Showing posts with label social democracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label social democracy. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

*Honor The Three L's- Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht

Click on title to link to V.I. Lenin's 1914 article "The Europeon War and International Socialism". Timely, right? Just change to Afghanistan and it is.

On The 100th Anniversary Of Newly-Fledged German Communist Leader Rosa Luxemburg And Karl Liebknecht-Oh, What Might Have Been-

By Frank Jackman

History in the conditional, what might have happened if this or that thing, event, person had swerved this much or that, is always a tricky proposition. Tricky as reflected in this piece’s commemorative headline. Rosa Luxemburg the acknowledged theoretical wizard of the German Social-Democratic Party, the numero uno party of the Second, Socialist International, which was the logical organization to initiate the socialist revolution before World War II and Karl Liebknecht, the hellfire and brimstone propagandist and public speaker of that same party were assassinated in separate locale on the orders of the then ruling self-same Social-Democratic Party. The chasm between the Social-Democratic leaders trying to save Germany for “Western Civilization” in the wake of the “uncivilized” socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 had grown that wide that it was as if they were on two different planets, and maybe they were.

(By the way I am almost embarrassed to mention the term “socialist revolution” these days when people, especially young people, would be clueless as to what I was talking about or would think that this concept was so hopelessly old-fashioned that it would meet the same blank stares. Let me assure you that back in the day, yes, that back in the day, many a youth had that very term on the tips of their tongues. Could palpably feel it in the air. Hell, just ask your parents, or grandparents.)

Okay here is the conditional and maybe think about it before you dismiss the idea out of hand if only because the whole scheme is very much in the conditional. Rosa and Karl, among others made almost every mistake in the book before and during the Spartacist uprising in some of the main German cities in late 1918 after the German defeat in the war. Their biggest mistake before the uprising was sticking with the Social Democrats, as a left wing, when that party had turned at best reformist and eminently not a vehicle for the socialist revolution, or even a half-assed democratic “revolution” which is what they got with the overthrow of the Kaiser. They broke too late, and subsequently too late from a slightly more left-wing Independent Socialist Party which had split from the S-D when that party became the leading war party in Germany for all intents and purposes and the working class was raising its collective head and asking why. 

The big mistake during the uprising was not taking enough protective cover, not keeping the leadership safe, keeping out of sight like Lenin had in Finland when things were dicey in 1917 Russia and fell easy prey to the Freikorps assassins. Here is the conditional, and as always it can be expanded to some nth degree if you let things get out of hand. What if, as in Russia, Rosa and Karl had broken from that rotten (for socialism) S-D organization and had a more firmly entrenched cadre with some experience in independent existence. What if the Spartacists had protected their acknowledged leaders better. There might have been a different trajectory for the aborted and failed German left-wing revolutionary opportunities over the next several years, there certainly would have been better leadership and perhaps, just perhaps the Nazi onslaught might have been stillborn, might have left Munich 1923 as their “heroic” and last moment.  

Instead we have a still sad 100th anniversary of the assassination of two great international socialist fighters who headed to the danger not away always worthy of a nod and me left having to face those blank stares who are looking for way forward but might as well be on a different planet-from me.  

Commentary/Book Review

Post World War II Socialist Blahs

Every January militants of the international labor movement, the European sections more than the American, honor the Three L’s, the key leaders of the movement in the early 20th century- Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Since opening this space in early 2006 I have paid individual honor to all three in successive years. For this year’s and future January observances, in that same spirit, I will to add some other lesser figure of the revolutionary pantheon or those who contributed in some way to the development of this movement, mainly American at first as befits the title of this blog but eventually others in the international movement as well. So to honor the Three L’s this year I will start with an American revolutionary figure from the mid-20th century who I have written extensively on in this space, James P. Cannon. Cannon, pound for pound warts and all, represented to this militant’s mind the most accomplished (if not the most successful and therein lies the bitter irony) communist of that first American generation who formed the core of cadre directly influenced to the left by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The following review is another in a fairly large series of books featuring the writings of James P. Cannon published by Pathfinder Press (or its subsidiaries) the publishing arm of the party that Cannon was instrumental in organizing and leading, the Socialist Workers Party. I will, as I have done with previously reviewed Cannon writings, use the same couple of introductory paragraphs that sets out the important questions concerning Cannon’s place in the revolutionary pantheon.

The Struggle For Socialism in the “American Century", James P. Cannon, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1977

If you are interested in the history of the American Left or are a militant trying to understand some of the past lessons of our history concerning the socialist response to the victorious American (mainly) outcome to World War II then this book is for you. This book is part of a continuing series of the writings of James P. Cannon that were published by the organization he founded, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), in the 1970's, a few years after his death in 1974. Look in this space for other related reviews of this series on this important American Communist.

In their introduction here the editors motivate the purpose for the publication of this book by stating the Cannon was the finest Communist leader that America had ever produced. This an intriguing question. The editors trace their political lineage back to Cannon's leadership of the early Communist Party and later after his expulsion to the Trotskyist SWP so their perspective is obvious. What does the documentation provided here show?

This is certainly a continuation of the period of Cannon's political maturation after a long journeymanship working with Trotsky. The period under discussion starts as Cannon reaches his mid 50's, shortly after his release from federal prison for his principled (along with 17 other leaders of the SWP and Minneapolis Teamsters Union) opposition to America's entry into World War II. The party at that time needed to adjust strategy in order to come to terms with the ramifications of a victorious American imperialism in that war, some internal opposition (to be discussed below) from those who wanted to, again, fight out the "Russian" question that seemingly had been firmly resolved in 1940 and the fight to determine whether it was appropriate to "unite" with that opposition that split from the party and formed its own organization (also addressed below). One thing is sure- in his prime which, arguably, includes this period Cannon had the instincts to want to lead a revolution and had the evident capacity to do so.

It is almost axiomatic in the Marxist movement to state that war is the mother of revolution. Certainly the experiences of World War I would serve those formed by those years as a signpost. Trotsky, in his various manifestoes, pamphlets and other writings from shortly before the outbreak of World War II in Europe until his murder by a Stalinist assassin in Mexico in 1940 hammered away on this theme. With the proviso that the forces around the Fourth International, including importantly the SWP, had to redouble their efforts at programmatic clarity and cadre recruitment in order to take advantage of the post-war possibilities (if not before).

It is that spirit that animated the worldview of the SWP in the immediate post-war period. The party had been recruiting based on its black liberation perspective and its opposition to the various Communist Party and AFL and CIO labor bureaucracy efforts to continue to enforce a war time 'no strike' pledge. There were other empirical examples such as increased readership and efforts in the GI movement that further buttressed their upbeat prognosis. Moreover, as a practical matter, in the hard, hard tasks of trying to create a new society by overturning the old one completely revolutionaries better be animated, at least in part, by optimism.

That said, the post-war program prognosis got totally undermined from the beginning by the virulent campaign by the American ruling class to clamp down on "reds", especially in light of the foreign policy disputes with an emergent and militarily strong Soviet Union and the domestic fights by organized labor for wage increases to play catch up after the wage stagnation of the war period. Reading the SWP programmatic notes of this period, the rather Pollyannaish expectations in light of what really happened and a certain denial of reality did not stand the party in good stead for the oncoming "red scare" that effectively politically defeated a whole generation of militants- Stalinist, Trotskyist and others- for at least a decade. We, those of us who came of political age later, have faced other such periods such as during the Reagan years and partially in the 9/11 period where we were also isolated so we are painfully aware of that optimistic/ pessimistic dichotomy that runs through every revolutionary movement.

Many of the articles in this book center around Cannon's leadership of the fight against an internal opposition, the so-called Morrow-Goldman faction. That faction formed based on an reflexive anti-Sovietism, a conciliation toward American imperialism and, more importantly, a craven desire to forge unity with the previously-mentioned 1940 anti-Soviet opposition that split from the SWP and formed the Workers Party, led by former Cannon associate Max Shachtman, with a rightward social democratic orientation. Moreover, the glue that held the whole cabal together was the inevitable question of the party "regime", meaning always the leadership of one James P. Cannon.

In the American revolutionary socialist milieu the so-called "Russian question", that is, practically, the need for militants to military defend the Soviet Union as the blemished but fundamental example of the baseline for socialist evolution was fought out in the SWP in 1939-40. The results were that a significant minority of the party, led by Shachtman, split and formed the Workers Party. During the war years both organizations led very separate and different existences. In the immediate post-war period, at a time when the question of defense of the Soviet Union was NOT a burning issue there was considerable talk about a unification of the two organizations. This is the impact of the so-called Morrow-Goldman dispute that takes up much of this book. In the end no unification came about, nor was one truly possible under any rational standard of political discourse, especially as the American-led anti-Soviet Cold war heated up with the introduction of the Truman Doctrine and the ratcheting up of the "reds scare". The later personal fates of Morrow and Goldman (and Shachtman's and his various organizational incarnations, as well) as apologists for American imperialism only highlight the differences between Cannon's party of the Russian Revolution and Shachtman's "State Department" socialism- that is craven support for every American imperialist adventure they could get their hands on.

Although this dispute, seemingly, is strictly for insiders or aficionados of the esoterica of extreme left-wing politics there are many points made by Cannon that still ring true today for those of us who still wish to create a revolutionary party capable of making the revolution. Those include the role of the press as a party organizer (Cannon gives a very good description of the sometimes absurd prior socialist practice in this regard.), a serious attitude toward the question of unification and splits as a means for creating a revolutionary party unlike the SWP-WP fiasco, the very different tasks and obligations that confront a propaganda group as a opposed to a mass party (and the former's stronger need to have a homogeneous political and organizational line) and, most importantly, as has been true since 1917 a correct evaluation of that thorny "Russian Question".

Although defense of the Soviet Union is not an issue today that issue is still with us in the form of the question of China (and other non-capitalist states like Cuba). China is that Russian Question for today's militants. For a still relevant analysis of what to do (and what not to do) about Stalinism in its Chinese form Cannon's long article here "American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism" reads, in part, like it was written today.

That said, let's place Cannon in prospective. Earl Browder, William Z. Foster, Jay Lovestone, Max Shachtman, Albert Glotzer, these now obscure names were political associates of James P. Cannon's at various stages of his political development as a communist. Some became hardened Stalinist leaders; some became hardened social democratic leaders but a comparison of the political profiles of them and Cannon shows that they lacked one thing that Cannon did not. That evident capacity to lead a socialist revolution in America, if circumstances arose to permit such a fight.

No one can read Cannon's works from early in his career as a rising Communist functionary in the 1920's through to his adherence to Trotsky and not notice that here was a man who was trying to work these problems through. Of course, to his opponents, particularly those who one way or the other split from the Trotskyist movement and who always placed their opposition in the context of the abhorrence of the "regime" meaning, basically, they could not do just as they pleased Cannon was like their worst political nightmare. They, in turn, however had not problems touting the virtues of American imperialism when the political situation warranted their essentially literary inputs thereafter.

Finally, no one has to take Cannon for a political saint to realize that, on the record, the various "regimes" that he ran based on political support from the worker cadre would cause the so-called `free spirits" to chaff at his acknowledged policy of not suffering fools gladly (if at all). This reviewer having personally been in and around, as a youth, various Stalinist organizations before coming over to Trotskyism knows that the mere fact that there were vigorous factions and other political oppositions INSIDE the SWP and that they survived leaves the charges of Cannon as a crypto-Stalinist, or better, a Zinovievist, as so much hot air. Read Cannon's Struggle For A Proletarian Party along with this book to see what I mean.

Friday, November 08, 2019

In Honor Of The 100th Anniversary Of The Founding of The Communist International-From The Archives- *A Snapshot View Of The Leaders Of The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution- "Nikky" Bukharin

Click on title to link to the Nicolai Bukharin Internet Archive's copy of Bukharin's 1926 classic right-Bolshevik article, "The Tasks Of The Russian Communist Party".

Markin comment:

I want to spend more time on this revolutionary, his early leftism (in some senses ultra-leftism, especially the opposition on the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans taking Russia, bloody and broken, out of World War I , his subsequent rightist (right Communist, that is, which in agrarian Russia could only mean conciliating some segment of the vast peasantry) bloc with Stalin and his later, post-Moscow Trials, place in Soviet thinking in the 1980s when he, again, became a 'poster child' for accommodation to the forces of "market socialism". The fate of the Soviet Union,and defeat for the international working class in its struggle against capitalism, rather undercuts the 'virtues' of those theories. But, more later

In Honor Of The 100th Anniversary Of The Founding of The Communist International-From The Archives- *A Snapshot View Of The Leaders Of The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution- "Nikky" Bukharin

Click on title to link to the Nicolai Bukharin Internet Archive's copy of Bukharin's 1924 article, "Imperialism And The Accumulation Of Capital".

Markin comment:

I want to spend more time on this revolutionary, his early leftism (in some senses ultra-leftism, especially the opposition on the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans taking Russia, bloody and broken, out of World War I , his subsequent rightist (right Communist, that is, which in agrarian Russia could only mean conciliating some segment of the vast peasantry) bloc with Stalin and his later, post-Moscow Trials, place in Soviet thinking in the 1980s when he, again, became a 'poster child' for accommodation to the forces of "market socialism". The fate of the Soviet Union,and defeat for the international working class in its struggle against capitalism, rather undercuts the 'virtues' of those theories. But, more later

*A Snapshot View Of The Leaders Of The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution- "Nikky" Bukharin

Click on title to link to the Nicolai Bukharin Internet Archive's copy of Bukharin's 1921 article, "New Economic Policy Of Soviet Russia".

Markin comment:

I want to spend more time on this revolutionary, his early leftism (in some senses ultra-leftism, especially the opposition on the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans taking Russia, bloody and broken, out of World War I , his subsequent rightist (right Communist, that is, which in agrarian Russia could only mean conciliating some segment of the vast peasantry) bloc with Stalin and his later, post-Moscow Trials, place in Soviet thinking in the 1980s when he, again, became a 'poster child' for accommodation to the forces of "market socialism". The fate of the Soviet Union,and defeat for the international working class in its struggle against capitalism, rather undercuts the 'virtues' of those theories. But, more later

In Honor Of The 100th Anniversary Of The Founding of The Communist International*A Snapshot View Of The Leaders Of The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution- "Nikky" Bukharin

Click on title to link to the Nicolai Bukharin Internet Archive's copy of Bukharin's 1917 article, "The Significance Of The Russian Revolution".

Markin comment:

I want to spend more time on this revolutionary, his early leftism (in some senses ultra-leftism, especially the opposition on the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans taking Russia, bloody and broken, out of World War I , his subsequent rightist (right Communist, that is, which in agrarian Russia could only mean conciliating some segment of the vast peasantry) bloc with Stalin and his later, post-Moscow Trials, place in Soviet thinking in the 1980s when he, again, became a 'poster child' for accommodation to the forces of "market socialism". The fate of the Soviet Union,and defeat for the international working class in its struggle against capitalism, rather undercuts the 'virtues' of those theories. But, more later

*A Snapshot View Of The Leaders Of The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution- "Nikky" Bukharin

Click on title to link to the Nicolai Bukharin Internet Archive's copy of Bukharin's classic Bolshevik restatement of the Marxist program up until the time of the Russian revolution, "The ABC Of Communism" (written with Eugenii Prebrazhensky).

Markin comment:

I want to spend more time on this revolutionary, his early leftism (in some senses ultra-leftism, especially the opposition on the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans taking Russia, bloody and broken, out of World War I , his subsequent rightist (right Communist, that is, which in agrarian Russia could only mean conciliating some segment of the vast peasantry) bloc with Stalin and his later, post-Moscow Trials, place in Soviet thinking in the 1980s when he, again, became a 'poster child' for accommodation to the forces of "market socialism". The fate of the Soviet Union,and defeat for the international working class in its struggle against capitalism, rather undercuts the 'virtues' of those theories. But, more later

Sunday, September 01, 2019

In Honor Of The King Of The Folk-Singing Hard-Living Hobos The Late Utah Phillips -From The Archives- The Struggle For The Labor Party In The United States- The Socialist Party Of America - A Primer

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for the Socialist Party Of America

Markin comment on this series:

Obviously, for a Marxist, the question of working class political power is central to the possibilities for the main thrust of his or her politics- the quest for that socialist revolution that initiates the socialist reconstruction of society. But working class politics, no less than any other kinds of political expressions has to take an organization form, a disciplined organizational form in the end, but organization nevertheless. In that sense every Marxist worth his or her salt, from individual labor militants to leagues, tendencies, and whatever other formations are out there these days on the left, struggles to built a revolutionary labor party, a Bolshevik-style party.

Glaringly, in the United States there is no such party, nor even a politically independent reformist labor party, as exists in Great Britain. And no, the Democratic Party, imperialist commander-in-chief Obama's Democratic Party is not a labor party. Although plenty of people believe it is an adequate substitute, including some avowed socialists. But they are just flat-out wrong. This series is thus predicated on providing information about, analysis of, and acting as a spur to a close look at the history of the labor party question in America by those who have actually attempted to create one, or at to propagandize for one.

As usual, I will start this series with the work of the International Communist League/Spartacist League/U.S. as I have been mining their archival materials of late. I am most familiar with the history of their work on this question, although on this question the Socialist Workers Party's efforts run a close second, especially in their revolutionary period. Lastly, and most importantly, I am comfortable starting with the ICL/SL efforts on the labor party question since after having reviewed in this space in previous series their G.I. work and youth work (Campus Spartacist and the Revolutionary Marxist Caucus Newsletter inside SDS) I noted that throughout their history they have consistently called for the creation of such a party in the various social arenas in which they have worked. Other organizational and independent efforts, most notably by the Socialist Workers Party and the American Communist Party will follow.
Markin comment:

This entry is an overview of the Socialist Party of America and should be taken as just that. It was never a labor party in the true Marxist sense and certainly not a Bolshevik organization. Yet it important to draw some lessons from its work since today many labor militants and organizations work from this non-revolutionary perspective. More on its work to follow.

Monday, May 06, 2019

On The 50th Anniversary Of The May Day In France-From The Pages Of "Workers Vanguard- "France, May 1968"-Drawing The Lessons

Markin comment on this article:

I have noted before (as have others as well) that we in the West, meaning West Europe and the United States mainly, have had precious few serious opportunities to pose the question of workers’ power since the time of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. In the immediate post-World War II period, the May 1968 events detailed here, and for a while in Portugal in the mid-1970s and that is about it. Thus, the lessons of those named events loom very large in our “lessons” book, especially the May 1968 events which are an almost chemically pure example of how the Stalinists (and the social democracy) cravenly acted, well, acted as they always did as a force for breaking the back of a very good revolutionary opportunity. Now, by 1968, the reformist (or worst) qualities of Stalinism and social democracy were widely know on the let so I would suggest that particular attention be paid to what those non-doctrine student radicals, anarchists of various stripes, Maoists of various stripes, and Trotskyists of various stripes did, or didn’t do, in reaction to the pro-Soviet Stalinist French Communist Party and pro- imperialist Socialist Party.

Note: One of the conditions that almost pre-determines a pre-revolutionary situation as here, although certainly not the only condition, is that the old regime (here the Gaullists) could not longer rule in the old way. The litmus test, however, and it has come up in various settings in the past (most notably in Spain in 1936-early 1937), is at that moment when the old regime almost dares the radicals and revolutionaries to take power (posed as taking on the headache of power in some egregious circumstances where the old regime has created a “blind alley”) and the radicals and revolutionaries, or rather their leaderships “flinch.” Let us learn the lesson of not flinching, and of acting like 1917 Bolsheviks on those rare, too rare occasions, when the question of workers' power is posed.
Workers Vanguard No. 972
21 January 2010

France, May 1968

Prerevolutionary Situation Betrayed by Communist Party

Part One

(Young Spartacus pages)

Inspired by struggles around the world, the student protests for more social freedom that began in early 1968 in the Paris suburb of Nanterre spread rapidly. In Paris on May 10, pitched battles with the police left hundreds of protesters (and policemen) wounded. In response, on May 13, a general strike shut down all of France; it would grow to include some ten million workers. Seeking to end the strike, the government opened negotiations at Grenelle on May 25. The working class, lacking revolutionary leadership, was unable to put itself forward as a contender for power and returned to work in June. We reprint below the first part of a forum by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France on the fortieth anniversary of the May ’68 events. The forum, which originally appeared in the LTF’s newspaper Le Bolchévik (Nos. 185 and 186, September and December 2008), has been translated and adapted for publication.

* * *

The thirtieth anniversary of May ’68, in 1998, occurred in the shadow of the “death of communism” campaign that followed the counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR in 1991-92. So the working class was disappeared from every commentary, article, book, documentary, news report, etc. May-June ’68 was turned into just a big student struggle for sexual freedom and a few other social gains. We wrote in Le Bolchévik No. 147 (Autumn 1998):

“The bourgeois press played up May ’68 as a kind of bourgeois revolution that allowed more sexual freedom. This kind of propaganda has three purposes: exorcising the spectre of social revolution; proclaiming capitalism to be capable of continually ‘renewing’ and ‘democratizing’ itself; and casting an ‘indulgent’ look on the revolutionary ‘unrest’ which is now over and done with.”

In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of May ’68, we are still feeling the effects of the “death of communism” campaign. The working class has reappeared in books, colloquiums and articles but it is presented as having become harmless, bound to the capitalist system and greatly weakened by the outsourcing made possible by the globalization of the economy.

We want to reaffirm that May-June ’68 was a prerevolutionary situation, the driving force of which was the working class. The power of the working class paralyzed the country and caused the bourgeoisie to shake with fear. What the working class lacked was a revolutionary party capable of tearing the workers away from their treacherous leaders—mainly in the French Communist Party (PCF), which led the CGT trade-union federation—and of raising the consciousness of the working class to understand its historic role in overthrowing capitalism. The French bourgeoisie was able to get by fairly easily in the end because the PCF betrayed the working class. May ’68 was the most recent prerevolutionary situation in this country. But there will be others. For those of us who devote ourselves to preparing to intervene into such a situation in order to turn it into a workers revolution, it is crucial to review these lessons.

The Post-World War II Period

To understand how a social explosion of such importance could have taken place and what a revolutionary party would have done in this situation, we have to understand how different the world was post-World War II, and in the ’60s, from what it is today. These differences are fundamentally due to the counterrevolution in the USSR in 1991-92 and to the campaign about the supposed “death of communism” (that is, that there can be no alternative to capitalism) that is being waged by the bourgeoisie with the help of reformist “socialists” all over the world, including those who, not so long ago (certainly in May ’68) claimed to be revolutionaries.

Having usurped power in a political counterrevolution beginning in 1924, the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR repudiated the very program of proletarian internationalism that had led to the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, the program that Trotsky’s Left Opposition continued to defend. The bureaucracy invented the anti-Marxist “theory” of building “socialism in one country” in the search for “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism, for which it betrayed workers and peasants fighting the imperialists all over the world.

But Stalin’s victory did not constitute a social counterrevolution. The property forms created by the October Revolution were not destroyed but remained as gains for the workers of the world. The Trotskyists waged a relentless struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy, seeking to oust it through proletarian political revolution. At the same time, they fought tirelessly for the unconditional military defense of the bureaucratically degenerated Soviet workers state against imperialism and counterrevolution, with the understanding that the outcome would ultimately be determined by the extension of the dictatorship of the proletariat to the imperialist centers through workers revolutions in those countries.

The post-World War II period was marked by the emergence of bureaucratically deformed workers states in most of the East European countries that were occupied by the Soviet Union and as a consequence of peasant guerrilla movements led by Stalinists in Yugoslavia, China, North Korea and North Vietnam. Struggles for independence erupted in large parts of the colonial world. In January 1959, Fidel Castro and his petty-bourgeois peasant guerrilla movement, the July 26 Movement, overthrew the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. Faced with U.S. imperialism’s increasing hostility, the Castro government allied with the Soviet Union and, beginning in August 1960, nationalized broad sectors of the Cuban economy, drove out the Cuban bourgeoisie and created a deformed workers state. This small country, 90 miles off the coast of Florida, succeeded in defying the American colossus and carried through a social transformation that inspired a whole generation of radicalized youth around the world.

The Fourth International, which had been founded in 1938 under Leon Trotsky’s leadership, was deeply disoriented when capitalism was overthrown under the leadership of Stalinist forces. Michel Pablo, then leader of the Fourth International, reacted impressionistically to the onset of the 1947-48 Cold War and Stalinist expansion. He abandoned the struggle to build Trotskyist parties that aim to lead the proletariat in the international struggle for socialist revolution (see “Genesis of Pabloism,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 21, Fall 1972). Pablo abandoned the program of political revolution to sweep away the Stalinist bureaucracies in the USSR and East Europe, claiming that a process of “self-reform” would ultimately eliminate the bureaucratic deformations in these countries. Maintaining that “the international relationship of forces” was becoming unfavorable to imperialism, he declared that “the objective process is in the final analysis the sole determining factor, overriding all obstacles of a subjective order.” Pablo concluded that Stalinist and other reformist parties could adopt an approximately revolutionary perspective and that the task of the Trotskyists was to enter these parties and push them in a revolutionary direction. Pablo’s perspective of “deep entrism” led to the destruction of the Fourth International in 1951-53.

In 1960 in Belgium, Ernest Mandel, Pablo’s right-hand man, became the power behind the throne of prominent left-talking trade-union bureaucrat André Renard, who went on to sell out the 1960-61 general strike that shook Belgian capitalism just after the loss of its main colony in the Congo. Pablo himself became an adviser to the bourgeois-nationalist National Liberation Front government in Algeria after that country wrested its independence from France in 1962. In that role, Pablo participated in writing the laws on “self-management” that tied the Algerian workers movement to the bourgeois state apparatus so as to defuse the massive factory and farm occupations that had spread across newly independent Algeria.

The Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) and its youth group the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR), the predecessors of Olivier Besancenot and Alain Krivine’s New Anti-Capitalist Party, intervened into the events of May ’68 with the same Pabloite politics that destroyed the Fourth International. Instead of orienting to the working class as the driving force of socialist revolution, they focused on the student movement, billed as the “new vanguard,” and, to a lesser extent, tried to pressure the PCF/CGT bureaucracy. The destruction of the Fourth International meant that France had no revolutionary organization capable of intervening in the events of May ’68.

Our comrades in the United States had been expelled just five years earlier from the American Socialist Workers Party. The Socialist Workers Party had been Trotskyist, the historic party led by James P. Cannon, who did fight Pabloite revisionism, although belatedly and mainly on the American national terrain. Our comrades were seeking to break out of isolation and in May ’68 were engaged in discussions in particular with Voix Ouvrière in France.

The social explosion in France in May ’68 was not a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky. The Algerian War had a huge impact and radicalized a layer of students and workers. In many cases, they were breaking from the Communist Party, which had turned its back on Algerian independence until very late, that is, until French president Charles de Gaulle and the French bourgeoisie understood that they had lost the war and were forced to recognize Algeria’s independence.

Looking at the news headlines from April and May 1968, you can see that they also focused on the Vietnam War. Just after the victorious Tet Offensive by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, negotiations began in Paris between American imperialism and the North Vietnamese. Let’s not forget that after defeating the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Vietnamese Communist Party and Ho Chi Minh agreed, apparently under joint pressure from Moscow and Beijing, to hand half of Vietnam back to the imperialists, in accordance with the Stalinist theory of peaceful coexistence—which the imperialists needless to say never abided by. For the American imperialists, Vietnam was one of the main fronts in the struggle against Communism, where conflict escalated in 1965, for example with massive napalm bombing. That set off a lot of unrest around the world, including in France.

Many demonstrations in support of the Vietnamese people were organized by the PCF, the pseudo-Trotskyists and the Maoists. Note that at the time, the Pabloites of the PCI and the JCR were giving political support to the Vietnamese Communist Party. The leadership of the PCF, for its part, diverted the internationalist support of French workers into tailing de Gaulle’s policies. When it called for “Peace in Vietnam,” the PCF was really echoing de Gaulle, who, at the time, was maneuvering to preserve the influence of French imperialism in the former colonial world. In his September 1966 speech in Phnom Penh, de Gaulle denounced “the American war machine” and came out for an agreement with “the goal of establishing and guaranteeing the neutrality of the peoples of Indochina as well as their right to self-determination, as they actually are, each of them having full responsibility for its affairs.” The Soviet bureaucracy at the time saw de Gaulle as an ally who favored peaceful coexistence, preferring him to the pro-NATO French social democrats. Meanwhile the Maoist bureaucracy in China considered de Gaulle an anti-imperialist!

In early 1968 there was also the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. There were cracks in the Stalinist bureaucracy in that country. The “reform” wing led by Alexander Dubcek promised “socialism with a human face” to the population, which was trying to get rid of the bureaucratic straitjacket. This situation could have opened the road to a political revolution. And it is precisely because there was the possibility to open the road to proletarian political revolution that would drive out the parasitic bureaucracy and establish a healthy workers state that the Soviets intervened to crush the protests in Prague in August 1968, provoking a new split in the pro-Moscow Stalinist parties and affecting the working class internationally.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, partly under the influence of the Vietnam War and the domestic unrest in the United States, in particular the struggle for black liberation, a series of prerevolutionary and revolutionary situations arose in Europe—in France in May 1968, in Italy in 1969, in Portugal in 1974-75. These situations were the best opportunities for proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries since the period immediately after World War II. They gave the lie to the anti-working-class theories, based on the writings of Herbert Marcuse in particular, that had been so popular before 1968. According to these theories, the working class had become “bourgeoisified” and could no longer play its historic role as the motor force for revolution.

In these countries the pro-Moscow Communist Parties and the social democrats would come to the rescue of the tottering bourgeois order. That’s how the Western reformist parties, including the Stalinist parties, would play an enormous counterrevolutionary role contributing to the later destruction of the Soviet Union. The restabilization of bourgeois order in the Western imperialist countries in the mid 1970s was quickly followed by the imperialists’ second Cold War offensive against the Soviet bloc.

While the ideological climate of the “death of communism” affects the consciousness of the proletariat today, in many countries fierce class struggles provide an objective basis for reinvigorating Marxism as the theory of scientific socialism and proletarian revolution. It is not communism but its parody, Stalinism, that has proven to be a dead end.

“Big Strike” or Prerevolutionary Situation?

In France, following the big miners strike of 1963, the numerous workers struggles of 1967 were a harbinger of the explosion of May-June ’68. The students were the spark. There was a real radicalization in this milieu over social questions as well as international questions such as the Vietnam War. Early in May the Gaullist regime, faced with growing unrest in the universities, especially in Paris, cracked down more and more on the students until the “night of the barricades” on May 10, when the police forces went wild, sending several hundred students to the hospital. In response, the major unions as well as the professors union and student organizations called for a one-day general strike on May 13, the tenth anniversary of the military coup d’état and de Gaulle’s seizure of power. By the hundreds of thousands, blue- and white-collar workers and youth marched in the streets of Paris with slogans like “Happy Anniversary, General” and “Ten Years Is Enough.” After this one-day general strike, the working class threw itself into battle.

Starting on May 14, the Sud-Aviation plant in Nantes Bouguenais went on strike, and the next day it was the Renault Cléon automobile plant, and then all of Renault. At that time Renault still played a key role in France, the saying being, “When Renault sneezes, France catches a cold.” The movement spread to heavy industry, and then to all the factories in the country and to public transportation (trains, subways, etc.). Other sectors were rapidly impacted: banks, insurance, the post office, teachers (elementary, secondary, university), big department stores, etc.

Sectors that rarely strike, such as thousands of factories that did not have unions (because the bosses banned them or because they were too small), found themselves occupied for the first time by workers—men and women. By May 21, that is, one week after the May 13 general strike, several million workers were on strike, the figure generally cited being ten million.

That meant that the country was completely paralyzed by a general strike. People always talk about the prominent factories that had a huge political influence, but the strike was massive and total because all the factories were shut down. You have to understand that France in 1968 was much more industrial than today. On the order of 37 percent of the employed population was working-class, mostly with industrial jobs. The policy of industrial decentralization in the late 1950s and early 1960s created an important industrial network. Industry was no longer concentrated in the Paris region, the North and Lyon. Factories with several hundred or even a thousand men and women workers were set up in very small cities, even villages, in the provinces.

We say that this was a prerevolutionary situation. But what is a revolutionary situation? Lenin said, in “The Collapse of the Second International” (1915):

“To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes,’ a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ‘peace time,’ but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ‘upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.”

The first point is easily illustrated with a few examples:

¥ Edouard Balladur (who at the time was a young adviser to Prime Minister Pompidou) relates how, when the ministers phoned the préfets (regional government officials) to clear out the factories, the préfets answered that…they couldn’t.

¥ The CGT 76 union branch in Seine-Maritime put out a pamphlet on their area in May-June ’68 that is full of interesting details. So, for instance, they corroborate Balladur’s story by publishing the authorization that the assistant préfet of Dieppe gave the CGT, at the latter’s request, to control the distribution of gasoline.

¥ When de Gaulle’s aide-de-camp General de Boissieu tried to get hold of General Massu in Germany, the telephone operator explained to him that she would have to ask permission from the strike committee to put this international call through.

Nantes is generally mentioned as the only example of a city run by a strike committee. But some recently published research about cities outside of Paris in May-June ’68 brings to light how millions of workers managed their day-to-day affairs through strike committees. Many large urban areas (working-class ones, actually) had strike committees that managed food, childcare, gas distribution; also the CGT saw to providing electricity and water, garbage collection, etc.—all things that are taken care of by the government in normal times.

This shows how much the regime was teetering. “The upper classes” were apparently “unable” to live the old way. And the rapid growth of the strike, without any call by the union leadership, showed that the masses were also “unable” to put up with the old ways.

The reason the prerevolutionary situation in May-June ’68 ultimately did not turn into a revolutionary situation is that independent working-class action did not develop further, mainly because of the lack of a revolutionary party capable of tearing the working class away from its misleaders, including the PCF. There were strike committees in all the occupied plants. The CGT 76 pamphlet I mentioned earlier, for instance, reprinted instructions from the CGT local leadership in Dieppe asking each occupied plant “to form a strike committee of the leading comrades, if they had not already done so.” At best, these committees consisted of the local leaders of the various unions. They weren’t (or were rarely) elected by the workers and only rarely asked the workers for their opinions. They had a lot of power, but they were controlled by the union bureaucrats.

The Popular Front: The Greatest Crime

What was beginning to be posed by the strike was the question of power. The PCF was very conscious of this, right from the start. But for them, it was out of the question for the working class to drive out the bourgeoisie and take power. To divert the movement and protect itself, the PCF fought to form a government based on an alliance with the Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste (FGDS). The FGDS was a bloc between the social democrats of the SFIO (the French Socialist party) and several small capitalist parties. This is what we call a popular-front government and what the PCF at the time was calling a “people’s government.”

A popular-front government is a government that includes bourgeois workers parties like the PCF and the SFIO, and bourgeois parties. Bourgeois workers parties are parties that have a pro-capitalist leadership and program but are linked to the working class historically and through their base. In 1968, the bourgeois Radical-Socialist Party and future French president François Mitterrand’s Convention des Institutions Républicaines (CIR) were in the FGDS together with the SFIO. In other words, the FGDS itself was already a popular-frontist formation. Through a popular front, bourgeois workers parties can mask their contradictions and hide behind their bourgeois allies to betray the workers’ expectations. An example was when the PCF called for breaking the 1936 general strike. (PCF leader Thorez famously said, “One must know how to end a strike.”) It did this under the pretext of not wanting to frighten its allies in the Radical Party.

In France, popular fronts, which have included the PCF since 1935, have, in one form or another for more than a century, been a key tool for the bourgeoisie to try to co-opt struggle. As soon as struggle erupts, the reformists seek to channel discontent into a new “left” governmental alliance with bourgeois forces that will inevitably stab workers, the poor and minorities in the back. But the popular front isn’t the only means of containing working-class struggle—to preserve its class rule, the “democratic” bourgeoisie will not hesitate to resort to more right-wing versions of parliamentary democracy or to bonapartism or even to fascism.

That’s what had happened in France in the middle of the Algerian War, with de Gaulle’s 1958 coup d’état, which established a bonapartist regime. In May ’68, too, de Gaulle would contemplate using the army to break the general strike, as we will see later. Trotsky wrote:

“By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate—in order to preserve its possessions—the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘savior.’ This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions.”

—“Again on the Question of Bonapartism,” March 1935

Preventing explosions is also the purpose of the popular front. Since the end of the Algerian War, well before the events of 1968 unfolded, the PCF and CGT leadership had been trying to build this kind of bourgeois coalition with the SFIO and the various anti-Gaullist bourgeois parties. Although it was hegemonic on the “left,” the PCF went as far as not fielding a candidate in the 1965 presidential elections in order to give direct support to Mitterrand, who at that time was a member of the CIR, a bourgeois organization.

In the 1967 parliamentary elections, the PCF, the SFIO, the Radicals and the CIR ran separately and got better results than in 1965. Some Stalinists came to the conclusion that the left had missed winning a parliamentary majority by only a nose, after they took into account the other, bourgeois anti-Gaullist members of parliament! You have to understand that the PCF had just three fewer members of parliament than the SFIO. The PCF had 73 members of parliament, while all the other “left” parties together had 121. This shows how impossible it was to ignore the PCF in those days.

As soon as it felt the pressure mounting when the May-June ’68 events began, the PCF pressed its potential partners to build a popular-front alliance. On May 10, before the “night of the barricades,” the PCF leadership met with the FGDS to propose an alliance based on a common program for managing capitalism, their “people’s government.” This had no result; no agreement was concluded. On May 19, when the strike had already spread, the CGT and PCF put out a declaration explaining that “the power of the popular movement urgently calls for an agreement among left organizations on a common program of government with an advanced social content, guaranteeing the rights of unions and satisfying the workers’ main demands.” Further meetings took place between the PCF and its potential partners on May 20, 22, 28 and even May 30, always with the same goal. Building a “people’s government” became a watchword of the PCF’s propaganda right down to the factory-floor level, for everybody from CGT secretary-general Georges Séguy speaking before 25,000 Renault Billancourt workers on May 20 to ordinary activists in the plants.

This question of class collaboration and of the popular front would have been key for a revolutionary party to take on in May-June ’68. In Russia in 1917, the Bolshevik Party categorically opposed the capitalist Provisional Government, which included Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) along with ten capitalist ministers. The Bolsheviks won the leadership of the working class by showing the workers, who were influenced by the Mensheviks and the SRs whom they had elected to lead the soviets (workers councils), that there was a contradiction between their leaders’ pretensions to socialism and their alliance with the capitalists. In May 1968 the opposite happened. The Stalinists’ constant search for an alliance with bourgeois parties (the FGDS above all) was the best proof that the PCF did not want to give a revolutionary purpose to the strike, that it did not want the strike committees to have the role of getting society going again in the interests of the working class, which would have led to a confrontation with the bourgeoisie.

In the end, the PCF sold out the May-June ’68 strike for a few crumbs. Throughout everything, its goal was for this strike of millions of workers to end with de Gaulle’s resignation and replacement by a bourgeois popular-front government. Given their influence in the working class, these leaders could not imagine that the PCF and CGT would not get corresponding government positions. In other words, they did not want a token ministerial portfolio in a pro-NATO social-democratic government, but a significant presence in one. In the end, it was the virulent pro-NATO anti-Communism of the SFIO and some of the bourgeois parties that prevented such an agreement.

When they form a popular front, by choosing bourgeois partners, the reformists clearly signal their intention to govern with the capitalists against the workers. At that point there is no contradiction to exploit between their actual pro-capitalist practice and a non-existent socialist platform. Trotskyists’ opposition to such coalitions is implacable. It is our duty to warn the working class against the danger they represent.
Workers Vanguard No. 974
18 February 2011

France, May 1968

Prerevolutionary Situation Betrayed by Communist Party

Part Two

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below the second part of a forum given by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, translated and adapted for publication from the LTF’s newspaper Le Bolchévik (Nos. 185 and 186, September and December 2008). Part One, which appeared in WV No. 972 (21 January), focused on the period ending in mid May, when the general strike that had been sparked by the brutal repression of student protests spread throughout the country.

By the end of May 1968, France was so paralyzed by the general strike that the bourgeoisie quickly decided to open negotiations, which took place at the employment ministry on the Rue de Grenelle in Paris. In 2008, the French Communist Party (PCF) issued a special edition of their newspaper L’Humanité about May ’68. It included an interview with Georges Séguy, a PCF leader and secretary-general of the CGT trade-union federation in 1968, who said, “In the first ten minutes of the Grenelle meeting, we were able to raise the SMIC [minimum wage] by 35 percent, and the minimum wage for farm workers by 55 percent.” Thus Séguy confirmed what Trotsky said in “Once Again, Whither France?” (March 1935): “The general Marxist thesis ‘Social reforms are only the by-products of the revolutionary struggle’ has, in the epoch of the decline of capitalism, the most immediate and burning importance. The capitalists are able to cede something to the workers only if they are threatened with the danger of losing everything.” In spite of the concessions that Séguy greatly exaggerated as “enormous,” the CGT did not sign off on the negotiations but called to continue the strike. For several reasons.

The PCF, which led the CGT union federation, was perfectly aware that the working class was not ready to go back to work so easily, for so little, because the PCF and the CGT were present in most of the occupied factories. This detail shows how well the Stalinists knew their business: on day one of the occupation at the Renault plant in Billancourt, the most important factory in the country, the PCF sent a member of the Political Bureau, Claude Poperen, to stay in the plant to get a sense of the pulse of the working class. The PCF and the CGT had lots of experience betraying the workers—Benoît Frachon, a negotiator at Grenelle, had been a negotiator before, at the Matignon negotiations during the 1936 general strike. The PCF knew “how to end a strike,” like in 1936 when they diverted the workers struggles into support for Léon Blum’s popular-front government, which was an alliance between bourgeois and reformist socialist parties to manage capitalism. In 1968, without the prospect of a new popular-front government that would try to contain the workers’ militancy and their hopes for change, it would have been very damaging for the PCF to call them back to work in exchange for such minimal concessions.

Another reason for the PCF to refuse to sign off on the agreement was that the rest of the left was increasingly maneuvering for a popular front without them. The PCF sought to use the Grenelle negotiations to pressure its putative partners to understand that, without the PCF, it would be impossible to find a “solution” to the strike that would serve the interests of the bourgeoisie.

French president Charles de Gaulle appeared on TV on May 24, calling for a referendum on unspecified reforms and threatening to resign if it failed. He intended this to be a referendum on his continued rule. His announcement flopped. Everybody knew the referendum would be boycotted or would fail. The question of power began to be posed more and more clearly. The Paris préfet (a regional official from the national government) at the time, Grimaud, tells in his book how some in de Gaulle’s entourage raised the question of replacing de Gaulle. The bourgeoisie and the politicians saw that the government was tottering and looked for parliamentary and institutional answers, and accelerated their maneuvers.

During the Grenelle negotiations, which went on from May 25 to the morning of the 27th, the non-Communist left, with the enthusiastic support of pseudo-revolutionaries (the Pabloite Parti Communiste Internationaliste and Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, Voix Ouvrière [VO], and Pierre Lambert’s Organisation Communiste Internationaliste), organized a rally in Charléty Stadium in Paris to which the PCF was not invited. Held on May 27, this gathering brought out tens of thousands of people. Pierre Mendès-France did not speak, but his presence was notable and noted, with part of the crowd chanting his name when he appeared. (Mendès-France was a bourgeois politician from the Radical Party who had won the leadership of the Parti Socialiste Unifié, a left social-democratic party. He was popular in 1968 because he was known for opposing the Algerian War.) On the morning of May 28, the left bourgeois politician François Mitterrand, who would later become leader of the Socialist Party, held a press conference in which he put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency—which he considered “vacant”—while holding open the door to Mendès-France for prime minister.

The Charléty maneuver enraged the PCF and CGT because they understood perfectly well what was up: the anti-Communist, pro-U.S. social democrats wanted to have their own popular-frontist solution without the PCF. The PCF had no intention of being taken for a ride. To make very clear that no one was getting around them, the PCF and CGT called for workers demonstrations on May 29. Politically, the PCF and CGT bureaucrats had a hold over their ranks, who accepted their perspective of a “people’s government” (although they probably had a different interpretation of what it meant, especially since the CGT had committed to taking part in it). The front page of L’Humanité on the 29th, addressing the demonstrations, headlined “The Workers’ Demand: A People’s Government of Democratic Union with Communist Participation!” Which is very clear, to say the least.

The May 29 demonstrations were some of the largest during May-June ’68. They had a dual purpose: to try to shake Gaullist power a little more, so de Gaulle would resign, and to convince the left that its response could only be parliamentary, but not without the PCF. As Séguy said in 1972: “With the regime seeming shaky to us, we really and very sincerely wanted to revive unity. But once again our proposal encountered nothing but widespread evasion on the part of those to whom it was addressed.” In fact, the PCF attempted to work out a popular-front alliance in a meeting with the Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste on the afternoon of May 28, after Mitterrand’s press conference. This came to nothing. During this meeting, Waldeck Rochet, the secretary-general of the PCF, asked, “Will there be any Communist ministers?”, to which Mitterrand replied, “At least one.” One can imagine how that sat with Waldeck Rochet.

What Should Revolutionaries Have Done?

In May 1968 we had no organization in France. But our American comrades wrote an article on the French May events in Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 12, September-October 1968, that has stood the test of time remarkably. We printed it in French in our 1988 pamphlet on May ’68. In this pamphlet, retrospectively, we advocated a slogan for the month of May calling for a government of the PCF and the unions based on the strike committees. You have to remember, in that period the workers were demonstrating behind the PCF’s slogan for a “people’s government,” which they understood in a largely parliamentary framework. Calling for a PCF-union government would have been a means of transcending this parliamentary framework: how could the CGT union federation, how could the strike committees participate in a parliamentary government? This would have been a powerful perspective to put against the PCF’s popular-front plans, in order to turn the PCF’s base against its leadership by explaining that the PCF leaders were maneuvering for an alliance with the bourgeoisie instead of turning the strike committees into organs of workers power. The French Trotskyists put forward a similar slogan in 1946, for a government of the PCF, CGT and SFIO (the French Socialist party), in a terribly unstable situation when the PCF was participating in a popular-front government.

The question of turning the strike committees led by the bureaucrats into true embryos of workers power would have been key for a revolutionary party in May-June 1968. This would have made the question of the state central—that the state is not neutral but serves the interests of the bourgeoisie. The capitalist state is the cops, the army, the prison guards and the judges. Its job is to protect the tiny minority that owns the means of production against the vast majority—the proletarians, who have nothing to sell but their labor power, and all the oppressed. The main task of the government that administers the state, whether on the national or the municipal level, is to bring that power to bear in order to maintain the capitalist order.

So Séguy, while implicitly recognizing that the CGT and the PCF were in control and were deciding what would and would not happen in the country’s economy, bent over backwards to get the workers to rely on the bourgeois state. The PCF directed the strike support committees I mentioned earlier, which organized food and other supplies, to the mayors’ offices and put them under the mayors’ authority, that is, under the authority of the capitalist state. (These were often PCF mayors, but not always.) The mayors are the representatives of the bourgeois state closest to the population, under the authority of the préfet. Hence our position of refusing to run for executive offices like mayor or president: we want the working class to learn that its ultimate goal must be to destroy the bourgeois state, not run it. (See “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 61, Spring 2009.) Fostering the worst illusions among the working class, the PCF explicitly told workers not to organize and run society themselves.

Now, 40 years later, VO’s successor Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Pabloites both spout the same reformist illusions that the PCF did in 1968, i.e., that the bourgeois state can serve the interests of the working class. While the PCF thinks this can be done by having lots of members in parliament, LO and the Pabloites want to use pressure from the masses to make the bourgeois state serve the workers. This sweeps into the trash one of the main lessons Marx and Engels drew from the revolutions of 1848 and especially the Paris Commune: the working class cannot confine itself to laying hold of the machinery of the bourgeois state, but must smash it.

Strike Committees

Trotskyists would have fought for elected strike committees instead of committees appointed by the bureaucrats. We would have called for the strike committees to oversee the distribution of food and other supplies themselves, as well as resuming those services and utilities that the Stalinists wanted to turn over to the bourgeois state. By linking this to the Stalinists’ attempt to come to an agreement with bourgeois parties and politicians, Trotskyists could have exploited the contradictions that existed in the PCF and CGT, setting the base against the top, showing workers who wanted to fight for socialism that their leadership’s intent was not to achieve socialism, but to manage capitalism. So there would be a political struggle between a revolutionary perspective—that the working class has the power to run society for its own needs and to do that it must destroy the bourgeois state—and the opposing view of the reformists, who, at bottom, respect the capitalist order, private property and the bourgeois state.

Strike committees, workers councils and soviets are not revolutionary in themselves. Only a revolutionary leadership gives a revolutionary character to these organs of working-class power. Under the PCF’s leadership, these committees looked to the bourgeois state, to the mayors’ offices. Revolutionaries would have fought for them to have their own centralized organization, relying on the working class itself rather than organs of bourgeois power like the municipal governments. We would have sought to prepare workers politically, by every means available, to understand the need to act independently of all bourgeois forces, to organize workers militias to defend their positions, and to prepare to seize power and destroy the capitalist state.

It is easier to understand this point if you look at the situation in Russia in late July 1917, when the leaders of the soviets (the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries) were throwing Bolsheviks in jail. Lenin, who had fled to Finland to avoid arrest, thought that the workers should build new organs to move toward seizing power because he could see that, under the leadership of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, the soviets had tended to become a mere extension of bourgeois power. As it happened, the Bolsheviks subsequently won leadership of the soviets.

Revolutionaries’ struggle needs to be based on a transitional program, leading the workers to the understanding that, in order to run society in their own interests, they have to be prepared to overthrow the bourgeois state. Trotsky explained in the Transitional Program (1938):

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”

Vital Questions: Immigrants, Women, Youth

Revolutionaries putting forward a transitional program in 1968 would have faced some other key questions: immigrants, women and youth. There were almost three million immigrants in France in 1968, mostly Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Algerians. Back then, there were a lot of young male workers, either single or with family still in the old country—practically none were second generation. They lived in terrible conditions, in flophouses or shantytowns (200 still existed at the time), working mainly in construction and in industries that employ metals. A total of 85 percent of immigrant workers had no job skills, and many professions were forbidden to them by law. There were about 500,000 immigrant workers in construction, 370,000 in industries employing metals and in steel, 260,000 in agriculture. Women were often cleaning ladies. The proportion of immigrants varied widely in different sectors of production.

Immigrants were generally not allowed to engage in political activity. They couldn’t get elected as union reps without six to 24 months of seniority. Immigrant workers very often had work contracts lasting no longer than six months, which prevented them from ever being integrated in the unions. The Portuguese had spent 35 years under Salazar’s dictatorship. If they engaged in political activity in France, they were deported and wound up in the prisons of Portugal or in Portuguese colonies in Africa. Dozens of Portuguese workers who played an active role in the May ’68 strike disappeared afterward. Algerian workers were just coming off a victorious war of national liberation. They reportedly took a very active part in the strike from day one. Now they were fighting alongside French workers against the same capitalist class that had slaughtered their brothers during the Algerian War. To cement class unity, there should have been calls for full citizenship rights for all who were in France, with a fight for the same political and social rights that French workers had and to do away with all discrimination on the job, in housing and in education.

The bourgeoisie had been pitting various communities against each other for a very long time. But as May ’68 unfolded, the divisions between the different ethnic sectors of the proletariat largely broke down. In construction in particular, immigrants were in the vanguard: French workers represented a labor aristocracy who didn’t want to strike, whereas three-quarters of the unskilled workers were immigrants. Although the presence of the CGT or the PCF was often seen in this period as a protection against the worst manifestations of racism, with the PCF there actually was some chauvinism in May-June 1968. When strike support money was distributed, the Algerians had to fight to have their families back in Algeria taken into account.

After May ’68, deportations of immigrants took place (officially 215 through December 1968), especially of Spaniards (Spain was under Franco), and of Algerians known as opponents of Algerian ruler Houari Boumedienne. There were important protests against this, mainly taken up by liberal intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as Alain Krivine’s Pabloites, although the immigrant question was not a significant part of their intervention into the events of May ’68.

Ten years ago, when the left was running articles on the 30th anniversary of May ’68, we wrote, “For all the ‘Trotskyist’ groups that have wasted paper spreading inanities about May ’68 recently, not one even mentions the question of immigrant workers. But this question was already strategic, even at that time” (Le Bolchévik No. 147, Autumn 1998). And that’s still true. On the 40th anniversary they still have nothing to say about immigrant workers. The conclusion we drew on that score in the 1998 article is also still valid: “The fact that the far left raised the immigrant question scarcely or not at all in May ’68 represents a capitulation to social-chauvinism and its own bourgeoisie. In a country just emerging from a dirty colonial war [in Algeria] in which the reformist leaderships of the working class, under the cover of ‘Republican values,’ defended their own imperialism, this question was key to the proletarian unity needed to overthrow the bourgeoisie.”

The working class as a whole must defend the rights of immigrants and minorities, otherwise it leaves itself open to being weakened, divided and set back under the bourgeoisie’s attacks. The struggle against this division must be linked to the understanding that the overturn of capitalist society is the only means of doing away with racism once and for all.

The woman question was also central. Women represented a significant portion of the working class in 1968. There were about 1,800,000 women workers, constituting almost 22 percent of the working class. The vast majority of them were unskilled. In other words, they were at the bottom of the ladder, performing, like immigrant workers, many of the most arduous, unskilled and lowest-paid jobs. And they had very few rights. Abortion was totally illegal under a 1920 law. (Even today this right is limited by bourgeois morality, by all the difficulties immigrant women face and because of the “conscience clause” that doctors can invoke to refuse to perform abortions.) The ban on contraception had been lifted in 1967, but access to it remained very limited. The law forbidding a woman to even open a bank account without her husband’s permission wasn’t changed until 1965. The terms of divorce were very unfavorable for women and had not changed much since the Napoleonic Code. Questions of sexuality were completely taboo. Coeducation did not exist. In May ’68, women workers overwhelmingly struck and occupied their factories.

A revolutionary party would have sought to address problems specific to women. It would also have fought in the working class as a whole against the bourgeois prejudices peddled by the workers’ misleaders. In his recent book, L’Insubordination Ouvrière dans les Années 68 [Worker Insubordination in the ’68 Years], Xavier Vigna gives the example of the needle trades in Lorient, a port in Brittany, where the women of one factory got several neighboring factories to come out on strike and led a march to the CGT union local to take part in union activities. However, when it came to engaging in talks and negotiations, these were handled by a man who worked at the military shipyard. Vigna gives two examples of occupations (at the SNECMA aircraft plant in Gennevilliers and a clothing factory in Lille) where it was decided that the women would occupy the plant during the day and the men would do it at night. This was probably the case in most plants, reflecting the bourgeois family norm that women should be at home in the evening. In an interview in L’Humanité’s supplement on May ’68, Gisèle Halimi, who became a founder of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF, Women’s Liberation Movement), tells how, full of hope for the cause of women, she ended up setting up chairs and cooking meals at the Censier campus.

In a prerevolutionary situation like 1968, the intervention of a revolutionary party would have had a resounding echo among women, including petty-bourgeois women. Calls for the right to abortion and contraception and “equal pay for equal work” would certainly have done a lot to win women over to the perspective for a socialist society and the need for workers revolution. At the same time, raising such demands in the many demonstrations and on the picket lines could have raised the consciousness of the working class as a whole by breaking out of the confines of strictly economic demands.

A revolutionary party would have explained how women’s oppression stems from private ownership of the means of production. Marx and Engels identified the family as the principal source of women’s oppression because of its role in the inheritance of property, in particular of the means of production. Sexual monogamy on the part of women—as well as their social subordination—is required in order to determine without doubt the paternity of the heir. We say that the social institution of the family must be replaced (that differentiates us from bourgeois feminists). This can be accomplished only after a socialist revolution, as a planned economy will free men and women from domestic chores with 24/7 day care, quality collective laundries and dining, etc.

Just as with the immigrant question, it’s appalling to see how absent this question is from the propaganda put out by the left in 1968, although women’s oppression at the time was egregious and women had a massive presence in the strikes. This left the road open for bourgeois feminists, who went on to found the MLF in 1970. A lot of the women who ended up in the MLF after 1968 could probably have been won to the only program that can really lead to women’s liberation: socialist revolution. Once the MLF was created, pseudo-revolutionaries like the Pabloites would “discover” the woman question and start tailing the bourgeois feminist movement.

Students were the spark that lit the fire. Among workers, it was often the younger ones, both men and women, who spearheaded strikes and occupations. The family is the basis not only for women’s oppression, but also for the oppression of youth. And the Gaullist regime was very hardline and moralistic about “family values.” Questions of sex were taboo in Gaullist society, as I said before—there was no coeducation and homosexuals had no rights. Minors who wanted birth control still had to get their parents’ permission. Young people were subject to parental authority and had very few rights. There was mandatory 16-month military service. Any propaganda against the bourgeois army and the draft would have had a lot of impact, especially when de Gaulle was contemplating turning to the army to crush the working class.

A revolutionary party would have sought to win student youth to join the cause of the proletariat, the only force capable of ending all forms of oppression. By building a revolutionary youth organization independent of the party but sharing the same program, it would have been possible to recruit youth, the flame of the proletarian revolution.

To wrap up my remarks about intervening on these pivotal questions I’ll quote the Transitional Program, which explains:

“Opportunist organizations by their very nature concentrate their chief attention on the top layers of the working class and therefore ignore both the youth and the women workers. The decay of capitalism, however, deals its heaviest blows to the woman as a wage earner and as a housewife. The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layers of the working class; consequently, among the women workers. Here they will find inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness and readiness to sacrifice.”
Markin comment on Part Three of this series:

Pay particular attention to the section in this Part Three when the speaker does an analysis of the evolving positions over time of the various participants, individuals and organizations (VO, PCF Pabloites, etc.), and their changing view of what was possible in 1968 (reflecting their more mature and “wiser” understanding now, I am sure), This is something of an art form, especially for those who “blew it” when they had a chance. Starting, probably with Bela Kun and the fiasco of the Hungarian Soviet in 1919, every unsuccessful or stillborn revolution has had its apologists about how the thing could not have possibly have been successful, objectively of course. The great architect of this after the fact justification though was August Thalheimer (and his latter day apologist Mike Jones from the pages of the journal, Revolutionary History), one of the leaders of the German Communist Party in 1923 when there was an exceptional opportunity for the revolution to succeed and change the course of 20th century history.

Sure revolutionary activity is hard, and there is not guarantee of success beforehand, but out of the events of 1968 in France one could have projected a very strong mass party filled to the brim with disgruntled Stalinist workers looking for a new way and a hard layer of students now wedded to the idea of the centrality of the working class in a socialist revolution. In America out of the 1960s we could have projected a stronger anti-imperialist organization out of the opposition to the Vietnam War. In both case those prospects were not fanciful, and were doable. If the revolutionary politics had been there rather than the fight, the hard fight, by the reformists (and centrists) to give everything back to bourgeois society. As we are, painfully, aware of now such revolutionary opportunities do not come that often so you had better give us your A game, your Bolshevik A game. The rest we do not need.
Workers Vanguard No. 976
18 March 2011

France, May 1968

Prerevolutionary Situation Betrayed by Communist Party

Part Three

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below the final part of a forum by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, translated and adapted from the LTF’s newspaper Le Bolchévik (Nos. 185 and 186, September and December 2008). Parts One and Two, which appeared in WV Nos. 972 and 974 (21 January and 18 February), covered the period from May 13, when a nationwide general strike followed the brutal repression of student demonstrations, to the end of May.

As we saw, leading up to May 29, the regime in France was badly shaken. A portion of the bourgeoisie was wondering about President Charles de Gaulle. On the 29th, the day of the big demonstrations called by the French Communist Party (PCF), de Gaulle “disappeared” off to Baden-Baden to consult General Jacques Massu, the chief of staff of the French army in Germany. Massu convinced de Gaulle to stand firm, no doubt assuring him that the army was prepared to intervene if necessary—which would have meant civil war. Even though that plan was never carried out, it was definitely an option de Gaulle was contemplating in case he could not put an end to the strike by parliamentary means. This simple fact confirms the Marxist theory of the state, which exists to defend the capitalist order through force.

In his book Baden ’68, Massu also reported that on May 28, the day before his meeting with de Gaulle, he had received with pomp and circumstance the commander-in-chief of Soviet troops in East Germany, Marshal Koshevoy, who recommended that he “crush” the students in Paris and had nothing but praise for de Gaulle. In other words, the bureaucracy of the Soviet degenerated workers state was prepared to see revolution in France strangled in order to preserve de Gaulle, because of his semi-autonomy from the U.S.-led anti-Soviet NATO alliance.

On the morning after the big May 29 demonstrations, the CGT trade-union federation had another meeting with the Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste (FGDS, a bloc comprising the French Socialist party and small bourgeois parties) and the PCF (which led the CGT). The purpose of the meeting was to convince the FGDS to form an electoral alliance with the PCF/CGT.

That evening, de Gaulle went on the offensive, emboldened by the support of the military and, no doubt, by the report Massu had given him about his encounter with Koshevoy. De Gaulle dissolved the French parliament, launched a virulent anti-Communist attack on the PCF and CGT, practically accusing them of plotting a coup d’état, and called for a mobilization of the “people”—in other words, the bourgeoisie, the part of the petty bourgeoisie that had not been won over by the strikers and the dregs of society well known to the likes of Charles Pasqua. (Pasqua was key for the covert operations de Gaulle ran using thugs and gangsters.) De Gaulle promised to free a dozen leaders of the OAS who were still in jail. (The OAS [Secret Army Organization] was a fascist organization led by former army officers that formed to oppose French withdrawal from Algeria.) He did this by mid June in order to make up with the far right and the officer corps.

Faced with this offensive the PCF and CGT were cornered, since they rejected any confrontation with the Gaullist regime outside of the institutional framework of parliament and the Fifth Republic. They wanted to avoid a fierce and uncontrollable clash at any price, so they had no option but to call the workers back to work. To make this happen, they would not hesitate to use any means, specifically atomizing the strike, which they started to do after the May 25-27 Grenelle negotiations between the government and capitalists and the unions. Since the PCF had no success coaxing the FGDS into an alliance, they knew they had no chance in the elections.

In spite of the absence of a revolutionary party able to expose the Stalinists’ rescue operation for capitalism and split the PCF by winning over militants disgusted by their leadership, the bureaucrats encountered fierce resistance from the working class. PCF leader Georges Séguy explained it this way: “In some cases, of which there were few, our activists had to argue strongly with workers who were in favor of continuing the strike in spite of the indisputable success we had had with the demands that we won. They had hoped for more decisive changes. They didn’t realize that the political situation didn’t allow us to go further.”

In Whither France? Trotsky said: “The most striking features of our epoch of capitalism in decay are intermediate and transitional: situations between the nonrevolutionary and the prerevolutionary, between the prerevolutionary and the revolutionary or…the counterrevolutionary. It is precisely these transitional stages that have a decisive importance from the point of view of political strategy” (ellipsis in original). It is easy to imagine that, if a revolutionary party had intervened as the strike grew, Trotsky’s words would have become concrete after May 30, when de Gaulle decided it was time for a showdown. That was a turning point in 1968 for both the bourgeoisie and the PCF.

It wasn’t until June 7 that the first significant back-to-work moves took place. It took several days to get those sectors that had kicked off the strike to go back. To finally overcome the determination to continue the strike, the bureaucrats used every contrivance: separate negotiations for individual union locals; false rumors of plants going back to work; back-to-work votes and, when those didn’t obtain the expected results, revotes, and so on, until they got the strikers back to work.

While the Stalinists maneuvered, the bourgeoisie sent the cops to attack key centers of workers’ resistance like the postal sorting centers and railroad terminals. On the night of June 5 the CRS riot cops took over the Renault factory in Flins. Four days of pitched battles ensued around the plant, during which the young Maoist high school student Gilles Tautin was killed. On June 11 the cops attacked the Peugeot factory in Sochaux; two workers were killed. On June 12 all the far left organizations (pseudo-Trotskyists, the “March 22 Movement” student organization, Maoist groups, etc.) were banned. Far from protesting this ban, when members of these organizations came to the factory gates, the PCF physically attacked them!

In the end, the bureaucrats and the state got what they wanted. The working class and its last holdouts, betrayed by their own leaders and lacking a credible revolutionary alternative, could no longer resist the pressure to go back to work and surrendered, sick at heart. The large percentage of workers who voted against going back shows how much reluctance there was. Some sectors like the workers in the metal industries went back very late. The CGT called to end the strike at the Renault plant in Billancourt on June 17. Krasucki (a CGT leader) got booed when he called for going back to work at Citroën on June 24. That was even after the first round of parliamentary elections, which took place on June 23 and were a landslide for the reactionaries!

Mentors of Today’s New Anti-Capitalist Party

Now let’s get back to what the Pabloite predecessors of New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) spokesman Olivier Besancenot were doing in May ’68. Political adaptation and capitulation are the Pabloites’ hallmark. And they didn’t miss any opportunities for that in this prerevolutionary period. They presented the radicalized students as the vanguard. For instance on May 20, the Pabloites’ international organization, the United Secretariat, declared: “There is still a huge gap between the revolutionary maturity of the vanguard of the youth and the workers’ level of consciousness.” But around 1968, all the organizations in the workers movement claimed to be fighting for socialism or communism. The working class was extremely combative and tended to identify its struggles with the 1917 Russian October Revolution.

In 1968, the Pabloites were centrists, that is, revolutionary in words and opportunist in deeds. Their rhetoric was full of references to workers revolution, to dual power, even “smashing the bourgeois state apparatus.” Thus, in a book he wrote in 1968 with his then-partner Henri Weber, now a Socialist Party senator, Pabloite leader Daniel Bensaïd could say: “The broken-down regime could no longer, in these troubled times, count on its own hirelings, the forces of repression were at the end of their rope, otherwise it was a debacle. Power was there for the taking. Anything was possible. The regime survived because of the lack of any candidate to take over.”

Instead of workers revolution, the Pabloites were for using pressure from the streets to form a popular-front government, that is, a government based on the alliance of bourgeois and workers parties to manage capitalism. Pierre Frank, leader of the Pabloite Parti Communiste Internationaliste, declared on May 22 (Intercontinental Press, 10 June 1968): “In these days when an unproclaimed general strike is in effect, it would be possible to force de Gaulle’s departure and to impose a CP-FGDS government by nonparliamentary but peaceful means.” The Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, the Pabloites’ youth organization, tried to make this sound more appetizing with their slogan “People’s government, yes! Mitterrand, Mendès-France, no!” (Mitterrand and Mendès-France were left bourgeois politicians.) Twenty years later, in 1988, Pabloite leaders Alain Krivine and Bensaïd admitted that “the formulation of ‘people’s government’ had, however, the advantage of referring to a government of the left parties without going into any more precise considerations” (Mai Si! 1968-1988: Rebelles et Repentis [Yes We May! 1968-1988: Rebels and Repenters]). According to the Pabloites, this government—which could only have been a bourgeois government—would have been under the “control” of the working class.

Let’s compare what the young Bensaïd wrote in 1968 with the hardened reformist he had become 20 years later, when he co-authored that 1988 book with Krivine. In the book, he polemicized against his earlier position, going further in Pabloite adaptation to popular-frontist and anti-Soviet pressure: “Anything was not possible in 1968: you cannot jump ahead of your own time and the existing relationship of forces. But something different was certainly possible.” And, again, further on: “Today we still remain convinced that there were other possibilities, other outcomes, other roads. Not the big day, Revolution with a capital ‘R,’ but the overturn of the regime through the strike and through extraparliamentary mobilization.” Bensaïd preferred to sweep the formulation “Anything was possible,” which he has come to consider too far left, under the rug. So he made his view clear, that the general strike could have forced de Gaulle to resign, after which he expected a popular front to replace him.

“Anything is possible” was a formulation used by the centrist Marceau Pivert during the 1936 revolutionary situation in France. At that time, Trotsky polemicized very sharply against Pivert, who talked about revolution while staying inside the SFIO (the French Socialist party), in which he represented the left wing. Pivert was to end up in the propaganda office of Léon Blum’s popular-front government. Trotsky sought to win youth and workers away from Pivert’s influence by exposing his politics, which provided a left cover for maintaining the capitalist order. There was someone who argued “Anything is not possible” against Pivert in 1936. It was PCF leader Maurice Thorez, the gravedigger of the revolutionary situation. Bensaïd and Krivine know this perfectly well. So it’s quite cynical for these two to adopt Thorez’s formulation in order to denounce the positions they themselves held in 1968. In hindsight, it is clear that they have moved from centrist political positions like Pivert’s to reformist ones like Thorez’s.

Today the Pabloites have thrown their forces into building the NPA. We call it the “New Anti-Communist Party” because it clearly represents their acceptance of and integration into the “death of communism” campaign. In all his public talks, Besancenot never forgets to explain that the 1990s saw the end of a cycle, that the cycle of the 1917 Revolution is over and that, for him, references to communism, Leninism and Trotskyism are a thing of the past. Whereupon he offers up “21st-century socialism” with pathetic, classic social-democratic proposals: take from the rich to give to the poor, working-class control of capitalism, etc., which he sums up as “revolutionizing society.” And above all, he’s ready and willing to participate in a bourgeois government if it is “anti-capitalist.”

Voix Ouvrière’s Economism in May ’68

In contrast to the Pabloites’ student vanguardism, Voix Ouvrière (VO) had a solid proletarian orientation, but it was mainly economist. The pamphlet that VO’s successor organization Lutte Ouvrière (LO) put out for the 40th anniversary of 1968 indicates:

“It was obvious that ‘the ten million striking workers weren’t demanding state power.’ For the most part, they didn’t have even the slightest idea what that meant, and Séguy, Waldeck Rochet and Marchais were certainly not going to enlighten them. May 1968 was obviously not like the situation in October 1917 [in Russia], with workers councils won to the idea of taking power, nor was it even February 1917, with soviets forming a de facto parallel power to that of the Provisional Government. In France in 1968, there was no embryo of dual power challenging the rule of the bourgeoisie in the name of the working class, even if only de facto, not even at the shopfloor level where strike committees composed of representatives of the workers in struggle existed only in a tiny number of factories.”

That’s true, but LO mentions it in order to argue that it was impossible for such workers councils to emerge. To do so, LO needs to distort reality. What they falsify is the extent to which the country, the Gaullist regime and the state were paralyzed. They disappear the possibility, opened up by the workers mobilizations, for a revolutionary leadership to transform the strike committees into true organs of proletarian power.

But while LO chides PCF leaders Séguy and Waldeck Rochet for failing to enlighten the workers about what workers power would mean, the workers clearly were not any more enlightened by VO’s newspaper and leaflets (judging by what LO has reprinted). Actually, LO concludes the passage I quoted earlier with an explanation of the program VO put forward during the entire May-June 1968 period:

“Simply on the level of economic demands, these would have called not only for wage increases greater than the measly proposals of the ‘Grenelle Agreement’ [and] an immediate return to a 40-hour workweek, but also a sliding scale of wages, which is the only way to prevent the bosses from recouping, in a few months of inflation, everything they had to give up. Not by leaving it to the government to assess the rate of inflation and the adjustment to be made to wage rates, but by calling on workers themselves to organize to control this.”

That is, indeed, VO/LO’s whole program and the sum total of the demands you can find in all of their leaflets and articles from May-June 1968. The only thing they add today is, of course, “workers control over the factories’ accounting in order to know exactly what their financial situations are.” Clearly, VO’s program in 1968 was the same as the CGT’s. It’s just that the amount they demanded for the minimum wage, etc., was greater.

For us, what will change workers’ consciousness and tear them out of the clutches of the reformists and centrists is the intervention of a revolutionary party with its program. This party will be built by forging cadres, organizing the most conscious elements of the working class, the vanguard. VO’s pamphlet shows they didn’t explain the need to do away with capitalism until the beginning of June, when the strike had already passed its peak.

Lenin laid out the basis of his conception of the party in his 1902 work What Is To Be Done?, explaining that “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers.” Lenin at the time was fighting against economist “socialists” like LO today, who insisted that the workers could acquire consciousness of their historic tasks spontaneously through their economic struggles. It is because of this economist conception that, throughout May-June 1968, the program VO/LO intervened with never went beyond simple economic demands, only for a few cents more than what the CGT/PCF were asking for. It also explains why, for LO, the whole thing was just a big strike. Like all economists, in the end, they blamed the workers, saying they weren’t ready or conscious enough to struggle for power. But making the working class understand its historic task as the gravedigger of capitalism is the role of the revolutionary party. This also means combating the social backwardness that divides the working class along race lines, something that LO never worried about then—nor does it today.

VO and the Popular Front

Confronted with maneuvers over a new popular front and whether it would be with or without the PCF, VO supported the May 27 rally at Charléty Stadium that was designed to launch a popular front without the PCF. Thus the 28 May Voix Ouvrière described Charléty as a demonstration of 60,000 people “built around ‘far leftist’ demands” and enthused over the slogan “Séguy, traitor,” without mentioning that the same demonstrators started chanting bourgeois politician Mendès-France’s name the moment they saw him.

One of the rare times VO talked about the PCF and the SFIO allying with the bourgeoisie, in a 4 June article in Voix Ouvrière, they reminded us that the left had already been in power twice, adding:

“In the aftermath of World War II the Communist Party and the Socialist Party even had, between them, an absolute majority in the elections. But the SP didn’t want to govern without the MRP [the bourgeois Popular Republican Movement]. So then the PCF rallied to a three-party alliance in the name of unity. Do we have any reason to believe that this parliamentarist ‘left’ that has always gone back on its promises would keep them today? No.”

VO said there was no reason to believe the popular front’s promises, but in reality what the PCF and SP promised was precisely to make an alliance with the bourgeoisie—and that alliance can only be made on the bourgeoisie’s own terms, that is, against the interests of the workers. VO never explained that part because, for them, it is not a question of principle or a class question for workers parties to make such an alliance with the bourgeoisie.

After VO and the other organizations were banned, VO reorganized under the name Lutte Ouvrière on June 24. Three weeks after their June 4 article, in the first issue of Lutte Ouvrière, LO called quasi-explicitly for workers to vote for the very same organizations that were allied with the bourgeoisie or seeking such an alliance. In 2007, at Lutte Ouvrière’s Fête, an event they host every year, François Duburg, one of their historic leaders, got offended and denied it when we pointed that out. But here’s what LO printed between the two rounds of the 1968 parliamentary elections:

“It is however plausible that a large number of voters on the left, disgusted by the attitude of the PCF and the FGDS, who scuttled the general strike, may have abstained on the first round. Maybe those people will vote on the second round so they can express, in spite of everything, their opposition to Gaullism in the only way possible in these elections. Then we would see the left’s vote count go up. That wouldn’t be enough to prevent the UDR [the Gaullist party] from having a majority in the Chamber [the lower house of parliament].

“And that’s too bad! It’s really a shame that the FGDS and PCF can’t rise to power: then their true face as servants of the bourgeoisie would appear clearly before everyone’s eyes….

“Yes, it’s really too bad that they can’t rise to power. And if there’s still time the workers, even if they’re disappointed, must try to send them there [i.e., elect them] on the second round.”

Of course VO wasn’t today’s LO group that has supported counterrevolution in the USSR and in Poland. But this foreshadows their call to vote “without illusions but without reservations” for François Mitterrand in 1981. Now, with the collapse of the USSR and the sharp decline of the level of consciousness in the working class following the “death of communism” campaign, LO’s accommodationism leads them to openly embrace popular-frontism.

As I said, Trotskyists would have called for no vote to the popular-front candidates in the 1968 elections, including members of workers parties running as part of a bourgeois popular front. The fifth issue of the French edition of Spartacist, in May 1974, headlined “Not Only a Stupidity, But a Crime” [see “Not Mitterrand, But a Workers Government!” WV No. 43, 26 April 1974]. Our article attacked the OCI (Pierre Lambert’s organization, a predecessor of the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant) for supporting the Union of the Left’s candidate, Mitterrand, in the first round of the presidential elections in 1974. As for us, in 1974, we gave critical support to LO’s candidate Arlette Laguiller in the first round because she was running against Mitterrand’s popular front, although we warned in advance—and correctly—that LO would probably capitulate to Mitterrand on the second round. In 1977, two years after the Ligue Trotskyste de France was founded, we intervened in the elections calling to abstain except where candidates were running both against the alliance with the bourgeois Left Radicals, and for breaking with the popular front’s “Common Program of Government” for managing capitalism.

Lutte Ouvrière and the Party Question

At the 2008 LO Fête, in a debate between LO and the Pabloites, VO’s 1968 call to build a party that would regroup all revolutionaries came up. The first issues of Lutte Ouvrière, after VO was dissolved, had long articles calling for all “revolutionaries” to regroup. They would even have looked favorably on forming a greater United Socialist Party based on the platform of the Charléty rally, which was for a popular front without the PCF. (See the article in the 31 May issue of Voix Ouvrière, “A ‘Third Force’ on the Left?”) LO argued that thousands of youth and workers were looking for a revolutionary path but were puzzled by the huge number of small groups; “revolutionaries,” whether Trotskyist, Maoist or anarchist, had to come together despite their differences because time was getting short; all “revolutionaries” were up against the bourgeoisie and the bureaucrats, and during the strikes they stood arm in arm in spite of their differences. This party had to allow different tendencies to exist, and these tendencies would have the duty to express their differences publicly—in other words it would be a Menshevik party even though they referred to the Bolshevik Party constantly in those articles! Though LO kept talking about the “revolutionary ideas” all these groups shared, not once did they spell out the differences between them, let alone say what political program these groups should unite on.

One can compare that to what Trotsky did in the 1930s, especially from 1933 to 1938, to found the Fourth International. Throughout those years, Trotsky fought over programmatic questions like unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union and intransigent struggle against the popular front, which were at the heart of the debates. The result of these years of struggle—at a time when revolutionary events were unfolding as in Spain and France in 1936—was a rock-solid programmatic basis, the Transitional Program, on which the Fourth International was founded. Clearly, LO’s method is quite the opposite of Trotsky’s.

LO’s call was an extension of the permanent liaison committee of the Pabloites and VO that was created on May 19, which is to say, right at the start of the strike. The program of this permanent committee was also utterly economist and very similar to the CGT’s program: a 1,000 franc minimum wage, pay for strike days, union rights in the factories, etc. The only difference from the CGT’s demands was that they added the utopian reformist demand “dissolution of the repressive forces of the bourgeois state.” At that time, the committee already called on all organizations claiming to be Trotskyist to join it.

Our comrades in the Spartacist League/ U.S. wrote about this committee in an article that made the necessary points:

“The axis upon which the VO-Pabloite unity of action is based is a false one. The joint statement called upon ‘all organizations claiming to be Trotskyist to join in this move.’ The VO comrades feel the recent events constitute ‘the French 1905.’ Let us remember that the sequel to the 1905 Russian Revolution was a unification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks! It took Lenin several years to break this over-fraternal unity.”

And we went on:

“What has been pointed up in France by the latest CP-CGT betrayal is not the need for a ‘Trotskyist regroupment’ but the need for a new revolutionary party based on the vindicated Bolshevik program, uniting all those, even from such tendencies as the Maoists and syndicalists, who stand in favor of workers’ committees of power. We hope that VO, the French Bolsheviks, have not been disoriented as were the Russians in 1905.”

—“To the Brink and Back: French Revolution,” Spartacist No. 12, September-October 1968

The last sentence refers to the fraternal relations we had with VO at the time. We had met VO in 1966 at the London conference of the International Committee of the Fourth International (see Spartacist No. 6, June-July 1966). One of our members went to work with VO/LO in France. By the time she came back to the U.S., she had been won over to VO’s economist political conceptions. We had a fight about this in the party—you can read the main documents in our pamphlet, Lutte Ouvrière and Spark: Workerism and National Narrowness (1988). This fight was against LO’s economism, and therefore about the Leninist conception of the party.

Aftermath of May-June 1968

May ’68 had tremendous international repercussions. In Italy the simmering student revolt culminated in the “hot autumn” of 1969. And then in 1974 the Portuguese revolution took place. In both cases a revolutionary party was lacking, and these opportunities were sold out by the Stalinists and the social democrats with the help of the pseudo-revolutionaries. Then a whole lot of social movements arose in many countries. The whole post ’68 period was full of turmoil. The Stalinists and the social democrats in France, drawing their own lessons from 1968, went on to form the Union of the Left based on the “Common Program of Government” and succeeded, with the help of the pseudo-revolutionaries, in channeling all the struggles into this popular front until it won the elections in 1981.

May ’68 also largely put an end to the left-wing theories that the working class was no longer the revolutionary force in advanced industrial countries. These ideas were widespread during the ’60s among young radical activists to the left of the social-democratic parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the U.S., but the role the working class played in May-June 1968 debunked them. That was part of what allowed us to recruit rapidly in the U.S., which was the basis for the transformation of the SL/U.S. into a fighting propaganda group. Then we were able to lay the basis for our subsequent international expansion.

Immediately after May ’68, the Pabloites, LO and the Lambertists recruited considerably. They were the only organizations claiming adherence to Trotskyism in continental Europe that numbered several thousand. This massive post-1968 recruitment is the reason these organizations have survived to this day with a large membership. In the years that followed, these groups moved to the right under the pressure of the second Cold War and the anti-Communist crusade led in France by Mitterrand. They all supported the counterrevolutionary anti-Soviet forces in the 1980s as well as the various popular fronts. Their adaptation to and integration into the popular front today is a reflection, on the national terrain, of their abandoning a revolutionary perspective, which had been expressed on the Russian question.

When you draw the right political conclusions from May-June 1968 you understand that the key question in this prerevolutionary situation was the question of a party. The task before us today is to reforge the Fourth International of Leon Trotsky, the world party of revolution, and learn the lessons of 1968. That is the task we are pursuing today. Join us! For new October Revolutions!