Response to May ’68 Revisited

Dear Mitch,

Very many thanks for letting me see this. It is a very useful and thoughtful piece. A full response to all the questions you raise would need something much longer than the original article, so just a few points more or less in the order I noted them, some quite trivial points mixed in with some much more fundamental ones.

On your basic question as to whether it was a revolutionary situation, I think the only answer can be “yes and no” (dialectical?). True that most workers were prepared to settle for purely economic gains, but true also that the experience of the biggest general strike in human history was a transforming experience which laid foundations which in other circumstances could have been built on.

Do you know this piece by my old comrade Peter Sedgwick? Some sharp comments on Castoriadis, and he poses the question neatly: “The pamphlet’s listing of the sins of the Communist Party and the other ‘Left’ groups imply that for the revolution to have taken place there would have to have been a different leadership. The evidence, however, indicates that there would also have to have been a different working class.”

On the question of the analogy with 1905 I think you’re right, but it raises the whole question of revolutionary models. Every revolution (or semi-revolution) is a surprise, it has new and unprecedented features; but those involved can only make sense of what they are doing by drawing historical parallels, even where those parallels are very dubious. Thus the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 were preoccupied with Thermidor and the Paris Commune.

“There could be no more propitious circumstances for the overthrow of capital, yet it didn’t occur. That being the case, can it ever occur?” The only possible answer here is “we don’t know.” But what I am much more certain of is that if it doesn’t, then we’ll get barbarism—within a couple of generations.

The pcf and cgt “did all they could to put a brake on the movement.” Not quite as simple as that. When it was clear the strike was spreading rapidly the pcf/cgt encouraged it in order to ensure that they kept a tight control on it. Here there are a couple of points you don’t mention which seem to me very important.

  1. Where the cgt/pcf was in control, the normal pattern was to send most of the workers home (to watch state-controlled television). It was the union activists who occupied the factories, not the mass of workers (as happened rather more in the much smaller strike of 1936). The wonderful opportunity for radicalisation/political education that participation in a mass occupation would have offered was lost. There could have been programmes of political/cultural activity and families could have been brought into the factory rather than sending workers back to the isolation of their own families.
  2. Of the ten million strikers at least seven million (probably more, since most unionisation figures are rather optimistic) were not union members. For the strikes to be union-controlled rather than worker-controlled meant losing an enormous opportunity for the politicisation of the non-unionised.

I think on the worker-student relationship you’re largely right, but perhaps you somewhat underestimate the sympathy there was for the students. After all the massive Paris demonstration of 13 May was inspired by the student demonstrations and against police violence. The fact that the students had stood up and fought and had not been defeated was clearly an inspiration to workers even if they didn’t admit it. Doubtless the pcf did put up barriers, doubtless many workers distrusted students (a generation later, with university expansion, almost all workers would have a student in the family), doubtless some students were arrogant and tactless. But perhaps you are a bit too pessimistic about the possibilities of link-up.

Mothé, whom I met briefly in 1968, was an interesting figurebut certainly not a typical worker. He had before 1968 published two booksthe second with a reputable publisher Seuilprobably the only worker in Renault to have done so. Even before 1968 he had been cited by historians and sociologists all over the place. So he was hardly typical of anything. What I find interesting is that in reading the accounts by Mothé and by Henri Benoîts of their activity at Renault during the Algerian war, they both seem to have acted very creditablybut they seem to have been scarcely aware of each other’s existence.

“France was not the ussr: there were no social benefits accruing to membership in the Communist Party.” Here I think you are plain wrong. (I’m basing myself on what comrades from the Lutte ouvrière tendency repeatedly argued.) The cgt in many factories controlled the comité d’entreprise, which ran canteens, children’s holiday camps, etc. The pcf controlled many municipalities, in the Paris banlieue and elsewhere. They were major employers. I don’t know the figures, but many thousands of pcf members must have been effectively employed by the party or the union. Now the jobs may not have been sinecures, or particularly well-paid, but working for comrades may be more agreeable than working for a capitalist, and this factor almost certainly explains why the pcf hung on to its membership so well and kept it under control.

I think Pascal Aubier must be misremembering, since SouB was dissolved two or three years before 1968, though various fragments, including Pouvoir ouvrier survived.

Whether the death of the pcf was a “disaster” I’m not sure. The same could be said of the German spd after 1914, which represented the same kind of “counter-society” within capitalism. Its collapse opened up the opportunity for revolutionbut the opportunity was not taken. In any case the factors undermining the pcf, both nationally and in terms of the role of the ussr internationally, were already under way before 19681968 just accelerated the process.

On the low level of violence Rabaté has a point. I think it’s a general feature of political confrontations that the ruling class rarely uses all the resources of violence it has in its possession. The negative impact of outraging “liberal” opinion would be much more harmful than the short-term advantage of gaining control of the streets. But the other factor you don’t really deal with is the army. France had a conscript army. Quite a few soldiers would have recently been students, or were about to become students. Many more would have had family members involved in the strike. Could the government have depended on the army if it had been used against the students/strikers? I don’t know if you have interviewed anyone who was in the army in 1968; it would be interesting to know what the mood was in the barracks.

“The night of May 24, when the Stock Exchange was ignited.” I’d like to know more about this. I remember hearing reports of this at the time and feeling rather excited. When I got to Paris in July, I made a point of going to the Stock Exchange to inspect the damage. I walked right round the building and couldn’t find so much as a scorch mark. It would be interesting to establish what really happened.

So what was the legacy of 1968. This is a huge subject. First of all, it got rid of de Gaulle. He won the elections in 1968, but within a year his political friends had stabbed him in the back. And while you’re quite right that most workers didn’t want a seizure of power, a lot of them wanted to see the back of de Gaulle. The Fifth Republic has survived, but nobody has used its constitution in quite the autocratic fashion that de Gaulle did.

Then there was a huge expansion of the revolutionary left. The membership of the various groupuscules and the circulation of their press affected many thousands. Krivine and Laguiller ran impressive election campaigns. Up to about 1975 it was possible to believe the revolutionary left was growing steadily and could be a real factor in the future.

And finally there was Mitterrand. It is easy to forget just how radical Mitterrand seemed up to his election victory in 1981and indeed for a few months after it. Mitterrand could not have come to power except on the basis of the impetus from 1968, and it was he who, from the “left,” finally killed the legacy of the movement.

Yet the heritage does survive in various ways, which suggest that we were not wholly deluded when we believed that there were alternatives in the seventies, and that the achievements of 1968 could have been built on to establish a left alternative; the reasons that didn’t happen are many and various.

Firstly, the influence of the revolutionary left in the 1970s affected a whole generation, which is why so many leading figures in political life and in the media have a revolutionary past. Thus Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, leader of the Socialist Party who has just congratulated the police on their firm treatment of football supporters, is a former Lambertist.

Secondly, the way an image of 1968 which is not entirely negative has been preserved. I remember visiting Paris in 2008 at the time of the fortieth anniversary. In front of the Sorbonne were three enormous cubes (obviously placed there by some official body) on each face of which were pictures of students hurling cobblestones at the police, etc. Now if that happened in Britain, say celebrating the Poll Tax riot of 1991, there would have been a massive outcry; in France nobody seemed to bother.

Thirdly, a very trivial anecdote which has always lodged in my memory. In around 2000 I was having dinner in a Paris restaurant. At the next table were a couple, a little younger than myself, celebrating their wedding anniversary and I could overhear their conversation. She was some sort of office worker and was complaining about her boss. So far a scene that must take place every day in the uk and the us. Then the woman remarked: “Mais quoi! C’est l’idéologie dominante.” I can’t conceive her counterpart in the uk or the us saying such a thing. I realised she was of the 1968 generation and that there was still a bit of an alternative view of the world inside her brain.

“May ’68 was another step in the modernization of French capitalism.” So was 1789, but it was a lot more too.

Just some random and rather disorganised thoughts. I look forward to seeing more of your work and to discussing this further.

All best wishes,


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