IT WAS IN MAY, 50 years ago, that France was going through the biggest labour strike in its history. Over two thirds of its labour force were demonstrating in the streets demanding better working conditions. Workers had taken control of factories, set up barricades, organised sit-ins and fought off attempts by the police to disperse them. On May 13, 10 million workers went on strike.
Thousands of students who had rebelled against conservative university administrations had also joined them. France was grinding to a halt. Revolution was in the air. It was the high point of a wave of radicalism that had been sweeping the world since the mid-1960s.
One editorial in a French newspaper said, almost in disbelief: " "Now we know that a socialist revolution is not impossible in a Western European country, and perhaps in two or three."
At that time social democracy was seen as complicit in the maintenance and defence of the status quo - a status quo that offered little in the way of a qualitatively different and better future.
Social democracy claimed that it wanted a 'capitalism with a human face'. Its proponents considered themselves to be progressive but, in practice, they defended the capitalist order and its accompanying exploitation and inequality, the rule of a tiny elite. Ostensibly on the side of the working class, social democracy, as it always did, defended the interests of the capitalist class.
Social democracy, echoing its 'inspiration', the mediocre 19th century theorist Eduard Bernstein, claimed it could bring fundamental political and social change through the ballot box. But all that 'inspired' was the politics of spectacle. The working class was expected to vote for one of a set of political parties that offered little more than business as usual, couched in the language of 'pragmatism' and 'compromise'.
|Che Guevara : "Be realistic, demand the impossible."|
The words of Leon Trotsky, writing about the Russian Revolution, spring to mind:
"In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime."
Paris though did not because St Petersburg. May 1968 did not become October 1917. The Fourth International leader Ernest Mandel observed that the events of May 1968 lacked "the conscious leap' to revolutionary change.
But even though there was no revolution, the lives of millions of people were changed forever. The words of Che Guevara allowed them to imagine a world free from the fetters of capital. While establishment politicians urged them to be 'realistic' they were reminded that there was still a world to win.
It was Martin Luther King who said: "Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."
Those words remain true today.