Revolutionary days - May 1968, a personal memoir

Alan Woods went to Paris in May 1968 seeking contact with revolutionary workers and youth. He describes here what he encountered, the mood, and the discussions with workers and students. He explains how the workers were looking for leadership but never found it, neither in the ultra-left groups, nor in the Stalinist leadership that betrayed them.

I recently wrote an article about May 1968 in France. I can speak from personal experience about May 1968, since I was in Paris at the time. When I was writing the article the memories came flooding back, as vivid as if the extraordinary events I had witnessed had taken place yesterday. I was a member of the Militant Tendency and at that time I was still a student in Sussex University. The Militant, which had been set up by Ted Grant, was still a very small group at that time, although it was destined to become the most successful and influential Trotskyist organization since the Russian Left Opposition.

At that point in time, we had nobody outside Britain (except for one comrade in Northern Ireland). But we remained firm internationalists, and every national meeting of the Tendency always began with a discussion on world perspectives. Ted always insisted on this, and was quite correct to do so. The French events therefore were a source of inspiration to us, especially as we had maintained the perspective of a movement of the working class, when practically all the other groups had written off the European proletariat as a revolutionary force.

We had very few resources at that time, but we discussed the situation and it was decided that someone should go to France to try to link up with the revolutionary youth and workers. I therefore packed my bags and set out for Paris together with a comrade from Scotland who was the proud possessor of an old car that had seen better days but still functioned.

The first problem we encountered was the strike itself, which had caused severe petrol shortages. All along the road to Paris we noticed two things: one filled us with excitement and the other filled us with foreboding. Over every factory along the road red flags were fluttering in the breeze and outside every petrol station that was open (there were not many) there were long queues waiting for petrol and diesel. Would we even succeed in getting to Paris? The Scottish comrade had not thought of filling the tank on the other side of the Channel. Fortunately, we managed to find some petrol and breathed a sigh of relief.

The atmosphere in Paris was something that defies description. It brought to my mind the famous lines written by the young English poet William Wordsworth when he first visited France after the Revolution:

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!"

Electric atmosphere

There was something electric in the air, something intoxicating. It was the spirit of revolution. I was staying in an apartment in the Latin Quarter, with a Mexican comrade, an intellectual who sympathised with the Mandelites but was not a member. He showed me round the streets and on every corner there were signs of a great social upheaval. Trotsky explains in The History of the Russian Revolution that the essence of a revolution is the direct intervention of the masses in politics. This was a laboratory example.

In every street the walls of houses, metro stations and offices were plastered with posters and revolutionary wall posters. But more interesting was the fact that large numbers of people crowded round these wall newspapers, struggling to get a look, reading every line, almost drinking in the information. Animated discussions would take place in the street, at the bus stops, in the markets and bars. This is what a revolution is! Some years later I saw exactly the same things in the streets of Lisbon and Oporto after the Portuguese Revolution of April 25 1974.

All kinds of people had been drawn into the movement. Near where we were staying the scientists had seized an observatory. We strolled past a labour exchange, which was closed. The front of the building was plastered with posters of the CFDT trade union. This was absolutely typical of those days. Trade union membership in France had always been low, particularly compared to Britain at that time. Before May 1968 there were less than four million organized workers in France. But ten million were now occupying the factories and workplaces all over France.

The unions in France, as in most European countries were organized by the political parties. Britain was the exception: here it was the trade unions that set up the Labour Party. The biggest union in France was the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which was linked to the Communist Party. It had about 1.5 million members and had a strong base in heavy industry and traditional manufacturing, the heavy battalions of the working class.

Next came the CFDT (Confédération Française du Travail), which had around 750,000 members. This was a very interesting phenomenon. The CFDT had originally been set up as a Catholic union, but it moved to the left and began to adopt a socialist stance. In 1968 it stood far to the left of the CGT, advocating a kind of workers' control ("autogestion"). The CFDT had its main base in what we can call the "light brigade" of the French working class, the technicians and salaried staff, white collar workers, and in light engineering and electronics. It grew very rapidly after 1968, attracting militant workers and younger layers who were repelled by the bureaucratic conduct of the CGT.

Finally, there was Force Ouvrière, with about 600,000, which was set up with the active support of the CIA to combat the "Communist" CGT and was inclined to the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party, incidentally, had declined to the point that many considered it to be finished. The sects in particular had this position. But even though it had only about 4% in elections, Ted always insisted that it would recover, which it did in the end, overtaking the CP.

Mass organizations

May 1968 was a complete vindication of the idea that Ted Grant had always defended: that when the workers begin to move, they always express themselves first of all through the existing mass organizations of the class. That was certainly the case in France. Millions of unorganised workers were getting organized. But they did not set up new unions or look for new political parties, much less anarchist movements. They immediately looked to the existing mass organizations.

The unions were growing rapidly. The huge Citroen factory, whose workforce consisted overwhelmingly of immigrants from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Yugoslavia, specialised in producing luxury cars like the Citroen DS. It had a regime of terror in which unions were banned and the workers were constantly harassed by security guards, spot checks, identification cards etc. But once the movement began, it became organised practically overnight as the workers occupied the plant.

But it was not only the unions that were experiencing an explosive growth. I remember reading a copy of the CP daily paper L'Humanité, in which there was a small article stating that the CPF had set up over 80 new branches in the Paris region alone. Such was the influx of new members that the Party had run out of membership cards!

The first thing I did on arriving in Paris was to contact Ted Grant, who was already there, staying with his sister. We had been expelled from the so–called United Secretariat of the Fourth International a few years before, when we opposed the capitulationist line of Mandel, Frank, Hansen and the other so–called leaders of the Fourth. But we still had some hope that we might find an echo in the ranks of the French Trotskyists and even produced a leaflet in solidarity with their youth organization, the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth).

However, Ted's attempts to locate the leaders of this group had proved fruitless. We had the address of their office and we went together to see if we could find somebody to speak with. But the office was closed and there was no sign of anybody. They seem to have gone underground. With his usual sense of humour, Ted joked: "The only people in Paris who know where Pierre Frank is are the police." The next day we read that he had been arrested.

We soon discovered that it was practically impossible to establish direct contact with the workers. The occupied factories were securely locked and bolted, theoretically against the police and agents provocateurs. That was partly true, but it was also a useful device of the union leaders to keep the workers away from the "harmful" influences of "left-wing agitators". One could sometimes approach the factories and speak to the pickets through the railings, but it was extremely difficult.

The students

In the absence of any other lead, I decided to go to the Sorbonne to try to make contact with the students. The university was occupied by the students. As to the great central courtyard surrounded with ancient buildings, I saw an incongruous scene. Columns that were dedicated to Cardinal Richelieu were draped with red flags and portraits of Mao, Trotsky, Castro and Che Guevara overlooked the square. However, at that moment there was hardly anybody there. Probably they were on some demonstration (they took place all the time).

On all sides of the courtyard there were a lot of stalls on which one could see the papers of all the left groups. They were all monthlies at that time, and had not had time to publish a new edition after the strike had begun. They all dedicated the front page to Vietnam, Bolivia, Cuba, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong – in fact, everything and anything except the French working class! The only exception was the Voix Ouvriere (now Lutte Ouvriere), which had a semi-syndicalist line.

With these facts before one, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion than that May 1968 was indeed a "bolt from the blue," to every other tendency. The other trends did not expect it, because they had, in effect, written off the working class in the advanced capitalist countries as "corrupt," "bourgeoisified" and "Americanised." In other words, they had abandoned the ideas of Trotsky in favour of those of Marcuse.

Many of them found a comfortable refuge in endless discussions about the "armed struggle" in the cafes of Paris, where they based themselves on the idiotic "theories" of Regis Debray. This wretched man, whose irresponsible conduct played a role in the capture and death of Che Guevara, wrote a book called Revolution in the Revolution, in which he argued that small guerrilla focos could spark off a peasant war in Latin America.

This allegedly "new" idea was really only a regurgitation of Bakunin's "propaganda of the deed". It was false in theory and disastrous in practice. Its only result was the senseless deaths of tens of thousands of young revolutionaries in Latin America and the installation of military dictatorships in countries like Argentina and Uruguay.

Guerrilla war makes some sense in an underdeveloped country with a big peasantry, although even there it can only play a role as an auxiliary to the revolutionary movement of the workers in the towns and cities. But in an industrialised country like France, where the working class is the overwhelming majority of society, it is sheer madness. However, it relieved the petty bourgeois revolutionaries of any necessity of seeking contacts with the real world and problems of the French workers, which, had they done so, would have furnished them with more than enough information to forewarn them of the impending social explosion.

It is interesting to note that a similar process was taking place among the student organizations to that we have already mentioned in relation to the workers' trade unions. The press played up the role of anarchists like Daniel Cohn-Bendit. But in reality these were a minority. The main student organization, the UNEF (Union des Etudiants Français), at its peak during the Algerian War had had a membership of 100,000 out of a total student population of 240,000. But it had since declined and now had no more than 50,000 out of a total student population of more than 500,000.

Cohn-Bendit wrote it off as a dead force ("moribund throughout the country and a complete farce at Nanterre"). In fact, it had played no role in the important occupation of Nanterre University. Nevertheless, once the movement began, the UNEF began to grow, against all the predictions of the anarchists and sectarians. Even before May 1968 it began to campaign against the reactionary education policy of the Gaullist government and it attracted large numbers of students.

Unfortunately, we had no group in France to be able to intervene effectively in these events. The main lesson of both 1968 and the most recent strike movement of December 1995 is that, once the workers are on the streets it is too late for us. You cannot improvise a revolutionary organisation. It must be created in advance. We did produce a leaflet, in which the main slogans centred on the idea of democratically elected councils of action, which, linked up on a local, regional and national basis, would have constituted the basis for an alternative workers' government.

Futility of anarchism

Naturally, there was a thirst for democracy and participation. Even fascists were allowed to speak at mass meetings in the name of "freedom of speech!" If the boot had been on the other foot, I somehow do not think the favour would have been returned. I went to one of the action committees composed of students who were in contact with the striking workers. They were mainly anarchists or semi-anarchists, very sincere no doubt, but with no clear ideas, programme or perspectives for the movement.

At this stage the movement had passed its peak and the authorities were beginning to organize a counteroffensive, sending in the riot police (CRS) to attack the pickets. The students were arguing over the draft of a leaflet on this question. There was no clear proposal as to how the workers could deal with the aggressive conduct of the police. The draft leaflet was full of slang and bad language, denouncing the "flics" (cops), but with no concrete content. Even then, after a heated discussion, they could not agree on what to say.

The Scottish comrade and I sat quietly in a corner while these proceedings were continuing, listening to the argument. After a while, one of the participants said: "what do the camarades anglais think?" I answered that we were not elected delegates from any organization, but they were quite unconcerned about such a detail. "Mais non! Anybody can speak here!" So I approached the table and put my point of view, which was that we should raise the organisation of workers' defence, beginning with arming the picket lines, a slogan which corresponded to the needs of the situation where pickets were being violently attacked in some areas.

I finished speaking and they all nodded in agreement. "Do you agree with this idea?" I asked.
"Yes, we agree!"
"So are you going to put it in the leaflet?"
"No, we cannot!"
"Why not?"
"We cannot tell the workers what to do!"

I tried to explain to them that it was not a question of telling anybody what to do, only of expressing an opinion, of making a suggestion, which the workers could accept or reject. The students had done excellent solidarity work, supporting the strikers, collecting funds and so on. The workers respected them for this activity and surely would not deny them the right to put forward a point of view?

"No! We cannot tell the workers what to do!" It was like a repeating groove on an old LP.

The students who dominated the committee were, as I say, not bad types, very active and undoubtedly sincere, but hopelessly infected with anarchist prejudices. They very politely turned us down. What could we do? The fact is that, even if a programme is 100% correct, there is not a lot you can do with it if you do not have an organisation that is really capable of intervening in the movement of the workers. And this organization cannot be improvised in the heat of events. It must be patiently built in advance.

The tragedy was that the worker activists were desperately looking for the very thing the students could not provide: a revolutionary leadership. This fact was demonstrated before my very eyes. In the middle of this discussion a group of young workers entered the room (I think they were electricians). They were from an occupied factory in the locality and were clearly very frustrated, even a bit desperate.

I listened to the conversation between the workers and one of the leading anarchists (oh yes, the anarchists also have leaders!). The former said:

"Look, we young workers are with you, but most of the others are older workers. When we speak about revolution they do not understand us. We cannot make them see what we mean. What we need is leadership!"

I remember the discussion very well and these were the workers' very words. I also remember the look of absolute horror on the student's face: "No! We do not want any leaders!" he shouted. The workers remained adamant in insisting that this was precisely what they wanted. The discussion (which was really a dialogue of the deaf, since neither side would be moved) began to get a bit heated. At that point I intervened:

"Excuse me, but I think that what the comrades are saying is that what is needed is a revolutionary party and leadership capable of advancing concrete slogans and winning over the majority to the programme of socialist revolution!"

The workers all shouted that yes that was just what they wanted. The poor student just shrugged his shoulders and gave up, no doubt bitterly disappointed in the workers' inability to understand the finer points of anarchist philosophy.

Discussions like this must have been taking place all over France. The workers, especially the most militant layers of the factory youth, were beginning to grasp the fact that the movement was beginning to wane. Having held power in their hands, they saw it gradually slipping through their fingers. An increasing number was beginning to see through the treacherous role of the trade union and "Communist" leaders. If there had existed a strong Marxist current in the factories, trade union branches, Communist Party and Young Communists at that time, it could have gained a tremendous echo. But it did not exist.

The predominant trend among the students at that time was a kind of vague anarchism. Trotsky once said that anarchism is like an umbrella full of holes – useless precisely when it rains. The whole history of anarchism internationally confirms this opinion. May 1968 is no exception.

As a theory anarchism is completely empty. The argument that the working class does not need a revolutionary organization, a party and a leadership, is puerile in the extreme. If my shoes hurt my feet, do I conclude that I must go barefoot? No, I go out and get another pair of shoes that fit properly. If I live in a bad house, do I conclude that the only alternative is no house at all? No, I attempt to find better accommodation. If I am not satisfied with my dentist, do I conclude that it is better to suffer toothache? The question answers itself.

Exactly the same logic applies to the question of working class organization. Marx explained long ago that the working class without organization is only raw material for exploitation. The proletariat instinctively understands the need for trade unions to defend it against the attacks of the bosses. Later they come to understand the need for political parties and the struggle for political power.

It is true that the organizations of the proletariat (both unions and parties) can degenerate under the pressures of capitalist society and become transformed into obstacles in the path of the working class. But the conclusion the workers draw is not that one must abandon the idea of creating an organization, only that they need an organization, a trade union, a political party that is fit for their purpose.

Stalinists betray

The leaderships of the unions and parties in France in May 1968 played a negative role. Yes, but the conclusion that those young workers drew was the correct one: namely, it is necessary to kick out the corrupt and cowardly leaders and replace them with honest worker militants who are prepared to fight.

The Stalinist leaders of the CPF and the CGT played the most despicable role. From the very beginning, they did everything in their power to persuade the workers back and keep the movement within "safe" limits. I remember there were some CP members distributing a leaflet in the street. The title was: "Stop the Manoeuvres!" One man picked up the leaflet, glanced at the title and commented sarcastically: "Les manoeuvres, c'est nous!" ("Manoeuvres? That means us!")

The CP leaders argued that the state was strong, that there would be violence and civil war. These are the words of Waldeck-Rochet, the party's general secretary:

"In reality the choice to be made in May was the following:

"Either to act in such a way that the strike would permit the essential demands of the workers to be satisfied, and to pursue at the same time, on the political level, a policy aimed at making necessary democratic changes by constitutional means. This was our party's position.

"Or else quite simply to provoke a trial of strength, in other words move towards an insurrection: this would include a recourse to armed struggle aimed at overthrowing the regime by force. This was the adventurist position of certain ultra-left groups." (L'Humanité, 10 July 1968, my emphasis.)

The CP and union leaders had no intention of taking power. The idea never even entered their heads. On May 21 George Séguy, the CGT leader, told a press conference that "self-management is a hollow formula; what the workers want is immediate satisfaction of their claims." He added that the CGT's "highly responsible militants" were not in the habit of confusing their desires with reality. "No, the ten million strikers did not seek power, all they wanted was better conditions of life and work."

The problem of the union leaders was that the workers had developed a sense of their own power. While I was in Paris, the union leaders reached an agreement with the employer's associations and the government involving big economic concessions. Even so, the union leaders had a hard job selling the deal to the workers. The workers at Renault and other big firms refused to return to work.

I remember standing in a Paris bar with a lot of other people watching the televised mass meeting inside the giant Renault factory, where a huge number of workers were gathered, some of them sitting on the cranes and gantries, to listen to George Séguy the general secretary of the CGT, reading out a list of what the bosses were offering: big wage increases, pensions, a cut in hours and so on. But in the middle of his speech he was drowned out by the chanting workers: "Gouvernement populaire! Gouvermenent populaire!"

This incident sticks in my mind because it encapsulates the whole situation. Those densely packed workers were the masters of the factory. Together with their brothers and sisters in the rest of France, they were really the masters of France. They had a sense of their own power – the power of the working class ‑ and they did not want to be bought off with offers of wage increases, no matter how big. As far as I remember Séguy did not even finish his speech.

Bankruptcy of the sects

The Stalinist bureaucracy skilfully played on the fears of the masses. Like labour bureaucrats everywhere, they knew that many workers fear the prospect of violence and bloodshed. This fact is a book sealed with seven seals for the ultra-left sects, who immediately fall into the trap set for them by the bourgeois and the bureaucrats. This is one reason they will never win the masses in a thousand years. The kind of terminological radicalism which is a normal hallmark of sectarians is merely the other side of the coin of their complete lack of confidence in the working class, their superstitious faith in the "strong state" and, above all, their organic inability to penetrate the working class, or even find a common language with the workers.

We can say without fear of contradiction that the tendency led by Ted Grant was the only one to resist the petit bourgeois degeneration of the so-called leaders of the Fourth International, who abandoned Trotsky's proletarian revolutionary policy in favour of petit bourgeois student politics. The Mandel sect continually harped on about the alleged "strong state" in France before 1968. These petit bourgeois thought that the workers were incapable of doing anything without the intellectual ladies and gentlemen, who would gracefully bring them "socialist consciousness" from without.

I was standing outside a mass workers' meeting and there was a member of the Mandelite JCR distributing a leaflet. I had this leaflet for many years but unfortunately lost it, along with all the other material I brought back from France in 1968 as a result of one of my frequent moves. But I remember it very clearly. It was not very well produced – one page covered in small print on both sides and almost unreadable. It was very abstract, written in university-speak that would be unintelligible to any worker.

I cannot remember very well the content, except that it was very abstract, with a stupid pretence at "theory" (or what passed for theory among the ultra-left sects). But the gist of it was this: they solemnly explained to the French workers that, left to themselves, the latter could only ever reach a "trade union consciousness." To make matters worse, they tried to quote Lenin to defend this monstrous position. And all the writings of Lenin they could have chosen (and there is plenty to choose from!), they had to select a passage from What is to be Done? which was a mistake, and moreover a mistake that Lenin had copied from Kautsky.

This mistake of Lenin is always quoted by sects all over the world (probably because it is the only bit of Lenin they have ever read). Being ignorant, they do not know that Lenin himself frankly admitted that it was a mistake. He corrected it and never repeated it. But that is OK because the sectarians all over the world do not mind repeating it for him.

"Only a trade union consciousness"–with ten million workers occupying the factories! These people foresaw nothing, understood nothing and consequently remained utterly isolated from the class. They were playing at revolution, building barricades and fighting the police, all very necessary activities under certain conditions, but completely useless unless you win over the masses.

Lack of leadership

The tragedy of May 1968 was the lack of leadership. Had there been a genuine Marxist tendency of even a couple of hundred cadres, with roots in the mass organisations (in this case, the CP and the CGT and CFDT) the whole situation would have been different. Even the bourgeois author of the Encyclopaedia Britannica article understood that the Stalinist leaders were terrified of losing control of the movement to the left wing ("extremist and anarchist rivals" in his parlance). But the French "Trotskyist" groups had understood nothing.

The events of May were more than a general strike. This was a revolution, betrayed by the Stalinist and reformist leaders. Every section of the proletariat was involved in struggle. The colossal scope of the movement, its sweep and élan, were in the best revolutionary traditions of the French working class. And this was achieved without any lead whatsoever from the tops of the CP and SP.

How would a genuine Marxist tendency have acted under such circumstances? By advancing the slogan of insurrection and civil war? That is just what the sects did. Indeed, they attempted to put it into practice (without the masses!). This is the distilled essence of petit-bourgeois ultraleftism and adventurism, which always plays into the hands of the right wing.

The Stalinist leaders repelled the most militant elements, especially of the youth. I remember one leaflet with a caricature of a man taking down a portrait of CP leader Waldeck Rochet as someone says to him: "Va l'décrocher!" (a play on words, meaning: "go and take him down!"). But these leaders still had enormous authority among the masses and controlled the mass organizations. As we have seen, many thousands of workers joined the Communist Party at this time, and they would have had many illusions in the leadership that could only be dispelled on the basis of experience.

Against our advice, the Mandelites split away from the Young Communists to form their own independent youth organisation, the JCR. They displayed courage on the streets but, outside the mass organisations, they remained completely isolated from the working class. Moreover, their entire approach, language, methods and tactics set them apart from the organised workers, and made them easy targets for the bureaucrats, who portrayed them (not without some grounds) as irresponsible petit-bourgeois adventurers.

What was necessary was a tendency that stood for the policy, programme and methods of Lenin and argued its case in a patient and comradely manner inside the CPF and the unions. The French Marxists should have conducted systematic work in the CP, YCL and the unions building up points of support over the whole of the previous period. During the May Events, the main slogan would have been the setting up of elected committees to co-ordinate and direct the struggle, and to link these up on a local, regional and, ultimately, on a national basis. At the same time, it would be necessary to demand that the CP take power, expropriate the capitalists and transform society. That was the only way to win over the working class rank and file of the CGT and PCF.


Forty years have passed since the events I am describing. The world has changed. The Soviet Union has fallen. The old Stalinist leaders have died or disappeared from the stage of history. Those who have replaced them no longer look to Moscow but to the bourgeois and reformists for their ideas.

And all those anarchists and ultra-revolutionary petit bourgeois who occupied the centre stage at that time have long ago forgotten all about the revolutionary dreams of their youth. They have put on grey suits, earned a lot of money, live in comfortable retirement and got fat. Some of them heave a sigh when they remember those wonderful days when they were young and idealistic. Then they examine their bank balance and warn their sons and daughters: "utopia is an impossible dream."

Worst of all are those living corpses who still pretend to be socialists and communists, and who still like to theorise about changing society, but have now become "realists". People like Tony Negri and Heinz Dieterich now spend all their time attempting to "re-educate the youth", explaining that the old ideas of Marxism are no longer valid, that entirely new and original ideas are required to replace them. Only when we come to examine these "new ideas" we find that they are only the old, discredited ideas of the utopian socialists that they have fished out of the dustbin, dusted down and presented as something entirely new and modern. And why not? Can't we recycle old ideas just as we recycle old bottles and newspapers?

In his play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare says: "There is a tide in the affairs of men." There is also a tide in the class struggle. It ebbs and flows like the rhythm of the oceans. When the tide retreats and we walk along the beaches we find all kinds of dead and dying animals, which produce a disagreeable odour as they decompose. But when the tide advances once again, as it must, all this useless decaying garbage will be swept away and life will return with the oxygen of new and fresh waves.

The author of these lines is a lot older than the young student who went to visit a revolution in May 1968, not as a tourist but as an active participant in the class struggle. I have never ceased to participate, to work, to fight, for the same glorious cause. I do not see May 1968 as the past but as the future. When I think of it, it fills me not with nostalgia but with immense hope and optimism.

The new generation must study the marvellous events of France 1968 and understand the enormous power, the creative energy, of the working class. Ted used to say: there is no power on earth that can stand against the working class, once it is organized and mobilized to change society. That is true! And when the working class possesses a leadership that is worthy of it, it will prove that it is true. May 1968 will return again on a far higher level. Let us make sure that the next time it has what it needs to succeed!

London, 13th May 2008

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