Ian Birchall looks at why the 1968 revolt in France provides an inspiration
French students take to the streets and occupy their colleges. The police attack with batons and tear gas. It’s no surprise that people ask, is it 1968 all over again?
To answer the question, it’s important to be clear what did happen in 1968. Even tolerably well-informed journalists tell us that 1968 in France was the year of “student riots”. It’s a monstrous distortion of the truth.
Yes, there were massive student demonstrations and occupations in France. But these also occured in dozens of other countries, including Britain. What was unique about France was the general strike that took place.
It lasted three weeks and involved up to ten million workers – the biggest general strike in history up till then.
Everywhere workers proved the basic truth of Marxism – that the labour of workers produces the goods and services that society needs to survive, and without their labour society cannot function.
All production was paralysed. If the electric lights stayed on, it was only thanks to the power workers, who from time to time cut supplies as a reminder of their power.
Factories were occupied by trade union committees. In some places managers were locked in their offices and not allowed to go to the toilet without permission from the strikers. Workers brought in record players to teach the bosses to sing the Internationale.
In Nantes, western France, the whole town was administered by a trade union committee. It controlled prices to prevent profiteering, and negotiated food supplies with local farmers. The unions controlled petrol supplies and set up road blocks around the town.
It was a stunning demonstration of the power of the working class, and a revelation to the generation that had grown up after 1945.
The much parroted conventional wisdom from tame intellectuals was that capitalism had solved all its problems and that class war was dead. Even many on the left swallowed that line.
A few weeks of action by working people exposed this as a lie. Despite all the attempts to trivialise the memory of 1968, the experience still sends a shiver down the spines of our rulers.
One of the wonderful things about the 1968 events was their unexpectedness. The idea that workers had lost their revolutionary potential, bought off with full employment and consumerism, was widespread. Apathy, we were told, would block any mass struggle.
The Economist, which generally has a perceptive eye for ruling class interests, published a survey of French society in May 1968. It pointed out that French living standards had overtaken those in Britain, and noted that French trade unions were “pathetically weak”.
A British socialist visiting Paris in April 1968 was told by French student activists that they were envious of the big demonstrations against the Vietnam war that had taken place in Britain. In March just 30,000 had demonstrated outside the US embassy in London. Within weeks there would be over a million marching on the streets of Paris.
The student movement triggered off the events. Discontent had been fermenting in France’s universities for some months. There was growing opposition to the US war in Vietnam.
Students had their own grievances closer to home. French president General Charles de Gaulle’s regime wanted to modernise France with rapid expansion of higher education, but it wanted to do so on the cheap.
Colleges, libraries and lecture halls were massively overcrowded. Students were subjected to antiquated regulations – male and female students were barred from visiting each others’ rooms in student hostels. “Free circulation” became a rallying cry.
The authorities responded by closing down the Sobonne university in Paris. But when police tried to drive students off the streets with batons and tear gas they stood their ground.
A building worker showed them how to operate a pneumatic drill to dig up the cobbles with which the streets were paved and how to construct barricades. All night long the students resisted.
It was this resistance that made the crucial difference. The demands of the students were pretty unimportant. Probably few French factory workers felt that “more sex for students” was a major question of social justice.
But they did see that the government was forced to retreat – the university was reopened – by the students’ courage and determination. Resistance could win – that was the message the students sent to French workers.
The trade union bureaucracies, France had three union federations, tried to defuse the situation by calling a one-day strike and regain their control.
But the enormous demonstration in Paris the following Monday had exactly the opposite effect – raising the self-confidence of millions of workers.
The following day in an aircraft factory in Nantes there was a union meeting.
There were three revolutionaries in the branch, who for years had demanded militant action and been ignored. This time they were listened to. An indefinite occupation of the factory began.
Though it got little press coverage, this became an inspiration.
Within a week factories and workplaces throughout France were occupied.
Could it happen again today? Short term prediction in politics is foolish, but in many ways the potential for a generalised social struggle is much greater today than it was in 1968.
In 1968 the deep discontents that eventually rose to the surface were largely dispersed and suppressed.
In the last year we have seen first the no vote in the referendum on the European constitution, then last autumn’s widespread rioting, and the current opposition to the new proposals on employment law.
In 1968 there was virtually full employment. Now unemployment has been at 10 percent for many years.
Workers and students are well aware that right wing politicians like Sarkozy and Villepin are primarily interested in becoming presidential candidates, not in solving the real problems of French society.
Immigrant workers played an important part in the events of 1968, but they faced serious repression and the danger of deportation.
Now there is a vast wave of anger among youth of North African origin, who face unemployment and police violence. They also see a large section of the so-called left treating them with contempt, refusing to give respect to the religious practices of their community, especially the right of school students to wear the hijab.
In 1968 most of the French left still saw Russia as the model of what they understood by socialism. Among the small minority who rejected this, many simply replaced Russia with Mao’s China. Now large numbers of young people have been inspired by the ideas of the anti?capitalist movement.
Whatever happens in the next few weeks, the anger will not lessen. Revolt will continue and it will find new forms.
In the end the 1968 movement was defeated, but not because the ruling class was too strong. At the end of May de Gaulle fled Paris to consult with army chiefs in Germany. When he tried to call a referendum he faced the brute reality of class power – no printshop in France would print ballot papers.
What saved the old order was the French Communist Party (PCF), which was on paper committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
The PCF had five million voters, and controlled the largest trade union federation, the CGT. It had thousands of committed working class activists.
It was devotedly loyal to Russia, and equally devoted to its own possibilities of parliamentary success.
The PCF was determined that student revolutionaries should not be allowed to have any influence on its working class following. For years sellers of left wing non?Communist papers outside factories had been the victims of PCF violence.
When the student movement erupted it faced vicious opposition from the PCF press. Student revolutionaries were denounced as the children of the rich who wanted to prevent working class students revising for their examinations. Often they were slandered as agents of the right wing.
When the wave of factory occupations spread, the CGT could not stop them. Instead it took control of the movement and did its best to demobilise it from within.
In most cases factories were occupied by trade union activists. Other workers, who should have been mobilised for the struggle, the seven million out of ten million strikers who were not unionised, were sent home to watch the pro-government television.
When de Gaulle called a general election, the PCF supported him and encouraged a return to work. In the elections the right triumphed.
By showing willingness to stick to the rules of the parliamentary game the PCF made it clear that they were reliable election allies for the Socialist Party. Today the PCF have neither the will nor the activists to draw lines between students, workers and youth from the suburbs.
Reformism is still alive and well. The leaders of the Socialist Party and the trade unions will undoubtedly do their best to ensure that a mass movement based on the activity of working people and the oppressed does not emerge.
In the short term they may succeed. In the long term we can win. History does not repeat itself, but the inspiration derived from history can help prepare future victories.
It is not just France’s future that is at stake. One of the most tenacious lies propagated by the media is that the events of 1968 are an expression of something uniquely French.
We should remember the words of Robert Escarpit in Le Monde just after the end of the strike:
“A Frenchman travelling abroad feels himself treated a bit like a convalescent from a pernicious fever. And how did the rash of barricades break out? What was the temperature at five o’clock in the evening on 29 May?
“But there is one question that is hardly ever asked, perhaps because they are afraid to hear the answer. But at heart everyone would like to know, hopefully or fearfully, whether the sickness is infectious.”
Ian Birchill is the author of A Rebel's Guide to Lenin, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to www.bookmarks.uk.com