Philip Sansom on May 1968, originally appeared in Freedom 8th June 1968.
FOR DAYS FRANCE teetered on the edge of revolution. May we be forgiven for saying that it was the absence of a substantial anarchist movement there which enabled the bourgeoisie to pull it back?
Revolutions are like lettuces-for best results they must be kept growing quickly without check. In France the incipient revolution had the greatest pest of all to check its growth-the big fat rats of the Communist CGT who ate away at the roots.
For all the ingredients were there the moment the industrial workers joined the students in mass protest, strike and occupation of the factories. It would not have taken much to have tumed the general strike into a social general strike and to have turned that into a social revolution-had that in fact been what any sizeable section of the anti-Gaullist forces wanted.
But was it? It was certainly among the students that the most revolutionary ideas were to be found. Correspondents tell us of the high level of heated discussion which went on day and night in the Sorbonne and the entire Latin Quarter - discussion interspersed with action in the bitter nightly battles with the hated CRS.
It may be said that when you are actually on the barricades it is a bit late to be trying to clarify your ideas-but no doubt the students en masse were just as surprised at what they were doing as anybody else. This is how it is with your actual spontaneous revolution. We may be quite sure that Daniel Cohn Bendit and his 40 comrades in Nanterre whose action first sparked the whole thing off could have had no idea that they would end up with eight million workers on strike, the economy at a standstill and de Gaulle, if not on his knees, at least toppled from his pedestal and made to face the seething unrest beneath the surface of his State.
For this has been the great suprise for the world and perhaps even for the French people themselves: the extent of discontent, even of hatred for the regime, that exists under the surface of an apparently stable and orderly society. And the great achievement of the French students has been to bring this out into the open, to carry their own struggle into the factories and workshops, to offer a great gulp of fresh air to the French workers and deliver a great kick to the fat backsidc of French bourgeois society. The regime, even if it survives the general election, can never be the same again. Some degree of student control must be allowed in the universities, some degree of hope, if nothing else, must persist for the French workers.
For it is the workers who are in the sorriest plight. Contrary to Marxist mythology, the industrial workers in modern industrial countries are not- and never have been -the spearhead of social revolution. They should be, perhaps. They could be, certainly. But having been sold on reformist trade unionism, they are given no encouragement by their own organisations to think in terms of responsibility, of workers' control.
In France their condition is even worse than in this country. Here, for political reasons, the Communists will agitate as an opposition to the reformist unions; there the Communists are the reformist unions. The counter-revolutionary role the Communists have played in many revolutions has never been more perfectly exemplified than in the events in France these last three weeks, and the only comforting thought that can emerge from this is that surely they must now be completely discredited among all those French workers who were prepared to occupy their factories and shops-for what?
IF THEY HAD TAKEN OVER!
It was at the point of the occupation of the factories that the revolution was almost on. When the Bourse was fired; when the students began to change their tactics from mass confrontation to smaller, guerilla-type sorties to wear down the police and as a result the police began to show signs of disaffection and the civil service began to crack up, and de Gaulle apparently just sat and sat-then, if the occupation of the factories had swung into operation of the factories by the workers; if they had demonstrated their ability to organise their work without their bosses, if revolutionary co-ordinating councils had emerged to run the economy, distribute goods, maintain services-then the social revolution would have been on! If! If!
But no. Just as the petrified leaders of the TUC in the British General Strike of 1926 went to talk to King George V, so the slimy Communist leaders of the CGT went to talk with Pompidou -and came back triumphant with ten per cent!
Surely no one imagined the workers would accept this? But it was not primarily intended for acceptance. It was no more than a talking point - a means towards taking the strikes off the boil, to give the poliiticians time to put their clammy hands over the hot aspirations of the people.
And so it worked. Everything went off the boil. The students took a hell of a beating and calmed down, the workers sat and sat and the politicians waited. Having been served by the unions perfectly, de Gaulle chose just the right moment and jumped. With a show of force, and just the right bait-a general election! - to cool all but the 'extremists', like the cunning old cat he is, he jumped. And that was it.
But we are sure the lessons of 1968 will not be lost. The sincere revolutionaries among the students will have learnt valuable lessons of tactics and theory; the workers will have seen where their real friends lie; the divisions between intellectuals and workers must have closed, between them and the politician/trade union bureaucrat widened.
What of the anarchist movement? Well, isn't it the same old story? Not enough anarchists among the workers! In all the student unrest around the world now anarchists are setting the pace-or at least anarchistic methods of direct action are having effect. The French event is the only instance we have so far of workers joining in a struggle with the students, and events show that there was not a sufficient leavening of anarchist workers to get the message of workers' control across in the way that student power has been put across.
THE TASK BEFORE US
It is of course a different set of problems. The bourgeoisie may moan about having to pay taxes to keep hooligan students in grants, but radical tampering with the economy at factory floor level is a really serious matter. Furthermore the workers themselves are not interested in ideas as the students are, and they are much more bogged down with the 'responsibilities' of domesticity, with noses to the grindstone and only superficial leisure activities as relief.
Nevertheless the task is before us as it has always been: the creation of a widespread anarchist movement in all levels of society; the creation of an anarcho-syndicalist movement in industry to educate workers in revolutionary aims and tactics so that the maximum advantage can be taken of any situation whenever the opportunity presents itself; the creation of an anarchist international for mutual aid across the frontiers.
One thing the French students and workers have done. They have put revolution back on the agenda in Western Europe. It is not over yet-it has simply been adjourned.