Workers Vanguard No. 976
18 March 2011
France, May 1968
Prerevolutionary Situation Betrayed by Communist Party
(Young Spartacus pages)
We print below the final part of a forum by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, translated and adapted from the LTF’s newspaper Le Bolchévik (Nos. 185 and 186, September and December 2008). Parts One and Two, which appeared in WV Nos. 972 and 974 (21 January and 18 February), covered the period from May 13, when a nationwide general strike followed the brutal repression of student demonstrations, to the end of May.
As we saw, leading up to May 29, the regime in France was badly shaken. A portion of the bourgeoisie was wondering about President Charles de Gaulle. On the 29th, the day of the big demonstrations called by the French Communist Party (PCF), de Gaulle “disappeared” off to Baden-Baden to consult General Jacques Massu, the chief of staff of the French army in Germany. Massu convinced de Gaulle to stand firm, no doubt assuring him that the army was prepared to intervene if necessary—which would have meant civil war. Even though that plan was never carried out, it was definitely an option de Gaulle was contemplating in case he could not put an end to the strike by parliamentary means. This simple fact confirms the Marxist theory of the state, which exists to defend the capitalist order through force.
In his book Baden ’68, Massu also reported that on May 28, the day before his meeting with de Gaulle, he had received with pomp and circumstance the commander-in-chief of Soviet troops in East Germany, Marshal Koshevoy, who recommended that he “crush” the students in Paris and had nothing but praise for de Gaulle. In other words, the bureaucracy of the Soviet degenerated workers state was prepared to see revolution in France strangled in order to preserve de Gaulle, because of his semi-autonomy from the U.S.-led anti-Soviet NATO alliance.
On the morning after the big May 29 demonstrations, the CGT trade-union federation had another meeting with the Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste (FGDS, a bloc comprising the French Socialist party and small bourgeois parties) and the PCF (which led the CGT). The purpose of the meeting was to convince the FGDS to form an electoral alliance with the PCF/CGT.
That evening, de Gaulle went on the offensive, emboldened by the support of the military and, no doubt, by the report Massu had given him about his encounter with Koshevoy. De Gaulle dissolved the French parliament, launched a virulent anti-Communist attack on the PCF and CGT, practically accusing them of plotting a coup d’état, and called for a mobilization of the “people”—in other words, the bourgeoisie, the part of the petty bourgeoisie that had not been won over by the strikers and the dregs of society well known to the likes of Charles Pasqua. (Pasqua was key for the covert operations de Gaulle ran using thugs and gangsters.) De Gaulle promised to free a dozen leaders of the OAS who were still in jail. (The OAS [Secret Army Organization] was a fascist organization led by former army officers that formed to oppose French withdrawal from Algeria.) He did this by mid June in order to make up with the far right and the officer corps.
Faced with this offensive the PCF and CGT were cornered, since they rejected any confrontation with the Gaullist regime outside of the institutional framework of parliament and the Fifth Republic. They wanted to avoid a fierce and uncontrollable clash at any price, so they had no option but to call the workers back to work. To make this happen, they would not hesitate to use any means, specifically atomizing the strike, which they started to do after the May 25-27 Grenelle negotiations between the government and capitalists and the unions. Since the PCF had no success coaxing the FGDS into an alliance, they knew they had no chance in the elections.
In spite of the absence of a revolutionary party able to expose the Stalinists’ rescue operation for capitalism and split the PCF by winning over militants disgusted by their leadership, the bureaucrats encountered fierce resistance from the working class. PCF leader Georges Séguy explained it this way: “In some cases, of which there were few, our activists had to argue strongly with workers who were in favor of continuing the strike in spite of the indisputable success we had had with the demands that we won. They had hoped for more decisive changes. They didn’t realize that the political situation didn’t allow us to go further.”
In Whither France? Trotsky said: “The most striking features of our epoch of capitalism in decay are intermediate and transitional: situations between the nonrevolutionary and the prerevolutionary, between the prerevolutionary and the revolutionary or the counterrevolutionary. It is precisely these transitional stages that have a decisive importance from the point of view of political strategy” (ellipsis in original). It is easy to imagine that, if a revolutionary party had intervened as the strike grew, Trotsky’s words would have become concrete after May 30, when de Gaulle decided it was time for a showdown. That was a turning point in 1968 for both the bourgeoisie and the PCF.
It wasn’t until June 7 that the first significant back-to-work moves took place. It took several days to get those sectors that had kicked off the strike to go back. To finally overcome the determination to continue the strike, the bureaucrats used every contrivance: separate negotiations for individual union locals; false rumors of plants going back to work; back-to-work votes and, when those didn’t obtain the expected results, revotes, and so on, until they got the strikers back to work.
While the Stalinists maneuvered, the bourgeoisie sent the cops to attack key centers of workers’ resistance like the postal sorting centers and railroad terminals. On the night of June 5 the CRS riot cops took over the Renault factory in Flins. Four days of pitched battles ensued around the plant, during which the young Maoist high school student Gilles Tautin was killed. On June 11 the cops attacked the Peugeot factory in Sochaux; two workers were killed. On June 12 all the far left organizations (pseudo-Trotskyists, the “March 22 Movement” student organization, Maoist groups, etc.) were banned. Far from protesting this ban, when members of these organizations came to the factory gates, the PCF physically attacked them!
In the end, the bureaucrats and the state got what they wanted. The working class and its last holdouts, betrayed by their own leaders and lacking a credible revolutionary alternative, could no longer resist the pressure to go back to work and surrendered, sick at heart. The large percentage of workers who voted against going back shows how much reluctance there was. Some sectors like the workers in the metal industries went back very late. The CGT called to end the strike at the Renault plant in Billancourt on June 17. Krasucki (a CGT leader) got booed when he called for going back to work at Citroën on June 24. That was even after the first round of parliamentary elections, which took place on June 23 and were a landslide for the reactionaries!
Mentors of Today’s New Anti-Capitalist Party
Now let’s get back to what the Pabloite predecessors of New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) spokesman Olivier Besancenot were doing in May ’68. Political adaptation and capitulation are the Pabloites’ hallmark. And they didn’t miss any opportunities for that in this prerevolutionary period. They presented the radicalized students as the vanguard. For instance on May 20, the Pabloites’ international organization, the United Secretariat, declared: “There is still a huge gap between the revolutionary maturity of the vanguard of the youth and the workers’ level of consciousness.” But around 1968, all the organizations in the workers movement claimed to be fighting for socialism or communism. The working class was extremely combative and tended to identify its struggles with the 1917 Russian October Revolution.
In 1968, the Pabloites were centrists, that is, revolutionary in words and opportunist in deeds. Their rhetoric was full of references to workers revolution, to dual power, even “smashing the bourgeois state apparatus.” Thus, in a book he wrote in 1968 with his then-partner Henri Weber, now a Socialist Party senator, Pabloite leader Daniel Bensaïd could say: “The broken-down regime could no longer, in these troubled times, count on its own hirelings, the forces of repression were at the end of their rope, otherwise it was a debacle. Power was there for the taking. Anything was possible. The regime survived because of the lack of any candidate to take over.”
Instead of workers revolution, the Pabloites were for using pressure from the streets to form a popular-front government, that is, a government based on the alliance of bourgeois and workers parties to manage capitalism. Pierre Frank, leader of the Pabloite Parti Communiste Internationaliste, declared on May 22 (Intercontinental Press, 10 June 1968): “In these days when an unproclaimed general strike is in effect, it would be possible to force de Gaulle’s departure and to impose a CP-FGDS government by nonparliamentary but peaceful means.” The Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, the Pabloites’ youth organization, tried to make this sound more appetizing with their slogan “People’s government, yes! Mitterrand, Mendès-France, no!” (Mitterrand and Mendès-France were left bourgeois politicians.) Twenty years later, in 1988, Pabloite leaders Alain Krivine and Bensaïd admitted that “the formulation of ‘people’s government’ had, however, the advantage of referring to a government of the left parties without going into any more precise considerations” (Mai Si! 1968-1988: Rebelles et Repentis [Yes We May! 1968-1988: Rebels and Repenters]). According to the Pabloites, this government—which could only have been a bourgeois government—would have been under the “control” of the working class.
Let’s compare what the young Bensaïd wrote in 1968 with the hardened reformist he had become 20 years later, when he co-authored that 1988 book with Krivine. In the book, he polemicized against his earlier position, going further in Pabloite adaptation to popular-frontist and anti-Soviet pressure: “Anything was not possible in 1968: you cannot jump ahead of your own time and the existing relationship of forces. But something different was certainly possible.” And, again, further on: “Today we still remain convinced that there were other possibilities, other outcomes, other roads. Not the big day, Revolution with a capital ‘R,’ but the overturn of the regime through the strike and through extraparliamentary mobilization.” Bensaïd preferred to sweep the formulation “Anything was possible,” which he has come to consider too far left, under the rug. So he made his view clear, that the general strike could have forced de Gaulle to resign, after which he expected a popular front to replace him.
“Anything is possible” was a formulation used by the centrist Marceau Pivert during the 1936 revolutionary situation in France. At that time, Trotsky polemicized very sharply against Pivert, who talked about revolution while staying inside the SFIO (the French Socialist party), in which he represented the left wing. Pivert was to end up in the propaganda office of Léon Blum’s popular-front government. Trotsky sought to win youth and workers away from Pivert’s influence by exposing his politics, which provided a left cover for maintaining the capitalist order. There was someone who argued “Anything is not possible” against Pivert in 1936. It was PCF leader Maurice Thorez, the gravedigger of the revolutionary situation. Bensaïd and Krivine know this perfectly well. So it’s quite cynical for these two to adopt Thorez’s formulation in order to denounce the positions they themselves held in 1968. In hindsight, it is clear that they have moved from centrist political positions like Pivert’s to reformist ones like Thorez’s.
Today the Pabloites have thrown their forces into building the NPA. We call it the “New Anti-Communist Party” because it clearly represents their acceptance of and integration into the “death of communism” campaign. In all his public talks, Besancenot never forgets to explain that the 1990s saw the end of a cycle, that the cycle of the 1917 Revolution is over and that, for him, references to communism, Leninism and Trotskyism are a thing of the past. Whereupon he offers up “21st-century socialism” with pathetic, classic social-democratic proposals: take from the rich to give to the poor, working-class control of capitalism, etc., which he sums up as “revolutionizing society.” And above all, he’s ready and willing to participate in a bourgeois government if it is “anti-capitalist.”
Voix Ouvrière’s Economism in May ’68
In contrast to the Pabloites’ student vanguardism, Voix Ouvrière (VO) had a solid proletarian orientation, but it was mainly economist. The pamphlet that VO’s successor organization Lutte Ouvrière (LO) put out for the 40th anniversary of 1968 indicates:
“It was obvious that ‘the ten million striking workers weren’t demanding state power.’ For the most part, they didn’t have even the slightest idea what that meant, and Séguy, Waldeck Rochet and Marchais were certainly not going to enlighten them. May 1968 was obviously not like the situation in October 1917 [in Russia], with workers councils won to the idea of taking power, nor was it even February 1917, with soviets forming a de facto parallel power to that of the Provisional Government. In France in 1968, there was no embryo of dual power challenging the rule of the bourgeoisie in the name of the working class, even if only de facto, not even at the shopfloor level where strike committees composed of representatives of the workers in struggle existed only in a tiny number of factories.”
That’s true, but LO mentions it in order to argue that it was impossible for such workers councils to emerge. To do so, LO needs to distort reality. What they falsify is the extent to which the country, the Gaullist regime and the state were paralyzed. They disappear the possibility, opened up by the workers mobilizations, for a revolutionary leadership to transform the strike committees into true organs of proletarian power.
But while LO chides PCF leaders Séguy and Waldeck Rochet for failing to enlighten the workers about what workers power would mean, the workers clearly were not any more enlightened by VO’s newspaper and leaflets (judging by what LO has reprinted). Actually, LO concludes the passage I quoted earlier with an explanation of the program VO put forward during the entire May-June 1968 period:
“Simply on the level of economic demands, these would have called not only for wage increases greater than the measly proposals of the ‘Grenelle Agreement’ [and] an immediate return to a 40-hour workweek, but also a sliding scale of wages, which is the only way to prevent the bosses from recouping, in a few months of inflation, everything they had to give up. Not by leaving it to the government to assess the rate of inflation and the adjustment to be made to wage rates, but by calling on workers themselves to organize to control this.”
That is, indeed, VO/LO’s whole program and the sum total of the demands you can find in all of their leaflets and articles from May-June 1968. The only thing they add today is, of course, “workers control over the factories’ accounting in order to know exactly what their financial situations are.” Clearly, VO’s program in 1968 was the same as the CGT’s. It’s just that the amount they demanded for the minimum wage, etc., was greater.
For us, what will change workers’ consciousness and tear them out of the clutches of the reformists and centrists is the intervention of a revolutionary party with its program. This party will be built by forging cadres, organizing the most conscious elements of the working class, the vanguard. VO’s pamphlet shows they didn’t explain the need to do away with capitalism until the beginning of June, when the strike had already passed its peak.
Lenin laid out the basis of his conception of the party in his 1902 work What Is To Be Done?, explaining that “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers.” Lenin at the time was fighting against economist “socialists” like LO today, who insisted that the workers could acquire consciousness of their historic tasks spontaneously through their economic struggles. It is because of this economist conception that, throughout May-June 1968, the program VO/LO intervened with never went beyond simple economic demands, only for a few cents more than what the CGT/PCF were asking for. It also explains why, for LO, the whole thing was just a big strike. Like all economists, in the end, they blamed the workers, saying they weren’t ready or conscious enough to struggle for power. But making the working class understand its historic task as the gravedigger of capitalism is the role of the revolutionary party. This also means combating the social backwardness that divides the working class along race lines, something that LO never worried about then—nor does it today.
VO and the Popular Front
Confronted with maneuvers over a new popular front and whether it would be with or without the PCF, VO supported the May 27 rally at Charléty Stadium that was designed to launch a popular front without the PCF. Thus the 28 May Voix Ouvrière described Charléty as a demonstration of 60,000 people “built around ‘far leftist’ demands” and enthused over the slogan “Séguy, traitor,” without mentioning that the same demonstrators started chanting bourgeois politician Mendès-France’s name the moment they saw him.
One of the rare times VO talked about the PCF and the SFIO allying with the bourgeoisie, in a 4 June article in Voix Ouvrière, they reminded us that the left had already been in power twice, adding:
“In the aftermath of World War II the Communist Party and the Socialist Party even had, between them, an absolute majority in the elections. But the SP didn’t want to govern without the MRP [the bourgeois Popular Republican Movement]. So then the PCF rallied to a three-party alliance in the name of unity. Do we have any reason to believe that this parliamentarist ‘left’ that has always gone back on its promises would keep them today? No.”
VO said there was no reason to believe the popular front’s promises, but in reality what the PCF and SP promised was precisely to make an alliance with the bourgeoisie—and that alliance can only be made on the bourgeoisie’s own terms, that is, against the interests of the workers. VO never explained that part because, for them, it is not a question of principle or a class question for workers parties to make such an alliance with the bourgeoisie.
After VO and the other organizations were banned, VO reorganized under the name Lutte Ouvrière on June 24. Three weeks after their June 4 article, in the first issue of Lutte Ouvrière, LO called quasi-explicitly for workers to vote for the very same organizations that were allied with the bourgeoisie or seeking such an alliance. In 2007, at Lutte Ouvrière’s Fête, an event they host every year, François Duburg, one of their historic leaders, got offended and denied it when we pointed that out. But here’s what LO printed between the two rounds of the 1968 parliamentary elections:
“It is however plausible that a large number of voters on the left, disgusted by the attitude of the PCF and the FGDS, who scuttled the general strike, may have abstained on the first round. Maybe those people will vote on the second round so they can express, in spite of everything, their opposition to Gaullism in the only way possible in these elections. Then we would see the left’s vote count go up. That wouldn’t be enough to prevent the UDR [the Gaullist party] from having a majority in the Chamber [the lower house of parliament].
“And that’s too bad! It’s really a shame that the FGDS and PCF can’t rise to power: then their true face as servants of the bourgeoisie would appear clearly before everyone’s eyes .
“Yes, it’s really too bad that they can’t rise to power. And if there’s still time the workers, even if they’re disappointed, must try to send them there [i.e., elect them] on the second round.”
Of course VO wasn’t today’s LO group that has supported counterrevolution in the USSR and in Poland. But this foreshadows their call to vote “without illusions but without reservations” for François Mitterrand in 1981. Now, with the collapse of the USSR and the sharp decline of the level of consciousness in the working class following the “death of communism” campaign, LO’s accommodationism leads them to openly embrace popular-frontism.
As I said, Trotskyists would have called for no vote to the popular-front candidates in the 1968 elections, including members of workers parties running as part of a bourgeois popular front. The fifth issue of the French edition of Spartacist, in May 1974, headlined “Not Only a Stupidity, But a Crime” [see “Not Mitterrand, But a Workers Government!” WV No. 43, 26 April 1974]. Our article attacked the OCI (Pierre Lambert’s organization, a predecessor of the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant) for supporting the Union of the Left’s candidate, Mitterrand, in the first round of the presidential elections in 1974. As for us, in 1974, we gave critical support to LO’s candidate Arlette Laguiller in the first round because she was running against Mitterrand’s popular front, although we warned in advance—and correctly—that LO would probably capitulate to Mitterrand on the second round. In 1977, two years after the Ligue Trotskyste de France was founded, we intervened in the elections calling to abstain except where candidates were running both against the alliance with the bourgeois Left Radicals, and for breaking with the popular front’s “Common Program of Government” for managing capitalism.
Lutte Ouvrière and the Party Question
At the 2008 LO Fête, in a debate between LO and the Pabloites, VO’s 1968 call to build a party that would regroup all revolutionaries came up. The first issues of Lutte Ouvrière, after VO was dissolved, had long articles calling for all “revolutionaries” to regroup. They would even have looked favorably on forming a greater United Socialist Party based on the platform of the Charléty rally, which was for a popular front without the PCF. (See the article in the 31 May issue of Voix Ouvrière, “A ‘Third Force’ on the Left?”) LO argued that thousands of youth and workers were looking for a revolutionary path but were puzzled by the huge number of small groups; “revolutionaries,” whether Trotskyist, Maoist or anarchist, had to come together despite their differences because time was getting short; all “revolutionaries” were up against the bourgeoisie and the bureaucrats, and during the strikes they stood arm in arm in spite of their differences. This party had to allow different tendencies to exist, and these tendencies would have the duty to express their differences publicly—in other words it would be a Menshevik party even though they referred to the Bolshevik Party constantly in those articles! Though LO kept talking about the “revolutionary ideas” all these groups shared, not once did they spell out the differences between them, let alone say what political program these groups should unite on.
One can compare that to what Trotsky did in the 1930s, especially from 1933 to 1938, to found the Fourth International. Throughout those years, Trotsky fought over programmatic questions like unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union and intransigent struggle against the popular front, which were at the heart of the debates. The result of these years of struggle—at a time when revolutionary events were unfolding as in Spain and France in 1936—was a rock-solid programmatic basis, the Transitional Program, on which the Fourth International was founded. Clearly, LO’s method is quite the opposite of Trotsky’s.
LO’s call was an extension of the permanent liaison committee of the Pabloites and VO that was created on May 19, which is to say, right at the start of the strike. The program of this permanent committee was also utterly economist and very similar to the CGT’s program: a 1,000 franc minimum wage, pay for strike days, union rights in the factories, etc. The only difference from the CGT’s demands was that they added the utopian reformist demand “dissolution of the repressive forces of the bourgeois state.” At that time, the committee already called on all organizations claiming to be Trotskyist to join it.
Our comrades in the Spartacist League/ U.S. wrote about this committee in an article that made the necessary points:
“The axis upon which the VO-Pabloite unity of action is based is a false one. The joint statement called upon ‘all organizations claiming to be Trotskyist to join in this move.’ The VO comrades feel the recent events constitute ‘the French 1905.’ Let us remember that the sequel to the 1905 Russian Revolution was a unification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks! It took Lenin several years to break this over-fraternal unity.”
And we went on:
“What has been pointed up in France by the latest CP-CGT betrayal is not the need for a ‘Trotskyist regroupment’ but the need for a new revolutionary party based on the vindicated Bolshevik program, uniting all those, even from such tendencies as the Maoists and syndicalists, who stand in favor of workers’ committees of power. We hope that VO, the French Bolsheviks, have not been disoriented as were the Russians in 1905.”
—“To the Brink and Back: French Revolution,” Spartacist No. 12, September-October 1968
The last sentence refers to the fraternal relations we had with VO at the time. We had met VO in 1966 at the London conference of the International Committee of the Fourth International (see Spartacist No. 6, June-July 1966). One of our members went to work with VO/LO in France. By the time she came back to the U.S., she had been won over to VO’s economist political conceptions. We had a fight about this in the party—you can read the main documents in our pamphlet, Lutte Ouvrière and Spark: Workerism and National Narrowness (1988). This fight was against LO’s economism, and therefore about the Leninist conception of the party.
Aftermath of May-June 1968
May ’68 had tremendous international repercussions. In Italy the simmering student revolt culminated in the “hot autumn” of 1969. And then in 1974 the Portuguese revolution took place. In both cases a revolutionary party was lacking, and these opportunities were sold out by the Stalinists and the social democrats with the help of the pseudo-revolutionaries. Then a whole lot of social movements arose in many countries. The whole post ’68 period was full of turmoil. The Stalinists and the social democrats in France, drawing their own lessons from 1968, went on to form the Union of the Left based on the “Common Program of Government” and succeeded, with the help of the pseudo-revolutionaries, in channeling all the struggles into this popular front until it won the elections in 1981.
May ’68 also largely put an end to the left-wing theories that the working class was no longer the revolutionary force in advanced industrial countries. These ideas were widespread during the ’60s among young radical activists to the left of the social-democratic parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the U.S., but the role the working class played in May-June 1968 debunked them. That was part of what allowed us to recruit rapidly in the U.S., which was the basis for the transformation of the SL/U.S. into a fighting propaganda group. Then we were able to lay the basis for our subsequent international expansion.
Immediately after May ’68, the Pabloites, LO and the Lambertists recruited considerably. They were the only organizations claiming adherence to Trotskyism in continental Europe that numbered several thousand. This massive post-1968 recruitment is the reason these organizations have survived to this day with a large membership. In the years that followed, these groups moved to the right under the pressure of the second Cold War and the anti-Communist crusade led in France by Mitterrand. They all supported the counterrevolutionary anti-Soviet forces in the 1980s as well as the various popular fronts. Their adaptation to and integration into the popular front today is a reflection, on the national terrain, of their abandoning a revolutionary perspective, which had been expressed on the Russian question.
When you draw the right political conclusions from May-June 1968 you understand that the key question in this prerevolutionary situation was the question of a party. The task before us today is to reforge the Fourth International of Leon Trotsky, the world party of revolution, and learn the lessons of 1968. That is the task we are pursuing today. Join us! For new October Revolutions!