Lesson of France 1968: Workers must declare themselves in power


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 20, 1968, issue of Workers World newspaper.

Up until the present time, there has been no successful proletarian revolution in the Western capitalist countries. The apologists for Western imperialism seem never to forget to remind us of this fact.

The revolutions in Eastern Europe that came during World War II were to one degree or another aided by the strong intervention of the Red Army, even where the Communist Party was very strong and had large popular support among the workers and peasants. There were, of course, attempts at proletarian revolution immediately after World War I in Germany and in Italy. There were also favorable opportunities for proletarian revolution in Germany during the period immediately preceding the Nazi takeover by Hitler and in France and Spain in the years immediately following Hitler’s seizure of power.

In the view of many, there also existed favorable opportunities in Italy and France after World War II, when large sections of the popular masses were armed and the capitalist state in both countries seemed on the verge of utter collapse.

At this writing, all of the imperialist publicists and commentators are busily writing obituaries to the French Revolution 1968. But as Mark Twain noted, in a different context, “Reports of my death are highly exaggerated.” And, of course, the broad implication of their propaganda is that the Western proletariat is congenitally incapable and uninterested in carrying out the proletarian revolution. As Sanche de Gramont in the Sunday, June 16, New York Times Magazine summed up their (wishful) thinking: “The French workers don’t want to wreck the affluent (affluent for whom? – S.M.) society. They just want to participate in it.”

Of course there is no question that the revolutionary situation in France as it has developed in the last four weeks has experienced a certain ebb tide. No revolutionary situation can continue consistently and steadily on the upgrade unless there is a seizure of power by the working class and its allies. Failing that, a recession is bound to set in. And that is what has happened.

Workers must declare themselves in power

A general strike such as the one which engulfed France these last few stormy weeks cannot endure indefinitely. The leadership of the working class in general and the trade union leadership in particular must make a conscious bid for state power. They must try to orient the working class toward a general seizure and maintenance of the plants, industry and economy with the revolutionary aim of declaring itself — we repeat, declaring itself — to be the legal, that is, the political authority in the country as against the police, the military and the pro-fascist dictatorship of [President Charles] de Gaulle, which has been repudiated by the popular, decisive masses in the streets and factories.

Unless this is done, the revolutionary tide cannot but begin to recede. In fact, it has begun to recede. But it is only a recession. There has been no definitive, no decisive defeat for the working class and its allies among the city and rural poor. Conversely, there has not been a decisive victory for the bourgeoisie.

De Gaulle calls on hated fascists

The de Gaulle regime is as shaky as it ever has been. Its condition both economically and politically is as desperate as it has ever been. And as we have indicated in previous articles, it is torn by a thousand inner class contradictions which it cannot resolve.

Imagine the plight of de Gaulle. He has had to call upon his worst personal enemies for help. He has had to lean on none other than Bidault, Salan & Co., the outright fascist elements so bitterly hated by the overwhelming majority of the French people. These elements only yesterday were plotting his assassination. Can he really have a stable united front with them?

De Gaulle’s so-called reconciliation with the army generals is only of a pro-forma character. The various cliques in the military camarilla make it highly questionable whether they can act in unison in a showdown. The reliability of the army rank and file and of sections of the police once the revolution begins in earnest can only be tested in the crucible of the actual struggle itself.

Decisive battles yet to come

As of now, neither of the major social classes on the opposite sides of the class barricades has been vanquished. Whatever has been lost or won, whatever may have been won by the bourgeoisie and lost by the proletariat and its allies, has been strictly in the field of political maneuver. This has not resulted in major casualties.

True, there have been some killings and brutal, savage beatings of students and workers. Measured by the scale of revolution, however, these can only be regarded as initial skirmishes. No major battle has yet been fought. All that the bourgeoisie has won is a psychological victory.

The lull before the storm

The workers have gone back to work, certainly. But their spirit has not been broken. Their class consciousness has not evaporated. On the contrary, it has been enhanced and enriched. This is the key factor in this great historical situation. This is precisely what the bourgeois press here and everywhere wants to hide. At any rate, most of the workers have gone back only because the French Communist Party-General Confederation of Labor (CGT) leadership has urged them to. The CP-CGT leadership has accepted de Gaulle’s edict to engage in a parliamentary contest with the ruling class for electoral seats rather than wage a revolutionary contest for proletarian state power.

This is where the situation rests at the present time. It is a lull before the next storm. It also affords the opportunity for the revolutionary elements which side with the proletariat against the bourgeoisie to take stock of the situation, reassess their tactics and prepare for the next stage of the struggle.

Objective conditions, class relations still favorable for revolution

The mass mood of the workers, students and rural poor may have changed. Some of the enthusiasm may have evaporated. Anger and disillusionment with the official leadership of the working class and the trade unions may have led to temporary pessimism. But this again is only a mood. The objective relationship of the classes and the relationship of the political forces in the country remains the same.

The actual living conditions of the overwhelming majority of the workers and peasants and a large section of the middle class have not materially changed except perhaps for the worse. The bankers, industrialists and financiers in whose behalf de Gaulle is mounting his counterrevolutionary offensive are not about to grant such major economic and political concessions as would materially influence the conditions of the mass of poor and exploited. Even if the rulers would, the question is still whether they could.  

Therein lay the tremendous material advantages in favor of the further prosecution of the proletarian revolution.

But how? The problem revolves almost entirely around the question of bourgeois parliamentarism — a centuries-old deception carefully cultivated by the bourgeoisie to ensnare, dupe and frighten the masses in the same way in which priests during the feudal period used to frighten the peasants with dire consequences if they refused to purchase indulgences.

‘From revolutionary action to a majority!’

Joseph Barry, former Paris correspondent for the New York Post, reporting in the June 13 Village Voice, writes:

“Two days ago a man handed me a leaflet saying de Gaulle’s requested Civic Action Committee would have its first organizational meeting for my 6th arrondissement in the local government mairie [town hall]. I already had a leaflet from the left-wing Action Committee for the 6th arrondissement ending with the slogan: ‘Not from an electoral majority to revolutionary action, but from revolutionary action to a majority!’ (De Gaulle’s dissolved parliament has a Gaullist majority, yet the action leading to its dissolution was in the street not in parliament.)”

Whatever was the political position of the writers of the slogan: “Not from an electoral majority to revolutionary action, but from revolutionary action to a majority!” even though somewhat vague, they were correct in principle and it reflects the objective tasks of the proletariat.

The idea that the working-class party must win a majority of the masses in a bourgeois parliamentary election supervised by a bourgeois government under a bourgeois system is one that is not easy to overcome. All the political parties of the left in France, as everywhere else in the West, have continually and uninterruptedly in one way or another sustained and strengthened this deception. Now the apologists say, “We are not a majority, we are one-fourth, maybe one-third of the electorate, we need to win an electoral majority.”

De Gaulle conspires with general: the revolution cannot wait

But what if the proletarian revolution is on the doorstep before a majority in an election can be won? What if a neofascist type of police dictatorship threatens the very political existence of the working class, its rights and liberties? What then? What if the revolution can’t wait for a parliamentary majority? What if fascist dictatorship is on the doorstep of every worker’s home? What then?

It took the bourgeoisie centuries to develop its parliamentary system and to “educate” the masses to accept it. The ruling class permitted universal suffrage only after it was absolutely sure that its parliamentary system worked in its favor.

For centuries, the vote was only permitted to property owners. Only after the bourgeoisie felt that it had pacified the masses and “educated” them to its ways did it permit universal suffrage. To the bourgeoisie, universal suffrage and the parliamentary system in general have always been an ideological weapon for the domination and political subjugation of the proletariat, of the exploited, the poor and the oppressed.

The proletariat in power will win all humanity

Marx and Engels took pains to explain that universal suffrage under a bourgeois system can at most, at best, be merely “an index of the maturity” of the working class for power. It can never be more. The truth of this generalization has been proven by the entire history of bourgeois parliamentarism throughout the West.

However, the working class can and will win a majority of the people, and a great deal more than a majority, not under the system of bourgeois parliamentarism, but under a working-class system where the proletariat has the power and the means to educate the population under its and not under the bourgeoisie’s ideological tutelage.

Yes, working-class leaders, students and their allies can say proudly, let us exercise power, real power, by taking the reins of society in our own hands. We will run society on a socialist basis, free from the parasitic, mercenary landlords, bankers, industrialists and other exploiters. We will win more popular support through our state, through our system (because it is a socialist system) than the bourgeoisie could ever win, because we can rectify all the basic ills of society and the bourgeoisie cannot and will not. They can only aggravate them.

It is not too late even if de Gaulle and his pro-fascist coalition should win a majority in his rigged parliament, the parliament of the bourgeoisie. It will not end the acute class struggle which has been brought to the surface in recent weeks. It has only temporarily subsided. It will re-emerge with greater force, with greater vitality than ever.

As against the rigged bourgeois parliament, the working-class organizations, the students, the rural poor and the exploited and oppressed of the cities must strive to build a unified, parallel center, a center of proletarian power — the next phase of the struggle.

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

Part 2 – Decisive question in France 1968: Revolutionary or reformist leadership?

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