Wonderful yet underperformed

Jack Conrad looks back at the May-June events that rocked France 50 years ago

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In the aftermath of World War II a new generation of paid persuaders were brought to the fore: eg, James Burnham, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, Daniel Bell and John Kenneth Galbraith. They were very much needed: capitalism stood “even more discredited than after World War I.”1

Why capitalism had become so unpopular is not hard to fathom. The hunger, mass unemployment and despair of the 1930s; the elite’s close association with the rise of fascism and shameful record of appeasement; the horrendous loss of life, destruction and trauma caused by six years of global conflict; the zoological racism, used to justify British colonialism, culminating in the Nazi death camps; the necessity of suppressing the law of value and enhancing the economic and social role of the state in order to deliver military victory.

Millions flocked to join ‘official’ communist parties, while many more millions voted for some kind of socialism. Public opinion swung sharply to the left - a material factor in the class struggle, worth two dozen tank divisions. Capitalism had to adjust, had to reform. But more than that: to divert anger, to befuddle minds, capitalism had to be detoxified, disguised, rebranded. Concepts such as ‘exploitation’, ‘class conflict’ and ‘capitalism’ itself were declared to be 19th century anachronisms. Capitalism was presented as post-capitalist, crisis-free, the open society, the managerial society, the affluent society, the mixed economy - that or simply democracy. A classic case of the ‘old new’: “I saw the old approaching, but it came as the new.”2

The basic assumption was one of success, advance and modernisation. Remember, World War II was followed by the social democratic settlement and the long boom of the 1950s and 60s. Keynesian economics ruled. The German, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian and other such economic miracles were proclaimed to be the universal future. So capitalist optimism replaced capitalist pessimism.

Washing machines, fridges, TVs, cars and foreign holidays - once considered the exclusive preserve of the upper and middle classes - fast became everyday commodities. Wants, of course, become needs. That happened, first in the United States, then in the privileged circle of its imperial allies. And, as shown by the famous kitchen debate in July 1959 between US vice-president Richard Nixon and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, this chrome-plated prosperity stood in marked contrast to the hollow triumphalism reigning in the Soviet Union.3

Needless to say, the main target of the ‘new-old’ ideology was Marxism, which, conveniently, could be equated with the Soviet Union (along with its ‘socialist’ bloc and world communist movement). The CIA sponsored a “non-communist left”.4 This motley crew - mainly former Stalinites, Trotskyites and Shachtmanites - provided the “theoretical foundation” for US operations against “communism” from the late 1940s till the early 1970s.5

The consumer revolution, the technological revolution, the green revolution were celebrated with much gusto. But proletarian revolution - revolution on the model of October 1917 - was denounced as an invitation to slavery. The grim reality of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin provided ample evidence. In point of fact, the main weapon at the disposal of the ‘new-old’ ideologists was the Soviet Union itself. The gulag system, the mass purges, the absence of basic freedoms, the spread of ‘totalitarianism’ to eastern Europe and China were used to construct an existential “communist threat” to the western way of life.6

Of course, in the core capitalist countries the “communist threat” was more fictional than fact. Eg, in the US, Britain, West Germany, Canada and Australia the ‘official communist’ parties were tiny. Clearly then, in such countries, anti-communism served to discipline the working class. Ensure that it was virtually impossible to even think about an alternative to capitalism. Where there were substantial ‘official communist’ parties, ‘actually existing socialism’ served to keep the working class divided. When the ‘official communists’ spoke of ‘socialism’, many voters, not unreasonably, interpreted this straightforwardly as an offer to exchange their western living standards and democratic rights for eastern living standards and democratic rights. Either way, what is for sure is that the membership and votes of ‘official communist’ parties in the west underwent a steady decline.

With this in mind, came the comforting ‘old-new’ claim that young people were politically apathetic and in thrall to consumer culture. As for the mass of the working class, it too was thoroughly reconciled to the capitalist system. Indeed, the better paid were becoming middle class (embourgeoisified). Workers were therefore incapable of mounting any kind of collective challenge to the system. They would, instead, rely on the bargaining skills of non-political (ie, rightwing) trade union officials and vote for sensible (ie, rightwing) social democratic politicians to deliver incremental improvements within the system.

Appearance and content

The events of May-June 1968 in France shattered those myths. Sudden upheavals and the struggle of class against class had not been exorcised. Mass organisation and mass mobilisation were still decisive. And not only that: May-June 1968 proved that alone the working class could bring about fundamental social change. In other words, what the students of Nanterre began only the working class could complete.

Like Russia in 1905, this wonderful, but frustratingly underperformed drama inspired, tested and encadred a layer of youth and brought back the idea of radical social transformation ... in France, of course, but also internationally. The events of May-June 1968 in France were, in fact, intimately bound up with the Vietnamese Tet offensive, the global anti-Vietnam war protests, the US civil rights movement, demands for female equality, the 1969 Italian red autumn, the upsurge in trade union struggles in Britain, the Portuguese revolution of 1974-75, etc.

Lazy journalists insist on retelling the May-June 1968 events in France as if they solely, or mainly, involved students, putting the whole episode down to the enthusiasms, frustrations and provocations of student groupuscules, such as the March 22 movement led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Indeed ‘Danny the Red’ and his impish, youthful image captured by countless photographers and film crews, is still widely touted as being synonymous with May-June 1968.

Very convenient. It becomes a bog-standard morality tale of young revolutionaries maturing into conservative old farts. Having morphed into ‘Danny the Green’ - in 2002, he was elected co-president of the European group of Green MEPs - Cohn-Bendit went on to change colour yet again. ‘Danny the Red, White and Blue’ endorsed Emmanuel Macron in France’s 2017 presidential election in the name of realism.

But, of course, Cohn-Bendit did not create the combustible social material that was France 1968. Nor could he direct events to a successful conclusion. Cohn-Bendit was utterly incapable of doing that. The militant working class was always another country for him. Son of enlightened, upper-middle class, German-Jewish parents, this rebel against post-World War II conformism did though personify, momentarily, the widespread resentment felt by students against the stultifying rigidities of university life.

The Cohn-Bendit of 1968 hated the alienation, the soullessness of capitalist society, and recoiled from the dull prospect of 9-5 office employment. And - doubtless much to his own surprise - events moved with such an elemental speed and grew to such huge proportions that he suddenly found himself credited with being a revolutionary genius.

Pithy remarks on sexual relations, the Vietnam war, the laggardly Stalinite trade union bureaucracy and his then sincerely held wish for general human freedom suddenly appeared to embody the spirit of the age. He provided perfect soundbites. Theoretically, he was, however, a lightweight, a dilettante, an adventurer. Cohn-Bendit claimed inspiration from anarchism, autonomism, left communism and situationism.7 Spontaneity was everything. Yet despite - or, more accurately, because of - his eclecticism, his superficiality, his contempt for working class “values and traditional forms of organisation (political parties and trade unions)”, the editors, directors, producers and proprietors of the capitalist media were delighted.8 He was just what they needed. Part pyromaniac, part juvenile diversion, part gold mine.

There are parallels between Cohn-Bendit and the young Russian orthodox priest, Georgy Gapon (1870-1906), who led the doomed workers’ demonstration to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on January 22 1905. This man of the cloth momentarily found himself a popular leader and was feted at home and abroad as a revolutionary of the first order. Yet history shows that he was no such thing. In actual fact Gapon was a cheap demagogue - and a paid police collaborator to boot.

Appearance must be distinguished from content. The invasion of female dorms in Nanterre, the occupation of the Sorbonne by thousands of radical students, even the heroic night of the barricades in the Latin quarter do not constitute the real significance of May-June 1968. Cohn-Bendit and the students of Nanterre struck the match. Yet even after a week his influence was already visibly waning. On May 10, in a fit of pique, he and a few co-thinkers left Paris and headed off to Saint-Nazaire on the Brittany coast. And the student revolt itself soon became a sideshow.

In real terms the sole contender was the working class. First, it rallied to support protesting students. Then it united into a 10 million-strong general strike, brought commerce and industry to a standstill and in the process spawned countless self-governing local action committees. Finally, though suffering from programmatic myopia, remaining under ‘official communist’ misleadership and settling for a feast of crumbs, the working class showed beyond any doubt that there is no other viable alternative social power.

Four factors

But let us take several steps back. The explosion of May-June 1968 resulted from the convergence of four main factors:

1. Constitutional. Modern France is unmistakably shaped by the 1954-62 Algerian war - a struggle for national independence, which took France to the brink of civil war.

Algeria, it must be understood, was, from 1848, constitutionally part of France. In the north, along the Mediterranean coast, there were three fully integrated departments and each elected six deputies and three senators to the national assembly. Twenty-seven in total - an important bloc when it came to political horse-trading in Paris.

French colonists came to Algeria in large numbers. Some were granted extensive landholdings, but most were poor workers and peasants, hence the name pieds noirs (there were also a not inconsiderable number of political deportees). They formed a majority in Algiers and Oran. In total there were some one million colons. As with other such settler peoples, they saw themselves as having more in common with those above than those below. Even leftwing colons - and there were not a few of them - considered that they were the “standard-bearers” of 1789 and the 1871 Paris Commune, blessed with a mission to bring civilisation to the benighted Muslims.9

However, a clear majority of Algeria’s population - ie, the Muslims - were denied French citizenship and therefore had no right to vote. Indeed they faced both systematic discrimination and superexploitation. Hence the description of French Algeria as “quasi-apartheid”.10 Though the independence war might well have cost 700,000 lives, the final result was inevitable. Neither the French army, nor the systematic torture of detainees, nor the cultivation of local collaborators, nor the colons, could defeat Algeria’s Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).

French society divided over Algerian independence. Despite the bureaucratic timidity of the Parti Communiste Français, a powerful anti-war movement developed. Its main social base was to be found amongst Algerian migrants, young radicals and dissident communists. Though the PCF leadership formally upheld the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, with the same breath it maintained that “French colonies should remain French”.11 So official PCF opposition to the war remained muted, hesitant and cowardly - something which undoubtedly prolonged the agony suffered by the Algerian people and unintentionally played into the hands of reactionary France.

The war in Algeria brought about the final coda of the Fourth Republic. In May 1958 general Raoul Salan staged a coup in Algeria. He wanted to put an end to all talk of reconciliation, olive branches and negotiating a peace with the FLN. In command of a 400,000-strong army, with the overwhelming support of the colons, his Committee of Public Safety refused to recognise the Paris government and demanded that supreme power be handed to Charles de Gaulle.

Why de Gaulle? Because he was born into an upstanding royalist Catholic family that read L’Action Française. Because he was a trusted member of France’s officer corps. De Gaulle had served as a professional soldier since 1912 and during World War II commanded the Free French forces. Because as a soldier-politician he only paid lip-service to democracy. Having become provisional president in September 1944, he resigned two years later over the Fourth Republic’s “chaotic” party system”.12 De Gaulle retained an ingrained hostility to parties and party loyalties. Quite clearly he entertained Bonapartist ambitions. So the Algerian coup came like a sign from the heavens. His moment had arrived - yet again. Here was destiny calling - yet again. De Gaulle regally announced that he was available to serve France - yet again.

Salan’s Algerian-based paratroopers seized Corsica and plans were afoot to take Paris. The PCF should have immediately demanded the creation of a popular militia to defend the democratic gains of the Fourth Republic. Any worthwhile workers’ party would have done that. In the meantime the PCF could easily, given its size, set about distributing arms to the population and mobilising its members in the armed forces (during the Algerian war it rightly opposed calls for desertion - albeit for the wrong reasons). But instead PCF leaders dithered. Faced with a choice of defending the Fourth Republic alongside a weak-willed PCF (in parliamentary terms the country’s second largest party) and de Gaulle, the soggy middle ground went along with the rightwing bourgeois parties in opting for de Gaulle. On June 1 1958 the national assembly voted 329-224 to accept the general’s terms.

Granted emergency powers, de Gaulle went on, in 1959, to win a clear referendum majority for his Fifth Republic and a hybrid parliamentary-presidential constitution. But, to the consternation of the colons, de Gaulle agreed to Algerian independence. Outraged, feeling cheated, the colons staged an uprising in Algiers. However, the “week of the barricades” ended in the triumph of de Gaulle. Not that the diehard reactionaries, the ultras, were reconciled. Seeking revenge, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète launched a sustained campaign of terrorism. There were 30 OAS attempts to assassinate de Gaulle (the inspiration for Fred Zinnemann’s gripping 1973 film The day of the jackal).

All in all, however, despite the fury of the ultras - the precursors of Marine Le Pen and the Front National - France was stabilised. Nevertheless - and this is vital - the Fifth Republic was constitutionally the least democratic de Gaulle could get away with. Liberal critics branded him a “republican monarch”.

Around de Gaulle’s semi-Bonapartist presidency various Gaullist parties were established. Compared with the loose, undisciplined, locally based grouping of the traditional right, they were comparatively large and well-organised. Ideologically they stood for a strong “plebiscitary leadership” and an “interventionist state”.13 Gaullist parties were, however, firmly rooted in the state and the patronage that afforded. During presidential and assembly elections a majority could be secured by bolting on allies from the far right (those who rejected the values of the 1789 revolution) and the centre, which was socially and economically liberal. As intended, this kept the PCF safely out of government. Moreover, under de Gaulle France embarked on a singular foreign policy: an independent nuclear weapons capacity, distrust of Britain, and Europe as a potential rival to US hegemony. Yet, notwithstanding de Gaulle’s grand imperial ambitions, prior to May 1968 the country seemed to have become a model of capitalist stability.

The Algerian war and the Fourth Republic’s ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ governments had been replaced by the general’s post-colonial Fifth Republic, and a decade of sustained growth under the Keynesian Commissariat du Plan followed. But life speaks for itself. Unaware of it though he was, there can be no denying that de Gaulle stood atop a mountain of discontent.

2. Economics. The long post-World War II boom eventually petered out. Growth was harder and harder to sustain and mass unemployment - supposedly a thing of the past - returned: in 1968 France’s ‘reserve army of labour’ rose to half a million. A shocking figure at the time.

Naturally, during the long boom, the industrial working class grew in numbers. However, in an attempt to make France “marry her century”, the Gaullist regime imposed strict wage controls. De Gaulle wanted France to catch up with Germany, Britain and the United States. The result? Slower increases in pay, compared with other workers in western Europe, and ever widening differentials between workers’ incomes and those of middle class professionals and the upper managerial and bureaucratic echelons. Resentment built and built.

3. Culture. In every field - politics, music, sexuality, theatre, film, clothes - there was a rising tide of rebellion against the dehumanising conformism of post-World War II society. A growing and ever more assertive minority were determined to live differently (vivre autrement). Undoubtedly this was a product of higher levels of education and increased living standards. No matter how squeezed, the human spirit found room to breathe. Moreover, because of Cuba, Vietnam, America’s Black Panthers, Mao Zedong’s red guards and Che Guevara, revolution became something of a fashion (a mixed blessing).

4. Students. In response to the socio-economic requirements of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, its big administrative machine and the managerial economy, university intakes dramatically increased. Students became a large, distinct, generational group. Numbers shot up from 200,000 in 1961 to 500,000 by 1968. However, their prospects could be less than dazzling. Universities produced an “inordinately enlarged” stratum of intellectuals who had no hope of meaningful employment (at least in terms of their training). This overproduction of intellectuals, plus rigid administration, outdated teaching practices, suffocating overcrowded lecture halls, single-sex dorms in the age of the pill and rebellion against old sexual mores, led to anger, resentment and a willingness to protest.

However, there were no officially recognised forms of organisation that could facilitate change. As a punishment for its anti-war activities in the early 60s, the French students’ national union had been severely restricted. Treated as a sworn enemy, it was denied state funds and university facilities. In 1968, it had only half its 1961 membership - that despite the massively increased intake.


“Most of our people have never had it so good,” boasted British prime minister Harold Macmillan (1894-1986). He was right. British workers, in great part due to their day-to-day guerrilla struggles, were steadily becoming better off. However, there was no mass socialist consciousness. No vision of another, higher, society. People took wage-slavery for granted, as they did the hierarchical division of labour, commodity production, the strong state, nationalism, etc.

France was different. But not much. Wages were successfully kept down, relative to capital accumulation. Nonetheless, they were still going upwards. A French version of the ‘embourgeoisified worker’ thesis inevitably followed. Trade union membership seemed to confirm the notion. From a peak of seven million in 1945, by the late 60s numbers were down to little more than three million. Reassuringly weak.

De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic was celebrated internationally as a success story. The 1960s saw a few big strikes. But the spirit of 1848, 1871 and 1936 - which made France the revolutionary centre of Europe - had been banished forever. A claim made with supreme confidence.

True, the PCF still had 250,000 members, would normally score 20%-plus in general elections, but it considered the Soviet Union a shining beacon of socialism, which ought to be emulated. However, like the Socialist Party, the PCF was now strategically wedded to the French state. It dreamt of a reformist road to national socialism through the Elysée and through the existing constitution. On that basis, in February 1968 the PCF and the SP formed an electoral alliance in the attempt to replace de Gaulle with François Mitterand.

The PCF’s commitment to beating de Gaulle by electing another semi-Bonapartist president and achieving its programme of reforms through deal-making in the national assembly had to involve fostering all manner of illusions and actively working to undermine class-consciousness. In the name of Marxism the PCF leadership attacked Marxism. And through a suffocating bureaucratic centralism the PCF’s apparatus imagined it could keep the membership as loyal automatons - there to marshal the working class for routine demonstrations and routine elections.

Naturally, anything that got in the way of this road to oblivion was bitterly resented. And, of course, the student revolt did just that. Through their joyous, audacious and often impromptu actions over May 3-11, France’s students overturned what had passed for common sense. So-called affluent society does not result in universal contentedness, universal political consensus, let alone universal bovine apathy.

Occupations, mass demonstrations, the night of the barricades - all showed beyond dispute that France’s students, a sizeable minority anyway, were far from contented. The student vanguard prided themselves on demanding the impossible. True, the impossible was not won on May 11. But the students got something not far from it. Prime minister Georges Pompidou, having returned from visiting Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, took to the airwaves and all but surrendered. The three main demands of the students were to be met: reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne, withdraw the police from the campuses, release all those who had been arrested.

De Gaulle’s France was visibly shaken. Ideologically the entire establishment found itself in disarray and lacking coherent political strategy. State power stood before society much diminished. As far as ministers, core bureaucrats and police chiefs were concerned, the student revolt came out of nowhere. There was shock, bewilderment and a sense of impotence. It simply should not have happened.14 Affluence, or the promise of affluence, should bring selfish individualism, not a howl of collective protest.

Oppression, attempts at intimidation and media lies that it was all the work of outside agitators palpably failed. They had backfired, made matters worse and handed the students a considerable body of public sympathy. Even more worrying, the PCF and the trade unions committed themselves to a one-day general strike on May 13 (called despite the statutory requirement for five days notice).

Predictably, however, true to its programme, the PCF leadership - and the Confédération Générale du Travail - wanted nothing more than a tame show. Allow those below to let off steam and then safely return things to normal. That was the purpose of its one-day general strike. Nothing more.

But events were now moving according to their own momentum. The flame of revolt was intensifying, spreading, leaping. Pompidou’s radio speech offered too little, too late. Student confidence was soaring. They wanted more, much more, and were constantly looking for ways to up the tempo.

Eg, in the early morning of May 12 students burst into Strasbourg university and hoisted the red flag. Inspired by the street fighting in Paris, they proclaimed the university’s autonomy from the ministry of education. Showing how even small numbers can have big effects under such circumstances, later the same day, 40 militants belonging to the Movement d’Action Universitaire took over the Censier annex of the University of Paris Faculty of Letters. Founded in March 1968, MAU consisted mainly of graduate students and research workers. Many were veterans of the protests against the war in Algeria. So they probably had a reasonably good idea of what they were about.

The annex was targeted because, whereas the main buildings of the Sorbonne were still surrounded by thousands of police, it was left unguarded. The doors were forced open. MAU was determined to begin a general political discussion. Everyone was invited. Anarchists, Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyists - each revolutionary school contended. For the whole day and into the night debate raged. Unrestricted. Impassioned. Exhausting. Exhilarating.

Strasbourg and Censier were models that came to be copied many, many times over.

General strike

Support for the general strike on May 13 - the 10th anniversary of the Algeria coup that brought de Gaulle to power - was overwhelming. Yet, though the CGT had given the strike order, it was the student leaders who kept the initiative.

When the 800,000-strong demonstration set off from the Gare de l’Est, it had in its front rank Alain Geismar, Jacques Sauvageot and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. For once Georges Séguy, François Mitterand, Pierre Mendes-France and Waldeck Rochet - the leaders of the established left - had to find their place in the crowd.15

The groupuscules had stepped out of the university ghetto and put themselves at the head of the massive worker-student demonstration. It snaked its way through Paris and exuded confidence. The police kept their distance. No routine march this time. Slogans thrilled, communicated, captivated. Closing speeches were not the signal to quietly head off home. They commanded attention. Something real, something important was being said. There were pleas and pious demands on the government. But there were also calls to cement worker-student unity, demands for radical social change and spreading the protests.

And the day was not yet over. After the trade union tops had marched off their members, the student leaders did the same. Only to the call, ‘Everyone to the Sorbonne’. Pompidou had been true to his word - imprisoned students had been freed. The police pulled back from the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne was no longer under guard. Students poured in, occupied the building and established their ‘free university’. Thousands of students - and many others besides - endlessly debated, invited VIP intellectuals to address them, issued momentous resolutions … but could go no further. Yet, as the student movement reached its height, the centre of gravity shifted. May 14 saw mass strikes and workplace occupations.

Paris was always in first place, but there were other centres too. Indeed there were as many centres of revolt as there were centres of big industry. Sud Aviation workers in Nantes had been engaged in a long-running dispute with management. Every Tuesday morning they would stage a token 15-minute strike. This Tuesday - May 14 - was to be different: a new daring had been acquired. They locked up the management in their offices, formed an action committee and occupied the plant. There was hardly any need to think about it.

Next it was Renault. Workers at Rouen, Flins and Boulogne-Billancourt struck. Then all 60,000 Renault workers moved together. The company’s six main plants were occupied. Managers were locked up and had to endure a workers’ escort to the lavatory. Shipyards and hospitals followed. So did Citroen and the ports of Le Havre and Marseille. All were closed. On May 16 some 50 workplaces were under occupation and 200,000 were on strike.

Under such conditions the PCF did everything to catch up in order to take the lead. But what sort of a lead?

In politics words are weapons. They can be explosives or tranquillisers, stimulants or poisons. The rival factions that made up the Socialist Party - effectively a loose electoral bloc - wanted to tranquillise. Sympathy was expressed for the students - at least in so far as they were calling for educational reforms and democratisation.

However, given its revolutionary origins, continued pretensions and deep implantation in the militant working class, it was the PCF that felt under acute threat from the left. Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist organisations were not just growing: these irresponsible elements had captured the student movement. An outrage. The PCF was determined not to lose its hegemony over the working class nor risk anything that might upset its national assembly road to national socialism.

Hence its words were designed to poison. It talked down the political side of the strikes and occupations and rubbished the student leaders. Cohn-Bendit, because of his media status, was a particular target. There was no revolutionary situation. All the workers were after was higher pay and better conditions. As to governments, they should be replaced through the existing system of law. Not an irresponsible and potentially catastrophic use of unconstitutional methods.

The PCF wanted to lead the wave of strikes and occupations in order to take things back into the safe waters of parliamentary wheeling and dealing. Therefore a parallel can be drawn between ‘official’ social democracy in Germany in 1918 and ‘official communism’ in 1968. Both acted to stabilise the system. Guided by such considerations, the PCF did its utmost to keep workers and students separated.

So, when on May 18 students expectantly marched to the giant Renault plant in the Paris suburb of Boulogne­ Billancourt, CGT stewards made sure they were not let in. Gates were kept firmly barred and bolted. The ‘official communists’ wanted workers eyes firmly fixed on economic crumbs. The anarchist ravings coming from the Sorbonne were to be treated with contempt.

But workers kept moving, kept striking, kept occupying. Their revolt grew and grew … On May 19 two million were on strike. By May 22 10 million, or roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. Footballers and nuclear power workers, even weather forecasters struck. The Odéon national theatre was occupied. Air and rail traffic stopped. Postal deliveries dried up. There was no public transport in Paris, Nice, Marseilles and a string of provincial towns. Banks began to run out of cash and had to ration customers. But, though this was the biggest general strike in history, at no point did a general strike order go out from the headquarters of the CGT or one of the smaller trade union confederations. There was no master plan.


France had been brought to a standstill through a spontaneous movement. Despite that, because of that, Pompidou issued dark warnings about the communist danger, manipulation from Moscow and red dictatorship. De Gaulle saw the sinister hand of the PCF behind events too. Or so he said. But the PCF had no wish to gamble on unconstitutional methods.

Nevertheless, government authority sunk into panicked incoherence. What had been student unrest was now a massive general strike. Inevitably that triggered a constitutional crisis. Splits in the political class became ever more numerous and pronounced.

De Gaulle appeared before the country in 1958 as a saviour. Now the general looked like a political corpse. He disappeared from public view. Apparently, though, he was consulting with French military commanders in Germany. Meanwhile OAS remnants undertook an inventory of their arsenals. Pompidou favoured giving more ground before agreeing to the use of other means. Ministers compiled lists of which government buildings would be allowed to fall to the students and workers and which should be stoutly defended. It was surely not a sense of humour which led him to the decision to keep hold of the Comédie Française.

On the reformist left, unconstitutional thoughts began to stir. The old contender, the Radical Party’s Pierre Mendès-France, awaited the call Kerensky-like. The new contender, the Socialist Party’s François Mitterrand, tentatively suggested a provisional government, perhaps with Mendès-France as caretaker prime minister, perhaps himself as interim president. The PCF protested - it did not want to be left out in the cold.

Clearly the student revolt was nothing compared with the forces now ranged against the Fifth Republic. Things were dangerously out of control. More, there was a danger that students and workers would unite and some kind of dual power emerge. Actually this already seemed to be taking elementary form.

Alongside, and closely associated with, both the student revolt and the spontaneous general strike there were the local action committees. They sprung up with incredible speed: in schools, universities, government offices, occupied factories and residential areas.

Could these action committees have been linked up? Could they have played a role analogous with the soviets in Russia and gone on to provide the organs of power for a new France?

For many a young revolutionary this should have been year one of the new proletarian order. But what transformed dual power in Russia into working class state power was the Bolshevik Party. Soviets without the Bolsheviks would have been incapable of holding things back when necessary and taking decisive action when the moment was right. Soviets without Bolsheviks would have been soviets led by the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary parties ... who were committed to making Russia fit for capitalist rule. And as Alexander Kerensky well knew, as general Lavr Kornilov well knew, that could only be achieved through a counterrevolutionary regime and killing on an industrial scale. Needless to say, the PCF was no Bolshevik Party. Politically it had more in common with rightwing Menshevism.

A lost opportunity

Without a revolutionary party, with the working class still dominated organisationally and ideologically by the PCF, there was never going to be a socialist revolution. However, that did not mean de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic were invulnerable. But, challenged by a spontaneous revolt, official France was always going to attempt to regain the initiative. It had plenty of room to manoeuvre. It had the means to make threats. But also the means to make concessions.

Georges Pompidou busied himself with negotiations. He sent Jacques Chirac to cut a deal with the CGT’sGeorges Séguy. The resulting Grenelle protocols promised substantial pay increases and a host of other gains. The minimum wage was to increase by 35%. Agricultural workers would get their pay realigned - that meant rises of between 56% and 59%. There was also an agreement that there would be payment for strike days. It was to be 50% of normal wages. Trade union officialdom could claim a splendid victory.

Having returned from West Germany, where he had consulted his generals, de Gaulle wanted to appear on TV to address the nation. But the TV stations were under occupation. So he turned to the radio (actually his preferred medium). On May 30 he spoke at last.

De Gaulle not only pledged to abide by the Grenelle protocols but announced the dissolving of the national assembly and fresh elections within 40 days. That satisfied the reformist left. Demands for de Gaulle’s immediate resignation were dropped. PCF posters had been calling for a vague “government of the people” (but not a general election or a constituent assembly). Plans for a provisional government were quietly abandoned too. Suddenly the reformist left regretted its “attempt to steal their way into office in the shadow of barricades erected and defended by others”.16

The PCF was more than willing to play by the loaded rules of the Fifth Republic. General secretary Waldeck Rochet and the PCF central committee were obviously convinced they would make sweeping electoral gains. Surely a left majority in the national assembly.

De Gaulle’s broadcast also served to cow. Warning of the danger from “totalitarian communism”, he called for “civic action” against lawlessness, intimidation and conspiracy. Continuation of the general strike would make his elections impossible. The anarchy had to be brought to a swift end. If strikes, occupations and street clashes persisted, he would, though, resort to “other ways”.

Despite rumblings of discontent in the largely conscript army (and even in the police union), de Gaulle was, it appears, ready to deploy a 20,000-strong army force against Paris - carefully selected, judged suitably loyal and ready to do their sworn duty.

There are those who are so irredeemably committed to peaceful methods that they insist that de Gaulle was just bluffing. That the military would never have been given the command to act. Germany 1919, Italy 1922, Spain 1936, Chile 1973 and many other such bloody counterrevolutions in the 20th century tell us that this is delusional.

Being a ‘man of action’, de Gaulle would surely have done all that was necessary in order to save his beloved France. He would not have flinched from following the example of Gaston de Galliffet - the general responsible for crushing the 1871 Paris Commune. Some 30,000 Communards died in his week of military terror and later another 50,000 were executed or imprisoned. De Gaulle was a battle-hardened brigadier general, as well as being president, and would certainly have risked the use of force if peaceful means had failed him - even if that meant going down in leftwing demonology as a rightwing butcher.

Of course, de Gaulle’s calculations took into account the proven cowardice, timidity and narrow-mindedness of the PCF leadership. He might have secured diplomatic reassurances from the PCF’s sponsors in the Soviet Union too. If Moscow got the PCF to behave responsibly, then as a quid pro quo de Gaulle would not interfere, should there be, as expected, moves to end the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia (Warsaw pact tanks entered the country in August 1968).

De Gaulle had another potent weapon available to him. Mobilising conservative France onto the streets. Obviously such a move does not count as ‘normal’ bourgeois politics. Taking to the streets is to admit that things are not normal. Anyway, using all the resources available to the state to get them there, a million marched down the Champs-Elysées.

And, having isolated the revolutionary students and seeing the reformist left recoil from its unconstitutional mutterings, de Gaulle pressed home his advantage. Committees of Civic Action sprung up at the state’s command. They organised thugs to attack the left. Shots were fired at various PCF buildings.

To further instil fear, soldiers and tanks were ostentatiously moved around the country. Reservists were called up with the declared intention of using them as strike-breakers. Armed police ejected pickets from the central post office at Rouen. Then the riot police, the CRS, invaded Peugeot’s Sochaux plant. Similar scenes occurred throughout the country in what became a campaign of capitalist reoccupation - but the main strike-breaker was the PCF and the trade union bureaucracy (supported, at the time, by the Morning Star in Britain).

Back-to-work ballots were imposed by the PCF-CGT and local (surrender) talks between workers and employers began. Negotiations took place company by company, department by department, profession by profession. Class unity would have proved a big obstacle. So ‘divide and demobilise’ became the PCF’s unofficial watchword. Nothing should be allowed to get in the way of the forthcoming general election.

Reaction had clearly regained the initiative. After its brief experiment with ‘objectivity’, state radio (considered by the Gaullists as being more important than TV) not so subtly returned to type as a propaganda mouthpiece. In total 57 journalists and technicians were fired. They had demanded an end to government interference and identified themselves with the general strike.

Though most workers did not go back until well into June, the moment had been fatally squandered. The Sorbonne occupation was ended on June 16 by the now standard use of CRS batons and teargas. A symbolic turning point. What goes for normality under capitalism was returning.

So-called foreign agitators were deported. Xenophobically the PCF actually welcomed this move. There were during the course of the May events repeated PCF warnings against “ultra-left provocations”. Almost in response, the government banned street demonstrations. Serving the self-same agenda, it declared illegal 15 extremist groups, though none from the far right (such as Occident). Indeed to bring the far right on board general Raoul Salan of 1958 fame, and then an OAS terrorist, was released from prison (in 1962 he had been sentenced to life).

On May 29 de Gaulle appeared finished. After the June 23 and June 30 two-rounds of elections he and his allies were back with the largest majority in the history of the Fifth Republic. The Gaullists won 294 seats (compared with their previous 197).

It was not that there was a huge swing to the right in terms of the popular vote. A mere three percent. But the two-round election system did its job exceedingly well. The soggy centre was largely absorbed by the right and that squeezed the reformist left. The Federation of the Left slumped from 118 to 57 seats, the PCF from 73 to 34 and United Socialist Party from three to zero.

What situation?

Quite understandably, ‘official communists’ belittle or simply want to forget the events of May-June 1968. After all, the PCF played a foot-dragging, shameful and ultimately self-defeating role. Thanks to the PCF, the Fifth Republic was safely returned from the storm waters of an unprecedented general strike. Hence anniversary after anniversary the usual response is a lobotomised silence.

After 50 years, however, what remains of the PCF has dishonestly reinvented itself. Today it considers it clever, beneficial and, equally to the point, safe to cloak itself in the garb of 1968. Without a blush of shame it claims prime responsibility for “bringing together workers and students” and changing “the nature and scale of the events” on May 13. As if the PCF had consciously and determinedly planned this from the beginning.

Yet, whatever the particular take, PCF spokespersons and apologists agree on one thing: there was no revolutionary situation. To illustrate this we shall quote and discuss the statements of two prominent intellectual ornaments of ‘official communism’.

First, Louis Althusser (1918-90). Conveniently ill during the events of May 1968, the structuralist philosopher came to the rescue of his party leadership soon afterwards. Althusser issued a scribbled note claiming that the PCF “presented things in their real order: the primacy of the general strike over the student actions”. Although banal and superficial, it proved very useful.

Althusser’s hostility to Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘humanism’, his following among Maoist students and his extensive body of work - he authored numerous books, including the influential Reading Capital and For Marx - meant that for many Althusserianism represented the highest stage of Marxism.

In reality Althusser was an academic charlatan. His madcap claim that the only truly ‘Marxist’ writings ever penned by Marx himself - ie, those supposedly shorn of every trace of Hegelianism - were the Critique of the Gotha programme and Marginal notes on Wagner give us the flavour of his real worth.

And, of course, the PCF did not put things in their “real order”. There was never a choice between the “primacy” of the workers’ general strike and the students’ actions. Daniel Cohn-Bendit and other student leaders always acknowledged the “primacy” of the working class. However ham-fistedly, however naively, the revolutionary students really did try to build links and make common cause. The relevant question, then, is what attitude the workers’ party - in this case the PCF - took to the student revolt?

Here, it is useful to once again bring in the Bolsheviks. According to Gregory Zinoviev, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, the Bolsheviks felt “obliged” to take students “in tow behind the working class” - to “help”, “lead” and “direct” students who were against tsarism. Strengthening the working class means constantly striving to take on “assistants and auxiliary forces”, not least students, who were “to any degree” inclined to struggle.17

What a contrast this makes to the condemnations, the insults, the poison of the PCF. Developing working class consciousness in May 1968 did not mean shunning rebel students, as they marched expectantly to the gates of occupied factories. They ought to have been welcomed - and with open arms at that. Debates, discussions, negotiations, fighting alliances and political merger could then have followed.

On the night of the barricades communists should have mobilised the entire ‘red ring’ of Paris to defend the students. As militant workers faced down the CRS, as surely they would have, as the workers took the students under their protection, the problems of Georges Pompidou and the Gaullist regime would have multiplied many times over.

Moreover, as we have described above, the PCF did not give the general strike pride of place. Kowtowing before de Gaulle’s constitution, it gave “primacy” to the national assembly elections. And, to quote another Bolshevik, this time Lenin himself, “the action of the masses - a big strike, for instance - is more important than parliamentary activity at all times, and not only during a revolution or in a revolutionary situation”.18

Our second ‘official communist’ ornament is Eric Hobsbawm. A thorough-going Stalinite, Eurocommunist and the intellectual inspiration behind New Labour. He excused the PCF because there was “not”, he says, “a classical revolutionary situation”. Apparently the “forces of revolution were weak, except in holding the initiative”.19

Lenin’s many-sided, thoroughly sober and certainly well informed discussion of what he calls the “fundamental laws of revolution” in ‘Leftwing’ communism (1920) can confidently be used as a “classic” statement of what constitutes a revolutionary situation. It is a rather long passage, but for our purposes illuminating:

The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions, and particularly by all three Russian revolutions in the 20th century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. Only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way - that revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nationwide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters).

It follows that, for a revolution to take place, it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers (or at least a majority of the class-conscious, thinking, politically active workers) should fully realise that revolution is necessary, and be prepared to die for it; second, that the ruling classes should be going through a governmental crisis, which draws even the most backward masses into politics (symptomatic of every genuine revolution is a rapid, tenfold and even hundredfold increase in the size of the working and oppressed masses - hitherto apathetic - who are capable of waging the political struggle), weakens the government and makes it possible for the revolutionaries to rapidly overthrow it.20

What light do these formulations cast on France in May 1968? Well, there was a nationwide crisis - no doubt about that. There were hundreds of workplace and university occupations, thousands of action committees and a 10 million-strong general strike. Such figures show the depth and breadth of social discontent. Clearly, under such circumstances, the ruling class could not rule in the old way. There was also a rapid, hundredfold - perhaps thousandfold - increase in the numbers who entered into political activity. Backward masses were drawn into politics, both for the party of order and the party of disorder. Each side fielded million-strong demonstrations in Paris.

Palpably, what France lacked was revolutionary will amongst the working class. Though they pushed it to the limits, the mass of workers remained within the mental frame of wage-slavery. The vast bulk of the 10 million strikers wanted better wages and conditions. Despite the general strike, the factory occupations and the action committees, the working class did not strive to seize state powers.

Why? There was no vision of a real socialist alternative. The PCF’s paradigm was the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, Poland, etc. The PCF stood for a similar national socialism, albeit “in the colours of France”. Quite understandably, few were prepared to die for that in 1968.

However, the lack of a “classical revolutionary situation” cannot be used to excuse the PCF. The PCF had no goal of human liberation and general freedom. Its vision of the future was grey, technocratic and uninspiring. More than that - far more than that: the PCF did its damnedest to demobilise the masses. It did everything to misdirect and haul back.

May 1968 was a festival of the oppressed. Workers and students performed a miracle. They stunned a complacent government, threw it into utter confusion and even had de Gaulle scuttling away from Paris. What was lacking was a revolutionary party. Ironically, at the time, The Economist was able to put its high Tory finger on this, the most vital of subjective factors:

A revolution requires the coming together of a revolutionary situation and a party or organisation ready to take power. Since France has been virtually brought to a standstill, the situation might appear revolutionary. But the party that has always claimed the revolutionary role shows no sign of wanting to fill it. The communists have jumped on the train, but only to pull the brake.21

As we have said, a real Communist Party would have ensured that the working class identified with, defended and moved to lead the students. As the workers swung into battle, the party would advance the minimum demand for a Sixth Republic ever more boldly, ever more concretely. De Gaulle’s loaded national assembly elections should have been rejected. A provisional government and elections to a constituent assembly demanded in their place. A Sixth Republic would be born, cleansed of the monarchical presidency, the upper house senate, the CRS, the standing army, the overblown bureaucracy, the securocracy and all the other oppressive muck and grime. That would have put the working class at the forefront of the battle for democracy - the Sixth Republic being the form we envisage working class rule taking in France.

If only …

Leftwing accounts of the May 1968 events in France usually conclude with a pretty standard ‘if only’ list. Mine included. More, far more, was possible.

If only … the general strike had been allowed to continue. If only … the workers’ occupations had been encouraged to welcome in the student revolutionaries. If only … workers had gone beyond the economic limits of wages and conditions. If only … the action committees had been coordinated and given unified national expression. If only … workers had established defence guards. If only … they had raised their sights to include the demand for a Sixth Republic and a workers’ government supported by the middle classes. If only … the workers’ parties had called for a boycott of de Gaulle’s national assembly elections.

The above can be viewed on the one hand as an ‘if only’ list which is used to excoriate the PCF and the rest of the reformist left in France: on the other hand an ‘if only’ list that simultaneously serves as a proverb, showing how we would imagine ourselves acting under similarly promising circumstances.

But there are those whose ‘if only’ list is based on the idea that proletarian revolution, a social rupture equivalent to Russia October 1917, was really on the cards in France 1968.

The contention is that events, if left to themselves, would have produced a full-blown revolution. Pure fantasy. The working class can only capture state power, and, equally to the point, maintain state power, by organising itself into an internationalist - or international - political party. Its scientific name being a Communist Party.

Without such a party the working class cannot act as a sustained collectivity, cannot manoeuvre tactically, cannot think strategically, cannot hope to reach to the global. Our party provides the historically tested theory, the agreed programme, the democracy and the discipline needed to convince, unite and coordinate the widest possible forces.

Crucially it is only through its political party that the working class can govern. Modern societies are, after all, highly complex. Every country, without exception, relies on an interrelated web of production and exchange spanning the entire globe.

Meeting the material needs of the population therefore requires centralism. This can be ensured either by the market and bureaucratic command or the democracy and planning which a workers’ government can alone supply.

Occupations and action committees by themselves tend towards sectionalism, localism and fragmentation. Collectivity proves momentary, soon decays and in due course morphs into competitive, often bitter and sometimes ugly rivalry.

When it comes down to it, what this second ‘if only’ list amounts to is a wish list. Either the PCF is magically disappeared or - equally impossible - the PCF of May 1968 could have, should have, behaved in the manner of the Bolsheviks in 1905, in February and October 1917.

The forces of democratic counterrevolution proved stronger than the forces of revolution. Not because of numbers, but because of wrong theory, wrong programme and wrong organisation. Neither the PCF’s Waldeck Rochet nor the students’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit proved to be a match for de Gaulle. Neither ‘official communism’ nor student anarchism was capable of turning revolutionary potential into a ‘classical’ revolutionary situation. ‘Official communism’ because it did not want to; student anarchism because it was not capable - despite its subjective wishes.

Under such circumstances the spontaneous explosion could only express itself negatively. Rebellion against worsening student conditions, rebellion against depressed wages, rebellion against old cultural norms and impositions. Initiative was therefore bound to pass to reaction and the established order. It could grant meaningful concessions and make meaningful threats.

We must add that the PCF acted as it did because it was programmatically hard-wired to do so. Talk of betrayal misses the point. The PCF behaved in a manner sadly analogous to Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the frog: ie, scorpion stings frog midstream, even though that means certain death for both creatures. Since the mid-1930s, constitutionalism, nationalism and self-destruction have been coded into the PCF’s political DNA. Loyalty to the Soviet Union, red, white and blue patriotism and making parliamentary deals central to political strategy led, inevitably, to the PCF’s decline into a reformist sect.


What May 1968 posed point blank was the necessity of overthrowing the PCF apparatus, destroying the influence of its central committee and building a mass party - a Communist Party - worthy of the tradition of 1789, 1793, 1848 and 1871. Most on the left thought they could simply go round the PCF. The May-June events of 1968 showed in no uncertain terms that this was fundamentally mistaken.

Strangely, given its failure, May-June 1968 has become a model for the contemporary revolutionary left. In France, in Britain, in the US, in all advanced capitalist countries. True, May 1968 offers the hopeless a modicum of hope. Small left groups emerged out of nowhere. But they quickly returned to nowhere. Nevertheless, the nonsense endures. Any strike, any protest, any grievance can be elevated into a revolution.

Hence the rejection of the Marxist minimum-maximum programme and the serious task of building a mass Communist Party. In its place are the innumerable confessional sects and their particular version of Leon Trotsky’s highly problematic Transitional programme.

Instead of honestly presenting the demands of the communists and their plan for the working class gaining power through democracy, and on a continental and intercontinental scale at that, there is a reliance on trickery and manipulation. Mass socialist consciousness, deep organisation and the necessity of open debate are either played down or dismissed outright. The hope is that one’s own confessional sect, invariably through various fronts, stunts and campaigns, through acting like a series of springs, cogs and wheels, will in due course lever into motion much bigger forces - eventually enough of the working class needed to deliver state power into the hands of the chosen sect.

It has never worked in the past. It will never work in the future. Those who fondly look back at the glorious demonstrations, the intoxicating sense of freedom and the lightening successes of the sects in May-June 1968 should remember one other thing. Our side lost. The task now is to think and rethink.


1. AS Linderman A history of European socialism New Haven CT 1983, p334.

2. B Brecht Poems 1913-1956 London 1987, p323.

3. Taken around a US exhibition in Moscow which claimed to show how ‘ordinary’ American families lived, Khrushchev resorted to empty bombast. The Soviet Union would have the same things in a few years and then say ‘bye bye’, as they surged ahead of the US. The Nixon-Khrushchev exchanges were recorded and broadcast in both countries.

4. H Wilford The CIA, the British left and the cold war: calling the tune? Abingdon 2013, p4.

5. FS Saunders The cultural cold war: the CIA and the world of arts and letters New York NY 2013, p53.

6. H Wilford The CIA, the British left and the cold war: calling the tune? Abingdon 2013, p126.

7. The Situationist International was a tiny, highly fractious and much overrated sect of radical artists and intellectuals. It claimed antecedents in the ideas of Karl Marx: in actual fact, though, it owed more to dada than Marxism. There can be no denying that the writings of situationists like Guy Debord (1931-94), Attila Kotanyi (1924-2004), etc exercised a strong influence over the minds of a layer of student activists. Romantic and utopian slogans, inspired by, or directly taken from, key situationist texts appeared on countless Parisian walls in 1968: eg, Soyez réalistes - demandez l’impossible! (Be realistic - demand the impossible!); Sous les pavés, la plage! (Beneath the paving stones - the beach).

8. D Cohn-Bendit and G Cohn-Bendit Obsolete communism: the leftwing alternative New York NY 1968, p45.

9. M Evans Algeria: France’s undeclared war Oxford 2012, p34.

10. DS Bell Presidential power in Fifth Republic France London 2000, p36.

11. D Joly The French Communist Party and the Algerian war New York NY 1991, pxi.

12. DS Bell French politics today Manchester 2002, p41.

13. A Knapp, ‘From the Gaullist movement to the president’s party’ in J Evans (ed) The French party system Manchester 2003, p122.

14. Frankly the Gaullists were not alone. Jean-Paul Sartre testifies that “like everyone else in France we were caught unawares by the events of May 68” (S de Beauvoir Adieux Harmondsworth 1984, p371).

15. Other big demonstrations took place: Marseilles (50,000), Toulouse (40,000), Bordeaux (50,000) and Lyons (60,000).

16. D Caute Sixty-eight London 1988, p219.

17. G Zinoviev History of the Bolshevik Party London 1973, p66.

18. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p56.

19. E Hobsbawm Revolutionaries London 1973, p239.

20. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp84-85.

21. The Economist May 25 1968.