Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 1
Important lessons from the May 1968 events

Inspiration and warning

Socialists throughout the world were inspired by the events in France in May 1968. Student demonstrations and occupations of the universities culminated on 10-11 May – the Night of the Barricades – with a massive confrontation between thousands of students, aided by numerous young workers and inhabitants of the Latin Quarter, and the CRS, the riot police, whom they successfully repulsed.

The French Communist Party, which had extremely strong support, opposed the student activities until the Night of the Barricades. Now they decided that the best way to face the rising wave was to put themselves at the head of the movement. The leaders of the Communist Party and CGT union federation hoped that a one-day strike and demonstration would serve as a safety valve. So they called a one-day strike for the 13 May. They expected it to be a token strike like the many token strikes they had called before. But they were wrong. Rank and file workers took the initiative to prolong the strike. On 14 May the workers of Sud Aviation in Nantes declared an unlimited strike and occupied the factory. The next day, the 15th, Renault-Cleon was occupied. On 16 May the strike and occupation movement spread to all the Renault factories. This was followed by a strike and occupation throughout all the engineering factories, the car and aeroplane plants. On 19 May the trams stopped, along with mail and telegraph services. The Metro and bus services in Paris followed suit. The strike hit the mines, shipping, Air France, etc. On 20 May the strike became general, involving ten million workers. People who had never struck before were involved: Folies Bergère dancers, soccer players, journalists, saleswomen, technicians. Red flags decorated all workplaces.

In the demonstration of the 13th a million people participated, workers and students.

President de Gaulle was completely helpless. When on 24 May he called for a referendum, he could not find one printshop in France ready to print his ballot papers, and when, in desperation, he tried to have the ballot papers printed in Belgium, the Belgian workers refused, in solidarity with their French brethren. On 29 May de Gaulle fled France to find refuge with the French troops in Germany.

Alas, the high tide of workers’ struggle ended.

On 27 May the union leaders signed the Grenelle Agreement offering big economic concessions to workers, e.g. a rise of 35 percent for lower paid workers.

The strike was called off, the right gained the initiative and began to mobilise, a massive demonstration of the right took place on 30 May. The police seized the TV and radio stations, threw out the occupying workers, attacked any continuing demonstrations and even killed two workers and a school student.

“The tradition of the dead generations hangs like a nightmare on the mind of the living” (Marx)

Throughout the massive forward movement of the workers, the dead weight of Stalinism made its impact felt, French workers had great loyalty to the Communist Party. After all, a generation of workers was educated and trained by the party. One event in the past shows the power of the CP over the workers. When the US and British armies defeated the German army, Paris was liberated by the Maqui, the resistance movement led by the Communist Party. Armed workers controlled Paris. Then Maurice Thorez, general secretary of the French Communist Party, flew from Moscow to Paris and announced, “One police, one army, one state.” The police Thorez referred to were the police who had collaborated with the Nazis throughout the war. Still, the workers of Paris accepted Thorez’s instruction, and they were disarmed.

Now, in May 1968, the impact of the Communist Party was absolutely massive.

We mentioned the 1 million workers and students who demonstrated in Paris. The CP leaders did not want the workers and students to mix, as the students were far freer from the influence of the Communist Party; their political ideas were far to the left of the party. So the CP leaders organised a chain of 20,000 stewards to separate the workers’ bloc from the students’ bloc.

We mentioned the factory occupations. Here again the role of the CP and CGT bureaucracy was decisive: 80-90 percent of the workers were sent home, so that only a minority were active in the occupation. The isolated workers at home of course lost the opportunity to discuss tactics and strategy, the spirit of the movement.

The strikes had strike committees, but these were not elected by the workers but appointed by the union officials.

To facilitate the ending of the general strike, workers in one factory were told that workers in another factory had already gone back to work, and this tactic was repeated over and over again. As there was no line of communication between factories independent of the union machine, this tactic worked.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia

To understand the contradictions in workers’ consciousness in May 1968 in France one can do no better than look at the experience of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917. This revolution put an end to Tsarism. The police completely dissolved. Workers were organised in soviets everywhere. In the army soldiers’ committees mushroomed

Lenin at the time coined the words “dual power” as dominating the situation in Russia. It is true that the soviets were powerful, but parallel to the soviets was the bourgeois Provisional Government. It is true there were soldiers’ committees, but still the generals commanded the army. It is true that the soviets expressed the wish of the millions for peace, but the imperialist war continued. It is true that powerful workers’ committees existed in every factory, but still every factory was owned by the capitalists. It is true that millions of peasants were organised in soviets, but still the landlord did not lose one square yard of their land. The leadership of the soviets, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, supported the bourgeois government and its policies.

The February Revolution was a break with the past, but not a complete break. Contradictions existed in the institutions of the time, and in the consciousness of the millions.

The Petrograd Soviet was a fantastic new institution, but it was not led by the Bolsheviks. The right wing dominated it. For millions of people who yesterday had supported Tsarism, a break from Tsarism, a move to the left, did not bring them straight away to Bolshevism, but the right of them, to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. It took weeks and months of struggle for the Bolsheviks to win the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow, in September 1917. We have no space to describe the different events between February and October. It was not a straightforward march of Bolshevism. The Bolshevik influence increased in Petrograd until the end of June. At the beginning of July they were pushed right back, the party was made practically illegal, its press was smashed, Lenin was forced to go into hiding and Trotsky was imprisoned. July was, as Trotsky wrote, the month of slander, the press coming out hysterically in its denunciation of Lenin as a German agent. The swing to the right gave confidence to the extreme rightists, and on 27-30 August General Kornilov, commander-in-chief of the Russian army, launched a coup. Had he won, the word for fascism would not have been an Italian but a Russian word. From inside prison Trotsky organised the defence of Petrograd against Kornilov. The defeat of Kornilov massively speeded up the forward march of Bolshevism, Days afterwards the Bolsheviks got their majority in the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow, and a few weeks later the October Revolution took place.

The revolution is not a one-day event. It is a process. Workers have to break with the bourgeois ideas that dominated before, but this break is not completed in one day. For a time a contradictory consciousness exists among workers. Of course the slogan of the Bolsheviks from April, “Land, bread and peace. All power to the soviets”, was a consistent slogan to solve the problems facing the millions of peasants who wanted land, the hungry millions who needed bread, the millions tormented by the war. But for a time many workers said, “Yes, of course we want the land, but we should wait until the war is over and parliament passes a law giving us the land.” Of course we want peace, but let us be victorious in the war first and then get peace.

The Bolshevik Party in March 1917 had 23,000 members, and having the support of 2.5 percent of the soviets they had a strong enough springboard to move forward to victory.

The left alternative to the French Communist Party was minuscule. The total number of Trotskyists in France in May 1968 was 400. The number of organised Maoists was of a similar size. This was far too few to challenge the Stalinists. Had the Trotskyists had a few tens of thousand of members they could have argued effectively in the 13 May demonstration of 1 million for workers and students to join hands, breaking the cordon formed by the 20,000 stewards. In the occupied factories they could have argued with the workers to stay in factories and not go home, which would have given them the ability to take initiatives. They could have argued for the election of strike committees instead of accepting the nominated committees. They would have been able to create communication between the factories so that the bureaucracy could not use the policy of divide and rule to call the strike off.

The coming May 1968 events

A mass explosion is inevitable in the future. Of course one never knows in advance when exactly it will happen. After all, Lenin, three weeks before the February Revolution, speaking to a group of Young Socialists in Switzerland, finished his description and analysis of the 1905 revolution saying that they, the youth, would see the Russian Revolution, but not his older generation. A few days before the revolution (7 February) Lenin wrote to his friend Inessa Armand, “Yesterday there was a meeting (meetings tire me; nerves no good at all; headaches; left before the end).” Had he known that a few days later the revolution was to start he would not have complained in this manner.

The great turning points can never be foreseen, for obvious reasons. For a long time history moves very slowly. Over ten or 20 years there are only molecular changes, and then, suddenly, in a day or a week, changes greater than over generations take place.

The contradictions in capitalism today are much sharper than they were in 1968. The year 1968 was towards the end of the longest boom in the history of capitalism. Since 1973 one recession has followed another. The instability of capitalism is greater than ever, workers’ exploitation and insecurity grows by the day. Great explosions are absolutely inevitable. But for these explosions to end in a proletarian victory, the need for a revolutionary party is greater than ever. The mass of the workers’ spontaneous action is like steam. The revolutionary party is like a piston. A piston by itself is useless, steam by itself disperses futilely. For a proletarian victory the question of leadership is crucial. May 1968 should be both an inspiration for us and a warning.


Last updated on 12.12.2002