Maurice Brinton

France: The Theoretical Implications


Published: in Solidarity, V, 8 (March 1969)
Transcribed: by Jonas Holmgren
Proofed: by George Poulados

This pamphlet[1] produced five months after the events it describes is not really an attempt to analyze the French events of May and June 1968. At this level - as we shall show - it epitomizes the theoretical incapacity of even the more sophisticated representatives of the contemporary Marxist Left. The Cliff-Birchall text is something quite different. It is a factional document, aimed primarily at influencing the discussion on the "organizational question" now taking place within International Socialism between Leninists and libertarian revolutionaries.

After a major earthquake, everyone longs for a return to order. The French events are no exception. Today the Prefecture de Police wants order in the streets. The Minister of Education wants order in the universities. The CCT and Communist Party want order in the factories. And the traditional revolutionaries want order ... in the realm of ideas.

But it is the hallmark of all truly revolutionary events that they show no more respect for established ideas than they do for established institutions. All major social upheavals in history have gone far beyond the anticipations of even the most radical revolutionaries of the previous period. Whether immediately recognized or not, they have raised new issues, thrown up new social forms and created new problems of theory and practice. The French Revolution of 1968 was no exception.

During the Commune of 1871 the Paris workers put forward the demands for a ceiling on wages and for the eligibility and revocability of all officials. These demands had not been - and could not have been - anticipated in Marx's writings. When the first Soviets appeared in Russia in 1905 their significance was not apparent to Lenin or to the Bolsheviks. They had not been anticipated in any Party programme. But both Marx and Lenin were to incorporate the autonomous creations of the French and Russian workers into their own theoretical frameworks. It is a symptom of the degeneration of the contemporary Left that nothing similar has happened - or been felt necessary - in relation to recent events in France.

The pamphlet under review is like a piece of Gruyère cheese, full of holes and with a thick and rather mouldy rind. It fails to recognize any of the new phenomena (new in themselves or new to traditional theory) witnessed earlier this year in France. It fails to grasp the tremendous implications of the new type of issue ("self-management") around which the struggle was initially fought. The question of nationalization, plugged by revolutionaries for decades, just did not enter anyone's mind. Isn't this worthy of comment?

The traditional organizations, confronted with a human flood tide of this size, were initially swept aside. The massive influx into them, prophesied by sundry revolutionaries for years just did not materialize. In fact, these hollow shells only retained any residual influence to the extent that people had reservations as to their own capacity to manage things for themselves. This isn't even sensed. Instead the pamphlet learnedly dissects the minor fluctuations of the CGT and CFDT votes, without stressing that less than 20% of French workers belong to a union of any kind - and without seeking to assess the deep significance of that phenomenon, at a time when ten million workers are prepared to occupy their factories in the biggest general strike in history.

The pamphlet does not sense the new specific weight now to be allocated in the revolutionary process to previously marginal layers of society, to new strata of the working class or even to new age groups. For instance, never before in history has one seen massive and militant political demonstrations of schoolboys aged fifteen or sixteen.

Nor does the pamphlet recognize the new dynamic through which the struggle unfurled, a dynamic which is itself a product of the increasing bureaucratization of all social institutions under modern capitalism. In a society where everything is planned and anticipated (except that the manipulated should erupt against their manipulation) deliberate and systematic "provocation" - like that indulged in by the March 22 Movement - can, and did, have profound repercussions. The new revolutionaries (whose ideas and style of action aren't even suspected as a new element in the situation) clearly anticipated the bureaucratic responses to their new pinpricks, each of which succeeded in escalating the conflict in the desired direction.

In its conclusions, the Cliff-Birchall pamphlet goes no further than to echo what Trotsky wrote about the French events... of June 1936. (Trotsky's views were probably already out of date at that time.) In discussing, finally, what is now needed in Britain, the authors come down - yes, wait for it - for a Revolutionary Party built on the principles of "democratic centralism", the latter defined straight out of L.D.B.'s writings of... 1924. Parturiunt montes; nascetur ridiculus mus.[2]

The French events of May and June 1968 have sounded the death knell of Western bureaucratic capitalist society. But they also herald the end of all those "revolutionary" groups whose basic concepts of "hierarchically structured leadership" so integrally reflect the society around them that they fail to recognize that the masses themselves have already gone beyond these conceptions. The decomposition of "vanguardist" politics will be an integral part of the decomposition of bourgeois-bureaucratic authoritarianism in general. When this dog dies its fleas will die with it.

For revolutionaries who want to understand events (and not just tail-end them or live them as visitations from outer space) the upheaval in France has profound theoretical implications. In this article we can only formulate some of the more urgent questions which no one seems to be asking, let alone seeking to answer.

1. The most clear and obvious thing about the French events is that, a month before they took place, their imminence and quality was clear and obvious to no one. Why didn't either the French Establishment - or the French revolutionaries -anticipate what was about to happen?

Gaullism was about to enter its tenth year. It basked in complacent self-confidence. It had "modernized" the French economy, extricated France from the Algerian imbroglio, broken free of the American embrace, developed a French Hydrogen Bomb, even cleaned up the facades of the Louvre and of the Opera. Over this period the gross national product had been increasing at an average rate of 5% per annum (in volume terms, i.e. at constant prices) and real wages by about the same amount. True, over the last eighteen months, unemployment had been rising slightly,[3] but by and large the economic basis of the regime seemed fairly stable. Not even the most percipient of Gaullists could have sensed the social cataclysm that lay immediately ahead.

But neither had this been sensed by the revolutionaries. A perusal of Voix Ouvrière, Révoltes, or Avant-Garde for the early months of 1968 gives no inkling of awareness that France was on the threshold of a major convulsion. The content of these papers could have been written at any time during the last ten (or twenty, or thirty) years. They contained the usual denunciations of the economic policy of the government, the usual "exposures" of the "betrayals" of the CGT and of the Communist Party (combined with descriptions of perennially unsuccessful attempts to capture positions within these outfits), the usual prognostications as to the likelihood of slump in the more or less distant future (on account of the "insurmountable economic contradictions of capitalism"), the customary denunciation of the latest crime of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and the ritual epilogue: the need to build the revolutionary party of Leninist type (of which each tendency saw itself as the sole, historically-predetermined nucleus). Early in 1968, all this was being recited as usual, but without any special sense of urgency.

This convergence of outlooks between Establishment and established revolutionaries is really most interesting. Its deep roots lie in the fact that both used the same kind of yardstick. They looked at production, consumption, wages and employment. They used the same kind of thermometer to assess the clinical condition of the body politic. They both looked for the same kind of symptoms of possible disease. Neither seemed aware that new diseases might develop, with symptoms of an entirely new kind, or that the thermometer itself might now be quite the wrong kind of instrument with which to diagnose them. From opposite sides of the (then largely metaphorical) barricades they shared a common outlook on life. When Marx said that the dominant ideas of each epoch were the ideas of its ruling class, little did he foresee how deeply true this statement would one day become.

It is of little concern to revolutionaries that the bourgeoisie should have been incapable of foreseeing the crisis towards which it was heading. What should concern them, however, are the shortcomings of their own philosophy, with its bold claim to be the means "not only of interpreting the world, but of changing it".

We don't want to be misunderstood. Our critique is not that traditional theory failed to predict the precise moment when the upheaval would take place. It's not a question of faulty revolutionary chronometry. (Only the crudest determinists have ever attempted to use Marxism in this way.) It is a question of whether established Marxist categories can now provide even an elementary insight into the kind of upheaval that is on the historical agenda. In relation to France, they clearly failed. Why? And what are the implications of this failure? What would aircraft pilots say of a brand of radar that didn't even suspect, in the immediate vicinity, the presence of a mountain 20,000 feet high?

2. The second lot of questions flow automatically from the first. Are the traditional criteria (level of employment, level of consumption, etc.) still adequate in assessing the social tensions within a given society and hence the proximity or otherwise of a revolutionary upheaval? Or do they need to be replaced or amplified by other criteria, more difficult to quantify (sense of alienation, sense of dissatisfaction with the nature of work or the quality of life, rejection of established values, gap between expectations and reality, desire to break out of the proletarian condition, whatever the level of wages, etc.). The main danger here is to avoid a lapse into mysticism. But even Marxists must admit that "man does not live by bread alone" ...

Both bourgeois and revolutionary historians have until now seen the preconditions of social revolution in mainly economic terms. Men have revolted because the social system has been incapable of providing them with the basic economic necessities of life. Past revolutionary upheavals have tended to occur in condition of economic duress, or in the wake of wars, or both (Paris, 1871; Russia, 1905 and 1917; Germany, 1918; Hungary, 1919; the British General Strike, 1926; the Belgian General Strike, 1960-61). This has never been a thoroughly satisfactory explanation of revolutionary upheavals (Spain 1936 and Hungary 1956 have always been notoriously difficult to interpret on this basis). We believe this kind of interpretation is likely to be less and less satisfactory in the future.

The French Thunderbolt fell out of a fairly clear economic sky. The students whose struggle played so important a role were not starving. Over 90% of them were of bourgeois or petty bourgeois origin. The workers at Sud-Aviation and Renault, who initiated the factory occupations, were among the best paid in the country. The "traditional" criteria do not help one understand the real nature of such events.

We don't doubt that those who are unable to develop a new idea of their own will now devote their energy and time to skillful use of the "retrospectroscope". They will belatedly discern in the pattern of industrial struggle in France, during the early months of 1968, the obvious harbingers of what in fact followed. The pamphlet under review does this at some length. The endeavour is rather pointless however. The man-hours lost through strikes during 1967 or during the first three months of 1968 have certainly been exceeded on many occasions during other arbitrary three or twelve month periods of the Gaullist reign. The fairly recent police violence against workers at Rhodiaceta (Lyon), Caen and Redon had had its bloody antecedents during the great miners' strike of 1949 and in the Charonne massacre of 1962. The level of unemployment may have risen from 1.5% to 2% of the labour force during the last few months but this in itself hardly represents the transgression of some critical point below which nothing happens and above which everything suddenly becomes possible (unemployment levels incidentally have been consistently higher in Britain).

One has to look elsewhere for the beginnings of an interpretation. The "old mole of history" had been burrowing deep. The bureaucratic society had generated new tensions of its own - some of which are clearly anticipated in Cardan's Modern Capitalism and Revolution[4]. The gulf between expectations and reality had been steadily widening and this not only in relation to consumption. So had the gulf between order-givers and order-takers, at all levels of society. Attitudes had been changing - even attitudes to the presence of 400,000 unemployed. Traditional values had been disintegrating. Whole new layers of society had been proletarianized, not according to the Marxist model of absolute or relative pauperization, but in the sense of a profound transformation of the nature of their world. The increasing bureaucratization of society at all levels had not only rendered the traditional organization meaningless for hundreds of thousands of young people, but had also ensured that those in authority were less and less capable of understanding and controlling a reality whose real nature constantly eluded them.

It is on the basis of considerations such as these - however tenuous and inadequately defined at the moment - that one should attempt a reconstruction of revolutionary theory. Ideas cannot remain static while reality changes - nor can a new reality be grasped without a revolution in ideas. Religion may reflect a neurotic insecurity when confronted with the unknown. It is a form of false consciousness. Traditional theory is now in danger of playing exactly the same role.

But there is nothing as painful as a new idea. Some will deny the need for any kind of theoretical framework or - at most - will cling to a few primitive slogans (state: bad; self-activity: good). Others will prefer to hang on to a schema which they sense to be inadequate rather than embark on the difficult yet imperative task now confronting serious revolutionaries - that of the collective elaboration of a new revolutionary theory.

3. Why did the revolutionary upheaval start among the students? Why did they struggle with such militancy and courage? Was their revolt just a "spark" or "fuse" which "detonated" the working class? Or has it a deeper significance at its own level?

Two attitudes seem to be emerging on this subject. Both are inadequate.

One attitude, epitomized in the Black Dwarf (and also put forward in some of the writings of the German SDS), sees the students as the "new revolutionary vanguard". It assigns to them the role assigned to the proletariat in classical revolutionary theory. It more or less explicitly puts forward the view that the working class is becoming or had become integrated into the "affluent society" and that it has lost all revolutionary potential.

Cliff and Birchall correctly take Wright Mills and Marcuse to task for "denying the revolutionary potentiality of the working class" and for "describing students and intellectuals as the main vehicle for revolutionary action now and in the future". But it is interesting - although hardly surprising - that they fail to identify the real fount of this pernicious doctrine. In 1901 Kautsky (in his draft programme for the Austrian Social-Democratic Party) wrote that it was "absolutely untrue" that socialist consciousness was a "necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle". "Modern socialist consciousness could arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge". "The vehicle of science was not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia". "Socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian struggle from without".[5] Lenin, in his What Is To Be Done?, endorsed Kautsky's views on this matter describing them as a "profoundly true and important utterance".[6] The ideological premise for this conclusion was Lenin's belief that "the working class, by its own efforts, is able only to develop trade union consciousness".[7] It requires no great effort to understand all the substitutionist practices that must inevitably flow - and have inevitably flowed - from such a conception. In their absolute rejection of the notion that the working class, through its own experiences in modern industrial society, can, does and must autonomously accede to a socialist consciousness, Marcuse and Lenin have more in common than the followers of either would like to believe.

The fallacy of this first attitude should be obvious. If the working class cannot come to understand socialism - and want it - there can be no socialist perspective. There can only be the replacement of one ruling elite by another. However "enlightened" and "revolutionary" the new elite may be, it will sooner or later come to express its own interests, rather than those of the working class.

The second attitude to students (shared by most "orthodox" Marxists) is less naive but just as short-sighted. It correctly sees the students as a minority in modern industrial society, the need for the majority to move if anything fundamental is to happen and the fact that this majority, in advanced industrial countries, is the working class. Its inadequacy is that it cannot transcend the conception of student action as just a "catalyst", "fuse" or "spark", capable of igniting the powder kegs of industrial discontent but devoid of any deeper significance at its own level.

This is to underestimate the increasing importance (and increasing vulnerability) today of both the university and of education generally. Both help maintain the social cohesion of class society. Reinforcing patriarchal authority, both help perpetuate (at the ideological level) the prevailing relations of hierarchy and domination. In the long run both prove more effective mechanisms for helping the slaves accept their slavery than either police or prison. In the realm of ideas they provide the basic mechanism for the replication of bourgeois-bureaucratic society, of its values and assumptions, generation after generation. But the lycées and universities of France are now full of students, with heads full of "subversive" thoughts. The night-long discussions of last May, in occupied schools and faculties, among young people, will leave indelible marks.

The university churns out the technologists, sociologists, industrial psychologists, computer programmers, managers, time-and-motion experts, in short the whole administrative personnel of the modern industrial machine. In France substantial numbers of students began to refuse the future role assigned to them as "watchdogs of capital". If this mood lasts (and particularly if it spreads beyond the faculties of sociology, philosophy or psychology), the effects could be profound. In May even such traditional disciplines as medicine and law were not immune from the general ferment. Closing particular faculties or even whole universities would be a double-edged weapon for the authorities, an open admission of failure, a permanent mutilation of the liberal image they have been at such pains to protect.

Workers on strike can stop assembly lines. But a deep implantation of "subversives" in universities could disrupt the mass production of conformist cadres, and prove an additional spoke in the wheels of bourgeois society. The Establishment can tolerate students demanding bigger credits for higher education. It cannot tolerate demands that the universities "be converted into Red bases", or that they "provide facilities for continuous political forums, open to all", etc. Revolutionaries in France now see the universities as permanent foci of contestation of bourgeois ideology, permanent running sores on the body of bourgeois society. The current backwardness of the student movement in Britain makes it difficult for us soberly to conceive of this here, but last year few in France would have thought it possible either. The theory of French "exceptionalism" - based on such undoubted realities as the rigidity of official French institutions, the widespread hatred of the flics (cops) in France, and the undoubted French aptitude for critical revolutionary thought - should not be taken too far.

These aspects of what the students did in May 1968 differ from what "intellectuals" have done in previous revolutions (1871, 1917, or even in Hungary in 1956). Then, they helped articulate popular demands. Now, by making radical demands of their own, demands which cannot be encompassed by the system, they are opening a second front in the onslaught against bourgeois society. Fully aware of the dangers of being trapped in a "ghetto" of university politics, the modern French revolutionaries also reject the false alternative of struggling for purely student demands or total and exclusive immersion in the working class fight. This new type of consciousness isn't even hinted at in the Cliff-Birchall pamphlet.

The totality of the student rejection of bourgeois society explains the totality of their dedication to the revolutionary cause and the totality of their involvement in the struggle on the streets. It was not the product of economic misery. It reflected something more fundamental. The students were being denied the right to be themselves - and had become aware of the fact. They were not risking loss of sight and limb (amid the gas grenades and batons of the CRS) for a 3% annual increase in the size of the educational budget. They were fighting for the right to reappropriate what bourgeois society was taking from them. When this dormant consciousness is aroused in other layers of the population, the effect will be irresistible. This is the real lesson and hope of the French events of May 1968.



[1] Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall, France: The Struggle Goes On (London: Socialist Review Publishing Co.).

[2] "The mountains are in labour; an absurd mouse will be born".

[3] From 240,000 to 280,000 according to official statistics. These may be unreliable for a number of reasons but even if the figures are increased by 50% this still represents only some 2% of the labour force. This increase in unemployment, which affects mainly young people, is neither "cyclical" nor "technological" but "demographic". It is related to the sudden increase in births in the years which immediately followed the war (1945-1950). The "overcrowding" in the universities is partly due to the same cause. That the authorities should have chosen to ride "the bulge" rather than to expand production or increase the number of lecture halls is another question.

[4] This book is essential to an understanding of our epoch.

[5] Neue Zeit, XX (1901 -'02), I, No.3, p. 79.

[6] Lenin, Selected Works, II, p. 61

[7] Ibid., p. 33.


Last updated on: 12.16.2011