May 1968: 50 years from the revolutionary wave that shook France


The mobilizations of May 1968 took place in France fifty years ago. It was not a revolution, but it generated revolutionary repercussions still discussed and studied today. Why were the French May events so important?
By Bernardo Cerderira.

Students’ Protests that evolved…

On April 22, one thousand five hundred students protested in Nanterre, a Paris suburb, against the imprisonment of several students participating in a committee against the Vietnam War. A week later, the Nanterre School was closed and extreme right groups attacked the students.
On May 3, eight students who had participated in the demonstrations were summoned to provide statements. A demonstration in the Sorbonne Square, in the famous University of Paris, accompanied them. The police repressed the demonstration. Before this, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF- National Union of Students of France) and the teachers union called a strike demanding the withdrawal of the police, the reopening of the university and the liberation of the imprisoned student.
Between May 6 and 10, demonstrations were violently repressed by the police. There were confrontations between students and police, and barricades were set up in the Quartier Latin (Latin neighborhood where the Sorbonne is located and
The night of May 10 became known as the “night of the barricades”, set up by tenths of thousands of students. The police dissolved the barricades by force and patrolled Paris in armored cars. However, the police violence generated solidarity from the French society: 61% of the French sympathized with the students at the time.

… in a General Strike

Before these events, a General Strike was summoned for May 13. Nine million workers participated. It was the greatest strike in France ever. Two hundred thousand people participated in the demonstration. Afterward, the student occupied the Sorbonne.
The next day, the workers occupied the factories of Sud Aviation, Nantes and Renault. Little by little, the strike extended, paralyzing most of the industry. The following days, the air traffic controllers, carbon miners, transportation, gas, and electricity workers, and radio and television journalists joined the strike.
The student movement attempted to join the workers. Thousands marched to meet the workers who had occupied the Renault. Both demonstrations sang together “The International”, but the unions did not allow opening the factory gates for the movements to join.
The factory occupation questioned the worker power and the State authority. Before the situation, Minister Georges Pompidou accepted opening the negotiation between the government, patrons and worker representatives, mainly from the CGT, union federation led by the Communist Party of France (CPF).
On May 27, the CGT signed the Grenelle Agreements, where the government and patrons granted a 35% increase of the minimum industrial wage and 12% in average for all workers. Most workers rejected the agreement and the strike continued. They wanted to overthrow the government.
However, the betrayal of the Communist Party of France was consummated. The strikes, abandoned by the CGT, either remained isolated and were repressed by police intervention, or ended with partial agreements. President De Gaulle summoned elections for May 30.


Uprisings and Protests around the World

Prague Spring

The French May ignited several revolutionary uprisings around the world. Without a doubt, the anti-Vietnam War movements in the United States influenced it. The Chinese Cultural Revolution ideologically influenced many sectors of the 1968 student movement and teachers.
May 1968 was the first great mass revolutionary mobilization in Western Europe after World War II. It was an example for Italian worker struggles in summer of ’69 and the English worker struggles of early 1970s. It also inspired or strengthened student movement in several Latin American countries, mainly the demonstrations against the dictatorship in Brazil and the student demonstrations in Mexico, which ended in the Massacre of the Tlatelolco Square.
In 1968, the Prague Spring took place. A movement seeking to humanize the Czechoslovakia Stalinist regime, which was drowned in blood through the invasion of Soviet army tanks.
Just six or seven years later, the Portuguese Revolution (1974) and the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War (1975), the first military defeat of imperialism, took place.
This world revolutionary situation is explained by several elements. The first was the end of the post-WWII economic boom, mainly due to economic recovery in Europe with Plan Marshall. The so-called “glorious 30” ended, and the world entered an economic crisis that shortly led to the oil crisis (1973).
Another element was the revolutions in colonial and semi-colonial countries like China, Indochina, Cuba, Algeria, several countries in Africa, and Vietnam, which had defeated imperialist countries, weakening its domination. Finally, but equally important, there was a crisis of the world Stalinist apparatus that had faced the political revolution in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956) and Hungary (1956).
However, the process that began in May 1968, despite its renewing strength and international repercussion, did not manage to advance towards a world revolutionary process that questioned bourgeois imperialist power in the world. Through the 1980s and 1990, imperialism managed to control the Portuguese Revolution, the revolutionary process in Central America and other countries. Why?

Defeats and Leadership Crisis

In the first place, all revolutions named before were defeated. The Soviet Union (USSR) crushed the political revolutions in East Europe (East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia). Most revolutions in semi-colonial countries ended re-leading them to become semi-colonies of old or new metropolis.
The defeat of the political revolution, combined with the economic crisis of the bureaucratized workers states, the supposed countries of real socialism, ended with the decision of Stalinist bureaucracy to restore capitalism in China (from 1978), and the USSR (from 1985 in the Gorbachev administration). Restoration undoubtedly gave new strength to imperialism.
Defeats were caused in the first place by the treason of the Communist Parties in the revolutionary processes, for example in the French May, or by the counterrevolutionary action of Stalinism where they ruled, like the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Other bureaucratic apparatus also collaborated with these defeats, but Stalinism was the main one. The other element was the absence of a revolutionary leadership.


The Lack of a Revolutionary Party

The student movement in France, May ’68, strongly questioned the CPF, expressing the growing awareness of the traitor role of Stalinism. Sadly, the major part of the student movement was won over for new bureaucratic apparatus, like Maoism, which revealed their opportunist character later on. Another sector was drawn by anarchist or spontaneous standings, which in the end were unable to face Stalinism.
This rich process of worker and student mobilizations, so fertile for struggles and decisive political debates, showed an enormous contradiction: the absence of a revolutionary party that could lead the revolution, facing Stalinism within workers movement to defeat its opportunist policy.
The absence of national and international leadership is, in general, one of the main characteristics of class struggle today. In a specific revolutionary situation, like May ’68, this absence reveals its intensity and urgency.
The commemoration of this date must not have a festive or shallow character. It must help draw conclusions to strengthen the strategic struggle of the workers’ movement, for the building of revolutionary parties as part of an International to struggle for world socialist revolution.
Originally published in Opinião Socialista nº 554


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