Ernest Mandel

Revolutionary Upsurge
in Europe

(December 1968)

International, Vol. 2 No. 2, February 1969, pp. 8–10.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

After twenty years of ebb, the socialist revolution is again on the rise in Western Europe. This is the main lesson of 1968 for our continent. Almost exactly two decades after the Western workers’ last great revolutionary action – the Italian general strike of July 14, 1948 – the French workers and students have opened the for a revival of revolutionary action throughout the continent.

Of course before this there were the spectacular mobilizations of the Belgian workers in December 1960–January 1961 and of the Greek workers in June–July 1965. But these were in small countries and the explosions soon subsided into a retreat of the mass movement.

France, however, is one or the key countries on the continent. And many signs Indicate that there is not the slightest danger that the French movement will quickly fade. Furthermore – and this is the essential thing – the situation in several other countries in West Europe is rapidly approaching a point similar to that of the January–April 1960 period in France (a “pre-May” climate). This is what enables us to look forward to a new revolutionary upsurge sweeping Europe.

What is the source of this new upsurge? What are the contradictions giving rise to it? What are the precipitating factors?

The General Slowdown of Imperialist Economic Growth

Among the long-run contradictions stimulating the radicalization, a key role has unquestionably been played by the slowdown in imperialist economic growth which began to appear in 1966. This slowdown has taken different forms – recession in West Germany, Great Britain, and several smaller countries in the imperialist world, a slowdown followed by quasi stagnation of production in the United States; and inadequate expansion in France (a quarter of French productive capacity was unutilized on the eve of May 1968). Only Italy and Japan have escaped this general tendency owing to the fact that they went through a deeper recession a few years earlier.

By reducing the margin of manoeuvre available to the bourgeoisie in each imperialist country, by sharpening inter- imperialist competition and aggravating the crisis of the international monetary system, this slowdown stimulated a general offensive of the bosses against the positions won by the workers movement. The Gaullist “ordinances” cutting social security benefits; the “incomes policy” which Wilson imposed co the British unions; and the “harmonized economy” which the “grand coalition” in Bonn is trying to force on the West German unions are the most striking manifestations of this general tendency.

The most important consequences of the bosses’ offensive have been a reappearance or increase of unemployment and a slowdown or halt in the rise of real wages (in same cases even temporary declines in real wages). This created a climate of heightened social tension which has eroded the gradualist, electoralist, reformist illusions which the masses had accumulated in the preceding phase.

The case of Spain is particularly characteristic. During the years of accelerated expansion, wages rose, unemployment declined, and the “liberalization’’ of the regime could promote illusions. Since the West German recession, Spanish income from tourism has stagnated for the first time in more than a decade and the emigrant workers are returning. Illusions about a “gradual liberation” have abruptly vanished. The regime has tightened Its repression. The workers’ struggles have rapidly taken on a political character.

The Radicalization of the Worker and Student Youth

Radicalization of the youth is a universal phenomenon throughout the imperialist world and the student radicalization is only one aspect of it. The general cause of this phenomenon is to be found in the fact that the growth of the productive forces during the last fifteen years also stimulated a proportionate if not greater growth of new needs among the youth.

Accelerated technological innovation has created a real “generation gap” in the realm of needs. The older generations measure their present standard of living against what they had in 1937 or 1947 and are partially satisfied. The new generations measure their standard of living – which does not include just material consumption goods – against the possibilities of science and technology today. The gap is a vast one. That is the essential source of the “challenge” from the youth – neocapitalism’s incapacity to satisfy their new needs.

In different strata this general cause is re-enforced by specific causes – for the students the “university explosion” and the patent failure of the bourgeois university; for the young workers, increased unemployment and exploitation of youth; for the high-school students, the threat of finding themselves shut out or the universities and the sort of jobs they aspire to, There is a clear interaction between the slowdown in economic growth and the general youth radicalization. At the very moment the bourgeoisie found it necessary to push through the Fouchet law [1], the additional financial means needed to extend concessions to the students were lacking. Because the rate of productivity continues to grow faster than the development of production, youth unemployment is tending to rise.

The Development of a New Youth Vanguard
Independent of Reformism and Stalinism

We again find ourselves at the intersection of two tendencies. The general youth radicalization has progressively reduced the impact of the traditional bureaucratized organizations on young people. Identification with the only revolutionary struggles of the last decade – Algeria, Cube Vietnam – has favoured the development of organizations among the youth vanguard tempered in confrontation with reformism and Khrushchevite neoreformism and in clashes with the bourgeoisie and its state apparatus and police. And these organizations are firmly rooted in one segment of society – the students.

That is the crucial new fact. Numerically the French, Italian, West German, and British “splinter groups” were not qualitatively stronger at the beginning of 1968 than at the beginning of 1960. But In the past the revolutionary groups, functioned without a social base. They acquired a basis of support as a result of the student radicalization insofar as they worked correctly to establish roots in this stratum. It was this that enabled them to play the role of detonator.

The workers will not react to a brawl between 500 young revolutionists and the police. But 15,000 students building barricades and facing the attacks of the CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securité) throughout the night touched off an avalanche in marking-class opinion.

Impact of the World Revolutionary Upsurge –
the Tet Offensive and the Revival of Mass Struggles
in the Bureaucratized Workers’ States

These struggles throughout the world exerted a subjective influence on the formation of a new revolutionary youth vanguard in Western Europe, thereby helping to prepare the way for a revival of revolutionary struggles in the West.

The example of the Tet offensive of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front was particularly eloquent. There was a direct link connecting the enthusiastic response to this offensive in West Germany and France, the unleashing of the first mass battles of the West German far left (the Vietnam Congress on February 17–18, 1968, in Berlin; the struggles against the Springer monopoly over Easter), and the precursory stages to May 1968 in France (the Nanterre revolt was touched off by the arrest of militants demonstrating against the war in Vietnam; the example of the West German students played a definite role).

The influence of the rise of the political revolution in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic should not be underestimated either. The happenings in Czechoslovakia, while of short duration, offered a glimpse of what a socialist democracy, a democracy of workers’ councils, could be in the industrialized countries. That greatly helped to revive hope in an authentic socialist revolution just as the occupation or Czechoslovakia by troops under orders from the Kremlin helped to discredit Stalinism and weakened its control over sections of the working masses in West Europe.

Possibility that the Radical Spirit of the Youth
Will be “Transmitted” to the Adult Workers
Through the Intermediary of the Young Workers

This is the vital link in the chain. Without the entry of the broader working masses into the struggle, the battles or uprisings of the youth arc condemned to failure. But through the intermediary of the young workers, the battles or the youth can bring a sharp turnabout in the mood of the working masses.

The new fighting style of the vanguard students and the revolutionary youth organizations has impressed and attracted the young workers. This was seen during Easter 1968 when the West German SOS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) engaged in a confrontation with the police. While the older workers rejected “violence no matter who resorted to it”, the younger workers instinctively sympathized with the students. May 1968 in France accentuated the same tendency. And we have recently seen striking illustrations of it in two countries, Great Britain and Italy.

In Great Britain, despite the exclusively student and intellectual nature or the movement which launched it, the October 27, 1968, demonstration was swelled by tens of thousands of young workers. They came out not so much to shout their support for the National Liberation Front as to demonstrate their hostility to the establishment, Wilson’s policy, and their desire to take on the cope.

In Italy during the December 5 general strike of a million workers in the Rome region, the sympathy or the young workers for the students was so patent that the trade-union bureaucrats had to let student speakers address the strike rally. And these some bureaucrats did their utmost to sabotage the rally, fearing a meeting between thousands of workers and thousands or students.

It should be noted that in Turin the fraternization or young FIAT workers and “challenging” students in previous months helped to change the social climate radically, bringing back a “hard” style of mass strike picketing which had not been seen in this working-class city since the postwar struggles.

A radicalization of the vanguard strata of the working class can, moreover, be produced by a phenomenon intrinsic in the productive process today. The capitalist “rationalization”, the speedup, the advances in automation, neocapitalist economic “programming”, and the concentration and accelerated fusion of enterprises all tend to shift the centre or gravity in the class struggle from disputes over the division of newly created value between capital and labour toward disputes over the control and organization of work and of the productive process itself. This is why the spread of the campaign for workers’ control among the shop stewards in Great Britain assumes a crucial importance, as does the renewed struggle toward the goal in Belgium, Italy, Sweden, and even West Germany.

The Crisis of the European Bourgeoisie

To complete the picture it must be pointed out that this sharp radicalization of the youth and sections of the West European working class goes hand in hand with a sharpened crisis of the traditional bourgeois and bureaucratic leaderships in several key countries.

The most typical case is certainly that of Great Britain. The Labour party and the Conservative party have been rocked by a crisis of graver nature than the one they went through in the thirties, while for the first time in a century an important extra-parliamentary current has spread to the left of the workers’ movement.

The same tendency toward a breakup of the traditional bourgeois leaderships is apparent in Spain, Belgium, and even Denmark. And Italy is no exception to this rule, as the difficulties encountered in attempts to refurbish the centre-left coalition and the factional tensions ripping apart the three big parties – the Christian Democracy, the CP, and the SP – attest. The crisis in the Common Market also contributes to this tendency.

Two factors are lacking for a transformation of this revolutionary upsurge into a revolutionary victory. The level of consciousness and the ideological preparation of an important section of the workers, even including the most combative is still inadequate and there is no revolutionary leadership with sufficient authority among the working masses to be accepted as an alternative leadership by a broad vanguard in the struggle, May–June 1968 in France, December 1968 in Italy, and the most recent months in Spain have sadly underscored this negative side of the situation. Excellent opportunities are still being lost Tor lack of an adequate leadership.

The construction of revolutionary parties well rooted in the youth and the working class – using the successes won among the youth as a springboard to win a base in the working class – is the only way to fill this gap. Politically (on the level of propaganda as well as agitation and action) such a party would educate the masses in the spirit of continually questioning the authority of the bosses and the structures of capitalist economy and the bourgeois state. Organizationally, the construction of such a party would bring together new leaders of the working masses capable of extending actions like those of May-June 1968 in France into a general confrontation with capitalism aid the emergence of dual power. This task has been on the agenda for a long time, but now for the first time we can see a start toward carrying it out.

December 15, 1968



1. The educational reform voted by the Gaullist parliament after the May–June upsurge.

Last updated on 8 December 2020