The working class waits for an initiative on the part of its organizations. When it arrives at the conclusion that its expectations have been false – and this moment is perhaps not so very distant – the process of radicalization will break off and be transformed into manifestations of discouragement, apathy and isolated explosions of despair. (Trotsky, Whither France?)
Amid press speculation about being on the verge of civil war, civil servants ask themselves how power will be transferred to the workers’ committees, as they are sure it will! Civil planners and news agency and publishing house workers join the strike. Gallery owners issue a declaration that “Art is not marketable!”
It has become obvious that de Gaulle’s referendum will not proceed. No printers could be found in France, Belgium or the South of England to print the forms and the Constitutional Committee, incredibly had declared it “unconstitutional!” This is the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court declaring the actions of the government or its legal head – the president – unconstitutional.
For this body, a not unimportant wing of the French bourgeois, to resort to such open opposition to de Gaulle’s plans, the situation must have been considered desperate. Its decision had nothing to do with “constitutional propriety,” but everything to do with the fear of the bourgeois that de Gaulle’s plans would boomerang on him and on capitalism as a whole. A rejection of his proposal by the masses would have inflamed the situation, already at fever pitch. Better to wait for an ebb – for the moment, it was necessary to try and negotiate the rapids of the revolution.
The swollen river was indeed in full flood. It had broken its banks. Solidarity action was taking place throughout Europe. There were reports of Italian dockworkers refusing to unload ships from France as they arrived at Genoa, Leghorn and Civitavecchia. The Times spoke of solidarity action by British workers in French firms. Dockworkers in the Netherlands were refusing to unload ships rerouted from France. Belgian printers refused to print L’Express.
There would have been no question of revolutionary France being left isolated. Spanish workers were already battering at the very foundations of General Franco’s regime. In Portugal, António Salazar’s dictatorship was on his last legs. An appeal to the workers of the world from a victorious French proletariat would have spelled the end of capitalism.
What was the attitude of the cliques at the head of the deformed workers’ states? Not until the June 5 did the Soviet bureaucracy take sides. China demagogically accused the Soviet Union of having helped de Gaulle by staying silent! Observer journalists commented “The last thing the Kremlin wants is a revolution in France which would deprive Russia of the considerable support it derives from General de Gaulle’s foreign policy.”
But what was at stake was the very future of the ruling bureaucracies in both Moscow and Beijing alike. If it developed, the revolutionary movement in France would sweep aside not only capitalism in Europe but also the bureaucratic elites at the head of the Stalinist states.
These considerations must no doubt have influenced the outlook of the leading Communist Party members in France, not least Georges Séguy. For his passivity, he came under fire on a radio program: “Everywhere the workers are saying they will ‘Go the whole hog’: What does this mean to you? … The statutes of the CGT declare its aim to be the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. What about that?” Séguy accepted that this was “fundamentally” the CGT’s objective but … “it remains to be seen whether all the social strata involved in the present movement are ready to go that far.” Once more the leaders decide that the masses are not “ready,” they put their hands across their eyes and maintain that they see no revolutionary situation! By the middle of the last week in May every other commentator could see it, even including former prime minister Guy Mollet, who had, on behalf of the crisis-torn government in 1958, invited de Gaulle to come back to power.
In declaring that “the situation has a truly revolutionary character,” Mollet was not having to draw any difficult conclusions in terms of his own action. The right wing of his Socialist Party had been discredited and its influence had waned considerably. But Mollet, with his long experience of French politics, like all serious observers, could not fail to record what was unfolding before his eyes. Only the political myopics who led the French Communist Party still intoned that this was not a revolution they saw before them.
The French economy ground to a halt. A few workers in one or two factories experimented with starting up production under their control, but generally there was a reign of peace throughout industry and society as a whole. The Stock Exchange and the Bank of France had been out of action for some time. Civil servants had set up a committee to supervise the senior officials at the finance ministry. But in the last days of May little was happening on this front either. The Economist commented that “in the extravagant turmoil there was a silence of the powers that be” and “The employers’ organizations are quiet, as are their members!”
By May 29 all the heavy battalions of the working class had declared themselves against any deals – the miners of the North, the Renault workers, the Citroën workers, the aircraft workers, Berliet lorries, Rhodiaceta fibres, Orly and Le Bourget airport workers. This was in spite of the fact that many offers were even above those agreed at the Rue de Grenelle. In Brittany, new strikes of small firms broke out. Caen is cut off by students and workers. Massive concessions had been offered to save capitalism; now even that desperate measure seems to have failed.
The Evening Standard commented that, “The general strike, far from showing signs of ending, is assuming more and more of an insurrectional and openly political character.” Hundreds of action committees in occupied factories are demanding a “government of the people.”
On the morning of May 29, a Cabinet meeting was due to take place. It never did! De Gaulle, the incarnation of the state itself, had packed his bags. He commented to the new American Ambassador, Sargent Shriver, that morning: “As for the future, Mr. Ambassador, it depends not on us, it depends on God!” He promptly left Paris by helicopter. Before leaving he is said to have handed to a top servant of the state, the key to a safe in which his political testament was kept. He did not appear at his country house, Colombey, and seemed literally to have disappeared from the face of the earth. In the ensuing few hours he had to calculate whether he could depend on the leaders of the workers’ organizations not being forced to challenge for power. Could he summon up the necessary forces to defeat them?
“France has no effective Government,” declared the Evening Standard. The workers still wait for an initiative from their organizations. A situation existed like that during the French revolution of 1848, described by Engels, when:
The proletarian masses themselves, even in Paris after the victory, were still absolutely in the dark as to the path to be taken. And yet the movement was there, instinctive, spontaneous, irrepressible. Was not this the situation in which a revolution had to succeed? (Introduction to Class Struggles in France)
In every shop, factory and workplace the workers’ councils would naturally be the dominant form of organization. Established at local level they would come together in the districts and at the national level the organized sections would be drawn in until they embraced all the toilers – the Parliament of the masses – where their will and demands would be exercised; real democracy as opposed to the sham democracy of the jugglers in the National Assembly. Taking up the demands of the workers, the farmers and the middle class, it would be possible to tie them together, feeling the common need for a drastic change, the need for a socialist society. Once in power, the workers’ councils, where all officials would be elected and subject to immediate recall, from being instruments of struggle for power, would then become the organs of management and control of struggle for power, would then become the organs of management and control for the masses themselves. This is what the French working classes are groping for, as the strategists of capital so cunningly understand. The only thing that stands between them and the extinction are the leaders of the mass organizations.
The Communist Party heads had precisely aimed to prevent the committees from linking up with each other. There was no National Coordinating Committee – no Central Workers’ Council – and workers remain isolated. The Evening Standard (May 31) depicted the central committee of the Communist Party as having all the levers of power in its hands, “and yet they do not want to take power!” it exclaimed. And The Economist correspondent in Paris on the same date reports: “At this very moment, the one vital question in Paris is power – who holds it or who will seize it?” The Communist Party maintained afterwards that “never for a moment was power vacant!”
That night well over half a million workers demonstrated behind the CGT banners in Paris. Placards declared: “The Sixth Republic: that’s us!,” “People’s Government.” The Metro workers had a special message: “De Gaulle – underground!” The paper of the British Communist Party, the Morning Star, maintained that the French Communist Party had “throughout the present crisis, systematically and single-mindedly fought for the replacement of de Gaulle by a people’s government!” If so, why not move to brush aside the General and his whole rotten system right then? It would be as easy as a horse swishing away an irritating fly!
Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at its flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Again, the movement for action came and went, and the workers’ leaders issued no call to move to transform society. Such critical periods cannot last long.
A general strike, even one of such a monumental scale as this one, does not automatically give power to the working class. It merely poses the question of power before the workers and their organizations. Two states vie for mastery of society. On the one side is the enfeebled bourgeois state reeling from the blows of the revolution. De Gaulle’s flight was the most vivid expression of how fragile was the confidence of the bourgeois state. It was similar to the bolt of Kaiser Wilhelm II across the border as the revolution of 1918 engulfed German society. On the other, is the embryo of a new workers’ state. This resides in the committees and shows itself in the iron control exercised by the workers over the factories.
But power does not fall into the lap of the working class like some overripe fruit from a tree! It has to be taken. History has shown that a general strike which does not lead to the taking of power is like a demonstration with folded arms. The general strike must be the starting point from which to organize, to coordinate, to ratify what the mass, the working class, had already begun – concrete planning for the establishment of a new workers’ state.
The chief role of the 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 mind 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 inevitably set in. The masses lose faith, begin to fall into indifference, and the forces of the counter-revolution begin to raise their heads. If the movement does not go forward to revolution, it will go back, and allow reaction to get the upper hand.
De Gaulle arrived back in Paris on the morning of May 30. Later in the day he spoke to the nation for four-and-a-half minutes. With a sudden miraculous access of the strength he declared that the referendum would be dropped, the Assembly was dissolved, and that a General Election would take place in the third week of June. He launched a red scare. “The country,” he said, “is threatened with Communist dictatorship.” His favorite “Me or chaos” line was brought out and dusted off, echoing the traditional cry of the French Bourbon tyrants – “After us the deluge.” He made an open call for “civil action” through the renamed Republican Committees and threatened the use of “other means” if and when necessary.
The spool of the revolution was destined to unwind, but even now the question was not yet decided. Feeling their way back to safe ground, all the old reactionary elements in society began to creep out of the woodwork. Up to a million, predominantly old and middle-class, were bussed in from all over the country to march through the streets of Paris on the day of de Gaulle’s return:
Scarcely had the General finished, than his supporters flocked to their own demonstration. The frightened, the frustrated … who had been seething with indignation during the past few weeks were filling the Place de la Concorde, ready to march up the Champs Elysées towards the Arc de Triomphe … probably not so many as the marchers on May 13, even if the police looking through magnifying glasses for a change spoke in millions … It was the sacred union of all shades of the right. Former collaborators of Vichy marched with veterans of the Free French; men carrying the United States flag walked behind Gaullist ministers and deputies, self-proclaimed fighters against the ‘American hegemony’; advocates of colonial liberation marched side by side with Algérie Française fanatics, and mealy-mouthed liberals with fascist thugs, (Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution).
With the workers’ leaders failing to provide a firm hand at the helm to guide the revolution forward, all the old rubbish was dragged up to the surface. Still this “Party of Fear” represented very little in society – human dust of a decaying class that would have been swept away by the youthful revolution. Now that the revolutionary tide was ebbing these frenzied petit bourgeois screamed hysterically: “Communism shall not pass!,” “France for the French,” “Cohn Bendit to Dachau,” “Mitterrand to the stake,” among other equally vile, chauvinistic slogans.
Lorry loads of soldiers appear just two-and-a-half miles from the center of Paris. Tanks circulate on the ring roads. Two thousand men under marching orders – two regiments – are reported to be on the move near the French border. Morale has been restored, and orders will be obeyed.
De Gaulle, it became clear, had “disappeared” to Baden-Baden for the talks with the French army chiefs including General Jacques Massu, the commander of 70,000 French forces in Germany. This was a last resort for de Gaulle. He could think only in terms of military maneuvers and the deployment of troops. “Like the figure in classical literature who need to touch ground to regain his strength, he had a need to go back to his roots – which was the army,” as his chief of police put it.
The Paris correspondent of the Evening Standard, Sam White revealed later that de Gaulle:
demanded the army’s unconditional loyalty to the regime, and then told Massu that, in the event of a revolution in Paris, the President of the Republic would establish the government on the West bank of the Rhine. A remarkable feature of the situation was that the only political leaders to receive news of what was cooking in Baden-Baden were the Communists. The French Army, through channels available to itself, let the French Communist leaders know something of de Gaulle’s intentions. By nightfall on the 29th it was clear that calm reigned in Paris and that the General could return safely in triumph.
He did deal with Massu, the “Butcher of Algiers,” buying loyalty in the execution of any task the President might assign. In return, General Raoul Salan, former head of the OAS, the murderous secret army which had been dedicated to keep Algeria French, would be released from prison. (The following month, he and other OAS ringleaders were free men).
The promise of military support had partially restored the morale of General de Gaulle, but the military option had undoubtedly been considered as a desperate last roll of the dice, if all else had failed. While de Gaulle may have dreamed of playing the role of a modern Gaston Gallifet – the general who crushed the Paris Commune in blood – any attempt to use the army would have resulted in its splitting in his hands.
However, the most decisive factor for de Gaulle was the perfidious role of the leaders of the Communist and Socialist Parties. A serious strategist of capital like de Gaulle, even with his knowledge of the cowardly role of these workers’ leaders, could not have envisaged that, with complete power being theirs for the taking, they should, like shrinking violets, demurely decline the offer!
The deputies in the now dissolved Assembly appeared completely confused if not demented. The “Lefts” decided to sing the International – the first time ever in that hallowed hall! But it was a mere gesture – they had no explanation for what happened and were simply tossed around by events beyond their control.
Within 24 hours de Gaulle had made a comeback. What was the explanation? “When he declared that the state was still there, the Communists appeared almost relieved” wrote The Economist (June 1, 1968). They could have taken power; it was being thrust into their hands by the mighty workers’ movement but they refused to take it. It was they who allowed de Gaulle to recover the initiative.
For him the burning question of the hour was how to derail the revolution, how to dislodge the workers from the factories. At all costs it was necessary to steer French society out of the stormy seas of the revolution into the calm waters of parliamentary elections. The parliamentary cretins who led the French Communist Party as well as those of the Socialist Party, eagerly embraced this proposal.
De Gaulle now entered the election campaign by getting rid of a number of ministers who had not already resigned, and proceeded to put into effect his virulently anti-communist campaign, raising the bogey of Stalinist dictatorship to stamp on any idea of radical reform. But could he succeed? Would his luck last? Wouldn’t he be swept away by the election and a Communist-Socialist government come to power?
The Communist Party eagerly entered the campaign. Instead of making a bid to take power, they welcomed the elections as an opportunity for the people to have their say – as if they had not made their wishes absolutely clear already! They gave up a sure victory and set about trying to demobilize the troops. They called on workers to negotiate the best deals possible and return to work even if other sections were staying out.
In their electoral campaign the Communist Party played down any socialist aspect of their program. Previously they had been trying to forge agreement with the Left Federation on a Common Program that would include progressive nationalization – of the banks, finance, arms industry, space, aircraft and air transport, a national investment bank and committees for workers’ power and control. When this failed, they entered the campaign looking more moderate even than the Socialists. They peddled meaningless phrases like “Democratic modernization of economic, social and political structures.” Worst of all, they tried to parade in the clothes of the enemy – patriotism, decency, respectability. With the “inspiring” slogan: “Against disorders, against anarchy, vote Communist,” they endeavored to pose as an alternative party of “law and order” to that of de Gaulle. They adopted the banner of the French bourgeois Republic in preference to the red flag of the international workers’ movement. Communists in Britain had even organized a march to the French embassy under the red flag and the tricolor of France!
Instead of arguing for workers’ democracy on the basis of nationalization of the monopolies under democratic workers’ control and management as the only way to guarantee shorter hours, higher living standards, new homes for workers’ families etc., they argued for a “new democracy that will open the way to socialism.” How long would workers have to wait? Did this mean there were two stages to the socialist transformation or a slow, gradual build up until the capitalists just gave way? Or both?
At the end of 1968, the PCF Central Committee spelled it out:
The best method of opening the way to socialism in our country is to organize the struggle of the masses against personal power, for an advanced democracy, to weaken the position of large-scale capital in the life of the nation, to bring about such a movement of the people for socialism that the monopolies would be forced to give up their positions without being able to resort to civil was to oppose the popular will.
What illusions in the good will of the capitalist enemy! What muddled, completely non-Marxist thinking!
To be sure of victory in the June 1968 elections, the Communist Party should have argued for a Communist-Socialist government on a program to nationalize the firms of the top 200 families. They could have counterpoised the “order” of the planned economy against the “anarchy” of the capitalist market – socialist democracy as against the “Cosmopolitan conspiracy of capitalism,” as Marx called it. They could have put forward a program to attract the small farmer, shopkeeper and small business people, including the cancellation of debts, the provision of cheap credit and aid, which would have rallied these sections behind the banner of the worker’s party. Instead they were trying to compete with de Gaulle on his home ground.
The Communist Party of France had failed to recognize one of the most important lessons of the French events. The middle layers in society will be won over by bold action for change on the part of the working class, not by moderation and attempts to introduce alien class ideas into the program of the workers’ party.
The outcome of the election proved that, when the classes become polarized, as they had so dramatically in the course of the general strike, then the parties most clearly expressing their class interests gain most. The small centrist party, the PSU, who had talked of “workers’ power” and described the situation at the end of May as “never more favorable for installing socialism,” nearly doubled its vote from 495,412 in 1967 to 874,212. Due to the vagaries of the French electoral system, it also lost its three deputies.
The Communist Party lost 604,675 votes and half of its deputies (in 1967 they had got 5,039,032 votes). The Left Federation lost a similar number of votes, 570,107, retaining just 57 seats against the previous 118. This represented the worst fall in votes for the socialists in their history. Later in the year the Left Federation broke up and the following year the rump of the SFIO (Socialist Party) could manage only 4 percent of the vote!
The Gaullists gained almost exactly the number of votes that the Left had lost – 1,214,623. How could this happen? The Communist Party claimed that a large number of Gaullists who had not used their vote for 20 years had rallied for the general. But there had been ten million strikers and not even all of them had voted for left parties against de Gaulle! How could they explain that?
Easy! The Communist Parties of the world declared in unison that these results simply “proved,” beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the situation in France had never been revolutionary! The Communists were right not to have tried a revolution. Obviously the workers were not ready, otherwise how could they have allowed de Gaulle such a triumph? Once more they tried to deflect the blame from themselves onto the working class. What the elections had proved was that the so-called “revolutionary” party – the Communist Party – had failed to convince France’s 15 million workers, their families and the middle class that socialism could work!
During the strike, all the doubts in workers’ minds about whether they could change society had evaporated. If the outcome of the strike had been different, they would have proved to themselves and the world what they were capable of. But once the movement begins to recede, when they have to bend once more to the yoke, those doubts inevitably flood back. Fear of the unknown is exploited by the propaganda of counter-revolution. Unless it is countered energetically by the propaganda of the revolution, it will have an effect.
The Gaullist electoral system was, of course, heavily biased against the working class areas of France and especially against the youth. The five million 16-21-year-olds in France who had become rapidly politicized had no voice at the election. Even 200,000 who had reached the voting age of 21 in the past three months were excluded because the old lists were used. The millions of immigrants and their families also had no vote. Election material was not circulated in the forces, apart from that of the Gaullists.
The weighting of the constituencies in favor of the rural areas was such that each Communist deputy had to have an average of 135,000 votes, whereas the Gaullists only needed 27,000! Nevertheless, only a few months before the May events, the Gaullists had been expected to loose out in forthcoming elections. In spite of the biased electoral system. After such a wave of unrest, they should have been destined to an ignominious and permanent defeat.
Instead, thanks entirely to the cowardly position taken by the Communist Party, not only Gaullism, but de Gaulle and capitalism itself had recovered – for a period, at least. Up to one million voters, faced with a choice between the “law and order” claims of the Communists and those of de Gaulle, preferred the devil they knew – the expert. But for de Gaulle personally, his victory was to be a Pyrrhic one.
In July, with the aim of clearing out any possible rivals for his job, he unceremoniously dumped his most faithful servant, Pompidou. He had gained too much popularity to share the same sunlight as this Bonaparte! But within a year, Georges Pompidou, the former Rothschild banking tycoon, was President of the French Republic. General de Gaulle had been dealt a mortal blow by the general strike of the workers. The coup de grâce was administered by his own hand. He finally called a referendum on participation, regional government, and was defeated. After that, he simply faded from the scene of history. “Nothing would ever be the same again,” the British press commented. “In the long term the elections were merely a sideshow.”