It is common these days to ignore the libertarian character of the May revolt in Paris in 1968. Marxist 'theoreticians' are eager to prove that the missing ingredient was a "correct" revolutionary leadership (by which they mean themselves) even though ALL the various brands of Maoists, Trots, Leninists, and communists were caught with their dialectic down, and, after being FORCED by the workers to chase after the struggle, were completely impotent.
The events in Paris during May 1968 provided a graphic demonstration of a revolutionary crisis in modern times, and more importantly, in a so called "affluent society" .They show that a revolutionary situation doesn't ALWAYS derive from purely ECONOMIC imbalance. The struggle had nothing to do with an economic crisis in capitalism. Its driving force was the alienation and meaninglessness of life within bureaucratic capitalism, NOT any slump in the standard of living.
The French workers were primarily concerned with winning control of their factories. The central conflict was between the order-givers and the order-takers. It lay bare the real contradiction of capitalism - the fact that it excludes people from CONTROL of their own lives, yet at the came time is forced to win their PARTICIPATION, without which the chain of command and obey would snap and the whole rotten hierarchy would collapse. (Witness the attempts of the present Labour Government in this country to substitute "workers' Participation" for direct workers' control)
The tremendous response which the revolt of the students and workers evoked among ordinary Parisians only came when it went BEYOND simple economic demands. And it was only later, when the Communist Party and the trade union bureaucrats succeeded in diverting the struggle back into demands for higher wages, that the movement was halted and the capitalist regime saved.
The May revolt went beyond the confines of any one social group. Virtually every section of French society (excluding the ruling class) was involved to some extent or other. Thousands of ordinary people began to (question for the first time in their lives the whole principle of hierarchy; and in fighting for the destruction of the problems which faced them as individuals (family, school, work) they fought for the destruction of all that faced them collectively. For the first time they proclaimed the need for a total transformation of the society in which they lived and affirmed the need for self management ("autogestion") of their own lives.
Faced with such a direct threat to its authority the state was compelled to reveal its oppressive nature and fundamental incoherence; and at the same time the emptiness of government, Parliament, administration and political parties was exposed for all to see. The bureaucratic leaderships of the "working class organisations" were forced to reveal their true nature as custodians of the established order. The various "official" harbingers of freedom amongst the package-deal left, still playing their worn gramophone records and clutching onto the same old cliches for organisation, proved totally irrelevant to the situation. The workers, who these "vanguards" considered incapable of achieving anything but "trade union consciousness", achieved more in the first two weeks on the streets than the Marxist leaders had done for sixty years. As in every preceding revolution, the Marxists began by discouraging the revolt as inopportune, and then, forced by events, grudgingly gave their blessing to accomplished fact.
People learnt by direct experience what others had taken a lifetime of book learning to discover. The workers LIVED the revolution without bothering what dialectical phrase should be fitted to which action. Suddenly conscious of their ability to achieve something on their own, people who until then thought themselves isolated, dominated by the institutions of the state, realised that they were not powerless. Incomprehension and apathy changed almost overnight to conscious determination to bring about real change. Meetings of 5,000 people, workers as well as students, were common in the Sorbonne where previously a meeting of fifty would have been impossible to control. Nine million striking workers for the first time began to question their role in society. Had the workers of the armaments factories not only occupied their places of work but continued production and armed the workers, had the transport workers taken arms into the other cities of France and organised local militias, victory would have been assured. The state would have been confronted by an armed people controlling the economic means of production and transport. It is unlikely that the largely conscript army would have fired on the workers. Instead mass desertions would have bolstered the actions of the workers and students. The revolution would have become a reality.
As it was the workers, unused to such a situation, hesitated and the unions and communists stepped in with promises of pie in the sky in exchange for moderation - the struggle was diverted. Diverted but not destroyed. The experience of the French workers can never be erased. It is often necessary to learn from mistakes. The ideas which, before May, the anarchists had been attacked for as "utopian" found a common voice in the workers, who accepted the libertarian ideas of self-management and direct action as normal and natural. This DESPITE the efforts of the communists and union leaderships!
Only by daring, by trying again and again, and learning from the mistakes made along the way will people ever advance. The workers and students of Paris pointed the way forward. If not in Paris, then the struggle will begin again in another place with other people.
From: Z Review number one (1975).