Author Yves Coleman

Marx in 1968 in France

This little article is a personal testimony and does not pretend to describe the attitude of a whole generation towards Marx in the late 1960s. Nevertheless I will try to point to some general tendencies at work before May ’68 in France.

Marx seen through Liberation Theologians and Althusserism

I discovered The Communist Manifesto in my stepfather’s bookshelf but he did not specifically advise me to read it. I was 16 years old in 1966 when I read it for the first time. I was active in the antiracist movement (the mrap, cp-controlled) and in the antiwar movement controlled by the Maoists (cvb, Comités Vietnam de base, which only distributed South Vietnamese nlf and North Vietnamese Stalinist propaganda). The leaders of this Maoist group studied at the super-elitist Ecole Normale Supérieure, where the Stalinist philosopher Louis Althusser was teaching. They had been active in the Communist Party student organization (uec) from which they were expelled in 1965 to form the ujc-ml in 1966. Several of them became (and are still) preeminent Left intellectuals (Pierre Macherey, Etienne Balibar, Bernard Pudal, Michelle Zancharini-Fournel, Robert Linhart, Gerard Noiriel, etc.).

Politically I was a Third-Worldist Catholic, influenced by Frères du monde (“Brothers of the World”), a journal founded by Franciscans who became more and more influenced by Marxism and Liberation Theology. I read Yves Congar’s (a Dominican) and Jean-Yves Calvez’s (a Jesuit) articles and also Témoignage Chrétien (a left-wing Christian weekly founded in 1941 by a Resistance movement during the Second World War and which was very active against French colonialism). I also read La Pensée de Karl Marx, published in 1956 and written by Jean-Yves Calvez, a book which was translated into Spanish and Portuguese, and had a longstanding influence on the South American Left.

As I have no specific memory today of the content of this book I looked for critiques written at the time and it was praised in academic journals as “the best and most sophisticated study ever written in French about Marx”! So I was almost tempted to read it again, 52 years later!

Anyway, Liberation Theology was not my only introduction to Marx as I had a philosophy teacher during my last high school year who was probably a cp member. He convinced me and some other students to read Althussser’s For Marx (published in French in 1965). He also pushed us to read a book written by a Marxist sociologist Lucien Goldmann’s The Hidden God, a fascinating analysis of the seventeenth-century Christian scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, analysis which I successfully used to pass my baccalauréat (final high school exam) in June 1968.

Compulsory Marx readings

So when I was contacted in January 1967 by a Trotskyist “workerist”1 group called Voix Ouvrière (today Lutte Ouvrière, or Union Communiste), they were appalled by my readings and strongly advised me to read Marx himself instead of reading books about his ideas and methodology.

So I was obliged to read Marx and Engels, as it was a precondition to get accepted in the organization. It took me three years to become a member with full rights (I was also supposed to recruit at least one worker to the group—which I did not succeed to do), so, during this time, I read 19 Marx and Engels’s books or booklets which were compulsory readings (I don’t quote here other authors as it’s not the subject of this inquiry).

To become a sympathizer (I was accepted in a “sympathizers’ circle” in September 1968) I started to read:

As we had one or two weeks to read each of these texts, it took me probably one year, or one year and a half, to read them all, as it was intertwined with novels, history books and theoretical books by Lenin, Plekhanov, Trotsky and Luxemburg. This list shows that:

  • we were not obliged to read Capital, volumes 2 and 3, nor the Grundrisse (translated for the first time in 1972), nor the Unpublished Chapter 6 of Capital (translated in 1971);
  • a good part of these books were either written by Engels, a thinker not very much appreciated by many French unorthodox Marxists at the time or they were historical writings rather easy to read.

So this personal information is slightly different from what you write in your presentation about us left groups which “seldom asked their members or prospects to actually engage with Marx’s own writings,” but I would partly agree with your second statement: “In almost no cases, were people encouraged to ‘read’ those texts in ways that might illuminate anything other than the ‘lessons’ they presumably taught.

Nevertheless, being in contact with far-left and anarchist militants for half a century I don’t know of any group or “group-journal” or “group–non-group” which has an open-minded attitude and pushes its members or sympathizers to call into question their basic political and philosophical positions… And I am not sure Marxism, especially if you consider it as a “science” or a “scientific method,” pushes you automatically towards a non-doctrinarian attitude.

As I publish a journal (Ni patrie ni frontières) which translates and publishes (or republishes) opposing views on specific themes from anarchist, Marxist, Trotskyist, left-communist authors, I am well aware that most groups hate to be criticized and deal very badly with internal or external debates.

What general “lessons” can be drawn from my personal experience between 1966 and 1968 in France?

First, there was a significant number of Marxist (generally cp members and sympathizers) teachers in high schools and universities, as testified by the positions of left-wing teachers’ trade unions in 1968. My high school was no exception, as can be shown by the testimonies of many comrades who were born in the early 1950s: high school history and philosophy teachers were often left-oriented in these days. As regards universities, this was often the case in the history, sociology, philosophy and economics departments before May 1968 and it expanded for at least 10 years. Marxism (generally structuralist, Stalinist, Leninist or Third Worldist forms of Marxism) was quite influential and as the French university democratized itself after 1968 (the process had started before) it influenced tens of thousands of students.

As regards left-wing Christians, they were quite active at that time (including in the factories, as the “worker-priest” movement started in 1942)2 and many became atheists or agnostics. Their commitment did not stop in the 1970s because many of them were still active in the no-global movement in the 1990s and even today you can find them in the struggles supporting “illegal” workers.

How was the working class perceived in the Marxist far left, Trotskyist and Maoist press before May 68?

As I was in a “workerist” group, obviously all our attention was centered on workers’ strikes and reports about local working conditions but that did not mean we were more able than others to foresee the May ’68 mass student movement, youth revolt and “general strike.”3 Meeting a friend of a rival organization (the jcr, half-Guevarist, half-Trotskyist but
linked to the Frank/Mandel Fourth International), I remember that I proudly proclaimed: “There won’t be a general strike in France before at least ten years.” My arrogance (I obviously labeled my friend and his group as hopeless “petty bourgeois”) was linked to my very bad capacity of political prediction and lack of experience but also to the strong pessimism of my group which thought that, as the cadres of the future Leninist party were not numerous enough, the
working class could not win any significant struggle. Actually Voix Ouvrière published at the very beginning of May in its monthly journal (Lutte de classe, Class struggle) an article which was named “Le rôle de la violence hors de l’histoire” (“The role of violence disconnected from history”). This text basically said that student revolts had never led anywhere and certainly not led to any general strike. It criticized the far left groups which wanted to imitate the example of the Japanese Zengakuren and the German student sds who confronted the cops and got international fame:

The perhaps confused but alive feeling of one’s exploitation, of the injustice one daily undergoes, exists in every worker. There is no need for any “provocations” to reveal him an “alienated” condition (although he obviously does not use that word). Aspects of his daily life and of his status as a wage-earner are more than enough to show him his reality. But it is not this permanent feeling that can explain either the reactions, or the lack of reaction, of the working class. Because, to react, it is not enough to feel oppressed, it is also necessary either to think that one has nothing more to lose—which is rarely the case—or to have the hope, even the smallest, that something can still be changed. This hope, or lack of hope, has played a central role in the history of the labor movement for 100 years, and determined its ups and downs…. French workers understand that the strikers of the Saviem [truck factory], who are fighting for their demands, clash with the police who come to rescue their boss; they understand that these workers retaliate and fight. German workers might also understand that German students attack the Springer conglomerate if the reasons were explained to them. But this would require, in the current context, that the revolutionary students not only worry about setting fire to the bourgeois press, but also to create a workers’ press in order to develop this work of explanation and propaganda. This would probably mean a complete reorientation of the work of the revolutionaries who are currently in the sds…. French workers would certainly not understand that French students—even if they claim to support the working class—trigger fights for the simple purpose of imitating German students. And in this case, those who would take responsibility for such actions would not only fail to achieve their goal—if their goal is indeed the proletarian revolution and the constitution of a revolutionary workers’ party. By indulging in incomprehensible “provocations,” far left groups and militants may cut themselves from the working class. Today, as yesterday, the essential problem remains the connection of this extreme left with the only class that can give it its size and its historical role: the proletariat.

Voix Ouvrière was strongly anti-Marcusian (although few of Marcuse’s books were translated in French at the time). It tried to lecture the other Trotskyist groups so they would reorient their propaganda from the student milieu to the factories and popular districts, if they wanted to avoid being overwhelmed by “petty bourgeois” ideologies like Third Worldism or the “students-as-a-substitute vanguard” theory.

So reading Marx, and spending a lot of time leafleting factory bulletins in front of factories and selling our weekly newspaper in working-class districts did not really help us, as members of a group dedicated to reading Marx and which included a few dozens of industrial workers, to understand what was going on in the months preceding May ’68.

Does it mean reading Marx was not useful? Certainly not! But we lacked subtlety and flexibility, qualities which were (unfortunately) more present, for example, at the head of the Christian reformist trade union, the cfdt. One of their leaders (Albert Detraz) was specially commissioned by his fellow top bureaucrats to understand what was going on before May ’68. The union bureaucrats did not understand why there were several spontaneous militant strikes in 1967 and early 1968 and why the strikers refused the support of the cfdt or even of the cgt (the strongest union at the time, it was dominated by cp cadres). Detraz was more in favor of “workers control” than of “self management” but he successfully carried out his mission for the union bureaucracy. He was sent to tour several factories in the provinces, to discuss with the workers and try to draw some lessons from their hostility to classic trade union activities. And the cfdt was able to use the “self management” concept as soon as May 16 in its propaganda and make it sound “radical.” It attracted many militant young workers (as well as leftist militants who were happy to find a friendlier milieu than in the Stalinist cgt) to build the union in the months and years following May ’68.

As Jacques Wajnsztejn wrote in his recent book about May ’68 in Lyon, at that time no activist in France made workers’ inquiries to study the class composition and understand what changes were occurring in French society. The cp intellectuals were very much interested in the new waged petty bourgeoisie (teachers, technicians, foremen, executives and engineers), which were slowly replacing its traditional social basis (the qualified workers of the mines, harbors, steel and auto industry). The Trotskyists were split among those who thought that the working class composition had not changed at all (and anyway never allowed their working class comrades to think collectively and define a strategy based on their professional and political experience) and those who thought the sleepy working class should be awakened by a vigorous anti-imperialist student movement.

As regards the Maoists, at least before May 1968, they did not have a specific conception of how to revive the workers’ movement and the unions. Both wings of the Maoist movement, the hard Mao-Stalinists and those who will become the Mao-spontaneists, were still dreaming to revive the “good old days” of Stalinist-dominated unions. They had no idea about the role of a workers’ bureaucracy and its function under private and state capitalism. The front page of the ujc-ml newspaper even proclaimed “Vive la cgt!” just before May ’68. They did not elaborate any specific critique of capitalist hierarchy and its growing sophistication and manipulation of the workforce.

It’s only after 1968 that one current of the Maoist movement (the “Gauche prolétarienne,” the Proletarian Left, coming from the ujc-ml) started to put forward strong anti-hierarchical slogans and actions (like nominally denouncing foremen and security guards in their leaflets, throwing a bucket of paint at them at the gate of the factories, or beating them up).

They attempted to reach the youngest and most revolted layers of the working class, be they Franco-French or recent migrants, but their strategy was not built on any concrete analysis. It was rather based on the desire to make the revolution at once and fill a new “blank page” of history, according to their fantasies concerning the so-called “Cultural Revolution.”

Fifty years have passed and the attitude of the far left has not qualitatively changed as regards the lack of a “concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” Maoist groups have (hopefully!) disappeared; the three main Trotskyist groups4 are still playing around; the anarchist movement is probably a little bit stronger than half a century ago (although very much divided between trade unionist, individualist and insurrectionist tendencies), but I don’t know of any militant group whose working-class members have tried to see whether Marx’s concepts are still useful to understand, for example, the multiple divisions along sex, ethnic and national lines as well religious beliefs, and how the class could be sufficiently reunited to destroy the state and capital today.

The far left and the anarchists have mainly recruited among state employees and new waged petty bourgeois (teachers, executives, members of the cultural industry and social services), but their roots among the non-qualified manual workers, specially among migrant workers (and their children and grandchildren who have French nationality) are still very weak not to say nonexistent. Marxism is of no use to a good part of the radical left (including the various anarchist groups who tend to use “Marxist economics” or concepts to fill the void of their ideology) because they are mesmerized by postmodernism and identity politics.

The usefulness of Marx’s concepts to understand our world needs still to be proven in our daily practice today.

Yves Coleman lives in Paris.

  1. “Workerist” 50 years ago as today was an insult or at least a deprecating judgment. I will always take it as a compliment, especially in our present world where anti–working class postmodern, multiculturalist, left-identitarian and decolonial “theories” dominate.

  2. Condemned by the Pope Pie XII in 1954, they were once more supported by the Catholic Church in 1966 by Pope Paul VI. They were 800 in 1976 and are still 500 today.

  3. I put these two words between quotation marks, because the scale and importance of this strike has been, and is still, much exaggerated (See, for example, my article about 2006 student movement or the collection of articles What’s new in France for the Left?, although it does not deal in detail with May ’68). May ’68 was not a wildcat general strike: the trade unions did not call for a general strike and they bureaucratically organized the occupations of most factories; the mass of the workers occupied neither their places of work nor their neighborhoods; and the young workers went to the universities, or to the local action committees or to the demonstrations, to have some fun fighting the cops.

  4. See the debate in 2007 with Loren Goldner and other comrades: “Left Communism and Trotskyism” on Break Their Haughty Power website, and an updated version (but only my contribution) in French in 2012.