Tony Cliff
and Ian Birchall

France – the struggle goes on

Was there a revolutionary situation?

The central theme in the “theoretical” self-justification of the PCF leaders was that the situation in France was not revolutionary. Thus on 8 June René Andrieu, editor in chief of L’Humanité, gave an interview to the Morning Star:

Q: Some of the leftist leaders made their strongest propaganda on the platform that last month there was a revolutionary situation in France in which the chance of revolution was betrayed. These leftist leaders labelled the coming elections as treason to the revolutionary cause. These same arguments have been reflected in the British papers. How would you answer them?

Andrieu: In reality there was in France an unprecedented movement of people’s demands. But for there to be a revolutionary situation two conditions must be fulfilled:

(1) It is not enough that the main forces of the nation should be moving – which was the case – it is also necessary for them to be won to the idea of socialist revolution. But this was not the case, for all the 10 million workers on strike, let alone for the middle sectors (especially the peasants).

(2) It is necessary for the State to be disintegrating. But even if the government was crippled the regular army with its tanks and its planes was holding itself ready to seize the pretext of the least adventure to drown the workers’ movement in blood and to install a military dictatorship.

The same analysis was given by Séguy on 14 June:

To tell the truth the question of deciding whether the time for insurrection had arrived or not was never raised either in the Bureau Confédéral or the Administrative Commission composed, as is well known, of serious, responsible militants who are not in the habit of allowing themselves to take their desires for reality. If the workers were momentarily disturbed about this matter, the funeral black flag of anarchy waved hysterically by the members of the so-called “comités révolutionnaires” soon opened their eyes and brought them over to our side, the side of those who in the struggle combined the red flags of the workers of the world with the tricolore of France, and the revolutionary history of our people. No, the 10 million workers on strike did not demand power for the working class but better conditions of life and work, and the overwhelming majority expressed their attachment to democracy in their opposition to personal rule.

Let us deal with each argument separately.

The armed forces

First the question of the army (and police).

When Andrieu says that “even if the government was crippled the regular army with its tanks and its planes was holding itself ready” and therefore a revolution was impossible in France at present, he actually excludes revolution altogether. Does he really expect the army generals to order their troops to join the revolutionary workers?

A peaceful conquest of the army to the side of socialism is even less possible than the peaceful conquest of parliament. As Trotsky aptly wrote, “The army is a copy of society, and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature”. [104] The hierarchy of command in capitalist society is reflected in a more extreme form in its armed forces. The officer castes keep in close touch with the capitalists, while the mass of soldiers, to a much weaker extent, reflect the mood of the workers’ community from which they came. Soldiers cannot dare to disobey their officers’ command before they are convinced that the path of insurrection and victory is open:

During the revolution, inevitable oscillations will occur in the army, an internal struggle will take place. Even the most advanced section will not go over openly and actively to the side of the proletariat unless they see with their own eyes that the workers want to fight and are able to win. [105]

The first task of every insurrection is to bring the troops over to its side. The chief means of accomplishing this are the general strike, mass processions, street encounters, battles at the barricades. [106]

In fact only a revolutionary policy could have probed the reliability of the French army as a support for capitalism. This did not take place in the recent crisis.

Five years before, when de Gaulle threatened to use military force against workers, his bluff was called.

During the miners’ strike of 1963 he issued a requisition order, ordering the miners to return to work unconditionally. The miners disregarded this, and received expressions of solidarity from many quarters, while de Gaulle’s standing was considerably weakened. [107]

Throughout the recent mass strike de Gaulle did not dare to pit the army or the police against the workers. The CRS was used only against students, and later on, 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 CRS, 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.

One must remember that the army is predominantly made up of conscripts. Even without the clear lead of a mass revolutionary party, there were signs of rebellion in the armed forces. Thus the Canard Enchaîné of 19 June refers to reports of a mutiny on the aircraft carrier Clemenceau, which at the end of May was bound for the French nuclear test in the Pacific, but was brought back to Toulon. Three families were informed that their sons had been “lost at sea”. Action, journal of UNEF, which carried a fuller report in its 14 June issue, was seized. Obviously if such a report had been publicised while the situation was still seething, the effect on other sections of the armed forces could have been dramatic.

Both La Nouvelle Avant-Garde and Partisans [108], two Socialist journals, reproduce a statement of the 1530 RIMCA (Régiment d’Infanterie Mécanisée), stationed at Muntzig, and dated 22 May. The following are extracts from the statement:

The military bureaucracy, with its outdated traditions, is recruited in a socially selective manner designed to preserve the owning classes. The extremely rudimentary training in arms given in the army represents the desire that the popular classes should merely be passive herds to be manoeuvred in any forthcoming conflict ...

The equal right for all to receive instruction in arms in no way justifies keeping men in barracks for 14 to 16 months. This scandalous concealed unemployment is perhaps justified by economic pseudo-reasons, but it is not our concern because we have no real part in the management of French society. Hundreds of thousands of young people are thus every year legally reduced to a degrading semi-detention ...

Military instruction must be an equal right for all. Military instruction and sex education must be administratively, geographically and chronologically integrated into the whole system of National Education from the earliest age, and controlled according to the same principles now demanded in Universities and schools; dialogue and joint management ...

Like all conscripts, we are consigned to barracks. We are being prepared to intervene as repressive forces. The workers and youth must know that the soldiers of the contingent WILL NEVER SHOOT ON WORKERS.

We Action Committees are opposed at all costs to the surrounding of factories by soldiers.

Tomorrow or the day after we are expected to surround an armaments factory which 300 workers who work there want to occupy.


Soldiers of the contingent, form your committees!

Our immediate demands are:

– Military service reduced to eight months with effective military training.

– Abolition of obsessional discipline not essential to the content of military instruction.

– Freedom of political and trade union organisation in the contingent.

– Educational reform of military instruction based on dialogue, and joint management of all activities with the instructors.




Even police morale suffered a grave crisis. The Sunday Express published this report from Paris:

As 10,000 reinforcements from the provinces were being drafted into Paris to help maintain law and order, a delegation from the police unions called at the Ministry of the Interior with an urgent demand for increased pay.

The demand was backed by a statement from the unions representing 51,000 riot police and gendarmes. This statement warned the Government, “A climate of extreme tension exists at the present time in all the police bodies of the nation”. [109]

The Times reported:

“My men are underpaid and tired”, said a police officer. “They are permanently on duty ...”

They are seething with discontent over their treatment by the Government, and the branch dealing with intelligence about student activity has been deliberately depriving the Government of information about student leaders in support of an expenses claim ...

Nor have the police been impressed by the Government’s behaviour since the troubles broke out. “They are terrified of losing our support”, said one man.

Such dissatisfaction is one of the reasons for the apparent inactivity of the Paris police in the past few days. Last week, men at several local stations refused to go on duty at the crossroads and squares of the capital. [110]

In the next issue of the same paper its defence correspondent, Charles Douglas-Home, wrote, “In an extreme emergency the troops could be brought into operation, but it is appreciated that they could be used only once, and then only for a short while, before the largely conscript army was exposed to a psychological battering in a general campaign of subversion which it would probably not withstand”. [111]

The general strike – actualities and potentialities

The French general strike was by far the largest general strike in world history. Never before have 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. This happens in every general strike. As Trotsky put it, “The general strike is, by its very essence, a political act”. [112]

The general strike, as every Marxist knows, is one of the most revolutionary methods of struggle. The general strike is not possible except at a time when the class struggle rises above particular and craft demands, and extends over all occupational and district divisions, and wipes away the lines and the parties, between legality and illegality, and mobilises the majority of the proletariat in an active opposition to the bourgeoisie and the state. Nothing can be on a higher plane than the general strike, except the armed insurrection. The entire history of the working-class movements proves that every general strike, whatever may be the slogans under which it occurs, has an internal tendency to transform itself into an open revolutionary clash, into a direct struggle for power. [113]

The fundamental importance of the general strike, independent of the partial successes which it may and then again may not provide, lies in the fact that it poses the question of power in a revolutionary manner. By shutting down the factories, transport, generally all the means of communication, power stations, etc, the proletariat by this very act paralyses not only production but also the government. The state power remains suspended in mid-air. It must either subjugate the proletariat by famine and force and constrain it to set the apparatus of the bourgeois state once again in motion, or retreat before the proletariat.

Whatever may be slogans and the motive for which the general strike is initiated, if it includes the genuine masses, and if these masses are quite resolved to struggle, the general strike inevitably poses before all the classes in the nation the question: Who will be the master of the house? [114]

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 prerevolutionary, potentially revolutionary. Whether the working class as a whole was conscious that the question of state power was at the centre of the struggle 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.

Economics and politics in the strike

One of the central arguments of the PCF was that the movement in May was essentially a movement for economic reforms: for higher wages, a shorter working week, etc.

However, if there is a time when the absence of a Chinese wall separating the struggle for economic reforms from the political struggle for power is exposed, it is during a general strike.

Long ago Rosa Luxemburg pointed this out:

The movement does not go only in one direction, from an economic to a political struggle, but also in the opposite direction. Every important political mass action, after reaching its peak, results in a series of economic mass strikes. And this rule applies not only to the individual mass strike, but to the revolution as a whole. With the spread, clarification and intensification of the political struggle, not only does the economic struggle not recede, but on the contrary it spreads and at the same time becomes more organised and intensified. There exists a reciprocal influence between the two struggles. Every fresh attack and victory of the political struggle has a powerful impact on the economic struggle, in that at the same time as it widens the scope for the workers to improve their conditions and strengthens their impulse to do so, it enhances their fighting spirit. After every soaring wave of political action, there remains a fertile sediment from which sprout a thousand economic struggles. And the reverse also applies. The workers’ constant economic struggle against capital sustains them at every pause in the political battle. The economic struggle constitutes, so to speak, the permanent reservoir of working-class strength from which political struggles always imbibe new strength. The untiring economic fight of the proletariat leads every moment to sharp isolated conflicts here and there from which explode unforeseen political struggles on an immense scale.

In a word, the economic struggle is the factor that advances the movement from one political focal point to another. The political struggle periodically fertilises the ground for the economic struggle. Cause and effect interchange every second. Thus we find that the two elements, the economic and political, do not incline to separate themselves from one another during the period of the mass strikes in Russia, not to speak of negating one another, as pedantic schemes would suggest. [115]

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.

If any proof that the movement was far from being purely economic is necessary, one can single out the fact that relatively few workers joined the trade unions during the May-June days and their aftermath. One must remember that in 1936 the membership of the CGT rose from 1 million to 5 million, and of the CFTC from 150,000 to 500,000. In 1945, again, the number of trade unionists rose from nothing to 7 million. This time the CGT claims to have gained 450,000 recruits and the CFDT 280,000. [116]

De Gaulle had no doubt at all of the anti-capitalist revolutionary essence of the general strike when he spoke on the TV on 7 June to announce the snap elections. He went out of the way to declare himself an opponent of capitalism. His emphasis on “participation” of labour and capital was but evidence of the attraction of socialism: imitation is the homage of hypocrisy to virtue.

Consciousness of the class

When Andrieu said that the 10 million workers on strike were not won to the idea of socialist revolution, whose fault was this if true? It was the CP that had insisted from the outset that there was no revolutionary situation, regardless of the great changes in the temper of the workers that took place from the beginning to the end of May.

Class consciousness is not a “natural” product of objective conditions à la vulgar mechanical materialists. Nor is it the accidental product of the subjective thought of individuals or parties. The consciousness of the class is the product of the interaction of acting men – including parties – and the objective given world.

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 mobilisation 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 pre-revolutionary situation will inevitably be changed into one of counter-revolution. [117]

The parliamentary election fraud

And for what did the PCF and the CGT call the strikes off? For the prospect of a parliamentary election.

As long as the strike went on de Gaulle was completely helpless and could not have carried out the elections. When, on 24 May, he called for a referendum, it turned out that not a single printshop in France would print the General’s ballot papers, and when in desperation he tried to have the ballot papers printed in Belgium the Belgian workers refused, out of solidarity with their striking brethren.

After de Gaulle’s speech of 30 May the PCF threw everything it had into the electoral campaign. Its central theme was that the PCF was “the Party of order”. Waldeck Rochet, the General Secretary of the PCF, elaborated on this in an interview on Radio Luxembourg on 20 June:

Q: The outgoing majority accuses you of having desired to seize power during the recent events. You have denied this accusation. Does that mean that your party envisages only the parliamentary road to power?

A: In claiming that the PC envisaged recourse to force in order to seize power, the Gaullist leaders are indulging in the most gross deceit. Contrary to the slanderous insinuations of M Pompidou the PC carried out all its actions in support of the working class within the framework of republican legality. This position is not in the least one of expediency but fully conforms to our principles.

When the means of communication and the machinery of state are in the hands of a hostile ruling class, one cannot expect parliamentary elections to do anything other than play into the hands of this class. Parliamentary elections always distort the real correlation of class forces. The Bolsheviks got only a quarter of all votes cast for the Constituent Assembly (9 million out of 36 million votes). And this after being in power, after the inauguration of many of the most important and popular revolutionary measures: land to the peasants, workers’ control in industry, etc. This did not prevent the Bolsheviks from winning the civil war. In the years of the civil war the overwhelming majority of the Russian people fought on the side of the Bolsheviks, thus effectively demonstrating that Lenin had more accurately gauged popular feeling than the results of the Constituent Assembly appeared to indicate. Lenin never identified the indices of parliamentarism with the actual correlation of forces. He always introduced a radical correction in favour of direct action.

In our epoch not a single serious issue can be decided by ballot. In the decisive class battles bullets will decide. The capitalists will be counting the machine-guns, bayonets and grenades at their disposal.

The electoral cretinism of the PCF did not even pay in parliamentary terms. First of all, the youth (below 21), the most dynamic element in the strikes and demonstrations, was barred from voting. Secondly, foreign workers, who are numerous in France, and played quite an important part in the strike, also could not vote. Thirdly, with the retreat from the strike, many workers in disgust abstained from elections, while the forces of the Right organised to take advantage of the situation.

The PCF lost 12 percent of its vote nationally (604,000 votes) compared with the year before. The loss was in direct relation to the amplitude of the struggle in the May-June days, and to the nakedness of the betrayal of the PCF and the CGT. Thus in the constituency of Montbéliard (where the Peugeot-Sochaux factory is) the PCF vote declined by 28 percent; and in the constituency of Meulan-Poissy (where Renault-Flins is) the PCF declined by 25 percent.

In the Paris region and Seine-et-Oise, the PCF lost eight of its previous 13 seats. In the Latin Quarter as many as 35 percent of the electors abstained.

At the same time as the PCF lost 604,000 votes, the Federation of the Left lost 570,000 votes – or 14 percent. The only party of the Left that considerably increased its vote was the PSU, which had been alone in flirting with the revolutionary students. Its vote rose by 379,000 or 90 percent.

De Gaulle made use of the CP to re-establish law and order, but even so did not show it any gratitude (except perhaps for doing it the service of banning the small groups of the extreme left, but that was something de Gaulle did primarily for himself).

De Gaulle campaigned in the name of an anti-Communist crusade. It is not surprising that the campaign attracted the attention of everybody in France who is conservative or hesitant, since EVERYBODY including the CP presented the students’ struggle, the continuation of the strike, counter-attacks or even just defence against the anti-strike actions of the police as “adventurist” acts, or “provocation” incited by goodness knows what professional troublemakers, even by “foreign agents”.

Nobody could sort things out ... and if “adventurism” was to be condemned, why not vote for the Gaullists rather than the CP or the Federation of the Left? The Gaullists at least had a clear policy: they had never followed those they condemned, whereas the CP and the Federation “supported” the strike at the same time as they condemned those who had set it going and wanted to carry it on, and they attacked demonstrations, calling them adventurist, while going on demonstrating themselves. The “left” had two faces during the strike: it displeased everybody, both the workers and the petite bourgeoisie. [118]

One good result of the electoral exercise of the PCF is that it will be very difficult to repeat it. As Lutte Ouvrière put it:

The government, the bourgeoisie and de Gaulle himself were able to realise that an electoral majority is not everything, anyway. The strike of May broke out less than a year after the election which, like the ones before, had returned a Gaullist majority to the Chamber.

De Gaulle, the bourgeoisie and the Government were able, this time, to end the strike by promising new elections to the workers ... it is true, with the complicity of the CGT leaders, who proclaimed that the new assembly would be able to provide what the prematurely-terminated strike could not have provided ... but a trick like that will not work twice.

De Gaulle et al. well know this, and they also know well that the majority they have just obtained does not provide them with any additional means for facing up to a new offensive by the workers. [119]

After the swing to the right on the first ballot, the PCF’s verdict was that it was entirely the fault of the leftists. L’Humanité of 24 June declared, “Each barricade, each car set on fire, swung hundreds of thousands of votes to the Gaullist party: that is the truth.”

Of course, the CP was right: the left “provoked” reaction.

Liberalism has always said to the workers that by the class struggle they “provoke” reaction. The reformists have repeated this accusation against the revolutionaries. These accusations reduce themselves, in the final analysis, to the profound thought that if the oppressed do not stir the oppressors will not be obliged to beat them. If you do not try to make a revolution, there is no danger of a counter-revolution! Keep submissive and inert, and nobody will hurt you!

The contrast between the growth of reaction in parliament and the growth of insurrection in the streets and factories is a further confirmation that the victory of socialism cannot be realised by parliamentary means, but only through revolution.

In conclusion

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 first and 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. [120]

The accusation against the PCF is not that it did not win an assault on the citadels of capitalism, but that it prevented anyone from even starting the assault.

The swing back of the pendulum – the 1936 precedent

One of the decisive lessons of history of the last 50 years is that if a pre-revolutionary situation is not taken advantage of by a revolutionary party, the situation can swiftly change into a counter-revolutionary one. Is France now going to have another long wave of reaction, as happened after June 1936? This is the first question every socialist must be asking.

The similarity between May-June 1936 and May-June 1968 is quite uncanny.

The 1936 general strike also started spontaneously.

The first factory occupation – nobody knows the individual responsible for the idea of the tactic – was at the Bréginuet factory at Le Havre on 11 May following the sacking of militants who had not worked on May Day. On 13 May there was an occupation at Toulouse, on 14 May at Courbevoie – they were hardly heard of in Paris, except through the bourgeois press which mentioned them briefly – L’Humanité did not mention the occupations till 20 May. However, an article in Humanité on 24 May discussed the tactic of occupation and its particular advantages, and this undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the strikes. The strikes with occupation now spread rapidly, in two ways: in the localities between neighbouring factories, and between different factories of the same company. By the end of June the strike wave had spread to Belgium, and if it had continued there were signs it might reach Germany.

The strikes were quite clearly spontaneous – both in their instigation and later in the many refusals to accept solutions negotiated by the unions. It was in industries with a very low rate of unionisation that the strikes started first and spread most quickly – metalworkers (4 percent unionisation), textiles (5 percent), food supplies (3 percent), big stores (1 percent). An eyewitness tells how a girl from the Prix Unique store came into the union offices, trembling, to announce that she had got the store workers out on strike and didn’t know what to do next. The union sent officials to help her prepare a list of demands. [121]

The extent of the strike was smaller than in 1968. There are no reliable figures of the total number of strikers, but Salengro, Minister of the Interior, estimated one and a half million at the high point. Many areas had virtually no strike. The employers resisted any suggestion of using force to end the factory occupations. [122]

Then the SFIO and CP came and sold the strike for economic gains at the Matignon Agreements. The workers got a number of concessions all the same. The working week was cut to 40 hours, the average wage raised by 11 percent. [123] The trade unions grew by leaps and bounds. The CGT claimed to have grown from 1 million to 5 million members; the CFTC from 150,000 to 500,000.

Of the gains made by strike action, many rapidly disappeared: in February 1937 Blum admitted that “[t]he rise in the cost of living during the last eight months imposes on a wage-earner’s family a burden heavier than the advantages gained by measures taken in their favour”. Even between 9 July and 3 September 1936 there were massive price rises – a kilo of bread rose from 1.60 francs to 1.90 francs, a dozen eggs from 7.25 francs to 8.35 francs. Over a somewhat longer period, from 1935 to 1939, average weekly wages for male workers increased, in Paris by 49 percent, in the provinces 42 percent; in the same period the cost of living increased in Paris by 57 percent, in the provinces by 52 percent. [124]

The 40-hour week did not have a long life. In a broadcast of 12 November 1938 Daladier announced the restoration of a working week of 48 hours.

The political results of the “failed revolution” were even more dismal. Alexandre Lambert-Ribot, vice-president of the Comité des Forges, and a leading representative of the French employers, said on 18 November 1937, “The Matignon Agreements saved France from singularly terrible events, from grave riots liable to degenerate into civil war.” The acceptance of a compromise gave the ruling class a chance to regroup. An offensive was undertaken against the workers all over France.

The workers fought back. There were further factory occupations in March and April 1938 – Citroën, Gnôme-et-Rhône – but the movement was now demoralised; the class as a whole was not prepared to go through the same experience twice. When the Blum government fell in April 1938, it was replaced by a moderate government without Socialists, under Daladier. This government, under a man whom the CP had instructed the working class to support in the 1936 election, signed the Munich agreements, broke the CGT general strike in November 1938, and on 26 September 1939 made the Communist Party illegal. The CP was bitten by the mouth it had so earnestly fed.

The demoralisation in the working class after June 1936 made possible the capitulation to fascism in 1940.

An Italian precedent

Even more dramatic was the attack of reaction after a deep-going and massive sit-in strike in Italy in September 1920. The occupation came after three months of unsuccessful negotiations by the unions on bread-and-butter demands: an increase in wages due to the rise in the cost of living. The negotiations finally broke down, and the unions reacted with a go-slow which was to start on 21 August. The Alfa-Romeo factory in Milan, however, locked out the workers, and on 28 August the factory was occupied. By 1 September all metalworkers and engineers had occupied their factories in Turin, Milan, Genoa and Savona, and in the following days this was extended to all of Italy. In Turin and in some other towns the workers moved into other types of factories as well.

The factory councils took the lead, and from the outset became responsible for the running of the factories. Production was kept up throughout the strike in so far as conditions allowed. Success varied from place to place, and often, in spite of the solidarity of other workers, especially the railwaymen, who brought raw materials and primary products to the factories, the factories were starved of resources. Making the strike operative served a double purpose: it tested and proved the responsibility of the workers, and the products once sold could have constituted a useful means of supporting strikers in the absence of strike funds. The latter scope was not, however, realised, and the workers on strike had to rely on the generous collections of other categories to keep going.

Red armed guards were created for the protection of the factories, but with the exception of a few isolated incidents they were not actually needed since the compactness and militancy of the workers were enough to keep away unwelcome visitors.

Started on economic demands, the strike soon acquired a clear political content and became in fact about the recognition of workers’ councils and, indeed, workers’ control.

The industrialists varied in their reactions from frantic calls to the government to use force to what amounted to complete resignation. Giolitti refused to intervene in the strike other than as negotiator, well knowing that the movement would be strangled by the PSI and the CGL – the Italian Socialist Party and the TUs.

After one month of occupation the reformists set up a very ambiguous referendum with the utopian promise of workers’ control sometime in the future. The strike thus ended, without having ever posed the question of power where it counts. The capitalist state was not overthrown. Power was not seized by the working class.

The bourgeois reaction was not very long in following. The capitalist class was very frightened by the occupation. Thus Agnelli, the owner of Fiat, was so demoralised that he was ready to hand the factory over to the workers. All social classes came out of the crisis convinced that the old order had been shaken for ever.

However, the fact that the strike had not raised the political question of the overthrow of the bourgeois state gave time to the bourgeoisie to regroup and to substitute its own “new order” on the dying liberal state. The victors were soon shown to be the victims.

Thus the roots of Fascism lie in the defeat of 1920, but for its success a number of other factors needed to be present: first, and most decisively, the economic slump of 1921 which deprived the workers of their bargaining power and dealt shattering blows to their self-confidence.

Immediate prospects

No economic collapse of Western capitalism – in the form of a slump and mass unemployment – is on the agenda for the coming few years. The expansion of French capitalism will continue with ups and downs. If on average the annual rate of growth of total output between 1950 and 1960 was 4.4 percent, and if between 1963 and the first quarter of 1968 it was 2.0 percent, one can expect a continued growth, even if somewhat slowed down.

At the same time, because of speedy technological changes, accompanied by sharpening international competition, and the acceleration of mergers in industry, we can expect creeping unemployment, inflation and pressure on wages.

The financial position of France deteriorated very seriously as a result of the May-June events. In May France lost $306,000,000 out of her reserves, in June $1,088,600,000, and in July $666,800,000. Altogether in three months she lost $2,055 million, which is almost a third of the reserves held at the end of April. [125] Even before the recent events the international financial situation was not too good. In the past two years the French balance of payments has plunged from a healthy surplus to a deficit of $33 million in 1967.

Even before the recent events French industry found international competition tough. According to a report by the production committee of the French parliament, France’s share in United States imports of industrial products from the OECD nations is 4.5 percent against 19 percent for Germany and 11.5 percent for Great Britain. Its share in Japan’s imports for the same producers is 3.5 against 14 percent for Germany and 11.3 for Britain. France covers its total imports of manufactured goods by its exports at the rate of only 107 percent (figure for 1966) against 100 percent for Japan, 230 for Germany, 220 for Britain. [126]

With the lifting of the last customs barriers between the Common Market countries (1 July 1968), French industry is bound to feel the pressure more than ever. Her strength compared with her main partner/competitor, Germany, is not very great. German production capacity is 70 percent greater than the French in mechanical construction, 90 percent in steel, 200 percent in plastics, 200 percent in organic dyes. [127]

The rise in wages after the May-June events will affect the French situation in the export market. A recent poll of the IFOP market research organisation for the economic fortnightly Les Informations Industrielles et Commerciales showed that 60 percent of the industrialists expected their foreign sales to fall. [128] Only 19 percent considered the wage increases “bearable”, while 66 percent regarded them as “very heavy”, and 13 percent as “catastrophic”. [129]

The area of manoeuvrability open to the French capitalists is not very wide. Even before the May-June wage rises the squeeze on profit margins over the past few years was very severe. [130]

Some of the industries and firms will be able to absorb the wage rise much better than others. Some of the heads of large firms made this clear.

Sommer’s (textile) extra costs will not affect their financial return. In fact, plans for a new improvement in productivity should provide the necessary compensation.

The president of Pechiny (chemicals) has clearly posed the alternatives as “making an effort to keep course with the most efficient” or falling into mediocrity.

Baumgartner, president of Rhône-Poulenc, says, “For the corporations the extra cost will only be apparent.” He thinks that measures must be taken to:

... consolidate the situation of the producers on whom the competitive faculties of our country undoubtedly depend ... As for us, we shall continue to revise those of our activities which do not satisfy present demands and develop those which meet the needs of the market, etc. [131]

Mergers will take place at an accelerated pace compared with the past. [132]

Unemployment will rise, although it is very difficult to forecast how steep this will be. The poll carried out by the market research organisation referred to above showed that about a quarter of the companies questioned expected to see a fall in employment, while the vast majority said they would not take on any more workers for the time being. [133] Some economists forecast as many as 1 million unemployed in the coming winter.

At the same time inflation is expected to take its toll. Nine out of ten French companies intend to raise their prices by between 5 and 10 percent as a result of the recent wage increases. [134] According to a report laid before the Economic and Social Council, French retail prices may rise between 6 and 7 percent this year as a result of the general strike. [135]

Thus in the immediate period we can expect a sharpening of the industrial struggle in France, increasing in bitterness, sometimes fragmented, but often fused into massive confrontations, not only with the bosses, but also with the State.




104. L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (London, 1937), p.211.

105. L. Trotsky, Whither France?, p.95.

106. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London, 1934), p.1031.

107. A. Werth, De Gaulle, p.364.

108. La Nouvelle Avant-Garde 1; Partisans 42, pp.188-190.

109. Sunday Express, 19 May 1968.

110. Times, 30 May 1968.

111. Times, 31 May 1968.

112. L. Trotsky, Whither France?, p.89.

113. L. Trotsky, Whither France?, p.79.

114. L. Trotsky, Whither France?, p.87.

115. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften (Berlin, 1955), vol.1, pp.201-202.

116. L’Express, 24 June 1968.

117. L. Trotsky, Whither France?, p.50.

118. Lutte Ouvrière 2. The pretext for the dissolution of the left groups by de Gaulle’s regime was that they were armed. It should therefore be noted that the first reference to them in these terms – “the armed bands of Geismar” – was in L’Humanité of 5 June, five days before the ban. On 12 June the government banned street meetings, dissolved the “groupuscules”. This was reported by L’Humanité without comment, let alone protest.

119. Lutte Ouvrière 2.

120. A revolutionary organisation that catches the ear of only a few workers has to adjust the same programme tactically. As the point of departure for real revolutionary leadership is the experience of the workers themselves – their own views and attitudes – a small revolutionary group would have to be very modest in putting forward the above-mentioned transitional demands. While its agitation should have concentrated on the demand for democratically-elected strike committees, and the need to link them up, its main propaganda demand should be the final demand – for workers’ power, for all power to the Soviets (that do not exist yet). There is not a time where the connection between propaganda and agitational slogans is of more importance than at a time of deep social crisis. However, there is no time where the mixing of the two, i.e. using the one instead of the other, is more pregnant with danger. The temptation for the small revolutionary groups in France to have an auction with the PCF – “You ask for money; we demand workers’ power” – is very great. Verbal extremism often accompanies actual impotence. Without the achievement of democratic strike committees the slogan of workers’ power must remain empty.

121. G. Lefranc, Juin 36, p.185.

122. G. Lefranc, Juin 36, p.116.

123. It is remarkable too how similar was the persecution of the Trotskyists. On 12 June 1936 the Blum government, with CP backing, seized a Trotskyist paper, La Lutte Ouvrière, which called for workers’ power.

124. G. Lefranc, Histoire du Front Populaire (Payot, 1965), p.324.

125. Times, 6 August 1968.

126. Paul Moch’s report on the French Economic Council, Times, 29 November 1967.

127. Paul Moch, report on the French Economic Council.

128. Financial Times, 29 June 1968.

129. Financial Times, 9 July 1968.

130. This reflects itself clearly in share prices in the capital goods industries over the past few years:




Mechanical Engineering

Electrical Engineering

Iron and Steel


General index

End 1961







End 1962







End 1963







End 1964







End 1965







End 1966







End 1967







France, Phillips and Drew, Investment in the Common Market 5 (London 1968), p.13.

131. Analyses et Documents 157, pp.3-4.

132. In the first eight months of 1966, 1,600 mergers took place as against 450 in the whole of 1957 (M. Kidron, Western Capitalism since the War (London, 1968), p.15).

133. Financial Times, 9 July 1968.

134. Financial Times, 29 July 1968.

135. Financial Times, 4 July 1968.


Last updated on 21.4.2003