Workers and students: can we make a revolution?

July 12, 2008

The following article is based on a talk given at the Resistance National Conference, held in Sydney from June 27-29.

To win socialism, we have to get rid of the capitalist system that stands in our way. But how? The capitalists aren't going to suddenly get a social conscience and give up their privileges. People who are oppressed by the system are the ones who have an interest in changing it.

Marxists argue that the working class is capable of overthrowing capitalism. But what is the working class? A working-class person is someone who, in order to afford to live, must sell their ability to work to a capitalist employer: they have no other choice.

Everything around us, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat, is produced socially, involving thousands of people working together: growing or mining the raw materials, transporting them, manufacturing the products, selling them etc.

This socialisation of production, coupled with technological advances, means that for the first time in history it is possible to provide necessities for every person in the world. But this doesn't happen. Billions of people live in poverty; starvation, disease and suffering are rampant.

To understand why this occurs, we need to ask who controls the wealth produced by the working class. We get the answer every time a company sacks workers yet posts record profits. We, the workers, have no control over what we produce. Yet if all the bosses disappeared tomorrow, it would not stop production. On the other hand, if the entire working class decided to down tools, whole economies would collapse.

The working class has the power to stop production and distribution. As the productive class, the working class also has the capacity to establish a new, non-exploitative system of production, an economy that works for people, not profits.

If all workers united, capitalists could no longer reap super profits by forcing us to perform alienating labour and then making us pay inflated costs for the products and services we produce. Capitalism produces its own gravedigger: it has produced a workforce that doesn't need capitalists.

Only the working class has the power to bring the capitalist system to a grinding halt and lay the basis for a new, socialist society. In times of political upheaval the role of working people is critical.

The best way we can understand this potential is by looking at examples of revolutionary movements throughout history. One such struggle took place in France in May-June 1968.

In the months leading up to May, there had been several student-led protests in France. On May 6, following university closures, threats of expulsions and police attacks, 20,000 students, teachers and their supporters marched on the University of the Sorbonne and clashed with police.

The next day, thousands of high school students joined in a protest at the Arc de Triomphe. Thirty thousand students and supporters marched toward the Sorbonne on May 10. When riot police again blocked them, the crowd threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2.15am.

The confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn the following day. Protesters alleged police agent provocateurs had participated in the protests, burning cars and throwing Molotov cocktails.
The police brutality had a massive impact on French society.

The Stalinised French Communist Party (PCF) reluctantly supported the students. The major left union federations — the CGT and the CGT-FO — called a one-day general strike for May 13, where over a million people marched through Paris.

The French government, desperate to contain the revolutionary momentum, announced the release of the arrested students. The Sorbonne was reopened but students occupied it, declaring it an autonomous "people's university". More than 400 popular action committees were set up across France to take up grievances against the government and French society.

Workers began occupying factories. By May 16, workers had occupied about 50 factories, and 200,000 people were on strike by May 17. That figure snowballed to two million the following day. A week later, 10 million workers — two-thirds of the French workforce — were on strike. They were joined by two million farmers and 600,000 students.

The CGT tried to contain this spontaneous outbreak of militancy by putting forward only economic demands, such as higher wages. The workers and students, however, put forward broad, radical demands, including the ousting of the de Gaulle government.

The capitalist government was losing its grip. When de Gaulle tried to hold a referendum, workers refused to print the ballots. He went to Belgium, and the workers there also refused. The army minister said troops could not be relied upon to fire on civilians. Soldiers' committees formed within barracks and supported the workers and students.

The PCF, which controlled the CGT, sought from the beginning to dampen the radicalisation and channel discontent back within the capitalist system. After weeks of general strikes, the PCF finally managed to end the strikes and occupations in return for significant concessions.

Rather than seeking to led the upsurge in a revolutionary direction — seeking to overthrow the power structures and replace them with institutions of workers' self-organisation, such as the popular action committees already set up by students and workers, the PCF backed de Gaulle's plans for new general elections. This channelled politics back within a framework controlled by the capitalists and favourable to the right wing. Far-left revolutionary groups were banned from running. By helping demobilise the workers and backing elections, the PCF played a crucial role in saving capitalism in France.

While the French people didn't succeed in making the revolution they came so close to, they did get a glimpse of a new world, one where they could take control of their society.

Forty years later, we still look to their struggle for inspiration and important lessons in the important role that workers and students will need to play to transform society.

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