Mary McCarthy returned from Hanoi to Paris in May 1968 - from the front-line of anti-imperialist war resistance in SE Asia to the front-line of anti-capitalist revolution in NW Europe : context below by Pierre Lambert
Revolution in France:
betrayed but not defeated
Pierre Boussel Lambert: born Paris 9 June 1920, died Paris 16 January 2008
This analysis was originally published in the immediate aftermath of the May/June events
in the journal Fourth International, August 1968 edition
THE GREAT STRIKE movement of May and June 1968 which brought the French working class within sight of power has enormous political significance and requires careful analysis and study. All the problems raised by the revolution in advanced capitalist countries were suddenly presented in living form. By their action in downing tools together and occupying their places of work ten million workers demonstrated their strength and shook the bourgeois state to its foundations. For the space of two weeks France stood on the brink of a revolution which, given leadership, could have carried the working class to power with little bloodshed. The paralysis of the
economy was complete; the state power was in eclipse and the bourgeoisie was stricken
with panic and confusion. What many had believed to be impossible, a revolutionary
situation in an advanced country, was now plainly in existence. At one point bourgeois
rule depended upon nothing more than a few tens of thousands of riot police and an
uncertain army largely composed of conscript soldiers who would be asked to fire on
their fathers and brothers.
And yet, almost as rapidly as the crisis broke and the question of workers’ power was
posed, the ruling class resumed its poise; de Gaulle re-asserted his command, the strikes were
brought to an end and elections confirmed the Gaullist victory by a substantial majority.
The change in the situation was so rapid and so complete that the question of how near
France actually was to revolution in May will undoubtedly become a perennial subject of
historical controversy. In retrospect many of those who, at the height of the battle in May,
foresaw a defeat for the bourgeoisie have already revised their opinion and now claim that
the issue was never in doubt. True, for a final historical judgement, many of the necessary
elements are lacking. In particular it will be a long time before we know what was going
on in the inner councils of the Gaullist government. Did it, before de Gaulle’s broadcast
of May 30, at some point decide that the game was up, as stories that the Ministries were
burning confidential papers seem to suggest? What was the relationship between the
government and the leadership of the CGT and the Communist Party and was a guarantee
actually given (or even required) from the Soviet Ambassador that there was no intention
of turning France into a ‘People’s Democracy’? In the event of a workers’ revolution would
the army leaders have plunged the country into civil war?
In fact we do not have to answer these
questions in order to be able to raise, and
in part answer, the more immediate and
vital ones raised by these events.
In the first place the lie has been
given to the myth that the working class
in the advanced countries has become
an inert and demoralized force. In
and displayed their power. It is true that
the signal was given by the students, but
the situation did not have revolutionary
implications until the workers occupied
the factories and began to make their
own demands. It is true, also, that in
form these demands were mainly of an
economic nature; but, by their extent,
their manner of presentation and the
context in which they were made they also represented a direct challenge to the ruling
class and its state.
More important still was the fact that the level of this challenge was directly related
to the ability of the Communist and reformist parties and the trade union bureaucracies
to control the strike movement and confine it to what were called ‘professional’ demands.
After the massive demonstrations of May 13, in which the workers expressed their
solidarity with the students in struggle against the Gaullist regime, the ‘left’ parties and
unions, and especially the Stalinists, hoped that these energies could be channelled back
into the usual humdrum forms and that the situation would be restored to normal. It
was the action of the workers at Sud-Aviation and the Renault plants in occupying their
factories which set in train the mass strikes which the CGT and the other unions had
neither prepared for, called nor desired.
It was as though all the locks which the bureaucracies had placed on the combativity
of the workers for many years were suddenly blown off. Following the example of the
students, the young workers in particular demanded action to protect wage packets
which were shrinking under the pressure of rising prices and against intolerable working
conditions and lack of a real future. Plants which had not had strikes for three decades
came out solidly, sections of workers reputedly the most docile and least class-conscious
in department stores, offices and banks demanded to join the strike. All over the country
universities, schools and public buildings were occupied. Over many the red flag was
substituted for the tricolour. The gates were locked, pickets and strike committees were
set up. All the major plants, except in a few
backward areas, from government arsenals to
the big motor works, were in the hands of their
workers. Electricity and other services only
functioned by permission of the workers.
Yet a general strike was never called by
the CGT or any other trade union body.
L’Humanité never issued such a call nor, in
its front page headlines, did it ever provide
slogans or a lead for the strikers. The
Communist Party, and its members in the
leadership of the CGT, struggled might and
main to limit the scope of the strike to the basic
economic demands which, however heavy
for the capitalists to meet, still accepted the
framework of bourgeois property relations.
There was no national direction of the strike and it was everywhere the policy of the CP
to prevent a link-up between the strike committees in the separate enterprises. The CGT
negotiated with the government, as did the other national confederations (CFTD, Force
Ouvriere, CGC), and as soon as possible went back to the enterprises with the terms
which had been provisionally agreed upon. Thus a key role was played by the refusal of
the Renault workers to accept the model agreement brought back from his meeting with
the government by Georges Seguy, the general secretary of the CGT on May 27. This
ensured that the strike would continue and that more then ever, in the next few crucial
days, the question of power would be posed.
At this point it is clear that the Communist Party set itself solidly against any
movement to take power. This is borne out by the tone of the statement of the Central
Committee dated May 27. In substance this declared opposition to those who claimed
that the situation was ‘revolutionary’; called on followers of the CP not to join in the
student demonstration called for that day; and stated its aim to be ‘a government of
democratic union’ with the Left Federation – at that time in almost complete eclipse
– the dissolution of the National Assembly and the holding of new elections.
That was on May 27 when the disarray of the government and the demoralization of
the bourgeoisie were still apparent. On May 30, in a radio broadcast, de Gaulle signalled
the turn of the tide for the bourgeoisie, echoing the call of the Communist Party for
dissolution of the National Assembly and new elections and promising stern measures.
Immense relief of the bourgeoisie and a massive Gaullist procession in Paris. Reaction of
the CP: relief and satisfaction (the Party had apparently wanted elections all along!).
In the following days and weeks the Stalinist bureaucracy fought day and night to settle
Return to normal...2
the strikes and hand back the factories to their lawful owners. At the same time it settled
down to the electoral campaign, carefully distinguishing itself from the ‘revolutionaries’
of May. The Communist Party was, as Waldeck-Rochet put it, ‘a revolutionary party in
the best sense of the term’, that is to say, a party which ensured that a revolution did not
Then and since Stalinist propagandists, and those who cover up for them, have
been working hard to prove that the situation in France in May was not revolutionary
and to discredit all those who claim it was. For all the conditions to be present for a
revolutionary situation there has of course to be a revolutionary party able to heighten
the consciousness of the working class and lead it to power. As the principal political
party of the working class, and as the leader of the largest trade union confederation,
Stalinism did everything it could to confine the strikes to material objectives consistent
with the preservation of capitalism and to prevent the working class from turning them
into a struggle for power. It first slandered the students, even when they had become the
principal victims of the police repression, and then did everything possible to isolate the
students and the youth from the striking workers. Wherever possible it controlled the
strike committees to prevent them from becoming instruments of power. The Stalinists
had no intention of leading the working class in revolution and made sure that no one
else should. After carrying out this policy; which opened the way for the resumption of
control of the situation by de Gaulle at the head of a shaken but newly self-confident
bourgeoisie, it had the audacity to claim that there had been a revolutionary situation.
In this the Communist Party stood four square with the Soviet bureaucracy which
feared nothing more than the opening of the European Revolution, for which a successful
revolution in France would have been the prelude. It was clear all along that the CP would
therefore place a brake on the movement while taking care to retain its control over the
working class. Thus the need to discredit the students, to denounce the ‘leftists’, to confine
the aims of the strikes to questions of wages and hours and to bring them to an end as soon
as possible; thus the slogan of a ‘popular government’ and the acceptance of elections which
it knew would be certain to have the form of a referendum for de Gaulle.
The Communist Party has had great difficulty this time in concealing its betrayal
from the workers and from its own militants. The drop in the electoral vote of the
Communist Party indicates this very clearly. Many workers opposed the return to work
to the very end; even more went back reluctantly on the instructions of their leaders
with the knowledge that they had not won the power that was in their grasp. Opposition
in the ranks of the party has never been so widespread; a renewed ferment has begun
amongst the intellectuals but this time it is accompanied to a much greater extent than
before by criticism by worker members. Some sections of the party have been further
astonished by the failure of the CP and the CGT to protest against the banning of the
left-wing organizations and the hounding of their militants.2
Although the elections were run by the Gaullists on a ‘red scare’ platform and with a
lot of anti-Communist talk there can be little doubt that the government, and particularly
de Gaulle himself, are well aware of the services which the CP rendered in May and June.
This was understood during the events by many reporters and commentators of both the
French bourgeois and the foreign press. For the first time, in many papers, the conclusion,
new and astonishing to the writers themselves, that the Communist Party was a great
institution making for the preservation of the bourgeois social order, in other words,’was
a counter-revolutionary force, as Trotsky pointed out over three decades ago, became a
commonplace. As Victor Fay summed it up in Le Monde Diplomatique for July:
‘By putting a brake on the popular upsurge the leaders of the Communist Party
and the CGT upset the vanguard of the working class and cut themselves off from the
revolutionary students. At no moment during the crisis did the CP and the CGT push
the workers towards direct action; they followed rather than led this action. At no time
did they issue a call for a general strike nor recommend the occupation of the factories by
the workers. At no time did they consider the situation as revolutionary. Monsieur Seguy,
general secretary of the CGT declared on June 13: “The question of knowing whether
the hour for the insurrection had struck was never at any time posed before the Bureau
of the Confederation or the Administrative Commission, which are composed, as is well
known, of serious and responsible militants who do not have the reputation of taking
their desires for reality”.’
Whether Seguy is speaking the truth or not is scarcely important. What can be
assumed from the whole behaviour of the CP is that its leaders well knew that a
revolutionary situation did exist. Their main concern was to prevent the working class
pushing towards a seizure of power – a task which they successfully carried out, but only
by dint of immense efforts. After the event they were able to explain that there never had
been a revolutionary situation, in order to cover up their tracks and their actual role in
preventing it from maturing.
Once again, then, as in 1936, as in 1945, as in 1953 and 1958 the Communist Party imposed
a strait-jacket on the working class and helped to preserve the bourgeois social order.
The bitterness and hostility of the attacks launched by the CP on the student
movement and upon the left-wing groups were required in order to prevent the latter
from becoming a pole of attraction and an alternative leadership.
What was the possibility of such an alternative arising? As far as the student
movement was concerned, and those groups who concentrated their main efforts in the
Sorbonne after its liberation from police control on May 13, it can be said that it evaded
in practice such a task. Instead the energies of the students were dispersed in interminable
discussions, sallies to the barricades and occasional sorties to the factory gates.
Only the supporters of the International Committee, the Organisation Communiste
Internationaliste, the youth movement Révoltes and the student movement, the 2
Fédération des Etudiants Révolutionnaires put forward consistently a Marxist policy.
Themselves taken by surprise by the rapidity with which the storm broke, fighting with
small numbers in a most difficult situation these organisations acquired a valuable capital
of experience in struggle from which the whole international movement can draw.
Undoubtedly their intervention in a number of decisive instances, including the first
occupation at Sud-Aviation, had an important bearing on the course of events. Links were
developed with important sections of the youth and the working class. In the universities
the FER put forward a basically correct line against the advocates of ‘student power’ and
the ‘critical university’ – that is to say against the mainstream of student feeling – with
great consistency and courage in the face of slander and misrepresentation.
In the end the smallness of the vanguard enabled the treachery of the Stalinists and
the reformists to prevail. The alternative leadership, while it made its presence felt, was
not able to take command of the class. Now, along with other left groups, the OCI,
Révoltes and the FER have been banned: but their struggle continues. Inside the CGT
and the CP there is a growing volume of questions and criticism. The workers were not
defeated, and they know it; but the class-conscious elements also know that they could
have gained much more – that power was within their grasp. In these conditions, with the
crisis of French capitalism aggravated by the events of May and June, the opportunities
for intervention, even under conditions of illegality, become very great. The struggle
continues and in the coming period the Trotskyists will come forward to lead the final
victorious struggle of the french working class.