Revisiting 1968

The General strike of ten million workers and students in France in 1968 was an unprecedented event with international significance. It was historic. How quickly, and with such power, a movement from below can emerge and take action. In days, forces that, supposedly had "nothing in common", students at the elite Sorbonne and workers in the Sub-Aviation aircraft factory, found common ground, interchanged experiences and ideas, visited each other in factory and university, stormed the streets together—ten million strong, demanding to be rid of Charles de Gaulle, reaching for a new beginning and yet, it fell short of becoming an uprooting social transformation. It was a near revolution that never became a full one. It galvanised youth rebellion beyond national frontiers. It true sense it created an international space for mobilisation of rebels across the world.

Can that near revolution help today's social movements transcend the present moment across Asia, Africa, Latin America? Just as a half-century ago in France 1968, people are experiencing important new beginnings emerging in response to the many contradictions of capitalist society : Black Lives Matter, massive marches and the #MeToo movement as new expressions of Women's Liberation.

Whether the "experience of 1968"—its power and creativity from below but as well its incompleteness and ultimate failure to transform French society—might have something to say to the possibilities and difficulties people are facing today in their efforts to uproot the old and reach toward an emancipatory future?

Looking back at France 1968, there is no doubt about it being a high point of the 1960s. The vast outpouring of the "Committees of Action" primarily created by groups of students to work at universities, visit the factories, assist workers in writing leaflets, bring together students and workers for discussions and actions: "It is especially the Committees of Action which are the form of the French Revolt. Not a single party or a single action, but a multiplicity of actions, thoughts, ideas. To the extent that the Committees of Action represent the self-development and self-determination of the millions of French workers and students, women and men".

And yet at the same time, there was a duality in France 1968—for in the end de Gaulle remained in power without needing to fire a shot. The duality had a number of aspects. First was the counter-revolutionary actions and power of the Communist Party, which had a dominant role in the main trade union, the CGT. They worked day and night to limit the contact between students and workers, to hem in the revolt, seeking to turn it into merely a question of reforms.

Workers resisted, turning down an agreement that the CGT engineered with the government, but there was no doubt that the Communists were intent on stopping the possibility of a full revolution, one that they could not control. De Gaulle appreciated their efforts to limit the power of a movement, even as he appealed to the fascist right to come to his aid.

The duality of France 1968, however, was not along the actions of the Communists. A second aspect was the illusions that other revolutionaries, particularly the Trotskyists of that day, had about the Communists. They fought and criticised the Communists, but refused to recognise the class nature of this so-called Communism that was in fact a form of capitalism, state-capitalism, that had arisen with the transformation of Russia from a workers' state.

Even those who did not have any illusions about the Communists, such as the revolutionary student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, contributed to the duality by his view that it is "the act" which is key, and any theory needed could be picked up "en route".

In the end, dismissal of the need to work out revolutionary theory, the reduction of theory to strategy and tactics, to the political at most, was at the heart of the duality leading to a missed revolutionary moment in France a half century ago. It is not of course that theory, or its fullest development—a philosophy of human liberation, of revolution—can by itself transform the situation. A philosophy of revolution, dialectics of revolution, can only be fully realised in action. It must be created anew, expressed within the realm of practice. But a philosophy of revolution can only be realised in this manner if living revolutionaries are consciously aware of the necessity to develop and practise it before, during and after the revolutionary moment.

In France, as in many other revolutionary moments in history, there was a failure, before and during the revolt, to see philosophic preparation for revolution and its concretisation within the ongoing struggle as the crucial challenge. It was "the missing link". Neither "the correct vanguard party line" nor "the revolutionary act", no matter how profound, can substitute for it. If there is not an active seeking out of the unity of practice and theory, a realisation that the act along will not suffice, people end up in incomplete, failed and transformed-into-opposite revolutions.

The missed movement of France 1968 is not merely an historical footnote. It is the living challenge that remains for youth and toilers of today.

Today's youth rebellions are not yet at the level of a decisive moment like France 1968. But that is where all the difficulties came forth. Today's new generation of rebels can make a leap forward that France could not. "All is possible" was an important and exciting moment. But it is only the opening of a door. What will be necessary to march through, to transform the possible to the actual of a new society and not a return to the old as in de Gaulle's France?


Vol. 51, No.8, Aug 26 - Sep 1, 2018