"Mai '68"

Louis R Godena louisgodena at ids.net
Sun Sep 1 16:17:17 MDT 1996


I'll return shortly to Foucault and the events of 1968,  but first:

Hugh,  predictably,  blames the "Stalinist" PCF and by extension the
Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) for the disasterous trajectory of
the 1968 May-June events--the student riots,  the general strike of 10
million workers,  and the enormous electoral landslide to the Right which,
eight weeks later,  put paid to the entire business.    As an
unreconstructed "Stalinist" myself,  I escape relatively unscathed,  accused
only of a certain "speciousness" in hinting that perhaps the industrial
proletariat possessed neither the means nor the will to topple Charles De
Gaulle.    Hugh is nothing if not judicious.   And his ire is judciously
directed toward the leadership of the French Communist Party.

This is understandable.   Hugh is an able expositor of the Trotskyist
persuasion.     And the first rule of Trotskyism is to "blame Stalin first."
Everywhere.   Always.

But what of May,  1968?    Were the workers "ready" for revolution,
frustrated only by the perfidy and betrayal on the part of the union
leadership and the top bureaucracy of the Left parties?    What of the
students themselves,  many if not most of them already leaving Paris and the
universities for summer vacations?    Would they have supported the workers?
In what capacity?

It seems clear now that the French industrial workers did indeed "turn their
backs on the revolution"  (E.H. Carr,  incidentally,  used this exact phrase
in describing the 1968 events for a Times Literary Supplement article in
1979).    True,  the country was briefly brought to a halt,  but the
strikers were,  in the end,  happy enough to accept the extremely handsome
wage deal ultimately wrung from the *patronat* by the trade unions--they had
no alternative program.

Nor did they have weapons.    True,  a small intransigent minority
(including some leaders of the Parti Socialiste Unife (PSU)--they were to
pay dearly at the polls for this indiscretion--demanded a revolutionary coup
in Paris and the creation of a new commune.    But,  as the PCF saw--quite
rightly (they have an incomparable instinct for self-preservation)--this
would have ended in disaster.    With tanks ringing Paris,  the forces of
law and order still entirely intact,  and four divisions actually on the
move,  it was the height of romantic folly to expect a primarily
tribunal/electoral Party to lead itself into the valley of death.    At
worst the 1871 massacre of the Communards would have been reenacted with
modern weaponry.    Budapest 1956 would be a more probable model.    The
PCF's base,  its militants,  its industrial strength--not the students who,
by that time,  were already clearing out-- would be irretrievably smashed.
The Party,  the unity of the Left,  and the labor movement as a whole would
be broken,  perhaps for a generation,  by such an adventure.    Actually,
as it turned out,  the PCF could only feel relief that this was avoided;
huge wage increases and the extension of union rights were achieved,  and
the Left got away with only an electoral thrashing for their efforts.

Nor,  finally,  did the prospect of Communist revolution have broad popular
support in May of 1968.    As Regis Debray pointed out,  succintly and
without squeamishness,  some years later:

"People did not want a right wing government;  they were ferociously against
it.    They did not want a left-wing government either;  they were not at
all in its favor...Left and Right,  same fight.    Well,  how about no
government at all...Unhappily a society,  any society,  abhors a vacuum,
like nature: it has to have a government,   any government.    Then we'll
have one.   The old one,  that is;  no hassle,  it's there already."

Not precisely the feverishly revolutionary milieu that some would have us
believe existed in 1968.    There was, undeniably,  an unprecedented mood of
revolt against all notions of hierarchy,  authority and *dirigisme*,  one
which shook the parties of the Left almost as much as the establishment.

But there was no popular majority--especially among the workers--to push
this challenge toward a Marxist denouement.

Louis Godena



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