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Ian Birchall

It’s not 68 but it’s not bad

(January 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 94, January 1987, pp. 14–16.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IT IS, as the song says, a long way from May to December, and between May 1968 and December 1986 a long distance has indeed been travelled. Ever since 1848 revolutionaries have fallen into the trap of seeing new struggles as if they were reruns of old ones. Marx’s reminder that when history repeats itself it does so the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, stands as a permanent warning.

Yet it is scarcely surprising that the recent student struggles in France have been compared, by friend and foe alike, to the events of May 1968. Many of the same elements seemed to be present – the spontaneous eruption of struggle, mass street demonstrations, a government forced to retreat by popular action. Even if it was clear that this time round things would not go so far, something of the same spirit was aroused. Lutte Ouvrière quoted a car-worker from Renault Billancourt who remembered the May events as saying: “It’s not 68, but it’s not bad.”

It is therefore useful to compare the recent events with May 68, to see both the crucial differences and the underlying similarities. It is now fashionable among many on the left to downgrade May 68. Often those who at the time were most swallowed up by ultra-left euphoria are now the quickest to write off the whole thing.

So it is important to begin by recalling the sheer scale of the events. In 1968 the students provided the detonator – but the mini explosive charge came from the working class. Between nine and ten million workers were involved, in all branches of French industry and in every reach of society, from astronomers to footballers. They did not simply withdraw their labour but challenged bourgeois property rights by occupying their factories and workplaces.

By so doing they brought the regime to the brink of overthrow. The government of General de Gaulle tried to resolve the crisis by calling a referendum, but ran up against the problem that not a single printshop in France – nor in Belgium – would print the ballot papers. According to the Memoirs of Prime Minister Pompidou, de Gaulle then suffered an “attack of demoralisation” and took a plane to Germany, intending to abandon political life. He was persuaded to return by one of his generals.

Since May 1968 workers in Portugal and Poland have raised the struggle to even higher levels of initiative and organisation. But Portugal was still a backward country, brought to crisis by a prolonged colonial war; Poland was a state capitalist tyranny where workers lacked basic democratic rights. The argument that the proletariat in advanced capitalist countries can still be a revolutionary class must rest substantially on the experience of May 1968.

Above all May 1968 was a magnificent demonstration of the power of spontaneous action and the ability of workers to take things into their own hands. The very first factory occupation, at Sud-Aviation in Nantes, was sparked off by the demands of a small group of Trotskyists in a local union branch. But as the movement snowballed, it was the spontaneous action of workers which created the dynamic. It took several days before the union apparatuses were able to re-establish their control.

In a few towns, notably Nantes in Western France, something approaching dual power was brought into being. Workers and students set up road blocks and controlled petrol supplies; links were made with local peasants to provide cheap food supplies. Union organisations exercised permanent supervision over prices; teachers and students ran nurseries for strikers’ children.

To understand why recent events have developed differently from 1968, it is necessary to identify a number of key aspects of the situation: the crisis of the

educational system; the role of reformism; the level of politics among the students; and the part played by the revolutionary left.

In 1968 French capitalism was still enjoying the fruits of the post-war boom. De Gaulle had imposed austerity on the working class, but he had done so in the name of modernising French capitalism. State planning and the forced reduction of the agricultural sector were designed to make the French economy more competitive. Unemployment was still low – around half a million, though disproportionately high among young people.

Part of the effort to modernise took the form of a rapid expansion of education. Between 1958 and 1968 the number of students in higher education in France rose from 175,000 to 530,000. In Paris alone the figure rose from 68,800 in 1958 to 130,000 in 1967. In the good old days higher education offered two things: the myth of learning for its own sake, and a passport to privileged career possibilities.

The new mass production universities could offer neither. Overcrowding, inadequate facilities and poor employment prospects for graduates produced simmering revolt, which finally exploded at the beginning of May.

The educational crisis of the sixties was a crisis of growth; the crisis of the eighties was rather different. French higher education was still irrational and inefficient, with enclaves of gross privilege existing alongside squalor and penury. But if reform was needed, it had to be carried out in the framework of economic recession, and hence could not draw on any additional resources. As a result the government produced proposals which were seen as a threat by students who already faced the difficult task of qualifying themselves for a job in a period of mass unemployment.

The government faced another problem. University education no longer guarantees a passport to a successful career, but graduates nonetheless constitute a social layer that has some small relative privileges in comparison with the rest of the population. As such they are an important element for the stability of any regime. No government could risk estranging the entire student population. Hence, faced with the revolt of the universities and the lycees, Chirac had no option but to step back.

In 1968 students were fighting to change the world, even if the change they aspired to might seem Utopian and ill-defined. In 1986 they were fighting to defend a not very satisfactory status quo, and their victory, although very real, was a defensive one.

The political situation too was very different in 1968. De Gaulle had been in power for ten years and seemed to be immovable. The only speculation about change concerned what would happen when he died. The last time the left – in the broadest sense of the term – had been in power was in the mid-fifties, when a coalition led by Socialist Guy Mollet had presided over torture in Algeria and the Suez, invasion.

By 1968 the Socialist Party was politically discredited and in electoral decline. When the great march of 13 May passed Socialist Party headquarters, there were chants of “Guy Mollet to the museum”. The dominant party of the established left was still the Communist Party, with five million voters and a tight grip on the biggest union federation, the CGT. The Communist Party was still resolutely Stalinist. Stalinism was conceived in struggle against the left opposition, and its political evolution was deeply marked by the Popular Front. Thus the CP found it easy to make concessions to its right, but very hard to accept any alliances to its left. In 1968 it was trying desperately to make an electoral deal with the Socialist Party. As a result it was anxious to draw a very clear line between itself and the radical leftists of the student movement, who were denounced as “false revolutionaries ... serving the interests of the bourgeoisie and of big capital.”

The student leaders of 1968 thus had little choice other than to act politically independently of both Socialists and Communists. In 1986 the picture was very different. After five years in power the Socialist Party retains strong support; above all it has succeeded in marginalising the CP and eroding its electoral backing. And ever since the early 1970s Mitterrand and friends have shown themselves to be adept at co-opting and absorbing radical currents to their left. As a result the Socialist Party could show itself to be far more friendly to the protesting students. Lionel Jospin, the Party’s first secretary, could declare: “As the Socialist Party, our relation with this movement is one of respect ... we are in full solidarity.” It is in this context that we have to see the allegedly “non-political” nature of the 1986 student movement, summed up by the placards which ironically proclaimed: “We’re manipulating ourselves”. On 20 November, just before the movement erupted, Le Monde published the results of a survey of student attitudes, and concluded that the students of 1986 prefer practice to theory, reject prophets and gurus, and are independent but not rebels.

Certainly students who have lived through five years of Socialist government and seen the failure of even a programme of mild reforms, are unlikely to have great faith in the possibilities of rapid social change. And living in a period of “cohabitation” between a Socialist president and a conservative cabinet, they are unlikely to identify with the rhetoric of either left or right.

But though the distrust of politics is evident, the picture is not completely clear. In the Le Monde survey students were asked which philosopher or political thinker had had the greatest influence on them. The most frequently named was Freud (14 percent), second came Marxist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (8 percent) and third Marx (7 percent). Clearly there is a small but not insignificant minority who are open to left-wing ideas. More generally, the anti-racist campaigns of SOS-Racisme had clearly had an impact on many students.

Beyond this, it is important to remember that “politics” does not consist in paying lip-service to verbal formulae, but in the experience of realities. Over the last few weeks many tens of thousands of students have learnt that mass action is more powerful than individual action; that strikes and demonstrations are more effective than voting and passing resolutions; that the state apparatus is not neutral in social struggles. Whether or not they express these truths in the language of the traditional left is, for the moment, a secondary matter.

It is in this context that we must see the position of the revolutionary left. Certainly it would be wrong to romanticise the role of the revolutionaries in 1968 – it is not true that every second student was an articulate Marxist agitator. The revolutionary left at the beginning of 1968 was considerably smaller, in terms of numbers and influence, than it is now. Certainly individual revolutionaries played a role in initiating occupations. But it is also true that the 1968 left was politically fragmented and incoherent.

Many were attracted to the ideas of anarchism, pleasingly libertarian, but volatile and quite devoid of strategy. Even more were drawn to adulation of Chairman Mao – this produced an ultra-left voluntarism decked out with odds and ends picked up from the history of Stalinism. The Maoists of 1968 lurched from the Third Period to the Popular Front and back again, and some even extended their hero-worship to Joe Stalin himself. Above all the 1968 left showed itself unwilling and unable to make any effective use of the United Front strategy in order to win away any section of workers influenced by the Communist Party.

In the 1969 presidential election Alain Krivine of the Fourth International took just over 1 percent of the poll – a fantastic result compared with anything Trotskyists had gained over the previous 20 years, but still an indication that the revolutionary left was only a tiny minority.

If the revolutionary left was better rooted by 1986, it was still far too small to manipulate the movement as some on the right claimed it was doing. But if the 1968 revolutionaries had been guilty of ultra-leftism, the problem was now the very opposite, with revolutionaries making concessions to the non-political attitudes of the bulk of the students.

Thus revolutionaries have taken positions in the movement without clearly proclaiming to those who elected them that they stand on a revolutionary programme. This has been accompanied by a reluctance on the part of revolutionaries to push their press on the large demonstrations. The UNEF-ID (Independent Democratic French Students Union) has in its leadership former members of the POI (France’s most right-wing Trotskyist grouping) who have now joined the Socialist Party. Whether they still have the Transitional Programme hidden in their back pockets is impossible to tell. And when Lutte Ouvrière announce that “the problem is not to politicise” the movement, “it is political in its essence”, they are hiding behind a half truth to opt out of their responsibility to fight for their political line.

There are thus many differences between 1968 and 1986. But behind them one fundamental similarity remains: the example of successful struggle can be infectious. In 1968 Prime Minister Pompidou decided, faced with student demonstrations, to reopen the closed Sorbonne. He had little choice as he writes in his memoirs: “I preferred to give the Sorbonne to the students than to see them take it by force.” In many situations it is confidence, not consciousness, that determines workers’ actions. It is not that they like or approve the system, rather that they lack any faith that they could change it. Once Pompidou was publicly shown to be not invincible, workers rapidly gained the confidence to act for themselves.

In 1986 the process has been slower and more fragmentary, but there is some evidence that it has taken place. Lutte Ouvrière in a recent issue reports workers’ reactions to the student movement, showing not only expressions of sympathy but a recognition that they had given an example to be followed. At a post office in Dijon canteen workers had complained to a union representative about working conditions. He told them: “Do like the students. Go on strike.” They promptly decided to do so.

Moreover, capitalism is now in a far more fragile state than in 1968. Then it could ride out the storm and give concessions. The substantial wage increases granted were fairly rapidly swallowed up by rising prices. And some larger employers welcomed the wage rises as they would drive smaller firms out of business. A spreading wave of militancy now would be a very different matter. It is interesting to compare the reactions of a perceptive organ of the British ruling class, able to look at French events with a degree of detachment. In May 1968 The Economist greeted the French student movement with cheerful tones:

“Student protest should be encouraged, to preach, to march, to diagnose, to throw stones, to be absurd. That is what we pay students for.”

In December 1986 the tone was very different. Now The Economist warned that giving in to the students was like doing deals with terrorists – an encouragement to more demands:

“... across much of Europe it is the unemployed young and blacks who could be most tinder dry. France has provided no Christmas present to its neighbours by advertising that some objectives can be secured by murder and mild rioting on the streets, especially by those who have a juvenile vision of what their objectives are.”

Their fears are our hopes. In the words of the old 1968 slogans: “It’s only a beginning; continue the fight.”

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