Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Remembering May '68

When I first learned about May '68 it was like a revelation. I was just 18 and it was as if my friend Clive had introduced me to a world that had been hidden away from me. Here was a massive movement of the working class that shook our enemies to the core, a series of events they tried to expunge from history by denigrating it as a student jolly or ignoring it completely. To keep the memory alive, to help ensure the memory of May '68 is put out there, the Socialist Party has organised a speaking tour and currently has an excellent special edition of Socialism Today out to commemorate this explosive period of history.

Last night saw the CWI bandwagon hit the legendary United Services Club in Birmingham. Comrades with fond memories of this traditional red base in the West Midlands will be amused to hear it now bills itself as a 'conference and banqueting' centre, but I digress.

Dave Nellist was the master of ceremonies this evening, introducing Dadou, a comrade who was in the Young Revolutionary Communists and participated in the events in Rouen, and has been a member of Gauche Revolutionnaire for the last 12 years. Clare Doyle was the other speaker. She quipped that the blurb on the original print run of her book, France '68: Month of Revolution placed her in France that year. This was true ... she was there in August for her honeymoon! But she did take the opportunity to meet up with banned organisations such as the YRC to bring money raised by Labour Party Young Socialist branches and messages of solidarity from Militant.

Dadou began by saying it was her great fortune to have participated in the events in Rouen, and wanted to convey something of what it was like to the assembled comrades. But, she said, the spirit of '68 is still there in France despite Sarkozy's vow to destroy it. It's alive in the teachers and school students who are currently taking action. You can see it in the fisherman who are currently blockading some ports, and in the train, metro and airline workers who will be on strike next week. But today's struggles take place in a very different context. The France of 40 years ago was a France of economic good times, of increasingly porous borders and competition from other European states in the common market. Also with De Gaulle's assumption of power in 1958 he simultaneously attacked welfare spending while encouraging the development of French industry. New factories sprung up across the country concentrating thousands of workers into single workplaces. Higher education underwent a massive expansion to feed the factories the technical expertise they required, but this expansion was haphazard and for the most part, unplanned - Dadou recalled having to sit classes in corridors because the buildings couldn't cope with the volume of students. On top of this was a stifling conformist culture the family and formal institutions tried to impose on young people. For example, the pill was made freely available in 1967 but its price put it out of the reach of most women - it, combined with traditional expectations, thwarted young peoples' desires to 'live and love freely'.

Another key mobilising factor was the USA's war of aggression in Vietnam. In Paris six students were arrested for attacking a US-owned bank whose sentencing on May 10th provoked a 'night of barricades'. Paving slabs laid down after the 1848 revolution were torn up and turned against the police, and very quickly the general population of Paris came down on the side of the students and young workers. Not only did riot police have to face the barricades, they were attacked from the air as residents hurled objects from their apartment windows. The television was silent about all this, but the police violence did not go unnoticed. On the 13th the FEN teachers' union (affiliated to the 'official communist' Parti Communiste Francais-led CGT federation) called for a one day general strike that brought some four-five million workers out. But this was just a prelude, from the 20th-29th 10 million workers struck and completely paralysed France. Factories and other workplaces across the country were occupied and, surprisingly given the role the PCF played later on, it was its activists that played a leading role in many areas organising this massive movement.

In these nine days we had a pre-revolutionary situation. The government in any meaningful sense of the word simply disintegrated and workers were filled with a sense of their own power. But the traditional leadership of the French working class - the trade unions and the PCF - were all at sixes and sevens. After years of focusing political activity around elections they could not present a way forward beyond elections. If the PCF was a revolutionary party, it was so in words only. Over the 25th-27th these organisations entered into talks with De Gaulle and managed to secure some impressive reforms in return for their cooperation in demobilising the movement: a 35% increase in the minimum wage, a 10% across the board wage rise and crucially the freedom for trade unions to organise in any workplace. But these reforms were small fry compared to the prize that was in the offing, and workers knew it. Where union and PCF representatives went to try and sell the deal time and again they received a hostile reception. But this prevarication meant the establishment, up until now in complete disarray, was able to seize the advantage. After securing the army's support De Gaulle announced fresh elections. The capitulation of the workers' leadership to the 'constitutional solution' was the moment initiative passed backed to the ruling class. The end of the month saw a million demonstrate in Paris in support of reaction, and throughout June occupations either ceased or were violently broken up by the police with arms in hand. The promised reforms were implemented but many revolutionary groups were driven underground. The immediate threat to French capital had passed, but the spectre of the movement haunts them still.

Dadou was asked about what impact May '68 had on the position of French women and how prominent were women in the struggle as compared to movements in the past? She replied it was different because women had started to enter the formal workforce in large numbers thanks to De Gaulle's development programme. In 1968 there were approximately one million women workers and tended to be concentrated in certain kinds of enterprises, where they mad up the majority of the workforce. The effects of participating in such a titanic class battle transformed their expectations and the culture of the working class family. It was this energy that helped spur on the French feminist movement in the seventies, which eventually won free access to the pill and the right to have an abortion, and helped increase women's wages. But these gains are under threat - particularly where it comes to women's reproductive freedoms. Family planning centres have been closing over the last 15 years, there are fewer doctors and it's becoming more difficult to access abortion services.

In a lengthy contribution, Brother TH expressed his irritation at the abuse of May '68. He singled out the radical publishing house, Verso, as someone who should really know better. In their publicity material for the reprint of Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life they claim it provided the philosophy behind the 'student revolution' in France. Simultaneously this reduces the movement to the musings of a left-wing professor, and one limited to just the universities. Socialists need to reclaim our heritage, he argued.

Sister J warned that we need to be always aware that trade union leaders will mostly let us down when it comes to the crunch. Another comrade drew parallels with the situation here in Britain today. Whereas the French working class had a leadership who let them down, at the moment there are very few who can even claim the mantle of 'workers' leaders' here. Our party can play a role in helping build that new leadership. Brother G argued that we shouldn't be unduly frightened by the lower numbers of workers in unions today. In 1968 the French trade union movement could only boast having just under three million members split among three different confederations, and still class anger managed to explode. But nevertheless the labour movement does need rebuilding and it won't be New Labour doing the necessary spadework. This task falls to socialists.

Clare Doyle was last to speak and concentrated on the situation in France today. The main question is whether the working class, after a period of deindustrialisation, has the social weight it possessed 40 years ago? At the moment there remains 3.7 million industrial workers, half of whom are in large workplaces. And this total doesn't necessarily count for all transport and power workers. As the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland illustrated, small numbers of organised workers do have the ability to cause severe disruption. But also, she suggested white collar is the new blue collar. This is certainly recognised by Sarkozy, who is trying to break the teachers by employing council workers to take over schools during industrial action and look after the pupils. Understandably teachers are angered by this move ... and it's not too popular with parents either! She concluded by noting how increasing numbers entering into struggle are asking about the ideas of socialism. This is an opportunity not only for all socialists, but to put it back on the political agenda for the first time in a generation.


steven rix said...

I wasn't even born in 68. That said I remember my father telling me about "la revolution de mai 68". It started with a group of students and everybody followed in support of solidarity. Even people who wanted to work were forced to be on strike.
I've always heard anyway that in France people do need another revolution, it's in their genes, and even publicly we are pretty much open to talk about a new revolution, but we don't look for revolutions like in Russia :)

For France, it was the collapse of the Soviet-Union that pushed the communists to change their political party, and most of them went in the green party, while they could have gone with the socialistes francais. For the "socialistes" in France, they usually don't get along at all with the communists because of their support for the Soviet-Union, besides they are some socialistes like me that don't really deny capitalism and they try to encompass it in a new vision, different from earlier philosophers such as Marx or Proudhon. They are more like the types of Fourrier in France or like Robert Owen from Wales (the society is responsible for human misery and social ills not individualism).
The french left is very diversified. The main labor unions are CGT (Confederation Generale des Travailleurs - pro communist) then FO (force ouvriere, pro communist too and more revolutionnary) and there is also a left trend in the CFDT.
At 1st sight, yeah it would seem that Nicolas Sarkozy gathered the different left parties into an anti-sarkozy movement, but the main left from France, Le Parti Socialiste (PS) is very close ideologically from Nicolas Sarkozy's new policies. When you have this asshole that tells the french people that "in order to make more money you have to work longer", it does not look good at all because it goes completely into a different philosophy from the french left tradition where there is no way to re-arrange the labor organization first without implying a change in the labor structure of the french workers, otherwise we would change the role and relationships between workers and labors. It's something that is completely inside the french culture, it's a tradition and we can let it go.

steven rix said...

Here is l'Internationale in french:

That's the only song that was first composed in french by Emile Pottier and Pierre Degeyer that is sung by many socialist countries (47 languages) in the world.

"The International" was born of the Paris Commune of 1871, its
words written as a poem under the title L'Internationale by
Eugene Pottier, a member of the Council of the Commune (he was
one of the elected representatives of the 2nd Arrondissement).
The poem was dedicated to Gustave Le Francais, a fellow member of
the Council of the Commune.

Pottier (1816-1887) was not only a fighter for the Commune: he
had fought in the uprising of 1848 and was a member of the
(First) International, in which Marx and Engels played a leading
part and which gave its name to his poem.

The poem was written in June 1871 just after the defeat of the
Commune. In the week May 21-28, 1871 (known as the Bloody Week),
the soldiers of the government of Tiers at Versailles had pushed
across Paris from West to East, showing no mercy to the defeated

Pottier was tried in his absence by a vengeful "Council of War"
and sentenced to death, but he escaped, first to Britain and then
to the USA.

In 1887 he was able to return to France, but he died in poverty
in the same year -- after a life devoted to the cause of the
working people.

Pottier's funeral procession was attacked by police who attempted
to seize the red flag carried by those who followed his coffin.

Lenin wrote an article in "Pravda" in January 1913 commemorating
the 25th anniversary of Pottier's death. He concluded with the
words: "Pottier died in poverty. But he left a memorial which is
truly more enduring than the handiwork of man.

"He was one of the greatest propagandists by song. When he was
composing his first song the number of worker socialists ran to
tens at most. Eugene Pottier's historic song is now known to tens
of millions of proletarians." (Lenin Collected Works Vol 36

"The International" did not become a song until 1888. In that year
the Lille section of the French Workers' Party founded a choir
called "La Lyre des Travailleurs". This choir asked one of its
leading members, Pierre Degeyter, to set Pottier's poem to music.
This he did without delay.

Degeyter was a worker who had started work at the age of seven.
Devoted both to music and to the cause of the working class, he
studied at the Lille Conservatorium of Music. He played several
instruments as well as composing.

The song, consisting of Pottier's words and Degeyter's music, was
publicly performed for the first time in July 1888.

"La Lyre des Travailleurs" published the song in an edition of
6,000 copies. The song appealed to class-conscious workers
everywhere and spread rapidly throughout France.

Possibly it first came to the attention of socialists from
outside France in 1896 at a Congress of the French Workers' Party
held in Lille. The presence of German delegates at this Congress


Anonymous said...

PS: Manchester won :)

Anonymous said...

"Clare Doyle was last to speak", was that so others got a word in? ;)

Anyway good report mate.

Phil said...

Thanks for the Internationale info, Politiques. It is a song that stirs the very depths of my soul whenever I hear it.

steven rix said...

Do you plan to write a review on the different types of socialism? (latin american/ scandinavia, communists, western europe).
For me there is no doubt that one can be a socialist without adhering to Karl Marx views. In fact many people wrote about human conditions in the society before Karl Marx was born.

Socialism was kinda late compared to the class division. It's the little ice age that created the class division. In the old days around the XVI/XVIIth century, it was costing lots of money to buy a furnace so usually the french/english houses/castles were only getting 1 furnace to heat up a particular room, until a guy came up with the idea that he could modify the architectures of the houses so that all rooms can be heated at the same time with 1 furnace. And it is until this day that the lower class never came up closer to the upper-class.

Anonymous said...

There is another french song that was translated into many foreign languages and it's called "my way" (Claude Francois, Frank Sinatra, Cid Vicous). Actually I heard this fact 24 years ago and it is still in my memory lol

L'international yes, it's very very good and I like it in russian version. Hmm I might rewrite a punk version of the international.


Phil said...

Politiques, if I had the time I'd probably have a go! It's certainly a truism that while not all socialists are Marxists, all Marxists are socialists. Simply put, as far as I'm concerned Marxism is the clearest, most advanced and most consistent method for analysing how society works, the position of contending forces within it and the best means for working out the way forward. That's my basic view.