The Lessons of May ’68

Those in whose interest it is to dampen down militancy on the part of workers and youth, point to the experience of 1968 and declare that it is no use fighting: you only end up with reaction strengthened! They cite Marx’s comments that the state machine is “perfected” by revolutions. To some extent, French capitalism was forced to find new ways of maintaining its rule, moving further away from military-police methods. But it was severely shaken by the events of 1968 and will never fully regain its confidence.

Workers, on the other hand, can draw enormous optimism from what happened. In the thick of the events they had caught a glimpse of the future. “It seemed to have a good chance of working,” to coin the phrase of American journalist John Reed when he saw the new Soviet power established in Russia in 1917. Scandalously, the leaders of the mighty French workers denied them the possibility of trying out for themselves a government of workers’ councils: “We did not lose our heads,” declared Georges Séguy!

James Klugmann, writing in the Morning Star of June 6, 1968, tried to provide some “theoretical” cover for the French Communist Party’s betrayal. He pompously declared that “a revolution is more than a cry of rage.” He quotes Lenin to insist that because state power had not been transferred from one class to another, there had been no revolution in France! “The old state has been shaped and staffed to serve capitalism,” he declares. “It is necessary to replace it with a state staffed and structured to build socialism.” How? Well, for that you need a mass struggle and a revolutionary party:

In the life of a revolutionary or a revolutionary party there are no moments of great decisive political struggle, when the working people move into action and in a few weeks can rapidly change their ideas, and there are long periods of patient preparation, education and organization. There is the courage of the mass demonstration and the barricade, and there is the courage of the long patient perseverance of winning people to understand the need for and character of revolutionary change in society. Both are needed by a revolutionary party.

But which of these periods was May 1968 in France? Klugmann gives no answer. When it comes to revolution, it is just as great a crime to mistake the last month of pregnancy for the first as it is to mistake the first month for the ninth!

Klugmann then proceeds to quote a long passage from Engels’ introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. It deals entirely with the possibility of the German Social Democrats winning a majority in Parliament and not being driven into “street fighting” on unfavorable terms. Just like Karl Kautsky at the turn of the century, Klugmann leaves out Engels’ reference to the fact that the street fight and the barricades will come into their own again in the future. They try to make Engels out to be a milk and water, law-abiding liberal in order to argue against any extra-parliamentary activity! This is how reformists of the Communist Party try to justify abandoning the revolutionary for the parliamentary road just as victory was in sight.

At the end of May 1968 a new society was in the process of being born. A revolutionary party did not have to organize a violent insurrection. The only “force” needed in these circumstances was that of forceps applied at the correct moment. 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 throw such an opportunity away and start from scratch in a general election with all the power of the state and the media, back in the hands of the capitalist class?

The Communist Party of France, having vociferously advocated the electoral path, was not even capable of using the election itself in a revolutionary manner to campaign for the socialist transformation of society!


Elements had come to the fore in the student struggles who had seen the situation in France as revolutionary. Amongst them were modern day Blanquists who imagined that a courageous group of revolutionary fighters could substitute themselves for the mass activity of the working class. Many, including Maoists and some who claimed to be Trotskyists, were attracted by the romantic idea of adopting the guerrilla methods of Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro in the cities of Europe! Consequently, they had built up no base in the factories.

In the street battles of May, the youth grouped around Pierre Frank and Ernest Mandel in the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist Youth or JCR) displayed considerable courage and organizational flare. But they were forced to conclude what Trotsky had explained decades before, that “Even the most heroic intelligentsia is nothing without the masses.”

But when they had gone to seek the aid of the workers in the factories they went with an arrogant attitude, not with the humility that Lenin and Trotsky always urged. They denounced the Communist Party at every opportunity without patiently explaining the origins of the mistakes of its leadership.

Such people fail to understand the role of the mass organizations – what it has taken for workers to build them up and what deep loyalty they retain. They look for short cuts – easy alternatives to the process of raising the consciousness of millions of workers. They present the need for revolution and the need for a revolutionary party without understanding that these questions are indissolubly linked to the need to transform the existing organizations of the working class.

When it came to the election campaign, a Marxist grouping would have gained tremendously by aiming all its material towards the ranks of the worker-Communists who had been groping for revolutionary ideas during the strike. They could have urged them to demand that their leaders campaigned on the full socialist program offered by Waldeck-Rochet at the height of the events. They would have acted as a catalyst in the process of questioning that was going on already and assisted workers, especially the youth, in building the Communist Party into a mass revolutionary force.

The approach of these quasi-Trotskyists arose from incorrect and un-Marxist political perspective. Occasionally they were correct, as in launching a program during the events to link up the action committees and use them as organs for establishing a government of genuine workers’ representatives. But they squandered any capital they had built up and lost a unique opportunity to reach wider layers of workers with their ideas when they decided to call for workers to “vote blank” in the general election.

Lenin had generally recommended the boycott of parliamentary elections only if an alternative form of workers’ government was already in existence, the soviets. Unless the workers’ movement has the strength and influence actively to mobilize an overwhelming majority against participation in elections, it will founder. These sectarians did not recognize that the moment for the revolutionary transfer of power had passed and that no mass alternative to parliament now existed.

In June, as part of de Gaulle’s crackdown, the JCR and PCI were banned along with ten other organizations and newspapers. Their leaders went into hiding and some were briefly arrested. They started up again under new names but still were incapable of assessing the period they were in. They imagined that the hundreds of committees set up during the strike could be maintained indefinitely and form the basis of some form of workers’ control in industry and society. But committees of the kind thrown up in the course of big class battles cannot outlive the conditions that created them for any length of time.

At the time of the Great Strike in France much discussion was going of in Britain and elsewhere on the questions of workers’ control and participation in industry. Tony Benn was advocating more workers’ democracy as Minister of Technology at the time. The issue was even more hotly debated under the impact of the French events themselves.

In “normal” times, elements of control can be exercised by workers in capitalist industry, through bodies like shop stewards’ committees, if only to a very limited extent. Branches of workers’ parties in factories and mass meetings in every workplace at the time of an election can play an important role. In France discussions in all the factories and offices that had been occupied during the strike of the major issues at stake in the election would have enormously assisted the candidates of the workers’ parties. But the Communist Party tried to convert the action committees into election committees for the Popular Front without any systematic campaign on socialist policies.

They turned their backs on the millions of workers still on strike, leaving them to fend for themselves, and launched headlong into the election campaign. With the possibility of political change through the general strike rapidly receding, negotiations opened up everywhere and the bosses began to regain their confidence. They were nevertheless forced to use both the carrot and the stick to get French industry restarted.

Many workers had not been prepared to contemplate a return to work without cast-iron guarantees on wages, conditions and hours. Many took the opportunity of seeking assurances that full trade union rights would be exercised from now on and also that no one would be victimized for activity during the strike. Where the workers were most entrenched, the employers were forced to offer even more than before. In some cases they offered full pay for the days lost through strike action!

Electricity workers had been offered a 20 percent rise and a 40-hour week but still would not settle with the management. Bus and metro workers voted to continue the strike. The second biggest group of workers in the country, 1,400,000 shop workers, waited a few days to see which way things were going to go before making a decision. Miners in Northern France voted in a secret ballot not to accept a 10 percent offer.

Seeing the resolve of their workforce, a number of companies decided to resort to violence and intimidation. Inevitably, new explosions were provoked – new demonstrations and strikes. A thousand riot police were called in to the Renault Flins plant, where workers were refusing to hold a secret ballot. Big battles and demonstrations took place. As the CRS pursued demonstrators across fields lashing out with their riot sticks, a school student plunged into the Seine to escape the police and drowned. At Sochaux, too, riot police were called in by management and two car workers were killed in violent skirmishes.

The response in Paris was a return to barricade fighting. Five police stations were attacked. Cries of “They have killed our comrades” rent the air. On the night of June 10 some of the worst violence erupted both sides of the Seine. No less than 72 barricades were thrown up. Cars and police coaches were burned and a massive 1,500 arrests were made.

The CRS were sent in to retake other workplaces – post offices, railway stations and factories. They were sent to clear the Odéon Theatre on June 14 and to the Sorbonne on June 16. In spite of everything, Renault workers still resisted a return to work until June 17. Citroën workers in all eight factories returned a few days later and Peugeot stayed out until as late as June 24.
Fascists began sorties and attacks on buildings of the workers’ organizations. Election workers were assaulted by thugs and a Young Communist was shot dead while canvassing.

Hundreds of foreign students and immigrants were deported in the aftermath of the great strike. Many militants in the factories were victimized – no less than 925 workers were sacked from Citroën after the election.

The radio and television journalists had come out on a complete stoppage of work quite late on in the proceedings. They had been fighting an impossible battle to try and keep these media at the service of the whole of the working class. When de Gaulle reasserted his control, army technicians were sent in to ensure the transmitters were fully operational. Later 66 of the journalists were sacked and others found their programs closed down. In an act of international solidarity, Belgian radio journalists collected funds for their sacked colleagues.

Weaknesses through isolation and lack of information made a number of defeats inevitable. A certain amount of demoralization set in. All this was wholly the responsibility of the trade union federations. Once more, the “leaders” gave no lead. They urged separate negotiations on a plant by plant basis and made no arrangements to encourage workers to march triumphantly back to normal working.

Having flexed their muscles and breathed the mountain air, workers did not give up the position they had conquered lightly. But, having been defeated in terms of “who holds the reins in society,” there was no alternative for workers but eventually to hand the factories back and accept settlements on wages and conditions.

The giant of French labor had risen to its feet in May of 1968. It had broken every fetter that held it down by sheer muscle power. But to slay the enemy, Capital, a sharp sword was needed with a cutting edge – a revolutionary party with a clear, decisive and incisive leadership.

Bereft of such a weapon this giant would be laid low once more, but not without a Herculean struggle. The enemy moved in using all the weapons at its disposal, including the forces of the state and of the parliamentary organizations like Occident. Worst of all was the role played by the workers’ own organizations in assisting the bosses to attach the ropes and drive the stakes. Many sections of workers kicked valiantly against attempts to secure the shackles. One week after the election was called, more than five million were still on strike. Two weeks later, nearly two million. Even in July, some sections were still holding out.

The Economist had commented that whoever won the election would be faced with grave economic crisis and be forced to allow inflation to take back the wage gains of the workers. On May 30, the Banque de France was making appeals against support for the franc. They wanted its value to fall to increase the competitiveness of French goods on the world market, which would in turn increase prices on the domestic front. The franc reached its lowest level since 1958. Projections of a $400 million deficit were reckoned to be an underestimate. The Economist had commented that “No conceivable redistribution of the national income could satisfy the demands that had been granted even if large sums were diverted to consumption instead of investment, which would mean the healthy growth of the past would come to an end.” The Bonn government and the European Commission were prepared to make allowances for France, limiting its imports and lifting its exports in the interest of saving France from another convulsion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) made £300 million available. Pompidou had pointed out that every week of the strike lost 2 percent in annual production; every week of the strike had also meant a loss of 2 percent in every worker’s annual income, but this had seemed a small price to pay for a new future!

One million workers were still on strike when the first round of the election took place at the end of the third week in June. Lycée students were not to return to school even at their normal September starting date. But the CGT even signed a deal accepting “recovery” working to enable French industry to “catch up.” The annual increase in productivity soared from 7 percent to 12 percent, but prices rocketed too. The general strike had been a victory in terms of the massive reforms but, inevitably, wage rises and extra benefits were undermined by inflation. Many workplace agreements were torn up by vengeful management.

From the capitalist point of view, the concessions had to be grabbed back. From the workers’ point of view, a struggle on the political plane would be necessary.

Turn to Traditional Parties

In one month in 1968 workers learned more than in decades of previous experience. They had experienced a rapid awakening of all sorts of ambitions to develop their talents and abilities. They had undergone a rapid process of politicization and radicalization. A much greater interest in politics had been aroused. Looking for a forum for political discussion, workers and youth still turned to their traditional organizations. Workers will test out the leadership again and again, with a loyalty that demonstrates a very high resistance level.

Workers turned to the unions and the Communist Party. During the events they had learnt the importance of organization. Those organizations whose leaders had come to the fore in the events had deep roots in the working class. Workers turned to them in spite of the attempts of the leadership to limit their initiative and retain the apparatus under their control. There was no alternative mass Marxist party.

The workers’ organizations were still intact and they grew rapidly in the weeks of May and early June. Given the balance of forces, the bourgeois could not turn to military Bonapartist reaction until after a series of decisive defeats for the workers. There was no question of the Gaullist regime moving towards “fascism” in the circumstances, as both the Communists and the sectarians tried to imply. In any case in the situation where the strike movement was receding and de Gaulle was attempting to restore the status quo through a turn towards elections, a threat was not posed of the use of counter-revolutionary methods. Though suffering a partial defeat, the workers and their organizations were still a powerful force.

The Communist Party grew by 55,000 members in 1968. In the one month of May alone 15,000 new members signed up. Eighty new cells were set up in Paris before the end of May. L’Humanité reported “tens” and “dozens” of thousands of new members for the CGT. The Morning Star put it at 500,000 in the course of that year.

Advanced workers moved into the Communist Party, seeing it as a party of revolution and not having fully understood its role in betraying their interests. But the increase in membership of the Communist Party was as nothing compared with the prize that was within their grasp. Not 50,000 new members but millions would have flooded into the Communist Party. During the year of the Russian Revolution the Bolshevik Party increased in size from 8,000 after the February Revolution to 240,000 in October – an increase of thirty-fold. On the other hand, there were considerable expulsions from the Communist Party and the CGT members who had criticized the leadership. More convulsions and upheavals in the party would undoubtedly follow.

The CFDT doubled its membership – the reward for standing to the left of the Communist trade union federation in the course of events. They had responded more to the mood among the strikers and put forward more radical slogans. Factory elections at Renault Cleon and Michelin significantly showed a marked swing from the CGT to the CFDT. It was these layers who went of to fill out the new Socialist Party when it was set up in 1971.

For the workers of France, the May events had brought both victory and defeat; it was partial victory and partial defeat. Because the workers had retained their strength and demonstrated such determination, huge reforms had been wrung from the bosses and their government, giving an idea of what could be gained through mass action. The capitalists had to pay in the short term with significant economic concessions. But power should have been in the workers’ hands. Now it was back in those of the old rulers.

They had to wait yet another thirteen years after the Great Strike before the victory of the Socialist and Communist Parties at the Presidential and Assembly elections. After the blow of defeat in 1968, outside parliament and then in the ensuing election, workers felt dispirited. Doubts returned. Perhaps they hoped for too much? Were their dreams utopian?

Workers are not blocks of wood, but human beings, subject to feelings of elation and disappointment. All the great revolutionary Marxists understood the role of the complex psychological changes in moods of millions of workers in the ebbs and flows of historic events. They showed great sensitivity on this question. These considerations are beyond the comprehension of those who base themselves on simplistic blueprints and caricatures of Marxist strategy and tactics. Those who wrongly claim to be Communists and Trotskyists are equally contemptuous and cynical towards the workers they aspire to represent.

In 1968 the hopes of millions had been aroused – way beyond their normal expectations of life, beyond day-to-day bread and butter issues. The French workers of 1968 had far more experience and a far higher level of technique and culture at their disposal than the workers who made the revolution in Russia in 1917. Their achievements would have been on an even higher scale. Their own imagination and creative talents would have begun to blossom to a degree as yet unknown in history. In the years following 1968, the Communist and Socialist Parties should have presented a united challenge to the parties of capitalism on a convincing and audacious socialist program. A process of takeovers and mergers had reduced the French family monopolies to an even smaller number. Nationalization of the commanding heights and a program of democratic workers’ control and management would have given new inspiration to the working class. The leaders now failed on this score too.

Unable to secure victory at elections in 1973 and 1978, they were responsible for further disappointment and misery to be endured by France’s long-suffering working class. When victory came for the workers’ parties at last in 1981, with a massive 55 percent of the votes cast, it was greeted with dancing in the streets. Initially a big program of reforms was carried through but, failing to break with capitalism, the Mitterrand government went into reverse. Drastic anti-working class counter-reforms and “socialism” was once again discredited. Mitterrand even included in his cabinet such hated figures from the May Days as Grimaud, Prefect of Police and Pierre Dreyfus, Managing Director of Renault!

New “May 1968s” are only just under the surface in French society. At the time of recession in France in 1973 a “work-in” at the Lip watch factory in Besancon had become a cause célèbre. Workers everywhere wanted to see the powers-that-be back down, and keep the factory open. When, during the French holiday shutdown, the riot police were sent in to evacuate the factory, it was as if the bell of an alarm clock had sounded, and workers everywhere were roused from their repose. All the major sections of workers involved in the 1968 general strike began to move into action and in just the same order. Protests broke out even in the holiday camps and workers traveled to ministers’ country retreats to warn them that France was in danger of grinding to a halt!

In 1986, the youth in the schools, colleges and universities of France moved on to the streets against cuts in education spending. This time the mere threat of the trade unions calling general strike action led to a humiliating retreat on the part of the freshly elected conservative government of Jacques Chirac. One of the trade union leaders actually called on Chirac privately to remind him of 1968! Similar events in Spain in 1986 and the beginning of 1987 showed how youth, mobilizing behind a program of demands worked into support, active participation and also into struggle on their own behalf. The history of both countries has proved and will prove again and again that European workers have a tremendous will to win against all the odds – to struggle for mastery over their own fate.

Today [1988] the weight of the working class in French society is far greater than it was even in 1968. The conditions of life, if anything, are more explosive. A process of de-industrialization has seen the number of unemployed reach five times the figure of 1968 and left social deserts in many parts of France. A special crisis exists for immigrant workers and for school-leavers. More combustible material, in terms of anger and discontent, has been accumulated and the workers and youth have gained lessons from recent experience, both on the industrial and political planes. Almost any incident could spark off a new explosion.

Similar movements to 1968 will undoubtedly take place and, in the present world context, be of even more momentous significance. Now, as the economies of the world move further into crisis, there is no country in which huge contradictions and explosive situations have not been developing. Britain, in fact, far from being an exception, could be the nearest to an explosion in the coming period. A new “1968” anywhere would inevitably have enormous international repercussions. It would spread like a prairie fire.

One thing above all was proved by the French events – that new generations will take up new struggles with enthusiasm and energy. The working class of France, the youth in particular, who have fine revolutionary traditions, will move again and again in mighty struggles to transform the society in which they live. They will move to transform and re-transform their organizations into powerful weapons for change. The forces for a revolutionary mass party will come from within the old organizations of the proletariat – the Communist Party and the Socialist Party (which now has the greater electoral support). Without the development of a mass party with a Marxist program and leadership, the French revolution will be stormy, long and protracted.

A period opened up in 1968 similar to the period of ebbs and flows in the Spanish revolution between 1931 and 1937, though even more extended. “Revolution has a very long breath,” as Franz Mehring put it. The best way for workers and youth to prepare for the future is to draw all the possible lessons from the history of previous struggles. In the hothouse of mass struggles of a revolutionary nature, the forces of Marxism can grow very rapidly. With the correct ideas and program they will be able to go forward with confidence. It will be a privilege to experience and actively participate in the next “1968.”

The French revolution has had its dress rehearsal. During the Russian Revolution, the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg talked of feeling “the wind roar about the ears.” She also wrote: “We are living in times when everything that happens is worth the trouble.” That will be as true of the last few years of the twentieth century as it was of the first.

In France, there will be a true-life drama that will not only transform French society and complete the revolution started in May 1968. But it will fulfill the aspirations of French workers, frustrated over two centuries. It will open up a new chapter in world history that could lead directly to the establishment of a harmonious socialist society on a world scale.

When the old mole of the French revolution emerges again, and victory is assured, as Marx wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Europe will leap from its seat and excitedly exclaim: ‘Well burrowed old mole!’”

Clare Doyle, April 1988
Revised 2018