What happens when a massive work stoppage takes place and capitalism ceases to function? It was for the purpose of answering this question that I undertook a detailed study of the strikes of May-June 1968. I thought that I would encounter a vast revolutionary efflorescence, but a distinction rapidly emerged. Behind the romanticism of the students and apprentice politicians who talked about revolution, there was a massive strike, but one that was above all a passive strike, and very few of those heroic historical deeds that the students invoked in order to situate themselves in the role of October-style leaders actually took place. Since then, during every year that ends in “eight”, we are overwhelmed by their commemorations,1 images, photos, testimonials and analyses to remind us of the fact that before they were important and powerful people, they were apprentices of politics, of the workplace and of management, whom their elders compelled, for a brief moment, to live in poverty. Their revolt is of no interest to us.
If my research is useful for drawing conclusions from the past, this should be the first one: we must distinguish between the two May ‘68s that took place in France. My research is exclusively focused on the strike of the workers. It shows us, among other things, the extent to which relations between the political/student movement and the worker/strike movement were lacking. Separated in action, the two movements remained, generally, separated in the post-festum analyses. The students and intellectuals who, during the first few years following the strikes, published their eyewitness accounts and analyses, rarely went beyond recounting what they saw or experienced by adapting it to the political positions they held at the time. They conferred an exaggerated importance upon what happened in the universities and the leftist groups, without subjecting this material to historical criticism, thus allowing “revolutionary” myths to spread, such as, for example, the myth of self-management at CSF in Brest. For their part, militant workers published, for the most part, monographs that described what happened in their workplaces. But after all the commotion, the dust settled and it must be admitted that hardly anyone is interested in the workers strikes in May and June of 1968.
It must be acknowledged that the French strikes of ’68 did not cultivate revolutionary romanticism. It has been said—although I have not been able to confirm this—that sales of home improvement goods were quite brisk during May and June of 1968. Did the factory workers and office employees, who scarcely participated in the occupations at their workplaces, take advantage of the free time made available by the strike wave to work on home improvement projects? Be that as it may, it was primarily at the beginning and the end of the strike wave that all the trade union, political and police authorities endeavored to get the workers to go back to work, when the movement (especially at Flins and Sochaux) outside the confines of the Latin Quarter briefly caused the images of confrontations and barricades to flare up again, images upon which the ideology of the leftists battened. In this connection, the latter observation leads us to the second lesson that should be derived from the movement of May ’68: far from having embodied a second edition of the Paris Commune or the October Revolution, the strikers, as evinced by both their absenteeism and by their violent refusal to return to work, announced the end of the identification of the revolution with the positive affirmation of labor. This message, already present in other conflicts, would undergo rapid development during what was called the crisis of Fordism, with the revolts of the assembly line workers, the strikes without demands, sabotage, etc.
The failure of working class politics (the Communist Party, the leftists and the ultra-left taken as a whole) and the affirmation, via the anti-work attitudes of the specialized workers (in fact, those workers who possessed no particular skills), of the need for the simultaneous abolition of capital and the proletariat, are the new components of the theory of revolution after May 1968.
After the extraordinary weeks of May and June of 1968, the return to normal was sometimes very difficult for those who had thought that the sudden appearance of the old mole heralded the start of a new revolutionary epoch. The passage of several years was necessary to make it possible to view the events from a sufficient distance and to begin to understand that we were actually entering a counterrevolutionary period in the sense that, since the end of the 1970s, capital was able to impose its terms much more easily on the proletariat. This was necessarily accompanied by the deepening of class contradictions, although in a subterranean way: the “years of ‘68”, and not just in France, caused us to enter a phase of capital accumulation in which the preconditions for that simultaneous abolition of the two classes we mentioned above were being prepared. This called for a very important renovation of the communist perspective.2
As usual, this preparation is taking place in the entrails of capitalist society and is not perceptible to the superficial observer. And just as was the case in 1968, there will be a great deal of surprise when the old mole reappears. It will not show up, of course, either where we expect it, or in accordance with the commonly accepted views concerning its habits—regardless of the choices that have to be made by this or that individual. Can we stress one tendency in the incessant everyday unfolding of the class struggle? This would be very risky, and would only capture one aspect of that process: the revolt of the specialized workers against the assembly line, which took place in the West during the 1960s and 1970s, forced capital to engage in extensive relocation, especially to the East. While the Western proletariat entered a phase of defensive struggles, most of which would be defeated, the Eastern proletariat was faced with the gradual formation of the conditions that led to the type of revolt that had just been defeated in the West. After a few years of “economic development”, an event like the one that is described below is almost an everyday affair in China:
Riot in a Maersk container factory, at the port of Machong (January 2008)
A migrant worker jumped over a fence in order to cut ahead in the line to the cafeteria because he had been kept on the factory floor too long by his foreman and did not have enough time for lunch. Two guards saw him and fined him 200 yuans (his monthly wage is unknown, but it is not more than 1,500 yuans). Every time he refused to pay, they increased the fine. It finally reached 1,000 yuans. Ultimately, the worker went to eat his lunch without paying the fine, but upon returning from the cafeteria the guards were waiting for him and gave him a beating. With his face covered with blood, the worker returned to the cafeteria for help. His comrades emerged from the cafeteria with improvised weapons. The guards fled, except for one who was wounded by the workers. When the police brought the two wounded men to the hospital, the workers picked up some bricks and broke all the windows they could find. They had been angry for some time due to wage reductions, speed-ups and compulsory overtime. The riot continued until the next morning.
A struggle of this kind (one example among many) would have provided the occasion, during the 1970s, for triumphalist commentaries on the topic of the refusal of work, the lack of respect for the instruments of labor, and the hatred of the assembly line. Today, such an event passes almost unnoticed. The routine nature of this kind of struggle is welcome. I think that this tells us something about how the view gradually develops that will lead the proletarians, once the moment has arrived, to consider “their” factories as something that must only be destroyed. And if this kind of revolt has, for the moment, temporarily disappeared from the Western landscape, the suffering endured in work that has replaced revolt, as a result of the fear of unemployment, will lead the workers to the same conclusions; about that we may be certain. Gradually, since the crisis phase of the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (and the French May ’68 was nothing but a small step in this direction), capital is generating the conditions for a communism that will no longer be the affirmation of the associated workers and planning, but the negation of the proletariat and the supersession of the economy and labor.
- 1Spanish-speaking readers are probably not as overwhelmed by this ‘old soldier’ literature as the French public [the author engages in a play on words by using the expression ‘old combatants’, which is employed in France to denote the veterans of the First World War, but especially those of the Second World War—Spanish translator’s note].
- 2See Bruno Astarian, "Le travail et son dépassement" (Labor and Its Supersession), Paris, Senonevero, 2001; published in the anthology, Rupture dans la Théorie de la Révolution. Textes 1965-1975, with an introduction by François Danel, Paris, Senonevero, 2003.