Not a rerun of 1905

Lessons of May 68

Would there have been a revolution but for the betrayal of the official leadership in France? This is an edited version of a talk given by Mike Macnair at a recent London Communist Forum

On the 45th anniversary of the events in France of May 1968, it is worthwhile looking back at what happened. The first point to be made has to be the extreme brevity of the crisis in France.

To summarise. It was on May 6 that things moved beyond simple student protests, as first street fighting and then large demonstrations took place. These were attacked by the specialised riot forces of the French police, the CRS, and this was followed by the setting up of barricades on the night of May 10. The French Communist Party, the PCF, gave its backing to the student movement late that night, and so did the main, PCF-led union centre, the CGT, which then called a general strike and demonstration for May 13. Suddenly the lid was taken off the class struggle and there was an enormous explosion of strikes, demonstrations, self-organisation and radicalisation that ran from May 14 until May 29. The PCF tried to keep a ‘red line’ between the students and the strikers, and between the strikers and the far left, although it was not possible to do so completely.

This explosion led to a government crisis. President Charles de Gaulle contemplated military action, but he was informed that there were doubts as to the reliability of the conscript army - or at least that part of the conscript army that was stationed in France - so that military action would have to mean at least moving French troops from Germany, or elsewhere. De Gaulle went to the main French base in Germany, Baden-Baden; and there is evidence that Nato effectively denied him permission to move troops into France.

On May 27 the government and trade union leadership agreed on the Grenelle accords, which conceded massive wage increases, and on May 30 de Gaulle returned from Germany, promising early elections. At the same time the right mobilised a million-strong demonstration - double the size of the May 13 workers’ demonstration. The far right also began to organise to take back the streets and engaged in direct action against the left. There was a big falling away of strikes and occupations, partly at the call of the trade union officials, and partly through the CRS taking back factories. In the June general election there was a massive parliamentary victory for the right, which benefited from a major swing from the centre parties in the second round.

The turning point had been May 30. De Gaulle then effectively held out to the PCF and the Socialist Party - then called the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) - two options. One was to accept the concessions on wages (and also on other issues such as working conditions), along with quick elections. The other option was expressed in the form of the slogan of the rightwing demonstrations of that day: “The communists shall not pass”. In other words, ‘We are ready for civil war’. It is not actually clear if de Gaulle was ready for civil war, but in substance that is what he and the French right were saying. And, of course, the PCF were not up for it, and they went for demobilisation.

In fact it would not have been easy to mobilise the French working class to fight a civil war. Although the regime created by de Gaulle’s coup in 1958 was seriously delegitimised, there was not any superior alternative in the imagination of the broad masses. The SFIO and PCF were committed to working within de Gaulle’s constitution. The PCF stood for a process of transition undertaken through a popular front government.

Characteristically, the Trotskyists tend to say, ‘Well, there could have been a revolution, if only the bureaucracy had not betrayed the working class.’ The problem is that it is in the DNA of the bureaucracy that, in circumstances like these, it will betray the movement. So all that the Trotskyists are actually saying is that revolution was not on the agenda because the labour bureaucracy was too strong. And if you ask why the labour bureaucracy was too strong in May 68, the answer is because at the end of the day it had political support in the mass of the working class. The PCF and the CGT could demobilise people because they had given their loyalty to these leaderships. And, for that matter, de Gaulle was able to mobilise a million people on the streets because that actually did represent the existence of a strong, solid, rightwing bloc in society.

Why did the crisis of May 68 and the subsequent demobilisation take the form they did? For that we have to look to some extent at the international context.

The most immediate context is the Prague spring. Alexander Dub?ek was elected first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in January 1968. By the end of February he had released the journal Literární Listy from censorship. In April he issued his ‘action programme’, involving significant relaxation of Communist Party control both of politics and the economy, and in addition national decentralisation - the breaking up of Czechoslovakia into a federation of the Czech and Slovak republics.

From Nato’s point of view Dub?ek and the Prague spring represented an opportunity to destabilise the Soviet bloc round national contradictions within the Warsaw Pact and the question of democracy. And that was the way it was being pushed by the bourgeois media at about the time the May events broke out in France.

The other side of the coin was the Tet offensive in Vietnam - part of one of the running national liberation struggles going on since the late 1940s. The United States had massively escalated the number of troops it had on the ground, the scale of its military and bombing operations and so on. It thought, as of late 1967, that counterinsurgency had worked. It believed it had stabilised the South Vietnam regime. The Tet offensive demonstrated that the methods of counterinsurgency designed on the basis of Weberian managerialism had failed. Thus, the United States had other fish to fry in May 68.

Going a step further back, the US had backed a coup in Greece in April 1967. That year was also the high point of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the moment at which it seriously hit the western media. The death of Che Guevara in October 1967, although it was the result of a hopeless attempt to carry on rural guerrilla warfare without mass support, was received globally as a martyrdom (and a symbol of the tyrannical character of the regimes backed by the US in Latin America).

The general background of all these events is the policy of the ‘containment of communism’ which had been running since 1948: the ‘cold war’. The US and USSR were manoeuvring at the margins, in places militarily, but mostly politically and diplomatically, for allies and popular support. Hence from the point of view of global politics in spring 1968, the last thing the US wanted was a major military crackdown in France, especially if the result might be a split in the French military and French units fighting one another. There had, after all, been mutinies on French ships and in French barracks during May. In other words, escalation from the side of the state between May 10 and May 30 was for practical purposes out of the question for global geopolitical reasons.


Bukharin and Trotsky attributed to Lenin the phrase, “The imperialist chain breaks at its weakest link.” The Mandelites, who identified May 68 as in some sense an example of that, then went on throughout the 1970s attempting to find the weakest link, which they were convinced in Europe would be Spain - but then the revolution in Portugal broke out. In the Middle East it was to be Lebanon/Syria - but then the Iranian revolution broke out. In Latin American it was Bolivia - but then the Nicaraguan revolution broke out.

In reality, as James White has pointed out,1 Lenin, in his marginalia on Bukharin, disavowed the idea and said that, actually, it is not the case that the imperialist chain breaks at its weakest link, because there has to be a certain level of development in a country where a revolution breaks out in order for anything serious to happen. That a country is simply ‘the weakest’, with the most acute contradictions, etc, is not in and of itself a sufficient explanation.

This is true not merely in relation to the objective level of development, in the sense that there can be no workers’ revolution without a working class, which implies a certain level of capitalist development; but also in a subjective sense, in that an antecedent level of class-consciousness and class organisation is required for the question of revolution to be posed.

The global geopolitical context is part of the story. But the second part of the story is related to the forward movement of the working class - the direct economic and trade union struggle - and in that sense France was a latecomer.

The UK had what was called the ‘British disease’ ever since the early 1950s. The Tory abandonment of austerity for the middle classes, while still attempting to keep the lid on the working class, in effect broke up the social bargain that allowed the trade union leaders to keep control of disputes over wages and conditions that had applied during the 1945-51 Labour government. This resulted in the very rapid re-emergence of the shop stewards’ movement and a major increase in unofficial actions: guerrilla warfare conducted at the shop level.

It was at first said that the British just did not have the necessary relations with the trade unions, which had not been properly integrated into structures of Weberian managerial rationality. But by the early to mid-60s the US had started to feel the first effects of the profit-rate slowdown, and when the employers tried to put the squeeze on wages and conditions there were unofficial ‘wildcat’ strikes. The same was true in West Germany. In Spain under the Francoist regime there arose the workers’ commissions - forms of illegal, clandestine organisation; a hybrid between a shop stewards’ organisation and trade union proper - closely linked to the Communist Party. In Italy, what came after 1968 to be called the ‘creeping May’ of unofficial strikes, etc, actually began around 1966.

So why were the French late? The answer is the Gaullist regime created by the 1958 coup. The Fifth Republic featured a two-tier election process, designed to produce majorities for the sitting government, and a president with very substantial powers. The constitution of France has been normalised by history, but in the late 1950s and early 60s it was generally understood to be a Bonapartist regime. In the workplace it imposed direct statutory controls on wages, which in French industry tended to fall behind inflation.

That in turn had the consequence that French capitalism looked unusually profitable throughout the 1960s. German capitalism was beginning to worry about a slowdown, but French capitalism seemed to be powering ahead. However, the flip-side was that in the US and Germany with their ‘wildcat strikes’, and in Britain with the shop stewards’ movement, there was a pressure-release valve in the system. In France there was no such mechanism. The great wave of strikes, occupations and so on when everything finally exploded in May 68 was the French working class catching up after a generation where it had fallen behind.

France was unique then, in that it experienced an explosion which appeared to immediately call into question political stability. It looked like a revolution and indeed had certain real features of a revolution, but part of what was happening was the forcible adjustment of conditions to those prevailing in the rest of Europe.

Then there was the student movement. Leftwing student politics had been mobilising around international issues through the 1960s. That was as true in France as it was elsewhere, but was less striking. There was, for example, nothing approaching the mobilisations that had occurred in the US or Britain around Vietnam.

French student radicals took their immediate ideas from the Germans, who in turn had taken their ideas to a considerable extent from groups like Students for a Democratic Society in the US. In Germany the student movement had kicked off in 1967, triggered by a visit from the shah of Iran. But, of course, the German student movement in 67 did not produce a movement of the working class or a government crisis. So France was part of a general movement, but was a special case because the extent of the pressure build-up in relation to the direct class struggle under the rigidities of the Gaullist regime were very much more serious there than in countries that had not imposed such a tight set of controls on trade unions, wages, etc.

There was another, very specifically French feature: the tradition of barricades. Barricades were a major feature of 1830 and 1848, and for the French workers’ movement there is as well the tradition of the Commune in 1871. The barricades that were erected in Paris from May 10 thus fed into something that had immense cultural resonance. It is still the case that the traditions of 1789, 1830 and 1848 are part of mass memory, and that, I think, is also a substantial part of the explanation for May 68.

The student actions not only imitated features of the student movement elsewhere, but latched hold on to that particular moment of a great symbol of French historical memory. This helped produce the situation where the PCF felt it necessary to come in on the students’ side, although there were other reasons too. You can imagine Brezhnev saying to the PCF leaders: ‘Yes, give it a go, as long as you don’t really destabilise de Gaulle, who is an important diplomatic partner of ours. It will be useful at a time when the west is concentrating attention on Czechoslovakia, to have trouble over the question of democracy in a western country.’

To sum up, 1968 was not a peculiarly French event, but a peculiarly French version of an international set of developments - and one which was framed by the geopolitical context of the cold war.

Class and revolution

The far left primarily thought of May 68 as the equivalent of Russia 1905. It was seen as a movement which is both a harbinger of and a guide to the future revolution. This argument is completely mistaken. First of all, 1905 was followed within 12 years by the Bolshevik revolution, but 45 years have now elapsed since 1968 without a large-scale revolutionary crisis in Europe other than the Portuguese revolution of 1974.

Secondly, broad masses in France saw an opportunity to break the rigidities of the Gaullist regime; but they had not yet reached the point of thinking that the whole state structure was utterly intolerable. The left has had since 1968 a tendency to overstate the degree of pressure which has built up. For example, in 1979 there was a debate in the International Marxist Group, the British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. The Usec leadership was proposing a generalised turn to industry, which meant that everybody should go and get jobs in factories. A small example: my partner at the time was instructed to leave the civil service, where she was a member of the section executive and of the Broad Left in what is now the PCS union, and go and get a job in telecommunications - the reasoning being that telecoms is an industry, whereas work in an unemployment office is not.

I myself had spent two years just before this working on the line in the Cowley car plant, and as a result I was inclined to the view that it was not going to be particularly politically useful for former students of one sort or another to go and get jobs in car factories, mines, etc. But the majority was arguing that the political pressure cooker was boiling and was likely to explode in the very near future - there were going to be mass struggles in the core sectors of industry and we had to be there.

If it had been true, then it would have been useful to have comrades working in factories. So I am not saying we should never send people to work in industry - for example, it seems to me that it is better to go and work in a factory than it is to be on the dole. The point I was making in the debate was that the conditions leading to an explosion of mass struggles were absent in Britain in 1979: things were going to have to get a lot worse before such an explosion would be posed.

From a certain point of view, today the situation of the working class is a whole lot worse, but, as far as the major imperialist countries are concerned, it is a case of the lobster cooking so slowly that it is unaware it is heading towards death. We see a gradual chipping away at wages and conditions, but a repeat of May 68 on a European scale does not seem to be a particularly likely option.

That said, May 68 is in a sense a mirage of a revolution. It does display aspects of the phenomenon of revolutionary crises that were perfectly genuine and worth paying attention to.

But there is also the sense in which this was a serious crisis because of the PCF, albeit very much against the will of the PCF. Why? The answer lies precisely in the fact that, after the fall of the coalition governments in which the PCF was engaged in the 1940s, the Nato European regime was constructed on the basis that the various communist parties would not be let into such coalitions: and the Gaullist regime was an extreme form of this policy, which was also present in Italy.

Hence, the PCF, in spite of its popular-front, nationalist and constitutionalist commitments, was nonetheless in effect an extra-constitutional party - and one that built up workers’ mass organisations, most obviously the CGT, but also other organisations; one which still upholds in its distorted way an alternative working class culture through institutions like the annual Fête de l’Humanité - something far richer than the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism festival.

That tradition remains because the PCF was a mass party, which, although it would have liked to have been in government, was excluded on the grounds that it was ‘anti-constitutional’. Because of this it was driven, in contradiction with its own constitutionalist and popular-front strategy, to build up the practical solidarity of the working class as a class for itself, and with it implicitly to spread the idea that ‘We are many, they are few’. This same idea was expressed in a peculiar way by Occupy and its slogans of the 99% against the 1%. But a big organisation is capable of concretising the idea that ‘We are many, they are few’ on an ongoing basis; and then when something triggers an outbreak of mass struggles, as happened in May 68, the possibility exists for radical change.

I stress the contradiction. National roads to socialism, the people’s front, the idea of the party monolith and the subordination of the party to the diplomatic imperatives of the USSR - all worked against class-consciousness. But the exclusion of the party from government and aspects of its formal commitments to Marxism, ‘Leninism’ and so on made its organisation capable of providing a way in which the working class could express a form of class-consciousness.

Secondly, ‘1968’ was an international movement: an international process of development, which found momentary expression in a national crisis. There was an intense contradiction between, on the one hand, the nationalism of the PCF and, on the other hand, its consciousness of being part of an international communist movement, which was expressed in a deformed way in its intense commitments to Stalinist orthodoxy and partial resistance to Eurocommunism.

May 68 was part of an international movement expressed in particular national form. The Mandelites understood this in the late 1960s to middle 1970s, but then lost that understanding, as the sectional interests of the full-time apparatus of the national sections came into the ascendancy in the later 1970s. The ‘official communists’ had an intensely contradictory combination of nationalism together with understanding themselves as part of an international movement; as the class movement fell back from the later 1970s, the purely nationalistic ideas became the ascendant side of the contradiction.

The effects of the fall of the Soviet Union have been paradoxical on this front. You might think that it would have opened up possibilities, because it removed the constraints that ‘official communism’ imposed on the development of working class consciousness; but simultaneously it also destroyed the internationalism of both the ‘official communists’ and the Trotskyists. It left behind nothing but a nationalism which is incapable of creating the conditions for class-consciousness and revolution; or even those of a mirage of a revolutionary crisis, like May 68.


There are positive lessons to be drawn from the events of May 68. Of course, we should not fetishise particular features - occupations, barricades or whatever - as much of the far left does: the idea that all we need is ‘initiatives in action’, which will then cause it all to kick off. That is nonsense. The barricades in the Latin quarter in May 68 were a product of the very specific features of French politics and French history at that conjunctural moment; and all the attempts since then - in Britain, whether through the Anti Nazi League, Stop the War Coalition or Occupy - to get the masses on the streets in order to spark a revolutionary uprising are futile in the absence of a mass workers’ party which develops oppositional class-consciousness.

On the other hand, we equally should not fall into the trap of fetishising gradualism and constitutionalism, as the PCF, SFIO and the bulk of the reformist left did in May 68. It is absolutely not the case that the British government out of the goodness of its heart gave us universal suffrage, for example: it did so because at each stage in the extension of the suffrage, the state felt itself to be under threat from political action of the working class.

What we should focus on is, firstly, the need for a party-movement - an organisation which in non-revolutionary times concretises the idea that ‘We are many, they are few’. Secondly, we must focus on the need for an international dimension: the need to say that our struggle is the same as the struggle of the French workers, of the Iranian workers, etc. We do not look for ‘national roads’, least of all socialism in a single country. We need at least the degree of internationalism that the Second International and the Cominform in deformed ways expressed, but taken to a much higher level, in order to get to the point where the question of power is posed at all.



1. J White Karl Marx and the intellectual origins of dialectical materialism Basingstoke 1996.