International Socialist Journal     July 1968

Hope Was Reborn in May

NOTE: While writing for The Economist, as the unnamed "Paris correspondent," Daniel Singer contributed this piece to the International Socialist Journal of July 1968, under the nom de plume of "Daniel Martin."

"To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution. And he who tries to apply the home-made wisdom derived from parliamentary battles between frogs and mice to the field of revolutionary tactics only shows thereby that the very psychology and laws of existence of revolution are alien to him and that all historical experience is to him a book sealed with seven seals". Rosa Luxemburg.

Ce n'est...qu'un début...continuons le...combat... once again the jerky rhythm of the slogan for ever associated with the May movement echoed in the streets of Paris as the demonstration, red flags flying, left Montparnasse. The marchers were predominantly young and students were more numerous than workers. There were new slogans, too, like "De Gaulle, Franco, Salazar" or "Nous sommes de plus en plus enragés." At the gare d'Austerlitz, at the close of the march, there were brief speeches and, as if to underline the internationalism of the crowd, an Italian delegate was loudly applauded, whenever his listeners could grasp such words as polizia or borghese. It was june 1st and, for the last time in this first act, the police had allowed a mass march to get together. The CGT had already called the strikers to an orderly retreat. The revolutionary wave was receding. Yet, this was not a funeral procession. The young students and workers had not come to mourn the past. They could proudly look towards the future. They have opened a new chapter in revolutionary history.

The main message of may is that a revolutionary situation can occur in an advanced capitalist country. Admittedly, this is a Marxist truism. Yet, this basic premiss was not only dismissed by the bourgeois apologists of the so-called affluent society. It was also set aside, explicitly or implicitly, by the socialist left. There is no denying that one of the big unanswered questions of marxist theory is why socialist revolutions did not take place in the countries for which they were designed. And doubts naturally spread as time went on.

Lenin and the bolsheviks had rendered a historical service to mankind as pioneers showing that workers could seize and hold power. They themselves, however, expected the revolutionary movement to spread to the industrialized countries of western Europe. They knew that, without this help, isolated, backward Russia would have to pay the political price of what Preobrazhensky called "primitive socialist accumulation". And it did. Since the war the revolution has spread, from above and from below, to other countries, but once again to areas of relative industrial backwardness. Inevitably, the idea of a socialist revolution (in the sense of a sudden and radical transformation of power, property and other social relationships) in the West suffered the fate of a relic that many treat with signs of outward respect, but few really believe in. The choice offered to the proletariat and the socialists of the western world seemed to be limited to more or less radical reformism at home coupled with an auxiliary role in the revolutionary movement of the third world.

This does not mean that the anti-imperialist struggle, that the help for heroic Vietnam or Cuba should now lose in importance. Quite the contrary. But a socialist revolution in an advanced country like France, with its own methods, its own ways, its own solutions would have a contagious effect in western Europe, a bearing on what happens in the eastern part; it would affect the general balance of power in the world. This is the dazzling prospect that the revolutionary students and workers have opened or rather reopened.

The French student revolt is part of a wider world movement. Its peculiarity was not so much that from the very start it pinned its hopes on the working class ("étudiants solidaires des ouvriers" was among the early slogans). Its peculiarity was that it found an echo, a response among industrial workers. Barricades in the Latin Quarter, student courage, coupled with blunders from a government which alternated bloody repressions with temporary surrenders, acted as an inspiration and an example. The huge popular demonstration of May 13 served as a link. Revolutionary students had precipitated the biggest strike, the biggest social upheaval that France has known this century. This, in turn, revealed the true nature of bourgeois democracy, the nakedness of the police state and its relative fragility. It also provided another Marxist reminder, a reminder of the political strength and social power of attraction of the working class once it sets itself into motion.

At this stage comes the obvious objection that France did not have its revolution, that it all fizzled out, at least temporarily, in an electoral farce. History does not allow for experimental tests in a laboratory to check whether the situation was prerevolutionary, quasirevolutionary or what not. In one sense, it could be argued that the situation could not be truly revolutionary because it lacked a leadership and organization to carry it through.1This, however, raises the problem of the part played in May and June by the party which claims as its birthright the role of the "vanguard of the proletariat," namely the French Communist Party (or PCF). Yesterday it was possible to ask the question whether "the leaders of the PCF are now ready publicly to assume their new role as potential reformers of capitalist society"?2 The question has now been put to the test and socialists all over the world must draw their own conclusions.

Criticism of the PCF centres for the moment on the moral aspect, on the alleged misunderstanding of the student movement and the ensuing unbelievable nature of communist propaganda. Starting with the article of Georges Marchais in l'Humanité of May 3rd (the day when the police storming the Sorbonne precipitated the crisis), in which Cohn-Bendit was described as "a German anarchist" and the members of the 22nd of March Movement as predominantly "children of grand bourgeois contemptuous of students of working class origin", the performance has culminated, so far, with posters calling to vote communist because they have been the first (i.e. before the gaullists) to denounce the trouble-makers. In the meantime, l'Humanité republished without a word of comment or disapproval the vilest attacks against the students uttered by the gaullist government and its police. It concentrated its own wrath against "Geismar and his gang". In hardly veiled terms, it urged the government to arrest all such "provocateurs" and when all the revolutionary movements were banned, l'Humanité did not utter a word of protest. Such extraordinary behaviour naturally shocked communist intellectuals who were driven to protest against the party line. Still, social-democratic precedents show that such, to put it very mildly, unprincipled conduct is a reflection of something deeper, that it is a symptom of the malaise of a party failing to fulfill its historical mission. Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Let us accept the premiss of the PCF that the situation was not revolutionary. It will be granted, nevertheless, that the strike, involving over nine;million workers, was not a routine operation. It started spontaneously, but was rapidly channeled by the CGT into its traditional, essentially wage, demands. Not for a moment is it being suggested that there is something wrong with wage demands or something wrong with using them, even in exceptional circumstances, in order to move gradually from quantitative to qualitative objectives. A "vanguard" which runs miles ahead will not be followed. But the crucial question is whether the CGT has tried, at any stage, to spur the movement beyond its conventional limits? The plain answer is that it has done exactly the opposite and one of the reasons for the conflict with the students was the visible fear of any "ultraleftist" ferment.

There is much talk now about May as a dress rehearsal and analogies are drawn with Russia. It must be remembered, however, that in Petrograd in 1905 everything had been done to exploit the potentialities of the situation. The inevitable anarchy created by the general strike had been used to set up the organs of parallel power--the soviets. In France all effort to spread or regroup the revolutionary action and strike committees, to sponsor self-management by the strikers, to suggest the mildest forms of even self-defence met with the strongest rebuff from the CGT. The PCF had chosen to act within the established law and order. Any illusions on this score were dispelled on May 31st, the day after General de Gaulle's challenge, when M. Séguy, the CGT leader, demobilised the army of labour, when he turned the general strike into a series of individual or branch bargains. The communist leadership has too much experience to believe that a general strike, a weapon for seizure of power, could be magically transformed into an instrument of electoral propaganda. They must have known that gaullism would emerge victorious from an electoral battle. The choice of a parliamentary road was not just a tactical mistake. It was the reflection of a long-term strategy.

In theory, during the ascending phase of a revolution, the initiative moves gradually to more and more radical groups. In France, on the left of the PCF there was no group sufficiently solid and coherent to take over and none could apparently be improvised. The elemental forces carried the movement as far as they could against the resistance of a powerful apparatus. The revolutionaries who tried to push it further were not helped by the limited political consciousness of the masses. It would be inaccurate and wrong to claim that the workers who loudly rejected the draft agreement reached rue de Grenelle, who opposed the return to work did so in the name of a conscious political alternative. Most of them had just rediscovered their collective power. They sensed that they could obtain more. They were dimly aware that their victory could not be preserved without the overthrow of the capitalist system. But this awareness of class interest was semisub-conscious and largely inarticulate. Superficially, this strengthens the case of PCF arguing that the situation was not revolutionary. It also raises some question marks about the ideological work carried amid the masses by the allegedly revolutionary party. In the inevitable international discussion about the role of the PCF, not only its conduct in May and June, but also its groundwork over the last ten--some will say last fifty--years will have to be taken into account.

France has had no revolution. Yet even this first round, these few weeks of disintoxication have taught people more than years of relative calm. They confirmed some old truths, provided new insights, raised some serious problems for study. All such issues can only be mentioned here in shorthand.

The events revealed the real nature of the bourgeois state, based ultimately on the coercive power of its police and armed forces. It is to Baden Baden that de Gaulle travelled to get his investiture from the army commanders (whether the army, at this stage, was capable of defeating the army of labour is doubtful; the question was not put to a test, since M. Séguy ordered a retreat). The bourgeois ideologists also threw off their mask. When it became apparent that this was no student rag, that vested interests were threatened, the alarm was sounded against "nihilism".3 There was no longer much talk about the industrial society of freedom.4

The highly improvised movement of young students and workers blew a breath of fresh air throughout France. It also reminded us all that revolutionary socialism is spelt with spontaneity, freedom of debate, internationalism (symbolised here by the moving slogan "We are all German Jews"). The posters spreading all over the Latin Quarter gave us some idea of China's cultural revolution. The discussions, not always productive, revealed the desperate need felt by millions in our society--and not only intellectuals--for communication, for a meaning in life. The changing direction of events showed the passive mobility of the lower middle classes torn between their desire for, and their fear of, change.

Amid the questions requiring closer study, one can mention: the apparently strong popular reaction against bureaucratic centralism; the analysis of the growing student body (based not only social origin but on its suspended function in production); youth, not as a separate class, but as a dynamic element within its class; the revolutionary potentialities of the working class in its new structure with the growing proportion of technicians and salaried cadres (one of the main lessons seems to be that cadres can be attracted not by a middle class platform but by the prospect of a role in a different society). All such study is, naturally, connected with the search for a new party, or movement, which will not miss historical opportunities. Which brings us back to the old debate between those who still pin their hopes on pressure from without, considering that the party is by now at once too monopolithic and too reformist to offer scope. An old debate which must be resumed in a new light after the May crisis.

There is no time to waste. Revolution, national in its first phase, is international by nature. The next occasion may arise in Italy or it may repeat itself in France if, cheated of their gains, the workers are once again spurred to action. Now that the tide is receding, that the mood is depressed by the inevitable electoral defeat it may sound sanguine to proclaim that the Montparnasse marchers were no mourners, that they were pioneers of a new era. And yet a new ghost, or rather a revived one, is once again haunting Europe--it is the spectre of socialist revolution. This exhilarating prospect brings with it some dangers. Unlike an indulgent grandmother, history has no soft spot for grandchildren who keep missing their opportunities.

1. "Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam". Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution.       Back to text

2. International Socialist Journal, Nr. 22, p. 609.      Back to text

3. Beuve-Méry in Le Monde.      Back to text

4. The refrain of Raymond Aron: "Do you expect a bourgeois state to provide a Cuban university?"      Back to text