Tony Cliff
and Ian Birchall

France – the struggle goes on

The way ahead

The limitations of spontaneity – the need for a revolutionary party

The May-June events raised the two issues of the limitation of the effectiveness of spontaneity and the need for a revolutionary party in the sharpest and most urgent way.

Revolutions do indeed start as spontaneous acts without the leadership of a party. The French Revolution started with the storming of the Bastille. Nobody organised this. Was there a party at the head of the people in rebellion? No. Even the future leaders of the Jacobins, for instance Robespierre, did not yet oppose the monarchy, and were not yet organised into a party. The 14 July 1789 revolution was a spontaneous act of the masses.

The same was true of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the February 1917 Revolution. The 1905 Revolution started through a bloody clash between the Tsar’s army and police on the one hand, and the mass of workers, men, women and children, on the other, led by the priest Gapon (who was actually an agent provocateur of the Tsar). Were the workers organised by a clear decisive leadership with a socialist policy of its own? Certainly not. Carrying icons, they came begging their beloved “little Father” – the Tsar – to help them against their exploiters. This was the first step in a great revolution. Twelve years later, in February 1917, the masses, this time more experienced, and among whom there were a greater number of socialists than in the previous revolution, again rose spontaneously. No historian has been able to point a finger at the organiser of the February Revolution, for it was simply not organised.

However, after being triggered off by a spontaneous uprising, revolutions move forward in a different manner. In France the transition from the semi-republican government of the Gironde to the revolutionary one, which completely annihilated feudal property relations, was not carried out by unorganised masses without any party leadership, but under the decisive leadership of the Jacobin party. Without such a party at the helm this important step, which demanded an all-out fight against the Girondists, would have been impossible. The people of Paris could spontaneously, leaderlessly, rise up against the king after decades of oppression. But the majority of them were too conservative, too lacking in historical experience and knowledge, to distinguish, after only two or three years of revolution, between those who wanted to drive the revolution to an extremity and those who aimed at some compromise. The historical situation required a struggle to the bitter end against the party of compromise, the allies of yesterday. The conscious leadership of this great undertaking was supplied by the Jacobin party which fixed the date and organised the overthrow of the Gironde on 10 August 1792 down to the last detail. Similarly the October Revolution was not a spontaneous act but was organised in practically all its important particulars, including the date, by the Bolsheviks. During the zigzags of the revolution between February and October – the June demonstration, the July Days and subsequent orderly retreat, the rebuff of the rightist Kornilov putsch, etc – the workers and soldiers came more closely under the influence and guidance of the Bolshevik Party. And such a party was essential to raise the revolution from its initial stages to its final victory.

Spontaneity is inevitably irregular and uneven, and while all revolutions in history have begun spontaneously, none have ended so. The May days in Paris showed clearly that, while a few hundred students or workers can build a barricade, to overthrow the capitalist regime and seize state power a much larger centralised organisation is necessary.

The pivotal role of the party in the socialist revolution was summed up clearly by Trotsky:

... events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible. The proletariat cannot seize power by a spontaneous uprising. Even in highly industrialised and highly cultured Germany the spontaneous uprising of the toilers – in November 1918 – only succeeded in transferring power to the hands of the bourgeoisie. One propertied class is able to seize the power that has been wrested from another propertied class because it is able to base itself upon its riches, its cultural level, and its innumerable connections with the old state apparatus. But there is nothing else that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party. [136]

The part played in bourgeois revolutions by the economic power of the bourgeoisie, by its education, by its municipalities and universities, is a part which can be filled in a proletarian revolution only by the party of the proletariat. The role of the party has become all the more important in view of the fact that the enemy has also become far more conscious. The bourgeoisie, in the course of centuries of rule, has perfected a political schooling far superior to the schooling of the old bureaucratic monarchy. [137]

If only the workers of Paris in 1968 had remembered the experience of Paris in 1936 or the Italian workers in 1920! The revolutionary party is, so to say, the memory of the class, the store of experience of the class struggle internationally, the university of the class.

Facing the strictly centralised and disciplined power of the capitalists there must be no less centralised and disciplined a combat organisation of the proletariat.

Both centralism and democracy are essential:

Centralism – because it is imperative to assure unity in action of all sections of the proletariat and the simultaneity of demonstrations under a single common slogan: this can be achieved only if there is a genuine concentration of leadership in the hands of responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition and in their attitude to their political line.

Democracy – because these leading central and local bodies, which under certain conditions may be very small, must be elected by all party members, controlled by them and accountable to them. [138]

Because of the instability built into a capitalism that is on the whole expanding, the class struggle is going to have many sharp turns. Because changes in the objective economic conditions do not find immediate expression in the consciousness and activity of the class, as the latter are impeded by the dead weight of traditional reformist organisations, we must expect many zigzags in the struggle, from economic strikes to political battles and vice versa; from a semi-revolutionary situation to its opposite; from lulls to mass strikes whose scope and temper are insurrectionary. The unevenness between sections of the class, between different factories and industries, is going to continue, with sometimes an upward levelling, sometimes a downward, when equilibrium achieved will be again upset. Workers in advanced factories with long experience of the CGT and PCF will more and more be inclined to move away from them, while in the backward ones many will still join these organisations.

What is necessary under such conditions is a revolutionary organisation that is able not only to distinguish between a revolutionary situation and a counter-revolutionary one – this is quite easy – but between all the nuances in the transitional intermediate stages between them. An organisation like this should be able to show initiative, being stringent in its principles and highly adaptable and elastic in its tactics, always aware of the sharp turns in the situation.

For the revolutionary left in France there are now much better openings to build such a party than have existed for some 40 years.

For the first time a whole section of society – the students and tens of thousands of young workers, indeed youth in general – is free from the influence of the PCF; a base to the left of Stalinism has been established.

Now the central job for revolutionaries is to win the confidence of the majority of the working class. Only then can workers be summoned to an open revolutionary assault on capitalism, for workers’ power.

Lacking the lead of a revolutionary party, millions of French workers again and again become disillusioned and passive. For revolutionaries to win their confidence is not an easy task. However, it is necessary by word and deed to conquer the confidence of thousands, and thence of millions of workers.

During the period following May 1968, during the many grey days ahead, the workers will be absorbed in current concerns and cares, in defence of wages and conditions. Revolutionaries must try and unite the workers on the soil of economic resistance to the bosses, as well as on the soil of political resistance to the state. It is necessary to carry on an active agitational campaign for the creation of factory and shop committees embracing all workers in each plant, irrespective of whether they are in the unions or not. The aim of such committees should be to carry on the resistance to capitalist exploitation, and to further it to the introduction of workers’ control over the conditions of work and production. Revolutionaries can win mass confidence only on the basis of taking a leading part in the struggle for transitional demands. The long haul ahead will be the work of years, rather than of months.

The fantastic depth, width and power of the spontaneous mass movement showed itself vividly in all its glory in the May days. However, its limitations were no less vividly shown. Even strike committees, not to say Soviets, could not be established spontaneously in the face of the opposition of the counterrevolutionary PCF with its hold over the proletariat. Even with the first skirmishes on the path toward workers’ power, spontaneity proved to be inadequate.

Lessons for British revolutionaries

In a number of ways the situation of the British labour movement is different from that of the French. Some should facilitate the work of socialists. Some will make it harder.

First, unlike the mass workers’ party, the PCF, which finds itself in opposition to official society, and hence able to engage in “struggles”, however contained, the Labour Party is in power. While Waldeck Rochet may from time to time show his “left” face, Wilson is compelled to show only his numerous “right” faces. The task of exposing Wilson is therefore incomparably easier than that of Rochet.

Secondly, the PCF has deep organisational roots in the factories; the Labour Party has none. The PCF has strong-arm men to prevent Trotskyists, Maoists, Anarchists, from selling their literature at the factories; not so the Labour Party. The PCF could mobilise some 20,000 stewards to separate the students from the workers in the 13 May demonstration. The Labour Party has not 20,000 activists.

Thirdly, the British workers, unlike the French, are quite well organised at the grass roots – with shop stewards democratically elected. The British workers are engaged in thousands of unofficial strikes every year, while the French have up to now had relatively very few spasmodic unofficial strikes.

As against the above factors that make the building of a revolutionary organisation easier in Britain than in France, there are big hurdles that make the British situation more difficult.

First of all, the strength of the shop stewards’ organisations in individual factories in Britain is paralleled by a lack of link-up between them. Strikes involving a number of factories, not to speak of whole industries, are almost unknown in Britain, while they are quite common in France.

Secondly, in Britain, trade unionism is very much accepted as completely separate from politics, so that strikes for political issues are unknown, while in France they have a long tradition.

Thirdly, as Marx already pointed out, the British labour movement very much lacks a disposition toward generalisation and theory.

France today, Britain tomorrow!

We cannot be sure of the rhythm of events, but there can be no doubt that there will be an acceleration. One thing has been made abundantly clear by the French crisis: a theme that was the kernel of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky’s make-up – the immediacy of revolution – immediacy, of course, in the scale of history. We cannot gauge the timing, duration and sweep of the coming revolutionary crisis in British capitalism, but it is not far off.

The rapidity with which the French explosion took place, and the failure of the revolt to supercede the limits of a general strike, show how urgent is the need for revolutionaries in Britain to work towards the establishment of links with the mass of the workers in their daily struggle, and through that struggle to form a combative revolutionary party.

For a long time what was lacking in the West was mainly a spontaneous and massive opposition of the working class. This is being changed, and tomorrow can change very quickly. Then, in the great battles of the future, what will be vitally needed is a dedicated revolutionary organisation which will link the opposition together, and focus not on the maximum concessions obtainable from the present regime, but on revolution, on workers’ power.



136. L. Trotsky, Lessons of October (New York, 1937), pp.23-24.

137. L. Trotsky, Lessons, pp.100-101.

138. L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol.II (New York, 1953), p.157.


Last updated on 21.4.2003