POWER AND PROTEST IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY:
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND POLITICS
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS OF THE 'SIXTIES
May '68 in France.
In France (*) during 1967 – the year before the May Days - there had
been student protests demanding the "independence of the
rights" etc. In
(*) There were similar conflicts and protests in universities in other countries. There is not space for detail here, but I make a few brief comments on these
The war in
What started as a student dispute, however, escalated – especially due
to the authorities’ rash handling of the trouble, and the May Days culminated
in 10 million workers on strike. To try to resolve the situation the President
General de Gaulle awarded workers a 10% pay rise, raised the minimum wage, and
called for a General Election (cleverly – he calculated he would win and he
did). During the dispute
None of the major political parties expected such an uprising: the French Communist Party (PCF) initially ridiculed it, then tried to hold it back. Only a few rather obscure and small left-wing groups were ready and involved: the Internationale Situationiste (I.S., or Situationist International – not to be confused with the British I.S. or International Socialists, an altogether different organisation!), whose best known member was Guy Debord, the author of an influential pamphlet: The Society of the Spectacle… Also Socialisme ou Barbarie, whose members included Pierre Cardan (Cornelius Castoriadis), Claude Lefort, and others, and from whom the organisation Solidarity was derived. For an eye-witness account of some of the events by someone associated with these groups, see May68: Solidarity Account.
That such groups, united in their hostility to modern capitalism and the
consumer society should gain such support was unexpected in France: in America
the Hippies and others were, as shown above, hostile to consumer society; but
France was relatively "behind" in the production of consumer
goods. On other hand, as we saw, the
2. The Roots of the Crisis:
(Main source: Seale and McConville1968)
(i) the French education system:
There had been rapid growth of the student population in a short period
of time: in 1961 there were 202,000 university students in
French Higher Education had an “open door policy” at the time. One third
to half of the students who enrolled failed to get a degree, whilst in the
Moreover, the new buildings were in juxtaposition with poor immigrant
areas, while they drew on the middle-class to recruit their students. French HE
was more dominated by the middle classes than
The universities suffered from bureaucratised
control: the state had central control over admin decisions, budgetary
allocations, even staff appointments!!! University education in France was regarded
as conveying high status, but students and staff felt powerless in their
universities, and many (especially sociology students) felt their studies were
not a preparation for work (many went into unemployment because too many were
being educated in relation to suitable jobs being available). It was said that
"A French University is like a factory in
Thus, student grievances built up: there was overcrowding, poor amenities and poor transport; there were regulations inherited from boarding schools: no posters in students’ rooms, no discussion of politics, segregation in accommodation of women and men (i.e. they were not allowed into each others' rooms except during the day!!) (See Seale and McConville, 1968, p 28 -9.)
It has to be said that some of
these grievances were felt in the
(ii) in the wider society, bureaucracy (and hence alienation!) could be found throughout
French professions, - science, even football… According to Philip French, the
film critic (Observer 08.02.04), the actual origin of the May Events was a
demonstration against the dismissal by the Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux,
of the creator of Cinemateque Francaise.
Seale and McConville say that “The situation inside many French factories is positively medieval by British or American standards. Riot police had been called in by managers at Peugeot, and two strikers were killed. Most management is “secretive and paternalistic.” Part of the blame for this (say Seale and McConville, op cit p 156) lies with the communist-led group of unions the CGT: they kept demands to wage levels and avoided any discussions on corporate affairs in case this should appear to be co-operating with management. On the other hand, the CFDT, which is permeated with the radical philosophy of French left-wing Catholicism, was more prepared to listen to workers’ grievances and to seek a share in management for the workers.
3. A summary of the events of 1968:
A split then developed between the reformist majority, concerned about jobs etc, and the militant minority which “denounced the concept of the university as servant of the technocratic state.” As the committee was getting nowhere, the militant students, drawing on their understanding of sociology, together with an input of Marxism - for there were many “far left” groups at this time, in France, Britain America and Germany (see groupuscules below) - realized they would have to “contest” the university and its place in society rather than just try to push for reforms. By early 1968, contact between staff and students had broken down. The radical minority called themselves the enragés, after the French revolutionaries in the 18th century, and they grew more and more provocative.
When the Minister of Youth and Sports came to
Rumours then spread that Cohn-Bendit was going to be expelled, and this led to demonstrations. As the students suspected that the police had been photographing them, they countered by taking photos of the police, which they then enlarged and paraded up and down! The number of students demonstrating was growing (though it was only 50 or so) and Dean Grappin called the police: eventually armed police arrived, but this was just at the moment when 1,000 students were coming out of lectures for their mid-day break… When the students saw the police they rioted and pelted them and drove them out of the university. The tactic of a small group using direct action to create a situation that would then escalate had worked. The massed students were very hostile to the police and the Dean from then on! At this stage there was no further “trouble” but the students’ awareness of the nature of the “system” had been heightened.
Escalation followed: there were threats from the Dean to shut down Nanterre, the continued presence and aggressive behaviour of the police, the absence from France of Prime Minister Pompidou, and the remoteness of President de Gaulle, the arrest of a small number of students, and all this led to the setting-up of barricades, skirmishes in which cobblestones were torn up and thrown, rioting, the use of tear-gas, and police brutality (witnesses spoke of students taken into vans and emerging with bloody faces). Such was the hatred of the police on the part of the students that slogans began to appear equating the riot police with the SS: “CRS = SS”.
At first, the students’ demands were moderate (to get the police out of the university, to release the arrested students) and they were prepared to talk. But they met with intransigence, and suspected that any moderate academic staff were being undermined by intervention from government. At this stage they also had the support of much of the French population: middle-class parents were horrified at the police violence, and intellectuals such as Sartre and de Beauvoir were sympathetic.
As no progress was being made to solve the conflict, strikes broke out at other universities. The conflict united students and the more radical among their teachers.
But de Gaulle and the Minister for education Peyrefitte saw it all as the work of a minority, and demanded order – Mitterand (future President) was one of the few members of the government who said they must listen to the youth: “youth is not always right, but to mock, misunderstand, and strike at it is always wrong” (Seale and McConville, 1968 p 80).
The university was closed. When the Dean offered to open it the students protested that they wanted those arrested freed, and police removed. The government insisted (probably over the head of the Dean) that the university could not be opened under the conditions of student rioting and occupation. This interference simply meant that the more radical students gained influence.
A crucial development was the forging of links with workers, which was urged by those whose ultimate goal was a socialist revolution. As noted below, there were many different Marxist, Trotskyist and Maoist groups, and key figures from the international socialist movement such as Ernest Mandel took part in the meetings. In the country, discontented workers had begun to strike, and at the height of the action up to 10 million workers were on strike. Often the strikes were “active”: that is, the workers stayed in the factories and managed them by themselves. Now the situation was to all intents a prelude to revolution.
Finally Prime Minister Pompidou took the initiative from President de Gaulle, and declared that the imprisoned students would be released and the Sorbonne opened, implying that the police would withdraw. But it was too late: by now the demonstrations were up to 800,000 strong, and the Sorbonne was occupied. Under the influence of radical students there had been an escalation of the scale of the demands: now the students wanted autonomy, and the resignation of ministers.
The students set up a “Soviet” which lasted for 34 days until the 16 June when they were expelled.
For some, these events were an example of the kind of popular revolution, practicing democratic socialism, that they saw as the alternative to the Marxist “capture of state power” and hoped would spread in a revolutionary wave. Link to Solidarity account of the May Days.
From mid-May to mid-June 1968,
Pompidou began to placate the workers by negotiating, at Grenelles, an increase in minimum wages, and plotting starts among politicians to remove de Gaulle.
De Gaulle flew to Germany, possibly to prepare the armed forces to intervene if necessary; it is known that he met with General Massu, (who died recently - see the obituary at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/france/story/0,11882,820598,00.html). Alternatively, it was seen as a convenient vanishing trick on the part of de Gaulle, who wanted to heighten the tension before returning to take control. Others, including Massu, say that de Gaulle was considering resigning, but that he (Massu) persuaded him to stay on. Then de Gaulle returned to make a TV announcement that there would be a general election. He said that he had a mandate and would fight to carry on. He hinted at his preparedness to use “other means” i.e. the armed forces, who were known to be loyal to him after his leadership of the Free French during World War II.
Finally, the whole “near revolution” ended with de Gaulle getting an increased vote of support in the general election!
Reasons for de Gaulle’s success:
The main explanation lies in the divisions among students and workers and between the two groups.
As noted above, the CGT and the CFDT had taken up
different positions: the larger CGT stuck to purely economic demands, while the
(smaller) CFDT saw the problem as a need for more democracy at work. This meant
that when more money was offered, the sting was taken out of the dispute for
the majority of workers. The students demands were
even more radical than those of the more radical workers, and the two groups
never really presented a united front (given the short time-scale involved this
is hardly surprising!) There was a short-lived administration in
As regards the politicians, the opposition to the government was also split: the Socialists (e.g. Mitterand) and Communists could not form a viable alliance.
De Gaulle treated the workers separately to the students and offered an industry-wide settlement involving round-table talks with government, employers and unions, and a referendum on his (vague) plan for more “participation.”
Whilst Pompidou had appeared more amenable, he had nevertheless been maneuvering the communists against the radicals in his talks with the workers.
General de Gaulle had a different style of approach, and different views about the solution: his TV speech only sought more power for himself (through a “mandate of renewal”), and offered “participation” with the aim of “adapting our economy to national and international necessities.” Nevertheless, crucially, he identified the uprising with the communists and scared ordinary French voters back into their traditional conservative role.
See especially Seale and McConville 1968, chapter two.
(i) As noted, the students saw themselves as
part of the “tradition” of revolution in
The Revolution itself ended up “devouring its own” with a new repression and the use of the notorious guillotine. The revolutionary movement was also – as so often – split into many factions. Some of the students “borrowed” the name of one of these groups, the enragés: these were also known as the “sans-culottes” and were led by Jacques Roux. He became a member of the Paris Commune, but was condemned to death by a revolutionary tribunal in 1794 – he stabbed himself on hearing the sentence, according to Seale and McConville (op cit p 32).
The Commune, set up in 1791, was a dramatic instance of direct democracy in action, and its ideas and methods also inspired the ’68-ers: the city was taken over by its inhabitants, who then ran it by means of assemblies and recallable delegates.
(ii) To understand the strength of left-wing thought – and its
revolutionary intentions – we need to look briefly at the history of the labour
movement in the first half of the 20th century, (see also SM 1 The Labour Movement). By
the ‘60s, there was widespread disillusion over the politics of the
Trotskyism and Maoism were alternatives for those who were not entirely disillusioned with parties based on orthodox Marxism. Other currents, such as “council communism” and anarchism also gained support during this time.
Some looked to
Finally, and crucial as a catalyst to protests throughout
Militant students thrown out of the UEC formed the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire
(JCR), a Trotskyist group that was central to the May
Day activities. Alain Krivine was a key figure in the
JCR, which believed that a revolutionary leadership was needed. Another Trotskyist group was the Parti Communiste Internationaliste
(PCI), the French branch of the Fourth International. This is where Ernest
The pro-Chinese students were represented by the UJC(M-L), many of whom were influenced by Louis Althusser.
Similar groups and factions existed in
Finally, mention has already been made of Socialisme ou Barbarie (see my notes on Castoriadis) and the Situationniste Internationale (S.I.), whose imaginative slogans were one of the most striking features of the May Days (see below).
In conclusion, however, it must be said that there was a general malaise among students over their position: as future academics and intellectuals themselves, they could not accept the old-fashioned teaching methods which required a passive respect for “authority” and which gave them no say in what they were to be taught.
(See ed. Cockburn and Blackburn 1969), in particular the David Triesman article on the CIA infiltration of the International Students Association… Triesman went on to become general Secretary of the Lecturers’ Union NATFHE, then General Secretary of the Labour Party and is now a Labour Peer!!.
What conclusions can we draw from the May Days? Here are a few views, taken mainly from pamphlets produced at the time. The first two represent viewpoints that one might expect to be most sympathetic to the aims of the May participants, since the authors were participants themselves:
(i) The authors of the Solidarity pamphlet written by an observer of the events conclude:
“…this most modern movement should allow real revolutionaries to shed a number of the ideological encumbrances which in the past had hampered revolutionary activity”: after all, despite Marxist predictions about the worsening of the conditions of the working class being the trigger for revolution, these upheavals were not a response to hunger, there was no economic crisis, nor was it anything to do with “under-consumption or over-production.” Contrary to Marxist orthodoxy (and no doubt this is why many on the left dismiss the Events) the uprising was not based on economic demands.
The Solidarity argument is that the Events showed that there is still (i.e. as Marx suggested) a “contradiction” in modern capitalism, but that it was not to do with the “forces or relations of production” – not basically to do with the economy in fact. Students, and some workers, were reacting against the social, political and economic division between “order-givers” and “order-takers.” The “problem” for modern capitalism is that whilst bureaucrats of various sorts try to turn people into objects, people (being people and not robots!) refuse… Thus the functioning of bureaucratic capitalism of itself creates the conditions within which revolutionary consciousness may appear. This revolutionary consciousness would lead to demands for the abolition of the divide between order-givers and order-takers, through workers’ self-management.
However, it was clear that there was not a real revolutionary movement: the students did not outwit the bureaucracy (and the politicians), they did not adequately expose the “left” leadership (not just the CP, but Maoists and Trotskyists were stuck in a traditional mind-set and could not go so far as to demand self-management), there should have been more attempts to propagate autonomous workers activity, workers management of production etc.
Link to: May '68 Solidarity Account
(ii) Another observer/participant, Sebastian Hayes, writing in the anarchist publication Raven (No. 38, summer 1998 – which also includes a 1968 interview with Danny Cohn-Bendit) is more dismissive:
“What were the overall consequences of May ’68?
Not a lot, I would say, on a national level. The 10% wage increase was whittled away by a devaluation of the franc that winter. It was to be some years before Mitterand and the Socialists came to power, and conceivably May ’68 may have delayed rather than accelerated their victory.
On a personal level, however, May ’68 was pretty catastrophic, especially for the younger generation. Activists in the factories were weeded out once things had quietened down a bit… [and there was continued infighting between Communists, Maoists et al]
May ’68 just ante-dated the massive arrival of pop music, drugs, long
hair, Eastern mysticism, feminism and so on from
Many ex-militants turned to drugs or petty crime after the collapse of their hopes…
The trouble with an experience like May ’68 is that, having lived a kind of dream for a while, one finds it almost impossible to re-adjust to normality… [You] spend the rest of [your] life simultaneously regretting the experience and wishing it had never happened.”
But why were the Events cut short of revolutionary change?
(iii) In a pamphlet produced by the International Socialists, late in 1868, Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall conclude by arguing, as Trotsky did (and with extensive quotes from Trotsky) that whilst revolutions might start spontaneously (as the May Events did) they cannot move on unless there is a well-organised revolutionary party to raise the level of consciousness of the participants (because the party will have learned the lessons of history, as well as being thoroughly versed in the appropriate theory!) and to take the leadership. “Revolutionaries must try and unite the workers on the soil of economic resistance to the bosses, as well as on the soil of political resistance to the state.”
Needless to say (but I’ll say it!) this is the usual IS/SWP line – only perhaps spelled out more bluntly than in more recent writings – in terms of the emphasis put on the workers, on economic struggle, and on “vanguard” leadership. The line is even more typical in the final section of the pamphlet, dealing with “Lessons for British Revolutionaries”:
We cannot be sure of the rhythm of events, but there can be no doubt that there will be an acceleration. One thing has been made abundantly clear by the French crisis… the immediacy of revolution… We cannot gauge the timing, duration and sweep of the coming revolutionary crisis in British capitalism, but it is not far off”.
(iv) In a pamphlet produced by Roger Gregoire and Freddy Perlman (later reprinted by Black and Red), a number of points are made:
- whilst the students recognised that the universities should be “social property” they only went part of the way to transforming the university – they did invite anyone who wanted top join the “occupation”, and they did reject the student union leaders as being out of touch, but they did not then go on to replace the administration, either of the union, or of the university itself. Moreover, the authors argue, if they were to completely “socialize” the university, they needed to stop regarding it as “their property.”
- as regards factories, there was also a failure of imagination, though this was the result of good intentions: the students did not want to antagonise the workers, so they made it clear that they supported the workers’ rights and the workers’ unions (though they had rejected their own student union…); they also regarded the factories as somehow the workers’ property, and urged the workers to occupy. The better strategy, given the revolutionary nature of the students’ demands for self-management and an end to bureaucracy, would have been to demand the socialization of the factories. (After all, the aim of a communist revolution is that the people should “expropriate the expropriators”! – my comment.)
- the authors make the point that it is very easy to fall into the trap of becoming passive spectators, expecting others to act before we will follow. But this is just the mentality that a bureaucratic/modern capitalist/technocratic state (to me the terms are pretty well interchangeable) wishes its citizens to have! This should have been the lesson drawn from the Situationist notion of a “spectacular society..”
(v) A more positive assessment of the Events - though an ambiguous one - is given in the book by Feenberg and Freedman (2001, p 68):
“While the May Events did not succeed in overthrowing the state… they transformed resistance to technocratic authority and consumer society from the notion of a few disgruntled literary intellectuals into a basis for a new kind of mass politics that continues to live in a variety of forms to this day. … the May Events set in motion a process of cultural change that transformed the image of the left, shifted the focus of opposition from economic exploitation to social and cultural alienation, and prepared the rejection of Stalinist authoritarianism in the new social movements.”
The feminist and environmental movements show the influence, for these authors, of the change to “more modest but realizable reforms” rather than “ambitious goals formulated in absolute revolutionary terms in the 1960s.” Yet, they also quote Sartre, who said of the May Events that they “enlarged the field of the possible.”
(vi) In terms of academic discourse, the May
Events were very fruitful! A list of French intellectuals who were involved, or
observed the events closely, reads like a roll-call of influential writers on
social, political and philosophical issues:
Other views are to be found in the works by Castoriadis and Brown cited below.
Défense d'interdire. It is forbidden to forbid
Ce que nous voulons - tout. What do we want? Everything!
La révolution sera une fête, ou ne sera pas. The revolution will be a rave-up, or it will not be a revolution.
Vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entraves. For life without a wasted moment, and uninhibited pleasure.
Contestation permanente. Permanent opposition.
Violez votre Alma Mater! Rape your alma mater!
Je suis marxiste tendance graucho. I am a Graucho-tendency Marxist.
L’anarchie c’est je. Anarchy = I.
La société est une fleur carnivore. Society is a carnivorous flower.
L'imagination au pouvoir. All power to the imagination.
Be realistic, demand the impossible!
They are buying your happiness – steal it back.
The alarm clock rings – first humiliation of the day.
You will all finish up dying from comfort.
Forests came before men – the desert comes afterwards.
May '68 and student rebellions:
Astin, A W et al (1975): The power of Protest, Jossey-Bass.
Bouclier, D (1978): Idealism and Revolution: new ideas of liberation in Britain and the United States, Arnold.
Brown, B E (1974): Protest in Paris, General Learning Press. (See esp. pp 36 and 58 - 60)
Castoriadis, C (1987): The Movements of the Sixties, Thesis Eleven No 18/19, 1987.
Cliff, T and Birchall, I (1968): France, the struggle goes on, International Socialism Publication.
Cockburn, A & Blackburn, R, (Ed.) (1969): Student Power, Penguin.
Feenberg A, and Freedman, J (2001): When Poetry Ruled the Streets, Albany (NY).
Reviewed by Ian Pirie in “Democratisation” vol 8 no. 2, 2002: When Poetry....
Gregoire, R and Perlman, F (1969):
Worker-Student Action Committees in France, May ’68, (reprinted 1970 by) Black
Hoch P, and Schoenbach V (1969): LSE the Natives are Restless, Sheed and Ward.
"The Raven" (anarchist quarterly) No. 38, Freedom Press, summer 1998.
Seale P, McConville M (1968): French Revolution 1968, Penguin.