Peter Sedgwick

The French May ...

(April 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 36, April/May 1969, pp. 39–40.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

La Révolution Trahie de 1968
André Barjonet
Editions John Didier, no price

France: The Struggle Goes On
Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall
IS Special, 2s 6d

Mai 1968: La Brèche
Edgar Morin, Claude Lefort, Jean-Marc Coudray
Fayard, 10 NF

Ouvriers, Erudiants: Un Seul Combat
Partisans, special issue (No 42),
Mai-Juin, 1968, 8-70 NF

The Beginning of the End: France May 1968
Angelo Quattrochi and Tom Nairn
Panther, 6s

French Revolution 1968
Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville
Penguin, 6s

These works are all exercises in high-speed political analysis, written in the space of a few week and hot in the tracks of a complex and astounding sequence of events. There are some successful precedents for this class of writing, notably John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Reed and Orwell, however, were dealing with revolutions that took place in and around a single city, involving a few powerful and fairly homogeneous social forces. Moreover, the outcome of the revolution – victory in Petrograd, defeat and betrayal in Barcelona – was fully known to them at the time they began writing. The revolutionary process in France this year, by contrast, swirled over a whole nation in a galaxy of incandescence whose elements are hard even to begin to separate out. Further, nobody knows yet what the outcome of the role played by any of these components is going to be. Furthermore, Reed and Orwell were first-class journalists with an unrivalled sense of revolutionary dynamics: qualifications possessed simultaneously by none of the authors under review.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we have to consider each of these tracts as an initial, partial, provisional account of the tumult. The Partisans volume is the most straightforward, since it is mostly a chronology of events with many of the more important documents from the Comité and groupuscules: there is very little from outside Paris, and a scarcity of any material that would enable one to judge the mood of the peasantry and the CGT rank-and-file. Still, indispensable as a source-book. Seale and McConville’s Penguin Special is a racy, spicy history by two Observer correspondents, Very good on the middle-class sections of the revolt ... (students, lycéens, artists, etc.), but cursory and generalised as soon as the working class enters the arena. Thus, we are given sensitive descriptions of the special frustrations experienced by trainee medics and the inhabitants of the Nanterre campus: but the experience of the proletariat is always seen at secondhand, through the prism of Sunday-supplement ‘industrial relations’. French management style is ‘medieval by British and American standards’, ‘paternalistic’, delivering ‘nineteenth century conditions’ to its workers. (Quite different evidently, from Detroit or Dagenham). There is no sense of the maniac pressures of an assembly-line, the grinding din, the garish sewage of paint, the endless same-again of toil upon row after row of bits of metal. The student militants have faces, names, joking characteristics: the worker-militants are always a crowd, busy bee-swarms camping in factories, hiking on mass marches, booing the union chiefs (who of course do have names and traits – ’neat, plumpish’ Georges Seguy; or Detraz, ‘one of the CFDT’s ablest leaders’, etc). The strike of ten million was ‘just a good old-fashioned strike for bigger take-home earnings and a shorter working week’. The masses wanted ‘consumer goods, not revolution’.

Jean-Marc Coudray puts it more poetically in La Brèche: the revolt must not be conceived as ‘Hamlet without the prince’ (i.e., without the revolutionary class) but as ‘a Hamlet where the prince is tormented by the rub, not of avenging his father, but of buying himself a new jacket’. That was what it was all about, then. For a new jacket, and other such consumer goods, the red flag was hoisted over the factories, police-stations were besieged all over France, Nantes was taken over by its people, Flins and Souchaux became the scene of bloody battles, millions lived for thirty days on short rations. It is demeaning to these observers that workers should demand mere money: if you spend ten hours a day ladling turds, you must (in order to become recognised as a revolutionary) insist on participation in the turdmaking process, or on better communications with the turd-managers, or else establish the Great Turd Commune. To struggle for a three-hour working day, or quadruple pay for Sundays, means accepting the system (even if the system tries to beat you over the head for trying it).

We have yet to see this school of thought applying itself to the interpretation of past history. Thus, the Luddites were just engaged in good old-fashioned machine-breaking in the cause of reformist demands for full employment, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were clearly attempting to influence the price of labour and hence were harbingers of the consumer society, the dockers’ tanner expressed the workers’ yearning for antimacassars and aspidistras and the General Strike reflected the dearth of pianolas in mining villages. All that was different, the reply will come: in those days people were hungry. Behind the dismissal of economic struggle as a potential political force in advanced societies, there lurks the concept of the limit of proletarian satisfaction: before the limit is reached, men are paupers; after it is passed, they are consumers. The ungrateful proletariat, however, has not read the literature on the subject, and as time goes on is less and less inclined to compare its present lot with the plight of its grandfathers: at various exciting intervals, it refuses to recognise how lucky it is. On these occasions, workers behave, not as paupers or as consumers, but as men, expressing a common claim which cannot avoid a statement of the proletarian stake in society. The nature of this statement cannot be read off from the content of the issue which sparks the conflict. Marx exclaimed ‘The English Revolution has begun!’ when two hundred thousand gathered in Hyde Park to protest against the licensing laws in 1855; he was wrong, as it turned out. The French workers’ revolt this year expressed a political consciousness as well as a surging economic militancy, and the main problem for revolutionary Socialists must be to analyse the terms of this consciousness and its formation, as a prelude for further activity.

This problem is simply and monumentally evaded by all bar one of the pamphlets reviewed here. One turns to the account by André Barjonet expecting to find some analysis of what the revolution was that got betrayed in May 1968. Instead, we find a very useful record of the manoeuvring and tail-ending that took place at the top of the CGT hierarchy, and then some prescriptions of an extraordinary generality, beginning with an appeal to the structuralism of Professor Levi-Strauss and finishing up with a plea for a ‘return to Marx’, as against the ‘Leninist subjectivism’ and ‘voluntarism’ which has germinated the errors of all the Communist Parties of the world, from the cult of Stalin to the Chinese ‘Great Leap Forward’, from the PCF’s betrayals to the slaughter of the Indonesian Communists. We get, it is true, two paragraphs at the end calling for the strengthening of workers’ committees and the pursuit of workers’ control, but it needed no ghost summoned from the Kremlin to tell us that.

The long, staccato poem by Angelo Quattrochi that forms the first section of The Beginning of the End achieves more in the way of analysis than most of the prose of these authors. Using a flexible, allusive, paste-in technique, Quattrochi is able to portray the probings and questionings in different sections of the revolutionary movement, as well as (most vividly and dramatically) the shock of collision in street battle and factory seizure, and the swift transitions in mood among workers, and students. He is limited, naturally, in presenting any extended case: partly through his chosen form and also owing to a certain tendency to gush over the young, the revolutionary ‘archangels’ flitting like Batman from one simmering sector to another. And in the finale we do not know what we have been left with, as De Gaulle decides to make his rallying speech to the nation, and the big happening suddenly ceases to happen. Ebb-tide in revolution is as significant for mass consciousness as the flood-tide; Quattrochi has not been able to begin to measure the ebb.

Tom Nairn’s essay Why It Happened, following Quattrochi in the same book, shares something of the same defect (understandable, perhaps, in the afterglow of the upheaval), and compounds it with the overwhelmingly middle-class bias already noted in some of the other treatments. The workers scarcely figure in Nairn’s pages at all; late capitalism is said to have created a new focus of antagonism in the ‘workshops of mental production’ (the universities and colleges), in correspondence with the larger role allotted to the ‘social brain’ (i.e., the middle-classes engaged in communication, administration and programming) by the new technology. The power of ‘mental production’ incorporates (like Marx’s notion of industrial production under capitalism) the seed of the future collective organisation of society, tensed to bursting point against the husk or integument of the existing institutional frames which both contain and contradict the expanding force. Similarly for Jean-Marc Coudray (in La Brèche), the central growing point for revolution lies in the apprentice middle-classes: ‘the education industry and the culture industry are henceforth’, and are indeed already, more important both quantitatively and qualitatively than the engineering sector; this importance will increase uninterruptedly’. (Coudray here expresses quite a logical development from the thought of Paul Cardan in Socialisme ou Barbarie, whose earlier analyses he cited at one point; if the proletariat has become ‘privatised’, dominated by consumer goals, integrated into new modes of alienation, and if economic limits no longer have any significance under capitalism, the contradictions of the system may well, as he puts it, ‘be more easily perceived by strata who work outside material production’).

It is almost beyond belief that, in the midst of one of the greatest working-class explosions in the history of Europe, men can sit down and write like this. Are the walls of that insane asylum, the modern educational institute, so thick that no echo from the outside struggle can penetrate – more, that all logical and perceptual categories for viewing social conflict have to be filtered first through the motifs of the psychodrama that is being played out among the inmates? Let us be unmistakeably clear on this point: prison reform is a worthy cause after all. But the supporters of the middle-class vanguard have chosen as their revolutionary agency what is in fact the most problematic, the most unstable, the most helpless (in its own right of all the constituencies of present-day rebellion. The most militant sectors of French student radicalism are much more aware of the weakness of their position than are our commentators. Cohn-Bendit has been at pains to deal very severely with the view that students form a cohesive social force which can mobilise itself for the revolutionary cause: the overwhelming bulk of them, he believes (and after the experience of the mass drop-out from CND and the Committee of 100, who will disbelieve him?) are destined to enter the social machinery of capitalism as cogs with consciences. Student militancy is faced with a dilemma which appears to be unresolvable within the forces it can control: either to press its main emphasis upon the re-structuring of the institution – with all the pitfalls of either success or failure in this field, co-option on to Council or the bureaucratic steamroller; or else of attempting to form the spearhead of a revolutionary movement in society as a whole. If it tries the former, it is trapped inside the institution, bargaining with an administration that has more sticks and more carrots at its disposal than any factory management. If it attempts the latter, it is completely dependent on the rhythm and level of the struggle in other sectors, eg, in industry. Only an active working-class mobilisation can save the student movement from its impasse. And this cannot be created by students or academics.

Even Cliff and Birchall, despite the great caution with which they approach this issue concede too much to the ‘detonator’ role of student rebellion. ‘The Night of the Barricades’ evoked an answering chord among workers in a country with a long history of barricades; The ‘student spark’ did not kindle, it re-kindled. The exemplary force of campus revolt in other nations is likely to be much more indirect, if indeed it is to have any. effect at all. In the United States, student agitation was but one stopping-post for the torch of revolt as it passed from ghetto to ghetto. In Eastern Europe the libertarian-Marxist students have not ‘detonated’ but coalesced with the radical spirit of younger workers. In Germany the SDS has found itself in a deep isolation as the result of the dependence of its members on the student milieu and student issues. The connection with working-class practice can in most places be made not by students but by political revolutionaries, some of whom happen to be studying.

Even in France it is easy to exaggerate the extent of militancy in the universities and high schools. The biggest gathering of the hard Left’s clans came at the big meeting at the Charlety stadium attended by some sixty thousand persons. About a third of these may have been workers, others again would be PSU soggies. The mood of the meeting encompassed the CFDT and the Mendèsists as well as the revolutionary Left. The October 27 manifestation in London this year admittedly a national occasion with many contingents from the provinces – achieved a size and consistency which is not too different – and we know how small we are.

We have come back to the experience of the ten million rather than of the sixty thousand. Cliff and Birchall have carefully collated the mass of available material on the state of economic militancy in the different factories and localities all over France. There is an especially valuable section on the Action Committees, drawing attention to their unevenness and weakness. Unfortunately, they do not give enough emphasis on the specifically political, ideological dimensions of the strike, as located within the traditions of French labour. The entire gap between militant strike-consciousness and revolution is termed ‘the political vacuum’ which is attributable to the absence of the organisational prerequisite for co-ordinating action, i.e., the revolutionary party. Trotsky’s evasive phraseology of ‘the pre-revolutionary situation’ is resurrected for the occasion. The pre-revolutionary situation (if it means more than the fact that the revolution has not happened yet) must mean that the revolution could happen if ... The pamphlet’s listing of the sins of the Communist Party and the other ‘Left’ groups imply that for the revolution to have taken place there would have to have been a different leadership. The evidence, however, indicates that there would also have to have been a different working class. For ‘spontaneity’ in the French general strike went well beyond the formulation of economic demands and their active prosecution. In Paris at least, the keynote of the workers’ own slogans, at first in opposition to the CP-CGT’s economism and then taken up and co-opted by the Stalinists, was the demand for a ‘Popular Government’. They wanted De Gaulle out and a new parliamentary administration in to legislate for the workers. What we have in short is a species of French Labourism, wrapped in the ritual heritage of the Commune like the British Social-Democracy’s ‘Red Flag’, and doomed to remain a frustrated form, denied the shock of disillusionment from a ‘Wilson experience’, owing to the huge weight of the petty-bourgeoisie in France’s electorate. (One Frenchman in two, be it noted, is an inhabitant of a township of under five thousand citizens).

How ‘a centralised and disciplined combat organisation of the proletariat’ (Cliff and Birchall p.77) is to be built under the conditions of this massive ideological distortion of worker-consciousness is most unclear. The era of the groupscules is more likely to continue for some while yet, that miniature multiparty system of Socialism which seems to have worked remarkably well in the actual course of the French cataclysm. The formation of a democratic workers’ party can proceed in step only with the formation of democratic workers; and when it comes it is most unlikely to imitate the centralism-and-democracy mix prescribed by Trotsky. The ‘responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition’ (i.e., the same people get elected) ‘and in their attitude to their political line’ (i.e., they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours. France: The Struggle Goes On answers a number of common questions on the Left, with a mass of data and a deal of hard-headed argument. The most important questions for Socialism are, however, those it opens up rather than those it answers.

Last updated on 26 October 2017