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Ian Birchall

The Revolutionary Calendar

May 1968

(May 1982)

From Socialist Review, 20 May-19 June 1982: 5, p.36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Early in May 1968, I received a draft editorial for the coming issue of International Socialism. It dealt, clearly but gloomily, with the political and organisational decline of the Labour Party, the alarming rise of racism, notably among London dockers, and the move to the right in British and international politics. I wrote back to the editor, commenting that perhaps the recent student unrest was a bright spot in an otherwise dark sky, but basically agreeing with his analysis. We didn’t call it a downturn in those days, but we knew what it was. Then I switched on the wireless and heard about fighting in the Paris Latin Quarter.

Taking the hammer to capital

The causes of the student revolt which erupted in France in the Spring of 1968 are complex and various. The enormous expansion in student numbers meant that a University degree was no longer a passport to a good job; more immediately it meant grotesquely overcrowded lecture-halls and libraries. Some of the older student activists had been involved in the struggle against the Algerian War in the early sixties, while a younger generation had been radicalised by the American war in Vietnam. Sexual politics, too, played a part; one of the students’ demands was ‘free circulation’ -the right of male and female students to visit each others’ hostel rooms.

On May 3rd, following a series of demonstrations and meetings in the University of Paris, police were sent in to ‘restore order’. Students threw stones and the police retaliated with tear-gas grenades. More demonstrations culminated, on Friday, May 10th, in the so-called ‘Night of the Barricades’, when thousands of students built sixty street barricades and fought the police till 7.00 am on the Saturday morning.

The students did not immediately win popular sympathy. The Communist Party newspaper, L’Humanité, denounced them as ‘the children of big bourgeois, contemptuous of students from working-class origins’ who just wanted to get on with revising for their exams. But if most workers felt distrustful of the students, they also felt a certain respect. For ten years, Charles de Gaulle had ruled France with political authoritarianism and economic austerity. Workers had made fun of him but had not had the confidence to do anything about it.

Now the students had shown it was possible to stand up and fight even against a well-armed modern state. The union leaders could see which way the wind was blowing. Hoping to defuse the situation and to get credit for themselves in the new militant mood, they called a one-day strike. On Monday, May 13th, ten million stopped work and a million people demonstrated in the streets of Paris.

The next day workers at the Sud-Aviation aircraft factory near Nantes decided to stay on strike and to occupy their factory. Twenty members of management were locked up in their offices, where they were to be kept for a fortnight. To begin with the Internationale was played to them over a loudspeaker as ‘an effective way for bosses to learn the Internationale without ideological effort.’ However, the workers themselves soon asked for this to be stopped!

While no-one knows exactly how it happened at Sud-Aviation, it is clear that one of the union branches there was led by members of a Trotskyist organisation, the OCI (in fact a right-wing, sectarian, and often thuggish Trotskyist organisation, but every dog has its day). It is at least an encouraging thought for comrades who spend years burrowing away at building a presence in their workplace that one day leadership will really mean leadership.


What now happened was that the strike spread from one place to another. The power of example and the reports of the mass media showed one group of workers after another that they too could strike and occupy. (This was despite the fact that L’Humanité had played down the Sud-Aviation strike, giving it only seven lines on page 9.) Virtually every major factory in France was occupied. But though the industrial proletariat was the heart of the movement, the effects spread far beyond. Footballers and Folies Bergères dancers were involved in occupations. There were rumours of discontent and mutiny in the police and armed forces.

As in any general strike situation, it was not enough to stop work. Workers had to take into their own hands the running of society. During May and June action committees were set up throughout France to coordinate activities, organise supplies, etc. In Nantes striking workers took over the running of the town. They set up roadblocks on the main approaches to the city and issued their own travel permits and petrol coupons. The women set up committees to organise food supplies, and were able to purchase directly from the peasants in the surrounding countryside, undercutting the big grocery stores and forcing them to close.

Ten million workers on strike for a month – the biggest general strike in history – made a situation that was not easily wound down. If there had been a revolutionary party with roots in the working class, it might well have been impossible. But the revolutionary groups were almost wholly based among the students, while the Communist Party had a strong grip among the working class. And the CP, with its eyes firmly set on the parliamentary road, was not prepared to give any credence to ‘proletarian revolution’. Instead, it insisted on confining the movement to economic demands. Of course, real gains were won (35% on the minimum wage, an extra week’s annual holiday for all) but they were less than what had seemed to be at stake.

The CP-led union, the CGT, defused the occupations by sending most workers home and running the strike with non-elected committees of union activists. Then they manoeuvred and sometimes openly lied in order to get workers to return to work. They moreover agreed with de Gaulle to participate in fresh parliamentary elections – from which the right-wing parties emerged triumphant. The CP proved its parliamentary credentials by submitting to a disastrous electoral defeat.

As de Gaulle regained control of the state and the CP regained control of the unions, the revolutionary left had to learn, by a series of harsh lessons, that it was nothing like so strong as it had thought itsell in May. And yet things were never quite the same again. Revolutionaries would continue to be victimised or dismissed as cranks – but at least they would never be quite so lonely. For a few glorious weeks there had been ten million of us.

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Last updated: 17 May 2010