From the very moment that they began to call for a return to work, that is, after the announcement of the dissolution of Parliament and the plan to hold new elections, the CGT and the PCF never failed to invoke the workers’ “second chance”. By electing a left wing Parliament, the workers would be able to put political forces in the government that would easily correct the imperfections that marred the agreements on the basis of which the trade unions had appealed for a return to work. For example, L’Humanité of June 6 admitted that, “not everything has been resolved. No one says otherwise…. But, by having compelled the government, with all the other strikers, to hold elections, [the railroad workers] have crafted a second chance to ensure that what they have won by their struggle is guaranteed. This second chance must not be compromised”.1 Thus, even L’Humanité admitted that the “victories” of the workers were by no means secure. If they needed a second chance, it would probably be for the sliding scale of wages, or for the suppression of the payment of wages according to the job, or for the control over the work rate, etc.
As for this second chance, the elections gave an unprecedented majority to the right wing parties. As we said above, the political leaders of the PCF must have known that the second chance was either a slim possibility—or else they did their job very badly. Regardless, the workers, for the most part, obeyed. According to François de Massot,2 the majority of them voted for “their class parties” and only 500,000—especially PCF voters—abstained. This amounts to approximately 10% of the total traditional electorate of the PCF, or about 5% of the strikers.
How can we summarize everything we have just reviewed concerning the movement of the strikes of May-June 1968? We have observed one of the most massive work stoppages in the history of industrial France, and its final result was rather paltry. The popular image of May ’68 is that of a period replete with every kind of excess, a phase of social insanity, but we have seen workers who were for the most part passive. The leftists of ’68 have been evoked as dangerous revolutionaries, and we have seen that they hardly made a dent in the weighty domination of traditional structures. And none of the different tendencies managed to do any better than the others; therefore it is not a question of a false or a correct policy, Leninist or ultra-leftist or anarchist. The occupations of 1968 are compared with those of 1936, but in fact the factories were almost vacant in 1968.
And despite the weak militancy of the strikers, despite the meager influence or impact of radical elements, the strike continued and work was not easily resumed. When they returned to work, this was due almost entirely to a defeat of the workers. All of this reflects a kind of paradox, between the powerful assertion of a class and its lack of initiative, between the power of a strike and its submission to a few apparatuses that would betray it even at the most elementary level of the strike demands. In the second part of this work, we shall attempt to explain this paradox. The reasons for this particular configuration of the workers movement must be sought in the characteristics of the transformation of the epoch, which brought an end to the decade of the 1960s.