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Workers Vanguard No. 972

21 January 2011

France, May 1968

Prerevolutionary Situation Betrayed by Communist Party

Part One

(Young Spartacus pages)

Inspired by struggles around the world, the student protests for more social freedom that began in early 1968 in the Paris suburb of Nanterre spread rapidly. In Paris on May 10, pitched battles with the police left hundreds of protesters (and policemen) wounded. In response, on May 13, a general strike shut down all of France; it would grow to include some ten million workers. Seeking to end the strike, the government opened negotiations at Grenelle on May 25. The working class, lacking revolutionary leadership, was unable to put itself forward as a contender for power and returned to work in June. We reprint below the first part of a forum by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France on the fortieth anniversary of the May ’68 events. The forum, which originally appeared in the LTF’s newspaper Le Bolchévik (Nos. 185 and 186, September and December 2008), has been translated and adapted for publication.

* * *

The thirtieth anniversary of May ’68, in 1998, occurred in the shadow of the “death of communism” campaign that followed the counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR in 1991-92. So the working class was disappeared from every commentary, article, book, documentary, news report, etc. May-June ’68 was turned into just a big student struggle for sexual freedom and a few other social gains. We wrote in Le Bolchévik No. 147 (Autumn 1998):

“The bourgeois press played up May ’68 as a kind of bourgeois revolution that allowed more sexual freedom. This kind of propaganda has three purposes: exorcising the spectre of social revolution; proclaiming capitalism to be capable of continually ‘renewing’ and ‘democratizing’ itself; and casting an ‘indulgent’ look on the revolutionary ‘unrest’ which is now over and done with.”

In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of May ’68, we are still feeling the effects of the “death of communism” campaign. The working class has reappeared in books, colloquiums and articles but it is presented as having become harmless, bound to the capitalist system and greatly weakened by the outsourcing made possible by the globalization of the economy.

We want to reaffirm that May-June ’68 was a prerevolutionary situation, the driving force of which was the working class. The power of the working class paralyzed the country and caused the bourgeoisie to shake with fear. What the working class lacked was a revolutionary party capable of tearing the workers away from their treacherous leaders—mainly in the French Communist Party (PCF), which led the CGT trade-union federation—and of raising the consciousness of the working class to understand its historic role in overthrowing capitalism. The French bourgeoisie was able to get by fairly easily in the end because the PCF betrayed the working class. May ’68 was the most recent prerevolutionary situation in this country. But there will be others. For those of us who devote ourselves to preparing to intervene into such a situation in order to turn it into a workers revolution, it is crucial to review these lessons.

The Post-World War II Period

To understand how a social explosion of such importance could have taken place and what a revolutionary party would have done in this situation, we have to understand how different the world was post-World War II, and in the ’60s, from what it is today. These differences are fundamentally due to the counterrevolution in the USSR in 1991-92 and to the campaign about the supposed “death of communism” (that is, that there can be no alternative to capitalism) that is being waged by the bourgeoisie with the help of reformist “socialists” all over the world, including those who, not so long ago (certainly in May ’68) claimed to be revolutionaries.

Having usurped power in a political counterrevolution beginning in 1924, the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR repudiated the very program of proletarian internationalism that had led to the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, the program that Trotsky’s Left Opposition continued to defend. The bureaucracy invented the anti-Marxist “theory” of building “socialism in one country” in the search for “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism, for which it betrayed workers and peasants fighting the imperialists all over the world.

But Stalin’s victory did not constitute a social counterrevolution. The property forms created by the October Revolution were not destroyed but remained as gains for the workers of the world. The Trotskyists waged a relentless struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy, seeking to oust it through proletarian political revolution. At the same time, they fought tirelessly for the unconditional military defense of the bureaucratically degenerated Soviet workers state against imperialism and counterrevolution, with the understanding that the outcome would ultimately be determined by the extension of the dictatorship of the proletariat to the imperialist centers through workers revolutions in those countries.

The post-World War II period was marked by the emergence of bureaucratically deformed workers states in most of the East European countries that were occupied by the Soviet Union and as a consequence of peasant guerrilla movements led by Stalinists in Yugoslavia, China, North Korea and North Vietnam. Struggles for independence erupted in large parts of the colonial world. In January 1959, Fidel Castro and his petty-bourgeois peasant guerrilla movement, the July 26 Movement, overthrew the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. Faced with U.S. imperialism’s increasing hostility, the Castro government allied with the Soviet Union and, beginning in August 1960, nationalized broad sectors of the Cuban economy, drove out the Cuban bourgeoisie and created a deformed workers state. This small country, 90 miles off the coast of Florida, succeeded in defying the American colossus and carried through a social transformation that inspired a whole generation of radicalized youth around the world.

The Fourth International, which had been founded in 1938 under Leon Trotsky’s leadership, was deeply disoriented when capitalism was overthrown under the leadership of Stalinist forces. Michel Pablo, then leader of the Fourth International, reacted impressionistically to the onset of the 1947-48 Cold War and Stalinist expansion. He abandoned the struggle to build Trotskyist parties that aim to lead the proletariat in the international struggle for socialist revolution (see “Genesis of Pabloism,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 21, Fall 1972). Pablo abandoned the program of political revolution to sweep away the Stalinist bureaucracies in the USSR and East Europe, claiming that a process of “self-reform” would ultimately eliminate the bureaucratic deformations in these countries. Maintaining that “the international relationship of forces” was becoming unfavorable to imperialism, he declared that “the objective process is in the final analysis the sole determining factor, overriding all obstacles of a subjective order.” Pablo concluded that Stalinist and other reformist parties could adopt an approximately revolutionary perspective and that the task of the Trotskyists was to enter these parties and push them in a revolutionary direction. Pablo’s perspective of “deep entrism” led to the destruction of the Fourth International in 1951-53.

In 1960 in Belgium, Ernest Mandel, Pablo’s right-hand man, became the power behind the throne of prominent left-talking trade-union bureaucrat André Renard, who went on to sell out the 1960-61 general strike that shook Belgian capitalism just after the loss of its main colony in the Congo. Pablo himself became an adviser to the bourgeois-nationalist National Liberation Front government in Algeria after that country wrested its independence from France in 1962. In that role, Pablo participated in writing the laws on “self-management” that tied the Algerian workers movement to the bourgeois state apparatus so as to defuse the massive factory and farm occupations that had spread across newly independent Algeria.

The Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) and its youth group the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR), the predecessors of Olivier Besancenot and Alain Krivine’s New Anti-Capitalist Party, intervened into the events of May ’68 with the same Pabloite politics that destroyed the Fourth International. Instead of orienting to the working class as the driving force of socialist revolution, they focused on the student movement, billed as the “new vanguard,” and, to a lesser extent, tried to pressure the PCF/CGT bureaucracy. The destruction of the Fourth International meant that France had no revolutionary organization capable of intervening in the events of May ’68.

Our comrades in the United States had been expelled just five years earlier from the American Socialist Workers Party. The Socialist Workers Party had been Trotskyist, the historic party led by James P. Cannon, who did fight Pabloite revisionism, although belatedly and mainly on the American national terrain. Our comrades were seeking to break out of isolation and in May ’68 were engaged in discussions in particular with Voix Ouvrière in France.

The social explosion in France in May ’68 was not a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky. The Algerian War had a huge impact and radicalized a layer of students and workers. In many cases, they were breaking from the Communist Party, which had turned its back on Algerian independence until very late, that is, until French president Charles de Gaulle and the French bourgeoisie understood that they had lost the war and were forced to recognize Algeria’s independence.

Looking at the news headlines from April and May 1968, you can see that they also focused on the Vietnam War. Just after the victorious Tet Offensive by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, negotiations began in Paris between American imperialism and the North Vietnamese. Let’s not forget that after defeating the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Vietnamese Communist Party and Ho Chi Minh agreed, apparently under joint pressure from Moscow and Beijing, to hand half of Vietnam back to the imperialists, in accordance with the Stalinist theory of peaceful coexistence—which the imperialists needless to say never abided by. For the American imperialists, Vietnam was one of the main fronts in the struggle against Communism, where conflict escalated in 1965, for example with massive napalm bombing. That set off a lot of unrest around the world, including in France.

Many demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese people were organized by the PCF, the pseudo-Trotskyists and the Maoists. Note that at the time, the Pabloites of the PCI and the JCR were giving political support to the Vietnamese Communist Party. The leadership of the PCF, for its part, diverted the internationalist support of French workers into tailing de Gaulle’s policies. When it called for “Peace in Vietnam,” the PCF was really echoing de Gaulle, who, at the time, was maneuvering to preserve the influence of French imperialism in the former colonial world. In his September 1966 speech in Phnom Penh, de Gaulle denounced “the American war machine” and came out for an agreement with “the goal of establishing and guaranteeing the neutrality of the peoples of Indochina as well as their right to self-determination, as they actually are, each of them having full responsibility for its affairs.” The Soviet bureaucracy at the time saw de Gaulle as an ally who favored peaceful coexistence, preferring him to the pro-NATO French social democrats. Meanwhile the Maoist bureaucracy in China considered de Gaulle an anti-imperialist!

In early 1968 there was also the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. There were cracks in the Stalinist bureaucracy in that country. The “reform” wing led by Alexander Dubcek promised “socialism with a human face” to the population, which was trying to get rid of the bureaucratic straitjacket. This situation could have opened the road to a political revolution. And it is precisely because there was the possibility to open the road to proletarian political revolution that would drive out the parasitic bureaucracy and establish a healthy workers state that the Soviets intervened to crush the protests in Prague in August 1968, provoking a new split in the pro-Moscow Stalinist parties and affecting the working class internationally.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, partly under the influence of the Vietnam War and the domestic unrest in the United States, in particular the struggle for black liberation, a series of prerevolutionary and revolutionary situations arose in Europe—in France in May 1968, in Italy in 1969, in Portugal in 1974-75. These situations were the best opportunities for proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries since the period immediately after World War II. They gave the lie to the anti-working-class theories, based on the writings of Herbert Marcuse in particular, that had been so popular before 1968. According to these theories, the working class had become “bourgeoisified” and could no longer play its historic role as the motor force for revolution.

In these countries the pro-Moscow Communist Parties and the social democrats would come to the rescue of the tottering bourgeois order. That’s how the Western reformist parties, including the Stalinist parties, would play an enormous counterrevolutionary role contributing to the later destruction of the Soviet Union. The restabilization of bourgeois order in the Western imperialist countries in the mid 1970s was quickly followed by the imperialists’ second Cold War offensive against the Soviet bloc.

While the ideological climate of the “death of communism” affects the consciousness of the proletariat today, in many countries fierce class struggles provide an objective basis for reinvigorating Marxism as the theory of scientific socialism and proletarian revolution. It is not communism but its parody, Stalinism, that has proven to be a dead end.

“Big Strike” or Prerevolutionary Situation?

In France, following the big miners strike of 1963, the numerous workers struggles of 1967 were a harbinger of the explosion of May-June ’68. The students were the spark. There was a real radicalization in this milieu over social questions as well as international questions such as the Vietnam War. Early in May the Gaullist regime, faced with growing unrest in the universities, especially in Paris, cracked down more and more on the students until the “night of the barricades” on May 10, when the police forces went wild, sending several hundred students to the hospital. In response, the major unions as well as the professors union and student organizations called for a one-day general strike on May 13, the tenth anniversary of the military coup d’état and de Gaulle’s seizure of power. By the hundreds of thousands, blue- and white-collar workers and youth marched in the streets of Paris with slogans like “Happy Anniversary, General” and “Ten Years Is Enough.” After this one-day general strike, the working class threw itself into battle.

Starting on May 14, the Sud-Aviation plant in Nantes Bouguenais went on strike, and the next day it was the Renault Cléon automobile plant, and then all of Renault. At that time Renault still played a key role in France, the saying being, “When Renault sneezes, France catches a cold.” The movement spread to heavy industry, and then to all the factories in the country and to public transportation (trains, subways, etc.). Other sectors were rapidly impacted: banks, insurance, the post office, teachers (elementary, secondary, university), big department stores, etc.

Sectors that rarely strike, such as thousands of factories that did not have unions (because the bosses banned them or because they were too small), found themselves occupied for the first time by workers—men and women. By May 21, that is, one week after the May 13 general strike, several million workers were on strike, the figure generally cited being ten million.

That meant that the country was completely paralyzed by a general strike. People always talk about the prominent factories that had a huge political influence, but the strike was massive and total because all the factories were shut down. You have to understand that France in 1968 was much more industrial than today. On the order of 37 percent of the employed population was working-class, mostly with industrial jobs. The policy of industrial decentralization in the late 1950s and early 1960s created an important industrial network. Industry was no longer concentrated in the Paris region, the North and Lyon. Factories with several hundred or even a thousand men and women workers were set up in very small cities, even villages, in the provinces.

We say that this was a prerevolutionary situation. But what is a revolutionary situation? Lenin said, in “The Collapse of the Second International” (1915):

“To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes,’ a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time,’ but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.”

The first point is easily illustrated with a few examples:

• Edouard Balladur (who at the time was a young adviser to Prime Minister Pompidou) relates how, when the ministers phoned the préfets (regional government officials) to clear out the factories, the préfets answered that…they couldn’t.

• The CGT 76 union branch in Seine-Maritime put out a pamphlet on their area in May-June ’68 that is full of interesting details. So, for instance, they corroborate Balladur’s story by publishing the authorization that the assistant préfet of Dieppe gave the CGT, at the latter’s request, to control the distribution of gasoline.

• When de Gaulle’s aide-de-camp General de Boissieu tried to get hold of General Massu in Germany, the telephone operator explained to him that she would have to ask permission from the strike committee to put this international call through.

Nantes is generally mentioned as the only example of a city run by a strike committee. But some recently published research about cities outside of Paris in May-June ’68 brings to light how millions of workers managed their day-to-day affairs through strike committees. Many large urban areas (working-class ones, actually) had strike committees that managed food, childcare, gas distribution; also the CGT saw to providing electricity and water, garbage collection, etc.—all things that are taken care of by the government in normal times.

This shows how much the regime was teetering. “The upper classes” were apparently “unable” to live the old way. And the rapid growth of the strike, without any call by the union leadership, showed that the masses were also “unable” to put up with the old ways.

The reason the prerevolutionary situation in May-June ’68 ultimately did not turn into a revolutionary situation is that independent working-class action did not develop further, mainly because of the lack of a revolutionary party capable of tearing the working class away from its misleaders, including the PCF. There were strike committees in all the occupied plants. The CGT 76 pamphlet I mentioned earlier, for instance, reprinted instructions from the CGT local leadership in Dieppe asking each occupied plant “to form a strike committee of the leading comrades, if they had not already done so.” At best, these committees consisted of the local leaders of the various unions. They weren’t (or were rarely) elected by the workers and only rarely asked the workers for their opinions. They had a lot of power, but they were controlled by the union bureaucrats.

The Popular Front: The Greatest Crime

What was beginning to be posed by the strike was the question of power. The PCF was very conscious of this, right from the start. But for them, it was out of the question for the working class to drive out the bourgeoisie and take power. To divert the movement and protect itself, the PCF fought to form a government based on an alliance with the Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste (FGDS). The FGDS was a bloc between the social democrats of the SFIO (the French Socialist party) and several small capitalist parties. This is what we call a popular-front government and what the PCF at the time was calling a “people’s government.”

A popular-front government is a government that includes bourgeois workers parties like the PCF and the SFIO, and bourgeois parties. Bourgeois workers parties are parties that have a pro-capitalist leadership and program but are linked to the working class historically and through their base. In 1968, the bourgeois Radical-Socialist Party and future French president François Mitterrand’s Convention des Institutions Républicaines (CIR) were in the FGDS together with the SFIO. In other words, the FGDS itself was already a popular-frontist formation. Through a popular front, bourgeois workers parties can mask their contradictions and hide behind their bourgeois allies to betray the workers’ expectations. An example was when the PCF called for breaking the 1936 general strike. (PCF leader Thorez famously said, “One must know how to end a strike.”) It did this under the pretext of not wanting to frighten its allies in the Radical Party.

In France, popular fronts, which have included the PCF since 1935, have, in one form or another for more than a century, been a key tool for the bourgeoisie to try to co-opt struggle. As soon as struggle erupts, the reformists seek to channel discontent into a new “left” governmental alliance with bourgeois forces that will inevitably stab workers, the poor and minorities in the back. But the popular front isn’t the only means of containing working-class struggle—to preserve its class rule, the “democratic” bourgeoisie will not hesitate to resort to more right-wing versions of parliamentary democracy or to bonapartism or even to fascism.

That’s what had happened in France in the middle of the Algerian War, with de Gaulle’s 1958 coup d’état, which established a bonapartist regime. In May ’68, too, de Gaulle would contemplate using the army to break the general strike, as we will see later. Trotsky wrote:

“By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate—in order to preserve its possessions—the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘savior.’ This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions.”

—“Again on the Question of Bonapartism,” March 1935

Preventing explosions is also the purpose of the popular front. Since the end of the Algerian War, well before the events of 1968 unfolded, the PCF and CGT leadership had been trying to build this kind of bourgeois coalition with the SFIO and the various anti-Gaullist bourgeois parties. Although it was hegemonic on the “left,” the PCF went as far as not fielding a candidate in the 1965 presidential elections in order to give direct support to Mitterrand, who at that time was a member of the CIR, a bourgeois organization.

In the 1967 parliamentary elections, the PCF, the SFIO, the Radicals and the CIR ran separately and got better results than in 1965. Some Stalinists came to the conclusion that the left had missed winning a parliamentary majority by only a nose, after they took into account the other, bourgeois anti-Gaullist members of parliament! You have to understand that the PCF had just three fewer members of parliament than the SFIO. The PCF had 73 members of parliament, while all the other “left” parties together had 121. This shows how impossible it was to ignore the PCF in those days.

As soon as it felt the pressure mounting when the May-June ’68 events began, the PCF pressed its potential partners to build a popular-front alliance. On May 10, before the “night of the barricades,” the PCF leadership met with the FGDS to propose an alliance based on a common program for managing capitalism, their “people’s government.” This had no result; no agreement was concluded. On May 19, when the strike had already spread, the CGT and PCF put out a declaration explaining that “the power of the popular movement urgently calls for an agreement among left organizations on a common program of government with an advanced social content, guaranteeing the rights of unions and satisfying the workers’ main demands.” Further meetings took place between the PCF and its potential partners on May 20, 22, 28 and even May 30, always with the same goal. Building a “people’s government” became a watchword of the PCF’s propaganda right down to the factory-floor level, for everybody from CGT secretary-general Georges Séguy speaking before 25,000 Renault Billancourt workers on May 20 to ordinary activists in the plants.

This question of class collaboration and of the popular front would have been key for a revolutionary party to take on in May-June ’68. In Russia in 1917, the Bolshevik Party categorically opposed the capitalist Provisional Government, which included Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) along with ten capitalist ministers. The Bolsheviks won the leadership of the working class by showing the workers, who were influenced by the Mensheviks and the SRs whom they had elected to lead the soviets (workers councils), that there was a contradiction between their leaders’ pretensions to socialism and their alliance with the capitalists. In May 1968 the opposite happened. The Stalinists’ constant search for an alliance with bourgeois parties (the FGDS above all) was the best proof that the PCF did not want to give a revolutionary purpose to the strike, that it did not want the strike committees to have the role of getting society going again in the interests of the working class, which would have led to a confrontation with the bourgeoisie.

In the end, the PCF sold out the May-June ’68 strike for a few crumbs. Throughout everything, its goal was for this strike of millions of workers to end with de Gaulle’s resignation and replacement by a bourgeois popular-front government. Given their influence in the working class, these leaders could not imagine that the PCF and CGT would not get corresponding government positions. In other words, they did not want a token ministerial portfolio in a pro-NATO social-democratic government, but a significant presence in one. In the end, it was the virulent pro-NATO anti-Communism of the SFIO and some of the bourgeois parties that prevented such an agreement.

When they form a popular front, by choosing bourgeois partners, the reformists clearly signal their intention to govern with the capitalists against the workers. At that point there is no contradiction to exploit between their actual pro-capitalist practice and a non-existent socialist platform. Trotskyists’ opposition to such coalitions is implacable. It is our duty to warn the working class against the danger they represent.



Workers Vanguard No. 972

WV 972

21 January 2011


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France, May 1968

Prerevolutionary Situation Betrayed by Communist Party

Part One

(Young Spartacus pages)


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