May 1968 showed the power of the working class to take control of society—even in the rich countries of the West, argues Miro Sandev
In May 1968 France seemed on the brink of revolution. Thousands of students built barricades and engaged in pitched battles against the police.
Then almost ten million workers went on strike, with factories occupied across the country in what was the biggest general strike in history to that time.
These workers and students gave the foundations of French capitalism a mighty shake and proved that revolutionary struggle was still possible even in rich Western countries. It seemed like anything was possible.
The backdrop to this huge tumult was the longest ever sustained boom that capitalism has experienced. Flush with US investment after the Second World War, economies in Western Europe grew steadily and living standards were rising. The modern welfare state was being constructed, providing significant benefits to the working class.
But despite this there were also real grievances bubbling away. In France while wages were rising, a large section of the working class still suffered from low pay. Unemployment had risen to over half a million. Young people were particularly affected; in the Burgundy region 29 per cent of those under 25 were jobless.
The unions were in decline—they had lost half their membership since the war. This meant that employers were riding roughshod over workplace conditions, causing widespread anger among workers.
The end of 1967 saw a wave of strikes in key sectors of the economy. But the explosion of 1968 didn’t just come through growing working-class militancy. Students provided the detonator.
Radical student movements exploded all across the Western world in the 1960s. Following the student revolt at Berkeley in the US in 1964, new student movements spread across Europe. The regime of Charles de Gaulle was trying to modernise French capitalism. One part of this was a huge expansion of higher education. In the decade before 1968 student numbers rose from 175,000 to 530,000. Overcrowding was rampant and staff numbers and facilities were inadequate.
Before the war students had been a relatively small elite, training to become members of the ruling class or its well-paid agents. But with the expansion of the universities most students were now destined to become technicians and administrators, not radically separate from the working class. And because the expansion was so uncontrolled many couldn’t find work at all, heightening the discontent.
Students were being radicalised by the mass movement against the Vietnam War. Another issue that sparked outrage was the ban placed on sex in student accommodation, causing regular protests in the years leading to 1968.
Demonstrations around these issues began to escalate and the victimisation of student organisers simply poured fuel on the fire. At the beginning of May in Paris the situation was almost totally out of control. Authorities closed the Sorbonne University on 3 May, but this did not quell protests. Over the next week students clashed with police every day. On 10 May the students made a crucial stand against police who had been viciously battering them. They took over the Latin Quarter of the city and with the help of workers built over 60 barricades to repel the police.
This courageous stand inspired workers who had been pummelled by the bosses over the preceding years. The trade unions called a one-day strike for 13 May in protest at the police violence, as well as a mass demonstration to fight for wage increases and stronger union rights.
The government retreated, immediately reopening the Sorbonne and saying imprisoned students would be released. This showed that militant protest action could beat the government.
The strike was a powerful show of force by the working class, with around a million people marching in Paris alone. One eyewitness wrote: “Every factory, every major workplace seemed to be represented… row upon row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it, if it but decided to do so.”
Workers had gained a sense of their power. But for a group of aviation workers in the western city of Nantes, this one-day strike was not enough. The next day, they declared an indefinite strike and occupied their factory.
In one sense the action was spontaneous because no union leader had called for it. But in reality, militant activists in the local union branch had been calling for more serious struggle for months.
Within days similar occupations spread throughout France. The strike spread to the railways and soon after became a general strike of more than nine million workers in almost every industry.
As it spread, the union bureaucrats who had previously been taken aback by the movement, stepped in to encourage it so that they would not completely lose control.
A general strike raises the question of which class controls society. Normally the bosses make all of the economic decisions about what gets produced, how much is produced, how much it is sold for and how it is distributed. In a strike confined to one area of industry workers can halt production entirely until they win.
But in an ongoing general strike workers are forced to begin working out how to organise food and other essentials to keep themselves going. So while gas and electricity workers joined the strike—despite a few power cut offs as warnings—they decided to maintained supplies. The same happened for food.
In some workplaces democratically-elected strike committees controlled every aspect of organising the strike, with regular meetings of all strikers where they decided on how to run the strike and how to connect to other workplaces.
In Nantes the movement reached its peak with workers’ organisations effectively running the city for an entire week. The police and administration simply looked on powerlessly. Peasants from the countryside put up roadblocks on all main roads, reinforced by transport workers and students who began controlling traffic. Workers took control of petrol supplies; no petrol tankers were allowed into the city without workers’ authorisation.
But these were isolated examples. Union leaders, many of whom were members of the Communist Party (PCF) set out to control the strike and prevent it from developing in a radical direction.
The PCF, with its 300,000 members and control of the largest union confederation in the country, was the strongest organisation on the French left. It had been excluded from power since 1947 and was desperate to enter into a coalition government. This meant it had to prove itself to be a party committed to parliamentary methods and so was very hostile to more militant tactics.
Its trade union officials worked to demobilise the rank-and-file and keep them separated from revolutionary students wherever possible.
In most workplaces the strike committees were controlled by the union machine. They appointed people to them who were loyal to the union leadership. There was no role for those newly radicalised and inspired by the strike, although they might have been the most imaginative and active. Known members of revolutionary socialist groups were also carefully excluded.
This narrow focus of the union leaders also meant they excluded strikers who were not union members. And they made up two-thirds of all the people on strike.
The union bureaucrats also had no desire to hold mass meetings as they were threatened by the prospect that revolutionaries would use them to expand their influence. So in many cases a small strike committee organised the continued occupation and the rest of the workforce was simply sent home, where they were exposed to the influence of the mainstream media and government-controlled radio and TV.
What was needed was a revolutionary party with deep roots in the working class, that could counter the PCF and the trade union leaders. Such a party could have pushed for democratically elected strike committees in the workplaces, and worked to link them together into a network of workers’ councils similar to those that emerged in the Russian revolution.
But the revolutionary left was fragmented into a number of Trotskyist and Maoist groups, as well as anarchist groupings, and largely confined to the student scene. Altogether the revolutionary socialist groups contained less than 1000 members.
Describing the revolutionary left at the time, Alain Krivine, a French Trotskyist, has explained: “There were small groups among the students and the workers, but there was really nothing… We had maybe twenty workers in all… we had almost no influence. Among the students yes, but not among the workers.”
For instance at the massive Renault factory outside Paris, with 30,000 workers, “The PCF had 2000 members there and we had nothing, maybe two or three.”
Forwards or backwards
By the last week of May the movement had reached a critical point: to go forward it needed to begin preparing to take power. The government had negotiated concessions which trade union leaders accepted but workers at the larger factories rejected the offer and the strike continued.
President de Gaulle tried to defuse the situation by calling a referendum with some vague promises. But not a single print shop in France would print the ballot papers needed, so the referendum could not go ahead.
The state was in relative disarray, shown by de Gaulle’s panicked disappearance to Germany. For several days in the last week of May there was a power vacuum in France.
Despite this, the movement was not able to implement total workers’ control in the factories or to discuss how to topple the government. This was because workers lacked revolutionary leadership.
So they were unable to resist the right-wing counter-offensive when it came. On 30 May de Gaulle called parliamentary elections. The PCF could not denounce the elections as they were central to their whole political strategy, so they now had to play the game on de Gaulle’s terms.
De Gaulle made some economic settlements in the larger plants and promised modest wage increases. The union leadership began ordering everyone back to work. De Gaulle also unleashed armed thugs and police to violently break any of the occupations holding out. The PCF did not raise a word of criticism about this and its union officials manipulated the return to work votes in order to wind up the occupations.
The elections a month later were a landslide win for de Gaulle, giving him and his right-wing allies a parliamentary majority. Given the scale of the movement in May this seems astounding.
But winding down the movement had demoralised many workers. They were then less likely to vote and more susceptible to the ideas pumped out by the mainstream media. Voting in mass meetings at work meant they were exposed to the arguments of militants who could sway them into action. But at home and at the ballot box, they were on their own facing the propaganda of the bosses and the state.
The absence of a revolutionary party meant the enormous creativity and militancy that developed was largely wasted away. But for a moment the potential for revolutionary change had been glimpsed by millions.
May 1968 showed the immense power of the working class to run society—and proved that revolutionary upheaval is still possible even in a Western capitalist country like France or Australia.