Maurice Brinton

France: Reform or Revolution


Published: in Solidarity Leaflet (May 1968).
Transcribed: by Jonas Holmgren
Proofed: by George Poulados

French bourgeois society is today being rocked to its foundations. Ten million workers are on strike. Factories, building sites, shipyards, shops, schools and universities have been taken over by those who work there. The whole transport system is at a standstill. The red flag has been hoisted over railway stations and state theatres, pitheads and sedate educational establishments. Tens of thousands of people of all ages are discussing every aspect of life in packed-out, non-stop meetings in every available schoolroom and lecture hall. Even the peasants are moving driving their tractors into the market places of country towns and challenging the authorities. The police force is vacillating. Even the "elite" paramilitary formations of the bourgeois state - the CRS - are being subjected to repeated drubbings in the streets.

No one "called" for this general strike. No one foresaw this tremendous upsurge of the masses, which caught all the traditional organizations of the "left" with their pants down. The pent-up criticism, anger, resentment and frustration of millions of young people against a society which treated them as objects is exploding in the greatest challenge to established French society since the days of the Paris Commune.

In the circumstances, the demands put forward by different sections of the French "left" are most revealing. The bourgeois politicians can see no further than a ministerial reshuffle. They are prepared to sacrifice a few big names in order to canalize the movement back into safe, parliamentary channels. Their game is so obvious that no one is likely to be fooled by it. As for the Socialist Party (SFIO), it is utterly discredited by years of opportunist and class-collaborationist policies. After all, it was a "socialist" Minister of the Interior, Jules Moch, who created the hated CRS. When the million-strong demonstration marched past the SFIO headquarters on the Boulevard de Magenta, on May 13, they shouted "Guy Mollet, to the museum".

The Communist Party and the CGT have been dragged into a tornado which they had not foreseen, do not understand, and whose development has constantly escaped their control. From the outset they have been more concerned about being outflanked on the left than in developing this tremendous mass movement. During the last three weeks every issue of L'Humanité has contained denunciations of the students and warnings against "provocateurs", "irresponsible elements", "anarchists" and "Trotskyists". (The bourgeois press speaks much the same language.) The Communists refer to Cohn-Bendit, one of the student leaders, as an agent of the CIA (while Prime Minister Pompidou hints that he is an agent of the Chinese). It seems beyond their combined comprehension that he might be what he claims to be: an "agent" of the Nanterre students.

The demands put forward by the CGT are very limited ones: a wage increase, a shortening of the working week, a lowering of the retiring age, the abolition of charges recently imposed on social security benefits, and the recognition of trade union organization in the factories. These demands are perfectly legitimate and justified, but also perfectly compatible with the continued rule of the bourgeoisie. Yet it is precisely this rule which the advanced sections of the workers and students are prepared to challenge. None of the industrial demands put forward by the CGT is in any way revolutionary. Even if granted, the ruling class could take everything back tomorrow through inflation or devaluation.

At the political level, the Communist Party sees no further than the replacement of the Gaullist regime by a "popular front" led by Mitterand, in which the CP would be "adequately" represented. At a time when every social institution (from the lycées to the Football Federation, from managerial authority in the factories to Parliament itself) is being questioned and challenged, the Communist Party can see no further than a reshuffle of seats in the Palais Bourbon.

The present movement started earlier this year at Nanterre, near Paris, when groups of students decided to challenge the central assumptions of bourgeois education by direct action methods (interruption of lectures, holding political meetings on the campus, etc.). They proclaimed that they rejected the whole hierarchical structure of the university, its selection and examination procedures, its administrative methods and more especially its function as a provider of industrial sociologists and psychologists whose purpose in life would be to help control and manipulate the working class. Confronted with this quite deliberate and openly admitted "provocation", the state authorities committed one bureaucratic blunder after another, each of which was to permit the student movement to take another leap forward. The police were eventually called into the faculties, thus provoking the total and irrevocable disaffection of the whole student community.

None of the traditional parties has really grasped what the students were after ... or rather they grasp it only too well. None are prepared to face the implications of the student challenge - namely that to explode the class basis of the university is to present established society with an intolerable threat. That is why the Communist Party still talks about the "student agitation" in terms of "bigger educational budgets", "more teachers", "better facilities", etc, instead of describing its real and profoundly revolutionary content.

This also explains why every attempt by the revolutionary students to link up with rank-and-file workers now occupying the factories is being strenuously and often physically opposed by the CGT apparatus. The students are talking about workers' power, about a free society, things which the bureaucrats do not want the workers to think too much about. At Nantes, a student delegation from Paris, sent to establish contact with an occupied factory, was handed over to the police by a group of CGT pickets who happened to be Stalinist hacks. These attempts at dividing the movement, successful at first, are beginning to break down as the students show, in action, their militancy and their readiness to pursue the struggle to the bitter end.

It is this student militancy which terrifies every conservative layer of French society, from the readers of the Figaro to the elderly functionaries of the CGT. The students have shown that Gaullism is not omnipotent, that it is possible to fight back against the oppressive apparatus of the bourgeois state, and that it is possible to pass from a critique of bourgeois education to a total critique, in action, of the capitalist state.

Alone, of course, the students cannot change society. But student militancy has triggered off a massive working class response, compounded of sympathy, hatred of the police, and the advocacy of their own specific demands. The fate of the revolution now hinges on an unanswerable, yet all important question. Will the workers' objectives remain confined to improvements within the system? Or will they, like the students, take up the struggle on a much broader front? Will they eventually struggle against modern bureaucratic capitalist society, in all its multiple manifestations? Only if the workers undertake this far more difficult fight, a fight which no one can wage for them, a fight which implies a ruthless struggle against "their own" organizations, will the revolution be successful in any real sense. Only on the basis of such a struggle will it become impossible for various bureaucratic leaderships to take the movement in hand again, and lead it up a blind alley.

What of the other groups, to the left of the Communist Party? At a time when everything is still possible, when more and more people are realizing that the future will only contain what people put into it now, the imagination of many self-styled "revolutionaries" remains caught up in the bureaucratic thinking of a previous epoch.

The various Trotskyist groups fail to see the tremendous potentialities of the situation. Their main preoccupation is to establish their leadership over the mass movement. They all say that what is missing is the Party (which they all interpret as their particular party). None of them have confidence in the ability of the workers or students to solve their problems without this kind of tutelage. Some call for the Communists to take power (just as in this country they asked you to vote Labour at the last election) in order to "take the masses through the experience". Their economic demands only differ quantitatively from the Stalinist ones. They all engage in a kind of revolutionary auction. For instance, Voix Ouvrière advocates a minimum monthly wage of 1000 new francs, instead of the 600 new francs advocated by the CGT.

Trotskyist groups such as the FER (Fédération des Etudiants Révolutionnaires) are calling for organizational measures such as the setting up of a hierarchy of strike committees (with a national strike committee at the top) representing the various strike-bound factories and enterprises. Given the present relationship of forces, the Stalinists would be in an overwhelming majority on such bodies. The idea is to "expose" the Stalinists, should they seek to liquidate the strike in exchange for financial concessions from the employers or parliamentary concessions from the bourgeois state. From this "exposure", the Trotskyists hope to benefit. The incalculable damage done to the working class in the process is dismissed as an inevitable overhead.

The practical acts of the Trotskyists have proved equally nefarious. On the "night of the barricades" (May 10, 1968), despite repeated appeals for help, the FER refused to cancel its mass meeting at the Mutualite and to send reinforcements to assist the students and workers who were already engaged in a bitter fight with the CRS, on the barricades of the Rue Gay-Lussac, hardly a mile away. When several hundred FER members and sympathisers eventually turned up at 1.00 am, it was only to advise students to disperse. In the words of Chisseray, one of the Trotskyist "leaders", it was "necessary above all to preserve the revolutionary vanguard from an unnecessary massacre". The fact has been widely discussed in the mass assemblies, held night after night in the packed amphitheatres of Censier and La Sorbonne. Thousands are undergoing an extremely rapid education, through practice, as to the nature of Stalinism and Trotskyism and how they both seek to manipulate the mass movement in their own respective interests.

At first only a handful of revolutionary socialists and anarchists appreciated the tremendous opportunities now opening up. These groups, which are tending more and more to get together, are talking in terms of a total social revolution, of workers' management of production (autogestion) and of the need for workers' councils. In fact this radical viewpoint now presents the traditional left with the most widely-based challenge it has ever had to face. On the initiative of the revolutionaries, hundreds of Comités d'action have been set up in various factories and districts of Paris and other large towns. These committees consist of workers and students, agreed upon a programme of direct action in a given locality or enterprise and who also see the need to develop the mass movement as quickly, widely and radically as possible. Their activities are already getting an enthusiastic response, not only among wide layers of the student population but among smaller layers of young workers. If and when the working class as a whole itself takes up these demands (and gives them flesh and blood) the door will at least be open for a total, final challenge to French capitalist society, a challenge it will no longer be able to contain.


Last updated on: 7.11.2009