Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the 18th century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men and things seem set in sparkling brilliance; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short lived; soon they have obtained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the 19th century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: ‘Hic Rhodus, bic salta!’ C’est ici qu’est la rose, c’est ici qu’il faut danser!

Karl Marx: The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonapartefootnote1

The ‘May Revolution’ only exists in its iconography. The barricades were not military strongholds but the elements of a test. Excluded from official calculations, the spectre of revolution demonstrated in the streets that it still haunts Europe.

A first reckoning. In France, at the end of May, on one side there were 10 million strikers holding all the vital centres of the economy, of the administration and of political, cultural and social life; on the other, two hundred thousand men in the forces of order and a few civilian networks.footnote2 The test provoked a crisis.

The gravity of a political crisis becomes clear when the main actors have to settle on their conduct under the threat of an imminent confrontation, in which ‘fighting is a trial of moral and physical force by means of the latter’. Faced with this brutal choice, each actor reveals his basic strategy, whether of evasion or of struggle. The possible confrontation becomes the touch-stone for each actor’s intentions; ‘the combat is the only effective activity . . . even when the combat does not actually take place.’footnote3

The test functioned a second time, when the material balance of forces swung so strongly in favour of the strikers that it laid bare the balance of political forces. Those who were revolutionary on paper showed clearly that they were in reality more conservative than any moderate ‘reformists’; their actions made possible an assessment of the true intentions of the Communist leadership; the balance of political forces was inverted.

For a new test, a new reckoning. The strike movement had brought government within reach of the opposition: the latter’s response was a refusal. The electors ratified its self-imposed sentence. They voted on the question posed in May, which the opposition parties were incapable of formulating or resolving—the question of the State.