May 1968 and the French Communist Party
‘Of course revolution is not possible in the West.’ Evidently workers are too well paid, or too stupid, or too consumerist, or too conservative or too racist, sexist or homophobic or … [insert whatever reactionary reason(s) here].
It’s the sort of ‘There is No Alternative’ nonsense I get all the time. I suppose it is inevitable during periods of class peace.
Class peace is what we in Australia have had since 1983 and the Accord between the Hawke Labor Government, business and unions. This class collaboration – what is good for the boss is good for the worker – destroyed rank and file organisation in unions, saw strikes collapse and shovelled more and more money into the pockets of capital.
Today strike levels in Australia vary around records lows but are about one or two percent of what they were in the peak periods of the late 60s and 70s.
You can see the results – a dominant culture and practice of neoliberalism politically and economically, the share of national income going to capital at its highest since records were kept, a collapse in strikes, a collapse in union membership, a reactionary consensus and a massive shift of wealth to capital from labour which only fuels the bosses to want more as a consequence of the system they run.
The situation before May 1968 in France was similarly bleak. De Gaulle dominated, wages were the second lowest in Western Europe, repression was high, social services and public education poorly funded. Politically the thoroughly Stalinist Communist Party of France (PCF) dominated politically and its trade union confederation, the CGT, industrially.
The PCF was the radical wing of the status quo. Its revolutionary vision was of the revolution of state capitalism, itself a partial truth already in France with the country one of the most statised of capitalist countries in the Western world.
The situation was so bleak that in 1968 Andre Gorz, a left wing academic wrote in Socialist Register:
The working class will neither unite politically, nor man the barricades, for a 10 per cent rise in wages or 50,000 more council flats. In the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrection in defence of their vital interests.
This is the politics of despair that mistakes the moment for the future; an historical and anti-dialectical linear way of thinking that rejects the working class as the agency of system change.
It can lead to substituting an alternative agent – in this case the PCF and its cosy and controlled compromise with capitalism – as the liberator of workers.
The problem of course is that since that ‘liberator’ is an integral part of capitalism, liberation is the continuation of capitalism, perhaps with some reforms for workers.
Without real class struggle, however, and a working class party which sees the emancipation of the working class being the act of the working class, then the end result is something akin to France in early 1968 – a strong reactionary state, low wages, low social spending, a disillusioned and deeply alienated and divided working class.
For the PCF its raison d’etre was to control the French working class, to enable it to act as the retailer of labour to capital both economically and politically.
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 future PCF General Secretary, Georges Marchais, wrote an article called “False revolutionaries to be unmasked”. He called the students ’… mostly sons of the grand bourgeois, contemptuous towards the students of working class origin.’ They would ‘quickly snuff out their revolutionary flames to become directors in Papa’s business…..’
According to the PCF the student protest movement ‘… was an entire ultra-left, petty-bourgeois cocktail of Bakunin, Trotskyism and plain adventurism…’
The reality was rather different. The lies the PCF propagated, including that the the students were funded by the government, were part of the PCF’s attempt to de-legitimise a movement over which it had no control.
Its options when faced with movements outside its ranks were either to participate, to set up front organisations or to condemn the movements as petty bourgeois. In practice its response to movements outside its control was to either set up front groups or to stand on the sidelines chanting ‘petty bourgeois, petty bourgeois’. As if mindless name calling is a substitute for thought and action.
These latter two strategies could work in times of general class peace because the PCF was seen as the party of socialism, as anti-capitalist,as the party of militants and militancy. When all the world is reactionary, Stalinist parties can seem revolutionary despite the fact their real role is to reinforce capitalism and to defend he position of the PCF as the retailer of labour to the capitalist class.
That changes when social movements and through them the working class enter onto the stage of history. That is what happened in France in May 1968.
The student movement reached its zenith with barricades and street fighting on the night of 10-11 May.
The repression was savage. Students learned 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.
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 struck. 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 electoralist 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.
The old mole of revolution can break out at any time.
“We recognize our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution.” – Karl Marx
May 1968 in France shows the revolutionary left can’t just build and lead once the upsurge happens. We need to have done the steady work beforehand of building a mass working class party of revolution with real roots in the working class.
As the traditional organisations of the Australian working class, the Labor Party and the trade unions, continue their betrayal of the basics of reformism, and the Greens offer no working class solutions, the task for the Australian left today is to build a revolutionary party that will be ready for the upsurge. That means for the small revolutionary organisations like Socialist Alternative involving themselves in the struggles of the oppressed and working class and building that revolutionary alternative now.
We revolutionaries need to build for the future now. A good starting point is building a revolutionary socialist party and all that that entails. Not tomorrow; not when the class moves; now. Such an organisation does not exist in Australia today.
As the revolutionary unity project Socialist Alternative initiated continues, isn’t it time we had a look at what is on offer? We might just owe it to history and to the future.
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