Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Workers and Students in the France of 1968

Mitchell Abidor writes on the New York Review of Books blog about the spring and summer of 1968 in France, when strikes by workers and massive student protests created a sense of revolutionary crisis. A myth has grown up around that summer, that workers wanted to join radical students in launching a revolution in France but were betrayed by the French Communist Party (PCF) and its labor union organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). Abidor says he heard this version of events
fairly consistently from rank-and-file student and leftist participants in the May events whom I interviewed for my oral history of May ’68, May Made Me. Prisca Bachelet, who helped the students at Nanterre organize their occupation of the university administrative offices on March 22, 1968, and who was present for every decisive moment of the May–June days, said of the CGT leaders that “they were afraid, afraid of responsibility.” Joseph Potiron, a revolutionary farmer in La Chapelle-sur-Erdre, near Nantes, said the strikes “ended when the union leaders pushed the workers to return to work.” For the writer Daniel Blanchard, the occupations were a fraud: “The factories were very quickly occupied, not by the workers but by the local CGT leadership. And this was an essential element in the demobilization of the strikers.” Éric Hazan, at the time a cardiac surgeon and now a publisher, viewed the Communists’ actions as “Treason. Normal. A normal treason.”
There is, however, no reason to think that this is true. There was hardly any communication between the student radicals and striking factory workers, so student leaders who talked up a worker-student partnership were just making things up. Nor is there any evidence that a revolution by workers and students would have succeeded if it had been tried. After all, the elections of the next year returned the right-wing parties to power with an increased Parliamentary majority.

According to Abidor, the workers were never interested in social revolution, and the 10% pay raise they ended up getting was as much as they ever expected. Unlike the students, they read the mood of the country and understood that more substantial change was never in the cards:
For the Communists, broader demands were simply foolhardy, given the forces in play. Likening the situation in 1968 to the general strike of 1936 was an ahistorical error of political analysis for someone like Guy Texier, a CGT leader at the naval shipyards of Saint-Nazaire. The gains obtained in the 1930s, such as paid vacations, were granted under Léon Blum’s Popular Front government—a socialist administration—and, he said, “in May ’68 we didn’t have that.” In Texier’s view, the Communist assessment was correct: “We didn’t accept that the movement in support of the workers’ demands follow after the political movement. There was no prospect… at the time for a left-wing policy.” The Communists may have been poor revolutionaries, but they were politically astute. They knew the workers, knew what they would fight for, and got them what they wanted.
Since 1968, the communist party has faded as a political force in France. But that has not released some inherent radicalism in French workers; quite the opposite:
Once it lost the PCF as the mediating force to represent its grievances, the French working class fulfilled Herbert Marcuse’s 1972 warning that “The immediate expression of the opinion and will of the workers, farmers, neighbors—in brief, the people—is not, per se, progressive and a force of social change: it may be the opposite.” The PCF understood this latent conservatism in the working class of 1968. Not so the New Left student movement. In the end, it had only workerism without workers (ouvriérisme sans ouvriers).
This struck me as significant because of the ambivalent position of factory workers in the politics of our own time. Speaking in generalities, factory workers are not exactly conservative in either the US or Europe. Many hate Wall Street and their corporate bosses, they are not notably religious, and they are as divided as the rest of us about an aggressive foreign policy. They strongly support Social Security and Medicare and some would like national health insurance. On the other hand they are as uninterested in the revolutionary aims of our woke leftists as French workers were in 1968. There is a huge cultural divide between factory workers and left-wing activists, and workers simply do not trust anyone of the left to speak for them.

In the past few elections white factory workers have gone Republican, but I do not thing that is a strong attachment, and I think a Democratic candidate who could cross the cultural gap could get many to vote Democrat again. Because in terms of right vs. left, many of them have no clear home.

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