A “Classical” revolutionary situation had undoubtedly developed in France. The Economist had taken as its yardstick for deciding whether or not a situation was revolutionary just one criterion: whether a large enough proportion of the population was “convinced that its conditions of life were intolerable.” Working people live for years, even decades, in intolerable conditions, without feeling they can make a revolution. But as Lenin explained many times, a revolution only occurs when a number of factors coincide, and is successful only when four major conditions are fulfilled.
Firstly, faced with a profound crisis, the ruling class is incapable of governing in the old way and begins to split into different wings, each seeking a different solution to the crisis. Secondly, the middle layers are in ferment. Thirdly, the working class seeks a way out, not on the basis of the old society, but of a new order. It moves into battle in a determined fashion. Fourthly, the most crucial condition is the existence at the head of the mass workers’ movement of a clear Marxist leadership, with the necessary strategy, tactics, and organization to guarantee victory.
Any objective analysis irrefutably demonstrates that three out of the four of Lenin’s conditions existed in France in May-June 1968. Indeed, never before, either in French history or that of any other country, had these three objective conditions for revolution manifested themselves in such a clear fashion. Only those blinded by reformist cataracts could fail to see what was before their eyes.
Ruling Class Split
The first element of the French revolution of 1968 was the vacillating, the crisis of confidence on the part of the ruling class. The panic of the French bourgeoisie was indicated by the rapid rise in the price of gold and an unprecedented flight of capital. Traffic jams were reported on the roads to Switzerland!
Marx pointed out how, contrary to appearances, a revolution starts from above. Weaknesses and splits at the top, which reflect the subterranean revolt of the masses, are displayed. They in turn encourage the revolutionary forces below to advance. One section wants to use the club to maintain its rule; the other favors concessions. The Gaullist cabinet was clearly divided into “hawks” and “doves” over how to deal with the crisis as it developed. “Left” Gaullists declared themselves to be “with the students” and deplored the use of the CRS. The zigzags from brutal repression to unprecedented concession, and back again showed a complete loss of command over the situation.
Government ministers hit the depths of despair. Christian Fouchet declared: “If this spreads we are finished!” and Georges Pompidou: “It’s the end of my political career!” Even the most astute bourgeois – and Pompidou must be included among them – think in 1968, when tossed violently about on the waves of the revolution, first and foremost of their own personal fortunes. Before the crisis, Finance Minister Michel Debré had been giving at least three interviews and two statements to the public every day. Since the events began he had been completely muted. Then, as if to try and comfort himself, he declared “Six million on strike? That’s not a revolution!” This is known as “whistling in the dark to keep up your spirits!”
During de Gaulle’s absence in Romania, Pompidou had proved more responsive to the pressures from below – “untrammeled,” as one commentator put it, “by the burden of incarcerating France.” He then saw de Gaulle making what, from his point of view, must have seemed like blunder after blunder, appearing before everyone’s eyes as a tired and bankrupt politician.
The very same voices who now condemned de Gaulle for blunder after blunder, had, in previous periods, praised him for being a “miracle worker.” He had, according to them, furnished the basis for the dazzling economic fireworks of the boom, and in the process, succeeded in cowing the mighty French proletariat. All this they ascribed to his charisma and the powerful weapons at the disposal of Bonapartism.
Hegel, the dialectical philosopher, had talked 150 years earlier of how reason becomes unreason. The methods of yesterday which appeared to guarantee success, now, in a changed situation in France, turned into their opposite. The “strong state” was powerless, in the words of the Evening Standard: “All the constitutional weapons which he himself forged to protect his regime in just such a crisis are now so many pieces of paper, even the weapon of the referendum is useless,” (May 29). De Gaulle, the architect of the strong state, was politically paralyzed and incapable of taking any initiative. His methods, far from stabilizing the situation, had ignited a revolution that they were powerless to control. By the end of the month he was fleeing the country. The memoirs of his prime minister bear witness: “In reality, the general suffered a crisis of morale. Thinking the game was up, he had chosen to retire. Arriving in Baden-Baden, he was ready to stay a long time.”
The Middle Class Won Over
The second condition for a successful revolution is turmoil among the middle class. They look to one or other of the two great classes in society – the workers or the capitalists – for a way out of the problems they face. In France of May 1968, there was turmoil indeed, but no vacillating. The great majority of the middle class saw its fate tied up with the success of the workers’ movement. That applied to the white-collar workers, the middle management, the technicians. It applied to the peasantry in the countryside as much as to the professionals and the students in the towns.
Theirs was no passive support but active, enthusiastic, direct involvement. New doors were being opened for them. They drew strength and confidence from the enormous power being displayed by the workers on strike. The appetite was increasing with the eating, as François Rabelais’ Gargantua would say. It seemed as if nothing could stand in their way. Together they would change the world!
“We disagree!” cried the Communists. This picture is contradicted, they claim, by a million-strong demonstration of petty-bourgeois reaction. But that was May 31. Two weeks earlier, only 2,000 responded to a call by the reactionary paramilitary organization “Occident” to rally against the strike! By the end of the month, the counter-revolution had been given the time to pull some of the middle-class dregs of society together. Even so, The Economist displayed a better understanding of the real balance of forces in society when it compared the Gaullist demonstration with one of a similar size the night before, organized by the Communist trade union: “In electoral terms the two big demonstrations carried almost equal weight, but at a time of social upheaval, it was those who could paralyze the economy who carried the most.”
Evidence of the third condition for revolution – the readiness of the working class to go to the end – could not have been more convincing. Writing of previous class struggles in France, Engels had remarked that the magnificent working class of that country had always shown itself prepared for a fight to the finish.
Before the strike started, little more than 2.5 million workers were in the trade unions. Yet 10 million – two-thirds of the total workforce – had stopped work, taken over their workplaces and engaged in permanent discussion about how to run things in the future! Their appetite too was increasing with the eating. What would it be like if they could throw the bosses off their backs? It was not a question anymore of just getting rid of de Gaulle and a repressive state machine.
Workers in their millions now sensed the power they held in society. Everything had stopped. Not a wheel turned or generator operated without their permission. They felt that nothing could stand in their way. In a favorite saying of British workers, “why be satisfied with cake if you can take over the bakery?” Why put in all this effort now and let go just for some economic reforms when a new way of running society could be established?
The spontaneous movement of May 1968 had welled up from below. The massive one-day general strike called by the left parties and the trade union federations had failed to act as a safety valve, in the way the leaders had hoped it might. Now these “leaders” had been dragged kicking and screaming behind the movement, trying to apply the brakes! These gentlemen communists, as ever were trying their hardest to appear respectable. The Observer pointed to a paradox: “The Communist unions and Gaullist government that they appear to be challenging are really on the same side of the barricades.”
No other organization with a mass base was providing a clear lead either. The CFDT trade union federation had been more closely allied to the struggle of students and workers but could only declare itself vaguely for “democracy,” and “self-management” in industry.
The Unified Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Unifié or PSU), a centrist party, under the leadership of Michel Rocard (he would end up on the extreme right of the Socialist Party which was formed later) was sounding revolutionary. Hovering between reform and revolution, its phrases most closely reflected the instinctive aspirations of all involved in the strike. It talked of “workers’ power” and about the situation “never having been more favorable for the installation of a socialist society.” For this reason, it was gaining ground rapidly among workers and students. But it, too, was incapable of sounding the clarion call to action needed to take the revolution forward.
A huge vacuum exists at the top of society. The government is suspended in mid air. All its social reserves have deserted the ruling class. But the fourth condition outlined by Lenin for successful revolution is tragically absent: a mass party with a Marxist program and a farsighted and audacious leadership, carrying the confidence of a major section of the workers and prepared to go to the end. That was all that was needed; that was all that was missing!
What every worker was searching for was how to forge a socialist society, whether or not they would give it a name. The Communist Party leaders, the only ones in a position to put the pieces of the puzzle together in the form of a concrete program, abdicated their responsibilities completely. Then, true to past form, they blamed the workers themselves. René Andrieu, editor of the French Communist Party paper, L’Humanité, excusing his party’s policy, declared to the British Communist Party paper Morning Star (June 8, 1968):
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.
Here is a finished expression of the Communist Party leaders’ pedantry and bureaucratic contempt for the masses who refuse to act according to the proscriptions of these leaders. Lenin long ago scorned those scholastics who envisaged that a revolution would consist of two armies lining up, one declaring “for revolution” the other “against revolution.” The workers and peasants in Russia wanted bread, land and freedom. They came to understand that this could only be secured through revolution. Moreover, their experiences and the role of Lenin and Trotsky in theoretically articulating the demands of the masses, taught them that only the Bolsheviks could complete the revolution.
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.
How then did the Communist Party leaders gauge the “lack” of revolutionary temper of the workers? In a similar situation in 1936 Trotsky lashed the Communist leaders for their cowardice in the face of the magnificent sit-in strikes:
The scholarly doctors of the Communist International have a thermometer which they place under the tongue of old lady History, and by this means they infallibly determine the revolutionary temperature. But they don’t show anyone their thermometer. We submit: the diagnosis of the Comintern is entirely false. The situation is revolutionary, as revolutionary as it can be granted the non-revolutionary policies of the working class parties. More exactly, the situation is pre-revolutionary. In order to bring the situation to its full maturity, there must be an immediate, unremitting mobilization of the masses, under the slogan of conquest of power in the name of socialism. This is the only way in which the pre-revolutionary situation will be changed into a revolutionary situation. (Whither France?)
These words would apply with equal or greater force to the Communist Party leaders of 1968. Why did 10 million workers engage in a month-long sit-down strike, evict and eliminate the control of the bosses in the factories? Why did they not restrict themselves to demonstrations, strikes and parades? It is obvious to those whose vision is not impaired by a reformist or Stalinist approach to politics, that the mass of the French working class perceived that only the most extreme measures could ensure the achievement of their demands.
The task of a genuine revolutionary party would have been to articulate this desire for change. Instead the Communist Party leaders acted like a giant brake to the movement. Their attitude was no better than the arrogant attitude of the very “grouplets” they were so fond of condemning. “We know what’s needed but the workers don’t understand” is what this amounts to. They display a deep-seated cynicism towards the very class which alone can ensure the victory of socialism.
In the case of the Stalinists at the head of the workers’ organizations, their attitude also stems from fear. Once the movement began to make for the socialist goal, these faint-hearts would be swept aside in the stampede! As on many occasions in history, the workers were a thousand times to the left of their leaders and a thousand times more courageous, too. “Audacity, always audacity and still more audacity!” was the slogan of Danton in the great French Revolution. Instead, they cringed and whined, they crawled before the enemy and cried “Hush!” to the working class!
Police and Army Waver
A new October revolution, on a far higher plane in industrial France, was more than a real possibility. But it was not to be. “Impossible!” “Out of the question!” cried the intrepid Communists at the time and even more vociferously after the events. “The police and army were too strong!” was their excuse.
What was the true situation? The front-page banner headline of the Evening Standard of May 23 was “Paris Police – A Strike?” A spokesperson for the police unions had declared that they “might be compelled to question the orders if they were continually called out to deal with strikers fighting for their rights.” They “understood perfectly” the motives of the strikers and deplored the fact that they were prevented from taking similar action by law.
There were 60,000 city and municipal police, 14,000 CRS and for real emergencies, a 16,000 strong mobile gendarmerie controlled by the army. As early as May 13, a police union body representing 80 percent of uniformed personnel made complaints to the government. They objected to the fact that the prime ministers had belatedly recognized that the students were in the right and then disavowed the actions of the police force who had been sent in by the government itself. “The dialogue with the students should have been carried out before these regrettable confrontations took place,” they insisted.
A petition was gathering signatures by the score among the police, declaring: “We shall no longer accept the role of clowns!” The branch dealing with intelligence about student activity had been deliberately depriving the government of information about student leaders in support of an expenses claim. Such a discontented and demoralized police force was hardly likely to prove reliable support for the government.
The total armed personnel available to the state was around 300,000. Even if morale had been high, they were completely unable to do the job of 10 million workers or force them all to work at gunpoint. Moreover, the army consisted largely of conscripts (120,000 out of 168,000 soldiers). Most of them had strikers in their own families and were reluctant to be used as strikebreakers. One soldier, asked by a correspondent of The Times if he would fire on students and workers, replied, “Never! I think their methods may be a bit rough, but I am a worker’s son myself.” Only at a later stage, when the movement was receding and becoming fragmented, would it be possible to use armed force to break up workplace occupations.
Neil Ascherson of The Observer recalled the fine traditions of the French conscript soldier, in March 1988:
I remember how, during the final death throes of French Algeria, when a plethora of murder squads were filling the gutters of Algiers with blood, there arose an organization called the OCC (Clandestine Conscript Organization). This was a conspiracy of exasperated young conscripts in the name of common sense. ‘End this war’, they said, ‘and grant Algeria independence or we will use our weapons against the lot of you.’
At the end of May 1968 the aircraft carrier Clemenceau was on its way to the French nuclear testing grounds of the Pacific when a mutiny broke out and it was brought back to Toulon. Three families were told that their sons had been “lost at sea.” A full report of this was printed in the students’ union paper, Action, of June 14, 1968, but the issue was seized and destroyed by the authorities! The left-wing paper Nouvel Observateur reported that after the 5th Army was put on alert for strikebreaking, soldiers’ committees were created to turn against their superiors and to sabotage transport and armored cars. Le Monde reported that “The Ministry of Defense have resisted all attempts to use the army in a way which might involve direct confrontation with the strikers.”
A leaflet was issued by a committee of the 153rd RIMECA (Mechanized Infantry Regiment) stationed near Strasbourg. It put forward demands for equal opportunities for all in relation to military instruction, properly integrated sex education for soldiers and “dialogue and joint management” (in education) according to the same principles demanded in universities and schools. More dramatically it went on to declare:
Like all conscripts, we are confined to barracks. We are being prepared to intervene as repressive forces. The workers and youth must know that the soldier of the contingent will never shoot on workers. We Action Committees are opposed at all costs to the surrounding of factories by soldiers. Tomorrow or the day after we are expected to surround an armaments factory which 300 workers who work there want to occupy. We shall fraternize. Soldiers of the contingent, form your committees!
The full extent of such developments inside the armed forces may never be revealed, but this leaflet alone shows what receptive ground a class appeal on the part of the strikers’ organizations would have found. It cannot be stressed enough that a rare situation in history existed – an opportunity for the socialist transformation of society to be carried through peacefully, or relatively peacefully.
“Not so!” cried the editor of L’Humanité again:
“Even if the government was crippled, the regular army with its tanks and planes, was holding itself ready to seize the pretext of the least adventure to drown the workers’ movement in blood and install a military dictatorship.”
Any attempt by de Gaulle’s regime to use the regular army, even that stationed the other side of the Rhine, would have the same effect as the march of the reactionary General Kornilov on Petrograd in August 1917. The workers would have presented a solid wall of resistance. To use the army at that stage would have been to shatter it. A revolution is more than a mere “adventure”; far greater forces were on the side of the working class than in the opposing camp.
In Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, written on the eve of the October Revolution, in answer to faint-hearts in the Bolshevik Party, Lenin exclaims:
To fear the resistance of the capitalists and yet not call oneself a revolutionary – to wish to be regarded as revolutionary – isn’t that disgraceful? … It (the capitalist class) will repeat the Kornilov revolt … No gentlemen, you will not fool the workers. It will not be a civil war, but a hopeless revolt of a handful of Kornilovites … But when every laborer, every unemployed worker, every cook, every ruined peasant, sees, not from newspapers, but with his (or her) own eyes that the workers’ state is not cringing to wealth, but is helping the poor … that the land is being transferred to the working people and the factories and banks are being placed under the control of the workers, no capitalist forces, no forces of world capital, will vanquish the people’s revolution. On the contrary, the socialist revolution will triumph all over the world.
Short of being guaranteed a painless victory in advance, how could the craven Stalinist leaders have found a more favorable situation? The balance of forces was overwhelmingly on the side of the working class. At the height of the strike, when the workers were still advancing, the ruling class was paralyzed. The state machine, although not destroyed, was suspended in mid-air. For a critical period, the levers of power were inoperative.
It was far from ruled out, of course, that the capitalist leaders would not resort to bloody military measures against the working class. Throughout history, the French ruling class has been notorious for the ruthless defense of its wealth, power and prestige. But the carrying through of a total transformation of society without violent conflict, when a favorable situation opens up, depends on the leadership of the working class.
The Communist Party leaders wailed about the danger of military reaction. But half-measures, hesitation and inaction are an invitation for the capitalists to launch a bloody reaction. A bold leadership of the working class, basing itself on genuine Marxism and conscious of its historic tasks, would not hold up its hands in horror at the dangers of struggle, but take decisive measures to pre-empt reaction. They would adopt the strategy and tactics necessary to neutralize the state’s “armed bodies of men,” mobilizing the overwhelming forces of the working class to crush any moves toward counter-revolution.
For two weeks, the leaders of the mass organizations allowed the initiative to slip away from the working class and its historic opportunity was thrown away. The paralysis of de Gaulle in the first three weeks of the crisis shows how near the workers came to a socialist change of society.
A Workers’ Democracy?
In the last week of May 1968, 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. Basing themselves on the program of Lenin, through their committees, the French workers could have proceeded to construct the most advanced form of democratic workers’ rule ever known. To do so they only had to take the simple program of Lenin, based as it was on the invaluable experience of the Paris Communards.
All committee delegates and officials, at local, regional and national level would be elected and subject to recall at any time. None of them would receive more than the average wage of a skilled worker. There would be no separate, standing army that could be used against the workers, but they would be able to defend themselves collectively. A fully democratic system of accounting and control and a drastic shortening of the working week would enable everyone to truly participate in government. “Every cook could become Prime Minister” as Lenin put it … or every engineer, every telephone operator, every bus driver, every nurse.
The workers’ action committees could have been welded together in a battle to take industry, distribution, finance and land into public ownership, under their control and management. They would have been transformed from being organs of occupation and struggle into a real parliament and executive of the working people. They could have drawn in the small farmers, small business people and shopkeepers by showing how their debts could be wiped out and new credit made available with no crippling interest payments. They could have argued for a plan to be drawn up for the production of what people need at a price determined by their own representatives. Rent, interest, profit, waste and poverty could have been wiped out. An appeal to the workers of all countries to follow suit would have had a devastating effect on the course of world history.
The pretenders to the title of revolutionary leadership, the Communist Party, proved capable of anything but a revolutionary lead in the situation. This is purely a “wages struggle,” the “workers are not ready for socialism,” they still maintained. But the role of the revolutionary party is precisely to champion even the unspoken wishes of the working class, to inspire and encourage the workers in their millions to bold action behind a clear socialist program. This, the Communist Party leaders were simply incapable of doing.
On the night of May 27, the vacuum at the top is most intensely felt. The Rue de Grenelle offers are rejected and workers wait for a lead. The enormously heightened interest in politics shows itself in the massive turnout to a meeting organized by the students’ union. The Charléty Stadium is filled to capacity with a massive crowd estimated by some to be as great as 50,000. But the political content is hazy, nebulous, confused. An old left figure, Pierre Mendes-France (a former prime minister) attends. Indicating that he is ready for a call from “the nation” and that he identifies with the students, he will not commit himself to any program. He does not speak! No one else even at this meeting has a clear program to take the movement forward.
Communist Party members had been told to stay away. There were a number of CFDT contingents with their banners, and all the student groupings. Vigier and Barjonet, now exiles from the Communist Party, were rapturously received. But ten times more energy was expended attacking the Communist Party of France (PCF) than in outlining a program for bringing down the Gaullist-capitalist regime. Another golden opportunity is lost.
The next day, May 28, the CFDT calls for an intensification of the strike. François Mitterrand makes his call for a “Provisional Government” and in the process upsets the constitutionalists among his potential allies and angers the Communist Party for making no promises of positions for them.
The heat grows for the Communist Party and CGT leaders. They have pinned their hopes on a Common Program with the Left Federation. They received 9.2 million votes between them at the last election. The Communist Party was desperate to strive to cobble together a Popular Front government. The political representatives of the petty-bourgeois, in the form of the tiny Radical Party, were still part of the Federation of the Left, and could still play the role of a stalking horse for the big bourgeois. Any common program would include only the lowest commonly acceptable of measures. A Popular Front government would prove totally inadequate to the tasks and would inevitably apply the brakes to the movement of the working class. The PCF leaders are nevertheless forced to pay lip service to “putting in first place” the nationalization of the big monopolies. They rail against governments “of a type which will not solve problems!” But fundamentally, their policies are false.
The CGT leaders now insist they have refused all the way along the line to sign anything in the talks with the government! On the May 28, the Morning Star carried the following incredible statement: “Some French reports claimed that Mr. Séguy had been booed at the Renault factory … when in fact the boos were reserved for the Employers’ Federation that he mentioned in his speech!” Later on in the same paper they insist that there is no question of Mr. Séguy telling workers to go back; he had not called them out, remember! “There have been false reports that CGT leaders tried to persuade workers to return to work! In some cases, they have made it clear that they did not consider the offer enough!” Much against the workers’ leaders leaders’ wishes – whatever their protestations and without their “permission” – the general strike continued to grow. More and more sections got caught up in the mood of defiance.