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Ian Birchall

The Left and May 68

(May 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 109, May 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A major upturn in struggle always presents the left with a crucial test. It requires organisations to adapt their analysis and their strategy – often in a period of days or even hours – to deal with new and often wholly unpredicted circumstances. Ian Birchall looks at how the left responded to such an upturn in May 1968.

THE MOST significant organisation of the French left in 1968 was undoubtedly the Communist Party (PCF). For over 20 years it had taken around 20 percent of the vote in virtually every election, and it tightly controlled the biggest trade union federation, the CGT.

When the student movement erupted in the first days of May 1968, the attitude of the PCF was one of sectarian hostility. On 3 May Georges Marchais, already grooming himself for the party leadership, wrote an article in the PCF’s daily paper, L’Humanité, in which he viciously attacked the revolutionary groupings active among the students, dismissing them as children of the rich who would soon “dampen their ‘revolutionary flame’ to go and run Daddy’s business”.

Of course the PCF recognised that, given the massive expansion of higher education, not every student could be the son or daughter of a factory owner. But this merely led the Union of Communist Students (UEC) to issue a leaflet stating that:

“The ultra-left leaders are using the failings of the government as a pretext and are playing on the discontent among the students in order to obstruct the functioning of the universities and prevent the mass of students from working and taking their examinations. Thus these false revolutionaries are behaving objectively as allies of the Gaullist government and its policies which are harmful to all students and especially to those from the humblest backgrounds.”

Behind this solicitude for the interests of working class students trying to revise for their exams lay a deeper concern. The PCF still had a virtual monopoly in the industrial working class, but among the students its political rivals were gaining ground. To the PCF leaders the rising tide of struggle was less important than the need to preserve their grip on the movement.

There was also a secondary factor. The PCF numbered many university teachers among its members. The demands for “student power” posed a threat to the established practices and privileges of these people. Hence the PCF took a highly conservative line even on the purely academic issues at stake. On 15 June L’Humanité carried an article denouncing the slogan of “student power”, which claimed,

“A student in the first or second cycle (secondary school and first year of university) cannot judge the scientific value of a professor. He can and ought, naturally, possibly to criticise his technique in transmitting knowledge, but his criticism must stop there.”

WITH the struggle rising even the PCF leaders found themselves embarrassed by this conservatism. In order not to lose all credibility with the student movement, they had to shift the line somewhat.

Marchais was temporarily pushed into the back seat and Roger Garaudy was dragged out to state the modified position. In the 1940s and 1950s Garaudy had been the most slavishly Stalinist of the PCF’s intellectuals, but by 1968 he was developing something of a reputation as a “liberaliser”. A couple of years later he was expelled from the PCF for taking his liberalism too far. He then renounced Marxism in favour of Christianity and has subsequently become a Muslim. In L’Humanité on 15 May Garaudy wrote

“We who pride ourselves on belonging to a revolutionary party, far from taking on the role of the mourners of history, joyfully welcome this human ferment ... The fact that the student movement is troubled by attempts at deception and adventures, and by provocations which divide it, weaken it and facilitate repression, must arouse our vigilance but must in no way obscure this movement’s innate and profound link to the workers’ movement ...”

When the movement spilled over from the student milieu to become a massive and initially spontaneous general strike the PCF had to be even more cautious. For years its policy had been to prove that it was a responsible and moderate organisation, fit to do deals with social democratic politicians and eventually – it hoped – participate in a government coalition. It could not afford to seem to be advocating direct action, let alone insurrection, yet at the same time it could not cut itself off from its traditional base.

Thus on 17 May Georges Seguy, leader of the CGT and a long standing PCF member, told a press conference, “This general strike is developing without our having called it, and it is developing under the responsibility of the workers themselves.” This was undoubtedly true, but it was also a total abdication of leadership for the head of a mass workers’ organisation to simply decline responsibility for a general strike of ten million workers.

The day before die CGT had issued a carefully worded statement in which its members were told not to spread the struggle and raise the stakes, but rather to wait and see, but at all costs to keep a grip on the movement. When the return to work began in early June, the PCF actually connived with a situation in which workers settled for much less than would have been possible. What was at best a rather unsatisfactory compromise was hailed as a triumph. On 7 June the front page of L’Humanité announced that, “strengthened by their victory, thousands of workers have returned to work”. The PCF leaders stressed their respect for parliamentary legality.

But when the PCF had staked everything on elections and achieved only a crushing electoral defeat, die wheel came full circle. Again the answer was blame die revolutionary students. An editorial in L’Humanité of 24 June declared,

“The extravagances, the provocations, the useless violence – naturally deliberately magnified and expanded in the government’s propaganda – committed by the leftist groups manipulated by the Minister of the Interior, resulted as could be expected ... Each barricade, each automobile set on fire, turned several hundred thousands of votes over to the Gaullist party.”

The Socialist Party, with which the PCF was so keen to do an electoral deal, played little role in the events. In order to mislead a movement of rising struggle it is necessary to show a left face. But the Socialist Party, compromised by decades of coalition government and support for colonial war, no longer had a left face to show.

SOME social democratic politicians outside the Socialist Party had slightly more credibility. Of these the most significant was one Francois Mitterrand. Mitterrand recognised which way die wind was blowing rather earlier than the PCF. On 5 May he changed die subject of a public meeting to speak of the problems of youth and the universities. While the PCF feared any rivals on the left, Mitterrand rather more shrewdly recognised that in the absence of a revolutionary party most of the young revolutionaries could eventually be dragged back into the camp of reformism.

But if Mitterrand expressed sympathy with the student revolutionaries, his solution remained wholly reformist. At a press conference on 28 May he declared,

“Those who, rightly, do not accept the established order must find the true means of ensuring their victory by accepting a cohesive and disciplined approach.”

In practice this meant that Mitterrand was calling for fresh presidential elections – and that he was announcing that he would be a candidate for the presidency. Amid the turmoil of May, Mitterrand’s bid vanished without trace, but it undoubtedly stood him in good stead for the future.

Mitterrand recognised that he had no parliamentary future without the PCF’s five million voters, and he took good care that his occasional flattery of the students did not cut him off from his allies in the PCF.

UNFORTUNATELY there was no credible revolutionary alternative to the left of Mitterrand and the PCF. Revolutionary ideas spread rapidly among students and even, to some extent, among young workers. But the organisations of the revolutionary left counted their members at best in hundreds, and they were deeply divided – anarchists, Maoists and Trotskyists all existing in a variety of groupings.

The most obvious dangers were sectarianism and ultra-leftism. Amid an unprecedented upsurge of struggle it was easy to believe that reformism had simply evaporated. After the massive demonstration on 13 May the anarchist Cohn-Bendit told the press, “What pleased me this afternoon was to be at the head of the demonstration while the Stalinist scum were tailing behind.”

However richly the PCF deserved condemnation, such self-indulgent ultra-leftism could only make it more difficult for the revolutionary left to win rank and file PCF members away from their leaders.

One obvious danger for leftist groups was to accommodate to the student milieu. But there was another danger; that was to use an abstract invocation of the working class as a means of evading the need to give a lead among the students. This was a trap that some of the Maoist groups fell into. It was also a problem for one of the main Trotskyist groupings, the OCI.

The OCI undoubtedly had a working class base of some sort, but it became notorious for withdrawing its student members from the famous “night of the barricades” and publicly denouncing “the irresponsibility and backwardness of petty-bourgeois of the Cohn-Bendit stripe”.

For a revolutionary group to intervene effectively it had to have both complete theoretical clarity about the centrality of the working class and an active presence within the student movement. If no organisation wholly met these criteria, the nearest approach was made by the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth – the youth organisation of the French section of the Fourth International and forerunner of today’s LCR). Thus a leaflet distributed widely by the JCR on 21 May set out a basically sound perspective for advancing the struggle:

“We must create rank and file Strike Committees in the factories and Action Committees in the universities and neighbourhoods that will encompass all the workers in struggle ...

“We must force de Gaulle’s withdrawal and the establishment of a workers government.

“The government we want is not simply a leftist government in place of a rightist government ...

“The government we want must spring from the strike committees and action committees of the workers and students.”

The JCR did not confine itself to general political slogans. It also issued very practical advice to demonstrators. The day after the “night of the barricades” JCR medical students issued a leaflet reading:

* Wear thick clothes.
* Put on woollen socks.
* Protect your hands.
* Protect your head.
* Protect your eyes.


But the JCR’s political traditions meant that it was very susceptible to infection by the Third-Worldism rampant in the student milieu. This was dangerous because it led all too easily to a fatal underestimation of the grip of reformism. Thus a JCR statement of 9 May declared:

“The heroes of this new generation of militants are not Mitterrand or Waldeck Rochet. They are Che Guevara and Vo Nguyen Giap ... To the dull reformism offered by the PCF they prefer the heroic determination of the Vietnamese revolutionaries. To the tarnished image of socialism offered by the workers’ states, they prefer the active internationalism of the Cuban revolution.”

The other main Trotskyist organisation was Voix Ouvriere (the forerunner of today’s Lutte Ouvriere). VO took the centrality of the working class much more seriously than the JCR, and its practice centred on systematic, indeed routinist, intervention around factories to the virtual exclusion of other areas of activity.

VO did not make the OCI mistake of counterposing an abstract working class to the reality of the student struggle.

But VO’s workerism meant that it had no presence in the student movement. Its press described student action from the outside. Students were referred to as “they” – outsiders to be supported by the worker readership VO was attempting to address.

To some extent VO and the JCR could have corrected each other’s weaknesses. The formation of a joint coordinating committee by VO and the JCR on 18 May was undoubtedly a step forward towards the united revolutionary organisation that was so badly needed in the situation. But it was too little, too late. The fruit of the coordination seems to have been no more than a jointly issued leaflet.

ACROSS the Channel in Britain the events in France also put the organisations of the left to the test. The Communist Party of Great Britain, still heavily monolithic, stood in absolute solidarity with its French comrades. The Morning Star contemptuously dismissed the revolutionary left as “a handful of anarchists”, and at a “solidarity” meeting with France on 30 May Jack Woddis declared, “Anti-communism from the more fashionable ‘leftist’ position is no more progressive in its results than die more traditional anti-communism of the right wing.”

The Labour left was rather more sympathetic and flexible in its response. On 24 May Michael Foot told the House of Commons, “there are many millions of people in this country who greatly welcome the development of democracy in France as instanced by the occurrences of recent weeks”.

Tribune too saw the French events in a positive light – but was unable to see an outcome outside of the electoral framework. On 24 May, as ten million workers struck and occupied, Tribune’s response was to look to Mitterrand’s chief political accomplice:

’’There is only one established political figure who commands the popular confidence and respect necessary to canalise the discontent of France into specific political demands. Only Pierre Mendes-France could unite behind him the democratic and socialist forces in France.”

The Labour politician who had the most sensitive grasp of what was going on in 1968 was Tony Benn, at the time Harold Wilson’s Minister of Technology. In a speech at Llandudno on 25 May Benn showed an acute awareness of the implications of the French events, as well as of the rising student movement in Britain:

“It would be foolish to assume that people will be satisfied for much longer with a system that confines their national political role to the marking of a ballot paper with a single cross once every five years.

“People want a much greater say. That certainly explains some of the student protests against the authoritarian hierarchies in some of our universities and their sense of isolation from the problems of real life.”

And Benn prophesied ominously:

“If adjustments are not made to the parliamentary system, discontent expressing itself in despairing apathy or violent protest could engulf us all in bloodshed.”

Benn’s concrete proposals were anodyne – participatory democracy; a better informed government; referendums; re-examination of communications; the strengthening of representative organisations. None the less, in the rather tense climate produced by the French situation, he evoked some sharp reactions.

Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) declared that Benn was “talking cod’s wallop” while the Daily Mail declared that he had made “one of the most foolish, dangerous and irresponsible speeches ever to come from a cabinet minister”.

Elsewhere on the British left the enthusiasm for the French events was wholehearted. On 1 June the newly launched revolutionary paper Black Dwarf caught the mood of many militants with a headline that filled its front page:

We Shall Fight
We Shall Win
Paris London Rome Berlin

But Black Dwarf was stronger on mood than analysis, and a subsequent issue bore the more dubious headline “Students: The New Revolutionary Vanguard”. (Some of the editors claimed that the printer had omitted a question mark.)

Revolutionary euphoria spread further. The Black Dwarf carried a piece by Eric Hobsbawm in which he accused the PCF of “feet dragging” and declared:

“What has happened in France is marvellous and enchanting ... Does it show the way to the rest of the world? It would not be the first time that Paris had done so. I think it may do so now.”

The New Statesman’s editor, Paul Johnson (now a right wing Tory), sharply criticised the PCF for its lack of revolutionary fervour. When criticised by the Morning Star’s Paris correspondent, Johnson replied by citing the pamphlet Paris: May 1968 by the anarcho-Marxist Solidarity group. The pamphlet was indeed an excellent eye witness account but it was odd to see it recommended by someone who two years earlier had made a passionate defence of the Wilson government’s wage freeze.

ENTHUSIASM for the French events also came from Socialist Worker. The June issue carried a special eye witness report from an International Socialist (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party) delegation to France. This recognised the positive role played by the students, and showed how it had opened up the situation for the rest of the world.

“Revolution in the advanced countries is the order of the day. Today France is in turmoil, tomorrow it could be Spain, Britain or Italy. The role played by the students has also become clear. Although they can never be the agents of social change they can act as a catalyst in the process. The activities of the French students provided the flashpoint for the frustrations of the workers; their demands for a new social order voiced the feelings of many workers.”

But Socialist Worker also recognised the colossal obstacles in the way of the movement; the continuing grip of reformism and above all the absence of a revolutionary organisation that could challenge that grip.

“The most serious problem for the French workers is the complete absence of any revolutionary organisation capable of articulating and generalising the revolutionary implications of the mass strike. The field is therefore wide open for the French Communist Party.”

For Socialist Worker the key lesson was that euphoria was not enough; if the hold of reformism was to be broken, a revolutionary organisation capable of offering an alternative was necessary. And that lesson was as valid for Britain as for France. It is a lesson which, twenty years on, has lost none of its relevance.

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