Decisive question in France 1968: Revolutionary or reformist leadership?


French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais addressing Renault workers on strike, May 1968.

The year 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 uprising of workers and students in France. In light of the Yellow Vests protest movement shaking France today, and the continued relevance of the lessons of 1968 for anti-capitalist struggles, Struggle–La Lucha is publishing a series of articles written at that time by Sam Marcy, one of the leading Marxist thinkers of the second half of the 20th century. This piece originally appeared in the June 6, 1968, issue of Workers World newspaper.

June 4, 1968: The key question in the French Revolution of 1968 is the role of the leadership of the working class in the unfolding events. All other questions really merge into this one.

As these lines are written, press reports indicate a back-to-work movement of the French workers following President Charles de Gaulle’s ultimatum and his threat to use force.

Nevertheless, all the basic conditions for the success of the revolution still exist. In fact, a more favorable political situation for a proletarian revolution during peacetime could scarcely be hoped for.

It is fully two weeks since the workers began to take over the large plants — which is a long time in a revolutionary situation. Almost all of the economic arteries of French national life are still in the hands of the working class.

De facto power of workers

Despite the admonition to the workers by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) trade union leaders to accept the government’s wage offer; despite Gaullist threats of force and violence, military conspiracy, parliamentary trickery; despite all these factors, the de facto power, as of today, rests squarely in the hands of the working class.

Even at this late date, the much touted back-to-work movement which the capitalist press throughout the world has hailed with so much advance publicity appears to be a trickle against the vast number of strikers.

The fundamental political problem in France concerns the relationship between the general strike and proletarian revolution.

By all accounts, the general strike is the strongest, most widespread and best organized of any in the history of the modern working-class movement. Indeed, it has few parallels.

The great French strikes of 1936 encompassed at most about three million. As of yesterday, it was 10 million and probably more. It exceeds in numbers, depth and revolutionary intensity the only other general strike in Western Europe which brought a country to an almost complete standstill. And that was the British General Strike of 1926.

Although no one doubts the power of the present French General Strike, until just a few days ago it was questioned as to whether it had any revolutionary significance. By now, however, it is almost universally admitted that the strike has posed a revolutionary threat to the regime.

In fact, it has put on the order of the day the proletarian revolution. What is a proletarian revolution? It is a transfer of power from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat. Is this what is happening in France?

Capitalist state helpless

The New York Worker of June 2 [publication of the Communist Party USA] stated flatly that there were “ten million strikers who held in their hands the actual power of the French Republic, having paralyzed economic life and rendered the state helpless.” The account in the Worker is based on reports from Paris. We quote the Worker because it is a close friend and political ally of the French Communist Party.

If, as the Worker states, “the strikers hold in their hands the actual power of the French Republic and render the present capitalist state helpless,” is this not a proletarian revolution in the making? But even if we were to disregard the conclusions of the Worker, there are literally scores of reports in the capitalist press which substantiate the same conclusions.

For instance, [journalist] Max Lerner, who was in Paris at approximately the same time, states that “the rebellion which was sparked by the students became a revolt when the unions seized the factories, and it became a full-fledged revolution when they decided to turn down the general strike settlement which their own union leaders had reached with the government and other employers.” (New York Post, June 3)

But aside from any and all assertions and analyses, the objective facts speak for themselves — the workers, the farmers, the students are in a state of utter rebellion. The sea of red flags that hang over the factories is clear and unambiguous evidence of a desire not merely for economic change but for proletarian revolution.

The key question relates to the role of the leaders of the working-class organizations. From the very beginning, they were taken completely by surprise when the workers seized the plants.

It is entirely possible that even the most revolutionary leadership could be taken by surprise by a spontaneous revolutionary outburst of the working class such as in France.

Revolutionary or reformist leadership?

But a revolutionary leadership is distinguished from a reformist, bourgeois type in that it would welcome the revolutionary situation and seek to turn it into a full-scale assumption of proletarian power.

Indeed, if the capitalist “state is rendered helpless,” does it not follow as night follows day that the workers should set up their own state, since they already have de facto power in their hands?

Instead, however, the leaders are desperately trying to reduce the struggle to a narrow economic one, and, while seeking some concessions from the government and the employers, they are in reality desperately trying to abandon the revolutionary struggle of the workers for state power.

Parallel with British General Strike

The general strike is often regarded as a mere economic weapon launched for economic objectives and not as a revolutionary struggle aimed at the regime and social system itself. The apologists for the Communist Party-CGT leadership in France are trying hard to draw on the tragic experience of the British General Strike of 1926 to bolster their reformist thesis.

The parallel with the British General Strike is indeed instructive, but it thoroughly refutes their thesis.

In 1926, the British working class tied up the country when three million workers walked off their jobs in protest against a government recommendation which would have cut the wages of the coal miners. As in France today, all dock workers, steel workers, building workers were out. Everything was down — all transportation by rail or bus, all shipping and all newspapers with the exception of those published by the British workers for the workers.

Prime Minister Baldwin and General de Gaulle

Like the de Gaulle-Pompidou government, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill launched a monstrous red-baiting campaign. It did not measurably influence the workers. On the contrary, it strengthened their resistance. Like de Gaulle, Prime Minister Baldwin launched a series of maneuvers, including the calling up of the army reserves, demonstrations of the armed forces in London, followed by a series of arrests.

Nevertheless, the strike continued strong. It was the leadership, fearing for the existence of the capitalist system, that suddenly caved in and surrendered. Thus was ended the most revolutionary initiative of the British workers since the Chartist Movement of 1848.

This is the true lesson of the British General Strike. There has been nothing like it since. But there are important differences between the 1926 strikes and the great French sit-downs in 1936, and the present strike, which clearly shows how much more favorably situated is the present leadership in France than were the British leaders in 1926 or the French in 1936. In Britain there was no revolutionary movement of the students that generally reflected the discontent of vast middle-class elements. Equally important was the absence of a parallel protest movement in the rural areas and towns of Britain, unlike present-day France.

Nevertheless, all historical accounts of the Great General Strike of 1926 by working-class observers put the failure of the strike on the shoulders of the leadership.

The British General Strike came in the midst of a general political awakening of the British working class. There were evident signs that the empire was beginning to crack. According to the ruling class, the way to salvage the empire and save Britain’s position in the world as a great imperialist power was to take it out of the hides of the workers, just the way de Gaulle and his cohorts want to do. Prime Minister Baldwin was, like General de Gaulle, trying to preserve the grandeur of British imperialism’s world position.

One of the lessons of the general strike was that while its origins and objectives were economic and while it didn’t necessarily aim to go beyond the confines of the capitalist system, its very scope and momentum posed a revolutionary threat to the power of the ruling class.  Because it successfully tied up the economic life of the country, it also showed the workers that their economic strength could, under the circumstances of a general strike, turn into political power for the working class. This was an objective to which the leadership of Cooke and Purcel of the General Council of the British Trade Union were wholly opposed — just like the present CP-CGT leadership.

French peasant rebellion

How different is the situation today in France! It is scarcely possible to find a more favorable political situation. For the first time in many decades the working-class struggle coincides with the profoundest and deepest discontent of the rural population. Take the demonstration in Auch, France, on May 24, just to give one of many examples. Thousands demonstrated in the farming area of southwestern France. Riot police used tear gas grenades to stop the demonstrators from breaking into the capitol building. Their slogan was “down with de Gaulle.” “We are the serfs, the slaves of the modern era,” shouted a young farm leader from the lowland hamlet of Carbonne. Many of the marchers sang the Internationale.

Under these circumstances it is easy to see that the objective conditions for an alliance between poor peasants and workers is all but guaranteed, if the leadership of the working-class organizations has the courage and determination to take advantage of it while the opportunity lasts.

One of the fundamental objective conditions for the failure of the Paris Commune of 1871 was the lack of support from the countryside. Now, the countryside is seething with rebellion. De Gaulle’s common market scheme has meant misery for the rural poor no less than de Gaulle’s anti-labor policy has meant increasing deprivation for the broad masses of the working class.

After the Paris Commune, Marx said that what would be needed for the victory of the French proletariat was “another edition of the Peasant War” of the preceding century. As one reads about how the peasants are now waving pitchforks and chanting “Pompidou resign,” the situation seems to be ready made for a true revolutionary alliance between peasants and workers.

Action Committee

L’Humanite of May 24, organ of the French CP, reports the existence “in many Departments of Action Committees for setting up a government that would rely on the alliance of all Left forces and be guided in its activity by a program meeting the interests of the mass of the people.”

This is incontrovertible evidence of the embryonic existence of proletarian power. These Action Committees in alliance with other elements of the rebellious population can function as organs of workers’ power, especially if they can ally themselves with the students and rural poor.

To effectuate the transition to proletarian power by the Action Committees and other revolutionary forces, it is necessary to make a complete break with bourgeois parliamentary trickery. It is a foregone conclusion that the type of election scheduled by the Gaullist dictatorship to take place late in June is merely a maneuver calculated to divert the attention of the masses and make them oblivious to the fact that they already have power in their hands and oblige them to transfer it back to the bourgeoisie.

The masses already have spoken by their deeds. The CP and CGT and whatever other allies they have should boycott the elections as a fraudulent device, calculated to deprive the masses of the fruit of their victory. By admonishing the masses to accept the wage agreement in the first place, the leadership showed that they were entirely out of touch with the masses. Fortunately the negotiations were broken off with the government and the employers.

Resort to naked military threats

When de Gaulle announced that he would schedule a referendum, the hostile reception he got from the general population further enhanced the revolutionary mood of the popular masses. From this a section of the ruling class drew the conclusion that perhaps de Gaulle ought to resign. So great was the clamor that a virtual split took place in de Gaulle’s own cabinet.

Under the revolutionary pressure of the masses, the bourgeoisie became more isolated and sought to overcome the crisis by resort to naked military threats and conspiracy with the reactionary military camarilla.

All of this was designed to intimidate the CP-CGT leadership and get them to drive the masses back to work and return the plants to the exploiters.

While, on the one hand, rumors of de Gaulle’s resignation were carefully planted, on the other hand, military maneuvers were widely publicized to intimidate the leaders in the hope of paralyzing the masses.

Then came de Gaulle’s carefully planned counteroffensive. This was an open appeal to the anti-communist, anti-working-class and pro-fascist elements, with a strong threat of open civil war, which was meant to serve as an ultimatum to the revolutionary masses to accept still another parliamentary fraud in the form of general elections.

As of now, June 4, the apparent agreement of the Communist Party leaders to participate in the election and the reported agreement of the CGT leaders to recommend negotiations with the de Gaulle government, especially after both organizations made the resignation of the government a demand of the workers, indicates a capitulation to the threat of the use of force and a surrender of the revolutionary struggle of the workers in favor of the same old fraudulent bourgeois parliamentary hoax.

As the New York Times of May 31 pointed out, “de Gaulle’s present tactics are designed to cover his defeat at the hands of the workers.” What a revealing admission! De Gaulle’s aim, this Times editorial affirms, “is to get the strikes ended and the French middle class activated to vote the Gaullist ticket.” Then the Times significantly adds, “the electoral system will help.”

Role of middle class

Indeed! So far as the middle class is concerned, it is well to remember Marx’s classic analysis of it which remains true to this very day. It is a socially heterogeneous and politically divided social formation. It is torn by a thousand inner contradictions, but it has no independent standing in bourgeois society. It stands in the middle, between the two great classes in contemporary society, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

In time of acute class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat such as is taking place now in France, the middle class continually vacillates between the two great class camps. Invariably as throughout all its history, its decisions will be made on the basis of which class shows the greater determination and the greater power in the struggle. If matters are left to be decided by bourgeois parliamentary methods and not by a decisive bid to reconstruct society on the basis of the power the workers hold now, unquestionably a large section of the middle class will line up with Gaullism.

Every strike an embryo revolution

The occupation of the plants and all industries by a phenomenally successful general strike is only a transitional step to the next phase of the struggle. Every strike is an embryo revolution. The occupation of the plants is a threat to private property. The occupation of the plants on a nationwide scale is a threat to the entire bourgeois social order and is a precursor to collective ownership by the proletariat.

The bourgeoisie cannot help but recognize this. The occupation of the plants is a symptom of dual power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Such a state of affairs cannot endure indefinitely.

Either the proletariat takes over the plants completely, expropriates the bourgeoisie and sets up an alliance with the students, the rural poor and the white-collar workers in the urban centers for the purpose of transforming society, or the bourgeoisie may well crush the working class. The rock-bottom issue in France is proletarian power or ultimately an anti-labor, reactionary bourgeois dictatorship with a military clique to rule over all of France.

Bourgeois vs. proletarian democracy

According to L’Humanite as quoted in the Worker of May 28: “Conditions are rapidly ripening to end the Gaullist power and create a real democracy conforming to the interests of the French people.”

But democracy does not exist in the abstract. There is bourgeois democracy based on a bourgeois parliamentary system as it exists in France today — or a proletarian democracy based upon the popular masses, the working class, the rural poor, the students and the white-collar workers. Nothing could do more to deceive the French working masses than to put up such a fraudulent formulation of democracy.

Alongside this formulation L’Humanite adds: “This democracy will open the road to socialism.” A proletarian democracy based on the proletarian ownership of production and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie will indeed open the road to socialism, but a bourgeois democracy based upon a bourgeois parliament where the bourgeoisie is sure to predominate as it always has is nothing but a new name for an old fraud.

That this nonsense about democracy in general opening the road to socialism, which is being spouted by L’Humanite, should emanate from the land of the Paris Commune, is the worst of all ironies. For it was the Paris Commune which showed that a democracy under Thiers (i.e., de Gaulle) was really a bourgeois dictatorship, while the class rule of the Paris Communards was a proletarian democracy.

Popular Front coalition – on what class structure?

L’Humanite’s solution to the present crisis is a Popular Front. This is a coalition with the leftist section of the bourgeoisie such as with François Mitterand and others of his stripe. A coalition with capitalist politicians, on the basis of the present parliamentary system, which is based on the bourgeoisie as the possessing class, is a class betrayal of proletarian interests. It will simply be a modern version of the coalition between the liberals and the Labour Party of Britain and will mean that leaders of the working-class parties will hold office (even high office) in the cabinet. But they will only be office holders.

This is the most important of all the important distinctions between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy. In a bourgeois coalition based on a bourgeois parliamentary system the cabinet ministers are mere office holders. Power — real power — rests with the class that owns and controls the means of production — in this case, the bourgeoisie which runs the social system and determines the destiny of society as a whole.

But it would be altogether different if the CP and CGT proposed that the Mitterands and colleagues first help the workers expropriate the bourgeoisie and let the workers not merely possess but own the means of production, the peasants the land, the students and teachers the schools and universities and so on and so forth. If the Mitterands and Pierre Mendes-Frances accept this kind of coalition on the basis of proletarian rule, that might serve a progressive purpose. It might in fact be a step in the direction of socialism and a transitional stage to the abolition of all social classes and exploitation of man by man.

It would be wrong to say that we are against a coalition with the Mitterands under any and all circumstances. A coalition with them on the basis of the class rule of the proletariat and its allies may serve a useful purpose, especially if they join in disarming the bourgeoisie and dismantling its military and police apparatus.

Arming the workers

All of this is well and good, we are told, but there is one element that we have consistently left out of the situation and that is the role of the military and the fact that the French proletariat is not armed. It is basic to Marxist-Leninist strategy that no proletarian revolution can succeed without having arms in its possession.

It is true that the French working class is not armed in the sense that it does not now have a formal armed workers’ militia. But the workers are armed in the sense that they control the means of transit, the means of communication and the plants that produce arms and ammunition. Furthermore it is not really true to say that the French working class is totally disarmed.

Thoughtful revolutionary young leaders have undoubtedly given much consideration to just such a revolutionary situation as exists today. The army, that is to say, the army and police as presently constituted, is a small percentage of the population and can exercise great power only if the working class and its allies are apathetic and politically indifferent, confused and without perspective.

But an aroused proletariat having vast popular support among nonproletarian masses, as does the French proletariat, will succeed in arming itself and will disarm the bourgeoisie and its mercenary forces. Those leaders that seek to scare the people with frantic shouts that the workers aren’t armed should be asked why the leaders didn’t arm them. Some of these very same leaders acquiesced in the disarming of the French Partisans at the request of this very same de Gaulle they are now fighting. They should be made to answer rather than to ask questions about arming of the masses.

At any rate, the true answer to the arming of the workers and the prosecution of the proletarian revolution lies in the old maxim, “Whoever wills the objective must will the means thereto.” For a revolutionist that is the best answer.

Part 1 – Revolutionary situation in France 1968: Which road for the mass struggle?

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