Workers Vanguard No. 974
18 February 2011
France, May 1968
Prerevolutionary Situation Betrayed by Communist Party
(Young Spartacus pages)
We print below the second part of a forum given by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, translated and adapted for publication from the LTF’s newspaper Le Bolchévik (Nos. 185 and 186, September and December 2008). Part One, which appeared in WV No. 972 (21 January), focused on the period ending in mid May, when the general strike that had been sparked by the brutal repression of student protests spread throughout the country.
By the end of May 1968, France was so paralyzed by the general strike that the bourgeoisie quickly decided to open negotiations, which took place at the employment ministry on the Rue de Grenelle in Paris. In 2008, the French Communist Party (PCF) issued a special edition of their newspaper L’Humanité about May ’68. It included an interview with Georges Séguy, a PCF leader and secretary-general of the CGT trade-union federation in 1968, who said, “In the first ten minutes of the Grenelle meeting, we were able to raise the SMIC [minimum wage] by 35 percent, and the minimum wage for farm workers by 55 percent.” Thus Séguy confirmed what Trotsky said in “Once Again, Whither France?” (March 1935): “The general Marxist thesis ‘Social reforms are only the by-products of the revolutionary struggle’ has, in the epoch of the decline of capitalism, the most immediate and burning importance. The capitalists are able to cede something to the workers only if they are threatened with the danger of losing everything.” In spite of the concessions that Séguy greatly exaggerated as “enormous,” the CGT did not sign off on the negotiations but called to continue the strike. For several reasons.
The PCF, which led the CGT union federation, was perfectly aware that the working class was not ready to go back to work so easily, for so little, because the PCF and the CGT were present in most of the occupied factories. This detail shows how well the Stalinists knew their business: on day one of the occupation at the Renault plant in Billancourt, the most important factory in the country, the PCF sent a member of the Political Bureau, Claude Poperen, to stay in the plant to get a sense of the pulse of the working class. The PCF and the CGT had lots of experience betraying the workers—Benoît Frachon, a negotiator at Grenelle, had been a negotiator before, at the Matignon negotiations during the 1936 general strike. The PCF knew “how to end a strike,” like in 1936 when they diverted the workers struggles into support for Léon Blum’s popular-front government, which was an alliance between bourgeois and reformist socialist parties to manage capitalism. In 1968, without the prospect of a new popular-front government that would try to contain the workers’ militancy and their hopes for change, it would have been very damaging for the PCF to call them back to work in exchange for such minimal concessions.
Another reason for the PCF to refuse to sign off on the agreement was that the rest of the left was increasingly maneuvering for a popular front without them. The PCF sought to use the Grenelle negotiations to pressure its putative partners to understand that, without the PCF, it would be impossible to find a “solution” to the strike that would serve the interests of the bourgeoisie.
French president Charles de Gaulle appeared on TV on May 24, calling for a referendum on unspecified reforms and threatening to resign if it failed. He intended this to be a referendum on his continued rule. His announcement flopped. Everybody knew the referendum would be boycotted or would fail. The question of power began to be posed more and more clearly. The Paris préfet (a regional official from the national government) at the time, Grimaud, tells in his book how some in de Gaulle’s entourage raised the question of replacing de Gaulle. The bourgeoisie and the politicians saw that the government was tottering and looked for parliamentary and institutional answers, and accelerated their maneuvers.
During the Grenelle negotiations, which went on from May 25 to the morning of the 27th, the non-Communist left, with the enthusiastic support of pseudo-revolutionaries (the Pabloite Parti Communiste Internationaliste and Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, Voix Ouvrière [VO], and Pierre Lambert’s Organisation Communiste Internationaliste), organized a rally in Charléty Stadium in Paris to which the PCF was not invited. Held on May 27, this gathering brought out tens of thousands of people. Pierre Mendès-France did not speak, but his presence was notable and noted, with part of the crowd chanting his name when he appeared. (Mendès-France was a bourgeois politician from the Radical Party who had won the leadership of the Parti Socialiste Unifié, a left social-democratic party. He was popular in 1968 because he was known for opposing the Algerian War.) On the morning of May 28, the left bourgeois politician François Mitterrand, who would later become leader of the Socialist Party, held a press conference in which he put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency—which he considered “vacant”—while holding open the door to Mendès-France for prime minister.
The Charléty maneuver enraged the PCF and CGT because they understood perfectly well what was up: the anti-Communist, pro-U.S. social democrats wanted to have their own popular-frontist solution without the PCF. The PCF had no intention of being taken for a ride. To make very clear that no one was getting around them, the PCF and CGT called for workers demonstrations on May 29. Politically, the PCF and CGT bureaucrats had a hold over their ranks, who accepted their perspective of a “people’s government” (although they probably had a different interpretation of what it meant, especially since the CGT had committed to taking part in it). The front page of L’Humanité on the 29th, addressing the demonstrations, headlined “The Workers’ Demand: A People’s Government of Democratic Union with Communist Participation!” Which is very clear, to say the least.
The May 29 demonstrations were some of the largest during May-June ’68. They had a dual purpose: to try to shake Gaullist power a little more, so de Gaulle would resign, and to convince the left that its response could only be parliamentary, but not without the PCF. As Séguy said in 1972: “With the regime seeming shaky to us, we really and very sincerely wanted to revive unity. But once again our proposal encountered nothing but widespread evasion on the part of those to whom it was addressed.” In fact, the PCF attempted to work out a popular-front alliance in a meeting with the Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste on the afternoon of May 28, after Mitterrand’s press conference. This came to nothing. During this meeting, Waldeck Rochet, the secretary-general of the PCF, asked, “Will there be any Communist ministers?”, to which Mitterrand replied, “At least one.” One can imagine how that sat with Waldeck Rochet.
What Should Revolutionaries Have Done?
In May 1968 we had no organization in France. But our American comrades wrote an article on the French May events in Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 12, September-October 1968, that has stood the test of time remarkably. We printed it in French in our 1988 pamphlet on May ’68. In this pamphlet, retrospectively, we advocated a slogan for the month of May calling for a government of the PCF and the unions based on the strike committees. You have to remember, in that period the workers were demonstrating behind the PCF’s slogan for a “people’s government,” which they understood in a largely parliamentary framework. Calling for a PCF-union government would have been a means of transcending this parliamentary framework: how could the CGT union federation, how could the strike committees participate in a parliamentary government? This would have been a powerful perspective to put against the PCF’s popular-front plans, in order to turn the PCF’s base against its leadership by explaining that the PCF leaders were maneuvering for an alliance with the bourgeoisie instead of turning the strike committees into organs of workers power. The French Trotskyists put forward a similar slogan in 1946, for a government of the PCF, CGT and SFIO (the French Socialist party), in a terribly unstable situation when the PCF was participating in a popular-front government.
The question of turning the strike committees led by the bureaucrats into true embryos of workers power would have been key for a revolutionary party in May-June 1968. This would have made the question of the state central—that the state is not neutral but serves the interests of the bourgeoisie. The capitalist state is the cops, the army, the prison guards and the judges. Its job is to protect the tiny minority that owns the means of production against the vast majority—the proletarians, who have nothing to sell but their labor power, and all the oppressed. The main task of the government that administers the state, whether on the national or the municipal level, is to bring that power to bear in order to maintain the capitalist order.
So Séguy, while implicitly recognizing that the CGT and the PCF were in control and were deciding what would and would not happen in the country’s economy, bent over backwards to get the workers to rely on the bourgeois state. The PCF directed the strike support committees I mentioned earlier, which organized food and other supplies, to the mayors’ offices and put them under the mayors’ authority, that is, under the authority of the capitalist state. (These were often PCF mayors, but not always.) The mayors are the representatives of the bourgeois state closest to the population, under the authority of the préfet. Hence our position of refusing to run for executive offices like mayor or president: we want the working class to learn that its ultimate goal must be to destroy the bourgeois state, not run it. (See “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 61, Spring 2009.) Fostering the worst illusions among the working class, the PCF explicitly told workers not to organize and run society themselves.
Now, 40 years later, VO’s successor Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Pabloites both spout the same reformist illusions that the PCF did in 1968, i.e., that the bourgeois state can serve the interests of the working class. While the PCF thinks this can be done by having lots of members in parliament, LO and the Pabloites want to use pressure from the masses to make the bourgeois state serve the workers. This sweeps into the trash one of the main lessons Marx and Engels drew from the revolutions of 1848 and especially the Paris Commune: the working class cannot confine itself to laying hold of the machinery of the bourgeois state, but must smash it.
Trotskyists would have fought for elected strike committees instead of committees appointed by the bureaucrats. We would have called for the strike committees to oversee the distribution of food and other supplies themselves, as well as resuming those services and utilities that the Stalinists wanted to turn over to the bourgeois state. By linking this to the Stalinists’ attempt to come to an agreement with bourgeois parties and politicians, Trotskyists could have exploited the contradictions that existed in the PCF and CGT, setting the base against the top, showing workers who wanted to fight for socialism that their leadership’s intent was not to achieve socialism, but to manage capitalism. So there would be a political struggle between a revolutionary perspective—that the working class has the power to run society for its own needs and to do that it must destroy the bourgeois state—and the opposing view of the reformists, who, at bottom, respect the capitalist order, private property and the bourgeois state.
Strike committees, workers councils and soviets are not revolutionary in themselves. Only a revolutionary leadership gives a revolutionary character to these organs of working-class power. Under the PCF’s leadership, these committees looked to the bourgeois state, to the mayors’ offices. Revolutionaries would have fought for them to have their own centralized organization, relying on the working class itself rather than organs of bourgeois power like the municipal governments. We would have sought to prepare workers politically, by every means available, to understand the need to act independently of all bourgeois forces, to organize workers militias to defend their positions, and to prepare to seize power and destroy the capitalist state.
It is easier to understand this point if you look at the situation in Russia in late July 1917, when the leaders of the soviets (the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries) were throwing Bolsheviks in jail. Lenin, who had fled to Finland to avoid arrest, thought that the workers should build new organs to move toward seizing power because he could see that, under the leadership of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, the soviets had tended to become a mere extension of bourgeois power. As it happened, the Bolsheviks subsequently won leadership of the soviets.
Revolutionaries’ struggle needs to be based on a transitional program, leading the workers to the understanding that, in order to run society in their own interests, they have to be prepared to overthrow the bourgeois state. Trotsky explained in the Transitional Program (1938):
“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
Vital Questions: Immigrants, Women, Youth
Revolutionaries putting forward a transitional program in 1968 would have faced some other key questions: immigrants, women and youth. There were almost three million immigrants in France in 1968, mostly Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Algerians. Back then, there were a lot of young male workers, either single or with family still in the old country—practically none were second generation. They lived in terrible conditions, in flophouses or shantytowns (200 still existed at the time), working mainly in construction and in industries that employ metals. A total of 85 percent of immigrant workers had no job skills, and many professions were forbidden to them by law. There were about 500,000 immigrant workers in construction, 370,000 in industries employing metals and in steel, 260,000 in agriculture. Women were often cleaning ladies. The proportion of immigrants varied widely in different sectors of production.
Immigrants were generally not allowed to engage in political activity. They couldn’t get elected as union reps without six to 24 months of seniority. Immigrant workers very often had work contracts lasting no longer than six months, which prevented them from ever being integrated in the unions. The Portuguese had spent 35 years under Salazar’s dictatorship. If they engaged in political activity in France, they were deported and wound up in the prisons of Portugal or in Portuguese colonies in Africa. Dozens of Portuguese workers who played an active role in the May ’68 strike disappeared afterward. Algerian workers were just coming off a victorious war of national liberation. They reportedly took a very active part in the strike from day one. Now they were fighting alongside French workers against the same capitalist class that had slaughtered their brothers during the Algerian War. To cement class unity, there should have been calls for full citizenship rights for all who were in France, with a fight for the same political and social rights that French workers had and to do away with all discrimination on the job, in housing and in education.
The bourgeoisie had been pitting various communities against each other for a very long time. But as May ’68 unfolded, the divisions between the different ethnic sectors of the proletariat largely broke down. In construction in particular, immigrants were in the vanguard: French workers represented a labor aristocracy who didn’t want to strike, whereas three-quarters of the unskilled workers were immigrants. Although the presence of the CGT or the PCF was often seen in this period as a protection against the worst manifestations of racism, with the PCF there actually was some chauvinism in May-June 1968. When strike support money was distributed, the Algerians had to fight to have their families back in Algeria taken into account.
After May ’68, deportations of immigrants took place (officially 215 through December 1968), especially of Spaniards (Spain was under Franco), and of Algerians known as opponents of Algerian ruler Houari Boumedienne. There were important protests against this, mainly taken up by liberal intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as Alain Krivine’s Pabloites, although the immigrant question was not a significant part of their intervention into the events of May ’68.
Ten years ago, when the left was running articles on the 30th anniversary of May ’68, we wrote, “For all the ‘Trotskyist’ groups that have wasted paper spreading inanities about May ’68 recently, not one even mentions the question of immigrant workers. But this question was already strategic, even at that time” (Le Bolchévik No. 147, Autumn 1998). And that’s still true. On the 40th anniversary they still have nothing to say about immigrant workers. The conclusion we drew on that score in the 1998 article is also still valid: “The fact that the far left raised the immigrant question scarcely or not at all in May ’68 represents a capitulation to social-chauvinism and its own bourgeoisie. In a country just emerging from a dirty colonial war [in Algeria] in which the reformist leaderships of the working class, under the cover of ‘Republican values,’ defended their own imperialism, this question was key to the proletarian unity needed to overthrow the bourgeoisie.”
The working class as a whole must defend the rights of immigrants and minorities, otherwise it leaves itself open to being weakened, divided and set back under the bourgeoisie’s attacks. The struggle against this division must be linked to the understanding that the overturn of capitalist society is the only means of doing away with racism once and for all.
The woman question was also central. Women represented a significant portion of the working class in 1968. There were about 1,800,000 women workers, constituting almost 22 percent of the working class. The vast majority of them were unskilled. In other words, they were at the bottom of the ladder, performing, like immigrant workers, many of the most arduous, unskilled and lowest-paid jobs. And they had very few rights. Abortion was totally illegal under a 1920 law. (Even today this right is limited by bourgeois morality, by all the difficulties immigrant women face and because of the “conscience clause” that doctors can invoke to refuse to perform abortions.) The ban on contraception had been lifted in 1967, but access to it remained very limited. The law forbidding a woman to even open a bank account without her husband’s permission wasn’t changed until 1965. The terms of divorce were very unfavorable for women and had not changed much since the Napoleonic Code. Questions of sexuality were completely taboo. Coeducation did not exist. In May ’68, women workers overwhelmingly struck and occupied their factories.
A revolutionary party would have sought to address problems specific to women. It would also have fought in the working class as a whole against the bourgeois prejudices peddled by the workers’ misleaders. In his recent book, L’Insubordination Ouvrière dans les Années 68 [Worker Insubordination in the ’68 Years], Xavier Vigna gives the example of the needle trades in Lorient, a port in Brittany, where the women of one factory got several neighboring factories to come out on strike and led a march to the CGT union local to take part in union activities. However, when it came to engaging in talks and negotiations, these were handled by a man who worked at the military shipyard. Vigna gives two examples of occupations (at the SNECMA aircraft plant in Gennevilliers and a clothing factory in Lille) where it was decided that the women would occupy the plant during the day and the men would do it at night. This was probably the case in most plants, reflecting the bourgeois family norm that women should be at home in the evening. In an interview in L’Humanité’s supplement on May ’68, Gisèle Halimi, who became a founder of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF, Women’s Liberation Movement), tells how, full of hope for the cause of women, she ended up setting up chairs and cooking meals at the Censier campus.
In a prerevolutionary situation like 1968, the intervention of a revolutionary party would have had a resounding echo among women, including petty-bourgeois women. Calls for the right to abortion and contraception and “equal pay for equal work” would certainly have done a lot to win women over to the perspective for a socialist society and the need for workers revolution. At the same time, raising such demands in the many demonstrations and on the picket lines could have raised the consciousness of the working class as a whole by breaking out of the confines of strictly economic demands.
A revolutionary party would have explained how women’s oppression stems from private ownership of the means of production. Marx and Engels identified the family as the principal source of women’s oppression because of its role in the inheritance of property, in particular of the means of production. Sexual monogamy on the part of women—as well as their social subordination—is required in order to determine without doubt the paternity of the heir. We say that the social institution of the family must be replaced (that differentiates us from bourgeois feminists). This can be accomplished only after a socialist revolution, as a planned economy will free men and women from domestic chores with 24/7 day care, quality collective laundries and dining, etc.
Just as with the immigrant question, it’s appalling to see how absent this question is from the propaganda put out by the left in 1968, although women’s oppression at the time was egregious and women had a massive presence in the strikes. This left the road open for bourgeois feminists, who went on to found the MLF in 1970. A lot of the women who ended up in the MLF after 1968 could probably have been won to the only program that can really lead to women’s liberation: socialist revolution. Once the MLF was created, pseudo-revolutionaries like the Pabloites would “discover” the woman question and start tailing the bourgeois feminist movement.
Students were the spark that lit the fire. Among workers, it was often the younger ones, both men and women, who spearheaded strikes and occupations. The family is the basis not only for women’s oppression, but also for the oppression of youth. And the Gaullist regime was very hardline and moralistic about “family values.” Questions of sex were taboo in Gaullist society, as I said before—there was no coeducation and homosexuals had no rights. Minors who wanted birth control still had to get their parents’ permission. Young people were subject to parental authority and had very few rights. There was mandatory 16-month military service. Any propaganda against the bourgeois army and the draft would have had a lot of impact, especially when de Gaulle was contemplating turning to the army to crush the working class.
A revolutionary party would have sought to win student youth to join the cause of the proletariat, the only force capable of ending all forms of oppression. By building a revolutionary youth organization independent of the party but sharing the same program, it would have been possible to recruit youth, the flame of the proletarian revolution.
To wrap up my remarks about intervening on these pivotal questions I’ll quote the Transitional Program, which explains:
“Opportunist organizations by their very nature concentrate their chief attention on the top layers of the working class and therefore ignore both the youth and the women workers. The decay of capitalism, however, deals its heaviest blows to the woman as a wage earner and as a housewife. The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layers of the working class; consequently, among the women workers. Here they will find inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness and readiness to sacrifice.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]