Not a nut or bolt turns in hundreds of occupied factories: not a wheel moves in public transport. The reactionary newspapers' lies are "censored" by the printers and so are those of the radio and television. The French working class in its millions cocks its little finger, and the vast complex of French capitalism grinds to a halt.
What a mighty demonstration of the invincible power of the working class, when it begins to move! How crushing a refutation this is of all those cynics and sceptics who have written off the working class as "bought off", "apathetic" etc! How clear it should be to even the most politically uneducated worker that their French brothers would now be firmly in power, but for the craven, cowardly policies of the French Labour and Trade Union leaders. This is the essence of the events which have shaken the French ruling class and terrified the exploiters of the world!
Students "lifted the lid"
The wave of revolt culminating in the mass sit-in strikes and occupation of the factories began with the students. The pitched battles between them and the police were ignited by the vicious police attacks on a students' meeting in the Sorbonne University: it was the first time that the police had intervened in the university since German occupation.
Despite lying government bulletins to the contrary, the vast mass of the students throughout the country then came out in general strike. Their actions were partly determined by the miserable educational conditions - "hordes are being housed in vast impersonal ‘cités universitaires'" discontent at the degenerate and inhuman "impersonal society" of capitalism. Waverers were driven to oppose the regime by the brutality of the special police (C.R.S) when they attempted to put down the students. So clear was their role, and that of the state, that the columns of the main capitalist newspaper, "Le Monde" was full of complaining letters from doctors, lawyers etc. In the demonstration the police had used a potentially lethal gas. Premier Pompidou, on his return, was forced to grant all the students' immediate demands. Popular support was with the students - The Daily Express reported that 80% of the population of Paris was for the students. Senior secondary school teachers came out and teachers were forced to lock 13 year-olds in their classrooms to stop them joining the strike. Even this restraining hand has been stayed as the teachers and pupils together joined the workers. More important was the fact that the students lifted the lid off the boiling pot of working class grievances.
Action to end hardships
The façade of the French equivalent of the "never had it so good" society has been pierced. Thus The Observer (11.5.68) revealed that 5-6 million people live below the subsistence level. One quarter of the population receive £12 or less basic weekly wage. At the same time, unemployment has dramatically increased until it is now over half a million. Some areas have been faced with a catastrophic increase..."in the Paris region it is a rise of 51% and in the north - home of France's traditional coal-mining, steel and textile industries - the increase is 59%" (Financial Times). Real wages have actually fallen over the last two years. Any actual wage rises have been rapidly eaten away by price increases; prices are "45% higher than in 1958. This rise is conspicuously the fastest of al EEC countries."
The introduction of massive indirect taxation through the Value Added Tax has in the past months made the burden yet heavier. This has been coupled with De Gaulle's attacks on the social services and attempts to hold down wages in order to give an advantage to French capitalism in the cut-throat competition which would exist with the proposed ending of internal Common Market tariffs in July.
Even the farmers were in revolt at the rapid decrease in their incomes. Many have been ruined and driven off the land, some into the decaying houses which scar the big cities. In Paris alone, over one third of the 9 million population live in inadequate housing. Significantly it has been the youth which has been particularly affected by the slow-down of French industry. "Of the registered unemployed, about 23% are young school-leavers." (Financial Times, 20.5.68).
|Student march from the Sorbonne to the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt. The workers are visible on the roof of the building, the students below in the street. Together they sang the Internationale and cheered each other on. |
Thus it was the young factory workers, emboldened and electrified by the success of the students and making contact with them on the million-strong demonstration of May 13th, who took the initiative in organising the sit-in strikes in the Renault factories and elsewhere. One of them commented to The Times, "The students came first. They acted as a spark. They caused the government to yield... they gave us the feeling that we could go ahead". Thus is vindicated a point we have made time and again in the pages of Militant, that it is in action that the working class gain their sense of power and can understand the need to change society. How shameful, then appears the role of the leadership of the Communist Party who, far from mobilising the working class, consistently drag at the tail and hold them back.
At first the students came in for vicious attack in the pages of L'Humanité, the CP daily newspaper. The massive general strike of May 13th was used as a safety valve to dissipate the anger of the workers at the police action. Even now in the present situation they are refusing to call a General Strike. The movement of sit-down strikes and occupations of the factories was unleashed by the workers themselves without reference to the CP or TU tops.
A gigantic wave has swept from one end of France to the other. Not only the industrial workers but the bank employees, white-collar workers, and the catering workers have responded to the call to strike. While only 30% are unionised, over 50% of the labour forces are involved which is incontestable proof of the revolutionary energy and determination that has been unleashed. As in all revolutions, from the cracks and depths of society the formerly politically backward workers, the sweated and impoverished, the demoralised and cynical, have been brought to their feet. The poor farmers have set up barricades round the city of Nantes and other cities "in support of the workers and students", (Times 21.5.68). Exemplary order is maintained and, as even the capitalist press has been forced to admit, the workers "check and grease factory machines that are lying idle".
All this and yet the leadership of the of the Communist Party and the CGT, along with the Catholic unions and "socialist" Force Ouvrière, refuse to carry through what the workers have begun: the seizure of power. Gratified, the Observer remarked, "the Communist unions and the Gaullist Government they appear to be challenging are really on the same side of the barricades". The reactionary Le Figaro also praises the statesman-like posture of the CP leaders. This has brought the rejoinder from the British Communist Party's Morning Star..."such drivel only exposed the anti-communist malice or the invincible ignorance of its authors... the Communists in the lead is the answer to the ludicrous claims of the British press commentators".
But why then the calculated refusal of the CP leaders to prepare the masses now to take power? Instead, L'Humanité issues dark warnings against calls for "insurrectionary strikes" and against "provocateurs" etc. Obviously it is necessary to be on guard against government provocation, but L'Humanité is seeking to slander and distort the position of the Marxists in the plants and universities who are opposing its policies. They lay heavy stress on the danger of "provoking the Government, causing bloodshed, etc." BUT THE C.P. LEADERS ARE THE ONES WHO ARE PREPARING RIVERS OF BLOOD FOR THE FRENCH WORKING CLASS. Every serious political commentator stresses the revolutionary fervour that exists. "The waves of protests sweeping France are not merely genuine grievances, but also represent a diffuse and generalised protest against the regime as a whole. The workers are not merely asking for financial compensation, for shorter working hours, but like the students are also talking vaguely of revolutionary committees" (Financial Times 20.5.68).
Peaceful transformation of society
All the conditions for a successful overturn are there; the workers are determined to go the whole hog. The middle class, particularly its lower layers, look with profound sympathy on the strike wave and in many cases join in, e.g. on the ships "even the officers have joined the sit-ins begun by the crews." (Times 23.5.68).
It is the working class which has the effective power in the factories, the ports, the mines, and the streets. A classic situation of dual power exists. Even the televising of the debate in the National Assembly was done only by permission of the workers' organisations, as even a Gaullist MP was forced to admit. Those vestiges of the Government, the police and the army are completely unreliable. The police themselves have been touched by the hot flames of revolt. Their union issued a warning to the Government that "the police officers thoroughly appreciated the reasons which inspired the striking wage-earners and deplored the fact that they could not by law take part in the same way in the present labour movement... the public authorities will not systematically set the police against the present labour struggles" (Times, 24.5.68). In the event of a clash, many "serious words, many sections, if not the majority, would go over to the workers. The Army also would be split from top to bottom if the officer caste sought to intervene. This is shown by the comments of a National Serviceman when he was asked if he would fire on the students and workers and replied ‘Never. I think their methods may be a bit rough but I am a worker's son myself'." (Times 21.5.68). If ever there was a time when the working class could take power peacefully, that time is now.
Reaction is very weak at this stage but if the fascists and the army elite should seek to whip up gangs of thugs to oppose the workers, they would be silenced first of all by the setting up of workers' defence guards and eventually by an armed people.
The Government and its puppet National Assembly is left suspended in mid-air. If the CP leaders had one ounce of the heroic courage and energy of its own rank and file or the working class generally, it would round out the and broaden and organise the instinctive desire of the masses for their own instruments of power, the workers' councils.
In every shop, factory and workplace this would naturally be the dominant form of organisation. Established at local level they would come together also in the districts and eventually at national level. The unorganised sections would be drawn in until they embraced all the toilers; a parliament of the masses where their will and demands would be exercised; real democracy as opposed to the sham democracy of the jugglers in the National Assembly. Taking up the demands of the workers, the farmers and the middle class it would be possible to tie them together feeling the common need for a drastic change, the need for a socialist society. Once in power, the workers' councils, where all officials would be elected and subject to recall, from being instruments of struggle for power would then become the organs of management and control by the masses themselves.
This is what the French working classes are groping for, as the strategists of capital so cunningly understand. The only thing that stands between them and extinction are the leaders of the mass labour organisations. Their "Malice" consists of the understanding that they will be able to use the prevarication and treachery of the CP leaders at a later stage, not only to discredit the latter but, with them, the ideas of Marxism in the eyes of the masses.
Popular Front: alliance with monopolists
The statements of Waldeck Rochet, leader of the Communist Party, in favour of "action committees" is a reflection of the pressure from below. But that these committees will remain paper committees is shown by the fact that the CP has not even officially called a general strike when over 10 million workers are already on strike! Even if these committees were to begin to develop every effort would be made by the CP to turn them into ‘safe' channels. Thus already "popular government" is their rallying cry. They are seeking to prepare the ground for the ascent to power of a Popular Front government after they have derailed the strike wave. All the hopes of the masses are to be diverted into the ministerial ambitions of "communist" deputies. But the history of France itself is rich in lessons of the strikebreaking role of "Popular Fronts"! When faced with a crisis which none of its traditional parties can succeed in solving alone the capitalists are quite prepared to push forward the labour leaders into a government coalition with capitalist representatives of the "Centre" Party. They benefit from this in two ways: they gain time to prepare the forces of reaction, at the same time they are able to stab the labour movement in the back by unloading odious capitalist policies onto the labour leaders thus discrediting not just the latter but the ideas of socialism, particularly in the eyes of the middle class.
Win middle class for socialism
Thus the Social Democratic Party in Germany suffered defects in the recent elections a the hands of the middle class in particular because they were being seen to be doing the dirty work of big business in the coalition. Also here in Britain the capitalists are preparing for a "National Government" of renegade labour ‘leaders' with the Tories. This would be almost a certainty in the event of another serious economic crisis. Temporarily, they hope, the labour movement would be disorientated and demoralised.
Far from the Popular Front being, as the CP leaders claim, an "alliance with the middle class" it is in reality a bloc against them. By linking up with the leaders of the Centre Party it is forming in reality a bloc with the political exploiters of the middle class who habitually sell out the interests of the small farmer, the shopkeeper, etc., to those of big capital. Again, only in action can these intermediate layers of society be torn away from allegiance to their traditional parties. And if the working class does not show that it has the answer and is prepared to act now to achieve it then arch-reaction will seek to use their resulting desperation to dupe and stupefy them into organising under its demagogic banner. The actions of the Paris students and now the mass strikes of the masses and the strength of the revolutionary forces cannot be measured by merely adding up parliamentary votes.
Another excuse that will be brought forward in defence of the CP leaders is the idea that the ‘Communists don't have sufficient forces even amongst the workers - as is shown by the support for the Socialist Party and the PSU'. And yet even the Morning Star (25.5.68) admits that Seguy, General Secretary of the CGT, today has far greater powers than Pompidou, De Gaulle's Prime Minister. It is true that by no means all the workers in France support the Communist Party. But it is not in a Popular Front but in a United Front of struggle for power that those workers who retain allegiance to the other parties would be affected. If the leaders of these parties take up the offer of common struggle against capitalism, all the better; the Marxists would be able, in action, to demonstrate the superiority of their programme and methods. If they refuse, then they will stand exposed, and the natural demand of all workers for unity will weaken their hold over their own rank-and-file. The vast majority will come ever to the Marxist forces.
End of Gaullist regime
In the face of the strike wave, De Gaulle and the French capitalists, as in a similar situation in 1936, are preparing to head off the workers by retreating and granting concessions. They are only able to do this because of the pusillanimity of the official labour leaders. For the time being, they are prepared to eat into the enormous $6000 million reserves they have piled up over the last ten years. Not the least of the effects of such a deal will be the undermining of the competitive position of French capitalism in the world market. What a crushing indictment of the anarchy of capitalism that it can only be "competitive", i.e. continue to accumulate profits for the bosses, only so long as the working class are prepared to exist on the paltry amounts described above! What the bosses will be forced to give with the left hand - and they will have to do this or face the possibility of explosions which, despite the CP's role, could end their days - they will attempt to take back with the right hand tomorrow. Resulting inflation will be used in order to inflame the middle classes against the "excesses" of the workers.
Vague promises of "participation" will not, as all the bourgeois commentators agree, satisfy the French workers. One thing is certain: the Gaullist "invincible" regime is finished. Whenever its demise comes, within weeks or months, its position has been irretrievably damaged. The French workers will not only have succeeded in bringing about its downfall, but also in beginning to undermine all the honeycombed theories of "social peace" which have proliferated in the Western Labour Movement in the last twenty years.
Road to world socialism
Not by accident did the "Times" mournfully comment: "When Louis Philippe was driven from his throne in 1848 after a few brisk days of rioting in Paris, and took refuge in London, there were revolutions all over Europe. Italy, West Germany, Belgium and Spain are in trouble enough without the Mother of Revolutions once again setting a bad example."(22.5.68). How well do the ideologues of capitalism, with devastating realism, understand the threat that faces them! And how timid and treacherous do the Labour leaders' vague and pious hopes sound in comparison! The diseased state of British capitalism too is preparing on explosion. The traditional parties in all the countries of Europe will be shaken from top to bottom. Even if the CP manages to sell the deal with De Gualle to its own rank-and-file, this will not be without internal rumblings. No longer do the CP leaders exercise the mesmeric effect or hold the fanatical devotion of the rank-and file as in the 1930s. Already this is reflected in the resignation from the CGT of one of its leaders, a prominent CP member, because he considers that the CGT is "not taking full advantage of the situation to overthrow the Gaullist regime". In the event of a Popular Front the CP will precipitate a massive movement of opposition which could end in a split, the majority going over to the genuine programme of Marxism. The enormous sense of power, the gigantic steps forward in understanding, the combativity and ability to fight of many workers who have viewed politics as the preserve of lawyers and doctors in the past, will still be there. The French workers have unleashed a force that will yet end the rule of Rent, Interest and Profit in Europe and throughout the world.
- Revolutionary days - May 1968, a personal memoir by Alan Woods (May 13, 2008)
- The French Revolution of May 1968 – Part One by Alan Woods (May 1, 2008)
- The French Revolution of May 1968 – Part Two by Alan Woods (May 1, 2008)
- The French revolution has begun by Ted Grant (August 1968)
- [Audio] 1968 - Year of Revolution by Alan Woods (May 21, 2008)
- [Audio] Italy 1969: the Hot Autumn by Fred Weston (May 13, 2008)