frontline volume 2, issue 7 June 2008

1968 - Year of Revolution

Murray Smith was a participant in the events of May 1968 in Paris. In this article he looks at the earthquakes that shook the global status quo in that year.

There are few years which stand out in history, not just for one outstanding event, but for several. 1968 was one such year. It was marked by mass movements and revolutionary upsurges in a whole series of countries, on all continents. Three of them stand out: the Vietnamese Revolution and its international repercussions; the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia; and last but not least the May events and the general strike in France. But there were many other things happening: student movements in Poland and Yugoslavia; the wave of radicalization that swept America and in particular the Black Power movement, the student movement in Mexico which was crushed by the massacre of Tlatelolco Square in October, the ongoing Cultural Revolution in China (1).

Cold War

Before moving on to the events of 1968, it is worth remembering the world in the 1960s and the ideas that dominated it. We were at the height of the Cold War. The world was basically divided into blocs, essentially the Soviet and Western blocs. The Colonial Revolution had led to the independence of most countries in the Third World, and the Soviet Union and America competed for influence over the new regimes. The joker in the pack was China, which had broken with the Soviet Union in the early 60s. The Cultural Revolution was widely perceived as an anti-bureaucratic movement and led to the development of pro-Chinese 'Maoist' parties, not only in the Third World but also in the advanced capitalist countries. In Western Europe we were nearing the end of the post-war boom. There had been twenty years of constantly rising living standards, virtually no unemployment, the Welfare State. Bourgeois theories abounded that the working class had become part of the middle class and that revolution was a thing of the past. Following on the defeat of uprisings in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and with the post-Stalin regimes no longer based on pure terror, other theories flourished. The West would become more social-democratic, the East gradually more democratic, they would merge together. Only in the Third World was revolution a reality, but so was counter-revolution. Following on the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959 the United States had sponsored a coup in Brazil in 1964, intervened in the Dominican Republic the following year, supported the bloody crushing of the Indonesian Communist Party. And now it was intervening in Vietnam. On January 1st, 1968 it would have been optimistic, verging on the foolhardy, to assert that the coming year would go down in history as the year of revolution rather than counter-revolution.

In the course of the year many accepted ideas would be blown to pieces. The Vietnamese were about to demonstrate that a small country could resist US power and in the process accelerate radicalization in the imperialist centres. Any idea that Eastern Europe was going to peacefully democratize was blown apart as the tanks rolled into Prague. And above all the notion of a domesticated, quiescent, working class happy to lap up consumer durables was blown away by the strike of ten million workers in France.


The first spectacular event came at the end of January. The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, led by the Communist Party, was engaged in a war with the American backed puppet regime of Nguyen Van Thieu and with the 500,000 US troops that President Lyndon B. Johnson had sent to make sure that South Vietnam didn't break out of the Western orbit. The Cold War may have been cold in Europe, but in Asia, Africa and Latin America it often turned hot. US policy was to try and contain the spread of communism, especially in Asia, by diplomacy if possible, by force if necessary. After eight years of war, the French colonial power which had tried to re-establish control over Vietnam in 1945 had been defeated and the country had been divided at the 17th parallel between the Communist North and a puppet regime in the South taken over by the US from France. In principle there were to be elections to unify the country in 1956, but they were never held, since the Communists were likely to win them. Faced with repression the communists in the South began to organize and the NLF was founded in 1960. The inability of its local puppets to master the revolt decided Washington to send military aid, a few advisers at first, but rapidly escalating. From 1964 onwards Washington began to intensively bomb the North and escalate its military presence in the South.

The NLF was able to resist because of logistic support from the North and the intervention of the North Vietnamese Army, and above all because it had mass support in the South. Nevertheless the prospects looked bleak for one small Third World country faced with the might of the US military machine. But on January 30th ,1968 the Vietnamese changed the terms of the conflict. They launched an all-out offensive to coincide with Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. They attacked provincial capitals, including the old imperial capital Hue, which they held for 26 days. They attacked Saigon itself, even occupying part of the US Embassy for several hours.

The offensive was very costly for the Vietnamese, in lives and in military terms and it failed to spark off the hoped-for full-scale urban insurrection. But it provided a demonstration of force from which the Americans never recovered. It convinced them that if the NLF could not win a military victory, neither could they. Furthermore they were frightened by the scale of opposition to the war in America itself and by the radicalisation of American youth. The Tet offensive brought the US to the negotiating table, leading eventually to the Paris Peace accords and US withdrawal in 1973, followed by the collapse of the Saigon regime and the unification of the country two years later.

Radical Youth

But Vietnam had wider implications. As full-scale American involvement in the war had built up from 1965 onwards, a movement in solidarity with Vietnam also built up. The 1960s were a period of widespread youth radicalization in the imperialist countries. This did not only, as is often mistakenly thought, involve only students. But the way in which students, whose numbers had grown spectacularly since 1945 (2) were concentrated in large numbers and had more time to think and act, gave them a particular role. There was widespread questioning of traditional values, the family, the work ethic. For a significant minority this radicalization took a clearly political form, questioning capitalism, critical of the USSR, identifying with the national liberation movements in the Third World. For this radical generation Vietnam solidarity became the lightning rod. It was clearly there that the confrontation between imperialism and the peoples of the world was central.

In the United states opposition to the war was much broader than elsewhere because of America's direct involvement, centering on the call to bring the troops home, backed up by widespread opposition to the war within the ranks of the conscript army, who were doing the fighting and dying. Furthermore the movement against the war was connecting with the radicalization of America's Black population, which had moved from the gains of the civil rights movement of the 50s to the ghetto riots of the 60s and the rise of Black Power movements. It was no doubt the way in which Martin Luther King embodied this junction that led to his assassination in April 1968. Like their counterparts in Europe, the most radical American youth turned towards Maoism and Trotskyism


In Europe the movement was very explicitly in support of the Vietnamese, around the slogan 'Victory to the NLF'. And the demonstrations were massive for the period 30,000 in London in March 1968, 100,000 in October. Similar demonstrations took place in other countries, often of an international nature, as in the February 1968 demonstration and congress in Berlin. Che Guevara and his call for 'Two, three, many Vietnams' became the symbol of the movement.

The Vietnam solidarity movement had another effect. Its participants judged established political parties by their attitude to Vietnam and usually found them wanting. This almost went without saying as regards the social democratic parties whose leaderships were almost uniformly on the American side of the Cold War, though there were always exceptions on the left of those parties. More importantly, the pro-Moscow Communist parties whose line was 'peace in Vietnam' found themselves outflanked by the young radicals. In Britain the dominant force was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, in France the Comite Vietnam National, both led by a combination of Trotskyists and independent leftists. The Maoists too were a force, with their own organizations. For the first time, on a central question of international politics, the Communist parties found themselves outflanked on their left. It was a sign of things to come.


In France there was a strong Vietnam solidarity movement, led by activists often still in their 20s, who had cut their teeth supporting the Algerian Revolution and fighting fascists. The spark for the second great event of 1968, the general strike of 10 million workers, came from there and from the student movement. Between March 18th and 20th 1968 groups of activists attacked the offices of American banks, airlines and American Express. Five of them were arrested, among them Xavier Langlade, a leader of the Trotskyist-Guevarist Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR) and a student at Nanterre University. Nanterre was one of the new campuses of the tentacular University of Paris. It was a bastion of student contestation of the authoritarian university regime and of the radical left. Over the preceding months it had been one of the centres of the 'bedroom revolt' a widespread protest against the ban on men and women students visiting each other's rooms, a symbol of an obsolete moral order that was being challenged.

In protest at the arrest of Langlade and his comrades, students occupied the administrative building. There date was March 22, so they called themselves simply the March 22 Movement. It would become the umbrella movement of the burgeoning student movement. Agitation continued and on May 2 Nanterre was closed. A solidarity action at the prestigious Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter the following day turned into a street battle with the police and the Sorbonne too was closed. That was the take-off point for the student revolt. In the course of the following week, there were demonstrations of tens of thousands. On the night of May10-11 students built barricades and fought a brutal assault by the police, with hundreds of injured and arrests.

In the face of this wave of repression the trade unions called a one-day protest strike and demonstration on Monday May 13. That day 800,000 workers and students marched through Paris. The unions brought the big battalions, but the student leaders who had initially been denounced as adventurers by the main force on the left, the Communist Party - were in the front rank.

That might have been the end of it. On May 11 the government had given way on everything: the Sorbonne would be reopened, police withdrawn from the Latin Quarter, imprisoned students released. But it was too late. The example of the students had spread to the workers, especially the young workers. Since De Gaulle had come to power in 1958, instituting the 'strong state' the official Left had been largely on the defensive, arguing that nothing could be done. Now the students had demonstrated that the government could be made to back down in the face of a mass movement.

The student movement was undoubtedly the spark for the general strike that was about to begin. But if the combustible material had not been present the workers would not have moved. French workers had benefited like their colleagues in other countries from the post-war boom, which had seen a considerable expansion of industry. The need for labour was filled by a steady exodus from rural areas, by an increase in employment of women in some industries, by immigration from Southern Europe and North Africa. Most of the first-generation workers were young and many were combative and ready to fight against authoritarian work regimes, speed-up and wages that remained low. In fact, like most movements of such breadth, the May general strike, although unexpected, did not drop out of a clear blue sky. An analysis of labour conflicts over the previous ten years shows a steady rise from the early 60s. But no one was expecting what happened next.


The day after the mass demonstration in Paris, on May 14th, at the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes, workers influenced by the radical left went on strike, occupied the factory and detained the managers. In the next couple of days their example was followed by two of the big Renault car plants, including the main one at Billancourt on the outskirts of Paris. From there on the movement snowballed 200,000 on strike on May 17th, 2 million on the 18th, somewhere between 6 and ten million on the 22nd. Of these 4 million remained on strike for an entire month.

Occupation was a general feature of the strike, sometimes massive, sometimes fairly token, but almost always tightly controlled by the union apparatuses, particularly the Communist-led CGT. Link-ups between striking factories were discouraged, and students who tried to demonstrate solidarity were in general refused entry. There were some exceptional situations. At Nantes, a central strike committee was set up which ran essential services distribution of food and basic necessities, petrol coupons, rubbish collection.


Although the strikers were fairly effectively cordoned within the workplaces from each other and from the students, demonstrations took place during the strike that brought together students and young workers and some of them were quasi insurrectional. A police inspector was crushed to death in Lyons by a lorry launched by students. On May 25th there was a demonstration of 100,000 in Paris and the stock exchange was set on fire. This was the day that negotiations started between the government and the union leaders. Substantial wage increases and payment of 50 per cent of strike days were negotiated. When the deal was put to an assembley at Renault-Billancourt it was refused. Rather than renegotiate the unions adopted a strategy of decentralized negotiations.

Many workers wanted more than wage increases the sliding scale of wages, a lower pension age. But the strike did not only raise economic demands. From the beginning, on May 13, ironically the tenth anniversary of the coup that brought De Gaulle to power, there were chants of '10 years, that's enough'. It was widely thought that De Gaulle might resign. But an alternative was lacking. On May 27 what might be called the left wing of the movement, the student unions, some non-CP unions, the small United Socialist Party, held a rally of 50,000 at the Charlety stadium. But they had no credible proposals. The line of the CP, supported by future Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, was to replace De Gaulle by a 'popular government' and the CGT organised a demonstration of 500,000 on May 29 around this demand. But it was all predicated on De Gaulle going there was no question of using the general strike to force him out.

De Gaulle

And De Gaulle did not go. He disappeared for 24 hours, consulted army chiefs, and came back with a political rather than a military solution. He called his opponents' bluff by calling new elections. That broke the dynamic of the strike, because the political leaders of the Left and the unions had no answer but to go along with it. The strike continued in many sectors till mid-June and some gains were made. But the elections were held and De Gaulle won by a landslide by mobilizing all of the conservative forces against a disoriented Left..

The regime stayed in place. But things had changed. The working class had shown its power. And a new, radical generation of workers had come into action. The decline of the Communist Party would be a long process, but it started in 1968. After that, it never led any of the student movements that arose over the following decades, and in workers' struggles it increasingly had to face opposition on its left.

The other lasting legacy of 1968 was the scale of the questioning of existing society. The following years saw the rise of a women's movement, of gay and lesbian movements, of environmental movements, especially against nuclear power. Radical lawyers challenged the outmoded legal system, conventional medicine and psychiatry were questioned.


Two months later the international communist movement was shaken by events in Czechoslovakia. A change in the leadership of the Communist Party in January had passed almost unnoticed outside the country. But it unleashed a process of reform, around the slogan of creating 'socialism with a human face'. In the course of the next six months the popular mobilization went further and further, with open debates and the creation of workers' councils. After the failure of series of negotiations and threats, the Soviet leadership finally brought an end to Czechoslovakia by sending in troops from the Warsaw Pact . There was little bloodshed compared to the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Most of the CP leadership caved in and accepted the intervention, though they were gradually eased out and replaced by more pliant leaders. But the effect was shattering on an international scale. The vision of democratic socialism had inspired people all over the world, particularly in Europe, and the Soviet Union never really recovered from it in terms of working class opinion. The country which had been a beacon of socialism for millions in the West and had had huge prestige in 1945 now became increasingly a counter-example, not just for a few intellectuals and radical youth, but for millions of workers.


What is left of 1968 today? In France the anniversary has been widely marked. In 1968, many on the left saw what was happening as a 'dress rehearsal', rather like 1905 in Russia 1917 would surely comeÉ Things turned out to be more complicated. But the memory of 1968 is still very much alive, and from both sides of the barricades. Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidential election last year promising to 'liquidate the heritage of 1968 and 'turn the page' . This spring, striking school students, some of whose parents were scarcely born in 1968, carried placards '1968-2008, the dream continues'. A dream for some, a nightmare for others. Which of them comes true will be decided by the clash of opposing social forces. Sarkozy's ambition to be France's Thatcher is meeting with considerable resistance from workers and students.

On an international level, the forces of the left have been on the defensive since the 1980s, and many defeats and setbacks have been suffered. But in the process, new, radical left forces have emerged, forces that challenge capitalism and have tried to learn the lessons of the past. In France, it seems that the conditions for the emergence of a new Left are finally coming together, particularly with the success of the LCR's initiative for a new anti-capitalist party. The best way to commemorate 1968 would be to build the political alternative that was lacking then, and give a political perspective to today's struggles.


1. So much happened in so many places in 1968 that it is impossible to cover everything in a few pages. The web site of International Viewpoint ( has been and will be carrying a series of articles on different aspects of 1968.

2. For example , the number of students in France was 123,000 in 1946, 202,000 in 1961, 514,000 in 1968.