(This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave for a small study group.)
1968 was a year of upheaval around the globe. In the United States, it was a high point of the antiwar movement and the Black liberation movement. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front launched the Tet Offensive. Workers and students in Prague faced Soviet tanks. There were violent struggles across the underdeveloped and colonial world and popular movements - facing sometimes violent repression - around the developed world. Masses of rebelling students were beaten in Chicago at the Democratic Party convention, and shot in Mexico City.
But in France, though things started with students battling cops, they did not end there. In France, more than anywhere else in the developed world, the fight spread to the working class and really shook the foundations of capitalism.
My talk has two parts. First I will describe the events in France that year, then I will talk a little about the lessons we can learn.
Most of this talk is drawn from Daniel Singer's fantastic book, Prelude to Revolution. There is also some good stuff written by the British socialist Ian Birchall, for example here with Tony Cliff, and a chapter of the book Revolutionary Rehearsals.
As Singer describes them, the events of May 1968 "started at Nanterre, a campus in the western suburbs of Paris."
"Because leftist students wanted to stage an anti-imperialist rally... and because fascist students threatened to attack them, the Dean chose to close the [school]. A few hundred left activists then met at the Sorbonne, in the heart of the Latin Quarter.
Since they feared an attack, they had crash helmets and sticks. The rector made the not unprecedented but very rare decision to call the police into the Sorbonne. Was there a deal that the students would be allowed to leave free? In any case, they were not. As they were leaving, the student activists were picked up by the gendarmes and thrown into Black Marias...
And then the unexpected happened. As the so-called ringleaders were arrested, students flocked to the Sorbonne from all over the Latin Quarter. They did not sign a petition. They did not write a letter to Le Monde. Chanting "free our comrades" they attacked the police.
Surprised, the latter responded with violence. But they had to deal with an adversary that was mobile, inventive, and knew its terrain. Shells, truncheons, and grenades on one side, cobblestones and... barricade[s] on the other..."
So. The first confrontation at the Sorbonne occurred on Friday, May 3. Battles interspersed with peaceful mass demonstrations continued for a week, growing each day. But by the next Friday, May 10th, the development had reached its limits as a movement of students, teachers, and intellectuals. The students controlled the Latin Quarter. But they could not take any more ground. And at 2:15am Saturday morning, the riot police moved in en masse. Singer again:
"The outcome of the confrontation was never in doubt, though it took nearly four hours to bring down all the barricades. There followed some mopping up with maddened policemen barging into private homes to beat up young men and women seeking shelter. At dawn... defeated prisoners [were] being pushed into vans by the angry victors.
Only the image was deceptive. The vanquished were the real winners... Having listened to the drama overnight, France woke up overwhelmingly in favor of the battered students..."
On Monday, May 13th, there was a massive demonstration on the streets of Paris. Called by student organizations and the labor unions of France, it brought out more than million people. This made obvious a transition which had already begun, and weaknesses in the foundation of the French regime of General De Gaulle became apparent.
Charles De Gaulle had become president in 1958 amidst a crisis of French colonialism, by means a semi-coup, with support from the military and the Algerian settlers, though also with the acquiescence of most of the existing political establishment, aside from the Communists and far left. He governed semi-autocratically while allowing basic civil liberties and a weak parliament, legitimizing his policies with a series of referenda. As a war hero he was a gigantic figure, seeming politically invincible.
In the face of this, Singer writes:
"The pampered students... had just shown that one could fight back, that the mighty state could be forced to yield. The demonstrations took place all over France and the message was not wasted on the workers.
On Tuesday, May 14, young workers occupied [an] aircraft company... near Nantes. The day after it was the turn of the Renault car works in Normandy. By Thursday the labor unions were telling their members to join the movement. The biggest of the labor confederations, the Communist-dominated CGT, urged its militants to both spread the movement and keep it carefully within economic channels, to confine it to bread and butter issues.
By then the tide was spreading fast. Within a week it covered the whole of France. After the car industry, engineering, and chemicals, it was the turn of transport, of the mines, of public utilities (though on purpose they didn't cut off the gas and electricity). In the second week, it was the turn of big department stores, of small plants following the big ones. It was the turn of the professional[s]... of teachers, researchers, writers, actors, doctors, architects.
By the end of that week, with about 10 million people, half the labor force, on strike, the country was paralyzed and the mood was one of extraordinary excitement, of frenzy."
You can get a sense of this mood - my words again - by remembering some of the popular slogans. There was a sense of a sudden, dramatic opening: "Be realistic, demand the impossible." There was a sense of utopian possibility lying within everyday life, within reach if you fought for it: "Under the paving stones, the beach." Soccer players went on strike, and so did technicians at the country's main nuclear research facility. There is evidence of a mutiny on an aircraft carrier, though it was successfully kept quiet.
And yet, the general strike was essentially as far as things went. General De Gaulle fled for a day to an air force base in Germany. But government did not collapse, and no one acted to take power. The far-left organizations, anarchist, Trotskyist, and Maoist, though extremely influential within the universities, did not have a wide enough social base to even consider seizing power. On the other hand, the social democrats and even the Communist Party did not want to seize power.
France's Communist Party was the leading political force within the working class at that time. It had gained influence in the struggles of the '30s, and though already thoroughly Stalinized, it won wide respect with a heroic record of resistance to the Nazi occupation. It reached the peak of its membership after the Second World War. By the '60s, however, it was accustomed to operating primarily within the parliament and the conventional industrial union organizations, and its leadership was an entrenched bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was firmly against any attempt to convert the May crisis into a revolution, deriding revolutionaries as childish adventurists.
Now, it's probably true that France was not ripe for an immediate socialist revolution. But the conservative Gaullists had completely lost control in the face of the largest general strike in the history of the developed world. It seems very likely that the Communists could have pushed De Gaulle out and established a transitional government in coalition with the social democrats and the radical left.
But the "transitional" nature of such a government was precisely what frightened them. It might, conceivably, have been transitional to a social revolution (in that sense, like Kerensky's government in the first stage of the Russian revolution). And in such a transition the old-line Communists might have lost control to the real far left, and destabilized the world situation to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union. Ultimately they preferred the stability of a return to capitalist business as usual.
So. The Communist-dominated CGT union leadership reached an agreement with De Gaulle for a substantial increase in wages and many other gains on May 25. They brought this to the striking factories – and it was immediately rejected by the strikers. The workers were feeling their power and did not want to settle for improvements to the existing system, even substantial ones. But after the "no" votes, there was no clear path forward.
(You can see here an analogy to much smaller-scale events in the United States - when New York City transit workers initially refused to end a strike with a concessionary contract in 2005, or when last year Chrysler workers voted down massive concessions. In both cases the concessions were ultimately rammed through, even though the workers were ready to fight, because there was no one in a position to organize for anything else.)
On May 30, conservative Gaullists staged their own massive demonstration in Paris, only slightly smaller than the biggest demonstration of workers and students. Their social power did not even match their inferior numbers, of course - all the centers of production in France were shut down, and a coalition dominated by the upper classes and petty businesspeople, mixing an incoherent stew of pro-American liberals, rural conservatives and "Algeria is France" fascists and anti-semites, could not end the general strike.
But the demonstration gave De Gaulle occasion to return to the country and proclaim new elections for the end of June, which the Communists and - of course everyone to their right - accepted as "victory". The strike thereafter petered out, winning wage concessions, but no structural change. And without the strike, the students had no revolutionary power.
With the achievement of an alternative society apparently proved a futile dream, a reaction against the therefore-apparently-useless chaos set in. The Gaullists won the parliamentary elections, not by a gigantic margin but decisively. Their apparent return was itself an illusion; they had obviously outlived their usefulness to the French ruling class, and within a year they were gone forever. But the survival of capitalism was not an illusion.
The Communists' influence waned over the next two decades, while the social democrats came to power but moved to the right in the '80s. France was rocked by general strikes in 1995 and again in 2005 and -6. But it has not again come so close to revolutionary change as in '68.
That's what happened. What do we learn from this?
One obvious thing is that Western capitalist democracies aren't as stable as they look, and workers in the west are not somehow irredeemably "bought off". System-shaking struggles can happen here too.
What's more, change can come fast, surprising everyone – not just consciously capitalist media like The Economist, which published an article in early '68 lauding French prosperity and the country's "pathetically weak" labor movement. Even the Socialist Register published an article around the same time, by a French Marxist, declaring that "in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes." We shouldn't make the same mistake, of expecting that things will always continue linearly on the current path.
Another key question is the relationship between students' and workers' struggle. What are the limits of student power, and what is the role of students in organizing the working class into the kind of force that can really change society?
Many students in France in 1968 recognized the key role of the working class. They recognized the need not only to "involve" workers, to build coalitions, but to have a movement led by workers and built on their social power. On May 16 a group of students symbolically marched to a striking factory carrying a banner reading, "The workers will take from the fragile hands of the students the flag of the struggle against the anti-popular regime." On this basic idea, Maoists, Trotskyists, and anarchists were all in agreement, at least in the abstract.
Singer notes a funny idea in the media, which you can actually see echoed today in reporting on the struggle against budget cuts in California:
"Only the students had the right to rebel... Whenever men not in their early twenties or youngsters visibly not with an academic background were discovered in the fighting crowd, the immediate reaction was to speak of the mob and subversion. The implicit logic was that students had the right to lose heroically in splendid isolation as long as they did not upset the wider social order. Naturally, the students did not share this view."
There were major tactical disagreements, of course. In the early stages, some argued for abandoning the Sorbonne to the cops in order to march to the working-class suburbs. On Friday, May 10, the day of the biggest battle, a group of orthodox Trotskyists in a group called the FER decided to abandon the barricades. Fortunately, most socialists and other radicals did not act so mechanically.
Others argued that the key task was to organize factory committees and have them elect regional and national strike leaderships. This was good in theory but very difficult for students to put into practice.
The perspective that went furthest in being carried out was to build "action committees" uniting workers and students on a local basis for communication, propaganda, logistical organizing, and so on.
There were also larger strategic disagreements, the most important being whether or not to build a revolutionary party. Though it did not prevent tactical cooperation, this question was crucial in the larger perspective, and I'll come back to it.
In spite of all differences, there was a basic agreement among student radicals on the need to bring the working class into the struggle. But this faced its own opposition, not only from conservatives but also from the Communist Party, which felt that students were treading on its turf. Already on May 3, the party paper published an article noting that "more and more, [the students] are to be found outside factory gates or in centers of immigrant workers, distributing leaflets and other means of propaganda." But rather than praising this, the writer accused the students of "pretending to give lessons to the labor movement."
Nevertheless, workers were often receptive, especially the younger generation. The students did not only gather at the factory gates, they cooperated in all kinds of day-to-day organizing on action committees. And workers came to the "liberated" universities to find a space to learn and debate politics. The occupied Sorbonne was a place of 24-hour political ferment. Rank and file workers turned out in massive numbers for the May 13th demonstration, led by the students and initiated in response to police brutality against them. And from the demonstration, many went home to argue with their coworkers for a strike.
And all this solidarity occurred in a country with a substantially larger divide between students and workers than the US today: fewer young people went to college (only 12% of the population); many fewer of those who did worked at the same time; about half of students had a parent who was a business owner, manager, or independent professional; and a college education, though no ticket to wealth, was a better guarantee of a comfortable life than it is for people coming out of most colleges in the US today.
Students are not a class, like workers or capitalists. In general, their class has not yet been determined - they have a class background, but this is not the same thing as a class role, a relationship to the means of production. They do not have the power that workers do. However, as Cliff and Birchall write:
Being outside production is a source of weakness, but it is also a cause for quick advance, as it is so much easier for the students to move into action. If a small minority of the university community wants to act on an issue, it can go ahead and do so... The situation of a militant minority in the factory is radically different. It cannot act – by strike action or occupation of the factory – unless the overwhelming majority of all the workers employed are carried along...Hence the temperature bringing students into combustion is incomparably lower than the one necessary to inflame the workers. But unfortunately the lifespan of their fire is also shorter.
Of course, this picture is complicated in the United States today by the large number of students who also work part-time or full-time jobs.
In any case, in France in '68, the students were the spark for the strike. They played this role mainly just by providing an example that you can fight and win, and suggesting the possibility of a better world. But they could not have served as an example without consistently taking up workers demands as their own, without reaching out in an active attempt at unity.
However, the spark was a limited role. And the limits proved crippling. The far left was isolated from the working class, with the exception of a few factories where Trotskyists had a base. They could not offer an alternative to the Communist Party & reformist line at a national level.
The official strike committees were mostly appointed by union bureaucrats, and so, though to some extent they had to represent the rank and file, they were not going to become a rival to the bureaucracy. The less formal action committees, which were open to students and non-union workers and often more radical, did not, generally, replace the strike committees – often instead forming a sort of division of labor, organizing activity outside the workplace. What's more – though relatedly – the action committees did not have any national structure, partly because of scarce time and resources, and partly because many participants extended a hostility to bureaucracy into a hostility to any kind of centralized or representative organization.
As the strike peaked at the beginning of June and production began to restart at the first workplaces, there was no one in a position to systematically spread news of the workers who were determined to continue the strike until “total victory”, as one factory resolution put it. While the union leadership bargained with the Gaullists, there was no one to put forward a coherent alternative set of demands, and no way to vote on proposed options, except in local elections, which were usually initiated by employers or bureaucrats wanting to end the strike. It was impossible for revolutionaries to put together a united front on a principled basis without some mechanism for making a decision and sticking to it in a disciplined fashion; people were left to either stick to abstract revolutionary demands that they couldn't put into practice alone, or accept whatever compromise they could obtain locally.
The basic issue was the lack of a revolutionary party containing a substantial section – a “vanguard” - of the working class. If there had been a party like the Bolsheviks in France in 1968, there might have been a revolution.
But this would have required a whole different prior history. What could have been accomplished by a left with a mostly student base?
Mistakes were made, of course. There was a current of ultra-leftism, with a hostility to organization and concrete demands. There was disunity, with revolutionaries fragmented into three major Trotskyist groups, several Maoist groups, and various anarchist formations. If these more subjective problems had been overcome, maybe the action committees would have been stronger, maybe a national strategy would have emerged. At the very least, in the absence of a revolution, a better foundation for future struggles could have been laid.
But rather than quibbling, with the benefit of hindsight, over the mistakes of people who made history despite difficult circumstances, we should remember what they showed possible – the spread of a student struggle from one university to the largest general strike in history, in a rich Western country. And we should try to make sure that, the next time such possibilities open up, socialists are in a position to prevent the struggle from ebbing away into reaction, and instead take it forward to its logical conclusion, a better world.