The French Revolution of May 1968 – Part Two

By May 27 the balance of forces had massively shifted in favour of the working class. Power was within their grasp. De Gaulle was utterly demoralised, but he had one key card he could play, the leadership of the Communist Party and the trade unions.

Military intervention?

Matters had now reached a point where the issue could no longer be resolved by normal parliamentary means. What was to be done? Military intervention was one of the options considered by De Gaulle from the very beginning of the general strike. In the early stages of the strike, plans were made to arrest and imprison more than 20,000 left-wing activists in the winter stadium, where they were to have suffered a similar fate to that of their Chilean counterparts five years later.

But the operation was never put into practice. These plans of the French government are similar to the plans of every ruling class in history, when faced with revolution. The government of Tsar Nicholas ("the bloody" they called him) was not short of its military contingency plans before February 1917. But whether such plans can be put into effect is entirely another matter, as Nicholas found out to his cost. However, what is decisive in a revolution is not the plans of the regime, but the real balance of forces in society. De Gaulle was quite an astute bourgeois, and was fully aware of the real situation (although, as we will see, he initially underestimated it, and made a very serious error as a result. In common with all the others, he too was not expecting the French workers to move).

De Gaulle went to the brink, peered into the abyss and pulled back. Terrified at the vast scope of the movement, the General was utterly pessimistic. He was convinced that the communist leaders would come to power. Innumerable witnesses confirm that De Gaulle was completely prostrate and demoralised, and on at least two occasions he contemplated fleeing the country. His own son urged him to escape via Brest, and other sources state that he considered remaining in West Germany, where he had gone to visit general Masseu. De Gaulle was a clever and calculating politician who never acted on impulse, and rarely lost his nerve. If he told the US ambassador that "the game is up, and in a few days the Communists will be in power," it is because he believed it. And not he alone, but the majority of the ruling class as well.

On paper De Gaulle had at his disposal a formidable machine of repression. There were some 144,000 police (armed) of various categories, including 13,500 of the notorious CRS riot police, and some 261,000 soldiers stationed in France or West Germany. If one approaches the question from a purely quantitative point of view, then one would have to rule out not just a peaceful transformation, but the possibility of revolution in general, and not just in France in 1968. From this point of view, no revolution could ever have succeeded in the whole of history. But the question cannot be posed in this way.

In every revolution, voices are raised which attempt to frighten the oppressed class with the spectre of violence, bloodshed and the "inevitability of civil war." Kamenev and Zinoviev spoke in exactly the same way on the eve of the October insurrection. Heinz Dieterich and the reformists in Venezuela use the same line of argument today in their attempt to put the brakes on the Venezuelan revolution.

The enemies of the insurrection in the ranks of the Bolshevik party itself found, however, sufficient ground for pessimistic conclusions. Zinoviev and Kamenev gave warning against an under-estimation of the enemy's forces:

"Petrograd will decide, and in Petrograd the enemy has... considerable forces: 5,000 junkers, magnificently armed and knowing how to fight, and then the army headquarters, and then the shock troops, and then the Cossacks, and then a considerable part of the garrison, and then a very considerable quantity of artillery spread out fanwise around Petrograd. Moreover the enemy with the help of the Central Executive Committee will almost certainly attempt to bring troops from the front...'."

Trotsky answered the objections of Kamenev and Zinoviev as follows:

"The list sounds imposing, but it is only a list. If an army as a whole is a copy of society, then when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps. The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay." (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1042.)

In a state of panic, De Gaulle suddenly vanished. He travelled to Germany where he made a secret visit to General Masseu, the man in charge of the French troops stationed in Baden-Wurttemberg. The precise content of these conversations may never be known, but it does not require much imagination to work out what he asked him. "Can we rely on the army?" The answer is not contained in any of the written sources, for obvious reasons. However, The Times sent its correspondent to Germany to interview French soldiers, the big majority of whom were working class kids-conscripts. One of those interviewed by The Times answered the question whether he would fire on the workers thus: "Never! I think their methods may be a bit rough, but I am a worker's son myself."

In its editorial, The Times asked the key question: "Can De Gaulle use the army?" and answered its own question, saying that he could perhaps use it once. In other words, a single bloody clash would be sufficient to break the army in pieces. That was the appraisal of the most hardheaded strategists of international capital at the time. There is no reason to doubt their word on this occasion.

Crisis of the state

On 13 May a police union body representing 80 per cent of uniformed personnel issued a declaration that it

"...considers the prime minister's statement to be a recognition that the students were in the right, and as a total disavowal of the actions by the police force which the government itself had ordered. In these circumstances, it is surprised that an effective dialogue with the students was not sought before these regrettable confrontations took place." (Le Monde, 15 May 1968, my emphasis.)

If this was the position with the police, the effect of the revolution on the rank and file of the army would have been even greater. As it was, despite the lack of information, there were reports of ferment in the armed forces, and even a mutiny in the navy. The aircraft carrier Clemenceau, due to go to the Pacific for a nuclear test, suddenly turned back and returned to Toulon without explanation. There were reports of a mutiny on board and several sailors were said to have been "lost at sea." (Le Canard Enchainé, 19th June, a fuller report was published in Action 14th June, but this was confiscated by the authorities).

According to the celebrated aphorism of Mao, "power grows from the barrel of a gun." But guns have to be wielded by soldiers, and soldiers do not live in a vacuum, but are influenced by the moods of the masses. In any society, the police are more backward than the army. Yet in France the police, to quote the headline of The Times (31 May) were "seething with discontent."

"They are seething with discontent over their treatment by the Government," says the article, "and the branch dealing with intelligence about student activity has been deliberately depriving the Government of information about student leaders in support of an expenses claim.

"...Nor have the police been impressed by the Government's behaviour since the troubles broke out. ‘They are terrified of losing our support,' said one man.

"Such dissatisfaction is one of the reasons for the apparent inactivity of the Paris police in the past few days. Last week, men at several local stations refused to go on duty at the cross-roads and squares of the capital." (The Times, 31.5.1968, our emphasis.)

A leaflet published by members of the RIMECA (mechanised infantry regiment) stationed at Mutzig near Strasbourg indicates that sections of the army were already being affected by the mood of the masses. It included the following section:

"Like all conscripts, we are confined to barracks. We are being prepared to intervene as repressive forces. The workers and youth must know that the soldiers of the contingent WILL NEVER SHOOT ON WORKERS. We Action Committees are opposed at all costs to the surrounding of factories by soldiers.

"Tomorrow or the day after we are expected to surround an armaments factory which three hundred workers who work there want to occupy. WE SHALL FRATERNISE.

"Soldiers of the contingent, form your committees!" (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 26.).

The production of such a leaflet was clearly an exceptional example of the most revolutionary elements among the conscripts. But, in the midst of a revolution of such massive proportions, is it possible to doubt that the rank and file of the army would have rapidly been "infected" by the bacillus of revolt? The strategists of international capital did not doubt it. Neither did their French counterparts.

Who saved De Gaulle?

It was not at all the army or the police (who were so demoralised that even the reactionary intelligence branch, as we have seen, was refusing to collaborate with the government against the students) that saved the situation for French capitalism. It was the conduct of the Stalinist and trade union leaders. This conclusion is not just ours, but finds support in the most unlikely source. In the entry on May 1968 in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we read the following:

"De Gaulle seemed incapable of grappling with the crisis or even understanding its nature. The Communist and Trade Union leaders, however, provided him with a breathing space; they opposed further upheaval, evidently fearing the loss of their followers to their most extremist and anarchist rivals."

Forced into a corner, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou agreed to negotiate with everybody. When the ruling class is threatened with losing everything, it will always be prepared to give big concessions. In order to get the workers out of the factories, they fell over themselves to offer the union leaders things that were far in excess of what the latter had been asking for in the previous period: the minimum wage was to be raised, working hours cut, there would be a reduction in the age of retirement, and the right to organize restored. In an attempt to placate the students, Pompidou accepted the resignation of the Minister of Education.

Both government and the union leaders were alarmed at the scope of the movement and determined to call a halt. On May 27 agreement was reached between the unions, employer's associations and the government. But the union leaders had a hard job selling the deal to the workers. Despite these huge concessions, the workers at Renault and other big firms refused to return to work. I was in Paris during those tumultuous events and I remember standing in a Paris bar with a lot of other people watching the televised mass meeting inside the giant Renault factory, where a huge number of workers were gathered, some of them sitting on the cranes and gantries, to listen to George Ségui the general secretary of the CGT, reading out a list of what the bosses were offering: big wage increases, pensions, a cut in hours and so on. But in the middle of his speech he was drowned out by the chanting workers: "Gouvernement populaire! Gouvermenent populaire!" As I remember he did not even finish his speech.

By this time the workers had developed a sense of their own power. They realized that they had power within their grasp and were unwilling to relinquish it. At 17.00, 30,000 students and workers marched from Gobelins to the Charléty stadium, where they held a meeting, attended by Pierre Mendés-France. A demonstration called for by the CGT brought at least half a million workers and students onto the streets of Paris. Once again, the aim of the union and Communist Party leaders was to provide a safety valve for a movement, control of which was slipping out of their hands.

Initiative passes to reaction

In a radio broadcast on May 30, President De Gaulle announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and said that the elections would take place within the normal timetable. Georges Pompidou would remain Prime Minister. He also hinted that force would be used to maintain order, if necessary. This was a message aimed at the leaders of the unions and the Communist Party. He was offering them the tempting prospect of elections and future ministerial office under the bourgeois regime, and at the same he was warning them that the bourgeoisie would not surrender power without a fight.

The cabinet was reshuffled and elections were announced for the 23 and 30 June. At the same time, De Gaulle attempted to mobilize his forces outside parliament. Some tens of thousands of government supporters marched from Concorde to the Étoile. Similar demonstrations of support for the government were held throughout France. But a glance at the photographs in the newspapers immediately revealed the true nature of these demonstrations: retired mayors bedecked with tricolour sashes, pot-bellied middle class citizens, old age pensioners, and other broken-down flotsam and jetsam of society.

Just to compare these photos to the massive proletarian demonstration a few days before was enough to expose the real class balance of forces. All that was living, strong and vibrant in French society was assembled under the banner of revolution, whereas all that was stale, dead and decaying stood on the other side of the barricades. One good push would have sufficed to bring the whole lot tumbling down. All that was required was the final coup de grace. But it was never delivered. The strong hand that wielded the power wavered and fell.

The working class cannot be maintained permanently in a state of white-hot excitement. It cannot be turned on and off in the same way as one opens and closes a tap. Once the working class is mobilized to change society, it must go to the end or else it must fail. It is the same in any strike. In the beginning the workers are enthusiastic and participate willingly in the mass meetings. They are prepared to fight and make sacrifices. But if the strike drags on with no end in sight, the mood will change. Beginning with the weaker elements, tiredness will set in. The attendance at the mass meetings will decline and the workers will drift back to work.

The union leaders made good use of the concessions that had been hurriedly thrown out by the capitalists, as a desperate man throws a lifebelt from a sinking ship. The minimum wage was raised to three francs an hour, wages were increased and other improvements made. In the absence of any other perspective, many workers accepted what the union leaders were presenting as a victory. On Tuesday, after the weekend holiday at the start of June, most of the strikes were gradually abandoned and workers returned to their jobs.

1968 was a Revolution

What is a revolution? Trotsky explains that a revolution is a situation when the mass of normally apathetic men and women begin to participate actively in the life of society, when they acquire an awareness of their strength and move to take their destiny into their own hands. That is just what a revolution is. And that is what happened on a colossal scale in France in 1968.

The French workers flexed their muscles, and became aware of the enormous power in their hands. Here we saw the immense power of the working class in modern society: not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns, and not a telephone rings without the permission of the workers. May 1968 was the final answer to all the cowards and sceptics who doubt the ability of the proletariat to change society.

The class balance of forces was here expressed, not as a mere abstract potential or statistic, but as an actual power on the streets and in the factories. In reality, power was in the hands of the workers, but they did not know it. But like any other army, the working class requires leadership. And that was what was missing in May 1968. Those who should have provided leadership - the leaders of the mass organizations of the class, the trade unions and the Communist Party - had no perspective of taking power. Their sole concern was to terminate the strike as quickly as possible, hand power back to the bourgeoisie and return to "normality".

A general strike is different from a normal strike because it poses the question of power. The question at stake is not this or that wage increase but who is master of the house? In the course of struggle the workers' consciousness increased at a vertiginous speed. They came to understand that this was not a normal strike for economic demands but something far greater. They became conscious of the power in their hands and saw the weakness of those who were supposed to represent all the power of the state. All that was necessary was for every workplace to elect delegates and to link up the strike committees in every town and region, culminating in the formation of a National Committee, which could take power into its hands, consigning the old state power to the dustbin of history.

But none of this was done, and the enormous revolutionary potential of the movement was dissipated, just as steam is harmlessly dissipated in the air unless it is concentrated in a piston-box. In the end, the workers returned to work and the ruling class concentrated power back into its hands. Once the movement began to ebb, the state began to take its revenge. There were violent incidents, especially on 11 June when 400 were hurt, 1500 arrested and a demonstrator was shot and killed at Montbéliard. The next day, demonstrations were forbidden in France. The day after, students were evicted from the Odéon and two days later, from the Sorbonne.

Then the victimizations began. At the state radio and TV - the ORTF - 102 journalists were fired for activities during the events. Police were sent into the universities of Nanterre and the Sorbonne to control student ID cards and were not withdrawn until December 19. A package of austerity measures was adopted by the National Assembly on November 28. The state that had not hesitated to crack the skulls of demonstrating students and strikers now showed clemency to the fascists and members of the extreme right wing terrorist OAS. While Cohen-Bendit was expelled from France, Georges Bidault was allowed to return, and Raoul Salan was released from prison.

The reformist and Stalinist leaders were punished for their cowardice by being denied the fruits of office they so keenly desired. The election campaign started on 10 June. In the first round of the elections, the federation of Left parties and the Communists lost ground. In the second round a week later, the parties of the Right won an overwhelming majority. The Left lost 61 seats and the Communists lost 39. Pierre Mendés-France was not re-elected in Grenoble. The Communist Party, which in 1968 was the main party of the French working class, entered into decline and was eventually overtaken by the Socialist Party, which, with only four percent of the vote, had appeared defunct. The Communist trade union, the CGT, lost ground to the CFDT, which had a more militant position in 1968.

The marvellous movement of the French workers thus ended in defeat. But the traditions of May 1968 remain in the consciousness of the workers of France and the whole world. Today, after a long period of economic boom, the capitalist system is again entering into a crisis in which all the contradictions that have been building up for the last 20 years will come to the fore. Big class battles are on the order of the day all over Europe.

We have no time for those petty bourgeois ex-revolutionaries who talk about 1968 in sentimental and nostalgic terms as if it were ancient history of no practical relevance to the world we live in. Sooner or later the events of 1968 will reappear on an even higher level. Which country is the most likely candidate for this scenario? It could well be France, but it could also be Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain or any one of a number of other countries, and not only in Europe. We look forward to this. We desire it and we are preparing for it. We are striving to prepare the vanguard so that the next time we will be successful. And on this glorious proletarian anniversary we say: The Revolution is dead. Long live the Revolution!

London, 1st May, 2008

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