From Student Revolt to General Strike: A Frustrated Revolution

PARIS, June 13, 1968

The explosion which paralyzed France in May 1968 was a frustrated revolution and a clear warning. It represents a frustrated revolution to the students and workers who were rushing, almost blind with joy and enthusiasm, into a new society. But the revolt and the strike are a warning to all ruling classes, a warning to capitalists and bureaucrats, to governments and unions. The frustrated revolutionaries are beginning to take stock of the accomplishments and are attempting to pinpoint the shortcomings. However, the revolutionaries are not the only ones who are taking stock. The forces of repression are also undertaking the task of analysis; they too are taking stock of the accomplishments, or rather the dangers unveiled for them in May 1968. And the revolutionaries will not be the only ones who will prepare for the next crisis; the ruling classes will also prepare, and not only in France. Politicians, bureaucrats and capitalists will define the forms of the May revolution, so as to prevent their reappearance; they will study the sequence of events, so as to prevent a recurrence of May 1968. In order to remain ahead of the forces of reaction, the May revolutionaries will have to provide more than souvenirs; they will have to see the general models behind the specific sequence of events; they will have to analyze the content behind the forms.

The sequence of events which led to a sudden confrontation between French state capitalism and a determined revolutionary movement caught both sides by surprise. Neither side was prepared. But the moment of hesitation was fatal only to the revolutionaries; the ruling class took advantage of the brief pause to extinguish the fire. The fact that only one side gained from the pause is understandable; the revolutionaries would have had to rush into the unexplored, the unknown, whereas the "forces of order" were able to to well known, in fact classical forms of repression.

The revolutionary movement rushed forward at tremendous speed, reached a certain line, and then, suddenly disoriented, confused, perhaps afraid of the unknown, stopped just long enough to allow the enormous French police forces to push the movement back, disperse it and destroy it. Reflection now begins on both sides. Revolutionaries are beginning to define the line which was reached; they are determined to go beyond it "next time." They had come so close, and yet were pushed back so far ! To many it was clear that steps into the unknown had been taken, that the line had in fact been crossed, that the sea had in fact begun to flow over the dam. To many it was not surprising that the dam should be reinforced, that efforts to stem the tide should be undertaken. What they had not expected, what they only slowly and painfully accepted, was that the sea itself should begin to ebb. They accepted the retreat with pain because they knew, as they watched the waters recede, that as high as the tide had risen, as close as the flood had come, the sea would have to gather much more force, the tide would have to rise far higher, merely to reach the level of the dam once again.

The ruling classes have been warned; one must assume that they will take the necessary precautions. Analysis of the particular cracks in the dam through which the floodwaters rushed will be undertaken by both sides. Such analysis will be a documentation of a particular event, a history of a revolution that failed. On the basis of this documentation, ruling classes will prepare themselves to prevent the recurrence of the same event. This is why revolutionaries cannot use the documentation as a basis for the preparation of a future event : the same cracks will not be found twice in the same dam; they will have been repaired, and the entire dam will have been raised. A future tidal wave will find new cracks in the dam, cracks which are as invisible to insurgents as to defenders of the old order. This is why conspiratorial organizations which plan to rush through a particular crack in the dam are bound to fail : no matter how ingenious their "central committees," there is no reason to assume that the "directors" or "leaders" of the conspiratorial group will be able to see a crack which the directors of the established order cannot see. Furthermore, the established order is far better armed with tools for investigation than any conspiratorial group.

Historians will describe through which cracks the sea rushed in May 1968. The task of revolutionary theory is to analyze the sea itself; the task of revolutionary action is to create a new tidal wave. If the sea represents the entire working population, and if the tidal wave represents a determination to re-appropriate all the forms of social power which have been alienated to capitalists and bureaucrats at all levels of social life, then new cracks will be found, and if the dam is immaculate it will be swept away in its entirety.

At least one lesson has been learned : what was missing was not a small party which could direct a large mass; what was missing was the consciousness and confidence on the part of the entire working population that they could themselves direct their social activity. If the workers had possessed this consciousness on the day they occupied their factories, they would have proceeded to expropriate their exploiters; in the absence of this consciousness, no party could have ordered the workers to take the factories into their own hands. What was missing was class consciousness in the mass of the working population, not the party discipline of a small group. And class consciousness cannot be created by a closed, secret group but only by a vast, open movement which develops forms of activity which aim openly to subvert the existing social order by eliminating the servant-mentality from the entire working population.

F. Perlman