Like 1968, but different... Similarities and contrasts with the anti-CPE struggle

Paris street, May 1968

Ed Goddard examines the recent movement in France against the CPE, compares it to the uprising in 1968 and looks at possibilities for the future.

The recent movement in France against the CPE have been a massive inspiration to militant workers the world over. The level of militancy, co-operation and organisation amongst the students, workers, banlieusards (suburban youth), unemployed, parents’ groups, high school pupils and others has been such that the French working class actually managed to force the government to reverse a law which it had passed only months before. In all the excitement, you can see why many people have found it so tempting to say, “it’s just like ‘68!”

The temptation is there for obvious reasons: the sight of students and workers taking action together across France, the strikes and occupations at universities and workplaces, the fighting in the street... The temptation of comparison is almost too hard to resist. But these movements are different, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, there is one key difference, which we definitely aren’t so keen on, namely the question of who runs the country. The anti-CPE movement, for all its strengths, has yet to develop to the point of asking who governs society, why do they and how can it be different? This was certainly the case in 1968 when revolution seemed very much on the cards. As radical as the situation in France may be at the moment, it has yet to develop into a revolutionary one. At one stage, the National Co-ordination of Students, an ad hoc group of delegates from all the occupied universities that was set up at the start of the anti-CPE movement to facilitate action and communication, did call for the resignation of the government but now don’t really like to talk about it. The reasons for this are largely to do with the fact that many people fear that if the current government were to go, it would leave the door open for the social democratic Parti Socialiste (PS) to take power.

This fear has become a tangible possibility for two reasons (both of which further illustrate the differences with 1968); firstly, its because the anti-CPE movement was chiefly against neo-liberalism, not against capitalism. As such, ‘left-wing’ political parties like the PS have been able to put themselves forward as a radical choice, as supporters of a much nicer capitalism which would never do such a thing to its nation’s youth. Secondly, the French working class has so far yet to realise that the organisations it set up off its own back to co-ordinate the struggle are also the basis for the organisation of a truly democratic society. Self-government has not been seen as a viable option by the vast majority of those taking part in the movement and as such, talk of overthrowing the government was seen as inviting a change in those at the top rather than creating a grassroots workers’ democracy. As French communist Gilles Dauvé said, “100,000 proletarians armed to the teeth are nothing if they place their trust in anything beside their own power to change the world.”

However, there are (at least) a couple of differences which don’t invite doom-and-gloom! One of the major differences is that in many parts of France in the anti-CPE movement there has been a lot more hostility towards not only the more conventional political parties such as the PS, the Stalinist Parti Communiste Français (PCF) etc, but also towards many other more radical political groupings. From talking to a student involved in the struggle at his university in Jussieu, this is not at all coming from a feeling of hostility to left-wing ideas, but rather from a feeling that these groups are largely unnecessary in building the movement and that there is even some mistrust amongst the students about the agenda of many of the parties turning up in their struggle. Are they here to secure votes for the next election? Manoeuvre their party into a position of power within the movement? Build the vanguard party? This situation is quite different from ‘68 where PCF officials and trade union bureaucrats were able to use the trust of the French working class to effectively divide workers and students and trick strikers off the barricades and back to work.

The other major difference that can be seen in France today is that whereas in ‘68 the students were seen as external, though sympathetic, to the working class, today they are very much seen as part of it. University is much less the elitist privilege that it was in the late 1960s and it is thought that around half of all students in France have to keep up jobs while they study. Students are now seen as future workmates rather than future managers and when students come to the factories to extend or ask for solidarity, they are not seen as petit-bourgeois posh kids - as they may have been in the past - but as another set of workers with their own legitimate struggles. Many workers see the students collectively as ‘their children’ and come to demonstrations not only as workers but also as parents. A lot of people in France certainly testify to the idea that the links between workers and students (as well as other sections of society) are much stronger in 2006 than in 1968.

All in all this struggle is not 1968. It is an all-together very different sort of movement which as yet has not fulfilled its full potential, and if we’re being honest, may never do so. When this struggle inevitably comes to an end, it won’t be because of any set of bureaucrats or party hacks and it definitely won’t be because of a lack of solidarity amongst the different groups involved in it. What will end this struggle will be if the people involved in it fail to develop a confidence in their own world-shattering, creative, insurgent potential. However, what this struggle has done is brought the past ten or fifteen years of school, university and workplace occupations, urban and suburban riots and general strikes together and fused them with a level of organisation and co-operation that we have not seen in Western Europe for years. The mistrust of left groups paves the way for ideas to come directly from struggle. The mutual solidarity and respect shown by the different sections of society for each other have broken down massive possible barriers for future movements. Potentially, the stage has been set in France to see a genuinely autonomous working class movement emerge which places its trust in nothing but its own power to change the world.

More information
- A short history of the France 1968 uprising on libcom.org history
- France 1968 archive on libcom.org

Posted By

libcom
Apr 18 2006 08:23

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Anonymous
Oct 9 2006 11:21

Comandante Gringo
April 19th, 2006 | 7:24 pm

It’s not that there’s no room for Left parties in this Movement; it’s just that most of these groups have degenerated into being run by careerists or ambitious people or misguided souls of one type or another — i.e. they just simply can’t be trusted (at least as some ‘vanguard leadership’ of the french masses, no matter their intentions. But this unfortunate fact has been well-covered on this blog and elsewhere; so no need to go into it here).

However: this acute dilemma which faces the Left worldwide is the basis of why the idea of a *united front* always eventually must come to the fore in these situations: because no group or party today has the authority to speak for the Movement as a whole (or maybe even any part of it either). There is the need, instead, to rally all groups and individuals around some common, basic program which they can all agree on instead — and how else to advance, united, in a broad front, against our common capitalist enemy, when we cannot agree on everything, or even most things?

And from this logic too, then, is begged the question of *workers’ councils, ’soviets’, what-have-you*; and it’s really the same issue — and the same solution: how to allow for multiple competing interests (who amongst them have conflicting — and too often wrong or even dangerous — ideas, goals, agendas and leaderships) when our very goal is unified class praxis? Fact is, the only practical solution to this dogs’ breakfast of competing agendas on the Left is to have a *workers’ parliament* in the streets and workplaces, formal or informal.

For most of recent history (because of the initial success of the Bolshevik Party; and also the general development of many of the European socialist parties from the 19th Century) there has been a fixation on the need for “One Party” to represent the entire working-class. Well, ‘One Party’ would indeed be a great thing — if the entire working-class were of one mind and intention; but it is not. At least not today. And so, the only fair and proper way for a mass Movement to be both for itself and against the capitalist system — but also allow for it to not necessarily be of one mind completely on all or part of any particular agenda — *is for all tendencies in this Movement to come together in a collective assembly to discuss, debate, and VOTE on some basic agenda at least, as it moves along from situation to situation*.

So let’s not continue to be bogged down over issues of which parties are good, bad or ugly here: let’s learn to accept instead that *all* parties and groups which can at least agree on the pressing need to remove the capitalist menace *must compete in the arena of ideas in mass assemblies* — soviets/councils/juntas, in other words — for the support of the Movement, the working-classes and the masses. And let us all decide, collectively, on at least some minimum program as the occasion, and each contingent situation, demands.

And so let the (Party) games begin.