France 1968: When ten million workers took capitalism by the throat [1968]

Submitted by AWL on 30 April, 2010 - 3:36 Author: Sean Matgamna

“I hate the revolution like sin” said the hangman of Germany’s 1918 revolution, the Social Democrat Ebert. Less direct, but equally clear after the events in France, is the recent statement of the parliamentary leader of the French Communist Party, Robert Balanger: “When we talk about the revolution we now think in terms of a political struggle in which our party agrees tofight the bourgeoisie with their own weapons.”

The PCF leadership does not, of course, openly hate the revolution. Its feelings are repressed, producing a sort of “hysterical blindness”. It simply refuses to see the revolution even when it looms up suddenly in front of it.

There was, we are told, no revolutionary situation in France: only ultra-lefts say there was. Since what is ultraI eft at any given moment is determined, by the current stance of the PCF, which is forever shifting to the right, the ultra-left gets bigger all the time. It now includes those bourgeois journalists who have depicted the real situation and the actual roles of the participants in events.

In 1920, for the benefit of some real ultra-lefts, Lenin defined the cardinal conditions for revolution: “For revolution it is necessary that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. Only when the “lower classes” do not want the old way, and when the “upper classes” cannot continue in the, old way, then only can the revolution be victorious. This truth may be expressed in other ways: revolution is impossible without a national crisis, affecting both the exploiters and the exploited. It follows that for revolution it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers [or at least a majority of the class conscious, thinking, politically active workers] should fully understand the necessity for revolution and be ready to sacrifice their lives for it; secondly, that the ruling classes should be in a state of governmental crisis which draws even the most backward masses into politics [a symptom of every real revolution is: the rapid, tenfold and even a hundredfold increase in the number of hitherto apathetic representatives of the toiling and oppressed masses capable of waging the political struggle], weakens the government and makes it possible for revolutionaries to overthrow it.” (Left Wing Communism).

Which of the above conditions obtained in France? Was there an objectively revolutionary situation in France? If so, how and why did it develop and what happened to it?

Economic situation

In 1967 the standards of the French workers were seriously cut. Social security charges were raised by £250 million, extracted from the workers. Consumer prices had already in ten years risen by 45%. And wages? Whereas national wealth since 1958 had risen nearly 50%, workers had benefited little. One fifth of the total industrial labour force had a take-home pay of less than £8 a week.

Despite expansion, France’s economy is sick: the only west European country in which the share of employment in manufacture has declined. With a decline in industrial investment, France finds herself at the bottom of the league for industrial expansion. Stagnation in the building industry has led to the most chronic housing shortages in Western Europe.

Against this background, the deflationary cuts of 1967, merging with the world economic slackening, generated the highest level of unemployment in 15 years. In January 1968 it was half a million, having increased in twelve months by 32% (51% in the Paris region, and 59% in the run-down northern mining areas). Most indicative of a sick economy, and a sick system, is that 23% of the total unemployed are young; many never had a job.

The first spectacular explosion was among the students. Not integrated into a bureucratised, domesticated routine of day-to-day’ struggle, and sensitive to ideological movements, they were the first to respond to the growing crisis. Already in the early 60s they had been the main force of solidarity with the Algerian revolution, and lately the Vietnam issue had produced another militant mobilisation.

Revolutionary tradition

France’s labour movement is marked by a revolutionary temper expressed in spontaneous outbursts of class action going right back to the first workers’ state, the Paris Commune of 1871, and also in the allegiance of the workers to what they have regarded as the revolutionary party.

Already in 1936 a similar wave of sit-in strikes engulfed France, to be hoodwinked by the bourgeois Popular Front government and the Communist Party. In 1944 the armed communist workers of the resistance started to take over the country. They had disarmed the Paris police and begun to take over the factories, only to be again deflected from their purpose by the leaders of the Communist Party, who entered the bourgeois coalition govern and disarmed the workers, helping the capitalists to rebuild their state. Again in 1947 a mass strike wave hurled back the advance of de Gaulle’s then neo-fascist party.

Traditionally the PCF is the workers’ party, and gets 25% of the total vote. Thorez, its late leader, claimed primacy in developing the theory of peaceful roads to socialism. After its expulsion from the government at the beginning of the Cold War, it again assumed the role of an old social-reformist party in opposition, biding its time and the workers’ time too. It differed from an ordinary social democratic party only in its allegiance to Moscow and in its rigidly undemocratic internal regime.

The PCF has, partly because of its unrestrained methods, effectively retained control of the working class, using demagogy and smashing down with violence of various types and degrees on any opposition to its class-collaborationist policies. It suppresses the sale of Trotskyist literature to this very day by systematic thuggery, which increased sharply in the last year as the tension built up.

Besides the CP, there is a variety of bourgeois and petit bourgeois “left” parties, some gleaning workers’ votes. In the last three years efforts at unity have led to the formation of a Federation of the Radical and Socialist left, composing the Socialist Party, Republican Clubs, and the rump Radical Party (worn-out bourgeois liberals).

Essentially a re-alignment of the parliamentary riff-raff of the Fourth Republic, the Federation is led by one Frangois Mitterand (eleven times a minister, Colonial Minister in 1950-51 and a defence witness for ultra-right OAS leader Salan at his trial). They plan finally to merge into a social democratic party, with a predominantly petit bourgeois base. Collectively they dispose of four and a half million votes, but that is no match for the amalgam of Rightist groups making up de Gaulle’s party.

And so the Left Federation’s eyes have turned to the pariah party, the PCF.

The PCF also wants unity. Not revolutionary unity for struggle in factories and streets with the followers of the Federation but a parliamentary unity with the cynical scoundrels like Mollet and Mitterand who dupe and betray the petit bourgeois and the non-Communist workers.

The PCF supported Mitterand for President in 1965, as a gesture of goodwill without making demands. In the 1967 election they formed an alliance against the Gaullists, collectively gaining 59 seats. CP secretary Rochet made it clear that their policy was neither for communism nor socialism — but for “an end to the regime of personal power” and “a little bit more justice for the working man”.

Both the Left Federation and CP in fact accept the de Gaulle constitution imposed ten years ago by the army they merely wish to cut “Bonaparte”down to the size of a strong president by revoking Article 16. The biggest practical difference between the CP and LF is that one looks east to Moscow and the other west to Washington. And that means, ironically, that the CP supports de Gaulle’s foreign policy, while the LF opposes it.

But necessity makes strange bedfellows. Sharing a perspective of a peaceful, endless road to an impossible “socialism” the CP and LF have a lot in common: to be precise, 49% of the vote in 1967.

With a growing bond of mutual utility, things were looking bright. Time would smooth out the disagreements on foreign policy. Meanwhile the electoral margin would grow, the General would get older and maybe one day die: all was well and getting better.

But then the bloody workers went and spoilt it all by taking thing’s into their own hands. For them. of course, things had been bad and were getting worse.

The unions

No more than 30% of France’s workers are unionised, split into three blocks: Force Ouvriere (“Socialist”), 600,000 members; CFDT (Catholic) 750,000 members; and the biggest and most important, the CGT (“Communist”), with 1,900,000 members. (A decline from 5 million at the end of the war.)

The colours of the CGT banner are red and yellow: red for the workers and their aspipations, yellow for the stalinist bureaucrats and their way of life.

Were the CP and CGT revolutionary, with a realistic perspective of mobilising the workers in class struggle, then the discontent of the French workers would have developed openly in mass struggles. But the antics of the CGT in day to day industrial issues have made them past masters at repressing the militancy of the workers, paralleling industrially the CP’s role politically.

Thus the CGT deliberately divides the workers, factory from factory, grade from grade, conducting separate, isolated, limited strikes instead of serious struggles. Such demoralising tactics as half-hour strikes in a single shop, token one-day general strikes and extreme timidity in demands have contributed to the explosive frustrations and led to the fall-off in membership since the war.

As unemployment grew, as social shortages like housing remained chronic and social benefits and real wages were cut, the meanderings of the CGT only masked and disguised the resentment, and thus prepared the sudden and violent character of the explosion.

Last autumn (1967) they called for a general strike against the cuts, a token strike like so.many others. There was little response. This must have encouraged the bureaucrats to explain their own behaviour in terms of working class apathy. They forgot, these bureaucrats who are accustomed to commands from above, that the working class isn’t an orchestra to play to order, that it must develop confidence in itself and in its leaders before it will respond — and there had been too many token strikes in France.

The whole behaviour of the PCF and the CGT since 1944 and earlier, and particularly the industrial antics of the CGT, had been designed to destroy any confidence in the workers’ own ability to win. They needed a fighting lead, the prospect of a struggle rather than a charade, to rouse them with the hope of winning.

This hope the student movement, with its magnificent struggle on the barricades and in the streets — in the great tradition of the Commune itself — gave them.

Student guerillas

The students, free from the restraint of an ingrained loyalty to the PCF, were responsive to revolutionary propaganda (Trotskyist, Castroist, Maoist) which helped them develop the revolutionary elan to face the state in pitched battles.

When they stood up courageously in protest against police occupation of the Sorbonne, they were joined on the Night of the Barricades (10 May) by many unemployed youth, attracted by their militancy. According to the assistant editor of L’Express these fought most bitterly and, of the 30,000 on the barricades, were the last to leave.

The heroism of students and unemployed against the brutal police riveted the attention of the workers, who lloath the police, especially the strike-breaking CRS. A wave of sympathy swept through the working class.

To head off moves for serious solidarity action the unions called a one-day token general strike — one more token strike. But the response on 13 May was anything but token. Ten million workers, three times and more the number organised in trade unions, struck.

Meanwhile the students’ insurrection, and the very threat of a general strike had forced the government to retreat. The students had won.

And the workers, who had earlier ignored the call for a futile pseudo-struggle, under the baton of the CGT. bureaucrats, suddenly had found a blueprint for their own needs — they too would go out to win. The single spark of student action had landed on dry tinder.

Meant by the leaders as a safety valve, 13 May only convinced the workers of their own strength. Immediately an aggressive mood built up. In spite of the general return to work ordered for 14 May , some strikes continued. From 16 May the takeovers began. Workers seized Sud-Aviation; the students seized the universities. The workers in the most militant factory in the country, Renault at Biflancourt, took control.

By the weekend a million workers throughout France had seized the big plants. The Red Flag was hoisted over the means of production. The strikers demanded wage rises, shorter hours and “a real policy to deal with unemployment”. A great wave was rising, one which placed in question the very foundations of the capitalist system: its property.

The rearguard of the advance

This was entirely spontaneous. The CGT and other unions had remained in the background. Now the CGT endorsed the strikes and takeovers, moving quickly to catch up with the runaway workers. But it made it plain that at that stage, with only a milhon out, it was not calling a general strike.

But still the strikes continued to spread like. a grass fire. Desperately now the CGT fought for control of the workers’ movement. “The behaviour of the Communists has been fascinating to watch. From the beginng of the crisis they have been more concerned to crush the guerilla chaflenge of their left than to overthrow M. Pompidou’s government” (Observer, 26.5.68).

The students, who had detonated the workers’ revolt, were the first target in the CGT’s campaign to reassert its control. At the beginning of the upsurge L’Humanite (the PCF’s daily paper) had denounced them. Now it resorted to demagogy about outsiders interfering in the affairs of the workers. The student leader Dany Cohn-Bendit was consistently referred to in their usually chauvinist press as “the German”.

Students were refused the right to participate in workers’ demonstrations. When on 17 May they marched to Billancourt they were refused access by CGT officials (but workers came out over the road to greet them).

Later, the only CGT posters at Renault were numerous warnings about... sellers of “ultra-left” literature! A student plan to march on the Radio building on the 18th to protest against Government news control had to be cancelled because the CGT denounced it as a “provocation” and warned all workers against taking part.

Yet despite all this, the CGT afid CP had to run very fast just to keep up with the growing wave of workers’ actions. “The paradox which underlies this controlled chaos is that the Communist unions and the Gaullist government they appear to be challenging are really on the same side of the barricades... only in this way (i.e., by endorsing strikes) can the apparatus which leads the Communist unions retain its control and protect its base from contamination. Economic dislocation and incredible inconvenience are the price which French society is having to pay to head off an insurrectionary movement which no-one saw coming and few have yet understood” (Observer, 19.5.68).

By 23 May the peak of the wave was reached, with ten million workers in possession of the factories up and down the land: control seemed to have slipped out of the bourgeoisie’s hands.

Two perspectives

By its scope, tone and temper the mass strike was insurrectionary — the workers’ drive was clearly for a total reconstruction of society. It raised inescapably the big question: which class is to rule? A choice of two perspectives faced the workers: keep physical control and take over entirely and go forward; or else settle for big concessions by way of ransom from the powerless bourgeoisie, which would — for the moment — gladly make them.

To attain workers’ power the necessary steps were:

a. To prepare organs of workers’ power by generalising the factory committees (already taking many decisions not normally taken by workers) into local, regional and finally a national council of workers’ delegates — thus opposing an embryonic workers’ state to the bourgeois state.

b. Begin to actually run the factories, under control of the workers’ councils.

c. Decisively smash and dismantle the bosses’ state —and consolidate the new order as a workers’ state.

Was this physically possible? What was the relationship of forces?

The workers had the factories. On 23 May the Police Union declared itself in sympathy with the strikers, and unwilling to be used against them. The unknown quantity was the army: because of military discipline the only way to test the conscript soldiers is to confront them with a struggle which forces them to choose — and gives them an opportunity to cross over.

In the Times Charles Douglas Home (Defence corres- pondent) wrote: “In an extreme emergency the troops could be brought into operation, but it is appreciated that they could be used only once, and then only for a short while, before the largely conscript army was exposed to a psychological battering in a general campaign of subversion which it would probably not withstand.” (31.5.68). This would confirm all past revolutionary experience.

The nominal armed strength of the bourgeoisie was: 83,000 police including 13,500 CRS; 61,000 gendarmes; 261,000 soldiers in France and Germany. In a clash they could only firmly rely on a few battalions of regular soldiers, and presumably the CRS.

But there were 10,000,000 strikers, and over 400,000 members of the CP alone. Yet the CPF and their apologists say the workers would have faced massive defeat had they attempted revolution.

In fact it is clear that with a minimum preparation, during the mass strike, the bourgeois state could have been smashed and dismantled. The strongest element of “material” force that protected the bourgeoisie was the reformist, social democratic routine, the anti-revolutionary legalist pacifist theory, and plain funk of the CPF leadership.

A party aiming at leading the working class to power in that situation would face the following tasks:

1. to raise the slogan of a workers’ and farmers’ government, as the immediate objective of the strike;

2. popularise the idea of workers’ council of self-administration to organise the life.of the country and begin to elaborate a counter-state, leading to dual power such as that in Russia between the rise of the workers’ councils (soviets) in February and their victory in October 1917.

3. it would begin to form workers’ militias, initially its own cadres, drawing in militants from all the factories — thus arming the workers for an uprising to disarm and suppress the paralysed organs of bourgeois power and establish the workers’ state.

A revolutionary party would have propagated this long before the upsurge. But even in the middle of the strike, such a programme of action, by a party with the ear of the masses, would have galvanised the workers — and at least led to a period of dual power.

What Rochet’s “revolutionaries” did

But the “revolutionary party” chose a different course: initially it did not even dare pose the resignation of de Gaulle and his government as an objective of the strike! Amidst the greatest workers’ movement for decades, and France’s biggest-ever general strike, the CP/CGT concentrated on getting wage concessions.

Running hard to keep control of the workers and to isolate the students and revolutionaries, the CGT and CFDT from the start of the upsurge demanded talks with the Government. (The Morning Star, 25.5.68, took Pompidou to task for being slow to reply!) Even the Catholic CFDT went further than the “communist” union in demanding structural reforms to the system, as well as bread-and-butter concessions: and in fact they remained consistently to the left of the CGT.

By the morning of 27 May they had got their “big concessions”: 10% all round increase; 35% rise in minimum wage: progress to a 40-hour week: social security cuts rescinded, etc. (By way of a tip, CGT leader Georges Seguy was promised that henceforth the CGT too would be eligible for government subsidy for the training of its officials... )

The size of these concessions is the measure of the bosses’ desperate need to enable their labour tenants to placate the workers.

The happy band of bureaucrats, smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign for thi cameras, hurried to Billancourt, symbol of labour militant, to bring the glad tidings — and call off the strike.

But the proletariat is an ungrateful class. Seguy and Franchon, the CGT bosses, were shouted down, and their “big concessions” scorned.

All over France the same thing happened: the workers refused to call off the strike. They wanted more — in fact they wanted everything. But the CP and its union — built over decades on talk of socialism — stood four-square across their path, dithering and wriggling. And so, instead of advance, there was stalemate.

And now? Who could control the workers and end the bosses’ period in limbo?

The General seemed eclipsed, and there was nothing remotely resembling a government in sight. The students and revolutionaries, despite the CP’s anathema, were gaining. “The incredible success of the student leaders was to rally... thousands of young workers disgruntled with the stick-in-the-mud unions... “ to a mass rally on the 27th. Despite a number of CP counter-meetings, 30,000 attended, demonstrating the chasm that separated the timid leaders from large sections of the workers.

But what was to be done? Mitterand on 28 May hurried in with a solution to harness the workers’ energies in the best interests of capitalism and of... Mitterand: a Provisional Government to supplant De Gaulle immediately headed by Mitterand, with Mendes-France as Premier.

Naturally the CP agreed — but it had to haggle with these bourgeois politicians in whose small shadow it chose to walk, for a promise of a place in the new Government. A mass demonstration for “a change of policy opening the way to progress and democracy” covered Paris, two miles long, on the 29th. It looked as if by sheer strength of the mass movement the left leaders and the CP would be lifted into the saddle — despite their earlier reticence.

But then de Gaulle came back on stage, having met General Massu and arranged for CRS reinforcements and tanks to converge on Paris. On 30 May he made his second, belligerent, speech, drawing confidence from the proven timidity of his opponents and their ability to dupe and confuse the masses, rather than from any other real strength he and his class possessed.

Recognising that the strike must end either in insurrection or collapse, he said in effect to the cowardly social democrats of the “Communist Party”: “Attempt to take power, or put your hands up!” Knowing his opponents, and perhaps preparing their retreat, he announced a General Election.

Vanguard of the retreat

Within two hours of the ultimatum, in a situation where they were not merely strong enough to boycott any capitalist election but could actually prevent it being held, the heroes of the CPF announced that they accepted this election, stage-managed by the Gaullist statel “There was [in de Gaulle’s speech] also an element of bluff — had he really the power to break the strike if it continued and made elections impossible!... [How in any case could [the election] have been organised in a country paralysed by strikes — who would have printed the voting slips?]... “ (Observer, 2.6.68).

De Gaulle could safely bluff. He was aware of one great asset: the inbred social-democratic inertia and fear of action of the CP, who had publicly proclaimed their intentions by maintaining their dog-tail relationship with Mitterand and Co. Their demand for de Gaulle’s and the government’s resignation, so belatedly adopted, was now dropped like hot contraband. The other “lefts” followed, with varying degrees of protest, where the CP led. “Even before the cabinet had announced its promise to’ respect last weekend’s wage increases, the trade unions, disassociating themselves from the students, were engaged in back to work talks with their employers.“ (ibid.)

With de Gaulle’s speech and the non-response of the workers’ parties, his supporters raised their heads: “Paramilitary Committees of Civic Action sprang up here and there across the country, in one or two areas celebrating their legitimised thuggery by firing a few shots at trade union or CP office buildings...“ The police, which had vacillated, now regained its loyalty to the force which appeared strongest, in face of the CP’s feebleness. “At least we now know where we are “, was the general police reaction to de Gaulle’s speech, as reported in the Times (31.5.68). And the Gaullists took to the streets, 500,000 strong, some chanting: “Cohn-Bendit to Dachau”. (He had habitually been referred to in the bourgeois press as “the German Jew”; in reply the students and young workers took up the slogan, “We are all German Jews“, and young Algerians, making a distinction which many “lefts” have yet to perceive, between Jews and the reactionary State of Israel, chanted that they too were “German Jews”).

Having accepted the elections, the CP again ignored all but bread-and-butter issues. It explained to its militants, as it did the latest somersault, “We have not changed — life has”! Meanwhile, the police began to break up the strikes, starting with the post offices, radio, TV and fuel. The CP stood on the side-lines — warning against “ultraleft provocateurs”. The Morning Star reported as follows, on 1 June, the statement of the CPF: “[it] warned today that General de Gaulle had threatened to use “other means than the elections”.

Yet “the Communists would enter the electoral battle with confidence and [the CPF] called on everyone to guard against giving any opening to provocations wherever they might come from... Cancellation of last year’s social security cuts will not now be part of the present settlement, because the government has said the issue should be discussed in the new National Assembly”.

Lack of shame or self-consciousness is one major asset these people possess.

Thereafter the CP, guided no doubt by the notorious injunction of their late leader Thorez that “one must know how to end a strike”, energetically set about getting the workers back to work, splitting up their unity (by instructing everyone to return to work as soon as their separate settlements were made) and isolating the hard core to face the now increasing violence of the police, which was to result in several deaths. The Party’s mind was on the coming elections, as that “ultra-left” high Tory paper the Sunday Telegraph put it: “Now there can be elections. The energy and violence generated by the upheaval can be canalised into a campaign for votes” (2.6.68). That is, of course, pretty much what Balanger said in the first place.

Was revolution possible?

Between 16-30 May as we have seen, and even after that, there was a mass working class movement openly striving for more than just wage concessions. There was active. support from the petty bourgeoisie in town and country. (Western farmers offered the workers cheap food for the duration). The state was almost totally paralysed — even the police wavered.

Objectively, had the movement developed in accordance with its own drives, the ruling class would no longer have been able to rule, and in fact their rule was momentarily suspended. There was a deep, long-germinating national crisis, an eruption of 20 years of working class frustration. The deepest layers of the normally unorganised masses were brought into action by the struggle. Conditions were uniquely favourable for a relatively easy takeover by the workers.

One element was lacking to transform a. revolutionary upsurge into a revolution: the “subjective” factor. The org. anisations of the working class of all shades and stripes held it back, derailed it, split it up and allowed the bourgeoisie to ride out the storm, regain the power of its political limbs and re-establish its suspended control. The workers’ organisations were not merely passive or negative, but actively hostile to the interests and the drives of the working class. The decisive role in maintaining the bourgeoisie in power fell once again to the Communist Party of France.

The Paris correspondent of the Economist described it thus: “The French Communists did everything in their power to control the revolutionary wave, and, once the General had made it plain that he would not abdicate, to direct it back into electoral channels. On the night of May 30th there was a risk of conftontation between the armedforces and the any of labour. Next morning the risk had vanished because the army of strikers had been dispersed. M. Seguy the boss of the Communist-dominated CGT, could not demobilise his followers. But, followed by other trade union leaders, he divided his troops into separate battalions, each seeking additional bargains, particularly in wages, from its employers. What had begun to look like a frontal allack on the state, rapidly became a series of individual skirmishes.

“And L’Humanité, the Communist daily, started to use the language of an election campaign... the Communist decision to call a retreat and the General’s speech marked the turning point in the crisis. They were more decisive than the big Gaullist demonstration that followed the General’s speech on 31 May“ (8.6.68).

Instead of focusing the movement of the workers on the goal of workers’ power, the most extreme demand the CP dared make was for a change of bourgeois regime, removing the mild bonaparte de Gaulle and putting in Mitterand as president and Mendes-France (premier when the Algerian war started) as prime minister.

Instead of workers’ soviets, they put pressure on the bosses’ parliament (which pressure drove the centre to the right). Instead of revolutionary leadership, traitorous man-oeuvring to frustrate the workers’ desires. (“Behind the smokescreen of public polemics, M. Pompidou and France’s Communist leaders established a secret link at the very beginning of the strikes. Messages were exchanged every day and it is known who the contacts were and how they operated “, New Statesman, 7.6.68).

Instead of unity of workers, students, and farmers in action, deliberate attempts to divide them and confine “unity” to the parliamentary tops. Instead of a workers’ militia, the most cringing self-abasement and cowardice before even the threat of the violence which it was by no means certain de Gaulle could inflict. Instead of being the left party, the CP and the CGT were usually to the right of both the Catholic unions and Force Ouvriere — and even of the bourgeois radical “socialist” Mendes-France. And the final infamy: the government’s ban on the Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist groups which sparked the movement didn’t even call forth a whisper of protest from the CP or CGT.

What could have been a great revolution looks like ending as a lost election, with the bourgeoisie and de Gaulle strengthened. There is a cruel dialectic during such periods in the relationship of the three main classes in society. The petty bourgeois rallied to the workers, propelled by their own dissatisfaction. Had a revolutionary momentum been maintained, they could have been taken along even to the point of struggle for power. But many may now rally behind the entrenched Party of Order in disillusion with the Party of Revolution which did not even dare put forward a policy.

Again let the Paris correspondent of the Economist, who shames the pseudo-Marxist apologists of King Street [the CP], explain: “A general strike is a tactic for seizing power, notfor persuading voters. If the Left had seized power, it would now be the new order itself, but it stopped half way — after frightening many floating voters amongst the middle classes“ (8.6.68).

If they lose the elections they will naturally say it proves there was no revolutionary situation. The point however is that to let capitalism canalise revolutionary energy into the rigged channels of its institutions; or to see “revolution” only through the reversed telescope lens of the bosses’ legality; or to try to filter an explosive mass revolutionary ferment through the slit in a bourgeois ballot box, is to forego forever the prospect of workers’ power. These institutions are specifically designed to prop up capitalism — not to knock it down.

Mass strike means rebirth

Nevertheless the mass strike, the self-mobilisation of the masses, is the “natural” regenerative process of a stagnant labour movement. Writing in 1936 of the French workers’ upsurge then, Trotsky’s description of this process is still alive with meaning for us today: “The strike has everywhere and in every place pushed the most thoughtful and fearless workers to thefore. To them belongs the initiative. They are still acting cautiously, feeling the ground under their feet. The vanguard detachments are trying not to rush ahead so as not to isolate themselves. The echoing and re-echoing answers of the hindmost ranks to, their call gives them new courage.

“The roll call of the class has become a trial self-mobilisation. The proletariat was itself in greatest need for this demonstration of its strength. The practical successes won, however precarious they may be, cannot fail to raise the self confidence of the masses to an extraordinary degree, particularly among the most backward and oppressed strata.

“That leaders have come forward in the industries and in the factories is the foremost conquest of the first wave. The elements oflocal and regional staffs have been created. The masses know them. They know one another. Real revolutionaries will seek contact with them.

“Thus the first self-mobilisation of the masses has outlined and in part brought forward the first elements of revolutionary leadership. The strike has stirred, revitalised and regenerated the whole colossal class organism. The old organisational shell has by no means dropped away. On the contrary, it still retains its hold quite stubbornly. But under it the new skin is, already visible”.

Postscript

Of course the Gaullists won. Their opponents got no thanks at all for allowing the elections to take place: and they failed to win the electoral support of many petty bourgeois and even some workers who had actively supported the movement in May. Any party which abandons its fortified position to fight on its opponents’ ground is bound to get the worst of allpossible worlds.

The Gaullists fought on a slogan of Never Again — cash ing in on the inability of the workers’ parties in May to go beyond the necessary anarchy of the strikes. And this slogan appeal to many who during the strikes had seen the anarchy as a prelude to something better, but who in disillusionment now saw them only as an interlude to anarchy leading to if possible repression.

The CP and Left Federation, remaining silent at the CRS re-occupation of the Sorbonne and the brutality of the police, took the same line and thus endorsed the Gaullist propaganda: “Keep the Gaullists and there may be a bigger explosion later!“

But the lefts’ respectability was easily outdone by the persuasion of fear so lavishly used by the Gaullists. “Hopelessly torn and bewildered by the revolutionary crisis”, the left “was permanently on the defensive, trying to prove that it had nothing to do with riots and barricades. Whether this was true or not turned out to be irrelevant. As a champion of established law and order M. Waldeck Rochet could not compete with M. Pompidou” [Economist, 29.6.68]. Finally the CP and Left Federation succeeded in getting less votes than the number on strike in May.

Only the small opportunist PSU of Mendes-France, which defended the students, made any gains. Many workers and petty bourgeois who could have been led forward in May step by step in conflict with capitalism and its state- given revolutionary leadership were simply not ready in the cold anti climactic atmosphere of the elections to vote for those who had stood in their way. Many didn’t bother to vote at all. On the other hand, the right and centre rallied to de Gaulle. The CP lost 39 seats out of 73, and the LF 61 out of 121.

The parliamentary cretins foresaw nothing of this. They were trying to force the heat of revolution onto the “cross” square of a ballot paper. Instead they succeeded only in hurling back the advance of the masses and alienating from revolutionary activity many who were beginning to be educated in class action. Revolutionary parties which sell out revolutions rarely win the elections or plebiscites called by those in power to put the seal on their victory!