Why was May 1968 a social success but a political failure?


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This article by Georges Seguy, former Secretary General of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) was published in L’Humanite on the 19th of October. This translation by David Lundy was published in the English language version of the paper on the 22nd.

“Lessons that are worth considering”

We are not in a situation that is strictly comparable to that of May 68. It is, however, undeniable that, forty-two years later, that memorable spring holds lessons that are worth considering today. The explosion of May 68 came from a deep academic and social dissatisfaction. Not only were all possibilities for dialogue and negotiation blocked by the intransigence of government and employers, but the government had just launched a series of attacks on social security.

Early in 1966, a common industrial action agreement between the CGT and CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) had encouraged worker mobilization. Several nationwide industrial action initiatives and a significant rise in social tension had marked 1967. While the university movement and particularly the student movement deepened, several trade union events revealed sharp social tensions, heralding a particularly combative spring. Thus the spirit of solidarity and struggle between students and workers emerged soon after.

In this context, police violence against students on the night of May 11th in the Latin Quarter prompted the CGT to launch a call for workers to react which lead to a day of national strike on May 13th. Mighty demonstrations in Paris and across France took place under the common slogan: “Workers and students united”. The day’s success quickly spread throughout the public and private sector, raising the idea of extending the struggle to a total stoppage. Thus the non-unionised employees of thousands of small, medium and large companies got together, got informed and independently and democratically decided to stop working, to occupy their workplaces and to manage their struggle together.

Within the national leadership of the CGT, the question of whether the time was ripe to call for a general strike was posed. I remembered my answer to this question: “Best to leave the management of strikes to the workers themselves, than to direct it centrally from national headquarters, whatever form they may take”.

Although some difficulties have characterised the political links of solidarity between workers and students, a joint appeal for social and cultural emancipation came out of their ardent desire for solidarity. It was summed up in a few words, which, forty-two years later, have not aged a day: “Work and live differently”. It is this aspiration that Sarkozy has vainly tried to banish to oblivion with the formula: “Work more, earn more”.

We hear a lot of commentary today about the political failure of May 68 from “former 68ers” that have shifted to the right. With this is mind, there is food for thought on why May 1968 was a social success, with very positive “Grenelle agreements”, yet a political failure in the parliamentary elections that followed. This discussion mainly concerns the political left who thought it could take over government without taking stock of a profound social movement and the emancipatory willingness of youth. It was not the time for partisan temptations to “fend for yourself”, but for a spirit of unity “all for one” to provide common progressive goals. This is clearly the most relevant lesson of May 68.

Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS. Original caption: May 29, 1968. Paris, France: Workers and students, some carrying anti-DeGaulle banners, march through central Paris is mass rally called by the Communist dominated General Confederation of Labour (CGT) calling for popular government.


3 Responses

  1. Roy H W Johnston

    October 24, 2010 2:33 pm

    I attempted to assess the relevance of the 1968 events at a conference in Birkbeck in 2008. There are many complex factors, Irish post-colonial fringe status differentiating it from the Europan mainstream. I am not going to repeat this here, but the paper can be accessed at


    and I welcome feedback from those who are attempting to reconstruct and effective broad-left movement in Ireland.


  2. krupskaya

    October 25, 2010 11:49 am

    These are 2 useful contributions to an interesting debate, fom Landy and from Johnston.

    There’s no point in emphasising agreement in a short commentary- and there many- but, highlighting key differenes might prove useful.

    Both writers tend to see the national-specfic trends in isolation, even if Johnston allows for some international influence on the subjective factor via the Communist parties and the non-Stalinist European Left.

    But the objective situation was one in which there was an unbroken upswing in the anti-colonial & anti-fascist struggles from 1941 onwards. At the same time the post-WWII Long Boom in the industrialised countries was coming to an end. The political inspiration for the resurgence of Western mass struggle was initially provided by the anti-colonial revolution, hence all the Leftism, Little Red Books and all. But this influence was overwhelmingly a positive one.

    In Ireland, Johnston bemoans the emergence of the Provisionals, detracting from the efforts to build a ‘class-based’ politics. But, as he concedes, this was in response to pogroms from the B Specials. And the evolution of the Provisionals cannot be ignored.

    It has led to the Good Friday Agreement, which any objective assessment must conclude is the achievement of the Civil Rights Movement-plus. Voting rights have been achieved alongside power-sharing. Politically, Catholics no longer sit at the back of the bus. There are now mechanisms to push back against the systematic discrimination in housing, and this has already taken place in terms of public sector jobs (although not private sector ones – where discrimination is still rife). Moreover, the army forts are coming down- never even a demand of the civil rights movement.

    How is it possible that these victories have been achieved in Ireland, when the general trend, post-1980 and then especially -1990 has been for a string of unbroken defeats in the western imperial countries, offset by resumed vicories in the colonial and semi-colonial world eg S Africa, Venezuela and Bolivia?

    Johnston says, “Thus the combination of Partition, the Civil War, and the neutrality of the Irish Free State during the war, has left a legacy which differentiates Ireland seriously from the development of left-wing thought in Europe.” But other coutries had civil wars (Spain, Greece, Yugosalvia, etc.) and others have been partititioned or subdivided (Cyprus, Germany, Yugoslavia) still others were ‘neutral’ in WWII (Spain, Switzerland).

    What differentiates Ireland as a whole from those countries as that it retains the vestiges of a colony and one quarter of it remains a colony. It has sucessfully participated in the anti-colonial revoluion, while Johnston and many others have been looking for it to participate in defeats in the Western, imperial centres.

    This is to mistake a victory for a defeat.

  3. Roy H W Johnston

    October 29, 2010 11:08 am

    Actually I see the currentl political scene in Northern Ireland as a modest victory, achieved as a consequence of the Provisionals having in the end learned the hard way that what we tried to do in the 1960s via the Civil Rights movement was right.

    The next step, to my mind, is to bring about a democratic ‘left-green-republican’ convergence in the Republic, such as to expose the essential similarity of the Civil War parties FF and FG, force them into alliance, and expose their political bankruptcy in the context of the current global economic crisis.

    This crisis will need to be addressed by decoupling employment from the ‘growth’ mantra to which capitalism is addicted, given the finite size of the planet and the need to depend on renewable resources. How to do this is the problem, and my current thinking is that it will have to be via a resurgence of the co-operative movement. We need to think through the implications of a neo-Marxist economic model which avoids State centralism. More on this in due course.