The “May events” of France 1968 constituted the greatest general strike in history. It erupted like an exploding volcano. The shock waves reached every corner of the world. The aftereffects will never truly subside. At its height, ten million workers were on strike. They occupied their workplaces, hoisted the red flag and set up committees. They sang the Internationale and hotly debated how to take control of their lives. Every layer in society was swept along by the tidal wave which flowed towards a new form of society – a break with the past and a flowering of human talent. Few saw the approach of this great movement; millions felt its effects, and ruling classes everywhere trembled at what the consequences would be.
The titanic clash of class forces apparently came like a bolt from the blue. World capitalism was basking in the sunshine of an unprecedented post-war boom, which many commentators believed was unending. Even some claiming to be “Marxists” decided that capitalism had found a way of “amortizing” (solving) its crises.
France’s special “chromium-plated” boom had started late with the coming to power of General Charles de Gaulle in 1959. By 1969 it was providing a healthy 5 percent rate of growth and gaining ground for French goods on the world market. “All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” as Voltaire’s character Pangaloss liked to believe.
But none of the basic contradictions and conflicts of capitalist society had been eliminated. On the contrary, they had been aggravated and exacerbated, and would inevitably lead to new crises and new explosions in the class struggle. Just as, nearly twenty years later, it was only the Marxists around Militant [forerunner of the Socialist Party of England and Wales (CWI)], who predicted the world stock market crash of 1987 and the convulsions which followed, it was only they who understood the processes taking place in 1968. They were adamant that explosive changes were ahead, and that the socialist revolution would re-emerge in Europe with a vengeance.
The “Communist” Party in France continued to peddle the line, inherited from the pre-war leader Maurice Thorez, that revolution was impossible in France as long as living standards in Russia remained lower than those of Western Europe! The false perspectives of other so-called Marxists were summed up in an article by the French “theoretician” André Gorz, in the January 1968 Socialist Register: “In the foreseeable future, there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes.”
The PCI (International Communist Party) whose youth organization, the JCR, was heavily involved in the student struggles in France, echoed these ideas. Claiming to stand on the ideas of Trotsky, in reality they had completely abandoned them. At a meeting in London only weeks before the outbreak of the general strike, they claimed that such a development would not be possible within the next twenty years! Workers in the metropolitan cities were “defeated” and “on the retreat,” they declared.
They had turned their backs on the working class of Europe and looked elsewhere for their “revolution.” They concentrated on students everywhere and uncritically sang the praises of the Stalinist-leaning leaders of the colonial revolutions of Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam (which they said were analogous to the Russian revolution of 1917).
The full impact – the scale, the scope, the sweep – of the revolutionary movement that took place in France, still astonished even those who were expecting a movement of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries. It gave a glimpse of the revolutionary past of France and a taste of what is to come – not only in France, but throughout Europe and indeed the world.
It was not just Militant in May and June 1968 that recognized a new French revolution in the making. The French general André Beaufre declared: “The times we live in are undoubtedly those of the birth of a revolution of which it is impossible to predict the course of events.”
As always, the serious strategists of capital came to the same conclusions as the Marxists, although from the opposite standpoint. The Financial Times on May 22, 1968, reflected the terror of the world’s bourgeoisie at the prospects:
When Louis Philippe was driven from his throne in 1848, after a few brisk days of rioting in Paris and took refuge in London, there were revolutions all over Europe. Italy, West Germany, Belgium and Spain are in trouble enough without the ‘Mother of Revolutions’ once again setting a bad example.
The London Evening Standard declared on May 29: “The situation today can be summed up in a few words: it is a revolutionary situation of an almost text-book kind.” The Economist (June 1) was drawing the same conclusion, although only a week earlier it had spoken of France not being a revolutionary country!
Once the revolutionary storm had subsided and the commentators had recovered their balance, their tune changed. The “May events” were declared “exceptional,” an “aberration,” an “episode” – unforgettable but nevertheless an episode. French society had never really been threatened, they insisted. But such a mighty movement could not be buried with declarations. Fifty years later the questions remain: Could it happen again? Could it happen in any other country? Could it happen in every other country?
That a general strike of such proportions could take place in an industrialized capitalist society is a constant nightmare not only for the French ruling class, but for many others besides. As the threat of world recession approaches once again, the “scare of ‘68” looms larger than ever.
By 1968 there had been a prolonged post-war boom. It had provided a breathing space for workers. The wounds of past defeats and disappointments were healed over. Their organizations grew in numbers and cohesion. The employers, making vast profits, seemed more favorably disposed to accede to workers’ demands. Class relations were apparently softened. In this climate, the ideas of reformism could gain ground. The illusion that capitalism could provide for workers’ needs little-by-little led the leaders of the workers’ organizations to abandon the idea that socialism was necessary.
The analysis of the so-called Trotskyist theoreticians was the other side of the same coin. They, along with numerous academics, “discovered” another phenomenon that they claimed would prevent workers from moving towards socialism – the existence of the “strong state.” In France this was personified in the figure of Charles de Gaulle. He had come to power in 1958, posing as the “savior of the nation” in a situation of crisis in the economy, with a “mission” to defeat the liberation war for Algerian independence.
A Strong State?
Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s collaborator, explained how, at certain stages of the class struggle, the state rises above society and appears, more than usual, to be detached from the interests of either of the main contending forces. Despite the appearance of balancing between the classes, the state ultimately reflects the interests of the economically dominant class, in the case of Charles de Gaulle, the French capitalists.
De Gaulle himself claimed that he represented a “third way – between capitalism and communism.” He did nothing of the sort! He had saved France for capitalism but to do so he had been forced to lean on other classes in society. He even had to take measures that a section of the capitalists and the petty bourgeois found distasteful – particularly those bitterly opposed to the abandonment of the French colony in Algeria. He also introduced measures of state interference in the otherwise unfettered rule of capital that benefited big business but squeezed the petty bourgeois and especially small businesses. Furthermore, he exercised extraordinary censorship of the media, partially restricting the right even of these layers to debate, discuss and criticize.
A special form of personal power was in operation. De Gaulle had declared on becoming President: “I belong to everyone and everyone belongs to me.” He proceeded to disregard parliament, preferring to rule by decree, tempered with the plebiscite – a referendum of “the people.”
Lacking a firm base of social support, a Bonapartist state relies ultimately on the “sword” – the armed bodies of men. De Gaulle’s Bonapartism was a most limited, parliamentary type when compared to the naked police dictatorships that existed in many parts of the world. Nevertheless it was a brutal regime whose natural reaction at times of crisis was “strike first and consider afterwards.” It did not work against protesting students. It was even less likely to succeed against the powerful new generation of French workers whose organizations were still intact.
To keep order in the France of de Gaulle, there were more members of the forces of the state per head of the population than in almost any other advanced capitalist country in the world. But even this powerful state machine crumbled at the first real test of its mettle, confounding the theories of all those who had abandoned the working class.
A revolutionary situation like that which developed in France in May 1968 can make 20 years seem like one day and, as Marx put it, “days come in which 20 years are concentrated.” A revolutionary situation cannot by its very nature last indefinitely, but only for days, weeks, or at most months. In Russia in 1917 it lasted as long as perhaps three months. There are different stages in the development of events during a revolution but never, as the “Communist” Parties still try to maintain, can the struggle for democracy be separated as a “stage” from the struggle for socialism. De Gaulle’s access to power had shown how fragile democracy can be in a capitalist society. Only if the reins of the economy are taken over by the working class can such a thing as socialist democracy be established. The events of France 1968 showed that this idea was far from utopian. Every layer of society seemed to be convinced in action that there was a more practical, just and humane way of organizing things than that dictated by capitalism. The events also demonstrated conclusively that the task of the socialist revolution can be carried out by no class other than the working class itself. In France 1968, given the great power of the working class and the support of the middle classes, the socialist revolution could have been carried through peacefully and in a matter of days.