French workers, revolution and the lessons of history
Posted by John, March 22nd, 2009 - under Capitalism, Democracy, Demonstrations, Europe, France, Jobs, Living standards, NPA, New Anticapitalist Party, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Reformism, Resistance, Revolution, Strikes.
Will French workers learn the lessons of history? Can the strikes there lead to a democratic working class revolution with production organised to satisfy human need?
It was written well before the two general strikes in January and March this year and before the formation of Le Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste which could be the missing revolutionary link I was talking about in this year old article.
I get it all the time.
“It can never happen here.” Or “Workers are too well off, self-interested, conservative, uneducated, over-educated” – just put in the usual adjectives.
And so I talk about the twentieth century being the century of revolutions. “Boring”, say some; “not true for modern economies”, says someone else.
I tell myself to be more concrete. Ah, concrete. It’s not too far from concrete to cobblestones. (And in fact most of Paris is concrete, not cobblestones.)
Paris? Yes – Paris in May 1968. It’s always a good example to show that revolution is possible in a modern Western country.
In January 1968 André Gorz, a left wing academic, wrote that the working class would never engage in revolutionary general strikes. Four months later the biggest general strike in history shook French capitalism to its foundations.
French capitalism had a Napoleonic leader – General Charles De Gaulle. His role was to override sectional capitalist interests and modernise France. Thus he pulled the country out of the disastrous Algerian war, imposed austerity, brutally repressed workers’ activity and oversaw a flood of students into poorly funded universities.
French capitalism revived under him. Or rather profits did. French workers worked the longest hours of any EU country and had the second-lowest pay. Taxes were high because French capitalism is heavily statised.
On the left the Labor-type parties were small and pathetic. The Communists (PCF) were the most Stalinist of any of the Western Communist Parties. The role of the PCF was to be the seeming left wing of social democracy. As the arbiter between labour and capital it had a material interest in the continuation of capitalism.
The various left parties ran their own trade unions. The PCF union, the CGT, was the most important of these. But most workers did not belong to unions.
The anti-Vietnam War movement was small, as was the student movement, with Labor party types dominating.
Because French capitalism needed a more educated working class to provide the next generation of wage slaves, there was an explosion in university student numbers. Of course De Gaulle didn’t adequately fund the expansion. So many universities were run down – overcrowded theatres, poorly paid staff, inadequate infrastructure.
Students in places like Nanterre in the north of Paris had been organising demonstrations, sit-ins and the like around a range of issues, including the right to visit segregated dormitories, against the Vietnam War and for better facilities.
The numbers were small at first. Before the May days, the 300 political students could mobilise about a thousand others at Nanterre. The other 12,000 seemed indifferent.
In anticipation of one demonstration the university authorities used police and the hated CRS riot police to close down the lecture theatres and library. Some students were disciplined for distributing leaflets. When about 400 turned up to a demonstration against the hearing, the University and Education Minister decided to close down Paris University. The police surrounded the demonstrators. The repression enraged more students.
And so began a cycle of demonstrations and repression as more and more students joined in, also attracting young workers impressed by the students’ courage in demonstrating and fighting the cops.
The student movement reached its zenith with barricades and street fighting on the night of 10-11 May. The repression was savage. Students learnt to deal with tear gas. They turned over cars to make barricades, and hurled cobblestones and whatever else they could find at the cops.
The PCF and the trade unions called a strike for 13 May. They were forced to do so by the brutality of the state and a groundswell of support for the students from below. In fact the PCF initially condemned the students as petit bourgeois and saw the student upsurge as a challenge to its objective role as the retailer of organised labour to capital.
The strike was called to contain the movement. It had the opposite effect, as the rage of ages spilled over. For example, workers at Sud Aviation occupied their factory after months of useless 15 minute stoppages. Three left-wingers there (whom workers had ignored) suddenly had mass support.
The occupations spread as workers across France went on strike. Ten million were on strike for two weeks – the biggest strike in history to that time.
Revolution was no longer a dream. In Nantes for example workers ran the city, organising meetings to make decisions, setting prices and so on. Everywhere people challenged all the old shibboleths – especially why there were bosses. It was a festival of the oppressed.
But there were problems. The fact that most workers were not in unions had meant they could move quickly past the dead hand of PCF conservatism when walking off the job. But no socialist alternative existed to which workers could turn for guidance and leadership once they had gone on strike.
Desperate to get people back to work, De Gaulle offered a referendum. The power of the working class was demonstrated when he couldn’t get anyone to print the referendum papers.
De Gaulle flew to West Germany to consult the French army generals. Let me just emphasise this. The President flees Paris in the middle of a huge working class upsurge. And revolution is impossible in a Western country?
Then De Gaulle offered elections. The PCF grabbed its opportunity. They negotiated a derisory 7 per cent pay rise, and a 30 per cent increase in the minimum wage. Then they urged workers to return to work to fight De Gaulle at the ballot box.
Workers did go back, some reluctantly.
Fighting on his terrain, and with the hopes of millions of workers caught in the rotting carcass of the PCF, De Gaulle triumphed.
We must learn the lessons for the future. If there had been a major organisation committed to revolution, French workers could have gone forward. There wasn’t, and they didn’t.
Today in Australia revolution looks a long way off. But the underlying rage at a system that gives us blood, sweat and tears is there. As France shows, one spark can ignite the world.