The revolutionary wave of May 1968 constitutes an immense reservoir of social experience. The inventory of this experience is as yet far from complete. What characterized that wave was precisely the irruption onto the historical stage of the creative energy of the masses, multiplying forms of action, initiatives and daring innovations in the struggle for socialism. Only by drawing on this reservoir, by basing itself on these gains, can the workers’ revolutionary movement arm itself effectively to complete the task whose possibility and necessity were both confirmed by May 1968: the victory of the socialist revolution in the highly industrialized countries of Western Europe.

For several years now a very interesting debate has been carried on, around the definition of a new socialist strategy in Europe.footnote1 The events of May 1968 have settled a whole number of the key questions posed in this debate. At the same time, they have raised other questions. They have also obliged those who abstained from the debate to participate in it in their turn, even if only by falsifying the facts of the case. Hence we should go over the principal themes of this discussion, and examine them in the light of the experience of May 1968.

Contradicting the myths of the bourgeoisie, which have been repeated by Social Democracy and even by certain authors who claim to be Marxists, the revolutionary wave of May 1968 has proved that neo-capitalism is unable to attenuate the economic and social contradictions inherent in the system to an extent that precludes any mass action which is objectively revolutionary in scope.

The struggles of May 1968 were the direct result of the contradictions of neo-capitalism.

Such a violent eruption of mass struggle; a general strike involving ten million workers and accompanied by factory occupations; the spread of the movement to many strata peripheral to the proletariat and the middle class (‘old’ and ‘new’)—all this would be incomprehensible if there were not a profound and irrepressible discontent among the workers, induced by the everyday reality of proletarian existence. Those who were blinded by the rise in the standard of living during the last 15 years did not understand that it is precisely in periods when the productive forces are increasing (periods of accelerated ‘economic growth’) that the proletariat acquires new needs, and that the gap between their needs and the available purchasing power grows wider.footnote2 Neither did they understand that as the workers’ standard of living, technical skill and culture improved, the absence of social equality and freedom in the work-place and the intensified alienation within the productive process would become a heavier and less tolerable burden on the backs of the proletariat.

Neo-capitalism’s ability to attenuate somewhat the extent of economic fluctuation, and the absence of a catastrophic economic crisis like that of 1929, concealed from too many observers its inability to avoid recessions. The contradictions that undermined the long phase of growth that the system had known in the West since the end of the Second World War (and in the usa, from the beginning of the War); the irreducible opposition between the necessity to ensure growth at the cost of inflation, and the necessity to maintain a relatively stable international monetary system at the cost of periodic deflation; the more and more definite evolution towards a generalized recession in the Western world: all these tendencies inherent in the system are among the underlying causes of the explosion of May 1968. The effects of the ‘stabilization plan’, and the reappearance of widespread unemployment (particularly among young people) are sufficient indicators. To these could be added the effects of the structural crisis in certain sectors (the naval shipyards of Nantes and Saint-Nazaire are a glaring example) on the radicalization of the workers in certain regions.

It is also significant that the crisis of 1968 did not occur in a country with ‘out-dated’ structures, dominated by an archaic ‘laissez-faire’, but, on the contrary, in the model-country of neo-capitalism—the country whose ‘Plan’ was referred to as the most ‘successful’ example of neo-capitalism, the country with the most dynamic nationalized sector, whose relative ‘independence’ with respect to the private sector even suggested to some commentators a definition of it as a ‘State capitalist sector’. The inability neo-capitalism showed to curb its social contradictions in the long run thereby acquires an ever more universal importance.