This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
50 years since the greatest general strike in history
Much has changed in the half century since the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France. At that time there was still a ‘cold war’ between states with very different social systems – capitalism and private ownership of industry in the West and Stalinism in the East, based on bureaucratically run state ownership.
But the ruling elites on both sides of the ‘iron curtain’ feared revolutions from below, which would see power in the hands of democratically elected representatives of the working class.
The greatest general strike in history – when ten million workers paralysed the ‘strong state’ of president Charles de Gaulle – showed that such a revolution was possible. If it had succeeded, it would have spread like wildfire across Europe and worldwide.
1968 was a year of big conflicts and mass protest internationally, not least against the US war in Vietnam. 17 March saw 100,000 on a mass protest at the US embassy in London and violent clashes, including police on horseback charging into the demonstrators.
Workers as well as students in Britain organised sit-ins to pursue their demands. Women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham, east London, won their historic struggle for equal pay.
The month of revolution in France was preceded by a number of important strikes and unrest among students in schools and universities.
Ten years of ‘Bonapartist’ rule under De Gaulle was stultifying society; an explosion was in the making.
Workers’ living and working conditions were lagging behind economic growth. Inflation was eating into wages.
In some of the big factories, production lines were literally policed by armed men hired by the bosses.
Students in the universities and schools were angry about overcrowded classes, lack of flexibility in their courses and graduate unemployment.
By the end of April 1968, armed police were sent in against their occupations and peaceful demonstrations.
Battles raged and barricades were erected in the streets of Paris. Hundreds of students were arrested, hundreds more were hospitalised.
The ruling class – the government in particular – was split over whether to continue with repression or make concessions. This is a typical feature of any revolutionary situation as it begins to develop.
At the beginning of May 1968, government concessions actually emboldened the students. But more demonstrations saw more injuries meted out by the police and sympathy from the middle layers in society grew rapidly.
It was not long before young workers joined in the demonstrations and the trade unions were forced to call solidarity action.
A one-day official general strike on 13 May saw five million workers around the country take action and one million on the march in Paris.
The leaders of the sizeable ‘Communist’ Party (CP) had hoped this would act like the valve on a pressure cooker and that workers would be content to go back to work.
How the movement developed was detailed at the time and later in the newspaper Militant (forerunner of the Socialist) and elsewhere.
There will be articles in the next few issues of the Socialist covering the events week by week.
No one could have predicted the speed with which the strike movement would develop as workforces across the country followed the example set by young workers at Sud-Aviation in Nantes who decided to stay on strike and lock their bosses up in their offices!
Car factories were occupied, shipyards, coal mines, schools, offices, hospitals, depots, theatres… Mass meetings were held, committees set up, red flags hoisted.
Workers everywhere were singing the revolutionary anthem – the Internationale – and discussing what contribution they would make to building a socialist society.
Farmworkers began sit-ins at farms and depots and their unions called for a national demonstration on 24 May.
The forces of the state began to mutiny – conscripts, police, sailors, even the hated CRS riot police.
By Friday 24 May, ten million workers – more than half of France’s total workforce – were on strike. Violent battles raged on the streets of Paris.
On 25 May, tripartite talks began between the government, the bosses and the trade union leaders (who were still insisting that the struggle was not political!)
After three days and nights of talks behind closed doors, a generous package of reforms was agreed on wages, holidays, working time, etc.
These reforms were the product of revolutionary events but they did not quench the thirst of the millions of workers occupying their workplaces.
They rejected them, striving for something else that their traditional leaders were incapable of articulating.
A rally on 27 May filled Paris’ Charlety Stadium with 50,000 people to discuss a political alternative to Gaullism and capitalism. The CGT union federation announced a demonstration in Paris for the evening of 29 May – the day De Gaulle ‘disappeared’ from France saying: “The game is up”!
Half a million strikers marched through the capital but the workers’ leaders had no intention of taking power
Later, the CP leaders said the state was ‘too strong’, but the state was already disintegrating.
A classical revolutionary situation had developed. The ruling layer in tatters, the middle class clearly on the side of the working class and adopting its methods of struggle. The French working class was fully in action and ready for a fight to the finish.
Workers in neighbouring countries were refusing to do the work of the striking French workers – printing government material, moving goods in or out of the country.
To carry through a successful transfer of power a revolutionary leadership is required with a mass base of support. What could have been done to complete the revolution?
Linking up the strike committees on a local, regional and national level to form an alternative government was what was needed.
This was put forward by active participants in the movement but their voice was small. They lacked a base in the workers’ movement.
In 1968, Militant – forerunner of the Socialist Party – had no co-thinkers in France. It had politically separated in 1965 from the Trotskyists of the Fourth International who had some forces, especially among the youth.
But they had been pessimistic about the European – including the French – working class, arguing that they would not move into action for at least 20 years. They concentrated on the student movement and on the revolt against colonial rule.
One of their leaders, Ernest Mandel, voiced their views in London at a public meeting in the spring of 1968.
He was challenged by Militant’s editor, Peter Taaffe, who insisted that the working class still retained its capacity to rise and confront French capitalism quite soon.
Mandel disputed this, but, within a month, his false position was answered by the workers of France. With their revolutionary traditions they were on the move again!
In the early days of the events themselves, Peter pointed out to a meeting in the London School of Economics that a sure sign of a revolution on its way in France was the 12 and 13-year-olds trying to join the demonstrations.
Their teachers were locking them in their classrooms… until they themselves went on strike! By the end of May 1968 the situation was rotten-ripe for a revolutionary takeover.
In Nantes, a committee was formed early in the movement, of representatives of workers, students and small farmers, which took control in the region of Loire Atlantique over every aspect of society – production, distribution and exchange.
Food was brought into the towns by the small farmers, prices and fares were held down, the police were made redundant by students and workers patrolling the neighbourhoods.
If similar representative bodies had developed in every region and sent elected delegates on to a national council, committees of struggle could have become organs of workers’ rule.
As in Russia in October 1917, a trusted revolutionary leadership would have taken all the necessary measures to bring the ranks of the existing state forces over to the side of a socialist government.
They would also have made a direct appeal to the workers of every other country to follow suit and prevent the development of a military intervention from outside.
But the leaders of the major union federations and of the Communist Party of France were the ones who least wanted a successful revolution.
If workers could take power in a developed industrial economy, they knew, it would inspire the workers of the Soviet Union to throw the parasitic bureaucracy off their backs and reconstruct genuine workers’ democracy. They literally betrayed the French revolution.
It was the workers’ ‘leaders’ who gave De Gaulle the confidence to return to France and call an immediate election, mobilising the forces of reaction onto the streets.
The police and army moved in against strikers and left-wing organisations. Hundreds of militant workers were victimised and sacked. Various left organisations were outlawed.
In the June parliamentary election, the Gaullists gained and the Communist Party lost votes – standing, not for a new socialist society, but for ‘law and order’.
Yet within a year of losing a referendum on constitutional amendments, De Gaulle was gone, replaced as president by a man he had pushed aside as prime minister, Georges Pompidou.
The initial gains for workers arising from the tripartite agreement were, as Militant had warned, undermined by capitalist exploitation in general, and inflation in particular.
But the trade unions grew in numbers. Various social-democratic forces came together to launch a new Socialist Party with Francois Mitterand its leader in 1972.
In less than a decade he was elected as president. The same year, 1981, the Socialist Party was voted into government by a massive 55% of the electorate.
Without an all-out programme of nationalisation and democratic workers’ control and management, even a ‘socialist’ government by name will eventually end up implementing policies in the interests of the 1% – the capitalist class.
This was the lesson not only of the Mitterand governments but of the ignominious defeat of ‘socialist’ President Francois Hollande and his government last year.
Today, France is embroiled in a new contest between the classes. Emmanuel Macron, the ‘president of the rich’, is determined to push through a programme of anti-working class measures. The workers and youth of France are determined to fight them.
A new 1968 is in the air. Eight out of ten French people view the events of 50 years ago positively. Popular left figures like Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Olivier Besancenot are calling for a united struggle and a fight to the finish, but the trade union leaders again are failing to give a lead.
History never repeats itself exactly and time is still needed to build a leadership that can take a revolutionary movement on to victory.
In France and internationally, discontent and anger are welling up among students and young workers. A look at the greatest general strike in history will inspire a new generation with confidence that socialism can be won, not just in one country – wherever it breaks out first – but worldwide.