Suddenly, as if out of the blue, the revolt of the French working class burst upon a shocked capitalist world. It changed the political and social climate. As Premier Pompidou prophetically told the National Assembly on May 22, “Nothing will ever be exactly the same.”
Sparked off by militant action on the part of revolutionary students – Trotskyists, Maoists, Anarchists – and fanned by police brutality, the flames of revolution spread to the working class. All the pent-up frustrations of the exploited and oppressed burst out.
The giant working class brought the country to a standstill. It seized all industry from the hands of the helpless capitalist class. Everywhere it raised the red banner of socialism. The state looked on, paralysed and powerless.
Chorus girls and taxi drivers, soccer players and bank clerks, participated in the general strike and occupation of their place of work. Journalists and TV men refused to lie to order, and printers censored their employers’ press. Schoolchildren, joined by their teachers, took over the schools.
The strike involved a “cultural revolution” in the best sense of the term. This centred on the students in the Sorbonne but spread everywhere. The vast creative potential of unalienated men was glimpsed once again, as it had been at other revolutionary moments of history.
Unhappily, the working class did not manage, in one fell swoop, to get rid of the burden of the past, of the shackles of the traditional reformist organisations – above all the French Communist Party (PCF). For this failure the working class had to pay dearly.
The social crisis that gripped France shows vividly that none of the capitalist powers of our era is stable enough to be immune from proletarian revolution. The fact that social equilibrium could be endangered by clashes between the authorities and students shows how precarious is the stability of world capitalism in our era of “prosperity”.
The theory spread by many, among whom C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse are notable, that the working class has lost its revolutionary potential, that it has been seduced by the TV and the motor car, and is inseparably integrated into capitalism, was put to a crucial test; and the refutation of Marcuse’s statement that “in the advanced industrial countries where the transition to socialism was to take place, and precisely in those countries, the labouring classes are in no sense a revolutionary potential,” could not have been more vivid and thoroughgoing.
France has shown, more clearly even than Hungary or the Belgian general strike, that the working class of the advanced countries has not been bribed or integrated into complacency, but retains enormous revolutionary potential – even though France has the most sophisticated form of planned Western capitalism. The exceptional militancy of workers in the most modern sectors of industry, including motors and electronics, has shown that such militancy is no hangover from the past, but a crucial portent for the future.
The crisis has clearly indicated the role of such social groups as students. The French students played a central role, acting, as it were, as “detonator” for the social explosion. They were not able themselves to act as the agents of social change, but merely as stage-setters for the working class. Nor were they able to hold out on their own after the workers returned to work.
For the ten long years of the Gaullist regime the workers witnessed the impotence of the traditional reformist forms of struggle: parliamentary skirmishes, “demonstrative” strikes, uninspired marches, and so on. The social crisis submitted all methods and all doctrines to a searching and merciless examination. However short and transitory revolutionary crises are, they nevertheless throw a penetrating light on the deepest social processes.
All the ideas that the students and workers brought with them to the struggle, that had been the subject of theoretical discussion alone among a small number of political elements – the strength of the revolutionary potential and its limits, the role of revolutionary organisations, including the revolutionary party, the role of workers’ councils and the trade unions, etc – were put to the test in the struggle itself.
The French revolutionary struggle of May and June 1968 was part of the international struggle against capitalism. The fight against the Algerian war, and later against the Vietnam war, were central elements in forging the revolutionary students’ movement. The Japanese Zengakuren and the German SDS contributed their share. The accumulation of grievances and frustrations in the French working class were the outcome of the increasing contradictions in world capitalism, refracted through the prism of the authoritarian Gaullist regime.
The French revolutionary struggle is internationalist above all because a victory of the French proletariat cannot but transform the whole world scene by raising to unprecedented heights the confidence and militancy of workers everywhere, and casting fear and despair in the camp of exploiters. Paris and Berlin, Prague and Moscow, Tokyo and London are intimately united.
It is therefore imperative for socialists everywhere to study the May and June days.
Last updated on 21.4.2003