at all given changes in the workplace. Manufacturing makes up a far smaller percentage of the workforce today than it did in the 1960s.

But contrary to those who say that globalization or automation have eliminated the American working class, it remains, without doubt, the majority of society. While the capitalist media is at pains to obscure this, just-in-time production, logistics hubs, and other large concentrations of workers, like in airports, show that the big corporations are vulnerable to collective action. Kim Moody’s 2017 book On New Terrain, points to the massive, continuing power of the U.S. working class, particularly in the logistics sector.

The biggest change in the U.S. working class in recent decades has actually been the massive growth of women and people of color in the workforce. This highlights how the struggle against racism and sexism are not separate from the struggle to build a united working-class movement against capitalism, but an integral part of it. Indeed it is is heavily female workforces, including nurses, teachers, fast-food workers, and now hotel workers who have been in the vanguard of recent struggles.

But the key issue is whether the working class moves from being an objective reality, a “class in itself” to being a force that sees its interests as counterposed to those of the capitalists and organizes to challenge their power. Since the Great Recession, working people in the U.S. have become keenly aware that the top 1% and even the top .01% have gained disproportionately while the bottom 99% and especially the bottom 50% are sliding backward.

There is massive anger at social inequality and the social crisis which faces large sections of the working class. There is a loss of faith in institutions and especially in the political establishment. There is a growing awareness that the future under capitalism promises endless inequality, automation replacing good jobs, and a developing climate catastrophe. In poor countries, wars, famines, and massive displacement of people are likely to intensify. Capitalism no longer pretends to offer a vision of a more abundant future for ordinary people.

The growing anger of working people and young people was reflected in the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders who called for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.” It is also reflected in the massive interest in socialism, especially among young people. This is continuing with the wave of “democratic socialist” candidates including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But in the absence of a political force that clearly represents the interests of the working class, the door was opened to the right populism of Donald Trump who also attacked “free trade” deals and proclaimed himself a champion of the working class. This has led to a dangerously reactionary regime which threatens to destroy any remaining gains made through past struggles by workers, women, and African Americans.

But until recently, working-class revolt was only expressed in a partial way and largely on the electoral plane. The retreat of organized labor continued – now down to less than 7% of private sector workers.

This is why the revolt of teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina is so important. There are important organizing drives among airport workers. In Missouri, voters defeated an anti-labor “right-to-work” law brought in by the Republicans by a two-to-one margin. In Europe, Amazon warehouse workers in three countries went on strike in July which could inspire workers in logistics here. McDonald’s workers went on strike against sexual harassment and now hotel workers have gone on strike in several cities. These are clear signs of a desire to fight. What is desperately needed is leadership and a new direction away from the failed approach of labor leaders of the past 30 years – their refusal to use militant tactics or to assert labor’s independent political interests. This also points to the need for a new political party based on the interests of working people. The next period will see real opportunities to take this critical step forward toward class independence.

The American working class has a rich tradition of struggle over the past 150 years. In the 1930s and ‘40s, powerful multiracial industrial unions were built using bold tactics including local general strikes and workplace occupations (“sit-down” strikes). Black workers were the driving force of the civil rights movement which brought down Jim Crow in the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Working-class women were the driving force in changing chauvinist attitudes in the ‘60s and ‘70s as part of massive rank-and-file labor upsurge.

Undoubtedly, the recent resurgence of labor struggle is inspiring a new generation to look to organizing workers as a key part of fighting for a different future. The key question for socialists is whether capitalism can be reformed and the working-class movement should restrict itself to mobilizing as an auxiliary to gradual transformation carried out by socialist politicians from above, or whether a working-class movement will need to be built on a perspective of revolutionary change from below. This isn’t just a question just for the future but informs what we do today.

In this regard, the debate over the meaning of France ‘68 foreshadows important debates to come about the future of the socialist and working class movement. Month of Revolution is an important contribution to those debates today and should be read by all socialists in the U.S.

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