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Ian H. Birchall

From Revolution to Reform

(Autumn 1968)

Paris: May 1968
Solidarity Pamphlet No 30
(H. Russell, 53A Westmoreland Road, Bromley, Kent), 1s

Over the last few years, the Solidarity group have produced a series of descriptive pamphlets, on both local and international topics, which have reached the highest standard of reportage. Their most recent, on the French events of May 1968, is one of their best.

The pamphlet is described as ‘an eye-witness account of two weeks spent in Paris during May 1968. It is what one person saw, heard or discovered during that short period.’ Taken on these terms, the pamphlet succeeds admirably in capturing the atmosphere of a revolutionary situation; on a much smaller scale, it has something of the flavour of Ten Days that Shook the World or Homage to Catalonia.

The author has a keen eye for concrete detail. He notes one of the very first instances of student-worker link-up – when a passing building-worker showed the students how to operate a pneumatic drill to break the road into cobblestones. He cites the efflorescence of slogans and posters: ‘One doesn’t compose with a society in decomposition,’ ‘The only outrage to the tomb of the unknown soldier was the outrage that put him there,’ ‘Art is dead, do not consume its body,’ ‘Debout les damnes de Nanterre’ (allusion to the first line of the Internationale), ‘Please leave the PC as clean on leaving as you would like to find it on entering.’ He tells how those Maoist students who took a portrait of Stalin to the Sorbonne were quickly persuaded to remove it. Everywhere was self-organisation – from canteens to children’s crèches.

The rôle of the Communist Party is made clear; the betrayals of Seguy and Waldeck-Rochet were backed up by countless tiny functionaries – some frightened to lose their comfortable place as ‘loyal opposition’ in factories and local government; others, sincere but so saturated in the myth of the ‘only party of the working class’ that they had forgotten what the working class looked like.

Having advised everyone to read the pamphlet, however, I must go on to make certain reservations. Firstly, there is a regrettable tone of sectarianism in the pamphlet. The introduction tells us that we must be prepared to ‘discard a mass of outdated ideas, slogans and myths and to reassess contemporary reality.’ After this, it is rather disappointing to be told on page 41 that events fully confirm the ideas of Solidarity and Paul Cardan. In particular, the pamphlet recognises the need for ‘a new kind of revolutionary movement ... strong enough to outwit the bureaucratic manoeuvres ... deeply enough implanted to explain to the workers the real meaning of the students’ struggle.’ However, anyone misguided enough to want such an organisation but to use the shorthand term ‘party’ for it is immediately damned as a ‘Trotskyist’ (Trotskyists are usually compared to Stalinists as though the two went together like love and marriage).

It is, of course, easy to criticise with the advantage of hindsight. Few of us could have prophesied the Gaullist election victory at the end of May. Nonetheless, we have the right to ask that the analysis should give us some basis for an explanation.

In the last resort, the analysis of this pamphlet (symptomatic of Solidarity which is so much better at description than perspective) has an over-facile view of consciousness. An involvement in revolutionary activity does not necessarily cure people of reformism for ever. Many people were fully aware of the political nature of the strike – but this did not make them indifferent to the economic issues. As a result, the Communist Party (whose resilience is due to the fact that it is a reformist party corresponding to reformist consciousness) was able to channel the revolutionary energy into reformist demands. The CP has not exposed itself for good and all (any more than it did in 1936 or 1945). Rather, there is a long struggle ahead, in which economic and political struggles will interact. In this protracted battle against reformism, revolutionary euphoria may be just another mystification.

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Last updated: 5.2.2008