Part 1A revolutionary situation develops
By Peter Schwarz
28 May 2008
The following is the first in a four-part series of articles.
There is barely another historical event that has commanded so much
public attention as the 40th anniversary of the uprisings of 1968. In
recent weeks, hundreds of articles, interviews, documentaries and
television films have been published on the student protests and
labour disputes that took place in that yearwith certainly more
coverage in Germany than for any other comparable anniversary.
How is this interest in the events of 1968 to be explained?
The answer has less to do with the past than with the present and the
future. The year 1968 was characterised not merely by "student
revolts," which shook the US, Germany and France as well as Italy,
Japan, Mexico and many other countries. It was the prelude to the
biggest offensive by the international working class since the end of
the Second World War. This offensive lasted seven years, assumed on a
number of occasions revolutionary forms, forced the resignation of
governments, brought down dictatorships and rocked the system of
bourgeois rule to its foundations.
This was most apparent in France when in May 1968 10 million workers
took part in a general strike, occupied factories and brought the
government of General Charles de Gaulle to its knees. In 1969 the
so-called September strikes took place in Germany, and Italy
underwent a "hot autumn" of industrial confrontations. The US saw
mass antiwar demonstrations by the civil rights movement and
rebellions in inner-city ghettos. In Poland and Czechoslovakiathe
Prague Springworkers revolted against the Stalinist dictatorship. In
the 1970s, right-wing dictatorships were toppled in Greece, Spain and
Portugal. During the same period, the US army suffered a humiliating
defeat in Vietnam.
The background to these events was the first profound crisis of the
capitalist economy since the Second World War. In 1966 a recession
shook the world economy. In 1971 the US government severed the link
between gold and the dollar and in so doing stripped away the
foundation of the world monetary system set up in Bretton Woods in
1944, which had formed the framework for the postwar boom. In 1973
the world economy sank even further into recession.
The wave of international protests, strikes and rebellions left their
mark. In a series of countries, wages and working conditions
improvedoften to a considerable extent. The '68 movement also left
traces in the spheres of culture and broader social life. It swept
away the cloying and claustrophobic atmosphere of the 1950s and
1960s, bringing considerable improvements in the rights of women and
minorities. Universities were expanded and opened up to broader
layers of society. But capitalist rule and property relations
remained intact. The bourgeoisie was forced to make political and
social concessions, but it was able to hold on to power.
At the end of the 1970s the counteroffensive began. Margaret Thatcher
came to power in Great Britain, Ronald Reagan in the US and Helmut
Kohl in Germany. Social concessions were reversed and attacks on the
working class intensified.
Today storm clouds are on the horizon again, and social divisions are
more profound than ever. Millions are unemployed or work in
precarious jobs. In Eastern Europe and Asia an enormous army of
workers is being exploited for rock-bottom wages. The recent
financial crisis demonstrates that a collapse of the international
banking system is increasingly probable. Tensions between the great
powers are increasing and imperialist warssuch as that in Iraqare
once again on the agenda. The inevitable result will be new conflicts
and class struggles.
This is the principal reason for the current interest in the events
of 1968. They could repeat themselves in another form. As the ruling
class tries to prepare itself, workers and young people must also
prepare by drawing the lessons from the experiences of 1968.
This series of articles concentrates on the events in France. Here,
class conflicts erupted to the surface with explosive power in May
and thoroughly disproved the thesis of the New Left that the working
class had been successfully integrated into capitalism via
consumption and the domination of the media. What appeared in January
to be a relatively harmless dispute between students and the
government turned within the space of a few weeks into a
revolutionary situation. The country was paralysed, the government
powerless and the trade unions had lost control of the situation. At
the end of May the working class was not only in a position to force
the resignation of the government led by President de Gaulle, but
also to overthrow the capitalist system and establish its own power.
This would have fundamentally changed the course of political events
throughout Europeboth east and west.
Such a development was prevented by the French Communist Party (PCF)
and its trade union ally, the CGT (Confédération générale du
travail), which strictly refused to take power and used all of its
influence to strangle the mass movement. The Communist Party received
additional backing from the Pabloite United Secretariat led by Ernest
Mandel and its French branchesthe Parti communiste internationaliste
(PCI) led by Pierre Frank and the Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire
(JCR) led by Alain Krivine. For 15 years the Pabloites had
systematically attacked the Marxist traditions of the Trotskyist
movement. Now they disorientated and misdirected students seeking an
alternative to Stalinism by putting forward Che Guevara and
anarchistic-type activism as role models.
The first part of this series deals with the development of the
student revolt and the general strike up to their highpoint at the
end of May. The second part examines the way in which the Communist
Party and the CGT helped General de Gaulle regain control of the
situation. The third part will deal with the role of the Pabloites
and the fourth with the Organisation communiste internationaliste
(OCI) led by Pierre Lambert. The OCI, still the official French
section of the International Committee of the Fourth International at
the time, adopted a centrist position in 1968 and soon after ended up
trailing behind the Socialist Party.
France before 1968
France in the 1960s is characterised by a profound contradiction. The
political regime is authoritarian and deeply reactionary. Its
personification is General de Gaulle, who appears to come from a
different era and who models the Fifth Republic entirely on his
person. De Gaulle is 68-years-old when he was elected president in
1958, and 78 when he resigns in 1969. However, under the ossified
regime of the old general, a rapid economic modernisation takes
place, fundamentally altering the social composition of French society.
At the end of the Second World War, large parts of France are based
on agriculture, with 37 percent of the population still making a
living from the land. In the subsequent 20 years, two-thirds of
French farmers leave the land and move into the cities, where
theytogether with immigrant workersadd to the ranks of the working
class a young and militant social layer, difficult for the trade
union bureaucracy to control.
After the end of the Algerian War in 1962, the French economy grows
rapidly. The loss of its colonies forces the French bourgeoisie to
orient its economy more strongly towards Europe. In 1957 France had
already signed the Rome Treaty, the founding document of the European
Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union. The
economic integration of Europe favours the construction of new
branches of industry, which more than compensate for the decline of
the coal mines and other old industries. In the areas of automobiles,
aircraft, aerospace, arms and nuclear power, new companies and new
factories open up with the support of the government. They are often
situated outside of the old industrial centres and are among the
strongholds of the general strike in 1968.
The city of Caen in Normandy is typical in this regard. The number of
inhabitants increases between 1954 and 1968 from 90,000 to 150,000,
of which half are under the age of 30. Saviem, an offshoot of the
carmaker Renault, employs around 3,000 workers. They are on strike in
January, four months before the general strike, temporarily occupying
the factory and engaging in fierce fighting with the police.
A radicalization is also noticeable within the trade unions. The old,
Catholic union, the CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs
Chrétiens), breaks apart, and the majority of members reorganizes on
a secular basis in the CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du
Travail), which acknowledges the "class struggle" and at the start of
1966 agrees to a unity of action with the CGT.
The establishment of new industries brings with it a feverish
expansion of the education sector. New engineers, technicians and
skilled workers are urgently required. Between 1962 and 1968 alone,
the number of students doubles. The universities are overcrowded,
poorly equipped andlike the factoriescontrolled by a patriarchal
management with antiquated attitudes.
The opposition to the poor educational conditions and the
authoritarian university regimeamong other things, the prohibition
of members from student residence halls visiting student
accommodation of the opposite sexis an important factor in the
radicalization of students, who soon combine such issues with
political questions. In May 1966 the first demonstration against the
Vietnam War takes place. One year later, on 2 June 1967, student
Benno Ohnesorg is shot dead by police in Berlin, and the German
student protests find an echo in France.
In the same year the effects of the worldwide recession are being
felt and have a radicalizing impact on workers. For years, living
standards and working conditions had fallen behind the pace of
economic development. Wages are low, working hours long, and inside
the factories workers have no rights. Now unemployment and the
workload are increasing. The mining, steel, textile and construction
The leadership of the unions arranges protests from above in order
not to lose control. But local protests from below build up and are
brutally suppressed by the police. In February 1967 workers at the
textile manufacturer Rhodiacéta in the city of Besançon are the first
to occupy their factory, protesting against job cuts and demanding
better working conditions.
Farmers also demonstrate against falling incomes. In 1967 in the west
of France, several demonstrations by farmers develop into street
battles. According to a police report at the time, the farmers are
"numerous, aggressive, organized and armed with various projectiles:
bolts, cobblestones, metal splinters, bottles and pebbles."
At the beginning of 1968, France appears relatively quiet on the
surface, but underneath social tensions are fermenting. The entire
country resembles a powder keg. All that is needed to cause an
explosion is a random spark. This spark is provided by the student protests.
Students revolt and general strike
The University of Nanterre is among the colleges constructed in the
1960s. Built on land previously belonging to the armed forces, just
five kilometers outside of Paris, it is opened in 1964. It is
surrounded by poverty-stricken neighborhoods, so-called Bidonvilles,
and factories. On January 8, 1968, protesting students clash with
Youth Minister François Missoffe, who is in the region to open a new
Although the incident itself is relatively insignificant, the
disciplinary measures instigated against the students, as well as the
repeated interventions by police, escalate the conflict and make
Nanterre the starting point of a movement that quickly spreads to
universities and high schools throughout the country. At its center
are demands for better learning conditions, free access to
university, more personal and political freedoms, the release of
arrested students, as well as opposition to the US war against
Vietnam, where at the end of January the Tet Offensive begins.
In some cities, such as Caen and Bordeaux, workers, students and high
school pupils jointly take to the streets. On April 12, a solidarity
demonstration takes place in Paris in support of the German student
Rudi Dutschke, who has been gunned down on the street in Berlin by an
On March 22, 142 students occupy the administration building at the
University of Nanterre. The administration reacts by closing the
university completely for an entire month. The conflict then shifts
to the Sorbonne, the oldest university in France, located in the
Latin Quarter in Paris. On May 3, representatives from various
student organizations meet to discuss how the campaign should
proceed. Meanwhile, extreme right-wing groups are demonstrating
outside. The university dean calls the police who proceed to clear
the campus. A huge, spontaneous demonstration erupts. The police
react with extreme brutality and students respond by erecting
barricades. By the end of the night, around a hundred are left
injured and hundreds more arrested. On the day after the arrests a
court hands out harsh sentences to 13 students based solely on the
exclusive testimony of police officers.
The government and media strive to portray the street battles in the
Latin Quarter as the work of radical groups and troublemakers. The
Communist Party also joins the chorus against the students. Its
number two figure, Georges Marchais, who later becomes the party's
general secretary, fires a broadside against the student "pseudo
revolutionaries" on the front page of the party's newspaper Humanité.
He accuses them of abetting the "fascist provocateurs." Marchais is
above all unsettled by the fact that the students "distribute
leaflets and other propaganda material in increasing numbers at
factory gates and in the districts of immigrant workers." He bellows:
"These false revolutionaries must be exposed, for they are
objectively serving the interests of the Gaullist regime and the big
Such baiting has no effect, however. The country is shocked by the
brutal actions of the police, which are broadcast by radio stations.
Events now take on a momentum of their own. The demonstrations in
Paris become bigger and bigger with each passing day, and spread to
other cities. They are directed against police repression and demand
the release of those the students arrested. High school pupils also
participate in the strike. On May 8 a first one-day general strike
takes place in western France.
From May 10-11 the Latin Quarter is engulfed by the "Night of the
Barricades." Tens of thousands barricade themselves in the university
district, which is then stormed by police at two o'clock in the
morning using tear gas. Hundreds are injured.
The following day, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, who has just
returned from a state visit to Iran, announces the reopening of the
Sorbonne University and the release of students in custody. However,
his actions can no longer control the situation. The unions,
including the Communist Party-dominated CGT, call a general strike
for May 13 against police repression. The unions fear losing control
over the militant workers if they act otherwise.
The strike call meets with a huge response. Numerous cities
experience the biggest mass demonstrations since the Second World
War. In Paris alone 800,000 take to the streets. Political demands
come to the forefront. Many demand the toppling of the government.
During the evening, the Sorbonne and other universities are
re-occupied by the students.
The plan of the trade unions to limit the general strike to one day
fails to materialize. On the following day, May 14, workers occupy
the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes. The plant remains under control
of the workers for one month, with red flags flying over the
administration building. The regional director, Duvochel, is held
captive by the occupiers for 16 days. The general manager of
Sud-Aviation at this time is Maurice Papon, a Nazi collaborator, war
criminal and head of the Paris police in 1961, when he was
responsible for the killing of demonstrators protesting against the
Workers at other factories follow the example at Sud-Aviation, and a
wave of occupations spreads across the country from May 15 through
May 20. Everywhere red flags are hoisted, and in many factories the
management is held captive. The actions affect hundreds of factories
and offices including the country's biggest factory, the main Renault
plant in Billancourt, which had played a central role in the strike
wave of 1947.
Initially the workers raise immediate demands, which differ from
place to place: fairer remuneration pay, a shortening of working
times, no dismissals, more rights for workers in the factory.
Workers' and action committees spring up in the occupied factories
and surrounding areas drawing in local residents, students and pupils
alongside the striking workers and technical and administrative
staff. The committees take responsibility for the organization of the
strikes and develop into forums of intensive political debate. The
same is true for the universities, which are to a large extent
occupied by students.
On May 20 the whole country is at a standstillhit by a general
strike, although neither the trade unions nor any other organizations
have issued a call for such a strike. Factories, offices,
universities and schools are occupied, production and the transport
system paralyzed. Artists, journalists and even soccer players join
the movement. Ten million of France's 15 million-strong workforce are
involved in the action. Later studies have revised this figure down
somewhat to 7-9 million, but it still remains the most massive
general strike in French history. "Only" 3 million workers had taken
part in the general strike in 1936, while 2.5 million workers
participated in the general strike of 1947.
The strike wave reaches its peak between May 22 and 30, but lasts
long into July. More than 4 million workers remain on strike for
longer than three weeks and 2 million longer than four weeks.
According to the French Labor Ministry, a total of 150 million
working days are lost in 1968 because of strikes. In comparison the
strike by miners in Great Britain in 1974, which brought down the
Conservative government led by Edward Heath, resulted in a total of
14 million lost working days.
On May 20 the government has largely lost control of the country. The
demand for the resignation of de Gaulle and his government"ten years
are enough"is pervasive. On May 24, de Gaulle attempts to regain
control over the situation with a televised speech to the nation. He
promises a referendum giving students and workers more rights in
universities and companies. But his appearance only demonstrates his
impotence. His speech has no impact whatsoever.
In the first three weeks of May a revolutionary situation has
developed in France that has few precedents in history. With a
determined leadership, the movement could have sealed the political
fate of de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic. The security forces still
stood behind the regime, but they would hardly have withstood a
systematic political offensive. The sheer size of the movement would
have had a corrosive impact on their ranks.
To be continued