by Charles Reeve
After a year, 1967, marked by strong labor conflicts in big factories all over France, the month of May 1968 opened with intense student unrest in Paris and provincial universities: demonstrations, occupations of university buildings, and confrontations with the police. Criticism of the rigidity of student life under the authoritarian Gaullist regime connected with the push to adapt the university to the capitalism’s new needs gave rise to a critique of the social system itself. Students had also mobilized around opposition to the Vietnam War and the American intervention. Agitation centered in the university at Nanterre, in the suburbs of Paris, where the most radical elements of the student movement created a new organization, the Movement of 22 March, in which anti-authoritarian, revolutionary tendencies were dominant. Not only did they develop a sharp critique of the capitalistic use of knowledge produced by the university [see Document 1, Why Sociologists?], they also focused their agitation and direct actions both inside the university and outside it, making efforts to connect with other struggles [see Document 2, A Flash Fire?].
Street demonstrations became constant and more and more radical; on May 7, thousands demonstrated in Paris, singing the “Internationale” under the patriotic and military symbol of the Arche de Triomphe, provoking a major political scandal. Three days later, the unrest filled the center of Paris and barricades went up in the Latin Quarter. On May 13, the university of the Sorbonne was occupied by a mixed crowd of regular people who had joined the students in the streets. A few days later, strikes broke out in important factories—among them the big Sud-Aviation aircraft plant in Nantes and the Renault car factory in Cleon, and in the suburbs of Paris—which were occupied by the workers, under the leadership of the unions.
A few days after this, the Odéon Theater, in the center of Paris, was occupied by a crowd of people, mostly from the world of “culture”, and became a sort of agora and center of agitation.
Many more workplaces, from big enterprises to small shops and offices, were occupied by workers and a general atmosphere of subversion of the normal order of things, spread over the whole country. In a few days there were more than 10 million people on strike and the whole country came to a halt, with no transportation systems, no public services, soon no gas…In many cases, the strikers made no specific demands; people just stopped working. Before the unions had elaborated any concrete demands to negotiate, the country was paralyzed.
Meanwhile, President General De Gaulle announced that he was open to some reforms and amnestied some of the thousands arrested. He also asserted his refusal of “chaos.” For their part, the left wing unions and parties declared that they were open for discussions with the government. But the movement continued to spread. On May 24, the Paris Stock Market was set on fire; confrontations and unrest spread to all the big cities of France. On May 25, the national public radio and television were occupied by their employees, journalists, and technicians. On May 27, after the first round of negotiations between the government and the unions, some important reforms were announced, such as an increase in the minimum wage and pensions, the reduction of working hours, a lower retirement age, and a larger presence of the unions in workplaces. Nevertheless, the majority of workers and employees in the big enterprises, meeting in general assemblies, rejected those proposals, which the unions had presented as a victory, and voted to continue the movement.
By then, the most radicalized workers and employees were in close contact and mixed with the students in the demonstrations and actions. But the unions kept tight control over the occupied workplaces and did everything they could to oppose contact with the students, whom they portrayed as contaminated by “extremism” and manipulated by “provocateurs.” Thus they transformed the workplaces into isolated ghettos. In response, the more radical workers began to organize independent committees outside the occupied workplaces, on the local level within the big cities and suburbs, looking to influence the rest of the working people. Revolutionary ideas and projects became more accepted among students and radicalized workers and employees. Maoist and Trostkyist groups had influence on some radicalized workers, as did anti-authoritarian communist tendencies, from anarchists to Situationists [see Document 3, Power to the Workers’ Councils]. In Paris, and elsewhere, attempts were made to create networks of these new action committees in order to reinforce the independent strength of the strikers [see Document 4, Defend Our Strike!].
By the end of May, De Gaulle seemed up against a situation which was difficult to control; he counted mostly on direct repression, but also on the moderating role played by the unions, to keep public order. At this point, the governing political forces sought the support of the army. Some military units were moved to the outskirts of Paris. The President dissolved the National Assembly, changed the government and announced new elections. Rapidly, a united front of fear took concrete form around a new alliance between the traditional Gaullist party and its former right-wing enemies, who had supported keeping Algeria as part of France (the consequences of the war in Algeria, which had just finished four years earlier, were still very present in society). This alliance was strongly supported by almost all the bourgeois sectors of society, which dragged behind them various groups within the population begging for law and order, from small merchants to conservative workers and employees. “Committees to Defend the Republic” were formed by these reactionary forces, and started to take violent action against strikers and students as well as against occupied workplaces and institutions.
On May 30, a huge demonstration was organized in Paris against the “agitators,” “anti-national elements,” the “danger of communism” and other mythical fears. On the opposite side, the Socialist Party mobilized to channel the movement towards the institutional framework of elections, presenting themselves as an alternative within the system. The Communist Party and its big union, the CGT, played a different game. They struggled to control a movement which threatened to escape them. For the first time in their history, they were facing a social movement far to their left. By controlling it they aimed to use the movement and the strike wave—one of the biggest in contemporary times—for their own agenda: moving towards a state-interventionist transformation of society and the economy.
By the first week of June, the mood in the workplaces started to change and at the same time the collective energy weakened. One could feel the revival of trust in the unions and traditional electoral politics overcame the earlier atmosphere of an intense desire to change life and the world. Utopian feelings were replaced by the old assurances and reformist promises [see Document 5, Unions and Workers]. The May slogan, “Reform= chloroform,” clearly expressed the turn of the moment. In several big private and public sector enterprises, people started to go back to work. In some other, more militant enterprises the unions were able to overcome the resistance of activist minorities and, supported by the passive majority, pushed for the end of the movement. In some cases, in factories or street demonstrations, violent confrontations with the police caused hundreds of injuries and some deaths. Some radical groups were outlawed, thousands of activists were arrested and jailed, and the campaign for the parliamentary elections could start.
On June 16, La Sorbonne was taken by the police and “liberated” from the radical elements; other universities followed. Two days later, hundreds of thousands of metal workers, in the auto industry and elsewhere, voted to end the strike and “liberate” the factories. The unions claimed victory, while the general feeling was of defeat and betrayal. To make it clear that the bourgeoisie had regained control, the government declared an amnesty for the high-rank military officers implicated, in previous years, in an attempted coup against De Gaulle and his decolonization policy in Algeria. Despite a strong campaign of the most engaged sectors of the movement against participation in the elections, the general elections of June 23 and June 30 brought to office a sizeable group of deputies from the right, while the Socialist party as well the Communist party lost many seats.
For the time being, the law and order of the old world was re-established and the future presented as a normalized continuation of the past. The spirit of May '68 was nevertheless strong enough to last into the future, as we see today, in the emergence of new movements and in the crisis of the political parties and of the traditional unions. The events of May and June 1968 were the sign of the end of an era, the end of the Left, and the beginning of a new vision of political action—a change which also created a space for the development of a new reaction, of a hard right, the political face of the violence of a new period of capitalist exploitation.
The Alchemy of May ’68
During demonstrations, confrontations, and actions in public spaces, informal links developed between students and rebellious young workers. These links became the means of circulating a spirit of rebellion and played a determining role in bringing about strikes and the first workplace occupations. However, none of that was clear in the beginning.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “Paradoxically, the unimportance of the student movement turned it into one of the most effective detonators for mobilizing the workers.”1 This assertion is debatable to the extent that it leaves out one of the particularly subversive and contagious aspects of the student revolt: the echo some of its content found in the workplace. Take for example the text by a few Nanterre students, “Why Sociologists?” written in March 1968 in response to union protests over the precarious situation of poor working-class students, which had important repercussions on subsequent events. The student text attacked the widely held ideology of knowledge as power, more precisely, the practical function of knowledge in the social sciences.2 These questions echoed the anxiety expressed by young workers who, in their revolt against authority, wanted more control over their lives. Unlike their older workmates, these workers “felt themselves less inclined to obey blindly the union’s commands…and often joined the students in their combats in the street and in their desires for self-determination and for responsibility.”3 The knowledge of political leaders and experienced trade unions no longer carried much weight in the face of a non-negotiable fed-upness expressed in the slogan to be found here and there on factory doors during the strike: “Nous en avons assez”).4 A minority of young workers expressed “a confused notion about the necessity for a profound change in lifestyle, which implied a profound change in the entire social structure. To those who went down in the evenings to the barricades in the Latin Quarter, it seemed like the lids of the Old World were crumbling over our heads and it was time to blow it up.”5 The special alchemy of May ’68 lay in the success of these informal, confused, and elusive transmissions, in the fact that the spirit of anti-hierarchical protest rapidly took over the workplaces, imposed itself there as a criterion, and unified the student movement and worker strikes. This overthrow of the corporatist framework of traditional protest managed by trade-union organizations, was the first sign of the movement’s autonomy.
In this regard, Claude Lefort wrote, “It was said over and over that the student revolt served as a detonator. This is a way to evade its significance, to shake off what can be thought of as what was most strange and new in the situation, to reestablish the classic schema of class struggle, to let it get caught up in the vicissitudes of the game between unions and bosses or the State.” Indeed, this way of erasing the new, subversive content ushered in by the student revolt was to deny the fact that it awoke the desire to confront State power directly. Both the student revolt and the strikes challenged the social order. One was not subordinate to the other, and, likewise, one did not initiate the other. There was a convergence of two struggles born out of the same social discontent. And if the strike, which became a general strike, proved to be an event of great importance, it was precisely because it began as a wildcat strike totally outside union control—because it entered into the “strangeness and newness of the situation.” Again, “the moment the workers burst onto the political scene, they took an initiative whose reach far exceeded the narrow scope of demands circumscribed by the unions.” 7
Eric Hobsbawm approached the question differently: “The very depth of the criticism of society expressed or formulated by the popular movement left it without specific objectives… In the long term, that doesn’t diminish its importance or its historical influence. In the short term, it proved fatal.”8 Now, the short term is always the period of concrete demands whereas subversive content opens onto another time. What was fatal was the victory of the short term, not the absence of specific objectives. Conversely, it was precisely the reach of the long term that surpassed the scope of traditional demands and which permitted the emergence of positive tendencies towards self-organization. The reading of May ‘68 that we like takes great interest in this overflow of protest, this surpassing of the union domain, a confined framework incorporated into the class struggle. Our reading looks at points of rupture, the split that occurs between the two conceptions of the socialist movement. On one side is the authoritarian current represented by parties and unions—of which The PCF (French Communist Party) and the CGT (communist party trade union) were then the two major forces in France—claiming “revolutionary expertise” and representative democracy, and embodying the principle of reformism. Facing these forces stood a spontaneous rank-and-file movement that defended the principles of action and direct democracy, and demanded a real sovereignty of the dominated workers and students in struggle. These principles were put into practice by the new organizations born in the course of the movement: the general assemblies, rank-and-file committees in workplaces under occupation or on strike, and worker-student action committees. The tide of rupture, of anti-reformism, was the carrier of elements traced back to ideas and practices of “anti-authoritarian socialism” which had sprung up in embryonic form during the revolutions at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The PCF and the CGT regarded these new forms of self-organization as expressions of political immaturity because they escaped their control. It was unthinkable that “inexperienced” workers could be guided by their own experience to create and develop independent organizations to exercise their power without mediation. Party wisdom, the “science of Marxism-Leninism” should be enough for them.
As in the past, the principle of direct democracy did not acquire a form separate from the content of the movement. The struggle for workers’ self-government and sovereignty has always been inseparable from the desire to reorganize society because it is the indispensable, practical means of doing so. In May ’68, it was also the desire to change life, and thus the organization of society, which required the creation of new types of organization.
Left behind from the beginning by the spontaneity of the movement, the unions energetically reacted to all the autonomous initiatives by blocking them and isolating the masses of workers from protesting students and, later, from the most combative workers.9 The latter relied on the student revolt: “When we go into the factories and have discussions—the simple fact that workers agree to discuss things with us is already noteworthy.”10 In some rare workplaces, the link between these combative workers and students made it more difficult for the union apparatus to take over the strike. But, in general, the unions succeeded in isolating the strikers of one company from those in another, including between factories in the same company, as was the case in the auto industry. The degree of the workers’ autonomous activity also clearly influenced the nature of the strike committees—which in general were creatures of the unions—and especially influenced picket lines, where workers demonstrated greater autonomy. Some strike committees remained more subordinated to the general assemblies in which non-union members, often referred to as the “unorganized,” also spoke. The March 22nd Movement had this reflection: “As long as a rupture, a fissure in the bourgeois institution, in the CGT, and the party is not made collectively, directed by the workers from within the workplaces, we will never change anything; it will always be recuperated by the apparatus; but if this rupture is made, it can only be made conjointly, with the creation of a permanent assembly…and this would correspond to the creation of workers’ councils.”11
During the May ’68 movement, it was in the town of Nantes where the strike committees most forcefully demonstrated their presence, to the point of becoming embryos of a parallel power, or at least a power complementary to the local administration.12 Although founded on the intense activity of students, local workers, and peasants, this power never got free of the union leaders13 who supervised an inter-union strike committee. This committee installed itself at the town hall and took charge of supplies, transportation routes, liaison with peasant organizations, and the distribution of foodstuffs and gasoline. Very quickly relations between this inter-union committee and the neighborhood committees soured. The latter showed themselves to be “much more efficient in the organization of supplies and their activity will be much more significant than that of the unions. Starting from the creation of a direct market for production, they will become the cells that politicize working class neighborhoods.”14 But finally, the old principle of government was restored and the inter-union committee took control over the neighborhood committees.
Gradually, students and workers started taking their demands to the town hall, where the inter-union committee was enthroned, as they used to go to the Mayor and local authorities. “We clearly see here how, given the bankruptcy of the old authorities (prefecture, municipality), but also with their active support, the united unions use their respective organizations … to set up a new structure of authority … Wedged between this ‘base’ and the old administrative (and police) apparatus, the Interunion Committee was to be obliged to maneuver shabbily until the day of the ‘return to normalcy.’”15
Wherever workers and employees got caught up in the movement’s spirit of protest, they found themselves isolated in their workplaces and silenced by the union.16 The formation of neighborhood and workplace action committees, worker-student committees, and inter-company liaison committees was better suited to this spirit and began to go beyond the traditional forms of parties and unions.17 These attempts at self-organization came up against two types of obstacles. It was necessary to surmount the beliefs in centralized control baked into French society during the long years of Leninist and Stalinist practices. Thus extreme-left groups tended to identify workers with the union apparatus and a number of militants openly acted in rank-and-file organizations as emissaries of groups pretending to direct the working class. Equally cumbersome was the negative experience that many workers had had with the bureaucratic functioning of authoritarian organizations. This forged a fear leading to the rejection of all forms of organization as “bureaucratic by nature,” and ending with the fetishism of assemblies and faith in spontaneism to the point of paralysis, which finally gave way to manipulations by scores of activists. Organization took the form “of a daily general assembly, where hours are lost in unnecessary talking leading nowhere, tiring out even the most indulgent listener. In these conditions, it’s impossible to reach any kind of collective decisions or to vote on any specific proposition”18—a conclusion which, passes a bit too quickly over the distrust of political manipulations and the need to re-appropriate the power of speech.
As we have just seen, the question of the isolation of struggles from one another, especially the separation of the student movement from the worker’s movement, was an essential issue in the fate of the May ’68 social movement. Above all, the bourgeoisie feared the coming together of these two forces, in which it saw the creation of an explosive ingredient with new possibilities of subversion of the social order. This explained the agonizing fear that the movement inspired in the bourgeois class and its auxiliaries in the political class, a fear visible in the hatred and slander unleashed on the most radical sectors of the student movement, presented as agents of a plot against the nation. The extremity of this emotion could be seen in the rhetorical activation of ghosts from the recent past, crystallized in the figure of the “German Jew, Cohn-Bendit.”19 For the Communist Party and the CGT, there was no question of allowing the social barrier that existed between students and workers to be broken down, because that risked the beginning of the end of organizational control over the exploited masses. And that situation that could very well open a path to the construction of a new force whose contentious energy would break free of the plans of the wise and experienced heads of the authoritarian Communist project. Bourgeois class fears and bureaucratic Communist class anxieties—which would become clear later—were two essential features of the May ’68 movement. If the return to normality reassured the bourgeoisie, the fear it experienced has been indelibly inscribed in its class behavior, resurfacing whenever a social movement of any size erupts in France. As for the forces of bureaucratic Communism, their rapid decline has confirmed the weaknesses exposed by their anxieties of that moment.
- Eric Hobsbawm, “May 68,” (New York Review of Books, 1969)
- Jean-Pierre Duteuil, Nanterre 1965-1968, vers le mouvement du 22 (Paris: Acratie, 1988). Also, De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier by members of l’Internationale situationniste, Strasbourg, 1966.
- “The Mass Strike in France,” in Root & Branch : The Rise of the Workers Movements (Greenwich : Fawcett, 1975), p. 317.
- Ibid., p. 335.
- Ngo Van, Au pays d’Héloïse (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2006), p. 72.
- Claude Lefort,” Le désordre nouveau,“ in Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, and Edgard Morin, Mai 68 : La Brèche (Paris: Editions Fayard, 1968, 2nd ed., Editions Complexe), p. 39. Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) and Claude Lefort (1924-2010) were, along with less well-known others , the founders of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie (1949-1967) before following their individual paths.
- Ibid, p. 40.
- Eric Hobsbawm, “Mai 68,” New York Review of Books,1969.
- On these excesses, the role of young workers in strikes and the creation of action committee, see Jacques Baynac, Mai retrouvé, Robert Laffont, 1978. See also « The Mass Strike in France. »
- Mouvement du 22 mars, Ce n’est qu’un début continuons le combat, p. 99, Cahiers libres, Maspero, 1968.
- Mouvement du 22 mars, Ce n’est qu’un début continuons le combat, Ibid., pp. 99-101.
- On the strike in Nantes in May 1968, see “The Mass Strike in France,” pp. 346, 348-51.; Les Cahiers de Mai, Juin 1968 ; Mouvement du 22 mars, Ce n’est qu’un début continuons le combat, Ibid., pp. 94-95 et 110-111.
- In Nantes, the FO (Force Ouvriere Chu), a major union with an important role in the strike committee, was dominated by Trotskyist and anarchist militants.
- Cahiers de Mai, June 15, 1968.
- “The Mass Strike in France,” p. 350.
- The trade union landscape at the time was dominated by a powerful CGT totally subordinated to the Stalinist PCF. The FO was a major union, still very influenced by the anti-communist spirit of the Cold War, even though Trotskyist and anarchist militants found refuge there. The CFDT, barely emerging from its Christian origins, claimed a certain tactical openness and in some places welcomed militant worker activists.
- Jacques Baynac, Mai retrouvé (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1978).
- “Le Comité de liaison inter-entreprises, bilan d’une experience,” text by GLAT (1964-1978), a group active at Censier during the May 68 movement. Some of this group’s texts are available on the Archives Autonomies site.
- Daniel Cohn Bendit was one of the energetic student activists in Nanterre University. One of the authors of the text Why Sociologists, he was also an anarcho-communist militant and one of the founders of the March 22 Movement. Coming from a German Jewish family living in France he was violently attacked over his origins by the Right and also by the Communist party and the press, who portrayed him as the archetypal Jewish outside agitator. Demonstrators responded with the chant, “We are all German Jews!” He became a media icon of the movement, was expelled to Germany and went underground for a while. Later on, he became a prominent German Green Party member and Euro-politician.
CHARLES REEVE lives and writes in Paris.