Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

France's red hot winter

The critical mass

The critical mass

The French strikes and protest have led to the usual rash of articles dismissing the action as 'not like 1968' or 'not really political'. The fact that they have stopped short of presenting a challenge to the French state is presented as proof that they could not possibly do so. But the events in France demonstrate something different: when workers move into activity the divisions between the economic and the political begin to break down.

Rosa Luxemburg, the German-Polish revolutionary, drew this lesson from a series of mass strikes in which she participated. Her pamphlet The Mass Strike was written as a result of the strikes in Russia during the 1905 revolution.

She argued that as capitalism developed so direct economic action against the employers became more central to the revolutionary process.

'The mass strike is the first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, and the more highly developed the antagonism is between capital and labour, the more effective and decisive must mass strikes become. The chief form of previous bourgeois revolutions, the fight at the barricades, the open conflict with the armed power of the state, is in the revolution of today only the culminating point, only a moment in the process of the proletarian mass struggle.'

Such strikes start off with economic and sectional demands but very rapidly take on the nature of more general political struggles. The converse is true, as the political struggle by workers against the government finds its expression in often thousands of economic protests and strikes.

She goes on:

The French strikes began as a combination of the economic and political: demands which applied to specific groups of workers plus a general opposition to the Juppé plan. The movement increasingly generalised as the key slogan even of those on strike around other issues became 'Withdraw the Juppé plan'.

At the same time the struggles around specific issues and grievances deepened as well--for example, those of the teachers, whose strikes were still growing when the holidays began.

The breaking down of divisions between the two gives the lie to the idea that these are just limited demands. They might start off that way, but rapidly take on a much more political character--as happened in France with the development of the 'coordinations' between unions and the emergence of generalised demands.

However, part of the nature of mass strikes is that they go backwards and forwards often on a daily basis. This means they can gather momentum but at a certain stage the action begins to pose the question of power. Can the movement bring down the government and if so who will rule? Either the movement presses forward, leading to a revolutionary situation, or it begins to stall.

So far the elements which could have led towards this situation in the present wave of struggles have been contained--by the concessions of the government and above all the refusal of the union leaders to connect the economic with the political. The movement has raised the spontaneous demands and slogans which can lead to generalisation, but they have not been accompanied by the political confidence which the workers' movement needs. The past experience of Socialist government, plus the cautious and limited politics of the Communist Party, has led to a lack of direction and leadership which is not easily overcome.

This means that in some ways the movement had the potential to go further than 1968. But the political level--in the sense of beginning to look for an alternative way of running society and of more general overt opposition to the system--never reached the level that it did in 1968.


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