The 1960s was a time of great contradictions and struggles between great and small powers, as well as between oppressive forces versus those beleaguered by it or who struggled for a broadly egalitarian society. It was a period of great change and seemingly omnipotent conservatism. In other words, it was in many ways a rather typical period in recent human history.
Those decades and the one immediately preceding it saw many great events in the world at large. Communists were victorious in China and Cuba, fascism remained in Spain and Portugal, brutal dictatorship was imposed in Greece, capitalism was believed impregnable in the US and north-western Europe, national liberation movements strove against European domination and the world was frozen between a binary of great powers: the US and the USSR. There were dynamics of movement and transformation as well as the irons of stasis and conservation.
The Western world, meanwhile, was eventually struck with the possibility of revolutionary change. Whether hoped for, feared, or falsely imagined, the events of May 1968 are remembered to this day, even if their details are little known and little understood.
In this article, I’ll focus on the events of May 1968 from the Western perspective and zoom in on events in France and Paris in order to provide a short and incomplete analysis.
This account is told purely from Chris Harman’s book on the subject, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After. It’s a well-written book which provides some detailed historical account, brief background on regional and international affairs surrounding the event, and otherwise hard to find analysis of what happened and why. I have my reservations about some of his observations and conclusions. However, his sincere attempt at educating the reader permits for a great deal of learning. This information is useful for us today because it can help us to identify recurring patterns in order to make better decisions in future.
So, I’ll largely summarise the first section of Harman’s book, and pepper it with my own thoughts and analysis throughout. It should be said that this is article offers but a short review of events, and then mainly of only certain locations. To get a fuller picture, you should read Harman’s book as a starting point.
In The Fire Last Time, we’re reminded that prior to and alongside mass Western revolts, socialist upsurge, organised resistance, mass strikes, and dire threat to state structures, there was a long and general political apathy. That there was stifling conformity and that workers were seen as overwhelmingly conservative. Even previously radical socialists conformed and became agents and proponents of the existing order. Change was seen as impossible and undesirable. Dissent from this opinion was nearly nil, and those few who expressed it were marginalised and suffered job loss as well as exclusion. There was one vision and one vision only, that of perpetual order and maintenance of the status quo. It was claimed that it was “the end of ideology” to quote a socialist (whose participating publishers were secretly funded by the CIA).
Every major strike, every protest, every scandal and government resignation was easily and quickly absorbed by the system. So fully that after a short span of time it was like they never happened. Then came the years whose representative moment was May 1968.
All of this took place at a time that was preceded by an expanding economic boom, decreasing inequality in the West, improved work conditions, and high levels of employment. Capitalism seemed unstoppable and in control of any possible stress that would arise in the economic and political domains.
The core powers of the Western world, in north-western Europe, Canada, and the United States, were under the rule of welfare states and liberal democracies. But this was not true everywhere. Mediterranean Europe, Northern Ireland, the southern states of the US, were living under entirely different circumstances. There was, in effect, different realities for different peoples based on the region and culture they inhabited. Spain and Portugal were under fascist rule. Greece was under a dictatorship whose rule was founded with the help of and maintained by the continuing support of the British and US governments, as well as with a good provision of weapons by these same countries. Prison was a common place to keep Greek dissenters who strove for an end to dictatorship; others were forced into exile. Hundreds of thousands left that country. This cooperation between the leaders of liberal democratic states and a dictatorship staffed in part by once Nazi collaborators was used to keep the left from power. Mass repression was deemed a suitable answer to the problem of a possible left-wing government that may otherwise seek an independent national and international policy from that of an established status quo. This geographic differentiation was used as a tool for the manipulation of peoples and situations, but it was also a source instability to the system.
Stability was also eroded by the mostly underestimated transformation of social relations. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of great economic transformation. With the change in political and economic conditions came changes to social relations. This went mostly unnoticed at the time, or, at least, it wasn’t seen as a credible threat to the status quo. It was believed that any social pressure could be reformed away and that the occasional mass cries or agitations for justice were shocks that could be absorbed by the system. After all, nearly everyone in the West was agreed that no alternative was possible. Things could only be reformed, made better, or made worse. They couldn’t, however, be done away with.
As for the changes to the social relations in much of the West, they included such things as an enormous reduction in the number of people employed in agricultural production, in mass migration to cities and the precipitous rise of urban labour. This resulted in the breakup of centuries-old social traditions because the people who enliven that culture were no longer present to participate within them. Instead, they had new types of work, new geographies to call home, and new neighbours. In some cases some of these shifts were individually little more than a drop in the ocean. But the accumulation of such small to large drops is exactly what composes the ocean. Together, step after consecutive step, the world that people lived in was changed, as was their place in society, and even the very nature of that thing which they called society. This had repercussions.
The turn to the 1960s was also a time of change in the production process of industrial labour in many Western countries. Many skilled jobs were de-skilled or became semi-skilled as the complex of production was analysed and increasingly reduced to a series of highly specialised but banal and repetitive tasks that required little understanding of the entire process involved in the production of goods from the individual worker. The worker had only to repeat a step in a long chain of tasks, the whole of which would produce the desired good but the single part of which was rendered simple enough for a semi-skilled worker to accomplish. This meant that many workers began to lose the little control they had over production as they saw less and less of the entire process through its multiple stages, and they could also then be more easily replaced and discarded in favour of a more compliant or vulnerable worker. This further alienated workers from the work that they did and the things that they produced. It also reduced their influence over the process, obscured the means of and reasons for production, and isolated their activity to a narrow field of what could appear to them as abstracted repetition. The work and the economy that it was embedded within grew increasingly inexplicable for many. It was simply mystifying. Only a certain class of managers, owners, capitalists, and perhaps some brands of intellectuals were immersed in a field of work that by its nature engaged and involved them through a broader and therefore more comprehensible stretch of the process.
As workers were thus further alienated, they lost both knowledge and power. This was an opportunity to pay them less or demand higher output, more effort, or diminished expectations from life. The new migrants were more vulnerable to this. They weren’t yet experienced with the ways of industrial manufacturing or of its politics and turns of fortune. They were away from home and were not already embedded in organisations of politically experienced workers whose associations may already have established at least some modest structure of power by which to exert influence. They also tended to be poorer, had less demands. They were foreigners to the system, to the town, and to its previously cultural dynamics. Group could be pitted against group: newcomer against newcomer, newcomer against old local, and the divisions used to further hasten the transformation of society, economy, and politics. However, in time, it was possible for the young rural migrants to get a sense of the injustice being done to them, to resent the power exerted against them. The old and new workers could, then, have a chance in seeing eye-to-eye and realise that they were not foes, but rather objects pitted against each other that were also increasingly being distanced from a life that afforded understanding of the very conditions that generated the means and conditions of their lived realities. These people could be common allies because they were commonly bound to the political and economic structure that reproduced and reinforced a life that was obscure, disempowering, and impoverishing. The one thing that may have been evident was that there was injustice. They had less control over the economy than previously, produced more than ever, and their numerically tiny social superiors took the lion’s share of the prize.
The majority of trade unions and their leaders had sidestepped closer to the camp of compliance and conservation. Some went as far as to undermine workers’ shop floor organisation, and promised that they would oppose mass strike movements. They might make such deals with employers in exchange for official recognition of their leadership as negotiators. This union leadership may have gained some measure of respectability in the eyes of the upper classes, but this was at the cost of real power and a disregard of those they were meant to represent. Such compromise cost workers dearly. Lacking effective organisation and split between a number of unions with leaderships that competed against one another for official recognition by the employer, the mass of workers were often swept up and away by the currents of power as wielded by the owning class. This class of people, meanwhile, did what was only sensible according to the competitive nature of their particular role in a capitalist economy, that of businesspeople embedded in a system that demands that they retain their power only insofar as they can acquire comparative advantage in profits over their competitors. Therefore, as a group, they reproduced their power and expanded upon it. It should only be hoped that the perceived model of society and politics by which this status quo was most effectively maintained was one in which many were employed, wages not too bad, and the work didn’t kill you. Regardless, it wasn’t up to the workers to decide: they need only produce, and plead for mercy and kindness from those who held true power.
So, the condition of injustice isn’t limited only to such situations where people have inadequate pay or have more or less access to social welfare, the injustice is systemic. The majority are predominantly affected by the decisions of a structurally empowered minority. This minority decides what is produced, how it’s produced, have the greatest say in how the resulting wealth is distributed, and they can better shape the social and political relations that underpin the fabric and motions of everyday life thanks to their commanding ownership over the means of political and economic life. It’s hard to fully suppress this realisation, and any suppression of it is temporary or partial. At some point and on some level the concentration of such power induces resentment. Eventually, it triggers resistance.
The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of such resistance in an entirely other matter. It may conduct plaintiff efforts in favour of better treatment by the ruling class while preserving the system that perpetuates the disparity of power. It may seek instead a system change. It may have a measure of success or failure in either. The 1950s and 1960s were a time, in the West, where the first type of struggle was exclusive. 1968 threatened to overturn the system and made possible again the imagination of a world with wholly different fundamentals: one in which the very motor that reproduces the gap between a minority of powerful and a majority of subjects could be brought to a halt. The once impossible was deemed viable by many, and so the strikes, sit-ins, protests, rebellions, organisations, agitations, popular movements, and infant institutions that swept a portion of the West in the accompanying years had a nature that differed from that of their immediate predecessors. They threatened the power structure.
The 1960s was dotted with trembling moments of mass agitation. These spontaneous activities sometimes bore new forms of organisation, such as new workers committees that ran in parallel to and apart from large national unions, and which did not seek to solely intermediate between the management, government, and workers, but had the function of serving their electors and colleagues. Some of them even broke out of the narrow field of whatever trade they originated from and made alliance with or federated with others. These, however, were indeed shocks that could be managed by the system. Various tactics were used depending on the country and year. If an economic boom was deemed to be fueling the aspirations of workers then the economy was repressed by the government. A slow-growing, stagnant, or shrinking economy was used to legitimate harsh austerity measures. Wage freezes and cuts. Political attacks or violent beatings against labour organisers carried out by state and police. The mass arrest of political and labour activists. The right sort of organisations and leadership were progressively empowered, the sort that seek to contain popular anger in return for ‘realistic’, time-limited and regularly quickly withdrawn minor concessions for the labourers of a given trade or enterprise.
In the US racism was one of the predominant methods for division and disempowerment. Racism was not lacking elsewhere in the West, yet the particular history of it in the US is especially dramatic because of its roots in visible slavery and that of the resistance carried out by former slaves. Black former slaves were segregated, harassed, threatened, beaten, lynched, and legally held down. In the 1940s and 1950s, they migrated in large numbers from the rural south to urban areas in the south and north of that country. They moved from working the land to urban employment, if they could get jobs at all.
The jobs that they did get were largely of indecent condition. They were kept under harsh discipline and were deemed dispensable. Occasionally industrial workers and miners would get passed some of the culture of racism and join together between the so-called races in order to more effectively combat their shared deprivation, and this at least occasionally made it difficult for one group to be pitted against another. But, this effort did not and has not been effectively maintained in the long-term. Racism isn’t just a state of the mind based on superficial features; white workers did and do have it better than their black counterparts. It should be noted that in 2013, the median wealth held by African Americans was $1,700, while that for whites was $116,800.
So, a degree of greater material benefit could be handed out to white workers as a divisive privilege. Neighbourhoods were divided between races, as were jobs, schools, service centres, and political organisations. If legal segregation was abolished, then it was perpetuated by social, cultural, and economic mechanisms. By this and other means, the system that built and maintained the highly concentrated form of political and economic power was continually obfuscated, while a broad political organisation that may prove effective in its efforts was largely prevented. It also helped to provide for a cheap workforce and a potential army of scabs from one side or another who felt no social or cultural solidarity with striking workers and who were themselves desperate for subsistence.
The 1950s saw the rise of black movements, among the most famous and effective of which were organised around black churches and their ministers, such as Martin Luther King. As Harman puts it, this type of action was not revolutionary: “Its aim was integration into existing American society, not rejection of it”. They persisted for long years despite “shootings, bombings and police attacks.”. The ministers were natural leaders: their churches were social centres and the ministers were among the few black people of middle class who didn’t depend on white employers for their livelihood.
Even after a decade of such resistance and peaceful protests in the face of responding violence, the powerful did not substantially intervene on their behalf. Rare concessions were won, but only under political force, and piece by little piece. Concessions included armed protection provided by the government for pacifist organisers, as well as case-by-case desegregation in the face of immense and persistent resistance by black activists who had hit upon a tactically sensitive location or moment. The concessions came from the same groups who supported and enforced legal and informal segregation in other dimensions of the society, and who appointed openly racist civil and judicial representatives.
Over time, the energy and efforts of the civil rights movement appeared to have successfully been absorbed by the system, via minor concessions, regular setbacks, and disingenuous offers of electoral party participation in established politics that ended with token and ineffective representation. Often, those in power who resembled partial sympathisers would say that the time was not yet right, that to ask for too much would mean you would get nothing. Symbolic concessions and rewards that could be relatively contained then perhaps eroded at a future time were accompanied by delay, bluff, dissimulation.
It’s difficult to win and then maintain reforms when the system presses against you. It takes great and persistent effort. After a while, your strength gives out and you need to take a rest. If the conditions of political and social life are generated by a structure, then personal will and courageous strain must eventually give way unless the course of the current against which you struggle is turned and the system that it represents is replaced by another. Defeat may even come due to some innocent tactical error. Proponents of the status quo, then, can afford to be patient and even surrender some ground because they can rely on the long game of their social reality’s ‘natural’ forces.
The forms of resistance and their accompanying organisations within the black communities of the US did begin to change in the 1960s. There was a rise of revolutionary fervour that began to reject purely pacifist action in favour of more radical seizure of power. This is famously characterised by the Black Panther Party and corresponding black nationalism. Movements that were eventually violently repressed and were handicapped by the fact that national sovereignty of a black people is hard to establish when the population is not entirely geographically concentrated and the claim to the required territorial sovereignty is difficult to accomplish outside of a corresponding localised homogeneity. It also would logically require a protracted armed insurrection and civil war to be won unless there was the unlikely scenario that the US government would willingly accept the political terms of a separation being imposed upon them without putting up a military fight.
The 1960s was also a time of university student activism.
The universities were not already a ground for activism. The students were not already political. They became that. Like the society that they were a part of, the universities were undergoing dramatic change. In the early 20th century, and before, the student body was small. It was a place for the young ruling class to become educated, to meet and build relations, and to solidify and perpetuate their ideology. By the 1960s, universities were taking a dramatically larger number of students, and enrollment was no longer exclusive to the top tier of the ruling class. These students were however not revolutionary, and the activists were very small in number. They were indeed quite likely to be sympathetic to or members of official conservative organisations. It was the member and even leaders of these same conservative organisations, along with their progressive and radical colleagues, that were later seen to be mobilising in large numbers and in more strident fashion to oppose what they saw happening around them.
The north-western European and US universities dominantly taught that the ideal of society was liberal. This was the ideology that they espoused. Within the university, the style of governance was plainly authoritarian and enforced by violent police intervention. The larger group of students were therefore forcibly politicised, because they would be punished for pointing out contradictions such as in the official teachings of a liberal democratic ideology that was not itself present in university governance and even visibly betrayed by official state and electoral institutions outside of the university. At first, very few students spoke out and they would generally simply protest and chant in their small numbers. This was met with arrests, beatings and attempted expulsions.
The growing student movements were often simply anti-authoritarian and not revolutionary. They would want such things as the club of old men from the ruling elites who governed the university to step aside; to replace one set of leaders for another deemed to be of the right mind-set. This would leave the general structure of politics, economics, and society intact, and this is why it was not revolutionary. Such an approach assumes a moral character of protest: that better people with better morals would lead to good results regardless of the existing structure. The movements regularly recounted structural problems under personal ones: that poverty leads to indignity and that each individual must recognise their worth and act according to this increased pride in order to change the world. This avoids making an analysis of present and past social systems in order to understand how they function and how they may produce the sorts of behaviours we see repeated even by people who you would be hard-pressed to call sinister. It also fails to programmatically approach the construction of an alternative system that would continually seek to do away with present problems while it remains self-critical and therefore capable of identifying its own potential for the systemic reproduction of oppressions in the process of building something new.
A people may build anew, but they’re not born in a vacuum. We carry the assumptions and prejudices of our histories. We have ‘common sense’. Some of this common sense can mislead us since it’s built upon previous assumptions, and runs along the rails of an old logic bounded to whatever ideology necessitated it. So, solutions to problems that stem from our social structures are, under the best circumstances, going to have limited success if they’re founded on purely moralistic denunciations that seek to forge a purified individual identity that’s deemed free of weakness and corruption.
The root of said corruption is systemic. Solutions and transformations must recognise this and address general problems, reorganise the social body, in order to free the individual from an unrelenting pressure.
This pressure is ideological: in that it establishes the dynamic framework of ‘common sense’, outlines the silhouette of morality by its definitions of good and bad, and it bounds the limits of achievement by designating what is possible and impossible. This pressure is also material: a necessity to put aside many other concerns in order to afford your life’s basic needs is very convincing. This pressure is disciplining: arrests, job loss, harassment, and rituals of public humiliation are often effective to keep people in line. It’s a failed strategy to focus on the atomised production of an individual personality that’s utterly self-sacrificing, who has struck upon the perfect definition of moral purity while possessing an unwavering psychological fortitude. Such a person is suspiciously close to the figure of a mythic hero or Christian saint. This imagined person may become the stuff of legends, a living myth, but a martyr nonetheless. We don’t lack for heroes, even if they’ve been quickly forgotten: we need a new way of collective life that establishes a new common sense, a new logic, and new social forces in regards to the nature of power, humanity, wealth, work, and identity.
This history holds lessons for our time: in order to identify the specifics of what must be changed, to realise what produces them, to develop the form and function of a new political and economic model for society, and to realise a strategy for its achievement.
We must analyse the tools and dynamics within the existing system that are now and may in the near future be used as means to prevent this change by:
- Dividing the majority of people who are systemically made powerless such that they fail to cooperate in their shared defence. This includes atomised individualism, bigotry, xenophobia, racism, sexism.
- Obscuring the methods by which what we live and experience are generated by social, political, and economic mechanisms. Otherwise we’ll assume things are unmovingly ‘natural’, or will run the risk of preserving harmful social processes and creating new ones of the like.
- Materially disempowering those who would otherwise reject the conditions of life, and would organise for a fundamental alternative. This includes threat of material insecurity in its various forms, and the economic processes that generate the particular social relations that by definition requires the minority rule of a wealthy class.
- Disciplining groups and individuals into compliance. This includes job insecurity and threat of financial loss.
- Ideological hopelessness, such that people think there is no alternative, there has never been anything different, they cannot imagine an alternative even if they try to, or that there’s just no possibility of change. This can come from such things as educational institutions and popular media.
These points play into each other. For example, we may think it all hopeless to make an effort for political change. Because there is division, the system seems so complex as to be an expression of a nature that we must surrender ourselves to, we are too worried about scraping by, and we’re afraid of the repercussions of acting in favour of something that falls outside the status quo.
These are some of the means. The result is a structurally unjust economy, politics, and society.
An analysis of the existing situation would not only serve to critique it. It helps pave the way for the construction of something genuinely different. If we precisely understand how the political and economic models of the present and past enforce gross inequality, we can construct one in which this is not the case. If we grasp how particular forms of social relations engender division and confusion then we can work on the construction of wholly different set of relations. These things are interrelated. A particular interest group can serve to remind us that there are problems within a system and perhaps even reduce the impact of said problems. But, it’s better to alter the logic that continually generates the same sorts of problems again and again. So, efforts to improve conditions within an undesirable system should help us to break from the system and to lay down the foundations of a wholly new social reality.
On the situation of May 1968 France: how did otherwise demoralised, generally conservative, and overwhelmingly defensive peoples, workers and students reformist activities turn into something more in France (and elsewhere) as the decade of the 1960s was coming to a close? How did they culminating in events that paralysed the country and government?
It’s a fact that the decade was punctuated by sit-ins and strikes in various Western countries by workers and students. However, these ended in complete defeat or, in some cases, mild reforms that saw the movements retreat defensively. However, these same actions were a sign of underlying tensions, of dissatisfaction, of response to naked state repression, and to various degrees of poverty or discrimination. Nearly no one expected a militant and broad resistance that would paralyse an entire country, threaten a government with dissolution, and risk mutiny in the ranks of soldiers and police. But that’s just what happened in France in May 1968.
French society turned to full blown rebellion. Protesters called for the removal of president Charles de Gaulle’s government, demanded new governance and ownership models for teaching institutions and large enterprises, even called for an end to capitalism even if many didn’t quite know what that system was and how something truly different may operate in its day-to-day practice.
Once rebellion became general, the slogans of an otherwise fringe group of socialists became those of the mass of disaffected. Even the leaders of previously conservative organisations took on these chants and demands. The normal state of affairs was seen as intolerable, therefore normal ideas were deemed inadequate.
A new normal was imposing itself on the minds, hearts, and imaginations of the agitated masses. In this way, the small and previously rather insignificant socialist organisations became the seeds from which a new consciousness threatened to emerge. The question was to see if such a consciousness would surpass the personal domain or even qualitatively expand beyond the bounds of particular trades and institutions in order to begin to contest the status quo with a new social construct. Furthermore, it remained to be seen if the protests had legs to stand up against protracted thumping by the police and frightening mass arrests.
Finally, the question on almost no one’s mind, but one that would prove decisive: could rejection of the status quo along with a vague notion of an egalitarian society be articulated by concrete proposals and processes for laying down a workable alternative? In effect, were any groups already versed in and prepared with particular structures that could be enacted in this effort? Was a viable strategy prepared and at hand?
The precipitous events of France’s May 1968 began with students. The concentration of universities around Paris and the large number of students therein was a factor that helped to turn localised protests into tactically impactful actions. The very concentration meant that the number of people involved in one place was large, and repressive response required a similarly large showing of police to stop the fire from spreading. This large police presence, along with the brutality of its response, played against the government’s attempts at control. The students were mostly representative of petty bourgeois and middle class segments of society. The children of manual labourers tended not to be able to go to university. Therefore, the harsh measures used against students helped to alienate the middles classes. The families of these students were indignant, offended, horrified, and angry at the beatings their young members received. This brought a significant segment of the middle classes on side with workers who were already largely at odds with the system such as it was.
The students didn’t relent despite the harsh measures. The centre of Paris became a war zone and students threw themselves against the police. Blood and tears were not rare sights. The students imagined themselves as respectable members of society, given their class position, and the harshness of their treatment drove them to politics and toward radicalisation. They didn’t expect to be treated in such brutal manner. An otherwise mildly reformist and conservative body that was little interested in politics was, step by bloody step, forced into politics by a repressive state that gave no quarter and refused anything short of surrender.
There was another problem, for the state. The students were not workers and they didn’t have established trade union bureaucracies of long-standing. The leaders of such trade unions had been effectively used to control the workers’ outbursts of rage and indignation, as well as to dampen their efforts at mass mobilisation across broad segments. These trade union leaders could expect to hold their posts as intermediaries between employers and workers for long years as long as they could retain official recognition as respectable people who were deemed sensible by the government and employers. These same leaders could then press to moderate workers’ demands and tactically demoralise and demobilise most cases of a radical groundswell. The students were not moderated in this manner. They had no similar organisation to act upon them in the same way.
The workers, were deeply affected by the students’ action. The largest trade union, the CGT, affiliated with the Communist Party, stood in stark opposition. They weren’t alone in this, other trade unions and workers’ representative organisations did likewise. The workers were told that the students were their future bosses, and, so the enemy.
“The false revolutionaries must be energetically unmasked because, objectively, they are serving the interests of the big capitalist monopolies and Gaullist power… For the most part they are the sons of rich bourgeois… who will quickly turn off their revolutionary ardour and go back to managing Daddy’s firm.”
This statement was typical of the leadership of workers’ organisations, in this case spoken by the deputy leader of the Communist Party at the time.
In short order, however, the persistence of the students despite being met with open violence won them respect from the rank and file of the workers. This notably included young workers who had migrated from the countryside and who were themselves yet not fully embedded in the culture of urbane moderation. They were an uprooted lot and their curiosity over student rebellion drove them to call in sick and duck work in favour of seeing the students’ uprising with their own eyes. The disobedience of workers forced the trade unions’ hand. They made new statements, this time in support of the students. Following this, the workers and students marched alongside one another. Shops were closed, mass transit of people and goods came to a halt, factories stalled, services paused, and the flow of capital was stopped. The situation was slipping away from the government’s control. They still had command over the police and army, but it was one thing to violently repress a concentration of students, it was another for the police to now also enter into street fighting against workers as well.
In this light, a new tactic was hit upon to bring things under control. Union leaders called upon pacifism and asked for students to disperse and refrain from contesting over the streets. The students were confused and demoralised by this. Workers’ representatives, after all, were seen as the bulwark of any egalitarian movement and their calls for a climb down proved effective. The government refrained from sending out the police to deliver beatings and offered the grounds of the Sorbonne university as a free district from which the students could organise as long as they restricted themselves to its neighbourhood. This seemed to work. The next day, labourers returned to work and students surrendered the streets in favour of walling themselves up within university grounds.
However, new problems arose. The young and often migrant workers who were disregarded due to their marginal position and because of their lack of a working class tradition didn’t stick to the script. In one factory after another, they refused to accept complete surrender and demanded for more rights, and even went so far as to demand an egalitarian working place. Their resistance spread to others, by dint of the power their conviction and by way of inspiration. Segment after segment, factory after factory demands were made. The managers were intransigent. They would even refuse to meet with workers’ spontaneous representatives and the trade unions could not calm their members despite their trying to. The workers’ experience during the students’ uprising had had an impact. They were witness to the vulnerability of the state and believed that they had seen a limit to the effectiveness of repression. This was coupled with their existing and grievous discontent. The government was afraid to once again ask the police or military to get involved. They were worried that these forces may well mutiny and refuse to beat workers into submission. So, workplace occupations abounded, and despite these illegal seizures of productive property, the might of legal enforcement remained passive and unused.
The government made what were significant concession for the period. These were struck upon after negotiations with trade unions. The union leaders carried these back to their mobilised members and mostly spoke in support of the proposals. The workers turned them down. The leaders even proposed that each workplace enter into individual and thus fractious negotiation with employers. This would have broken up the resistance into islets disassociated from one another. The workers voted in favour of continuing the resistance.
The problem for the protesters was that they were indeed divided. Divided between two broad movements that had rare and informal relation: workers and students. Also divided between trade unions and places of work without an effectively binding or federated force in favour of deep-seated transformation on behalf of the workers and society at large.
In the end and at some point the students needed to receive accreditation from the university in order continue with their education or to receive appropriate jobs. Workers would need a functioning productive economy to sustain their livelihood. So, the defensive measure of occupation that limited itself with demands made to the existing power structure would end in a waiting game that the protesters were likely to eventually give up on. The wealthy and powerful had greater stores on which to wait out a siege.
These necessities on the part of rebel populations would exhibit themselves in the growth of reformists who would seek out changes that could prove acceptable to at least one segment within the reigning authorities. This tendency did make an appearance among students while it seems that many of the workers remained more resistant to the idea.
As the rebels waited in occupation of their corners, the government of de Gaulle regrouped. It delivered an ultimatum. In fact, it called everyone’s bluff. If the opposition’s demand was indeed for the overthrow of the system, for the annulment of existing social relations, for the reorganisation of the economy and property systems, for popular government, and for a wholly changed lived reality then get to it! The ruling elites were not about to organise their own surrender and assemble a set of social, political and economic relations that would perpetually keep them from power. In a short and decisive speech, de Gaulle said that such a revolutionary act would require real fighting to force it into reality. He threatened everyone with civil war. The army was seen to gather around Paris and new national elections were called in order to reinstitute the existing authority’s hold over society in whatever form necessary, with whatever personages were superficially needed for the resumption of the previous and existing underlying structure.
The opposition mostly accepted the terms for holding elections within the existing framework. Though there was some resistance, it didn’t prove to be substantial. The leading organisations of the opposition welcomed it. They had not prepared for and did not intend to go to war in order to take power directly such that they could make substantive and radical changes. Neither did they offer an alternative to the solution offered by the government. Workers began to return to work with the help of trade unions that supported the idea of such an election.
Within this newly established condition, the government selectively entered into war. The police struck against workers, as well as university and high school students. They beat them and even killed some of them. The state reclaimed some of the spaces it had lost, such as factories, radio and TV stations. The opposition turned from offence to defence. In this climate, the CGT pronounced that “all talk of resuming the general strike must be considered as a dangerous provocation”.
Eventually, de Gaulle was replaced as president. The man who had previously been his prime minister during the events of May 1968 took the role: Georges Pompidou. The country now had a new face for an old system.
(Note: all quotes are taken from Chris Harman’s book, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After.)