B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
“Do you really believe that these Germans will make a political revolution in our lifetime? My friend, that is just wishful thinking,” wrote Arnold Ruge to Marx in March 1843. Five years later that revolution had come. As an amusing example of a type of historical unconsciousness constantly produced by similar causes and always contradicted by similar results, Ruge’s unfortunate statement was quoted as an epigraph in The Society of the Spectacle, which appeared December 1967. Six months later came the occupations movement, the greatest revolutionary moment in France since the Paris Commune.
The largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial country, and the first wildcat general strike in history; revolutionary occupations and the beginnings of direct democracy; the increasingly complete collapse of state power for nearly two weeks; the resounding verification of the revolutionary theory of our time and even here and there the first steps toward putting it into practice; the most important experience of the modern proletarian movement that is in the process of constituting itself in its fully developed form in all countries, and the example it must now go beyond — this is what the French May 1968 movement was essentially, and this in itself already constitutes its essential victory.
Later on we will examine this movement’s weaknesses and deficiencies, which were the natural consequences of the ignorance and improvisation and of the dead weight of the past that was still felt even where this movement best asserted itself; the consequences, above all, of the separations that all the joint forces for the preservation of the capitalist order narrowly succeeded in defending, with the bureaucratic political and labor-union machines exerting themselves to this end more intensely and effectively than the police at this life-or-death moment for the system. But let us first enumerate the evident characteristics at the heart of the occupations movement, where it was freest to translate its content into words and deeds. There it proclaimed its goals much more explicitly than any other spontaneous revolutionary movement in history; and those goals were much more radical and up-to-date than were ever expressed in the programs of the revolutionary organizations of the past, even at their best moments.
The occupations movement was the sudden return of the proletariat as a historical class, a proletariat now enlarged to include a majority of the salaried employees of modern society and still struggling for the real abolition of classes and of wage labor. The movement was a rediscovery of collective and individual history, an awakening to the possibility of intervening in history, an awareness of participating in an irreversible event where “nothing would ever be the same again.” People looked back in amusement at the strange existence they had led a week before, at their outlived survival. It was a passion for bringing everything and everyone together, a holistic critique of all alienations, of all ideologies and of the entire old organization of real life. In this process property was negated, everyone finding themselves at home everywhere. The recognized desire for genuine dialogue, completely free expression and real community found their terrain in the buildings transformed into open meeting places and in the collective struggle. The telephones (which were among the few technical means still functioning) and the wandering of so many emissaries and travelers around Paris and throughout the entire country, between the occupied buildings, the factories and the assemblies, manifested this real practice of communication. The occupations movement was obviously a rejection of alienated labor; it was a festival, a game, a real presence of people and of time. And it was a rejection of all authority, all specialization, all hierarchical dispossession; a rejection of the state and thus of the parties and unions; and of sociologists and professors, of the health-care system and repressive morality. Everyone awakened by the lightning chain-reaction of the movement (one of the graffiti, perhaps the most beautiful, simply said: “Quick”) thoroughly despised their former conditions of existence and therefore those who had worked to keep them there, from the television stars to the city planners. Many people’s Stalinist illusions, in various diluted forms from Castro to Sartre, were torn apart, as all the rival and interdependent lies of an era crumbled. International solidarity spontaneously reappeared: numerous foreign workers flung themselves into the struggle and many European revolutionaries rushed to France. The extensive participation of women in all aspects of struggle was an unmistakable sign of its revolutionary depth. There was a significant liberation of mores. The movement was also a critique, still partially illusory, of the commodity system (in its lame sociological disguise as “consumer society”). And it already contained a rejection of art that did not yet recognize the historical negation of art (a rejection expressed in the poor abstract slogan, “Power to the imagination,” which did not know how to put this power into practice, to reinvent everything; and which, lacking power, lacked imagination). Hatred of coopters was expressed everywhere, though it did not yet reach the theoretico-practical knowledge of how to get rid of them (the neoartists, political neoleaders and neospectators of the very movement that contradicted them). If the critique-in-acts of the spectacle of nonlife was not yet the revolutionary supersession of these coopters, this was because the “spontaneously councilist” tendency of the May uprising was ahead of almost all the concrete means (including theoretical and organizational consciousness) that will one day enable it to transform itself into a power by being the only power.
Let us spit in passing on the banalizing commentaries and false testimonies by sociologists, retired Marxists and all the doctrinaires of the old preserved ultraleftism or of the servile ultramodernism of spectacular society; no one who experienced this movement can deny that it contained everything we have said.
In March 1966, in Internationale Situationniste #10 (p.77), we wrote, “What might appear to be audacious speculation in several of our assertions, we advance with the assurance that the future will bring their overwhelming and undeniable historical confirmation.” It couldn’t have been put better.
Naturally we had prophesied nothing. We had simply pointed out what was already present: the material preconditions for a new society had long since been produced; the old class society had maintained itself everywhere by considerably modernizing its oppression, while developing an ever-increasing abundance of contradictions; the previously vanquished proletarian movement was returning for a second, more conscious and more total assault. Many people, of course, were already aware of these facts, so clearly demonstrated both by history and by present reality, and some people even stated them; but they did so abstractly and thus in a vacuum, without any echo, without any possibility of intervention. The merit of the situationists was simply to have recognized and pointed out the new focuses of revolt in modern society (focuses which do not at all exclude the old ones, but on the contrary bring them back to light): urbanism, the spectacle, ideology, etc. Because this task was carried out radically, it was able to stir up, or at least considerably reinforce, certain practical acts of revolt. If our enterprise struck a certain chord it was because uncompromising criticism was scarcely to be found among the leftisms of the preceding period. If many people put our words into action it was because we expressed the negative that had been lived by us and by so many others before us. What awakened in the spring of 1968 was nothing other than what had been sleeping in the night of “spectacular society,” whose spectacles presented nothing but an eternal positive façade. But we had “cohabited with the negative” in accordance with the program we formulated in 1962 (see Internationale Situationniste #7, p. 10). We are not going into our “merits” in order to be applauded, but for the benefit of others who are going to act in similar ways.
Those who shut their eyes to this “critique within the mêlée” only saw an “immovable” force of modern domination which reflected their own renunciation. Their antiutopian “realism” was no more real than a police station or the Sorbonne were more real buildings before than after their transformation by arsonists or “Katangans.”(1) When the subterranean phantoms of total revolution rose and extended their force over the entire country, it was all the forces of the old world that appeared as ghostly illusions dissipated in the daylight. After thirty miserable years that in the history of revolutions amounted to no more than a month, came this month of May that recapitulated thirty years.
To transform our desires into reality is a precise task, precisely the contrary of the intellectual prostitution that grafts its illusions of permanence onto any reality that happens to exist. Take Henri Lefebvre, for example, whom we already quoted in the preceding issue of this journal (October 1967) because in his book Positions contre les technocrates (Gonthier) he ventured a categorical conclusion whose scientific validity was revealed scarcely more than six months later: “The situationists . . . do not propose a concrete utopia, but an abstract one. Do they really imagine that one fine day or one decisive evening people will look at each other and say, ‘Enough! We’re fed up with work and boredom! Let’s put an end to them!’ and that they will then proceed into the eternal Festival and the creation of situations? Although this happened once, at the dawn of 18 March 1871 [the Paris Commune], this combination of circumstances will not occur again.” A certain intellectual influence has been attributed to Lefebvre for certain of the SI’s radical theses that he surreptitiously copied (see in this issue the reproduction of our 1963 tract Into the Trashcan of History),(2) but he reserved the truth of that critique for the past, even though it was born out of the present more than out of his academic reflections on the past, and he warned against the illusion that any present struggle could ever again achieve those results. Don’t jump to the conclusion that Lefebvre is the only former thinker the event has made a complete fool of: those who avoided committing themselves to such ludicrous declarations nevertheless had the same convictions. Overcome by their shock in May, all the researchers of historical nothingness have admitted that no one had in any way foreseen what occurred. We must acknowledge a sort of exception to this in the case of all the sects of “resurrected Bolsheviks,” of whom it is fair to say that for the last thirty years they have not for one instant ceased heralding the imminence of the revolution of 1917. But they too were badly mistaken: this was not at all 1917 and in any case they were hardly equal to Lenin. As for the remnants of the old non-Trotskyist ultraleft, they still needed at least a major economic crisis. They made any revolutionary moment contingent on its return, and saw nothing coming. Now that they have admitted that there was a revolutionary crisis in May they have to prove that some sort of invisible economic crisis was taking place in early 1968. As clueless and complacent as always, they are earnestly working on this problem, producing diagrams of increases in prices and unemployment. For them an economic crisis is no longer that terribly conspicuous objective reality that was so extensively experienced and described up through 1929, but rather a sort of eucharistic presence that is one of the foundations of their religion.
Just as it would be necessary to reissue the entire collection of Internationale Situationniste journals in order to show how greatly all these people were mistaken before May, so it would require a thick volume to go through all the stupidities and partial admissions they have produced since then. We will limit ourselves to citing the picturesque journalist Frédéric Gaussen, who felt that he could reassure the readers of Le Monde on 9 December 1966 that the few situationist maniacs who perpetrated the Strasbourg scandal had “a messianic confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the masses and in their aptitude for freedom.” Since then Gaussen’s aptitude for freedom has not progressed one millimeter, but we find him in the same paper, 29 January 1969, panic-stricken at finding everywhere “the feeling that revolutionary aspirations are universal.” “Highschoolers in Rome, college students in Berlin, ‘enragés’ in Madrid, ‘Lenin’s orphans’ in Prague, radical dissidents in Belgrade, all are attacking the same world, the Old World.” And Gaussen, using almost the same words as before, now attributes to all those revolutionary masses the same “quasi-mystical belief in the creative spontaneity of the masses.”
We don’t want to dwell in triumph on the discomfiture of all our intellectual adversaries; not that this “triumph,” which is in fact simply that of the modern revolutionary movement, is not quite significant, but because the subject is so monotonous and because the reappearance of history, the reappearance of direct class struggle recognizing present-day revolutionary goals, has pronounced such a clear verdict on the whole period that came to an end in May (previously it was the subversion of the existing society that seemed unlikely; now it is its preservation). Instead of going over what is already verified, it is henceforth more important to pose the new problems; to criticize the May movement and embark on the practice of the new era.
In all other countries the recent and generally confused quest for a radical critique of modern capitalism (private or bureaucratic) had not yet broken out of the narrow base it had in the student milieu. In complete contrast, whatever the government, the newspapers and the ideologists of modernist sociology pretend to believe, the May movement was not a student movement. It was a revolutionary proletarian movement reemerging after half a century of suppression and generally deprived of everything. Its unfortunate paradox was that it was able to concretely express itself and take shape only on the very unfavorable terrain of a student revolt: the streets held by the rioters around the Latin Quarter and the mostly university buildings occupied in the same area. Instead of dwelling on the laughable historical parody of Leninist or Maoist-Stalinist students disguising themselves as proletarians or vanguard leaders of the proletariat, it must be realized that it was, on the contrary, the most advanced segment of the workers, unorganized and separated by all the forms of repression, that found themselves disguised as students in the reassuring imagery of the labor unions and the spectacular news. The May movement was not some political theory looking for workers to carry it out; it was the acting proletariat seeking its theoretical consciousness.
The sabotage of the university by a few groups of young and notoriously antistudent revolutionaries at Nantes and Nanterre (we are referring here to the “Enragés” and not, of course, to the majority of the “March 22nd Movement” who later imitated their actions) presented the opportunity to develop forms of direct struggle that dissatisfied workers, mainly young ones, had already initiated in the early months of 1968 (at Caen and Redon, for example). But this circumstance was in no way fundamental and could do the movement no harm. What was both significant and unfortunate was the fact that the unions were eventually able to control the wildcat strike that had been launched against their will and despite all their maneuvers. They accepted the strike they had been unable to prevent, which is the usual tactic of a union faced with a wildcat, although this time they had to accept one on a national scale. And by accepting this “unofficial” general strike they remained accepted by it. They kept control over the factory gates, simultaneously isolating the vast majority of the workers from the real movement and each plant from all the others. Thus the most unitary action and the most radical critique-in-action ever seen was at the same time a sum of isolations and a pageant of banal, officially approved demands. Just as the unions had to let the general strike spread little by little, winding up in virtual unanimity, so they strove to liquidate the strike little by little, using the terrorism of falsification and their monopoly of communication to coerce the workers in each separate enterprise to accept the crumbs they had collectively rejected on May 27. The revolutionary strike was thus reduced to a cold war between the union bureaucracies and the workers. The unions acknowledged the strike on the condition that the workers tacitly acknowledged, by their practical passivity, that it would lead nowhere. The unions did not “miss an opportunity” to act revolutionarily, because there is nothing revolutionary about any of them, from the Stalinists to the bourgeoisified reformists. They did not even act to bring about substantial reforms, because the situation was too dangerously revolutionary to play around with, even to try to exploit it to their own advantage. They very clearly wanted it to be brought to a halt immediately, at any cost. In this exceptional situation the Stalinists — admirably imitated in this hypocrisy by the semileftist sociologists (cf. Coudray in La Brèche, Éditions du Seuil, 1968) — though usually of such a contrary opinion, suddenly feigned an extraordinary respect for the competence of the workers, for their wise “decision,” presented with the most fantastic cynicism as having been clearly debated, voted in full knowledge of the facts and absolutely unequivocal: for once the workers supposedly knew what they wanted because “they did not want a revolution”! But all the obstacles and muzzles and lies that the panic-stricken bureaucrats resorted to in the face of this supposed unwillingness of the workers constitutes the best proof of their real will, unarmed but dangerous. It is only by forgetting the historical totality of the movement of modern society that one can blather on in this circular positivism, which thinks it sees a rationality everywhere in the existing order because it raises its “science” to the point of successively considering that order from the side of the demand and the side of the response. Thus the same Coudray [pseudonym of Cornelius Castoriadis] notes, “If you have these unions, a raise of 5% is the most you can get, and if 5% is what you want, these unions suffice.” Leaving aside the question of their intentions in relation to their real life and their interests, what all these gentlemen lack at the very least is dialectics.
The workers, who as always and everywhere naturally had quite enough good reasons for being dissatisfied, started the wildcat strike because they sensed the revolutionary situation created by the new forms of sabotage in the universities and the government’s successive mistakes in reacting to them. They were obviously as indifferent as we were to the forms and reforms of the university system; but certainly not to the critique of the culture, environment and everyday life produced by advanced capitalism, a critique that spread so quickly upon the first rip in that university veil.
By launching the wildcat strike the workers gave the lie to the liars who spoke in their name. In most of the factories they proved incapable of really speaking on their own behalf and of saying what they wanted. But in order to say what they want it is first necessary for the workers to create, through their own autonomous action, the concrete conditions that enable them to speak and act, conditions that now exist nowhere. The absence, almost everywhere, of such dialogue and of such linking up, as well as the lack of theoretical knowledge of the autonomous goals of proletarian class struggle (these two factors being able to develop only together), prevented the workers from expropriating the expropriators of their real life. Thus the advanced nucleus of workers, around which the next revolutionary proletarian organization will take shape, came to the Latin Quarter as a poor cousin of a “student reformism” that was itself a largely artificial product of pseudoinformation or of the illusionism of the little leftist sects. This advanced nucleus included young blue-collar workers; white-collar workers from the occupied offices; delinquents and unemployed; rebellious highschoolers, who were often those working-class youth that modern capitalism recruits for the cut-rate education designed to prepare them for a role in developed industry (“Stalinists, your children are with us!” was one of the slogans); “lost intellectuals”; and “Katangans.”
The fact that a significant fraction of French students took part in the movement, particularly in Paris, is obvious; but this cannot be considered as constituting the essence of the movement, or even as one of its main aspects. Out of 150,000 Parisian students at most 10-20 thousand were present during the least difficult times of the demonstrations, and only a few thousand during the violent street confrontations. The sole moment of the crisis involving students alone — admittedly one of the decisive moments for its extension — was the spontaneous uprising of the Latin Quarter on May 3 following the arrest of the leftist leaders in the Sorbonne. On the day after the occupation of the Sorbonne nearly half of the participants in its general assemblies, at a time when those assemblies had clearly taken on an insurrectional role, were still students worried about the conditions for their exams and hoping for some university reform in their favor. Probably a slight majority of the student participants recognized that the question of power was posed, but they generally did so as naïve constituents of the little leftist parties, as spectators of old Leninist schemas or even of the Oriental exoticism of Maoist Stalinism. The base of these little leftist groups was indeed almost exclusively confined to the student milieu; and the poverty that was sustained there was clearly evident in virtually all the leaflets issuing from that milieu (the vacuity of all the Kravetzes, the stupidity of all the Péninous). The best statements by the workers who came to the Sorbonne during the initial days were often received with a pedantic and condescending attitude by these students who fantasized themselves as experts in revolution, though they themselves were ready to salivate and applaud at the stimulus of the clumsiest manipulator proclaiming some stupidity while invoking “the working class.” Nevertheless, the very fact that these groups manage to recruit a certain number of students is one more symptom of the discontent in present-day society: these little groups are the theatrical expression of a real yet vague revolt that is bargain-shopping for solutions. Finally, the fact that a small fraction of students really supported all the radical demands of May is another indication of the depth of the movement; and remains to their credit.
Although several thousand students, as individuals, were able through their experience of 1968 to break more or less completely with the position assigned to them in the society, the mass of students were not transformed by it. This was not in virtue of the pseudo-Marxist platitude that considers the student’s social background (bourgeois or petty-bourgeois in the great majority of cases) as the determining factor, but rather because of his social destiny: the student’s becoming is the truth of his being. He is mass-produced and conditioned for an upper, middle or lower position in the organization of modern industrial production. Moreover, the student is being dishonest when he pretends to be scandalized at “discovering” this reason for his education, which has always been proclaimed openly. It is evident that the economic uncertainties of his optimum employment, and especially the dubious desirability of the “privileges” present society can offer him, have played a role in his bewilderment and revolt. But it is precisely because of this that the student is such a perfect customer, eagerly seeking his quality brand in the ideology of one or another of the little bureaucratic groups. The student who dreams of himself as a Bolshevik or a swaggering Stalinist (i.e. a Maoist) is playing both sides: Simply as a result of his studies he reckons on obtaining some modest position managing some small sector of the society as a cadre of capitalism, should a change in power never arrive to fulfill his wishes. And in case his dream of such a power change were to become a reality, he sees himself in an even more glorious managerial role and a higher rank as a “scientifically” warranted political cadre. These groups’ dreams of domination are often clumsily revealed in the contempt their fanatics have the nerve to express toward certain aspects of workers’ demands, which they often term “mere bread-and-butter issues.” In this impotence that would be better advised to keep silent one can already glimpse the disdain with which these leftists would like to be able to respond to any future discontent among the same workers if these self-appointed specialists in the general interests of the proletariat ever managed to get their little hands on state power and police (as in Kronstadt, as in Beijing). But leaving aside the perspective of these germ-carriers of ruling bureaucracies, nothing serious can be recognized in the sociologico-journalistic contrasts between rebellious students, who are supposedly rejecting “consumer society,” and the workers, who are supposedly still eager to participate in it. The consumption in question is only a consumption of commodities. It is a hierarchical consumption and it is increasing for everyone, but in a way that becomes increasingly hierarchical. The decline and falsification of the modern commodity’s use-value is experienced by everyone, though to differing degrees. Everyone experiences this consumption of both spectacular and real commodities within a fundamental poverty, “because this poverty is not itself beyond privation, it is only an augmented privation” (The Society of the Spectacle). Like everyone else, the workers spend their lives passively consuming the spectacle and all the lies of ideologies and commodities. But they have fewer illusions than anyone about the concrete conditions imposed on them, about the price they have to pay, every moment of their lives, for the production of all that.
For all these reasons the students considered as a social stratum — a stratum itself also in crisis — were in May 1968 nothing but the rear guard of the whole movement.
The deficiency of almost all the students who expressed revolutionary intentions was, considering all their free time which they could have devoted to elucidating the problems of revolution, certainly deplorable, but quite secondary. The deficiency of the vast majority of workers, constantly leashed and gagged, was in contrast quite excusable, but decisive. The situationists’ description and analysis of the main stages of the crisis have been set forth in René Viénet’s book Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement (Gallimard, 1968). We will merely summarize here the main points related in that book, which was written in Brussels during the last three weeks of July on the basis of then-existing documentation, but of which, it seems to us, no conclusion needs to be modified.
From January to March the Enragés group of Nanterre (whose tactics were later taken up in April by the March 22nd Movement) successfully carried out the sabotage of classes and university departments. The Paris University Council’s bungling and too-belated repression, together with two successive shutdowns of the Nanterre University, led to the spontaneous student riot in the Latin Quarter on May 3. The university was paralyzed by both the police and the strike. There was fighting in the streets throughout the following week. Young workers joined in, the Stalinists discredited themselves each day by incredible slanders, the leaders of SNESup [National Union of University Employees] and the little leftist groups revealed their lack of imagination and rigor, and the government responded successively and always at the wrong moment with force and inept concessions. On the night of May 10 the uprising that took over the neighborhood around Rue Gay-Lussac, set up sixty barricades, and held it for more than eight hours aroused the entire country and forced the government into a major capitulation: it withdrew the police forces from the Latin Quarter and reopened the Sorbonne that it could no longer keep running. From May 13-17 the movement irresistibly advanced to the point of becoming a general revolutionary crisis, with the 16th probably being the crucial day, the day the factories began to declare themselves for a wildcat strike. The single-day general strike decreed for the 13th by the big bureaucratic organizations, with the aim of bringing the movement to a rapid end and if possible turning it to their own advantage, was in fact only a beginning: the workers and students of Nantes attacked the prefecture and those who occupied the Sorbonne opened it up to the workers. The Sorbonne immediately became a “club populaire” that made the language and demands of the clubs of 1848 seem timid by comparison. On the 14th the workers of Sud-Aviation at Nantes occupied their factory and locked up their managers. Their example was followed by two or three enterprises on the 15th and by several more after the 16th, the day the rank and file imposed the Renault strike at Billancourt. Virtually all the enterprises in the country were soon to follow;(3) and virtually all institutions, ideas and habits were to be contested in the succeeding days. The government and the Stalinists made feverish efforts to bring the crisis to a halt by breaking up its main power: they came to an agreement on wage concessions that they hoped would be sufficient to lead to an immediate return to work. On the 27th the rank and file everywhere rejected those “Grenelle Accords.” The regime, which a month of Stalinist devotion had not been able to save, saw itself on the brink of destruction. On the 29th the Stalinists themselves had to recognize the likelihood of the collapse of the de Gaulle regime and reluctantly prepared, along with the rest of the Left, to inherit its dangerous legacy: a social revolution that would have to be disarmed or crushed. If, in the face of the panic of the bourgeoisie and the wearing thin of the Stalinist braking force, de Gaulle had stepped down, the new regime would only have been a weakened but officialized version of the preceding de facto alliance: the Stalinists would have defended a Mendès-Waldeck [i.e. Socialist-Communist coalition] government, for example, with bourgeois militias, party activists and fragments of the army. They would have tried to play the role not of Kerensky, but rather that of Noske.(4) De Gaulle, however, being more steadfast than the staff of his administration, relieved the Stalinists by announcing on the 30th that he would strive to maintain himself in power by any means necessary; that is to say, by calling out the army and initiating a civil war in order to hold or reconquer Paris. “The Stalinists, delighted, were very careful not to call for a continuation of the strike until the fall of the regime. They immediately rallied around de Gaulle’s proposal of new elections, regardless of what it might cost them. In such conditions, the immediate alternative was either the autonomous self-affirmation of the proletariat or the complete defeat of the movement; councilist revolution or the Grenelle Accords. The revolutionary movement could not settle with the PCF [French Communist Party] without first having got rid of de Gaulle. The form of workers’ power that could have developed in a post-Gaullist phase of the crisis, finding itself blocked both by the old reaffirmed state and by the PCF, no longer had any chance to hold back its onrushing defeat” (Viénet, op. cit.). The movement began to ebb, although the workers for one or more weeks stubbornly persisted in the strike that all their unions urged them to stop. Of course the bourgeoisie had not disappeared in France; it had merely been dumbstruck with terror. On May 30 it reemerged, along with the conformist petty bourgeoisie, to demonstrate its support for the state. But this state, already so well defended by the bureaucratic left, could not be brought down against its will as long as the workers had not eliminated the power base of those bureaucrats by imposing the form of their own autonomous power. The workers left the state this freedom and naturally had to suffer the consequences. The majority of them had not recognized the total significance of their own movement; and nobody else could do so in their place.
If, in a single large factory, between May 16 and May 30, a general assembly had constituted itself as a council holding all powers of decision and execution, expelling the bureaucrats, organizing its self-defense and calling on the strikers of all the enterprises to link up with it, this qualitative step could have immediately brought the movement to the ultimate showdown, to the final struggle whose general outlines have all been historically traced by this movement. A very large number of enterprises would have followed the course thus discovered. This factory could immediately have taken the place of the dubious and in every sense eccentric Sorbonne of the first days and have become the real center of the occupations movement: genuine delegates from the numerous councils that already virtually existed in some of the occupied buildings, and from all the councils that could have imposed themselves in all the branches of industry, would have rallied around this base. Such an assembly could then have proclaimed the expropriation of all capital, including state capital; announced that all the country’s means of production were henceforth the collective property of the proletariat organized in direct democracy; and appealed directly (by finally seizing some of the telecommunications facilities, for example) to the workers of the entire world to support this revolution. Some people will say that such a hypothesis is utopian. We answer: It is precisely because the occupations movement was objectively at several moments only an hour away from such a result that it spread such terror, visible to everyone at the time in the impotence of the state and the panic of the so-called Communist Party, and since then in the conspiracy of silence concerning its gravity. This silence has been so total that millions of witnesses, taken in once again by the “social organization of appearances” which presents this period to them as a short-lived madness of youth (perhaps even merely of student youth), must ask themselves if a society is not itself mad if it could allow such a stupefying aberration to occur.
In such an eventuality, civil war would naturally have been inevitable. If armed confrontation had no longer hinged on what the government feared or pretended to fear concerning the supposed evil designs of the “Communist” Party, but had actually faced the consolidation of a direct, industrially based proletarian power (we are, of course, referring here to a total autonomous power, not to some “workers’ power” limited to some sort of pseudocontrol of the production of their own alienation), then armed counterrevolution would certainly have been launched immediately. But it would not have been certain of winning. Some of the troops would obviously have mutinied; the workers would have figured out how to get weapons, and they certainly would not have built any more barricades — a good form of political expression at the beginning of the movement, but obviously ridiculous strategically. (And those like Malraux who claimed afterwards that tanks could have taken Rue Gay-Lussac much more quickly than the anti-riot police did are certainly right on that point; but could they have afforded the political cost of such a victory? In any case, the state held its forces back and did not risk it; and it certainly didn’t swallow this humiliation out of humanitarianism.) Foreign intervention would have inevitably followed, whatever some ideologues may think (it is possible to have read Hegel and Clausewitz and still be nothing more than a Glucksmann), probably beginning with NATO forces, but with the direct or indirect support of the Warsaw Pact. But then everything would once again have hinged on the European proletariat: double or nothing.
Since the defeat of the occupations movement, both those who participated in it and those who had to endure it have often asked the question: “Was it a revolution?” The general use in the press and in daily conversation of the cowardly neutral phrase, “the May events,” is nothing but a way of evading answering or even posing this question. Such a question must be placed in its true historical light. In this context the journalists’ and governments’ superficial references to the “success” or “failure” of a revolution mean nothing for the simple reason that since the bourgeois revolutions no revolution has yet succeeded: not one has abolished classes. Proletarian revolution has so far not been victorious anywhere, but the practical process through which its project manifests itself has already created at least a dozen revolutionary moments of historic importance that can appropriately be termed revolutions. In none of these moments was the total content of proletarian revolution fully developed; but in each case there was a fundamental interruption of the ruling socioeconomic order and the appearance of new forms and conceptions of real life: variegated phenomena that can be understood and evaluated only in their overall significance, including their potential future significance. Of all the partial criteria for judging whether a period of disruption of state power deserves the name of revolution or not, the worst is certainly that which considers whether the political regime in power fell or survived. This criterion, much invoked after May by the Gaullist thinkers, is the same one that enables the daily news to refer to the latest Third World military coups as revolutions. But the revolution of 1905 did not bring down the Czarist regime, it only obtained a few temporary concessions from it. The Spanish revolution of 1936 did not formally suppress the existing political power: it arose, in fact, out of a proletarian uprising initiated in order to defend that Republic against Franco. And the Hungarian revolution of 1956 did not abolish Nagy’s liberal-bureaucratic government. Among other regrettable limitations, the Hungarian movement had many aspects of a national uprising against foreign domination; and this national-resistance aspect also played a certain, though less important, role in the origin of the Paris Commune. The Commune supplanted Thiers’s power only within the limits of Paris. And the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905 never even took control of the capital. All the crises cited here as examples, though deficient in their practical achievements and even in their perspectives, nevertheless produced enough radical innovations and put their societies severely enough in check to be legitimately termed revolutions.
As for judging revolutions by the amount of bloodshed they lead to, this romantic vision is not even worth discussing. Some incontestable revolutions have involved very little bloodshed — including even the Paris Commune, which was to end in a massacre — while on the other hand numerous civil confrontations have caused thousands of deaths without in any way being revolutions. It is generally not revolutions that are bloody, but the reaction’s subsequent repression of them. The question of the number of deaths during the May movement has given rise to a polemic that the temporarily reassured defenders of order keep coming back to. The official version is that there were only five deaths, all of them instant, including one policeman. Those who claim this are the first to admit that this was an unexpectedly low number. Adding considerably to its improbability is the fact that it has never been admitted that any of the very numerous seriously wounded people could have died in the following days: this extraordinary good luck was certainly not due to rapid medical assistance, particularly on the night of the Gay-Lussac uprising. But if an easy coverup in underestimating the number of deaths was very useful at the time for a government up against the wall, it remained useful afterwards for different reasons.
But on the whole, the retrospective proofs of the revolutionariness of the occupations movement are as striking as those that its very existence threw in the face of the world at the time: The proof that it had established its own new legitimacy is that the regime reestablished in June has never dared to prosecute those responsible for attacking the public order through overtly illegal actions, those who had partially divested it of its authority and even of its buildings. But the clearest proof, for those who know the history of our century, is still this: everything that the Stalinists did ceaselessly and at every stage in order to oppose the movement confirms the presence of revolution.
While the Stalinists, as always, represented antiworker bureaucracy in its purest form, the little leftist bureaucratic embryos were straddling the fence. They all openly catered to the major bureaucratic organizations, as much out of calculation as out of ideology (except for the March 22nd Movement, which limited itself to catering to the manipulators who had infiltrated its own ranks: JCR [a Trotskyist group], Maoists, etc.). Locked in their delusory “left-right” schemas, they could envisage nothing more than “pushing to the left” both a spontaneous movement that was much more extremist than they were and bureaucratic apparatuses that could not possibly make any concessions to leftism in such an obviously revolutionary situation. Pseudostrategical illusions flourished: Some leftists believed that the occupation of one or another ministry on the night of May 24 would have ensured the victory of the movement (but other leftists maneuvered to prevent such an “excess,” which did not enter into their own blueprint for victory). Others, prior to their later, more modest dream of maintaining a cleaned up and “responsible” administration of the university buildings in order to hold a “Summer University,” believed that those buildings would become bases for urban guerrilla warfare. (All of them, however, were surrendered after the end of the workers’ strike without being defended; and even the Sorbonne at the very time when it was the momentary center of an expanding movement could, on the crucial night of May 16 when all the doors were open and there were hardly any people there, have been retaken in less than an hour by a riot-police raid.) Not wanting to see that the movement had already gone beyond a mere political change in the state, or in what terms the real stakes were posed (a total, coherent awakening of consciousness in the enterprises), the little leftist groups worked against that perspective by disseminating moth-eaten illusions and by everywhere presenting bad examples of the bureaucratic conduct that the revolutionary workers were all rejecting in disgust; and finally, by the most pathetic parodying of all the forms of past revolutions, from parliamentarianism to Zapata-style guerrilla war, without their poor dramatics having the slightest relation to reality. Fervent admirers of the errors of a vanished revolutionary past, the antiquated ideologists of the little leftist parties were naturally very ill-prepared to understand a modern movement. The March 22nd Movement, an eclectic aggregate of these old ideologies spiced up with a few fragments of modern incoherence, combined almost all the ideological defects of the past with the defects of a naïve confusionism. Coopters were installed in the leadership of the very people who expressed their fear of “cooption,” which was for them a vague and almost mystical peril since they lacked the slightest knowledge of elementary truths about either cooption or organization, or about the difference between a mandated delegate and an uncontrollable “spokesman” — a spokesman [Daniel Cohn-Bendit] who was their de facto leader, since the main prestige and influence of the March 22nd Movement stemmed from its communication with reporters. Its laughable celebrities came before the spotlights to announce to the press that they were taking care not to become celebrities.(5)
The “Action Committees,” which were spontaneously formed just about everywhere, were on the ambiguous borderline between direct democracy and infiltrated and coopted confusionism. This contradiction created internal divisions in almost all of them. But there was an even clearer division between the two main types of organization that went by the same label. On one hand, there were committees formed on a local basis (neighborhood or enterprise ACs, occupation committees of certain buildings that had fallen into the hands of the revolutionary movement) or that were set up in order to carry out some specialized task whose practical necessity was obvious, notably the internationalist extension of the movement (Italian AC, North African AC, etc.). On the other hand, there was a proliferation of professional committees: attempts to revive the old trade-unionism, but usually for the benefit of semiprivileged sectors and thus with a clearly corporatist character; these committees served as tribunes for specialists who wanted to join the movement while maintaining their separate specialized positions, or even to derive some favorable publicity from it (“Congress of Cinema Workers,” Writers Union, English Institute AC, etc.). The methods of these two types of AC were even more clearly opposed than their goals. In the former, decisions were executory and prefigured the revolutionary power of the councils; in the latter, they were abstract wishes and parodied the pressure groups of state power.
The occupied buildings, when they were not under the authority of “loyal labor-union managers” and insofar as they did not remain isolated as exclusive pseudofeudal possessions of their usual university users, constituted one of the strongest points of the movement (for example, the Sorbonne during the first few days, the buildings opened up to the workers and young slum-dwellers by the “students” of Nantes, the INSA taken over by the revolutionary workers of Lyon, and the Institut Pédagogique National). The very logic of these occupations could have led to the best developments. It should be noted, moreover, how a movement that remained paradoxically timid at the prospect of requisitioning commodities did not have the slightest misgivings about having already appropriated a part of the state’s fixed capital.
If this example was ultimately prevented from spreading to the factories, it should also be said that the style created by many of these occupations left much to be desired. Almost everywhere the persistence of old routines hindered people from seeing the full scope of the situation and the means it offered for the action in progress. For example, Informations, Correspondance Ouvrières #77 (January 1969) objects to Viénet’s book — which mentioned their presence at Censier — by declaring that the workers who had been with ICO for a long time “did not ‘set up quarters’ at the Sorbonne or at Censier or anywhere else; all were engaged in the strike at their own workplaces” and “in the assemblies and in the streets.” “They never considered maintaining any sort of ‘permanent center’ in the university buildings, much less constituting themselves as a ‘workers coordinating committee’ or a ‘council,’ even if it were for ‘maintaining the occupations’ ” (ICO considering this latter as tantamount to “participating in parallel organizations that would end up substituting themselves for the worker”). Further on, ICO adds that their group nevertheless held “two meetings a week” there because “rooms were freely available at the university departments, particularly at Censier, which was calmer.” Thus the scruples of the ICO workers (whom we are willing to assume to be quite capable as long as they modestly limit themselves to striking at their own workplaces or in the nearby streets) led them to see in one of the most original aspects of the crisis nothing more than the possibility of switching from their usual café hangout by borrowing free rooms in a quiet university department. With the same complacency they also admit that a number of their comrades “soon stopped coming to ICO meetings because they did not find any response there to their desire to ‘do something’.” Thus, for these workers, “doing something” has automatically become a shameful inclination to substitute oneself for “the worker” — for a sort of pure, being-in-himself worker who, by definition, would exist only in his own factory, where for example the Stalinists would force him to keep silent, and where ICO would have to wait for all the workers to purely liberate themselves on the spot (otherwise wouldn’t they risk substituting themselves for this still mute real worker?). Such an ideological acceptance of dispersion defies the essential need whose vital urgency was felt by so many workers in May: the need for coordination and communication of struggles and ideas, starting from bases of free encounter outside their union-policed factories. But the ICO participants have never, in fact, either before or since May, consistently followed out the implications of their metaphysical reasoning. Through their mimeographed publication a few dozen workers resign themselves to “substituting” their analyses for those that might spontaneously be made by the several hundred other workers who read it without having participated in writing it. Their issue #78 in February informs us that “in one year the circulation of ICO has risen from 600 to 1000 copies.” But the Council for Maintaining the Occupations [CMDO], for example, which seems to shock the virtue of ICO by the mere fact that it occupied the Institut Pédagogique National, was able (to say nothing of its other activities or publications at the time) to get 100,000 copies of various of its texts printed for free, through an immediate agreement reached with the strikers of the IPN press at Montrouge. The vast majority of these texts were distributed to other striking workers; and so far no one has tried to show that the content of these texts could in the slightest way threaten to substitute itself for the decisions of any worker. And the strikers’ participation in the linkups established by the CMDO in and outside Paris never contradicted their presence at their own workplaces (nor, to be sure, in the streets). Moreover, the striking typesetters who were members of the CMDO much preferred working elsewhere where there were machines available rather than remaining passive in “their” usual workplaces.
If the purists of worker inaction certainly missed opportunities to speak up and make up for all the times they have been forced into a silence which has become a sort of proud habit among them, the presence of a mass of neo-Bolshevik manipulators was much more harmful. But the worst thing was still the extreme lack of homogeneity of the assembly, which in the first days of the Sorbonne occupation found itself, without having either wished it or understood it clearly, in the position of an exemplary center of a movement that was drawing in the factories. This lack of social homogeneity stemmed first of all from the overwhelming preponderance of students, in spite of the good intentions of many of them, a preponderance which was made even worse by the large number of visitors with merely touristic motivations. This was the objective base that made possible the most gross maneuvers on the part of bureaucrats like Péninou and Krivine. The ambiguity of the participants added to the essential ambiguity of the acts of an improvised assembly which by force of circumstances had come to represent (in all senses of the word, including the worst) the councilist perspective for the entire country. This assembly made decisions both for the Sorbonne (and even there in a poor and mystified manner: it never even succeeded in mastering its own functioning) and for the whole society in crisis: it wanted and proclaimed, in clumsy but sincere terms, unity with the workers and the negation of the old world. While pointing out its faults, let us not forget how much it was listened to. The same issue #77 of ICO reproaches the situationists for having sought in that assembly an exemplary act that would “enter into legend” and for having set up some heroes “on the podium of history.” We don’t believe we have ever built up anybody as a star on a historical tribune, but we also think that the superior irony affected by these lofty workerists falls flat: it was a historic tribune.
[TRANSLATOR’S NOTES]1. “Katangans”: nickname given to ex-mercenaries and other toughs who rallied to the May movement. Presumably some of them had fought in Katanga.
2. In 1960 the SI initiated a boycott of anyone who collaborated with the journal Arguments, “in order to make an example of the most representative tendency of that conformist and pseudoleftist intelligentsia that has up till now laboriously organized a conspiracy of silence regarding us, and whose bankruptcy in all domains is beginning to be recognized by perceptive people” (Internationale Situationniste #5, p. 13). The SI noted various evidences of this bankruptcy and predicted the journal’s imminent demise from sheer incoherence and lack of ideas; which was precisely what happened in 1962.
As it happened, the last issue of Arguments contained an article by Henri Lefebvre on the Paris Commune that was largely plagiarized from the SI’s “Theses on the Commune.” The SI issued a tract, Into the Trashcan of History, calling attention to the contradiction that the lead article of a guest writer himself far above the general level of this journal — a journal pretending that the SI was of so little interest as to not be worth mentioning — was merely a watered-down version of a text three situationists had written in a few hours. This tract was reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #12 in response to the numerous commentators who attributed to Lefebvre an important influence on the May 1968 movement due to “his” theses on the festive nature of the Commune.
For more on this topic, see “L’historien Lefebvre” (Internationale Situationniste #10, pp. 73-75).
3. By May 20 six million workers were on strike; within a few days the number had risen to eleven million.
Although many people continue to refer to May 1968 as a “student movement,” these figures alone should suffice to refute that illusion, as they refuted many other then-current ideologies: “Those who spoke of Marcuse as the ‘theorist’ of the movement didn’t know what they were talking about. They didn’t even understand Marcuse, much less the movement itself. Marcusian ideology, already ridiculous, was pasted onto the movement in the same way that Geismar, Sauvageot and Cohn-Bendit were ‘designated’ to represent it. But even these latter admitted that they knew nothing about Marcuse. If the May revolutionary crisis demonstrated anything, it was in fact precisely the opposite of Marcuse’s theses: it showed that the proletariat has not been integrated and that it is the main revolutionary force in modern society. Pessimists and sociologists will have to redo their calculations, as will the spokespeople of underdevelopment, Black Power and Dutschkeism” (René Viénet, Enragés et situationnistes dans le mouvement des occupations, pp. 153-154).
4. Alexander Kerensky: head of the Russian provisional government between the February 1917 revolution and the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 coup. Evoked here as representative of devious counterrevolutionary maneuvering, as contrasted with the more overt action of Gustav Noske, the German socialist leader responsible for crushing the Spartakist insurrection in 1919.
5. “The March 22nd Movement was from the beginning an eclectic conglomeration of radicals who joined it as (supposedly) independent individuals. They all agreed on the fact that it was impossible for them to agree on any theoretical point, and counted on ‘collective action’ to overcome this deficiency. There was nevertheless a consensus on two subjects, one a ridiculous banality, the other a new standard. The banality was anti-imperialist ‘struggle,’ the heritage of the contemplative period of the little leftist groups that was about to end (Nanterre University, that suburban Vietnam, resolutely supporting the just struggle of insurgent Bolivia, etc.). The novelty was direct democracy within the organization. This was only very partially realized in the March 22nd Movement because of the participants’ divided allegiances — the discreetly unmentioned or ignored fact that the majority of its members were simultaneously members of other groups. . . . The sociologists’ and journalists’ trumpeting of the ‘originality’ of the March 22nd Movement masked the fact that its leftist amalgam, while new in France, was a direct copy of the American SDS, itself equally eclectic and democratic and frequently infiltrated by various old leftist sects” (Viénet, pp. 37-39).
“Cohn-Bendit himself belonged to the independent semitheoretical anarchist group that publishes the journal Noir et Rouge. As much due to this fact as because of his personal qualities, he found himself in the most radical tendency of the March 22nd Movement, more truly revolutionary than the rest of the group whose spokesman he was to become and which he therefore had to tolerate. (In a number of interviews he has made increasing concessions to Maoism, as for example in the May 1968 issue of Le Magazine Littéraire: ‘Maoism? I don’t really know all that much about it! I’ve read some things in Mao that are very true. His thesis of relying on the peasantry has always been an anarchist thesis.’) Insufficiently intelligent, informed confusedly and at second hand regarding present-day theoretical problems, skillful enough to entertain a student audience, frank enough to stand out from the arena of leftist political maneuvers yet flexible enough to come to terms with its leaders, Cohn-Bendit was an honest revolutionary, but no genius. He knew much less than he should have, and did not make the best use of what he did know. Moreover, because he uncritically accepted the role of a star, exhibiting himself for the mob of reporters from the spectacular media, his statements, which always combined a certain lucidity with a certain foolishness, were inevitably twisted in the latter direction by the deformation inherent in that kind of communication” (Viénet, pp. 38-39).
End of Part 1 of “The Beginning of an Era.”