Forty years ago this May, a revolt by millions of French workers and students led to a general strike that paralyzed the country for three weeks, caused the government to collapse and electrified the entire world. This struggle’s anniversary is noteworthy because “May 68” still has much to teach us.
The upheaval began as a student protest, similar to those occurring on a daily basis during that period throughout Europe and the U.S., although general working-class anger and a 67-day white-collar metal workers’ strike in Saint Nazaire in 1967 provided the tinder for the spark that was about to come. That strike affected all the metal workers and won broad solidarity from all the workers in the city, especially from women’s protest marches of 3,000 and 4,000.
On March 22 in 1968, about 150 students and others invaded an administration building at Nanterre University outside Paris to demand reforms in the university’s budget. The administration called the cops and the students left the building. Protests continued, so on May 2 the administration closed Nanterre.
Four days later, 20,000 students and professors marched to the Sorbonne, Paris’s main university. The police rioted, launching tear gas grenades and beating and arresting hundreds of protesters. On May 10, another mass demonstration led to a pitched battle, lasting well into the night. Again, the cops ran amok. Police provocateurs launched Molotov cocktails, providing a convenient excuse for more beatings and arrests.
By now, sympathy for the student protesters and revulsion at police brutality was spreading throughout the working class. The French “Communist” Party — having long become a pro-ruling class puppet — and other fake-left organizations attempted to co-opt the growing movement with a call for a one-day strike on May 13. More than a million people marched through Paris that day. The government made minor concessions, but the protests mounted.
Most significantly, they spread throughout the working class. On May 13, workers at the Sud Aviation plant in the western city of Nantes began a sit-down strike. A strike by Renault auto parts workers near the northern city of Rouen spread to the Renault manufacturing complexes in the Seine valley and the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. By May 16, workers had occupied 50 factories; by May 17, the number of strikers had swelled to 200,000. A day later, two million were on strike; the following week, 10,000,000 workers, roughly two-thirds of France’s work-force, had hit the bricks.
Significantly, these strikes were not led by the organized unions, which did everything in their power to contain and reverse the movement. Police terror having failed, the labor “leadership,” including the “Communist” Party, tried bribery, but the workers turned down a significant pay increase and remained on strike.
On May 30, nearly a half-million workers and students marched through Paris chanting “Adieu, De Gaulle” (Farewell De Gaulle), to express their hatred for France’s president and his government.
De Gaulle had already flown secretly to Germany to enlist the support of the infamous General Jacques Massu, known for his justification of torture during France’s colonial war in Algeria. De Gaulle had appointed Massu commander of French military forces in Germany, and Massu was preparing to send French regiments home to suppress the revolt.
However, the French ruling class didn’t need the army. The revolt quickly subsided because of its own internal flaws. Crucial among these was the absence of leadership from a revolutionary communist party with a mass base within the working class. Only such a party could have given strategic and tactical direction to the longing angrily expressed by French workers and students for fundamental change in society. Only such a party could have raised the question of smashing capitalist state power and replacing it with a working-class dictatorship. This is the key lesson for us today, but not the only one.
The revolt occurred at a time when the concept of the working class’s role in society and the revolutionary process had come under assault from a gaggle of fake-left “theorists,” led by a professor named Herbert Marcuse. The millions who struck France’s factories exposed the shallowness of this viewpoint and dramatically showed that the working class alone, which builds and runs everything, has the potential to revolutionize society and bring about meaningful change. This principle is just as valid today.
The events of May 68 also clearly demonstrated the key secondary role of students and intellectuals in the revolutionary process. It’s no accident that the struggle began on a college campus before spreading to the factories. Despite several abortive attempts, France’s student strikers failed to make a significant alliance with the millions of working-class strikers, but this failure in no way invalidates the strategic necessity for a worker-student alliance. More than anything, it highlights the absence of communist leadership.
A third key lesson is the absolute bankruptcy of reformism. The workers who rejected the salary bribe had an inkling of the right idea here; without a communist party to lead them, they were forced to fight blindfolded, with one hand tied behind their backs.
After the strike ended, De Gaulle quit the presidency, replaced by his henchman, Georges Pompidou. A host of reforms ensued. Forty years later, France remains a capitalist dictatorship. Unemployment for younger workers hovers between 20 and 25 percent and is much higher for immigrant workers. Racism, particularly against black workers from Africa and Arab workers is rampant in the land of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” France’s rulers continue to seek status as junior partners in the bloody scramble among U.S. bosses and others for control of Persian Gulf oil. French capitalism is thus helping grease the skids for the next world war.
Pro-boss cynics say May 68 justifies the lie that class struggle always leads to disappointment. PLP differs. The struggles of workers and students in France two generations ago belong to our class’s living history, if we absorb their lessons and interpret them correctly. In the past four decades, capitalism has solved none of the problems that led to this revolt. If anything, the problems have worsened. Therefore, more revolts are only a matter of time. In fact, now there is speculation about workers’ reaction to this 40th anniversary and whether current student demonstrations and school occupations could spark another strike wave.
PLP’s job remains the same everywhere: to spread our revolutionary ideas and build our revolutionary organization under any and all circumstances, so that when struggle of this magnitude once again erupts, its goal will be working-class dictatorship and its outcome will be a massive spurt in the ranks of communist-minded workers and students.