NEWS & LETTERS, Jun-Jul 2008, The near-revolution of France, 1968: Why did it fail?

NEWS & LETTERS, June - July 2008

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

The near-revolution of France, 1968: Why did it fail?

Editors Note: The 40th anniversary of 1968 has occasioned much discussion of that year of near-revolution. Many retrospectives have focused on the uprising in France, where the student revolt was joined by mass strikes and factory occupations by workers. Raya Dunayevskaya's analysis, reprinted below, was written in the midst of the events and was originally published in the June-July 1968 N&L under the title, "Who Arrested the French Revolution?" (Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, microfilm #6808-9) Her book Philosophy and Revolution includes a discussion of the France events as 1968's highest point of development, and at the same time an analysis of its "stillbirth."

De Gaulle's embrace of the OAS[1] fascist generals as co-leaders in the counter-revolution against the daring of the French masses--workers, students, and the average man in the street who attempted to reconstruct French society--should have surprised no one. It most assuredly didn't surprise U.S. imperialism that so clearly understood its class nature that it rushed to the defense of the falling franc. Compared to the threat to the whole "Western system" that a successful French Revolution would have represented, de Gaulle's arrogance and persistent backbiting at the U.S. was a minor enough irritant.

In face of the naked fascist slogan--"Cohn-Bendit[2] to Dachau!"--all the ideologues of the ruling classes, including the Communists, came out against "leftist trouble makers," and stood ready to defend "law and order"--the Gaullist democratic (sic!) order!

Why, then, didn't the class nature of Communism become as clearly visible to the Left, especially the Trotskyists? Why, although, from the start, the Communist attacks on the Trotskyists (who were among the most militant fighters in reaching for workers' power) were unbridled, did the Trotskyists continue to behave as if it were a mere question of "tactics"? Why, above all, do Trotskyists continue to distinguish between "the bourgeois order" and the "Communist"? These are not pedantic questions. The Trotskyists will be among the first to suffer from the reaction. Already, they are listed among the organizations to be banned. Yet they are sure to continue to behave as they have for the past three decades and end up as the left face of Communism.

Knowing this, the Communists feared nothing from the exposure of the fact that Premier Pompidou had regular contact with the Communist Party (CP) leaders throughout the revolutionary situation. Openly enough, through their control of the CGT,[3] they did their best to contain the revolt, keep it from uniting with the students who had inspired it, and easily switched to both the electoral field and narrow trade unionism, not to mention their role as provocateurs for de Gaulle, a role three decades back, they played for Franco as the Anarchists and the Trotskyists were still fighting the fascists and the Spanish Revolution was being destroyed.[4]


History is about to repeat itself. Communists feel confident that there is nothing to fear from the Trotskyists. What they do stand in mortal fear of is power in the streets, spontaneous independent proletarian power which is independent of state-capitalism calling itself Communism. It is this, just this, Communism is out to destroy. It is this, just this, that de Gaulle appreciates in Communism. For it is this, just this, which permits him his two faces: OAS and CP.

To all this Trotskyism remains deaf, dumb and blind, not because it does not know Communism's "history," but because it cannot comprehend its class nature. Because it is this which arrested the French Revolution, it is to this that we must turn.

The first Trotskyist denial that Russia had become a state-capitalist society was based on the fact that, though "Cain-Stalin betrayed the Russian Revolution," its result--nationalized property--remained and, therefore, the workers' state, "though degenerate" enough to be tied to a Hitler-Stalin Pact, had to be "defended."

The second denial that Communism was no more than a euphemism for state-capitalism concerned East Europe where statified property had been instituted, not via a social revolution from below, but via a bureaucratic Party from above, propped into state power with the aid of a "Red Army." Again, though "born degenerate" and even though the Hungarian Revolution opened up an entirely new page in world revolution, and in pools of blood, proved it wanted freedom from Communism (its Party as well as its secret police), wanted freedom to establish genuine workers' power through Workers' Councils, still the Trotskyists kept intoning that it was "impossible" to have a revolution unless there was a "vanguard Party to lead it."

Then the Third World was born without the aid of any of the shibboleths of Communism--statified property, or "the Party," Red Army, or the "International." So the Trotskyists came up with still another excuse for tailending the Communists--these countries were technologically backward and U.S. imperialism, as "enemy no. 1," would only perpetuate neo-colonialism and "therefore" one must be with the "Communist camp."

Now, what can possibly be the excuse for not unfolding a totally new philosophy of liberation free from all the shibboleths of what they call "betraying Stalinism"? France is neither isolated nor a backward country. It is far from having "workers' power" thrust upon it, pure, degenerate, or in-between; from below or above which somehow has to be defended from "imperialism no. 1" as an outside force or some inner "usurpers" (unless that be precisely Gaullism which must be overthrown and which Communism, instead, is propping up).

France is a technologically advanced land which is in the very heart of Europe. It is a world power, with a force frappe [nuclear strike force] to boot. And the native Communists have betrayed it not once but twice. (Three times if you count the mid-1930s not only as it appeared in Spain, but also in France.)

When the Communists preferred sharing power with de Gaulle although they controlled the majority of the Resistance, and, again, even when the Marshall Plan came "to save" Europe for imperialist enemy no. 1, still the Trotskyists could not totally free themselves from the coattails of the Communists. After all, the Trotskyists maintained, the Communists opposed the U.S. purchase of Western Europe, they were the "mass party" and "the relationship of forces demanded," etc., etc., etc.

As in the mid-1940s, the Communists refused to fight for power if it meant facing an independent proletariat that came in to power without the aid of the Communist Party or the Red Army, so in 1968 they "led" the proletariat only in order to betray it. How many betrayals are needed to kill the self-delusion of the Trotskyists about the class nature of present-day Communism even where it is not the state-power?

The answer is that the number of times is numberless for the good and substantial reason that the Trotskyists themselves believe in statified property, the State Plan, the elite party which binds them to the concept of the backwardness of the proletariat that is incapable of reaching socialism without being "led by the vanguard party." It is for this reason that the struggle against Stalinism, despite all the sacrifices, has amounted to nought, that is to say, has looked like just a family quarrel precisely because that is all it is.

It is for this reason that shouting "betrayal," "class collaboration," "new form of reformism," means nothing since they continue to tailend the Communists on the ground that "only in action" can they win over the masses in general and the rank-and-file Communists in particular. The elaborate subterfuge for the Trotskyist bizarre behavior has stood out nowhere more clearly than in the self-paralysis they brought upon themselves in France in 1968.

Although they have been in the forefront of the militants calling for workers' power and the revolution has only been arrested, not yet totally destroyed; although the fascist face of de Gaulle is aided by the Communists who are willing to settle for a few ministerial posts in an impotent Assembly, yet the Trotskyists do not draw a class division between themselves and the Communists. The reason for this can have but one explanation: they have no new, that is to say, genuinely Marxist philosophy of revolution, but only a variant of the Communist elitist one, for which, once again, they are ready to die.

No doubt it is brave to die for the revolution. The point, however, is to live for it. That is to say, to assure the revolution's success by a new unity of theory and practice which relies, not on some "vanguard party," but on the masses, the masses alone who would help forge out this totally new philosophy because they had a vision of a fully free society.


To live for the revolution is not done only "in action," nor only by "bravery." It is impossible to prove "in action" what you have proved incapable of proving in theory--that you do indeed have a philosophy of liberation totally freed from Communist elitist concepts, and totally dependent on only one force beside a philosophy of liberation and that is the spontaneity of the masses who will themselves "to a man" reconstruct society on totally new Humanist beginnings.

The general strike in France was not, after all, just an economic strike. And this was so, not because there were no economic demands, but because they clearly were not the dominant demands.

This was not just a political strike, again not because there were no political demands, but because these, too, did not predominate.

This general strike sharpened all class relations, and not only in the factory, but also the nature of education and "culture." In achieving this, the general strike went beyond economics, beyond politics, questioned the very way of life and its underlying philosophy.

No one, not even the bourgeoisie, failed to recognize that, both among the workers and the students, this was neither a dollar and cents nor a parliamentary struggle. The general strike of 10 million French workers brought the whole economy to a standstill, was not isolated from the student youth that inspired it, and, together, they nearly toppled de Gaulle.

Yet the revolutionary situation did not develop into a full revolution. And while the counter-revolution is mobilizing both visibly and clandestinely, the revolutionary forces are in disarray, not because they were defeated, but because they lacked the unifying cement of a philosophy of revolution. It is no accident that it was in East Europe, precisely because their struggle was directly against Communism in power, that this was expressed most clearly by Danilo Pejovic in Socialist Humanism, p. 199:

"'Philosophy and Revolution' is only another way of expressing Marx's well-known catch phrase about the 'realization of philosophy,' beginning as a revolution in philosophy in order to end as a revolutionary philosophy in the form of the philosophy of the revolution."

This is the missing ingredient in France today.

For the 10 million workers and tens of thousands of students who have begun this new page in world freedom--the first such in the post-war world in a technologically advanced land--the world and France are still full of revolutionary possibilities. For the heroic Frenchmen who have already destroyed so many myths--from the invincibility of de Gaulle to the myth that global glory-seeking is a substitute for social revolution within a country; from the myth that Communism represents "the Left" to the myth that revolutions can be made without the proletariat--for the world that has watched this drama of revolutionary change in the heart of Europe and saw France standing on the threshold of revolution, a new rebirth of revolutionary passion and revolutionary philosophy is sure finally to coalesce.

The one still remaining advantage the French masses possess is that their revolution has not been defeated. It has been arrested; it is threatened; the whip of counter-revolution is visible. But there is time yet for regroupment and rearming with a philosophy for our age, the concretization of the Humanism of Marxism.


1. The OAS was a French far-right paramilitary organization that tried to defeat the Algerian revolution with bombings and assassinations, including trying to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle in 1962.

2. Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a radical student leader associated with the May 1968 revolt. Dunayevskaya criticized his view that theory could be gotten "en route." See Philosophy and Revolution, pp. 266, 274.

3. The CGT was a Communist-controlled trade union federation in France.

4. Dunayevskaya held that the Spanish CP helped crush Spain's 1936-37 proletarian revolution by stifling the spontaneity of the masses. See Philosophy and Revolution, p. 124.

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