Guide Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May 68

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About Peter Starr. Peter Starr. Books by Peter Starr. Trivia About Logics of Failed On that morning, however, the young Action Committee militants were greeted by two surprises. First of all, they found the functionaries of the C. On previous days, the C. Yet on the morning of the occupation, arriving workers who saw the union functionaries reading speeches into their loudspeakers at the factory entrances got the impression that the C. However, the union, unlike the student movement and unlike the workers who had initiated the strike, was not calling for an expropriation of the factories from their capitalist owners, or for the creation of a new society.

The functionaries of the communist union were calling for higher wages and improved working conditions, within the context of capitalist society. When a small number of union members entered the factory in order to occupy it, they were kept out of the workshops by factory policemen placed inside by the owners. The vast majority of the foreign workers did not accompany the union members into the factory; the foreign workers stood outside and watched. The union officials made a great effort to translate the written speeches into some of the languages of the foreign workers.

The foreign workers listened to the loudspeakers with indifference and at times even hostility. At that point the union officials stopped trying to chase away the Action Committee agitators: in fact, the officials decided to use the agitators. Among the militants there were young people who spoke the languages of the foreign workers, and the young people mingled freely with the foreign workers. On the other hand, the union officials, seasoned bureaucrats, were institutionally unable to speak directly to the workers: years of practice had made them experts at reading speeches into loudspeakers, and their loudspeakers were not leading to the desired effects.

Thus the functionaries began to encourage the young agitators to mix with the workers, to explain the factory occupation to them; the functionaries even gave loudspeakers to some of the foreign members of the Action Committee. The result was that, after about two hours of direct communication between the foreign workers and the Action Committee members, most of the foreign workers were inside the factory, participating in its occupation. Once again they found themselves unwelcome.

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A large red flag flew outside the factory gate, but the young militants found the gate closed to them. The committees members were furious. Until now, they said, they had cooperated with the union; they had avoided an open confrontation. Their cooperative attitude had made no difference to the union officials; the committee militants had merely let themselves be used by the functionaries, and once used up, they were rejected. It was about time to confront the union openly. The committee drafted a new leaflet, one which called on the workers to push past the union and take control of the factory into their own hands.

Due to the presence of union guards at the factory entrances, a relatively small number of workers read the leaflet. The decisions were those of the strikers themselves, whether unionized or not. For this reason, the workers have to regain control over their work organizations. All strikers, unionized or not, unite in a Permanent General Assembly! In this Assembly, the workers themselves will freely determine their action and their goals.

This call for the formation of General Assemblies inside the factories represents an appeal to expropriate the capitalist class, namely an appeal for insurrection. With the formation of a General Assembly as the decision-making body inside the factory, the power of the state, the owner as well as the union ceases to be legitimate. In other words, the General Assembly of all the workers in the factory becomes the only legitimate decision-making power; the state is bypassed, the capitalist is expropriated, and the union ceases to be the spokesman for the workers and becomes simply another pressure group inside the General Assembly.

The foreign workers were spending their days at their living quarters since they were no longer able to transport themselves to the factories the transport to the factories is also furnished by the factory owners, and was obviously not being furnished during the strike. Since this project was conceived during a period when gasoline was scarce in Paris, most of the participants had to hitch-hike to the housing centers. Several related projects were suggested by the Action Committee militants to the foreign workers.

First of all the foreign workers were encouraged to help those strikers who were calling for worker-control of the factories, and not merely for wage-raises. And secondly, the foreign workers were encouraged to organize themselves into action committees in order to cope with their own specific problems. In some of the living quarters, courses were organized for foreign workers who know no French. In Nanterre, for example, the occupation committee of the University of Nanterre granted a room to a newly formed Action Committee of Yugoslav workers.

The room was to serve for political meetings and French lessons. In some of the ghettos around Paris, where poor workers had run out of food for their families, trucks were found to transport food from peasants who contributed it at no cost. Contacts were established between the foreign workers and the revolutionary workers inside the factories. Foreign workers were encouraged to join French workers in the occupation of the factories. And when some foreign workers said they were only in France for a short time and would soon return home, the Action Committee militants answered that the goal of their movement was not to decapitate merely French capitalism, but to decapitate capitalism as such, and thus that, for the militants, the whole world was home.

The explosion which paralyzed France in May was a frustrated revolution and a clear warning. It represents a frustrated revolution to the students and workers who were rushing, almost blind with joy and enthusiasm, into a new society. But the revolt and the strike are a warning to all ruling classes, a warning to capitalists and bureaucrats, to governments and unions. The frustrated revolutionaries are beginning to take stock of the accomplishments and are attempting to pinpoint the shortcomings. However, the revolutionaries are not the only ones who are taking stock.

The forces of repression are also undertaking the task of analysis; they too are taking stock of the accomplishments, or rather the dangers unveiled for them in May And the revolutionaries will not be the only ones who will prepare for the next crisis; the ruling classes will also prepare, and not only in France. Politicians, bureaucrats and capitalists will define the forms of the May revolution, so as to prevent their reappearance; they will study the sequence of events, so as to prevent a recurrence of May In order to remain ahead of the forces of reaction, the May revolutionaries will have to provide more than souvenirs; they will have to see the general models behind the specific sequence of events; they will have to analyze the content behind the forms.

The sequence of events which led to a sudden confrontation between French state capitalism and a determined revolutionary movement caught both sides by surprise. Neither side was prepared. But the moment of hesitation was fatal only to the revolutionaries; the ruling class took advantage of the brief pause to extinguish the fire. The revolutionary movement rushed forward at tremendous speed, reached a certain line, and then, suddenly disoriented, confused, perhaps afraid of the unknown, stopped just long enough to allow the enormous French police forces to push the movement back, disperse it and destroy it.

Reflection now begins on both sides. To many it was clear that steps into the unknown had been taken, that the line had in fact been crossed, that the sea had in fact begun to flow over the dam. To many it was not surprising that the dam should be reinforced, that efforts to stem the tide should be undertaken. What they had not expected, what they only slowly and painfully accepted, was that the sea itself should begin to ebb.

They accepted the retreat with pain because they knew, as they watched the waters recede, that as high as the tide had risen, as close as the flood had come, the sea would have to gather much more force, the tide would have to rise far higher, merely to reach the level of the dam once again. The ruling classes have been warned; one must assume that they will take the necessary precautions. Analysis of the particular cracks in the dam through which the floodwaters rushed will be undertaken by both sides.

Such analysis will be a documentation of a particular event, a history of a revolution that failed. On the basis of this documentation, ruling classes will prepare themselves to prevent the recurrence of the same event. This is why revolutionaries cannot use the documentation as a basis for the preparation of a future event: the same cracks will not be found twice in the same dam; they will have been repaired, and the entire dam will have been raised. A future tidal wave will find new cracks in the dam, cracks which are as invisible to insurgents as to defenders of the old order.

Furthermore, the established order is far better armed with tools for investigation than any conspiratorial group.

Historians will describe through which cracks the sea rushed in May The task of revolutionary theory is to analyze the sea itself; the task of revolutionary action is to create a new tidal wave. If the sea represents the entire working population, and if the tidal wave represents a determination to re-appropriate all the forms of social power which have been alienated to capitalists and bureaucrats at all levels of social life, then new cracks will be found, and if the dam is immaculate it will be swept away in its entirety.

At least one lesson has been learned: what was missing was not a small party which could direct a large mass; what was missing was the consciousness and confidence on the part of the entire working population that they could themselves direct their social activity. If the workers had possessed this consciousness on the day they occupied their factories, they would have proceeded to expropriate their exploiters; in the absence of this consciousness, no party could have ordered the workers to take the factories into their own hands.

What was missing was class consciousness in the mass of the working population, not the party discipline of a small group. And class consciousness cannot be created by a closed, secret group but only by a vast, open movement which develops forms of activity which aim openly to subvert the existing social order by eliminating the servant-mentality from the entire working population.

A total of workers are in unions. On Friday, May 17, work stoppages took place in the workshops of numerous factories. Such an event had not occurred for decades. On that day several workers went to the Censier Center of the University of Paris and described the police repression, the impotence of the union, and the fighting spirit of the workers. The factory workers, they said, were ready to stop work on the coming Monday if pickets were available and if the information were spread through the factories.

Numerous factories all over France were already on strike. Worker-student action committees had been functioning at the Censier Center since May The leaflets did not challenge the union nor the union demands. On the contrary, the leaflets suggested that the union demands challenged the capitalist system the same way the students had challenged it. The leaflets expressed an awareness of the common enemy of the workers and the students, an enemy who could not be destroyed unless the workers controlled the productive forces.

They are occupying their workshops. Workers-Students Action Committees have been constituted for this purpose. These committees bring to light all the demands and all the challenges of the ranks of the entire working class. The capitalist regime cannot satisfy these demands. Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers are imported like any other commodity useful to the capitalists, and the government even organises clandestine immigration from Portugal, thus showing itself as a slave driver.

These workers are ferociously exploited by the capitalists. They live in terrible conditions in the slums which surround Paris. Since they are underqualified, they are underpaid. Since they only speak their own language, they remain isolated from the rest of the working population and are not understood.

Thus isolated, they accept the most inhuman work in the worst workshops. They left their countries because they were starving, because their countries are also under the yoke of capital. Victims in their own countries, they are victims here too. If they are not moving yet, it is because they are aware of the precariousness of their situation. Since they have no rights, the smallest act can lead to their expulsion, which means a return to hunger and to jail. Through their labor, the foreign workers participate in the creation of the wealth of French society.

They must have the same rights as all others. The first contacts with delegates of the CGT were negative. The delegates tried to prevent the distribution of the leaflets. The pretext was that the variety of leaflets would destroy the unity of the workers and would create confusion. In the street, the union delegates communicated with workers through loudspeakers. Since the foreign workers were not obeying the CGT calls to occupy the factory, the union officials decided to use the students.

The result of two hours of direct communication was that the majority of the foreign workers were inside the factory, actively participating in its occupation. The union did all it could to prevent workers from becoming aware of the fact that the occupation of the factory was a first step toward the expropriation of the owners. To struggle against this unexpected new force, the action committee addressed itself to the workers in a new leaflet:.

You have occupied your factories. You are no longer controlled by the State or by the ex-owners. If those behind the loudspeakers propose a motion, all other workers, French and foreign, must have the same right to propose other motions. You have the power to decide what to produce, how much end for whom. If some people limit your contacts with the outside, if some people do not allow you to learn about the profound democratization taking place in France, then these people are not trying to represent you, but to control you. The occupied factories have to be opened up to all comrades, workers as well as students, in order to enable them to make decisions together.

Workers and students have the same objectives. Despite the government, the universities are already open to all. A second leaflet, prepared by several action committees, was also distributed. This leaflet called for the formation of general assemblies of all the workers which would bypass the union and prevent any small group from speaking in the name of the workers and from negotiating in the name of the working class:. The political and union officials were not the originators of the strike.

The decisions were made, and must continue to be made, by the strikers themselves, whether they are unionized or not At the Balard and Nanterre factories, daily meetings took place between the workers and the action committee. The subject of the meetings was a basic political discussion on the nature of the student movement and its relation to the strike. The factory workers became increasingly conscious that the strike had become transformed more and more into a traditional union strike. They deplored the demobilization and the depolitization of the pickets, which had been accompanied by a massive desertion.

At the Balard factory, at night, for example, a small number of young people defended the factory. The nonunionized young workers attempted to break out of their isolation. Secondly, the young workers sought contacts with militants who wanted to work within the union by organizing the rank and file against the officials.

At the end of May, the young workers no longer felt either sure of themselves or supported by their comrades within the factory. Police forces had taken repressive steps against strikers in other sectors, and the young workers felt isolated and looked for outside support. Peasants were sending food from the countryside to Sorbonne and Censier; contacts had been established between peasants, action committees and workers. This suggestion was favorably received by the workers, and its organizational potential was profoundly grasped. But the workers did not want to take on themselves the responsibility of taking a truck which belonged to the owners, and so they looked for union support.

However, such contacts could not take place inside the factory since the factory had become an impregnable bastion guarded by the union bureaucracy, which opposed any rank-and-file contacts among the workers. Thus the problem was to fight for free expression and for the possibility of worker exchanges. The third form of action proposed by the action committee was to contact the foreign workers at their dormitories.

There were two aspects to these contacts: they were a means to radicalize the struggle by including foreign comrades in the strike pickets, and the contacts were a means to do away with the exhausting struggle of the strikers against strike-breakers, who were generally foreign workers manipulated by the management of the factory; the foreign workers were manipulable because they were generally unpoliticized, uninformed; on several occasions the management had called them together to vote to return to work.

The dormitories for foreign workers enable the owners to exploit the workers twice, namely during the day and again at night. For example, at the dormitory at Viliers-le-Bel, thirty miles out of Paris, the workers live in forty-eight apartments with fourteen people in each two-or-three-room apartment. The assignment of workers to apartments is done arbitrarily. Thus Yugoslavs are housed together with Spanish and Portuguese workers. The workers are rarely able to communicate with each other. They work in different shifts and in different workshops.

The aim of the committee was to enable the workers to organize themselves into action committees in order to cope with their specific problems: transport to the factories, food, the struggle against the repressive conditions inside the factory, and contacts with French comrades. French language courses were organized in several centers after the workers organized themselves into committees and found classrooms in nearby student-occupied universities or in local culture centers.

In the slum and ghetto areas, food supplied by peasants and distributed by action committees was taken to poor workers and their families. On all occasions, the foreign workers were informed of the different forms used by the employers to break the strike by using foreign workers as strike-breakers. Numerous foreign workers were put in contact with strikers, and they took an active part in the occupation of the factory. The aim of all these actions was to enable, and encourage, rank-and-file organization among the workers.

A small number of workers, isolated in the factory, posed the problem of defending the factory against all forms of aggression.


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The echo was immediate. In Turin, information was exchanged on the struggles of the workers in Italy, on the similarity of the obstacles posed by the unions in both countries, and on the significance of the action committees. The organization of rank-and-file committees and the problem of worker control opened up perspectives for the comrades in Turin. As a basis for further contacts, the two groups established a regular exchange of information leaflets, journals and letters , exchanges of lists of demands, and direct contacts by workers and students.

While the CGT union considers itself satisfied with its agreement with the managers, a large majority of the workers, aware that the crumbs received do not correspond to their five weeks of struggle nor to the strike which began as a general strike, are ready to continue this struggle On Monday morning, three different leaflets opposed to the return to work were distributed. The CGT officials were not able to find workers willing to distribute their leaflets. Workers expressed themselves physically to allow speeches by workers opposed to the return to work. A large number of unorganized workers were trying to concentrate their force by forging new forms of organization.

The workers are aware that the revolutionary significance of the rank-and-file committees can only find expression in another period of crisis. The rank-and-file committees are seen as a basis for the massive occupation of the factories, accompanied by an awareness on the part of the workers that they are the only legitimate power inside the plants namely that no special group can speak or negotiate for the mass of the workers.

The act of overt appropriation of the means of production by the workers will have to be accompanied by organized armed defense of the factories, since the capitalist class will try to regain the factories with its police and with what remains of its army. At this point, in order to abolish the capitalist system and to avoid being crushed by foreign armies, the workers will have to extend their struggle to the principal centers of the world capitalist system.

Only at that point would complete worker control over the material conditions of life be a reality, and at that point the building of a society without commodities, without exchange and without classes could begin. The explosion of May-June is a sudden break with the regularities of French society, and it cannot be explained in terms of those regularities. The story of the student movement which began in Nanterre with a demonstration to end the war in Vietnam has been told elsewhere.

One of the steps in this process of escalation was the occupation of Censier, annex of the University of Paris Faculty of Letters Sorbonne. Not as publicised as the actions or personalities of the Nanterre student movement, the activity which developed at Censier during the last two weeks in May parallels and supplements that of the March 22 Movement. This essay will try to describe the steps in the process of escalation as they were experienced and interpreted by the occupants of Censier.

What happened in Censier cannot be explained in terms of French everyday life. The occupants of Censier suddenly cease to be unconscious, passive objects shaped by particular combinations of social forces; they become conscious, active subjects who begin to shape their own social activity. The occupants of Censier aim at the destruction of capitalist social relations, but they do not define themselves as the historical subject who will overthrow capitalism. Their actions, like those of the March 22 Movement, are exemplary actions.

Their task is to communicate the example to a larger subject: the workers. To make the example overflow from the university to the working population, the Censier occupants create a new social form: worker-student action committees. Each action is designed to go beyond itself. The aim of the occupants of Censier is not to create a self-governing commune in that building, but to set off the occupation of factories. Radical breaks with everyday life are not normal, but they are possible.

The task of these revolutionaries is not to define the conditions which make revolution impossible, but to create the conditions which make revolution possible. The French revolutionaries broke out of the psychology of defeat, the outlook of the loser, and began struggling. Their struggle, like that of the Cubans and the Vietnamese, was exemplary: the example overflowed to sectors of the population who are far stronger and more numerous than the initial revolutionaries.

The essay will not try to explain why the Censier movement did not get further, but why it got as far as it did. We refuse to be used for the profit of directors. We want to do away with the separation between the work of executing and the work of thinking and organizing. But we can imagine a different system Students have discovered that the division of social tasks among specialized groups is at the root of alienation and exploitation.

The alienation sale of productive labor by producers, and the appropriation purchase of the labor and its products by owners of means of production capitalists , is the basis for the division of society into bosses and workers, managers and employees, exploiters and exploited. By refusing to be formed into a factor or a function in a bureaucratically organized system even if it is an intelligently organized system , the student is not denying the social necessity of the tasks and functions.

By struggling to destroy the institutions which obstruct his participation in the conscious creation of his social-economic environment, the student presents himself as an example for all men who are ruled, decided for, thought for, and acted for. His exemplary struggle is symbolized by a black flag in one hand and a red flag in the other; it is communicated by a call to all the alienated and the exploited to destroy the system of domination, repression, alienation and exploitation.

The capitalist university comes to an end. The ex-university, or rather the building, becomes a place for collective expression. The first step of this transformation is the physical occupation of the building. The second step is discussion, the expression of ideas, information, projects, the creative self-expression of the occupants. Students participate, and also professors, assistants, people from the neighborhood, high schoolers, young workers.

People who have never expressed ideas before, who have never spoken in front of professors and students, become confident in their ability. It is the example of others speaking, analyzing, expressing ideas, suggesting projects, which gives people confidence in their own ability. He organizes, discusses, takes part in the auditoriums. He was behind the barricades. His action and his behavior are the only answer to the drivel about high-schoolers being irresponsible brats.

People do not only learn the information, the ideas, the projects of others; they also learn from the example of others that they have specific information to contribute, that they are able to express ideas, that they can initiate projects. There are no longer specialists or experts; the division between thinkers and doers, between students and workers, breaks down. At this point all are students. When an expert, a professor of law, tells the occupants that the occupation of a university is illegal, a student tells him that it is no longer legal for an expert to define what is illegal, that the days when a legal expert defines what people can and cannot do are over.

The professor can either stay and join the process of collective learning, or else he can leave and join the police to re-impose his legality. They express themselves in a general assembly, and the decisions of the assembly are the expression of the will of all its members. No other decisions are valid; no other authority is recognized. And once their eyes are open, people are not about to close them again: their passivity and dependence are negated, annihilated, and nothing but a force which breaks their will can reimpose the passivity and dependence.

The general assembly does not only reject former masters, former authority; it also refuses to create new masters, new authority. The occupants conscious of their power refuse to alienate that power to any force whatever, whether it is externally imposed or created by the general assembly itself. No external force, neither the university administration nor the state, can make decisions for the occupants of the university, and no internally created force can speak, decide, negotiate, or act for the general assembly.

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There are neither leaders nor representatives. Consciousness of collective power is the first step toward the appropriation of social power but only the first step, as will be shown below. Conscious of their collective power, the university occupants, workers and students, begin to appropriate the power to decide, they begin to learn to run their own social activities.

The process of political de-alienation begins; the university is de-institutionalized; the building is transformed into a place which is run by its occupants. Formerly specialized social activities are integrated into the lives of all members of the community.

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Social tasks are no longer performed either because of direct coercion or because of the indirect coercion of the market i. As a result, some social activities, like hair dressing and manicuring, are no longer performed at all. Other tasks, like cooking, sweeping the rooms, cleaning the toilets — tasks performed by people who have no other choice in a coercive system — are left undone for several days.

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The occupation shows signs of degeneration: the food is bad, the rooms are filthy, the toilets are unusable. These activities become the order of the day of the general assembly: everyone is interested in their efficient performance, and no one is institutionally coerced to perform these tasks. The general assembly is responsible for their performance, which means everyone is responsible.

Committees of volunteers are formed. A Kitchen Committee improves the quality of the meals; the food is free: it is provided by neighborhood committees and by peasants. A service of order charges itself with maintaining clean toilets stocked with toilet-paper. Each action committee sweeps its own room. The tasks are performed by professors, students and workers. At this point all of the occupants of Censier are workers.

There are no longer upper and lower class jobs; there are no longer intellectual and manual tasks, qualified labor and unqualified labor; there are only socially necessary activities. An activity which is considered necessary by a handful of occupants becomes the basis for the formation of an action committee. Each person is a thinker, an initiator, an organizer, a worker. Comrades are being seriously injured by cops in the street fights: a floor of Censier is transformed into a hospital; doctors and medical students care for the patients; others without medical experience help, cooperate and learn.

A large number of comrades have babies and as a result cannot take part in activities which interest them: the comrades unite to form a nursery. The action committees need to print leaflets, announcements, reports: mimeograph machines and paper are found, and a free printing service is organized. Townspeople — observers and potential participants — stream into Censier constantly and are unable to find their way around the complex social system which has started to develop within the building: an information window is maintained at the entrance and information offices are maintained on each floor to orient the visitors.

Many militants live far from Censier: a dormitory is organized. Censier, formerly a capitalist university, is transformed into a complex system of self-organized activities and social relations. However, Censier is not a self-sufficient Commune removed from the rest of society.

The police are on the order of the day of every general assembly. The occupants of Censier are acutely aware that their self-organized social activities are threatened so long as the State and its repressive apparatus are not destroyed. The only force which can put the Censier occupants back to sleep is a force which is physically strong enough to break their will: the police and the national army still represent such a force.

The means of violence produced by a highly developed industry are still controlled by the capitalist State. But before the population can be armed, before the workers can take control of the means of production, they must become aware of their ability to do so, they must become conscious of their collective power. And this consciousness of collective power is precisely what the students and workers acquired after they occupied Censier and transformed it into a place for collective expression.

Consequently, the occupation of Censier is an exemplary action, and the central task of the militants in Censier becomes to communicate the example. All the self-organized activities revolve around this central task. Former classrooms become workshops for newly formed action committees; in every room projects are suggested, discussed, and launched; groups of militants rush out with a project, and others return to initiate a new one. The problem is to communicate, to spread consciousness of social power beyond the university.

Everyone who has attended the general assemblies and participated in committee discussions knows what has to be done. Every action committee militant knows that the self-confidence in his own ability, the consciousness of his power, could not develop so long as others thought, decided and acted for him.

Censier exists as a place and as an example. Workers, students, professors, townspeople come to the place to learn, to express themselves, to become conscious of themselves as subjects, and they prepare to communicate the example to other sections of the population and to other parts of the world. East European students express their solidarity and send the news to their comrades at home. Some worker-student action committees have been created for this purpose.

They occupy their factories, and they begin to talk about expropriation. To understand this radical break with the usual behavior of workers, it is necessary to understand that this unusual behavior is an ever-present potentiality in capitalist society. The existence of this potentiality cannot be understood in terms of the material conditions of the workers, but only in terms of the structure of social relations in capitalist society.

The basic fact of life in capitalist society is the alienation of creative power. The alienated power of society is appropriated by a class. Concentrated in institutions — Capital, State, Police and Military — the power alienated by society becomes the power of the dominant class to control and oppress society. To the creators of the power, the institutions which control and oppress them seem like external forces, like forces of nature, permanent and immutable. The alienation of creative power and the appropriation of that power takes place through the act of exchange. The producer sells his labor; the capitalist buys the labor.

In exchange for his labor the producer receives wages, namely money with which to buy consumer goods. The purchase and sale of labor in capitalist society reduces labor to a thing, a commodity, something which can be bought and sold. The alienated products of labor then take on a life of their own. The consumer goods no longer appear as the products of labor but as the rewards of labor, as external manifestations of the stature, worth and character of an individual.

The weapons no longer appear as products of labor, but as the natural and indispensable instruments of the State. The two terms of the act of exchange labor for wages, creative power for consumer goods are blatantly unequal. They are unequal in terms of their quantity and in terms of their quality.

The deficiency of the vast majority of workers, constantly leashed and gagged, was in contrast quite excusable, but decisive. 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. 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 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.

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; 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 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. 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 [Alexander] Kerensky, but rather that of [Gustav] Noske. 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.

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 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.

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. In such an eventuality, civil war would naturally have been inevitable. But it would not have been certain of winning. And those like Malraux who claimed afterwards that tanks could have taken Rue Gay-Lussac much more quickly than the state troopers did are certainly right on that point; but could they have afforded the political expense of such a victory?

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.

Such a question must be placed in its true historical light. Proletarian revolution has so far not been victorious anywhere, but the practical process through which its project manifests itself has already created at least ten 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 term as a revolution the latest Third World military coup. But the revolution of did not bring down the Czarist regime, it only obtained a few temporary concessions from it.

The Spanish revolution of 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. 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.

And the St.

Petersburg Soviet of 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.

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, in its striving to restore internal state security, dared to prosecute those responsible for 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. 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 all the revolutionary workers were 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 backward ideologists of the little leftist parties were naturally very ill-prepared to understand a modern movement. Its laughable celebrities came before the spotlights to announce to the press that they were taking care not to become celebrities.

Faculty Profile: Peter Starr

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.

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 very logic of these occupations could have led to the best developments. 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.

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.

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. 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 neobolshevik 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. 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. To demonstrate this to even the most casual observer it would suffice to examine the some books on May that have appeared in France alone in the year following the occupations movement.

This huge quantity reflects the fact that the historic importance of the movement has been deeply sensed, in spite of all the incomprehension and interested denials. Leaving aside those books that limit themselves to remaining silent on this question, or to a few absurd accusations, we can distinguish three main styles of falsification. The second pattern, presenting a positive lie and no longer merely a lie by omission, asserts, in spite of all indications to the contrary, that the situationists accepted some sort of contact with the March 22nd Movement; and many even go so far as to claim that we were an integral part of it.

The third pattern presents us as an autonomous group of irresponsible maniacs springing up by surprise, perhaps even armed, at the Sorbonne and elsewhere in order to stir up disorder and shout extravagant demands. This very continuity, in fact, seems to have been felt as an annoyance by those who through their quantity of ostentatious interviews or recruitments strove to be recognized as leaders of the movement, a role the SI has always rejected for itself: their stupid ambition leads some of these people to hide certain facts that they are a bit more aware of than are others.

Situationist theory had a significant role in the origins of the generalized critique that gave rise to the first incidents of the May crisis and that developed along with that crisis. This was not only due to our intervention against the University of Strasbourg. In addition to the SI itself and to a good number of individuals who acknowledged its theses and acted accordingly, many others defended situationist perspectives, whether unconsciously or as a result of direct influence, because those perspectives were to a large extent objectively implied by the present era of revolutionary crisis.

It can thus be said that the systematic minimization of the SI is merely a detail corresponding to the current and, from the dominant viewpoint, natural minimization of the whole occupations movement.


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  6. But the sort of jealousy felt by certain leftists, which strongly contributes to this minimization, is completely off base. To see the question in this way is to forget that, in contrast to these abstract repetitions in which old conclusions that happen still to be valid in class struggles are inextricably mixed in with a mass of conflicting errors and frauds, the SI had above all brought a new spirit into the theoretical debates about society, culture and life.

    This spirit was assuredly revolutionary. It entered to a certain extent into a relation with the real revolutionary movement that was recommencing. And it was precisely to the extent that this movement also had a new character that it turned out to resemble the SI and partially appropriated its theses; and not at all by way of the traditional political process of recruiting members or followers.