From International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, pp.2-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
For a few heady days in May it looked as though sectarianism was finally dead. Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, ‘new lefters’ were solidly ranged together on the right side of the barricades (the Stalinists were almost equally solid on the wrong side).
But June and the elections saw the return of the old divisions. For some, the French events conclusively proved the need for a revolutionary party; for others, they conclusively disproved it. There were those who saw the thought of Chairman Mao as a key element, and those who felt it necessary to fit everything into the schema of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (was May 1968 equivalent to 1905, February 1917, or anything but May 1968?)
A social explosion of these proportions is a complex matter, and one on which information is still fragmentary. But we can at least begin to disentangle the positive and negative elements by rejecting the facile dilemma, posed by de Gaulle and eagerly taken up by the Communist Party, of whether or not a ‘revolutionary situation’ existed. The real choice at the end of May was not between immediate armed seizure of State power, and a peaceful return to work with minimal wage increases to wait for inflation. The third and authentically revolutionary possibility was the development of an active strike: passing beyond the mere occupation of factories to restarting production under workers’ control, coordinating organisation between factories and areas, creating committees to organise food supplies, involving new sectors like peasants, immigrants, white-collar workers in the movement.
No one can predict exactly where such an active strike would have led: certainly to greater gains in wages and conditions, very probably to the removal of de Gaulle’s regime, possible within a quite short period to a situation where seizure of State power was on the agenda.
To explain why this did not happen, it is necessary to recognise the essentially uneven nature of working-class consciousness. In some industries – often the best-paid, like cars and chemicals – workers, especially the younger ones, were ready for a revolutionary struggle; elsewhere the economic demands raised by the CGT and Communist Party found a better reception. While some workers were tearing up their CP and union cards in disgust, others had acquired from the strike the understanding of the need to join a union or party. While it is of course true that the strike began to crack the artificial barriers between economic and political demands, it did not have time to shatter them completely.
Because of this unevenness, it was possible for a rising movement to win support very rapidly, and a declining movement to lose it with equal rapidity. Thus de Gaulle won his elections, and gave the Communist Party an ideal excuse, both for their own inactivity and for their tacit support for the banning of the revolutionary groups.
To counter the argument that the election results testify to the absence of revolutionary consciousness, it can be pointed out that the rigged constituency boundaries make the vote appear much more of a landslide than it really was; that a systematic campaign of violence and terror was carried on against Left-wing party workers; and that young people between eighteen and twenty-two, probably the most militant section of the population, did not have the vote. But overriding all this is the fact that the strike raised the issue of direct democratic control of the processes of production, and hence of the destinies of those who work to produce. Beside this, Parliament – in France, with its planning commissions, even more a charade than in England – was quite patently irrelevant.
It is on the weakness of a still fragmented working class that the Communist Party will feed. Its resilience should not be underestimated; it recovered quickly from an even more crushing electoral defeat in 1958. A long struggle in theory and practice will be required to isolate the PCF bureaucracy from militant workers. And the PCF is not the only danger; there is now room enough for opportunists, as well as revolutionaries, on the ground to the left of the Communist Party. The corpor-atist neo-capitalism of Mendès-France and the CFDT may well spread illusions and confuse the demand for real workers’ control.
But all these weaknesses and dangers do not alter the fact that the French general strike represents a colossal victory. Some of the economic gains may be whittled away, though unless there is a further political setback, it is unlikely that all will be lost. But far more important is the enormous increase in confidence and in organisational sense. For the first time France appears to be set for a period of unofficial strikes and rank-and-file organisation on the shop-floor independent of the union machines; a pattern similar to Britain in the fifties and early sixties, but with a much higher political content.
Every spontaneous movement throws up its own specific forms; in France it is the action committee. These correspond completely to the level of the struggle; they are not representative, after the fashion of either the traditional working-class parties or revolutionary workers’ councils; but until Soviets are on the agenda, they provide a means of developing activity and uniting insiders involved in a struggle with political outsiders. Nor does this form of organisation have to wait for the barricades – action committees are relevant here and now in Britain, in the industrial and tenants’ struggle, in immigrant defence and the anti-war movement.
At the same time, the French strike has opened a new perspective for socialism. For forty years, socialists have had the unenviable choice between Social-Democracy or Stalinism, with only tiny groups offering a third way. Since May 1968, Stalinism and Social-Democracy have been revealed as identical, while revolutionary Marxist ideas have, for the first time, the possibility of a mass audience.
To take advantage of this new situation, it is necessary to go beyond existing groups to the building of a revolutionary party (or ‘organisation’ for those offended by the word ‘party’). This is not to ask for a mirror-image of the Bolshevik Party, but to see the concrete lessons of the French experience. The strike collapsed, partly at least, because of lack of coordination and information. De Gaulle’s blackmail should have been immediately denounced, by leaflet, press, and, if possible, radio; the CGT’s tactic of persuading return by spreading lies that other factories had returned should have been exposed; the public should have been rapidly informed of disaffection in the army and police.
The French strike must be understood as a totality; the revolutionary outbreak cannot be isolated from the struggle for reforms, the romantic gesture is meaningless if detached from the prosaic day-to-day campaigning. Dramatic confrontation, whether in far-off Saigon or near at hand in Paris, must not be a substitute for fighting and winning our own battles. The French events do not in any way exempt us from the tasks we set ourselves long ago – the unceasing criticism and refinement of revolutionary ideas, and the patient building of a revolutionary movement.
Last updated on 5.2.2008