May ’68 and the Crisis of Marxism

Introduction: Interpreting May ’68

Why does it always seem to be France, and Paris specifically, where tensions explode? Is there something in the water that drives people to revolutionary action? The French Revolution saw the masses guillotine the King and Queen in the streets of Paris. The Paris Commune saw the first ever workers’ commune, before it was brutally crushed by the French and Prussian armies. And then we have May ‘68, the last great explosion the perpetual powder keg of Paris. 

The Events of May ’68

May ’68 was the largest mass movement in French history, the biggest strike in the history of the French workers’ movement, and the only “general” insurrection the overdeveloped world has known since World War II. No professional sector, no category of worker was unaffected by the strike; no region, city, or village in France was untouched.

The PCF and the Party-Form

The party-form is one of the defining themes of May ‘68. After all, this was a situation where a revolutionary movement was pushing for revolutionary change, where an entire country was paralyzed by the largest general strike in its history, and where the sitting government was clearly ill-equipped to handle the situation. Why was the PCF unable to serve a revolutionary purpose in May ‘68? 

The Formation of the Student Movement

May ‘68 is remembered more for the student movement than it is for the general strike of ten million workers. However, the student movement can only be properly understood in reference to the growing contradictions in the educational systems of all capitalist societies, and the crisis of imperialism as symbolized by the Vietnam War.

Revolutionary Subjects

May ‘68 proves that without the support and activity of the working class, which is directly antagonistic to capitalist production, no revolutionary movement is possible. But as Lenin says, there is no guarantee that a revolutionary situation will result in a revolution.

‘Exceptional Situations’ and Politics

Unfortunately in France, the PCF was unwilling to learn any lessons from the students and workers that spearheaded May ‘68. While revolutionaries internal and external to the party rigorously analyzed the crisis and sought new forms of organization, the PCF would not be driven off the electoral road.