May 1968 is the date of the largest general strike in French history. Over the course of this month, 11 million workers joined a protest which was explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and revolutionary. As a result of the strike national production came to a grinding halt, conservative president Charles de Gaulle fled the country and a snap election had to be called in order to restore the status quo. Although it did not achieve its revolutionary objectives, May 68 shows how powerful workers and students can be when they join forces against capitalism.
The May 68 strikes found their roots in the March 22nd movement. On March 22nd, a group of students and activists occupied an administrative building of Paris Nanterre X (a well-to-do law and humanities university) to denounce class discrimination and the political bureaucracy which controlled their school. The students took over the administration and the canteen. They took over cooking and cleaning duties. They took down the partitions meant to separate staff and students. The daily running of the campus was organized by general assemblies, which were attended by hundreds. Over the next few days, students clashed with police until the perceived leaders of the movement were expelled from the university. Due to the ever-increasing student agitation, both Nanterre and Sorbonne campuses were closed and occupied by police.
On the 6th of May a march on Sorbonne was organised – its demands were that all arrested students be released and that police give up control of the university campus back to the students. This march brought together several student unions, including the UNEF (the national student union), the university teacher’s union and various secondary school unions. The march was made up of 20,000 students, teachers and supporters. When they took to the streets they were attacked by police with tear gas and batons. Police infiltrators tried to incite violence by burning cars. Even though the protesters did not incite violence, they of course bore the brunt of the injuries and hundreds were arrested. Although some scattered, others threw pavement stones and built barricades in self-defence.
Due to the disproportionate violence inflicted by the state, the protestors garnered public support. The CGT (controlled by the Communist party, and France’s largest union) and CGT-FO (nation-wide general union) joined the protests and called for a general strike on the 13th of May. One million workers went on strike and the demand of the students were met. The Sorbonne campus was re-opened, and was again occupied by students. They formed the Sorbonne Occupation Committee. Over the next week, 401 similar occupation committees were formed by students across France. These committees shared common revolutionary and anti-capitalist ideals. Such ideals and exemplified in the communiqué below:
POINT OF ORDER TO BE SPREAD BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
(spread with flyers, proclamation on a microphone, comics, songs, paint on the walls, written on Sorbonne blackboards, proclamations in cinemas during the film or after having stopped it, graffiti on metro posters)
Occupy the factories
Power to the workers councils
Down with class society
Down with the society of the speculation market
Humankind can only be happy when the last bureaucrat is hung with the guts of the last capitalist
Death to cows
Set free those who were charged with looting on May 6th
signed – Sorbonne Occupation Committee
16th of May 1968, 7pm.
Inspired by the student strikes, workers of Sud Aviation (a French plane manufacturer) organized a sit-down strike. Two days later, 200,000 workers joined the strike and 50 factories were occupied. The SOC called for all workers to occupy their factories and form worker councils. These same workers wanted to separate themselves from the powerful syndicates like the CGT. While the CGT wanted to use the strike to negotiate higher wages, many strikers were more interested in radical change – some wanted to see the de Gaulle government ousted, other wanted to run their own factories.
By the 17th of May 1968, 2 million workers were on strike and by the 20th their numbers had risen to 9 million. Revolutionary students often went to factories to engage worker with revolutionary ideas. Although these ideas were opposed and denounced by trade union officials, some workers were to open to more radical ideas and actions. One French student describes this as the true significance of May 68: “The unthinkable had happened! The strikes were like a flame, like everything we had been saying at Nanterre. Fuck hierarchy, authority, this society with its cold, rational, elitist logic! Fuck all the petty bosses and mandarins at the top! Fuck this immutable society that refuses to consider the misery, poverty, inequality and injustice it creates, that divides people according to their origins. Suddenly we realized we had to find a new kind of solidarity. That’s what was important about May. Not the slogans and the rest, not the poetry and exuberance, but this new found solidarity. That was what May meant to me.”
On May 26th, the Ministry of social affairs offered a 25% increase in the minimum wage and a 10% increase in average wage in a desperate measure to queel the growing radicalism. This offer was rejected and the strike went on – the workers were demanding radical changes to labour rights. France saw the biggest strike in its history, and the ruling order were not sure how to respond. For a few days in May things seemed to hang in the balance. On the 29th of May French president de Gaulle fled to Germany. He did not inform his ministers, and for six hours no one knew where the president had gone. The French government was in chaos.
The following day de Gaulle announced that a snap election would be held on June 23rd. From there the revolutionary fervour died down. The main union bodies and the official left of the Communist Party had consistently opposed the growing radicalism in favour of reform. De Gaulle had called their bluff – committed to the parliamentary road, they called off strikes and demonstrations. By June 16th the armed forces had taken back the Sorbonne campus, and on the 23rd de Gaulle wins the election in a historical landslide, taking 353 of 486 seats. This marked the end of the May 68 movement.
The reverberations of May ’68 were felt around the world. Time stopped in that month – and suddenly a new world was not just possible – but on the brink of being born. For years before leftist thinkers and liberals bemoaned the generation that were bought off by capitalism’s increase in living standards and luxury goods in the post war period. They were shown wrong in the most spectacular fashion. Before May the student movement in France had been smaller and less militant than in other European countries, and the government stable and secure. By the end of May the entire edifice of the French establishment had been shaken to its core – students marched and occupied in their thousands, millions of workers went on strike and took on their bosses, occupying their factories.
While one of the lessons from May ’68 was how the CGT and the Communist party undermined the insurrectionary movement. The CGT joined too late and stopped too early, as the workers’ demands for full control and autonomy went against their interests. Buoyed by the offer of the snap election the CGT and the Communist party disbanded the strike movement to push for electoral support, demobilising workers and opening the door to the victory of the Gaullist forces. The smaller forces of the revolutionary left could put out good arguments, but they did not have the kind of party ready properly to challenge the authority of the Communist Party in the factories across France. May 1968 was not a revolution, but a revolutionary rehearsal – it showed the possibility of revolution, and forged a generation of revolutionaries. But the real lesson of May 68 is the legacy of class consciousness. May ‘68 showed many that, if they organized as a class, the workers and students are a force to be reckoned with, that ideas still matter and that another world is possible.