After the May 1968 uprising: The political character of capitalist rule in France

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 (Part 5 in the series) originally appeared in the July 18, 1968, issue of Workers World newspaper.

Peasants, Workers and Students in Solidarity. (The central image is de Gaulle.)

July 15 — Now that the revolutionary tide in France has receded for the moment, it is possible to take a closer look at the political character of the de Gaulle regime. This can be fruitful and instructive in preparing for the next phase of the struggle.

Much has been written about the de Gaulle regime. However, most of it is extremely superficial and positively tendentious. It is calculated to blur its true class character and distort its basic political feature. The de Gaulle regime is a special type of Bonapartism, that is, Bonapartism as Marxists have understood that term since Engels first analyzed the phenomenon in his “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” — and as Lenin further developed it in his “State and Revolution.”

“The contemporary representative state,” said Engels, “is an instrument of exploitation of wage-labor by capital. By way of exception, however, periods occur when the warring classes are so nearly balanced that the state power, ostensibly appearing as a mediator, acquires, for the moment, a certain independence in relation to both.”

Examples of this, says Lenin in commenting on this passage, “were the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bonapartism of the First and Second Empires in France, and the Bismark regime in Germany.” There have been numerous examples since then, including the period immediately before Hitler took power in Germany, during the Von Papen and Schleicher regimes.

“Above classes” — for the bourgeoisie

De Gaulle is a Bonapartist because in his entire tenure as head of the French state, he has tried to assume the role of mediator between the basic classes in French society. As such, he has deemed it to be his duty to muffle the irreconcilable class antagonisms between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie by putting himself in the pretended position of one who is allegedly acting independently of both classes and is seemingly aloof from the so-called partisan politics of the various groups and parties in France.

De Gaulle, unquestionably a man of the right from the very outset of his career, has tried to lean first on the bourgeoisie, when faced with a challenge from the workers, and then again, also lean on the workers for political support, when he was challenged by the ultraright section of the bourgeoisie.

During the Algerian crisis, when he was faced with an imminent attempt at a coup d’état by the ultraright, he openly called on the working class for support, and were it not for that spontaneous and elemental surge of the masses during those momentous days, he surely would have been overthrown. But once the ultras were defeated, he veered back again to his usual politics of straddling the fence between the classes, leaning this time heavily on the bourgeoisie.

But whether he was veering towards right or left, he was acting in the interests of bourgeois society — in the interest of the bankers, industrialists and landlords. He was always trying to save the social foundation of the bourgeoisie from the excesses of the extreme right, which could endanger the social system, or from the proletariat, which could overthrow the bourgeoisie and put an end to the system of capitalist exploitation altogether.

De Gaulle’s wartime role was unquestionably that of a Bonapartist. Without the Resistance Army (Maquis), which was mainly composed of revolutionary young workers, students and peasants, de Gaulle would have been left with nothing but the shadow of a bourgeois ruling clique, since the larger section of the bourgeoisie had actually capitulated to Hitler and were for the most part either open or covert collaborators of the Vichy Regime. Couve de Murville, the present premier and the financier who married into the Schweisguth family, another wealthy banking group, was an official in the Vichy government.

Bonapartism obscured by stability

The decadelong period from 1958 to 1968 after the defeat of the ultraright obscured the Bonapartist role of de Gaulle. This was because he leaned more and more openly on the bourgeoisie for support, while the working class, led by the French Communist Party and General Confederation of Labor (CGT), abandoned any type of meaningful political struggle against the de Gaulle regime.

A principal characteristic of Bonapartist rule, especially as manifested by de Gaulle in recent years, is the almost total reliance on rule through the police, army and occasionally the parliament. In fact, in order to be able to maneuver between the basic classes of society, a Bonapartist ruler must necessarily turn more and more to rely ultimately on the police and the army and whatever coalition he is able to obtain by parliamentary maneuvering.

It is by this combination in one form or another that de Gaulle by dexterous juggling has been able to maintain himself in power. But whenever a truly momentous sharpening of the class struggle develops, a Bonapartist regime invariably exposes its fundamental weakness, its isolation from both class camps.

A truly revolutionary situation existed in France in May-June 1968. And it was a splendid example of how a Bonapartist regime, which hitherto apparently enjoyed such wide popular support because it was presumed to have had one of its two legs in each of the class camps, suddenly seemed not to have a shred of support in either camp.

Rulers looked for new savior during crisis

During the critical days, the struggle of the French working class reached its peak and was pulling along with it untold hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. The bourgeoisie itself seemed to be pulling away from support of de Gaulle and was looking elsewhere for a new savior or a political combination of leftist politicians which could draw the support of the workers and students and return them to order. But now, the crisis of Gaullism seems to have been temporarily overcome, the acute internal convulsions which had wracked it have been publicly disclosed, and they can be examined more carefully.

An analysis shows that de Gaulle had become isolated not only from the broad masses of people but that the bourgeoisie was on the verge of abandoning him and that his own political family was so much torn by inner strife that its members were at each other’s throats. For the moment, the Bonapartist regime of de Gaulle had become paralyzed as a result of the unprecedented revolutionary mass pressure exerted upon the regime by the workers and the students, as well as by the urban and rural poor.

Whenever a Bonapartist regime is faced by a genuine revolutionary struggle and both class camps seem to be in an irreconcilable conflict, the isolation of the regime becomes fully apparent and its tendency to resort to naked military-police pressure becomes enormously accelerated. That is precisely what happened with de Gaulle.

The military maneuvers which de Gaulle embarked upon, and which we covered in preceding articles, unfortunately proved successful, only because the working-class leaders became cowed and surrendered before de Gaulle’s threats of the use of force.

Whether he could have marshalled the necessary force to quell the revolutionary uprising is another story. For, as a true Bonapartist regime during times of social crisis, its isolation from both class camps became much too apparent and its only supports were in the military and the police, and even these seemed of a dubious character.

Abandoned by his own deputies

In addition, the facts now show that his regime was hopelessly split. It is now admitted that the inner strife in de Gaulle’s official clique was so sharp that his own “parliamentary group came close to demanding the resignation of President de Gaulle.” (New York Times, July 12, 1968)

That is a fact of enormous significance. If de Gaulle couldn’t rely on his own parliamentary faction, it must be that his parliamentary deputies had become terror-stricken by the dimensions of the struggle that the workers and students were putting up and that even the right-wing bourgeois elements that these deputies represented were for abandoning de Gaulle.

Even more significant was the deep cleavage which had developed between de Gaulle and Pompidou. It had gotten to the point where, as we pointed out earlier, de Gaulle had accused Pompidou of treason.

Now, the relationship between President de Gaulle and Premier Pompidou can be likened to the relationship that exists between the chairman of the board of a corporation and its chief executive officer. In this case, Pompidou is the chief executive officer, and has all the operating ends of the bourgeois corporation in his hands.

Furthermore, Pompidou at the moment was urging the resignation of de Gaulle. This moment indeed was the very apex of the crisis in the camp of the bourgeoisie. Pompidou was not merely an official or just another parliamentary figure in de Gaulle’s political entourage. He also is a banker and representative of huge industrial and financial interests of the bourgeoisie. His vacillations and fears pointed out the acuteness of the crisis which was rending the Gaullist clique.

It was Pompidou who was negotiating with the trade union leaders. It was in the negotiations with them that he was able to gauge much better than others the mood of the workers which in one way or another had filtered through the leaders of the CGT and was passed on to him.

But with the recession of the crisis, the relationship reversed. De Gaulle has temporarily strengthened his personal rule and reorganized his clique, and Pompidou has been ousted.

From the point of view of the class interest of the proletariat, there is no fundamental difference between de Gaulle and Pompidou. Each in his own way was seeking a means of subduing the workers and students and getting them to submit peacefully to the same old oppressive system of exploitation. But these two bourgeois leaders had become hopelessly entangled on the method of solving the crisis which the massive character of the strike had brought on.

When the leadership of the bourgeoisie becomes entangled as a result of its own contradictions, shows signs of vacillation, hesitation, coupled with concessions, it not only shows weakness but also shows that it is incapable of acting in unison. What a splendid opportunity for the leadership of the workers to take advantage of the disorder and chaos in the ruling class and press the advantage to the hilt. This was their bounden duty to the workers and to the people of France in general. But they didn’t do it.

Once de Gaulle gave up the idea of the referendum, it was an indubitable sign of a split in his ruling group. Together with the fact that the Gaullist parliamentary faction showed signs of favoring the exit of de Gaulle, the Bonapartist character of de Gaulle’s rule had completely exposed itself as lacking any major support even in the camp of the bourgeoisie.

Only option — the army and police

De Gaulle, therefore, was left only with the possible support of the army and police. And although de Gaulle had visited Baden-Baden in Germany and Mulhouse in Alsace, as well as Taverny, and conspired with the fascist generals, it is an open question whether in a showdown he could have counted on his ultraright-wing conspirators and rivals to go through a military assault on the French workers and students, in view of the unprecedented popular support they had, and in view of the inner divisions within the military establishment of France, which is wracked by as many clique struggles as is the civilian part of the government, if not more.

All this is important to recall, because the so-called massive electoral victory obtained by de Gaulle seems to give the appearance of a solid phalanx of support for his rule.

This electoral support, which suffices in normal times to stabilize the regime, restore the equilibrium between the antagonistic classes and insure the continued exploitation of the working people by finance capital, does not hold in times of revolutionary crisis.

And France is still in the throes of a revolutionary crisis. The working class has not been vanquished. They have gone back to work, but as Time magazine aptly describes the mood of the workers: “They went back with rage in their hearts.” That is not a defeatist mood, not by any means.

And scarcely has a fortnight passed since the elections and the students are once again on the move.

All that the electoral victory for de Gaulle means is that he has papered over the social crisis, but has not solved it.

True to his role as a Bonapartist, de Gaulle has once more shifted to a leftist posture. He has passed down the word that his “new” scheme for social reform will mean vast changes for the betterment of the workers, the students and the farmers, and so on. His plan for reform, which goes under the label of Participation, is nothing but a new catchword for an old hoax whereby the workers are supposed to be given a say in the management of the economy.

But de Gaulle’s new political stance will not fool the workers. Once the scare of civil war by which he managed to mobilize the bourgeoisie and all its duped followers wears off, all the grievances which the workers, the unemployed and the poor peasants had faced before the revolutionary struggle began will once again stare them in the face. The class struggle will be resumed.

What we are witnessing now is a pause between one phase of the revolutionary class struggle in France and the transition to another.

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

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

Part 3 – Lesson of France 1968: Workers must declare themselves in power

Part 4 – Tactics after 1968 uprising in France