A lost opportunity

Understandably the left today looks back at France in 1968. Here was a moment when power seemed within our grasp. However, the May events have become an iconic model, even amongst those trying to re-image themselves. Jack Conrad argues that our movement needs basic honesty and a lot of radical rethinking

With Charles de Gaulle’s May 30 broadcast the tide turned. On the one hand, his pledge to abide by the Grenelle protocols - negotiated by trade unions, government and employers - reassured. The workers would get their substantial pay increases and a host of other juicy workplace crumbs.1 Trade union bureaucrats could claim a splendid victory.

On the other hand, de Gaulle’s offer of a general election within 40 days served to tempt. The reformist left, crucially the Parti Communiste Français, dropped demands for his immediate resignation. 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”.2

The PCF, by far the largest leftwing party, was now more than willing to play by the loaded rules of the Fifth Republic. General secretary Waldeck Rochet (1905-83) and the central committee were obviously convinced that they would make sweeping electoral gains. Maybe - who knows? - a left majority in the national assembly. Then, if that happened, de Gaulle’s Bonapartist talons could be safely clipped and tentative steps taken once again on the endless road to national socialism.

De Gaulle’s broadcast also served to cow. Warning of the danger from “totalitarian communism”, he called for “civic action” against intimidation and conspiracy. Continuation of the general strike would make his elections impossible. Madness, anarchy and delirium had to be brought to a swift end. If strikes, occupations and street clashes persisted, though, he would 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 wedded to peaceful methods that they insist that de Gaulle was just bluffing. That the military would never have been given the command to strike. Germany 1919, Italy 1922, Spain 1936, Chile 1973 and many other such bloody counterrevolutions in the 20th century tell us that this is a cruel illusion. A mistake, and frankly one of the first order.

De Gaulle would surely have done all that was necessary in order to save his tottering regime. He would not have flinched from following the home-grown example of Marquis 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 man of action, a brigadier general as well as president, and would certainly have risked civil war if peaceful means had failed - even if that meant going down in leftwing demonology as the second fusilleur de la Commune (Commune’s executioner).

Of course, de Gaulle’s calculations took into account the proven cowardice, lethargy 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 held back, restrained, cautioned the PCF, got them to behave responsibly, then 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).

Following the million-strong Champs-Elysées demonstration by the party of order, having isolated the revolutionary students and seeing the reformist left recoil - remorseful, chastised and shocked at its prior unconstitutional boldness - de Gaulle pressed home his advantage. Committees of Civic Action sprung up like dragon’s teeth. They organised thugs to attack the left. Shots were fired at various PCF buildings.

To further instil fear, uncertainty and respect, 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 CRS invaded Peugeot’s Sochaux plant. Similar scenes occurred throughout the country in what became a campaign of bourgeois reoccupation - but the main strike-breaker was the PCF and the trade union bureaucracy.

A brief aside. Naturally the PCF was doggedly supported throughout 1968 by the Morning Star. After all, presented the challenge, the ‘official communists’ in Britain would have behaved in exactly the same venal manner as their big brother in France.

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 more important than TV) not so subtly returned to type as a Gaullist propaganda mouthpiece. In total 57 journalists and technicians were fired. They demanded an end to government interference and remained identified 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 with the standard use of CRS batons and teargas. A symbolic turning point. Infinitely patient, Marx’s well grubbed old mole went back to his underground burrowing. 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 right (such as Occident). Indeed to bring the far right on board general Raoul Salan of the OAS terrorist outfit 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 elections he and his allies were back with the largest majority in the history of the 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 soft centre was largely absorbed by the right and that squeezed the reformist left in terms of national assembly representation. 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 1968. After all the PCF played a footdragging, shameful, and ultimately treacherous role. Thanks to the PCF, the Fifth Republic was safely returned from the storm waters of an unprecedented general strike to Gaullist stability. Hence anniversary after anniversary the usual response was a lobotomised silence.

After 40 years, however, the PCF seems to have overcome its amnesia. But only to dishonestly re-invent itself. Today the PCF considers it clever, beneficial and, equally to the point, safe to cloak itself in the garb of 68. 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. In fact the PCF moved to take control with a view to bringing things back to normal. Even more risibly, the PCF now says that it is “throwing its pavé into the bog of soothing consensus, with a ‘Vive 68!’ as its cutting edge”.3

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 hamfistedly, however naively they really did try to build links and make common cause. The relevant question, then, is what attitude the workers’ party - in this specific case the PCF - took to the student rebellion?

Here, it is useful to bring in the Bolsheviks. According to Gregory Zinoviev, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, the Bolsheviks felt “obliged” to take “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.4

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 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, 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 put the general strike in the first 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.”5

Our second ‘official communist’ ornament is Eric Hobsbawm. A thorough-going Stalinite, Eurocommunist and the intellectual inspiration behind New Labour, he excuses the PCF because there was “not”, he says, “a classical revolutionary situation”. Apparently the “forces of revolution were weak, except in holding the initiative”.6

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 a “classic” statement of what constitutes a revolutionary situation. It is a rather long passage, but for our purposes very 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.”7

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 and a hundredfold, a thousandfold increase in the numbers who entered 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 loop 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, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Albania. The PCF stood for a similar national socialism, albeit “in the colours of France”. Quite understandably, no-one was prepared to die for that in 1968.

Hence the lack of a “classical revolutionary situation” cannot be used to excuse the PCF. It is, in fact, however unintendedly, a damning indictment. The PCF had no goal of human liberation and general freedom. Its vision of the future was grey, pinched, technocratic and uninspiring.

More than that. Far more than that. The PCF did its utmost, strove might and main to demobilise the masses. It did everything to misdirect, haul back and as a coup de grâce terminated the nationwide crisis. It treacherously asserted the primacy of elections over a general strike, and thus sought to reconcile the working class to being ruled in the old way.

May 1968 was a festival of the oppressed. Workers and students performed miracles. They stunned a complacent government, threw it into utter incoherence 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.”8

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 of the past. 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 (the dictatorship of the proletariat).

That does not mean urgent instructions should have been issued for an armed insurrection in June 1968. That would have resulted in either farce or suicide. A flop or an invitation to another mass slaughter. There were very few, if any, guns in the hands of the workers. Nor was there a revolutionary party. Only small and often deeply stupid leftist sects. What about the international situation? Was it ripe? France, perhaps just Paris, would have been well out in front... but completely alone. Bank on that. Italy, Germany, Spain, Britain would not have risen. Anyone who says otherwise is living in a dream world of their own making.

Nevertheless, the stakes in 1968 should have been raised at every stage. No-one can tell how exactly the struggle would have turned out. Make, do not fatefully accept, history - that is our motto.

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 in two different ways. Firstly, there is the ‘if only’ list which is used to excoriate the PCF and the rest of the reformist left in France. An ‘if only’ list that simultaneously serves as a proverb, showing how we would imagine ourselves acting under similarly promising circumstances.

Then, secondly, there is the ‘if only’ list that really believes that proletarian revolution, a social rupture equivalent to Russia October 1917, was on the cards in France 1968.

I consider the first approach perfectly legitimate and certainly useful for educational purposes. The second approach, however, smacks of ‘bowing to spontaneity’.

The contention is that events … if left to themselves, would have produced a full-blown revolution. As I have said, pure fantasy. The working class can only gain 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 political party the working class cannot act as a sustained collectivity, cannot manoeuvre tactically, cannot think strategically, cannot reach to the global. Our party provides the historically tested theory, an agreed programme and the democracy and discipline needed to convince, unite and coordinate the widest forces.

Crucially it is only through its political party that the working class can govern. Modern societies are, after all, highly complex organisms. They rest on an interrelated web of national and international production and exchange.

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

Mass strikes, occupations and action committees by themselves tend towards sectionalism, localism and fragmentation. Collectivity proves momentary, soon decays and in due course morphs into competitive and 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 from this particular chapter of world history, or, equally impossible, the PCF of May 1968 could have, should have, behaved in the exemplarity manner of the Bolsheviks in 1905 and 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 were 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 wish to do so.

Under such circumstances the spontaneous explosion could only express itself negatively. Rebellion against existing conditions, rebellion against poor wages, rebellion against existing hierarchy. Initiative was therefore bound to pass to reaction and the established order.

We must add that the PCF acted as it did because it was programmatically hard-wired to do so. It 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 animals. Since the 1930s, self-destructive betrayal has been coded into the PCF’s political DNA. Sclerotically bureaucratised, tied body and soul to the Soviet Union, parroting the red, white and blue patriotism of official France, determined to construct a class-collaborationist parliamentary coalition that could really ‘make a difference’, inevitably the PCF put its desire to get hands onto the levers of the existing state machine above the interests of the working class. In sync the PCF’s mass base is stage by stage demobilised, demoralised and eventually withers and dies away.

So what May 1968 posed point blank was the necessity of replacing 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 leftists thought they could simply go round the PCF. The May events showed in no uncertain terms that this was a completely illusory perspective.

Strangely, given the routine condemnations of the PCF’s betrayals, May 1968 has become a model for the revolutionary left. In France, in Britain, in the US, in all advanced capitalist countries. However, May 1968 offers the hopeless a modicum of hope. Small left groups emerged almost out of nowhere to ignite and colour a spontaneous general strike. The idea is that this and more is contained in every protest demonstration and in every strike.

Hence the rejection of the Marxist minimum-maximum programme and the serious task of building a mass Marxist party. In its place is the particular sect and one or another version of Leon Trotsky’s Transitional programme: upheld as the answer to humanity’s prayers.

Instead of honestly presenting the demands of the communists and their plan for the working class gaining power on a continental and intercontinental scale, there is a reliance on trickery and manipulation. Mass communist consciousness, deep organisation and the necessity of openness are either played down or dismissed outright. The hope is that one’s own confessional sect, invariably through fronts, stunts and campaigns, which act like a series of springs and cogs, will in due course lever into motion much bigger forces, eventually enough of the working class.

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 1968 should remember one other thing. Our side lost. The task now is to rethink.


1. The Grenelle protocols were, in purely trade union terms, stunning advances. The minimum wage was increased by 35%. Agricultural workers got their pay realigned. That meant rises of between 56% and 59%. There was also an agreement that there would be payment for strike days. The agreed rate was to be 50% of normal wages.
2. D Caute Sixty-eight London 1988, p219.
3. See ‘PCF fête 68: la volonté de transformer le monde’ www.pcf.fr
4. G Zinoviev History of the Bolshevik Party London 1973, p66.
5. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p56.
6. E Hobsbawm Revolutionaries London 1973, p239.
7. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp84-85.
8. The Economist May 25 1968.