No doubt there will be many pessimists in the labour movement whose response to these events will be to say that it confirms the view that revolutionary mass strikes – like Russia 1905 – can no longer take place, that the developed apparatuses of ‘democracy’ (trade unions, legal workers’ parties, etc.) will inevitably guide workers’ aspirations away from confrontation and towards compromise with the bosses and the state. They will argue that it is no accident that the 1926 strike resembles the Belgian and the Swedish example.
However a closer examination of the situation in Britain shows that this picture is quite erroneous. It cannot explain the quite massive changes that took place in the ability of the union leaderships to control and stifle rank-and-file activity in the seven years that preceded the General Strike. The stranglehold that the bureaucracy had achieved by 1926 in fact stands in sharp contrast with their much feebler strength of the years between 1910 and 1919. There was nothing inevitable about this; rather, it flowed from the gains and losses in the class struggle itself during these years.
The 1926 British general strike followed a long period of steep downturn in the class struggle, a period in which the balance of class forces shifted radically against the working class.
In the years 1910-1919 the British working class was more clearly on the offensive than in any other period of history; in 1919 it was closer to revolution than at any time in modern history. Lloyd George warned statesmen assembled at the Paris Peace Conference that ‘Europe is in a revolutionary mood. The whole of the existing social, political and economic order is being called into question by the mass of people from one end of Europe to the other.’  Even in Britain, the most stable of European states, secret government reports at the end of 1918 spoke of the ‘spread of the bacillus of Bolshevism’, adding that there was a ‘very widespread feeling among the working class that thrones have become anachronisms, and that the Soviet may still prove to be the best form of government for a democracy. This feeling does not seem confined to revolutionaries.’ 
The government was doubtful whether they could rely on soldiers to be loyal. The Whitehall diary of Thomas Jones, Secretary to the Cabinet, speaks again and again of soldiers fraternising with pickets and therefore being promptly withdrawn to barracks. The government was fearful of revolution. A conference on 2 February 1920 illustrates the Cabinet’s fears.
The Prime Minister first discovered from the Adjutant-General the number of troops in Great Britain and Ireland ... the Prime Minister turned to Trenchard (Chief of Air Staff) asking – ‘How many airmen are there available for the revolution?’ Trenchard replied that there were 20,000 mechanics and 2,000 pilots but only 100 machines which could be kept going in the air. During the war it took 46 men to keep one machine in the air. The pilots had no weapons for ground fighting. The Prime Minister presumed they could use machine guns and drop bombs ... Munro (Secretary of State for Scotland) pointed out that the existing police force was inadequate either for the revolution or for large industrial strikes accompanied possibly by sabotage.
The Prime Minister: ‘You won’t get sabotage at the beginning of the strike.’
Roberts (Food Controller): ‘You will have to take sabotage at the beginning of the strike into account. There are large groups preparing for Soviet government.
Eric Geddes (Minister of Transport): ‘You have got to reckon on the electric power stations being put out of order.’
The Prime Minister: ‘10,000 troops would be of little use ... An army of a million men would not be able to prevent the great power stations being suddenly put out of gear.’ 
In 1919 government fears were not just confined to the political crisis, or anxiety about the integrity of the state. As well as these, and underlying both of them, was the stormy industrial scene. The year started with engineers on the Clyde going on a 40-hour strike on 27 January. Mass pickets marched from one firm to another throughout Glasgow, and 60,000 engineers were swiftly brought out on strike. Belfast followed suit.
Over sixty thousand men are on strike in Belfast and 100,000 are idle. The city is practically in the hands of the strikers.
By the evening of the same day the centre of the City of Glasgow was an armed camp. Thousands of soldiers were drafted into the city with machine guns and tanks. The Square was barricaded and the railway station guarded as if the city were besieged. 
Sadly the movement was confined to Glasgow and Belfast. The Executive of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers condemned the strike and suspended the Glasgow District Committee.
At this point the government manoeuvred very cleverly by using divide and rule tactics, settling with one section of the working class after another.
Even before the beginning of the 40-hour strike on the Clyde, the miners demonstrated their readiness to fight. In a conference at Southport on 14 January the Miners’ Federation resolved to demand a 30 per cent increase in wages, a 6-hour working day, and nationalisation of the mines with a measure of workers’ control. When these demands were rejected, the Federation referred the issue to the members. A ballot returned an overwhelming majority in favour of strike action. (The voting was 615,164 to 105,082), and notices were duly tendered.
Presented with this ultimatum in the latter days of February the government found itself in a hazardous position. All the advantages were on the side of the miners. Coal stocks were at famine level, London having only three days supply. At the same time the other members of the Triple Alliance (railwaymen and transport workers) were in consultation with the miners, and had themselves tabled demands for which they were in negotiation. In short, Mr Lloyd George and his colleagues were confronted with the alarming prospect of a general strike fraught with revolutionary imp lications. 
Lloyd George adroitly nominated a Royal Commission presided over by Mr Justice Sankey to look into the miners’ case. An Interim Report presented on 20 March considered a wage advance of 2/- a shift, a reduction of the working hours from 8 to 7, with effect from 16 July 1919, a six-hour day with effect from 13 July 1921, and indicated that its final report would recommend the nationalisation of the mines. On 26 March the Miners Federation accepted the Interim Report and withdrew the strike notice. The government sighed with relief. The immediate threat had passed. On 23 June the Sankey Commission presented its final report, recommending nationalisation of the mines and the granting of a share of control to the miners. However, on 18 August, after the impetus for the strike had passed, Lloyd George announced in the House of Commons that the government rejected the Report.
Hardly had the mining crisis subsided when in June 300,000 cotton workers struck for a 48-hour week and a 30 per cent wage increase. They won.
In July the police went on strike against a government Bill prohibiting trade unions in the police force. The strike was only partial, and centred on London and Liverpool. It was beaten and many policemen were sacked.
At the same time as the miners’ claim was awaiting resolution, in February, the railwaymen put in a claim for higher wages. The government procrastinated. Negotiations dragged on from February to August, by which time the mining crisis had passed. In August the government tried to bribe the locomotive men by meeting their demands, hoping by this to isolate the NUR from ASLEF. In September, following the same line, the government presented the NUR with a provocative imposition of wage cuts. This time, however, it miscalculated: the loco men, spurning the August bribe, struck to a man with their comrades in other grades. After nine days the railwaymen won a significant wage rise.
Throughout 1919 the government tried to isolate one section of the working class from another, and largely succeeded in doing so. Even if they were forced to make concessions, they managed to avoid the danger of a general, united, revolutionary working-class movement. The post-war boom made it possible for the employers to meet most of the unions’ wage claims; and the policy of the trade union and labour leaders enabled government and employers to avoid a direct confrontation of classes. 1919 was a year in which the strikes were offensive and on a massive scale. There were no less than 34,903,000 days of strike action. It was the culmination of a period in which the trade unions had increased their memberships massively, from 2½ million in 1910 to 8,328,000 in 1920.
In summer 1920 the first signs of the end of the post-war boom began to show. Wholesale prices stopped rising, sagged and began to fall steadily. By winter severe depression set in and unemployment started rising from month to month. In the autumn of 1920 there were ¼ million unemployed. By the end of the year the figure had risen to 700,000. By February 1921 the million mark was passed. By March it was 1.3 million, by June over 2 million (17.8 per cent of insured persons). The number fell a little at the end of 1921 and was 1½ million in 1922, but it was to be many years before the unemployed total fell below one million.
The employers took advantage of this situation with a big offensive on workers’ standards of living, clawing back all the gains of the war and post-war period.
On 31 March 1921 the miners were locked out, as they refused to agree to a wage cut and to the replacement of the uniform national wage agreement by district agreements. The miners appealed to their associates in the Triple Alliance, the railwaymen and transport workers, who declared a general railway and transport strike in their support. But on Friday 15 April – Black Friday – Jimmy Thomas of the NUR and Harry Gosling and Ernest Bevin of the Transport Workers betrayed the miners and called the action off.
The miners, now completely on their own, suffered on for three months and then capitulated, accepting the owners’ terms. After the 1921 lockout the average wage per shift worked went down to less than half what it was in the winter months of 1920-21. 
Throughout industry the employers’ attack was pressed home. Reductions were enforced on engineers, shipyard workers, builders, seamen (the ships’ cooks and stewards unsuccessfully struck), cotton operatives (after a general lock-out). By the end of 1921 wage-cuts averaging no less than 8s a week had been suffered by 6,000,000 workers. 
Before the termination of the miners’ strike on July 4th a great cotton lock-out took place. The cotton workers were faced with the demand for huge wage reductions. They refused to agree to the demands of the employers. Five hundred thousand workers were locked out from June 3rd until June 27th when they resumed on the basis of 4s 5d reduction in the £ on current wages.
Then came the turn of the workers in the engineering industry who were involved in a fourteen weeks’ lock-out which began in March, 1922. Hardly had this started when the shipbuilding workers were plunged into a defensive struggle against wage reductions. These were followed by the strike of the printing trades against a demand for 15s a week reduction in wage rates. These defensive struggles continued in the various industries right through 1922 and 1923. 
There was a pause in the general retreat of the working class in 1924, occasioned by circumstances abroad. The French occupation of the Ruhr and the protest strike by German workers increased the demand for British coal so that in 1924 some wage increases were achieved by the British miners. The percentage of unemployment for all industries fell from 13.6 in January 1923 to 7.0 in May 1924. But the artificial boom was very shortlived. Almost as soon as the improved 1924 agreement was signed, the French occupation of the Ruhr came to an end, and soon after a flood of German coal poured into European markets, pushing British exports out. Unemployment amongst miners rose again from 5.7 per cent in 1924 to 15.8 per cent in 1925. To add to the difficulties, in April 1925 Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, restored sterling to the gold standard, severely undermining the ability of British industry to face international competition.
The number of trade unionists, 8,348,000 in 1920, fell to 6,633,000 in 1921, 5,625,000in 1922, 5,429,000in 1923, and then rose a little to 5,544,000 in 1924, only to slide again to 5,506,000 in 1925, and 5,219,000 in 1926.
The downturn in the class struggle led to a weakening of the power of the rank and file in the face of the employers and increasing dependence on the trade union bureaucracy.
By far the strongest shop stewards’ organisation during the war existed in the engineering industry. In 1919 the 40-hour strike put an end to this power. As J.T. Murphy put it:
The forty-hour strike was the last occasion on which the shop stewards initiated and played an independent part in a great strike movement. The independent activity of the trade unions and the re-transfer of workers from the engineering industry and the dismissal of active shop stewards readily reduced the shop stewards’ committees to propaganda bodies within the unions. 
The 1922 lockout of engineers killed the shop stewards’ movement stone dead. As J.T. Murphy explained to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern (November 1922):
In England we have had a powerful shop stewards’ movement. But it can and only does exist in given objective conditions. These necessary conditions at the moment in England do not exist ... You cannot build factory organisations in empty and depleted workshops, while you have a great reservoir of unemployed workers. 
The massive retreat of the working class after 1919 affected the independence of rank-and-file workers from the trade union bureaucracy. As we have said, such independence is a function of the confidence of workers in the face of the employers. To see how radical was the change resulting from the employers’ offensive of 192 1-2, one can do no better than quote J.T. Murphy, probably the most intelligent leader of the shop stewards’ movement during the first world war, a leading member of the SLP and later of the Communist Party. In July 1917 Murphy wrote, exaggerating the role of the rank and file vis-à-vis all leadership: ‘... the shop stewards’ duties do not involve leadership, as a matter of fact the whole movement is repudiation of leadership.’  Now, in 1922, the same J.T. Murphy swung round completely, arguing for an orientation on the union leaders – even right-wing leaders. He wrote: ‘Are 6 million Johnny Thomasses easier to convert than one, or have you some grudge against a particular Jimmy Thomas that you wish one of them to be ignored?’  This was after Jimmy Thomas’s betrayal of the miners on Black Friday!
A year later, leading CP militant Harry Pollitt wrote: ‘A few leading men, if they would only see the opportunity before them, can at this moment achieve anything by coming together on a clear definite programme ...’ He went on to quote with approval the words of George Hicks, the ‘left’ General Secretary of the Building Workers’ Union AUBTW: ‘What is needed are about half a dozen trusted men to draw up a programme ...’ 
Thus the historical background to the 1926 general strike was a descent from a pre-revolutionary situation in 1919 to the almost complete disappearance of shop stewards’ organisation, lack of confidence of rank-and-file workers, and therefore the heavy dependence on the trade union bureaucracy.
On 13 May, as if out of a clear blue sky, a bolt of lightning flashed, and ten million workers came out on strike. This is usually the way the French mass strike is described. However, when one looks more carefully, one finds that the strike was the product of a long maturation in the French working class. The main features of the strike, its inception, development and outcome, were decisively shaped by the historical, economic, social and political background of the French labour movement.
French students acted as the detonator for this massive social explosion. The student movement was shaped by the fight against the Algerian war, and later the Vietnam war.
On 20 November 1967 Nanterre witnessed the largest student strike in France to date. 10,000 students took part. On 13 December university students all over France held a one-day strike and six secondary schools joined in. May 2nd and 3rd 1968 were to be days of demonstration against imperialism. On 2 May the rector again closed the university. On 6 May the students of Paris organised a new, even more massive demonstration. On 7 May another demonstration of students started off from Denfert-Rochereau. There were 50,000 in the end in the Champs-Elysées with red banners and singing the Internationale. On 10 May 50,000 students, now for the first time joined by a number of young workers, gathered at Place Denfert-Rochereau. That night sixty barricades were built. The Battle of the Barricades, starting at 17 minutes past 2 at night, went on until 7 in the morning.
On 11 May representatives of the French National Union of Students, the CGT (the CP-led trade union federation), and the CFDT (the federation associated with the Socialist Party), met and decided to declare Monday 13 May a day of general strike and demonstrations against police brutality towards the students. On 13 May 10 million workers went on strike, and the whole country was brought to a standstill. The number was far greater than the previous French strike of June 1936, which at its high point was estimated to involve 1½ million workers.
In 1936 it was the electoral victory of the Popular Front that acted as a detonator for the general strike and occupation of the factories. In 1944-5 it was the military victory over Nazism. This time it was the students’ struggle.
The trade union leaders wanted a one-day token strike – one more in the long chain of token strikes. But the response on the 13th was nothing like token. Ten million workers came out, four times more than the total number organised in trade unions. The whole country was paralysed. In Paris a demonstration of one million people took place. Notwithstanding the efforts of the CGT and CP leadership, practically no tricolours were to be seen on the demonstration – one observer counted three – while thousands of red flags fluttered. The CGT leaders raised the slogan: ‘Money, Charlie [de Gaulle]!’ and ‘Defend purchasing power!’ The students shouted: ‘All power to the workers!’, ‘Power lies in the Street!’, ‘Free our comrades!’, ‘De Gaulle murderer’, ‘CRS [the riot police] = SS’. The main slogans taken up by the mass of the workers were neither those of the CGT (and CP leadership) nor of the revolutionary students. Their main slogans were: ‘Ten years is enough’, ‘Down with the police state!’, ‘Happy anniversary, General!’ Whole groups mournfully intoned a well-known refrain: ‘Adieu de Gaulle’. They waved their handkerchiefs to the great merriment of all.
Serious political differences lay behind the difference in the choice of slogans. The CGT and CP leaders hoped that the one-day strike and demonstration would serve as an effective safety valve – that this would be the end of the struggle. But they did not reckon with the rank and file.
On 14 May the workers of Sud Aviation in Nantes declared an unlimited strike. They occupied the factory and imprisoned the manager in his office. (L’Humanite, the CP daily, tried to overlook the event, next day it gave it only seven lines on page 9.) On the 15th Renault-Cleon was occupied. On the 16th the strike and occupation movement spread to all Renault factories. At Billancourt the strikers declared their demands – for a minimum of 1,000 francs a month, immediate return without loss of pay to 40 hours a week, retirement at 60, full pay for the days of the strike, trade union freedom in the factory. These demands were taken up in toto by all the large enterprises in the country.
In the footsteps of Renault all the engineering factories, the car and aeroplane plants, went on strike and were occupied by the workers. On 19 May the trains stopped along with mail and telegraph services. The subway and bus services in Paris followed suit. The strike hit the mines, shipping, Air France, etc. On 20 May the strike became general. Some 9 million workers were now on strike. People who had never struck before were involved – Folies Bergères dancers, soccer players, journalists, saleswomen, technicians. Red flags fluttered from all places of work. Not a tricolour was to be seen, notwithstanding the statement of the CGT and CP leaders that ‘Our banner is both the tricolour and the Red Flag’.
That the students acted as a detonator of the workers’ explosion is true and important. The sheer guts of the students in taking on the hated state stormtroopers of the CRS – the paramilitary riot police – and even defeating them in pitched battles on the hastily- constructed street barricades, undoubtedly encouraged many workers and made them feel that the students must not stand alone. But elsewhere there were student movements at least as large and as militant – in Germany and America for instance – which produced no remotely comparable effects in the working class. Why didn’t the French workers follow the example of so many of their German counterparts and simply side with the forces of ‘law and order’?
The key can be found in the two preceding years which saw a rapid rise in the struggle in the factories. Again and again there were outbreaks of violent industrial disputes, including the occupation of factories, the imprisonment of managers by the workers, bloody fights with the CRS. These conflicts were the dress rehearsals for May 1968. The same years saw the CGT time and again organising demonstrative strikes including one-day general strikes. The leadership in these struggles mixed political-electoral issues with straightforward bread and butter demands. These again were dress rehearsals for the bureaucracy’s action in May and June, 1968.
On 17 May 1966 an all-trades strike was called. This was probably one of the most important strikes of the Fifth Republic. It was directed against the National Employers’ Federation as well as against the government, and was very widespread.
On 1 February 1967 a new mass strike was called, principally involving state industry, and some civil servants, while private sector workers were left out of the movement, except in the provinces. 75 per cent of electricity workers came out for 24 hours, the railways went on a 48-hour strike, the post office brought out 40 per cent of the Paris and 24 per cent of the provincial postmen in a 24-hour strike, practically 100 per cent of the teachers in primary schools and quite a large percentage of secondary school teachers came out for a day. In private industry the support for the strike was very uneven; it was also difficult to gauge its extent as many plants closed down due to a power cut. The employers retaliated in a number of cases with lockouts aimed at breaking down the workers’ strength. The most important cases were a lockout at the Dassault aircraft factories in Bordeaux and at the Sidelor-Micheville steelworks in Villerupt.
After the Dassault lockout a spontaneous rank-and-file strike broke out and continued for three weeks. This particular strike is remarkable for its militancy. It had been preceded by stoppages and other actions in the previous December. In some shops men stopped work and just manufactured banners. When the president of the board of directors visited the factory, he was surrounded by the men, who would not release him until he promised to do something about their wages. The question of taking over the factory was discussed, but not acted upon. The workers went on demonstration after demonstration in the streets. They captured and then put to flight the local mayor. Generally they saw to it that their demonstrations and actions received all the publicity that the streets could afford them. Their struggle sparked off solidarity movements: an inter-trades march through Bordeaux, a 2-hour solidarity strike by the three steelworkers’ federations, etc. The workers won.
The strike strongly influenced those that followed straight after in the Lyons region.
The Dassault strike had only just finished when the Rhodiaceta strike started. Rhodiaceta was a textile factory at Besançon, which employed 3,000 workers. The workers had a massive picket, occupied the factory and refused entry to the director. The pickets and occupation were denounced by the CGT as an infringement of the owners’ legal right and were ambiguously supported by CFDT. The strikers held meetings on political economy, folk-song recitals and an auction of paintings by local artists. Not as much rank-and-file control was evinced as at Dassault, but still the workers were not fooled into relaxing by the management and union initiatives. The strike spread to Vaise, Saint-Fons Belle Etoile, Venissieux (near Lyons) and Peage-de-Roussillon (Isère). Altogether 14,000 Rhodiaceta workers were on strike.
Then the strike spread to the Berliet factory – truck producers – which employed 12,000 workers. The CGT and CFDT called only a 2-hour strike, but the workers went on unlimited strike, and occupied the factory. Berliet declared a lockout and called on the CRS to evacuate the factory. However, only slight gains were achieved as there was lack of coordinatic5n between the unions.
This strike was followed by a strike on 1 March 1967 of 3,000 metal workers at St Nazaire. The course of this strike was like that at Dassault in that morale throughout was high, the strike was not led from above but was conducted through meetings of the strikers.
On 18 March there was a lockout of 8,000 shipyard workers at Chantiers de l’Atlantique on the pretext of indiscipline.
On 11 April there was a general strike in St Nazaire in both private and public sectors. There followed almost daily demonstrations of strikers. After seven weeks of strike a vote taken at a mass meeting of strikers showed 87 per cent in favour of continuing the strike. However, when it ended after two months, the workers won only a very small rise in wages.
On 27 April a 24-hour general strike was called in the whole of Loire-Atlantique.
A general one-day strike was called for 17 May by the three trade union confederations, CGT, CFDT and FO (Force Ouvrière, the right-wing socialist federation), as well as by FEN, the teachers’ union. The aim of the strike was to protest against government schemes to mutilate Social Security. In the public sector the strike was almost 100 per cent solid; in the private sector it was massive but far from all-embracing. In a demonstration in Paris in support of the strike 150,000 participated. There were also demonstrations in the provinces, notably Lyons, Marseilles, St Etienne, and Bordeaux.
Although the central slogans in these demonstrations were opposition to the mutilation of social security, the slogan which actually drew the greatest response was ‘All power to the workers’. In all the demonstrations the Internationale replaced the Márseillaise.
On the eve of the introduction of the new Social Security measures (31 October 1967) a new wave of official one-day mass strikes and demonstrations took place. Strikers at Le Mans, among whom were Renault workers who had already been demonstrating for a week, marched on the police prefecture and fought the CRS. Stones were used against tear-gas grenades, bare fists against helmets and matraques, the civilian crowd against armoured cars.
The advent of 1968 saw an important strike in Cannes, where 4,800 workers at Saviem Blainville came out. It started on 22 January. At the end of the first week the police charged a demonstration of strikers, sympathisers from other factories and students in a particularly ferocious manner. Barricades were built and a heroic resistance put up to the CRS. 205 were wounded (of whom 16 were kept in hospital), 85 arrested and 13 convicted to between 15 days and three months in prison. One Portuguese was deported after serving his time. The management then tried to split the workers by promising no victimisation and the union leaders in turn, then agreed to withdraw the pickets. The strike ended finally on 6 February, as sanctions against the workers were withdrawn. Of great importance, however, was the fact that it injected a spirit of real struggle into the scene.
This potted history of strikes in the two years before May 1968 shows that there were many rehearsals for the great event, both on the part of the workers, and on that of the union bureaucracy. The wave of strikes was rising quickly, their militancy meeting with greater violence from the CRS; and the expertise of the union bureaucracy in diverting semi-insurrectionary struggles into ‘demonstrative’, ‘warning’, ‘rotating’ strikes, was put to the test again and again.
The sweep of the industrial struggle becomes clear from the statistics of the number of strike days. In 1965 979,860 were recorded, in 1966 2,253,000, and in 1967 no less than 4,222,000.
The May 1968 strike was a reaction against the years of frustration and the futile politics of the traditional organisations of the working class. Hence its violence and its semi-insurrectionary character. Hence also the willingness of the workers – in their millions – to strike, to occupy their workplaces and to go on to the offensive once the students had begun the fight and once the potentiality of a really mass strike of workers began to be realised.
At its height the radicalisation that the mass strike and occupations brought with them was astonishing. Millions discussing politics on the shop floor; hundreds of thousands expressing through slogans, demonstrations etc , an identification with the politics of the workers power that they were in the process of creating and discovering themselves and against the alienating politics of the Fifth Republic and its parliamentary roads to nowhere; thousands learning about revolutionary politics from the permanent mass forum that the Paris Opera had become.
The scale of the strike, the speed with which it took off, its revolutionary slogans, and, above all, the superb initiative of the rank and file, all this was deeply frightening to the French ruling class. The CP and Socialist parliamentary and union leaders were easy enough for de Gaulle and the capitalists who he represented to deal with. They could be ignored for the most part and given the occasional concession when really necessary. But what do you do when ten million workers have been brought out on strike by rank-and-file activists against the advice of these familiar leaders? What do you do when rank-and4ile activists bring out their own section and then picket out the rest of the workplace (or, worse still, other workplaces)?
At the height of the May days the French working class was in no mood for concessions on pay or conditions to dampen down the struggle, indeed any such moves served to convince the workers that the other side was weakening its resolve. The workers at the massive Berliet factory seemed to express this demand for something more fundamental than wages when, having occupied the plant, they re-arranged the huge nameplate BERLIET to now read
If the strike had been confined to certain sections of workers, or if it had occurred through the official bureaucratic union channels, it would have been much more easily contained. But because it involved something very different – mass debate and argument amongst rank-and-file workers – it tended to break down barrier after barrier. The rank and file of the ordinary police force became resentful of their association with the CRS and began to refuse to continue as the upholders of de Gaulle’s law and order. And as for the overwhelmingly conscript army, it represented a massive danger for the status quo. There was no question of it being used against the strikers; de Gaulle was convinced – rightly – that the ranks would come over to the workers immediately, and therefore it was to be left isolated from the cities as much as possible.
With the forces of the state crumbling all around him, de Gaulle, surrounded by a small number of crack troops, retired to Germany, where, no doubt, he set about planning for the contingency of a future military strike against a country that was falling more and more into the workers’ hands.
Luckily for him things did not go that far. Tragically, the workers could not throw overboard the traditional organisations of the working class in one fell swoop as they lacked a credible alternative. Above all, the workers did not manage to form widespread democratic rank-and-file organisations. The trade union and CP bureaucracies managed to rein in the working class.
In only very few cases, for instance, were strike committees democratically elected. In practically every plant the trade union nominated the delegates to the strike committee. In Renault there were a few attempts to get elections by the rank and file, but they were squashed by the CGT and the CP except in one department. In the central Citroen factory the officially appointed strike committee was not challenged, but in one of its subsidiary factories – in Nanterre – it was, but the attempt failed. As against this, in the chemical factory Rhone-Poulenc-Vitry, the demand for a rank-and- file committee was so strong that the official one was overthrown and a new one elected by union and non-union workers alike.
It is interesting that even in Citroen, where for 16 years there had not been a strike, and where only 7 per cent of the workers were organised in trade unions, the union bureaucrats still managed to prevent the election of a democratic rank-and-file strike committee, and imposed a nominated one.
The general policy of the unions was to minimise the involvement of workers in the strike and the occupation of the factories. The overwhelming majority of the workers, probably as many as 80 or 90 per cent, were sent home. Those remaining in the factories were mainly members of the CP and CGT. Also, once the strike had passed its peak, the sense of involvement waned. At Rhone-Poulenc, which had a vigorous rank-and-file committee in the early days, the failure to make the struggle active led to apathy. Towards the beginning of June, a certain intellectual tiredness crept in, 50 many of the subjects for discussion having been exhausted. On the return from the Whit holiday the occupation was just as strong, but the spirit was not at all the same; the long discussions were replaced by games of cards, bowls and volley-ball.
Some places presented a very different scene. Thus at Nantes and at St Nazaire the strike committee took over the administration of the town. The strikers controlled prices. Their wives distributed vegetables direct to the consumers. Strikers manned the petrol pumps and distributed petrol. ‘Furthermore, care of strikers’ children was taken charge of by unionised teachers and supervisors of children’s holiday camps ... Families of strikers in the worst financial situations had food coupons issued to them by the unions.’
The most obvious lack in the strike was a network connecting the different strike committees. It did not exist even for factories belonging to the same firm. If the CGT could not stop the strike it was able to sabotage it by fragmenting the movement – taking what had been a mass movement of the class as a whole and reducing it to a series of disconnected struggles in different industries. Thus negotiations with different employers transformed the strike from being general into a collection of separate strikes. Not only was there no network of strike committees, but in practice the trade union bureaucracies did their best to isolate one strike committee from another. Thus, for instance, the Renault Billancourt CGT refused on 23 May to receive a delegation from Renault Flins.
Unfortunately there was no national organisation strong enough to agitate for strike committees democratically elected by all workers, union or non-union, and to show the need for linking them up. If these had existed, and had been extended to the armed forces, they would have been basically the same as the soviets of 1917.
On 27 May the Grenelle Agreements were reached between the representatives of the trade unions and the employers under the arbitration of the Ministry of Labour. The agreements led to the minimum wage being increased from 2.22 to 3 francs per hour (about half as much as demanded by the unions), and for private sector wages to be made up to a 10 per cent increase for 1968 as a whole. A small gain was also made for patients’ contributions to medical expenses. But over other points – union rights in the factory, working hours, retirement, a sliding scale of wages – and over all questions concerning public sector workers – there was no agreement.
Even then it took the trade union leadership a long time – nearly three weeks – to bring the strikes to an end. As a matter of fact, the strike movement reached its peak after the Grenelle Agreements. But the pressure of the trade union and party bureaucracies did eventually yield results, and what L’Humanité (6 June) called ‘The Victorious Return to Work’ started. In some places resistance to this was sharp.
In June an attempt was made to run trains by force at the Gare de l’Est, Paris. This was prevented by the railway workers lying down on the tracks. On 3 June workers at Sud-Aviation (Nantes), where the first occupation had begun, issued a statement urging all workers to maintain the general strike to ‘total victory’. Elsewhere, the response was more ambiguous. At CSF (Levallois) there was a referendum in which two thirds of the workers voted dissatisfaction with the management offer, but only one third voted to continue the strike. In the big Paris stores there was a demoralising drift back to work, with some workers recommencing before others.
At Renault (Flins) after an attempt to restart work on 10 June, the workers reoccupied on 11 June, despite opposition from both CGT and CFDT.
In this situation of fragmented return, the role of information was crucial, for obviously the decision whether or not to return was dependent on decisions elsewhere. A standard technique of the CGT was to announce in one factory that other factories had decided to return. In Paris transport – underground and buses – the trade union representatives were the only ones who went from one depot to another. To the workers of each depot they said: ‘You are against the return to work, but you are on your own. Everybody else wants to return to work.’ Thus, while the Depot rue Lebrun had voted to carry on the strike other depots had been told that it had voted 85 per cent for a return. After talking to the union officials, the elected strike committee at Lebrun, hearing that all the other depots were back at work, ordered a return, ignoring the vote already taken. At last, as a result of this method, after four weeks of strike, the transport workers were demoralised enough to vote for a return to work.
There was no alternative available to counter this from the left. There were not even the embryos of Soviets – workers’ councils linking up democratically elected strike committees. Neither was there a revolutionary party so desperately demanded by the situation.
As a substitute-Soviet that did not exist and a substitute revolutionary party that did not exist, arose the Action Committees!
The initiative to establish the Action Committees was in the main taken by students, including members of all the ‘groupuscules’ (small or very small groups of Trotskyists, Maoists, Anarchists). At the end of June there were in Paris some 450 Action Committees. Many hundreds existed up and down the country.
At Rhone-Poulenc (Vitry) there were 39 rank-and-file committees. They each delegated four representatives to the Central Committee; this had 156 members of whom 78 sat permanently. These representatives were elected and could be recalled at anytime. The meetings of the Central Committee took place daily and were public.
At the Ministry of Supply, every morning a general assembly of the staff was called; this was the leading body of the strike, and every day it elected a different chairman, whose role was limited to allowing free discussion (thus up to 8 June there were 18 successive chairmen).
But the role of these rank-and-file committees was necessarily an ambiguous one. There was wide discontent among unionised workers with the part played by the leadership of the trade unions in the strike, and out of this discontent grew the recognition of the need to create alternative forms of organisation. In many cases these new organisations were able to put pressure on the unions in the negotiations and to limit the extent to which the unions were able to sell out. But in the short and hectic period available the new forms of organisation were not able to create a viable alternative to the bureaucracy, but only to exist alongside them in uneasy compromise.
The Action Committees were isolated from each other. Their life span was very short indeed.
It was only after the trade union bureaucracy brought the factory occupations to an end that de Gaulle emerged from his bunker. As we have seen, throughout the strike he did not dare to pit the army or police against the workers. The CRS was used only against students, and later, when the majority of strikers had already returned to work, against individual factories. Ten million workers could not have been intimidated by the army or the police. Thus the occupation of Renault Flins by the CR8, which was accompanied by bitter clashes with workers and students, in which one student was killed, took place on 7 June. The prolonged battle of the CRS with the workers of Peugeot at Sochaux, in which two workers were killed, took place on 11 June. In both cases nearly all other workers had gone back to work and these two factories were isolated.
The French general strike was by far the largest general strike in world history. Never before had there been anything like 10 million workers on strike. Wrenching industry from the hands of the capitalists, the workers faced a completely paralysed state: the question of state power was posed nakedly.
As Cliff and Birchall wrote in 1968:
However, posing the question is not the same as answering it. The morale, consciousness and organisation of the contending classes determine whether the general strike will be transcended by a proletarian seizure of power
The outbreak of the general strike, with the semi-insurrectionary temper of the working class accompanying it, shows that the situation was actually pre-revolutionary. Whether the working class as a whole was conscious that the question of state power was at the centre of the siruggle or not, the duty of the revolutionary leadership was to make this explicit, to develop the confidence of the workers in themselves and in their organisations. And it was just this that the PCF and the CGT did not do ...
It is an oversimplification of the situation either to reduce the French general strike entirely to a movement for higher wages and improved conditions, or to condemn as betrayal any raising of political or economic demands as opposed to pure’ revolutionary demands. In different sectors, different industries, different regions, there was a wide range of demands – some simply for higher wages and longer holidays, some for purely political changes, like the sacking of Pompidou or de Gaulle, many for control or participation in some form.
France has shown the falseness of the purely economistic – bread and butter – trade union perspective. A revolutionary movement does not grow naturally out of a mere accumulation of partial economic struggles. It was only after a direct political confrontation that we saw the unleashing of a vast movement of economic demands.
On the other hand, in a crisis situation concrete economic demands may be more revolutionary than an abstract political line imposed from outside. Many economic shells can hide a political kernel.
Regularly leaders complain that the workers are passive. And quite often this is so. But are the leaders free from blame for this passivity? Is workers’ activity like a revolver that can be kept unused for years in the pocket of the leaders and then taken out at will? To overcome the inertia – the product of helplessness and hopelessness – workers have to win confidence in themselves, and in the party that organises and leads them.
One has the feeling that one has been here before. Trotsky’s words on the French situation in May-June 1936 fit perfectly the evaluation of the French situation in May-June 1968:
‘The situation is revolutionary, as revolutionary as it can be, granted the non-revolutionary policies of the working class parties. More exactly, the situation is pre-revolutionary. In order to bring the situation to its full maturity, there must be an immediate, vigorous, unremitting mobilization of the masses, under the slogan of the conquest of power in the name of socialism. This is the only way through which the pre-revolutionary situation will be changed into a revolutionary situation. On the other hand, if we continue to mark time, the prerevolutionary situation will inevitably be changed into one of counterrevolution.’ (Trotsky, Whither France?, New York 1936, p.50.)
The main condemnation of the PCF is not that they did not carry out a victorious socialist revolution in May or June. No one could have guaranteed that this could be done. What was necessary was to raise the self-confidence and organisational strength of the workers to enhance the combativity of the working class.
The PCF prevented the election of democratic strike committees. It prevented the link-up between committees. It sent the majority of workers away from the factory. Those who were left were engaged in games instead of serious political discussion. It did its best to insulate the workers from the revolutionary students and young workers.
To attain workers’ power a number of steps were necessary: 1) the establishment of rank-and-file committees in the factories and their generalisation into local, regional and finally national councils of workers’ deputies (Soviets); 2) arming the picket lines fine end then the mass of the workers, against the CRS and scabs; 3) starting to run the factories under the control of the workers’ committees; 4) decisively smashing, disarming and dismantling the armed forces of the capitalists. 
In the May-June 1968 French strike we witness an example of a mass strike in a semi-revolutionary situation far nearer to the model of Russia 1905 than to Britain, in 1926, not to speak of Sweden in 1909 or Belgium in 1913. Two further things should be noted about it.
First of all, against the prophets of doom, it shows that workers can rise to the heights of revolutionary consciousness even while surrounded by all the advanced apparatuses of reformism that are available in the West today.
Secondly the struggles that led up to 1968 were, in the main, defeated. But the workers were able to generalise from these defeats, and it made them more willing to fight even harder in a mass strike involving the whole of the class than in smaller sectional struggles that were more isolated.
Let us start by giving a short sketch of the 1972 miners’ strike. From the beginning each mining area was consigned a part of Britain to picket: London and south-east England to Kent and the Midlands NUM; south-west England to South Wales; East Anglia to Yorkshire; and south and north Scotland to Scotland with help from Northumberland and Durham if necessary.
An extremely high proportion of miners – some two-thirds according to some accounts – were engaged in picketing a very large number of establishments. Vic Allen writes: ‘It was estimated that 500 establishments were picketed on a 24-hour basis by an average of 40,000 miners each day. Altogether 200,000 miners had been involved in strike duties.’ 
Malcolm Pitt, President of the Kent NUM, describes in a detailed way how the Kent miners met their responsibility of providing picket cover for the largest concentration of power stations, docks and railway depots in Britain. In a graphic way he shows that throughout, power workers as well as railway workers and dockers were very cooperative with the miners:
At the meeting of the London Combine Power stewards on the night of Wednesday, 19 January, the power workers agreed to work towards liaison committees at local level between power, gas and mineworkers. Mass meetings were to be called in the power stations ...
At a mass meeting in West Ham power station, the power workers drew up a six-point plan which included: a total ban on overtime; a refusal to handle any movement of coal either between power stations or from the railhead;
and a decision to stop work should any new coal reach the boilers ...
Similar decisions at other power stations meant that the Tory government was facing a war on two front in the most vulnerable section of the industrial structure.
Meanwhile, the Kent miners had been deployed throughout the London area, and twenty-one power stations were under picket, as well as important coal depot at West Drayton, West Ham, Dagenham, Neasden and Fulham. From the first day on the picket line, the Kent miners turned back from the power stations all deliveries of fuel, including oil ...
At Hackney power station, on the night of Wednesday 2 February, three oil tankers drove straight through the pickets. The picket had stood across the entrance to the station with their hands lifted up in a gesture to stop, but the lorries, escorted by cars, had driven straight at them and into the station, narrowly avoiding serious injury to the pickets. 
So the Hackney power workers responded by pulling the switches. 
The impact of the picketing was massive elsewhere too.
On 22 January Kingsnorth was reported to be within forty-eight hours of closure. Battersea was a mere 25 per cent productive and, without acid. would have to close. On the 25th West Ham reported two days supply of coal, Hackney four days supply of oil. Croydon had two out of six ‘burns’ shut down, and only ‘little oil left’. Brimsdown was two-thirds shut-down. On the 26th Battersea reported that the power station would close down if it did not receive acid within the next twenty-four hours. On the 27th Purfleet reported that two burners were out, one ‘on the blink’, and two very low. If there were no oil by the weekend, the station would have to shut down ...
Battersea had ceased the generation of electricity, and Brimsdown was down to two days supply of oil. On Tuesday 1 February, West Thurrock reported that two burners were shut down, and two out of the remaining three were in a bad condition. On 3 February, Hackney was shut down by the power workers in protest against the invasion of three oil tankers. On 5 February, Kingston reported that the station would close at any time, and Barking that the station had only eight days supply of coal, only enough oil to last until Sunday, and was generating no power to the grid. 
The story was similar in Scotland, South Wales, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and very soon the picketing of the power, stations was hitting the economy – very hard. Towards the end of the strike 1,400,000 workers were out of work and 12 power stations were closed. 
One centre of struggle where the solidarity of non-miners with the miners was demonstrated very powerfully was the Saltley Coke Depot. The two thousand miners led by Arthur Scargill could not stop the coke lorries after days of picketing. On Tuesday 8 February Scargill approached the East Birmingham District Committee of the AUEW. It responded by bringing its members out in support of the miners. The T&GWU and the Vehicle Builders followed suit. On Thursday 10 February, 100,000 Birmingham trade unionists came out and 20,000 marched on Saltley. To use Scargill’s words: ‘The picket line didn’t close Saltley, what happened was the working class closed Saltley.’ 
The 1972 miners’ strike can be summed up very briefly: it was in effect a rank-and-file strike.
61. Quoted in J. Braunthal, History of the International, vol.2 (London 1967), pp.168-9.
62. British Government, Cabinet Papers GT6323 and 326, 13 November 1918.
63. T. Jones, Whitehall Diary (London 1969), pp.99-100.
64. J.T. Murphy, Preparing for Power (London 1972), p.179.
65. A. Hutt, The Postwar History of the British Working Class (London 1972), p.18.
66. R. Page Arnot, The Miners. Years of Struggle (London 1953), p.339.
67. Hutt, op. cit., p.62.
68. Murphy, op. cit., pp.2134.
69. Ibid., pp.207-8.
70. Fourth Congress of the Communist International (London 1923), p.62.
71. Solidarity, July 1917.
72. Workers’ Weekly, 30 September 1922.
73. Workers’ Weekly, 21 September 1923.
74. This section relies heavily on T. Cliff and I. Birchall, France: The Struggle Goes On (London 1968).
75. Ibid., pp.61-4, 67-8.
76. V.L. Allen, The Militancy of British Miners (Shipley 1981), p.200. One should treat these figures with a heavy dose of salt; even so there is no doubt that the picketing involved a higher proportion of workers than in 1984/5 and was much more extensive.
77. M. Pitt, The World on our Backs (London 1979), pp.151-3.
78. Ibid., p.159.
79. Ibid., pp.163-5.
80. Allen, op. cit., p.212.
81. A. Scargill, New Unionism, New Left Review, July 1975, p.17.
Last updated on 14.1.2004