In March 1968 students at Nanterre near Paris started a campaign to visit each others’ rooms in halls of residence after 11pm. Their campaign drew in students from all over France, who added their own grievances, their own demands.
Then the students’ struggle became the catalyst for a movement which would lead to a general strike involving 8 million French workers. The workers’ demands were at first minimal — for wage concessions and greater social security. However, as a mass strike wave developed and continued throughout May, many long-germinating working class aspirations came to the fore and began to lead to much more revolutionary demands. For weeks French society was paralysed.
The workers’ and students’ struggles of May ’68 — betrayed by the French Communist Party and repressed by the French state — created a great social earthquake which shattered the calm crust of French capitalism’s Fifth Republic and sent out a shock wave throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The legacy and meaning of May ’68 is being debated still. Martin Thomas discusses the events of that glorious month and argues that they have great contemporary significance.
According to Simon Clarke’s recent study(1), as Marx developed his ideas he increasingly moved away from the notion of economic “crisis as catastrophic event... the ultimate truth of capitalism”. “The theory of crisis plays a rapidly diminishing role in Marx’s work after 1862, to be replaced by an emphasis on the secular tendencies of capitalist accumulation, just as the conception of revolution as the culmination of struggles unleashed by economic crisis is replaced by a conception of revolution as the outcome of an extended period of class development”. This, avers Clarke, is the “theoretical reflection” of Marx’s “return to a more active involvement in working-class politics”, with the First International.
The French general strike of May-June 1968 confirms Clarke’s argument. More clearly than the other great revolutionary upheavals of working-class history, it was not the product of economic crisis or a sudden depression of workers’ economic conditions below the capitalist norm. Jobless figures had risen in the run-up to 1968, but only slightly by the standards of the last twenty years, and not enough to make unemployment the direct concern or threat to almost every working-class family it is today. Inequality of income had widened in France, but workers’ living standards had risen more substantially than ever before. The years before 1968 were the time when social scientists wrote, gloatingly or ruefully, about how “affluent” workers had discarded broad social ideas in favour of “instrumental”, pragmatic attitudes, and how the working class had been incorporated into a bourgeois consensus (“embourgeoisement”).
The socialist revolution — so the striking, factory-occupying, and demonstrating workers of May-June 1968 reminded the social scientists — is not a spasm of shapeless rage against starvation. It is an effort to rebuild society consciously, on new lines, free from what Marx called the “golden chain” of wage-slavery, whether that chain be long or short.
The same point is made by Michael Lebowitz in a study of Marx’s Grundrisse(2): “The immiseration of wage-labourers (or the fettering of productive forces) by capital in itself does not point beyond capital! Nor is there any reason to assume that there is a critical value for the degree of immiseration beyond which an era of social revolution begins... What Marx understood... was that the struggle for material needs was a process of producing new people with new, ‘radical’ needs”.
In some ways Clarke and Lebowitz rediscover something well understood by the Marxists of the period from 1889 to 1914, but forgotten since. Karl Kautsky, when he was the teacher of Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg, explained that the socialist revolution was more a product of the moral self-elevation of the working class than of its material debasement. “The elevation of the working class which the class struggle brings about is less an economic than a moral one. The economic conditions of the proletarians... improve slightly and slowly... But the self-respect of the proletarians increases and also the respect that other classes of society give them... they are beginning to expect more from themselves... becoming more sensitive towards every slight and every oppression... All the improvements, which some hope and others fear will make the workers contented, must always be less than the demands of the latter, which are the natural result of their moral elevation”(3).
Kautsky also trained time-serving reformists. They took their cue from the way he projected the moral self-elevation of the working class as a steady, smooth process – a vision which took urgency away from any direct struggle, and always gave an excuse for putting off the fight to tomorrow, when conditions would be better. The build-up to May-June 1968, however, was no steady and smooth improvement of working-class organisation. On the contrary. The Communist Party constituted a major opposition force, with about 20 per cent of the electorate, rooted in the working class. Its political programme for France was not working-class socialism, but an “anti-monopoly alliance” to create an “advanced democracy”, and in the meantime “peace” (diplomatic compromise with the USSR). Its advocacy of “democracy”, advanced or elementary, was increasingly discredited by its identification with the USSR, some of the reality of which had been revealed by Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956. The active forces round the CP were diminishing. The CGT, France’s biggest trade-union federation, which it led, declined from 5.5 million members in 1947 to 2.5 million in 1952 and 1.5 milion in 1968.
The great dividing issue of French politics from 1954 to 1962 had been the war of independence in France’s closest colony, Algeria. The CP proposed only “peace in Algeria”. It dared not advocate independence. The leftists who did openly support the Algerian people were a small minority, much persecuted, sometimes jailed, their newspapers intermittently banned. Even to report the facts of French army torture in Algeria — this was a war before mass television and full-scale media coverage – was risky. Many of the student leftists of that period entered politics as battlers against the numerous and menacing pro-”French Algeria” fascists. But the student movement, too, declined. The national student union UNEF went down from 100,000 members in 1960 to 50,000 members in 1968.
Algeria won independence. But the independence was arranged by General De Gaulle, who had seized presidential power in France in May 1958 in an unresisted military coup. The parliament, feeling helpless to deal with Algeria, voted over its powers to De Gaulle. Many leftists feared imminent fascism or all-out military dictatorship. De Gaulle did take wide presidential powers, reducing parliament to little more than a rubber stamp, but, because of the buoyancy of French capitalism, he did not abolish general civil liberties or trade union rights.
France’s industrial expansion was, or at least seemed to be, directed by an elaborate system of state “indicative planning”. The European Union was created, in 1957-8, and developed. In short, the era before 1968 was one when the rulers of France not only kept the working class down, but positively and confidently reshaped society their way.
The general strike of May-June 1968 was not totally unheralded. There were big strikes in 1966 and 1967. Strikers clashed with police. Students joined marches against the Vietnam war. But, in the longer view, May 1968 was a great “moral self-elevation” of the working class prepared for by twenty years of subordination.
It is always thus, to one degree or another. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was prepared for by the grim years of reaction after the 1905 revolution, which were years not only of repression but also of energetic and partly successful efforts by the Tsarist regime to reshape the Russian countryside around small-capitalist farming. The run-up to the Paris Commune of 1871 was the Second Empire, erected on the defeat of the 1848 revolution and promoting a showy and corrupt expansion of capitalism. For workers’ mobilisations to develop revolutionary or near-revolutionary ambitions, it is necessary that workers not just oppose some immediate, short-term worsening of their situation, but also see the whole social order as they have experienced over many years as a tunnel of darkness. Revolt can be prepared for by defeats as well as victories.
Over the 1950s and ‘60s in France, because there was a sufficient minority that resisted and criticised, the taunting successes of capitalism prepared the way for a mass rejection of capitalism. So it was possible for workers to have cars and washing machines and televisions? Very good. But then why did the workers have so little of the fruits of technical advance? And why at the price of having the life described in one May 1968 poster, “metro, boulot, dodo” — commute, work, sleep...?
May-June 1968 was the biggest general strike in history by far — over four times the size of the French and British general strikes of 1936 and 1926. It changed the political landscape in a way no other strike movement has done. The size and audience of the revolutionary left increased dramatically and suddenly. In France, for example, the biggest revolutionary group before May 1968 had only 300 members, almost all students, and some of them quite loosely attached. Within a few years after 1968 there were revolutionary groups some thousands strong — with a very variable quality of political ideas, to be sure — in all major west European countries, as there had not been since the Stalinist parties ceased to be revolutionary in the mid-1930s. Trade unions, and even reformist labour parties in many countries, also grew fast; arguably, if we measure by union membership and the strength of networks of shop stewards and other rank-and-file workers’ delegates, the broad labour movement in western Europe was stronger in the 1970s than ever before in history. The worldwide reverberations outside western Europe were also big, though less straightforwardly quantified.
Today we know that the struggles and movements of the 1970s petered out in defeat or decline. We also know that many of their dominant ideas have been torn to shreds by the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91. The decline and disillusionment seems retrospectively to “devalue” 1968. It should not. The brute, bulk impetus of a great workers’ mobilisation is always bound to generate over-enthusiasm and naivety in the radicalisation it impels, and it cannot of itself clear away illusions from the past, like the Stalinistic illusions which affected almost all the left before 1968. The job of “refining” the radicalisation, educating, consolidating, clearing away excesses, belongs to the activists who have prepared and trained themselves before the great upsurge. That those were not numerous or competent enough in 1968 reflects the travails of revolutionary Marxism over the long, difficult years between the 1920s and the 1960s, not a lack of revolutionary quality in the impetus of 1968. If the pre-1968 “old guard” had been more capable, we would probably have much more solid, united, and worker-rooted revolutionary groups today, but no more can be guaranteed. If workers challenge capitalist rule but do not overthrow it, then eventually the capitalists will take revenge.
Daniel Bensaid, leader of a French revolutionary group whose perspectives in the years after 1968 were soon criticised even by themselves as “triumphalist”, now writes that “1968 was not a revolutionary crisis like those of the 1920s or 1930s.... A colder assessment shows that the consciousness of the working class had been formed by the years of prosperity and expansion, the welfare state, democratic rights”. In other words, the movement lacked the sharp edge which can be given by desperate economic circumstances. It was too easy-going.
Maybe so. Maybe the riot-police attacks which broke the strike at a few key points in June, and started an escalating return to work, would have been resisted more fiercely by a more embittered working class. It is hard to tell. A general strike is likely to falter after so long a time as three or four weeks even without riot police. The spontaneous upsurge had to diminish unless there was some political force strong enough to give it workable immediate objectives, and there was no such force. Moreover, the opposite of “prosperity and expansion, the welfare state, democratic rights” does not necessarily, by any means, lead to mass workers’ struggles. The great slump of 1929-30 did not immediately provoke working-class resistance. In 1933 Hitler was able to take power in Germany without any confrontation. The big working-class upheavals of the 1930s, in Spain, the USA, and France, came only in 1934-6, after the slump had eased.
Bensaid also comments, and rightly, that: “Much of the reinterpretation of [May-June 1968]... especially among those who have broken with revolutionary politics, tends to insist on the cultural, ideological aspects of 1968... Today’s commentators often forget that we had a real general strike, of between eight and ten million workers...” It is true that part of the preparation for 1968 was the “excesses” of bourgeois conservatism in the 1950s. As well as resenting capitalism, French workers also and more specifically resented being ruled by an elderly general of old-fashioned habits who had little understanding or toleration for inclinations different from his own. If the French capitalist class had gathered in conclave and taken a long view, they could easily have decided on a more flexible regime. They could have afforded to give workers more economic concessions. The university administration at Nanterre, in the Paris suburbs, could certainly have eased the rule forbidding students to visit each other’s rooms after 11pm which was the initial cause for the student movement which eventually escalated into full-scale street-fighting and triggered the general strike.
Today capitalists deliberately seek a more fluid, flexible, and in some important ways more liberal, social regime than in the 1950s. This is a lasting legacy of 1968. What it means is not that the 1968 movement was really limited to cultural liberalisation, but that this is the aspect of 1968 which the capitalists can safely continue. Many times in history the people who have defeated or averted revolutions then carry out part of the programme of the revolutionaries, in their own way and with their own deletions. Neither for 1968 nor for any other date does it mean that the original revolutionary impetus had no more to it than is represented by the carefully-doctored later selections.
But the rulers of capitalism have not learned, and will never learn, to avoid “excesses”. Today the ideologues look towards abolishing trade unions forever, completely privatising welfare, and removing all regulation from the labour market. Future bourgeois theorists, looking back, will see all these schemes as foolish excesses which could never be made to sit securely on the growing working-class aspirations generated by the diverse and dynamic development of capitalism, and which unnecessarily exacerbated later working-class revolts. But the law of capitalism is always that what is good for the profits of today and of a few years to come, goes — even if it prepares the later downfall of the whole profits system.
1. Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis, Macmillan 1994.
2. Michael Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, Macmillan 1992.
3. In the collection How Solidarity Can Change the World, published by Workers’ Liberty.