A Political Education and Militant Intervention Before, During and After May ’68

I was 22 years old in May 1968 and I was a history student. I had been defending revolutionary ideas for nearly six years. In 1962, I considered myself an anarchist. Having grown up in a family of high school teachers who were anti-clerical, pacifist and anti-colonial militants, I had always thought of myself as politicized, in the sense that I was revolted by all injustices, large and small, around the world or right in front of me. The Algerian War was the biggest injustice of all. I wondered why it had lasted so long, and why the anti-war movement in France was so weak.

I began to be seriously acquainted with Marx’s ideas at the high school in Elbeuf, a working-class city near Rouen. My philosophy teacher was a non-dogmatic Marxist who supported the struggle of the Algerian people while introducing me to Wilhelm Reich as well as to the pre-Socratics. Many young people of my generation, having the opportunity to attend high school, often discovered Marx through a philosophy teacher.

In 1963, just one year after Algerian independence, I participated in a camp near Skikda along with more than 200 French young people from the whole left and far-left spectrum, ranging from the uec, the student organization of the pcf, by way of the psu and different Trotskyist groups, to Socialisme ou Barbarie. The camp was a virtually permanent forum where passionate discussions ranged from Algeria’s chances of becoming a socialist state or having a worker and peasant government (I had no illusions about this) to the “right interpretation” of Marx’s analyses. I remember a sharp collective discussion, of which I understood nothing, on the new book of Kostas Axelos, Marx, penseur de la technique. What I on the other hand understood quite well, talking with young Algerian peasants or fishermen my age, who were mainly illiterate but very lucid, was that they had no confidence in Ben Bella and the fln people in power. They gave me concrete examples of their corruption. These youths, who had fought for independence in the countryside, dreamed only of leaving for France and finding work. I became friends there with a guy studying in Lyon who had been a militant with Socialisme ou Barbarie and then with Pouvoir Ouvrier. I had already evolved from anarchism to libertarian Marxism from reading Daniel Guerin’s book Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire. My friend introduced me to issues of the Situationist International, Louis Janover’s journal Front Noir, and to the bulletins of ico (Informations Correspondances Ouvrières). A Parisian militant from Voix Ouvrière had also persuaded my father to subscribe to their Trotskyist journal, without ever actually meeting me. I was very interested in all these publications, but the analyses of Socialisme ou Barbarie seemed to me the richest and most convincing. Although I was reading very widely to keep up with all these analyses, and having begun the reading of Marx, Lenin, Lukacs, Korsch, Ernst Bloch and Debord, I had the permanent impression of catching up, and not being at the level to this constantly evolving revolutionary movement, itself in constant evolution. That led to a break of one year with my friend; I had written him to tell him not to waste his time with me because I no longer was able to understand everything he was explaining to me.

While waiting to find my way forward, I was an activist with the Fédération anarchiste, which ultimately disappointed me for its lack of interest in ideas, including the major anarchist thinkers, whom I had conscientiously studied on my own. No one in our group in Rouen cared about communicating their thought to workers. Being an anarchist struck me as a comfortable posture, not as a way of trying to change the world. Furthermore, Proudhon’s Philosophie de la misère had bored me, and seemed quite obscure, whereas, to my great surprise, Marx’s reply, Misère de la philosophie, seemed to me clear and convincing. Hanns-Erich Kaminski’s biography of Bakunin had also cooled my enthusiasm for this major figure of anarchism.

In 1964, I briefly joined the Union des Etudiants Communistes (uec), to see how it functioned from within. We were under the vigilant guidance of a pcf militant. I briefly encountered the very predigested and metaphysical character of Marxism in its Stalinist version, as theorized in the prewar period by Georges Politzer and then for the later period by Garaudy, Cogniot and Kanapa. That Marxism, and the electoralism of the pcf (“the peaceful road to socialism”) provoked hilarity and the hidden indignation of my comrades, who were with me in the last year of high school and at the uec, and who would, soon after, join the Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire (jcr) of Alain Krivine, or the Maoist ujc (M-L).

In one youth hostel (then known as a hotbed of left-wing ideas), I had met, among others, a Trotskyist militant of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (the Pierre Franck tendency) who was trying to win over young people. He didn’t convince me, but increased my interest in Trotsky, about whom Isaac Deutscher’s biography had just appeared. Deutscher’s three volumes impassioned me, as did Victor Serge’s Mémoires d’un révolutionnaire.

Never losing sight, through all this, of Socialisme ou Barbarie (S ou B), I had ordered the complete set of the issues of that journal, because I wanted to work with that group after first consolidating my knowledge of their analyses. I soon received a package with their available back issues, but accompanied by a note explaining that the group had ceased to exist. The author of the note had foreseen the end of S ou B, which came about in summer 1965. I was disappointed. In a debate with Pierre Franck of the Fourth International, who had been invited to Rouen by the youth group of the psu, I had given an animated defense of S ou B’s analysis of relations of production in the ussr. Where could I go now, to defend real revolutionary ideas?

At that moment, I got back in touch with the friend I had met in Algeria. I saw him again in Paris in April 1965, with another militant who was even more politically developed. He had known Castoriadis personally and up close, and he criticized him for having turned his back on Marx and even on the working class. Both he and my friend had later been active in Pouvoir Ouvrier (po). But, in their view, neither po nor ico offered any perspective. As for me, having had the experience of the Fédération anarchiste, I was not myself drawn to any Marxist group that was too passive, and too attentiste, producing “drawing room” analyses or being satisfied with publishing material on exploitation and workers’ struggles, without actively and methodically seeking to win workers to revolutionary ideas. The “state capitalist” analyses had deeply and lastingly shaped me, but their relevance seemed less obvious if they led to a distant and contemplative attitude toward class struggle, as the new orientation of Castoriadis and his circle seemed to do.

My two friends proposed that we become active in a “bureaucratically deformed” Trotskyist group, but one giving us a way to be active within the working class. They convinced me, along with a small group of young Parisian intellectuals coming out of po, known as “Edouard’s gang,” to join the group Voix Ouvrière (vo). That organization had a reputation for seriousness, and intervened in a certain number of major factories. Not only were their militants unafraid to physically confront the Stalinists to defend their ideas among workers, but they made a major point of a very comprehensive theoretical education for members, which included reading many novels. That appealed to me deeply, and all the more because vo rejected every so-called socialist regime on the planet, including Cuba’s.

With my companion Hélène, we also were able to meet and appreciate the older vo militants coming from the Barta group, who had been active during the Second World War and who had played a decisive role in the strike at Renault-Billancourt in 1947. It was thus that, with great enthusiasm, we set about building a vo section in Rouen, with the help of a 25-year-old Parisian militant who regularly came to see us.

The success of Marxism before May 68

In the years following the Algerian War, all the young people who had joined a self-styled revolutionary organization (including those active with the uec or the jc) called themselves Marxists and saw the proletariat as the potentially emancipatory class. We were all, in one way or another, workerist Marxists. The anarchists, such as those in Maurice Joyeux’s Monde Libertaire, and who rejected Marx en bloc, could get nowhere in those years. Everyone felt the need to have some serious theoretical baggage in order not to come across as an idiot in the numerous debates and discussions between groups and tendencies. All the works of Marx and Engels were published and widely available from the cp’s Editions Sociales. All the authors who were, or called themselves Marxists, attracted attention and provoked discussions. Some young people in the uec felt obligated to read Ernest Mandel’s Traité d’économie marxiste, which appeared in 1962, a “must” read, if only to critique it. Whether one was, at the time, for or against the best-known writings of Lenin, no one could ignore them. I remember a raucous discussion in Le Mans in 1966 with some young workers from the jc who were attempting to justify the electoralist strategy of the pcf and the “peaceful road to socialism,” and who referred to one of Lenin’s 1917 texts where he explained it was possible to take power without recourse to violence. As a militant already in vo, I knew this text much better than they did, and the very specific context in which Lenin wrote it. But, naturally, no argument could get them to budge. This anecdote is revealing. Being in the pcf and having a thin veneer of Marxism and Leninism allowed these young Stalinist workers to feel very sure of themselves in all circumstances.

To the left of the pcf, workerist Marxism found its concrete justification in experiences not that far in the past, such as the creation of workers’ councils in the Hungarian insurrection of 1956, the Belgian general strike of winter 1960–61, and the miners’ strike in France in 1963. For anyone who had studied these events and had read widely in the history of the international workers’ movement since its origins in English Chartism, the major strikes which erupted in France in 1967, at the Rhodiaceta plant near Grenoble, in the Saint-Nazaire shipyards, or at the Saviem plant in Caen in January 1968, reinforced the idea that in spite of the overlay of reformist and above all Stalinist organizations, the working class still had a revolutionary potential. They were also strong arguments against the Third Worldist groups and intellectuals for whom there was nothing more to be expected from the “bourgeoisified” working class of the imperialist countries.

The Hegemony of the pcf in the Working Class

The region where we set out to build a vo group was very industrial, with a strong pcf presence in all the major factories. The Stalinists were in power in several local governments around Rouen. They had influence in secondary education and at the university.

When we organized our first public meetings in 1967, more than 70 local leaders and active members of the pcf came to prevent it from taking place. Among them were longshoremen to push us aside, and university professors who came to people for some distraction. The confrontation was violent and we were the ones who expelled them, with the decisive help of Parisian comrades who came as reinforcements. Some weeks later, the thugs of the pcf returned in force to prevent a meeting of the Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire (jcr) in honor of Che Guevara, who had just been murdered. We had organized a joint defense group to prevent them from getting into the room. On that occasion, the confrontation had been more verbal than violent.

When we sold our newspaper door to door in the working-class apartment buildings, and attempted to talk to workers at their homes, one of us started from the top of the stairs and the other at the bottom, in order to be able to react together to any ugly incident with a pcf member, if we heard shouts. Seen in retrospect, it might seem incomprehensible that the Marxist far left did not have more success with the working class in May ’68. We need to take account of the obstacle constituted by the pcf, which impressed people with its strength and influence, well beyond its ranks. The pcf took all necessary measures (including, of course, calumny and violent interventions) not to be criticized and challenged on its left. They quite simply did not want us to exist. The working class was its preserve.

In France, to my knowledge, the only (Trotskyist) groups that dared leaflet in front of factories in their own name were the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (oci, the Lambertists) and Voix Ouvrière. These two organizations had, moreover, collaborated for a while in publishing joint factory bulletins at the beginning of the 1960s. On the eve of May 1968, vo had a presence at some sixty companies, including roughly forty factories. If one adds the slightly more serious presence of the oci, some “industrialized” Maoist students, a handful of anarcho-syndicalists and the rare councilist militant, we can see that, in France as a whole, the presence of revolutionaries within the proletariat was extremely small. This weakness discouraged no one, but it should be taken into account in any assessment of what far-left groups could have done, or didn’t do, in May–June 1968.

From never having met and appreciated revolutionary militants, workers could rarely object to the Stalinists that the far-leftists were anything but “rich kids,” “provocateurs,” and irresponsible loud-mouths “playing the game of the bourgeoisie.”

Since we had succeeded in Rouen, as in other cities in the provinces, in winning over a small number of workers, white-collar people and hospital employees, despite our youth and our limited experience, we had proof that it was possible to spread revolutionary ideas directly, that is, not by engaging in entrism in the pcf (as did the pci of Pierre Franck) not getting student comrades hired in the factories (as the Maoists enthused by the “Cultural Revolution” were doing) nor, finally, by waiting until workers were spontaneously interested one day in revolutionary ideas or took over a program prepared for them (the position of the Bordigists).

Educating ourselves with Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg

While having an important activity on the ground, putting up posters with the week’s editorial, by spreading public sales and contacts with wage workers, high school students, especially at meetings to support the Vietnamese people, we continued as best we could our formation and that of comrades close to us, in the form of readings and exposés.

We had comrades and contacts read Wage Labor and Capital, Wages, Prices and Profit, and the edition of Capital abridged by Otto Rühle and prefaced by Trotsky (Marxism and Our Epoch). Some hardy comrades in vo read the version of Capital as condensed by Julien Borschardt, which was 500 pages long. This was not negligible. On my own, I had begun, starting in 1964, to read volume 1 in the translation by Maximilien Rubel, published by Pléiade. As an appendix, there was Marx’s Workers Inquiry of 1880, which had impressed me by its detailed focus on the working and living conditions of workers. That underpinned the validity of our focus in vo being attentive, as we were, to all the aspects of exploitation recounted to us by the workers, with whom we put out our shop-floor bulletins. We were thus able to vigorously denounce, sometimes with humor, the different aspects of exploitation in a company. It was on that basis, where the cgt did not dare venture, that we aroused the interest of the readers of our bulletins, and often their sympathy.

However, it was the political writings of Marx and Engels, and the biographies by Riazanov, Nilolaïevski and Maenchen-Helfen which were the solid basis of our “Marxism.”

All the Trotskyist groups made much of the pamphlets of Lenin and especially of What Is To Be Done?, each group having its own reading to justify their practice. I remember jcr militants mocking our factory bulletins, while we criticized them for remaining in the student milieu and for not making much effort to connect with rank-and-file workers. Only trade-union militants were in their good graces, having shown a “class consciousness” higher than that of other workers.

In the galaxy of Marxist militants and thinkers, aside from Lenin and Trotsky, whose available works we read, Rosa Luxemburg had an important place. We had read and had comrades read Paul Fröhlich’s biography of her, published by Maspéro, as well as Social Reform or Revolution, The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions, as well as her text from prison The Russian Revolution. But before 1968, few texts by her or on her were available in French.

Building a Party for the Self-Emancipation of the Workers

Although at the time we had no doubts on the necessity of building a Bolshevik-type party, we belonged to a Marxist organization which gave greater importance than others to autonomous organs created, or to be created in the future, by the workers. We did not imagine that our factory comrades might play a leading role in a strike outside the framework of a strike committee elected by a general assembly, even if they succeeded, which was very rare, in having a trade-union office. A strike led by a trade union automatically deprived the strikers of any possibility of controlling their strike and showing any kind of initiative. I note in passing that this orientation was maintained by Lutte Ouvriere into the 1980s, and then was progressively abandoned, as lo’s factory militants acceded to trade-union responsibilities in the cgt.

In our thinking, anything that could emerge in the working class outside the control of the trade-union apparatuses (above all of the cgt) was welcome, and an indication that the emancipation of the workers would be the task of the workers themselves. The desire to build a party, as an instrument helping and making possible this emancipation, did not seem to us contradictory, because that seemed positively illustrated by the initial success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and, in the negative, by the failures of the German Revolution of 1918 and the Spanish Revolution of 1936.

May ’68, a promising first attempt

My head was thus filled with the many examples of revolutionary struggles from the past, and of course the impressive struggles then underway, in Vietnam, the United States, and in student agitation from around the world.

Since vo turned all its efforts toward the factories, and did not seek to play a role in the student movement, I was especially excited by the outbreak of the strike and occupation at Renault-Cléon, set in motion by young workers. It was the second factory to strike after the one at Sud-Aviation in Nantes.

A surprising sentiment emerged among many workers after the confrontations in the Latin Quarter: not only were they angered by the violence of the crs; they had sympathy and a certain admiration for those students who had fought on the barricades and challenged established power. This sentiment went against the grain of the negative image of the student movement which the pcf and the cgt tried to impose on people’s thinking. This current of sympathy opened a breach for the surge of those first workers who struck and occupied their factories.

It was logical that the spontaneous initiatives took place in the provinces, where the hold of the cgt was weaker than in the Paris region.

But the cgt rapidly understood the dangers of contamination of the combative ideas of the students for those workers wanting to enter the struggle. That is why the cgt rapidly generalized the strike, in order to maintain its control over the working class. A lucid right-wing journalist used a very evocative image: “The cgt is spurring on its mount, the better to control it.” At first, then, the cgt appeared to be reinforcing and developing the movement. At the Cléon plant, the strike and occupation was animated for several days. But once the cgt decided to free the ceo and the managers, workers began to be disappointed, and returned home. On the contrary, in different factories where the young workers wanted to participate in the movement, they went to the campus or to the Circus Arena, which had been occupied by the students. There, I was able to have very intense discussions with young workers. Some of them took our big piles of leaflets and went off to distribute them even before we asked them to.

There is no question that a certain current of young workers wanted to go farther. Behind the factory gates of the Renault-Cléon factory, at the end of the movement, I witnessed a scene as poignant as that of the rebellious woman worker at Wonder who did not want to go back into the “prison.” A young worker I had won over was shouting at a group of bureaucrats and courageously going toe-to-toe with them. After the resumption of work, he left the factory.

There were undoubtedly young strikers who were terribly disappointed that the movement was stopped in its tracks. For them, it was something like the dawn of a new life, and thus a dream that was broken. The cgt told them to be reasonable and that a major victory had been won, which was absolutely not the case. And those of us in vo were proposing that they patiently build a revolutionary workers’ party in their factory. Certain workers were motivated to do so, until roughly 1978. They were at the head of the numerous bitter strikes which broke out until that date. Other workers dropped everything and we never saw them again. In the first leaflets we wrote to distribute at Renault-Cléon, one young worker from the factory wanted us to say things more radically than I was proposing.

For all that, because of our formation in vo and from the historical example we had studied, we never thought that we were at the dawn of a revolutionary situation or some kind of 1905. Even if the cgt’s call to end the strike often encountered strong resistance, we had to admit that there was no strong and durable will to go farther. Opportunities for building a revolutionary party seemed to have opened up for us, but the working class, nonetheless, had not expressed any aspirations to overthrow the existing powers and change society.

May–June ’68 thus appeared to me as a promising first attempt, which would be followed by even more important movements, which was not the case. It only undermined the influence of the Stalinist movement, which was important, so that revolutionary ideas could penetrate more widely in the working class, so that more important margins of autonomy existed for the workers in all the important strikes which took place in France over the next fifteen years. Today, it seems to me that May ’68 could not have produced more of an emancipatory breakthrough than it did. I remember it as a moment of happiness, during which everything alienating and loathsome in capitalist society was shut down for several weeks.

The Return of Marx, but not of the Proletariat

The last importance experience of struggle in which I participated as a Trotskyist militant was the movement of November–December 1995, when the railway workers took the lead and, in Rouen, maintained democratic control of the strike, which had pulled out other sectors of workers.

After my expulsion from lo in March 1997, and my break with the Voix des Travailleurs tendency at the end of 1999, I maintained ties and even friendships with several workers, which allowed me to follow the most important mobilizations closely. But at the same time, the Trotskyist movement seemed to me more than ever to have exhausted its living substance, and to have become unacceptable in its internal functioning, a prisoner of its electoral routine, and incapable of analyzing the transformations affecting the proletariat from the 1990s onward.

In fact, the decline of the Trotskyist organizations shadowed the decline of the pcf. lo seemed to come off better for several years, but finally ossified, turned in on itself, and put more energy into its electoral campaigns than into the initiatives of the workers. More than ever, it had become a perpetually self-satisfied organization, claiming to be the sole revolutionary one. It rid itself of militants who were asking troubling questions that might disturb the little squirrel wheel of its traditional activities and its minimalist, repetitive propaganda. I would summarize lo’s posture like this: “Let us always repeat the same thing, while waiting until the level of working-class consciousness rises and allows us to play the role of enlightened experts.” This elitist position, one condescending to workers, avoids the facts that the traditional far-left organizations do not want to confront.

One of the most important facts is that, compared to the situation of 1968 and into the mid-1970s, the power and resources of the proletariat have been weakened. Millions of people are partially or fully unemployed; precariousness, flexibility, exhaustion, and harassment on the job have reached impressive and demoralizing levels for those affected, holding back the possibility of larger struggles. Overcoming such obstacles means at minimum admitting that they exist, and reformulating analyses and political intervention that take them into account.

The critical study of Marx, deepening the understanding of past and recent revolutions, of movements such as May ’68, and the qualitative transformations of capitalist social relations, are of no use to organizations like lo and the npa. For the past twenty years, an interest in these crucial questions, and especially for the writings of Marx, is found more often among young researchers in the social sciences or among militants who have broken with the far-left organizations, and who write for online journals or websites.

For myself, I have gone back to studying the proletariat’s place in society, the role of parties and structures and democratic experiences from another critical angle, reading authors such as Jean-Marie Vincent (Un autre Marx and Critique du travail), Oskar Negt (L’espace public oppositionnel), Günther Anders (L’obsolescence de l’homme) or John Holloway (Crack Capitalism).

On another level, the interest that May ’68 can have for us today is in giving vitality and a new content to internationalism. And this of course will happen through the international and fraternal confrontation of different points of view.

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