Below is a new introduction for the publication in Spanish of ‘France 1968 – Month of Revolution’ by Clare Doyle. This book describes and analyses the dramatic events of 50 years ago in France. Marxists in the CWI contend that this most powerful general strike in history could have finished with de Gaulle’s regime and opened the way to a socialist wave across Europe and beyond.
It is now half a century since the revolutionary general strike in France came close to changing the course of European and world history. It is no exaggeration to say that, if victorious, its chances of spreading across countries and across continents would have been far greater than those of the workers’ government set up half a century earlier in Russia in what is still for socialists, the greatest event in world history. It would have spread like wild fire across the highly industrialised countries of Europe, not least of them Spain, Portugal and Greece where military dictatorships were still in place.
In the USA, with its mass protests against the Vietnam war and its black rights demonstrations, the idea of a fight against capitalism would have found a ready audience. Workers and poor people of other continents, still fighting to throw off the shackles of imperialism, would have been inspired to go the whole way and throw out capitalism and landlordism to establish federations of socialist states in their regions. Workers in the state-owned, bureaucratically planned economies of the USSR, China, Cuba would have felt inspired to throw off the one-party dictatorships that held them in subjection. The prospect would have opened up of a whole world free from exploitation, oppression, starvation and war.
But it was a very different world then. The tenacious but bloody struggle in Vietnam against US imperialism had reached a climax with the massive Tet offensive. Around the world students and workers were on the streets demanding an end to the war. They were demonstrating on issues like black rights, women’s rights, gay rights, apartheid.
In the US in 1968, the struggle for black rights and against segregation had been raging for some years. On April 4, 1968, its most famous leader, Martin Luther King (Jnr), was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee. Having moved progressively to the left, King had, on this day, been speaking at a rally in support of striking garbage workers.
At the Olympic Games in Mexico that year, the black US sprinters, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, made their famous black-gloved fist Panther salute from the podium, in defiance of the US government and in solidarity with the struggle of the black workers and youth of America. They were seen as heroes by millions around the world but vilified in the US’ media for their ‘insult’ to the powers that be.
Just ten days before the start of those Games, one of the most horrifying events of that tumultuous year took place. Tens of thousands of young people demonstrating against war and against dictatorship marched to the stadium. There they were greeted with the tanks and guns of the Díaz Ordaz regime. With the backing of the Pentagon, they moved in on them. More than three hundred were massacred. Scenes of young bodies piled one on the other were beamed across the world. Those who saw them will never forget; those who know about them will never forgive. They only heightened the anger of workers and young people internationally against rulers and ruling cliques.
The world was still deeply divided into ‘East’ and ‘West’. In the so-called Soviet Union, in China, Eastern Europe, North Korea and Cuba, industry and land were state-owned but planned solely in the interests of privileged bureaucratic dictatorships. In most of the rest of the world, industry and land were in private hands, run for profit by capitalists and their political representatives. Nuclear weapons stood ready for use between antagonistic social systems; but the main enemy of all ruling cliques was the working class and its allies in society.
The Chinese regime of Mao Tse-Tung was in difficulties, with the failure of the so-called cultural revolution to breathe new life into the Chinese economy and society. As in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, the bureaucrats who ruled “in the name of the working class” could not tolerate the involvement of ordinary working people in decision-making and government.
In East Germany and in Poland, mass strikes and protests had been crushed. In Hungary, in 1956 a workers’ revolution for political control in society had been drowned in blood. The year 1968 saw the ‘Prague Spring’ of democratic demands develop under Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia. However, this did not go as far as the Hungarian revolution, that was a workers’ revolution against Stalinism but wanting to retain the planned economy. This was a movement which workers supported but in which the liberal wing of the ruling bureaucracy wanted reforms in order to maintain their control. By August that year, even this much milder challenge to the rule of Stalinism was put down by Russian tanks.
Suppression of opposition
In Russia itself, discontent was being expressed by intellectuals in ‘samizdat’ writings and by workers in the form of sporadic protests. Generally, it was only 20 years later, at the end of the ‘80s, when Stalinist-run bureaucracies found themselves unable to hold the lid on the political situation. The massive ‘transition to the market’, pushed through by the advocates of ‘shock therapy’, saw bureaucrats use their privileged party positions to turn overnight into ‘natural-born’ capitalists or be pushed aside by the tide of history (or deadly gangs of rivals).
Leon Trotsky had predicted precisely this development if workers were unable to carry through a political revolution to take power into their hands. Stagnation at home, along with a continued boom in the capitalist world, would lead to a move of layers of the bureaucracy in the direction of establishing capitalism.
In 1968 the Berlin Wall was very much in place, but, on both sides, the main enemy of the ruling layers – whatever their class base – was any movement of the working class and young people to throw them off their backs.
The policies of the so-called Communist parties world-wide, since way back in the late ‘20s, when Stalin began his murderous political counter-revolution against the workers and their representatives, were geared towards protecting the privileged bureaucracy from the threat of a healthy socialist revolution anywhere in the world.
For decades, the ‘communist’ parties affiliated to the Third International, far from promoting workers’ uprisings internationally, were instructed to crush them. See the refusal to form a united front to defeat Hitler in Germany in the ‘30s. See the betrayals of the mass sit-in strikes under the popular front government in France in 1936 and the tragic betrayal of the heroic Spanish Revolution in that same period.
The youth of the ‘60s
In post-war Europe there was a quite spectacular boom of capitalism. Industrial capacity was rebuilt and, for fear of revolt from below, considerable investment went into public services in Britain, in France and elsewhere. But improvements in the lives of workers and the new generation did not live up to expectations.
In Franco Spain from as early as the ‘50s there was some student unrest against censorship and for democratic rights. In the ’60s economic recovery was accompanied by more ‘social unrest’ and strikes. In 1966 the University in Madrid was closed down by protests.
In France by 1968 there were pitched battles in the universities over chronic over-crowding, inadequate space for lectures and over segregation in student halls of residence. There were arrests and angry demonstrations spilling onto the streets. The vicious police brutality used against the students – among them sons and daughters of the Gaullist elite – moved the working class into action. The ‘communist’ leaders in the trade union movement and the then sizeable ‘Communist Party of France’ (PCF) were left behind by the surge of sit-ins and occupations that engulfed the country and put socialism firmly on the agenda.
Lessons of history
The book ‘Month of Revolution’ was written for the 20th anniversary of ‘May ‘68’. It draws on material from the press in Britain and France at the time, from testimonies of eye-witnesses buried in the archives. But it is simply an elaboration of the articles in the Militant and Militant International Review written in 1968 which are today as fresh and insightful as the time when they were written. They gave an extraordinarily accurate picture of why not only General de Gaulle, but heads of state across the world, shook with fear at the prospect of the victory of a new revolution in France. They thought their time was up!
As each decade passes, the establishment media either ignore the historic events or distort them. Their biggest lie, repeated by Stalinist regimes across the globe, is that it was just excitable students rebelling against authoritarianism and not a vast social movement that could have cleared capitalism off the scene of history.
But could it? Aren’t conditions so much different today?
The ‘traditional’ parties
The “communist” parties, whose leaderships have so often acted as a brake on the workers’ movement, have declined drastically since the collapse of the Stalinist-run state-owned, planned economies and the discrediting of the very idea of communism. They maintain some forces but fail to give a clear lead in terms of mobilising effective working class action against the bosses.
In 1968, the ‘socialist’ parties – in both Spain and France – hardly existed. In France the SFIO (of the Second International) had haemorrhaged support because of its post-war collaboration with the French ruling class on the home front and abroad. In Spain, all left, socialist and workers’ forces had been suppressed by the brutal Franco regime, existing as shadows in exile.
The Socialist Party (PS) of France was actually born out of the events of ’68. Founded in 1971, it was in power ten years later with Francois Mitterand as president. Huge hope was vested in his government but its quite radical reforms only tinkered with capitalism and did not set out to finish with it. The reforms went into reverse under the pressure of international and domestic pressure from big business.
On the Iberian peninsula, it was the courageous struggles of workers and young people against dictatorship that laid the basis for new socialist parties. The Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain (PSOE) was re-founded in 1974. Felipe Gonzalez, who took the leadership, at that time adopted elements of Marxism in his rhetoric. PSOE developed into a sizeable, left radical force, in which Marxists began to grow in number. The Young Socialists also became a significant force, with the founders of Izquierda Revolucionaria playing an important role amongst students and workers.
In Portugal, the hated dictator Salazar had died in 1968 and been succeeded by Marcello Caetano. The Portuguese Socialist Party was re-founded in 1973 and participated, along with the Communist Party, in the revolutionary events of 1974 which overthrew the dictatorship and came close to finishing with capitalism. The failure of a revolutionary leadership to emerge in those events, left the way open for what was clearly a Social Democratic party, not a revolutionary party, to channel the movement into ‘safe’ lines.
A similar process took place in Greece where, as the colonels’ junta fell in 1974, the Socialist Party (PASOK) grew rapidly. It had been re-founded by Andreas Papandreou, who also adopted some Marxist ideas in the early days.
The leaders of the ‘Militant’ at the time, before the foundation in 1974 of the Committee for a Workers’ International, had anticipated the development of such new mass left socialist forces due to the radicalisation of a new generation under dictatorships who were attracted by socialism but repelled by Stalinism. They alone predicted this inevitable development and their co-thinkers in other countries, who joined them in setting up the Committee for a Workers’ International in 1974 strove for the maintenance and elaboration of fighting socialist policies.
As elsewhere in Europe, so too in France, Spain and Greece, over time these “socialists” became obedient servants of their national bourgeoisie and subsequently suffered huge dips in popularity amongst workers. The refusal of PSOE leaders to pursue socialist policies – of nationalisation and democratic socialist planning – have seen it alternate in government with the ‘traditional’ party of the Spanish ruling class – the UCD then re-named the PPP. Today, PSOE’s credentials as a workers’ socialist party are a thing of the past.
In other countries, too, Governments headed by so-called workers’ parties have come and gone. In some cases, those parties have suffered what appears to be irreversible decline. In Britain, Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, with anti-austerity policies, appears to have a brighter future than the Socialist Party in France, PASOK in Greece or PSOE in Spain – parties which have ended up carrying out the wishes of the bosses, pushing through cuts and attacking workers’ rights. But, like them, if Corbyn and Labour in government fail to push for outright socialist policies to assure health, welfare, jobs, education – i.e. nationalisation of the banks and major companies under fully democratic control and management – then that party’s fortunes will again be in the balance.
After the collapse of Stalinism and the abandonment of socialist ideas by the leaderships of so-called workers ‘ parties, anti-party moods developed and forms of direct action spread like ‘Occupy Wall Street’. It went much further in Spain with the movement of the indignados and the development of Podemos. (Later in France, the mass workers’ struggles of 2016 were accompanied by the development of ‘Nuits Debouts’ – mainly young people ‘Up all Night’ discussing on the squares of Paris – faint echoes of the round the clock discussions in 1968.)
To fill the political vacuum, new left political formations began to gather support like Podemos and the left parties in Germany and France. In Greece, after years of general strikes against austerity, Syriza grew sufficiently to come to power. But in the Summer of 2015, the prime minister Alexis Tsipras, at the head of the party, ignored a referendum result and utterly betrayed the Greek working class by accepting further devastating cuts imposed by the ‘Troika’.
Decline and fragmentation
The situation in France and elsewhere in Europe is more complicated now that the ‘old’ class-based parties are widely discredited. A fragmentation has taken place. In the absence of any party fighting to build houses and provide jobs and services for all, far right and anti-immigrant forces have grown, including in France around Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National.
In Italy, the gap has been partially filled by the anti-establishment ‘Five Star’ movement led by a comedian – Beppe Grillo. Its programme is a mish-mash of left and right populism and if it got into power, it would not last long. It has no answers for solving Italy’s deep economic woes, getting the Italian banks out of trouble, moving the economy forward to end the de-industrialisation and mass unemployment that plague the economy.
In France, we’ve also seen the ‘miraculous’ rise in just one year of Emmanuel Macron and his movement – ‘En Marche’. He took the presidency in 2017 and got a comfortable majority in parliament. But when he finds himself unable to satisfy his friends in banking and business and continues his offensive against workers and their hard-won rights, his fall could be just as dramatic! Sarkozy of the ‘traditional’ right only lasted one term. Before one term was up, Francois Hollande for the traditional ‘Left’ became the most unpopular president in the country’s history – down to 11% in the polls before the end of 2016. Forcing through anti-worker labour laws by decree did not save him; on the contrary, it sealed his fate!
The events of ’68 showed, nearly half a century earlier, that those Bonapartist powers enshrined in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, established by General de Gaulle himself, were not sufficient to save even that head of state! As this book confirms, at the height of the movement, de Gaulle left the country, confiding to the US ambassador that “the game is up!”. When ten million workers were on strike and occupying their workplaces, they had power in their hands. They rejected the massive reforms agreed on their behalf by the ‘communist’ party. The only reason de Gaulle could temporarily regain the reins of power was the failure of the Communist Party to show a political way forward. Even the mouthpieces of big business – the press and the TV – commented that the Communist Party had been on “the same side of the barricades” as the government.
However much things have changed in today’s world, each now rapidly succeeding government in France fears nothing more than “A new ’68”. Today neither the ‘Communist’ nor the ‘Socialist’ party has the force to lead a revolution; but nor do they have the power to hold it back.
The Socialist Party is now in danger of extinction after its leader, Francois Hollande, sensibly declined to stand for a second term and the party garnered fewer votes than ever. The Gaullist and republican right could not find a viable candidate for the presidential election either. Into the vacuum stepped a seemingly neutral man of the centre – Emmanuel Macron – one time Rothschild banker and also minister in the PS government, though never a member of that party!
A new left force
Into the fray came another ‘outsider’ – Jean-Luc Mélenchon – (also a former PS minister but at least with some time as a PS member and with a background, a long time ago, in a Trotskyist organisation. At the time of the 2009 European elections he had organised a ‘left Front’ with his own ‘Left Party’ (Parti de Gauche), the Communist Party and one or two Green or ecological parties. He has been an elected member of the European Parliament since 2009.
In 2012 the Front received 6.5% of the vote and he garnered nearly four million votes as presidential candidate. But the eft Front ran into difficulties because of the Communist Party’s involvement at local level in coalitions. The new movement – France Insoumise – was launched in February of 2016.
As the mass movement of strikes and demonstrations rocked France in the Spring of that year, the call of ‘JLM 2017’ (meaning Jean-Luc Mélenchon for president!) gathered considerable support from workers and young people on the marches. He was clearly against the El Khomri law that they were fighting and ;”For a Sixth Republic” to do away with the Bonapartist powers of De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic.
By the time the presidential ‘race’ opened in 2017, ‘JLM’ was drawing massive crowds with his anti-austerity programme and his rhetoric about bankers and bureaucrats. His programme included an increase in the minimum wage and the re-establishment of the 35 hour week. His rallies drew tens of thousands to listen to him… in person or as a hologram!
When it came to the presidential vote on 23 April, Mélenchon received more than seven million votes. If the candidates of the parties to the left of the PS (and the PS candidate himself, Benoît Hamon) had thrown their support behind him, Mélenchon would have been the candidate to contend with Macron in the second round. Then he could have gathered the support of the millions of workers and young voters who abstained, spoilt their ballot papers or voted for Macron as the ‘lesser evil’ compared with Marine le Pen.
Mélenchon and France Insoumise have been likened to Iglesias and Podemos in Spain and Tsipras and Syriza in Greece in the earlier period. All three reflected a rejection of established parties and structures. (The Economist has commented also on Mélenchon’s “old association” with the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.)
France Insoumise has not held regular branch or regional meetings nor has it elected leaders and representatives who can be recalled. For the election campaigns last year there were simply ‘support groups’ rather than branches. Participants in the National Convention were selected by a lottery. At the convention they were given no more than three minutes to put a case for any aspect of the programme (or lack of it).
The policy of FI is often simply a matter of what Mélenchon has in his mind. So far this includes a confusing position of the European Union and a penchant for a strong, united nation. On Catalonia, he has expressed opposition to the movement for independence, strengthened in the election at the end of last year – a position not dissimilar to that of Pablo Iglesias, at least at the beginning.
Spain and France
After a short honeymoon period for Emmanuel Macron, in which he struts the stage in Versailles and on a European stage, his pro-business policies will arouse the anger of the legendary French working class. Developments in France’s neighbouring countries could also be tumultuous in the near future. The tremendous militancy and success of the school students’ movement in the Spanish state, led by the School Students’ movement and IR can act as an inspiration to workers. Together, the working class and youth on the move can confront and break the power of the state even with its ugly remnants of the Franco dictatorship.
One of the great lessons of the 1968 general strike in France, is that students alone cannot carry through a revolution. But another important lesson is that a movement of workers from below can win over or neutralise the forces even of a Gaullist or Francoist state and pose the question of taking power out of the hands of the capitalists and their political representatives.
As we celebrate fifty years since the month of revolution in France, there will be those who say so much has changed that a successful, peaceful socialist revolution is out of the question. The nature of the working class itself has changed, but still nothing moves in the economy or the state without the involvement of workers – transport workers, communications workers, shop workers, hospital workers. New layers from the middle class and intelligentsia feel themselves driven into the ranks of the working class.
Young as well as old are angry that, when the economy is supposed to be recovering, so many millions more are without real jobs, without their own homes and internationally starving. Meanwhile, just before the 2018 Davos Economic Forum opened, Oxfam gave new figures for the obscene inequality in society. It said billionaires were being created at a record rate of one every two days when the bottom 50% of the world’s population had seen no increase in wealth. 82% of global wealth generated in 2017 went to the most wealthy one per cent in society.
It is not always when there is a downturn in the economy either, that discontent spills onto the streets. An upturn can even strengthen workers’ confidence to move into action for a better deal. Still the lesson of all revolutionary upheavals – be it the successful Russian Revolution or the most powerful general strike in history in France – is that the vital element for victory in the struggle for socialism is a party of revolution with mass support. Such a party can grow rapidly in the white heat of events. But the ground must be prepared in advance by painstaking work in explaining what is happening in society from a class perspective and in steeling cadres who can build the forces necessary for success.
What is vital for the success of a revolution is a party that has learned all the lessons of history and has a leadership that can indicate boldly the line of march that is needed to take power, the way for building socialism and spreading the revolution. There is no doubt that in modern conditions, the taking power by workers in one country and the elimination of the dictatorship of the 1% will spark a wave of uprisings internationally. If the lessons of history are learned and fully absorbed by young people and workers today, the way can be opened for a socialist future world-wide even in the lifetime of some of the ‘’68ers’!