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WW in 1968: French student strike sparked great proletarian revolution

Published Mar 20, 2008 8:12 PM

Workers World is in its 50th year of publication. Throughout the year, we will share with our readers some of the paper’s content over the past half century. Below are excerpts from two articles in 1968.

A WW article by F. Reed explains that the 1968 French uprising began on May 3, when several hundred students protested the closing of Nanterre University and the jailing of their leaders for an action asserting student rights and reform of the archaic university system. They were attacked, tear-gassed and arrested by cops called out by the Interior Minister, Fouchet. Clashes spread in the university area and by nightfall 500 had been arrested and 100 injured. In the following days thousands of high school and university students and teachers went on strike throughout the country, protests were held throughout the city and barricades set up. A joint student union-workers’ union call went out for a general strike on May 13. A million people were estimated to have participated.

By V. Copeland
May 23, 1968

The French railroad worker who declared, “The students were the fuse; we (the workers) were the powder keg,” said a revolutionary mouthful last week.

The explosion in France was a big one, so big that it jarred the whole repressive apparatus of a formerly confident ruling class and raised the question of which class should have state power in a dramatic way that everybody could understand.

It began spontaneously, the workers taking fire from the students and against the will of their conservative leaders, transforming episodic although fiercely militant actions into a nationwide general strike.

Beginning with the Sud Aviation plant in Nantes, where they welded the plant gates shut on May 14, and leaping to the complex of Renault auto plants around Paris, where the workers ran up the Red Flag, by May 20 over 6 million workers had tied up the whole of France.

With hundreds of thousands of students occupying every major university in the country and the majority of the minor ones, as well as broad action by still more hundreds of thousands of high school pupils, the French working class seized and occupied scores, possibly hundreds of plants. They often kept their bosses, the executive servants of the ruling class, imprisoned as they insisted on wage increases, shorter hours, etc.

Premier Georges Pompidou, acting in President de Gaulle’s absence, implicitly threatened the use of troops.

But troops could not be moved on the closed-down railroads. Nor could they use the telegraph or telephone for communications. Were they to move in jeeps and tanks from their bases, it was questionable where they would concentrate their attack, since the strike hit every city.

Mines, mills, steel and auto plants, rubber, textile, chemical and every industry imaginable were on strike. Finally, the army itself was made up of the brothers and sons of the strikers. Unlike the National Guard regiments of Jersey City being sent to Newark, or white troops being used against Black Americans, the French Army was not necessarily “reliable.” It was almost a classical revolutionary situation.

And yet as late as May 17, Georges Seguy, Secretary General of the CP-controlled General Confederation of Labor (CGT), stated specifically that he was against a general strike!

But the general strike was already on (later to be rubber-stamped by Seguy) and it had already shown its revolutionary possibilities.

Pompidou proved this when he accused the movement (on May 16) of trying to “destroy the nation and the very foundation of our society.”

By May 23 nearly 10 million workers were on strike—a fifth of the total population. It was as if 40 million U.S. workers (there are only 17 million organized in labor unions) had downed their tools to bring the country to a standstill.

The workers’ leadership was compelled to supervise the flow of food and vital services in the interest of the very workers who were striking. This underlined the revolutionary character of the action and emphasized to the leaders as well as to the ranks that the essential power was really in their own hands.

The bourgeoisie was helpless.

A greater portion of government workers was on strike than ever before in history and an unprecedented number of farm workers as well. White collar and blue collar, all joined to show that labor was everything and the ruling class was superfluous.


Which Road for the Mass Struggle?—
To a New Bourgeois Coalition or Workers’ Power?

By Sam Marcy
May 22, 1968

There can be absolutely no doubt that as of this writing, France is in the throes of one of the deepest and most profound of revolutionary crises. And France, it must be remembered, has had more of them than any other Western nation to date.

What gives this truly great revolutionary upheaval exceptional and extraordinary significance is that it has the very real potential—more than previous crises—not only of ousting the de Gaulle government, but of overturning the entire rotten edifice on which the French capitalist system is built.

Such an event, of course, would not only change the character of the international situation, but would also light the flames of a new revolutionary conflagration that inevitably would sweep all of Western Europe. This in turn would surely mean a forging of the bonds of class solidarity between the western proletariat and the revolutionary liberation struggles waged by the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

These bonds, first forged by the victorious October socialist revolution in Russia and the Western proletarian uprisings that followed, were brutally severed by the triumph of opportunism and liquidationism which now hold sway in the USSR, Eastern Europe and most of the CPs.

When one considers the rising tide of rebellion in America today, along with the momentous resurgence in Europe, it is inconceivable that the revolutionary contagion would not also greatly affect the mood as well as the direction of the rank-and-file white American worker and cement a genuine alliance with the Black liberation movement against the U.S. imperialist Establishment.

The above prognosis, our cynics will tell you—and they are an international breed—is a revolutionary pipe dream that won’t come true. Perhaps. It is instructive to remember, however, that these very same cynics were telling us only yesterday how stable, prosperous and safe from any revolutionary disorders capitalist France was under de Gaulle, and that the French workers had become so thoroughly bourgeois that they were beyond revolutionary redemption.

Now, it is plain to see that the French working class, in alliance with the revolutionary students and other social groupings, have what amounts to de facto power in their hands. They have not only paralyzed the economic life of the country—they virtually have it in their hands.

The real issue is whether what they have in their hands will be returned to the absentee owners. This class of ruthless exploiters, a tiny minority of the French people, is now literally at the mercy of an aroused and revolutionary people.

And yet, the ruling classes of Europe and America, while greatly alarmed at the magnitude of the social and political upheaval, seem confident that even if the de Gaulle government is eventually forced out, a new set of leftist politicians will take over, grant a minimum of concessions, a maximum of false promises, and through the medium of the French CP leadership, return the plants back to their “rightful” owners and the workers to exploitation. ...

It is said that all the French workers want is the rectification of some grievances and that their demands are only economic and do not go beyond the limits of the present bourgeois order of society. True enough. But this is the least of all the significant factors in the situation. The demands of the Russian workers and peasants of 1917 were even more modest. Their slogan was bread, land and peace.

Any important strike is an embryo revolution. That is a basic teaching of Leninism.

The scope and breadth of the current strike in France, encompassing as of today eight to ten million workers, poses a truly revolutionary threat to the existing social order. It is not the modest character of the demands that is decisive, but the manner in which the workers seek to get them achieved. And the manner in which they have gone about it thus far, with speed and with such utter spontaneity, makes it truly characteristic of a revolutionary situation.

However, no revolutionary situation can be considered fully as such unless one also takes into account the situation of the capitalist class and of the reciprocal relationships between all the classes of contemporary French society. The French ruling class is confronted by a series of economic demands just at a moment in its history when the political representatives of the ruling class were seeking to further encroach on the living standards of the people.

It is as though the workers in a certain factory came to the conclusion that their situation was so intolerable that they demanded an immediate raise in pay just at a time when the boss had decided that what was needed was a further cut in pay instead. Economically speaking, this is the situation that prevails on a nationwide scale in France.

Gaulist economists, radical and bourgeois politicians and the misleaders of labor have all done their share in hiding the true anatomy of class relations in present-day France. That is what is so incredibly wonderful about the manner in which the French working class has put an end to this gross deception. In no other way could it have been brought to the attention of world public opinion, or the French public generally.

As has happened so many times in history, it took the students to spark the movement, but the students alone, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing, cannot accomplish the fundamental social change that the workers can, because it is only the workers who operate the basic machinery of society. The student struggle is a symptom of the developing general struggle. ...

But now the question is: how can the struggle be resolved? By parliamentary trickery? By a new bourgeois coalition of left-wing bourgeois politicians in alliance with the CP and the SP a la Popular Front days?

This is to tread the old beaten path, the path of treason to the French working class. A call for a so-called referendum embodying some token concessions while maintaining the old system would be a fraudulent device no less vicious than the corrupt political maneuvering of the National Assembly. ...

The alternative that is needed is a national organization of Workers’ Councils, Peasant Councils, Poor Peoples’ Councils and Student Councils. That is the real alternative to the discredited National Assembly.

That would be a true Popular Front of the masses, a true coalition of the various strata of the oppressed and exploited peoples—and not a coalition with the bourgeoisie, as [the French CP leader] Waldeck Rochet proposes. That would be Dual Power, and only “dual” as long as the old regime of the exploiters could survive it.

The masses have to establish independent organs of power to validate the possession of the means of production that are presently in their hands and take over the political destiny of the country. Only in this way will they put an end to the reign of the monopolies which breed poverty, reaction and imperialist war.