‘It was like a rocket: a fantastic display’: Reflections on May ’68

In a speech to Manchester rs21, Colin Barker reflects on the “madness of May ‘68”, when, for a brief moment, everything seemed possible.

“We are the power”. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Politics of 1968

1968 was an astonishing year. I mean, the first significant political thing that happened was that the Viet Cong reached the compound of the American Embassy in Saigon, and the Americans had to recapture their own embassy. It’s the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King and massive riots that followed it, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. It sees the spread of student struggles all across America and Europe. It sees American and European demonstrations against the Vietnam War, climaxing in a big battle in Grosvenor Square in March, and an even bigger demonstration in the autumn [and] the battle of Chicago in the summer at the Democratic Convention. The Labour government in Britain reduced immigration rights for the Kenyan Asians in 1968, and that’s followed by Enoch Powell making his Rivers of Blood speech. In turn, when Edward Heath sacked Enoch Powell from the shadow cabinet for his racist speech, the dockers in London and the meat porters went on strike in support of Enoch Powell. It was the first political strike since the war and it was a right-wing strike.

So this is all part of the picture. In June, the Ford women went on strike for equal pay. In July, there was the first big nurses’ demonstration over pay in London. In August, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. In October, the Mexican regime massacred students in Mexico City, and that was in advance of the Olympics, which was the famous Olympics where Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the Black Power salute from the podium. That autumn, also, in Derry, demonstrators fought back against a police attack, and that launched the “Irish Troubles” which would preoccupy the British government and the Irish people for the next two decades. And in the middle of this year, the May events happened in France. I wanted to give a sense of what sort of year it happened in: it didn’t happen in a completely empty landscape, politically.

The second general point I want to make is that May ‘68 is a key moment in a longer process which we sometimes call “the sixties”, which actually go well into the 1970s. There are several big social processes going on generating new forces in struggle, which play out partly in May. The European colonial empires are breaking up, under the pressure of anti-colonial revolutions across Latin America, Asia and Africa. The post-war long boom, when there was basically full employment in Britain for a generation, had the effect of remaking the working class in very important ways. The first thing is that millions of workers were pulled into the cities and the factories from the countryside, whether the countryside of their own country or the countryside of colonies and former colonies. So blacks and Latinos were pulled from the American countryside into the towns, and from Mexico into the US. Algerians and Portuguese moved into France to work in the factories. Spanish and Turkish and Italian workers moved into Germany to work in the factories. Southern Italians moved from the impoverished South to the booming north, and transformed the working class in the car factories and so on. So there’s a huge process of migration going on.

Also, of course, the expanding industry, commerce and services drew millions of women into the employed workforce so that the figure of the housewife who stayed at home and didn’t “work” became less and less prevalent. The changing needs of the capitalist economy also led to a vast expansion in the 50s and especially the 60s in higher education. Now universities and colleges were opening themselves to large numbers of working class students for the first time. Previously higher education had been the province of the rich and the upper middle classes. Now large numbers of students like myself, for example, coming from working class families, had the opportunity to go to university and take degrees. Young people as a whole, because of the boom, had new spending power, new power of decision, which was celebrated by Bob Dylan with his famous song: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, The times they are a-changing.”

So, one last thing in terms of general picture: if you read the newspapers, or you went to college and you studied Sociology, what you were told was that workers are being incorporated into capitalism. The idea of workers’ control, revolution and so on, [we were told,] these are idle dreams, and it’s reflected in the size of the revolutionary left. I mean, I joined an organisation called the Socialist Review Group, which became the International Socialists, and I think I was member number 61. Nothing significant will happen, [they said] the world is flat, boring… in fact, somebody wrote just before the May events: “France is bored.” You had leading experts of the left making statements about how nothing will happen. Andre Gorz, who was a leading French intellectual, published an article which came out in English I think in May ‘68, which said: “Never again will the working classes of Europe take to the barricades in support of a 40 hour week” [paraphrase]. Henri Lefebvre, a famous Urban Studies intellectual, said that the Paris Commune will never happen again.

‘The Madness of May’

So, into all of that comes May. And it was a surprise. It was a surprise to Andre Gorz, it was a surprise to Henri Lefebvre, fair enough. But it was also a surprise to the participants. I went with Ewa [Barker] to Paris in April ‘68 about six weeks before, and while we were there, Rudi Duetschke, the student leader, was shot and very seriously injured by a right-wing German gunman. There was a French demonstration of students in solidarity with Rudi Duetschke. Chris Harman in his book The Fire Last Time says that there were 200 people on the demonstration. Well I was there, and Ewa was there, and we think Chris overestimated and it was closer to 150. As soon as the police arrived, everybody scattered, except for me and Ewa, who didn’t know you had to, until we saw the cops coming out of their buses with these batons, about a yard and a half long. We decided to look like tourists as quickly as possible and disappear ourselves!

“Beauty is in the street”. Image Bibliothèque nationale de France

The student we were with, who was from a group called Socialisme ou Barbarie (‘Socialism or Barbarism’), told us afterwards that he wished he lived in England, because we’d had the Grosvenor Square demonstration. He said: “French students are completely apolitical and they’re all cowards”. That was six weeks before the night when 30,000 students fought the police on the barricades!

Where did it come from? Well it started in March, in Nanterre, which was this suburb of Paris, a rather grotty suburb where they’d built an extension of the university in horrible grey concrete buildings, right next to a bidonville where lots of migrant workers were living. There they started a movement called the March ‘68 movement, which was made up of Maoists, Trotskyists and anarchists, including one soon-to-be famous one called Daniel Cohn-Bendit. They were fighting over free speech, and they wanted sexual liberation (that is to say the right to visit the opposite sex in their bedrooms, that was one of their demands), and they were in opposition to the Vietnam War. They got into conflict with the university authorities and the conflict was transferred to the University of Paris in the centre of Paris. The response of the government was to close the University of Paris because of student demonstrations in support of the Nanterre students. For a week, the university was closed and there were daily demonstrations all around the Left Bank and other parts of Paris, the students growing in number all the time.

Finally, on Friday 10 May in the evening, the police attacked the students, and the students fought back. They ripped up cobblestones from the streets and built barricades, and threw these cobblestones at the police. The battle went on all night. It was covered on Radio Luxembourg, who had a reporter there. Finally the studio shut him off, but he was there in the middle of it reporting this. Ernest Mandel of the Fourth International had his car set alight as part of a barricade, and apparently he stood there saying “It’s the revolution, it’s the revolution!” rather than lamenting the disappearance of his car. (Good for Ernest!)

There was an enormous wave of support for the students, partly because they took on the cops. On the Monday, the CGT, the leading trade union, which was led by the Communist Party, called for a one-day strike in support of the students, and a demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of workers marched through Paris waving handkerchiefs and singing “Adieu De Gaulle! Adieu De Gaulle! [Goodbye De Gaulle! Goodbye De Gaulle!]”. The students occupied the Sorbonne, the heart of the university, and established a permanent occupation there, where they had meetings. There’s a photograph somewhere of Jean-Paul Sartre speaking at this assembly.

It was worth noting that on the demonstration, the Communist Party stewards, of whom there were many – the Communist Party was a mass party of course – were very careful to keep the workers and students separate. They didn’t want the contamination of the students, who they saw as ultra-left, affecting the ‘real’ proletariat.

Anyway, the idea of the CP was: we’ll have a one day strike, have a big demonstration, everybody will go home and that’ll be the end of it. Except that on the Tuesday, in a town called Nantes on the Atlantic coast, in a Sud Aviation aircraft factory, led by Trotskyists and Maoists and anarchists, a small group of workers in a factory led the workers into occupying the factory. They locked up the management in the offices and played the Internationale to them “in order to educate them” until they themselves couldn’t stand the sound of the Internationale anymore. But it got widespread publicity and the next day, more factories occupied. And then it just spread and spread, and there was this wave of occupation strikes. It became the biggest strike, at that time, I think in world history, certainly in European history. The Brazilians have long since exceeded it, but it was nine or ten million workers on strike and occupying.

And it wasn’t just factory workers, because you get a sense now of the changing character of the working class that white collar workers also went on strike. Workers in department stores went on strike and occupied. Nuclear scientists went on strike at Saclay, the nuclear research facility, and established a three week occupation, where they had an extensive debate about the peaceful uses of nuclear power. The Cannes film festival was cancelled in solidarity with the events. The footballers went on strike and occupied the headquarters of the football association of France, demanding “le football aux footballeurs!” (Football for the footballers.) The junior magistrates went on strike. So did the Folies Bergeres.

So you get a sense that this is in some ways the new face of the working class appearing in this struggle. And there’s an explosion of imagination in all sorts of ways. One of the most famous things was these posters which you see in front of you. I have here a whole book of them which I was lucky to be able to buy just afterwards [you can see some here]. This was the School of Fine Arts at the university, who simply went into production. Students would design posters, they’d come in, there’d be a vote of the assembly, and then they would decide “okay, those six,” and then they would all set to and print them on hand screens. The police raided the place looking for the printing machine and they didn’t realise that the printing machine was just a box on the table.

My favourite piece on the madness of May was a story that came out of Nantes, which was probably the most advanced town in terms of workers’ control. They had links with the peasantry who were supplying food to the workers and so on. It was said that in Nantes, the rules for the traffic lights had changed, and now it was go on red and stop on green, because this was the revolution. That’s probably a legend, but never mind. The Berliet lorry factory had this big sign outside that said ‘BERLIET’ in individual letters, and they took it down and they put it up again to read ‘LIBERTÉ’.

The state was in disarray. Basically, there’s this period of a couple of weeks where nobody knows what’s going on, including the government, and De Gaulle keeps disappearing – at one point he went to Romania on a visit, at another point he ran away to Germany to talk to generals in the army, because at that time Germany still had a French sector where the French army had a headquarters, and they stiffened his resolve. But while he is away, this thing is going on, and it’s building.

“The struggle continues”. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France

‘Like a rocket: a fantastic display, then it dropped to the earth’

Now we come to the sad part of the story. There are weaknesses in the strike. The first thing is that the strike committees were generally not elected. So the Communist Party, once it had got wind of how things were happening, got to the front and organised factory occupations. But it made sure that its people ran them, and in many cases, most of the workers were sent home to watch the May events on television, which meant that the level of activity of many workers who were on strike was relatively low. They weren’t directly involved.

[The CP] went out of their way to exclude the students. There was a famous occasion when the students marched on the centre of Paris from Billancourt, on the outskirts of Paris, where there was a huge car factory dominated by Communist Party, and the gates were locked by the Communist Party so the students couldn’t get access to the workers. They were determined that that shouldn’t happen.

Apart from in a town like Nantes and perhaps a few other places, there were no networks created between factories to coordinate their activities. And there was a real vacuum on the left. This was the phrase that came out of France: the “vacuum on the left”. There were three grouplets of Trotskyists for example, none of whom could count more than a few hundred at best amongst their members, and most of them did not have many workers. One of them did: they had a rule (Lutte Ouvrière or Voix Ouvrière as it was called before it was banned and re-emerged as Lutte Ouvrière) that you could only have a non-worker join if you had a worker join as well. They were rigid in their membership rules. But between them, these groups probably couldn’t muster much more than a thousand members.

But what happened in the politics of the left was that something emerged to try and fill the gap, and that was ‘Action Committees’. There were 450 action committees in Paris alone, who tried to organise things, tried to make things happen, tried to form links and so on. But they hadn’t got any clear perspectives, they’d only just been created, they had to work out what they were. They didn’t have time to develop sufficiently.

When finally the state and De Gaulle got [their] act together, and finally went back on the offensive, De Gaulle went on the radio and television saying: the choice facing France is anarchy or myself. He said: I’m calling elections. First of all he’d said he would have a referendum – that was about a week before – but he couldn’t find a printer anywhere in France who would print his referendum forms, and when he went to Belgium, the Belgian printers said “piss off” as well. So he gave up on that plan, then said he’d call a general election, basically to call the Communist Party’s bluff.

Faced with the prospect of an election, the Communist Party rushed to do everything it could to call off the strikes, in some cases lying to workers that some other group of workers had gone back to work, and there was not sufficient capacity on the left to argue a different case – to say De Gaulle is lying, the choice is not between him and anarchy, the choice is: do we carry on with the strike and fight for better conditions? Do we democratise the union structures? Do we try and get control of the strike committees? The left could easily have explained if it had had sufficient voice: this is not civil war, it’s a strike. However impressive it is, it’s just a strike about pay and conditions. But it didn’t have the forces to do this, and the Communist Party succeeded in getting workers to go back to work.

The result in the June elections was that De Gaulle won, and little remained of the biggest strike there’d ever been in Europe. One of the phrases that came out of this was that it was like a rocket: it was a fantastic display, and then it dropped to the earth.

A few years later I was on holiday in France on a campsite, and I met a couple of lorry drivers who were playing boules. They invited me to join them and we had this game of boules and I asked them about what it was like in May. They didn’t really tell me anything, except that their faces creased into huge smiles. “Ah that was a fantastic time!” You know, that was their memory of it: that it was a fantastic time.

I suppose the key lesson of it is that the spontaneous movement, which emerged to everybody’s surprise, including the participants’, was absolutely brilliant, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to win. May ‘68 poses a question that has reappeared all the way through the last 50 years, in a whole series of enormous waves of revolt that we’ve experienced, about the need for effective mass socialist politics. That problem hasn’t gone away.

Just, very lastly, some encouraging words: there will be more waves of struggle of this kind. I don’t know in what form it will happen, and I don’t know where it will happen, but you can be absolutely sure, because the number of these incidents has been rising since 1968, though it might surprise people to hear this. One of the reasons it’s more likely to happen now is that capitalism is much more dangerous, much more threatening – the crisis of capitalism today bites into people’s lives much more sharply than it did in 1968. It will come as a surprise, and a very welcome one too.

Colin Barker is a Marxist sociologist and historian now retired from Manchester Metropolitan University, and a member of rs21. You can read an interview with him on the role of May ’68 in the politics of the International Socialists here. Robert Castres has written about recent social struggles in France 50 years on from May ’68 here.



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