France History Archive
Paris May 1968

Report on the Occupation of the Sorbonne

Source: Bureau of Public Secrets.
Translated: by Ken Knabb, slightly modified from the versions in the Situationist International Anthology. No copyright.

The occupation of the Sorbonne that began Monday, May 13, has opened a new period in the crisis of modern society. The events now taking place in France foreshadow the return of the proletarian revolutionary movement in all countries. The movement that had already advanced from theory to struggle in the streets has now advanced to a struggle for control of the means of production. Modernized capitalism thought it had finished with class struggle – but it’s started up again! The proletariat supposedly no longer existed – but here it is again.

By surrendering the Sorbonne, the government hoped to pacify the student revolt, which had already succeeded in holding a section of Paris behind its barricades an entire night before being recaptured with great difficulty by the police. The Sorbonne was given over to the students in the hope that they would peacefully discuss their university problems. But the occupiers immediately decided to open it to the public to freely discuss the general problems of the society. This was thus a prefiguration of a council, a council in which even the students broke out of their miserable studenthood and ceased being students.

To be sure, the occupation was never complete: a chapel and a few remaining administrative offices were tolerated. The democracy was never total: future technocrats of the UNEF [National Student Union] claimed to be making themselves useful and other political bureaucrats also tried their manipulations. Workers’ participation remained very limited and the presence of nonstudents soon began to be questioned. Many students, professors, journalists and imbeciles of other professions came as spectators.

In spite of all these deficiencies, which are not surprising considering the disparity between the scope of the project and the narrowness of the student milieu, the exemplary nature of the best aspects of this situation immediately took on an explosive significance. Workers were inspired by the free discussion and the striving for a radical critique, by seeing direct democracy in action. Even limited to a Sorbonne liberated from the state, this was a revolutionary program developing its own forms. The day after the occupation of the Sorbonne the Sud-Aviation workers of Nantes occupied their factory. On the third day, Thursday the 16th, the Renault factories at Cl鯮 and Flins were occupied and the movement began at the NMPP and at Boulogne-Billancourt, starting at Shop 70. Three days later 100 factories have been occupied and the wave of strikes, accepted but never initiated by the union bureaucracies, is paralyzing the railroads and developing into a general strike.

The only power in the Sorbonne was the general assembly of its occupiers. At its first session, on May 14, amidst a certain confusion, it had elected an Occupation Committee of 15 members revocable by it each day. Only one of the delegates, a member of the Nanterre-Paris Enrag鳠group, had set forth a program: defense of direct democracy in the Sorbonne and absolute power of workers councils as ultimate goal. The next day’s general assembly reelected its entire Occupation Committee, which had as yet been unable to accomplish anything. In fact, the various specialized groupings that had set themselves up in the Sorbonne all followed the directives of a hidden “Coordination Committee” composed of self-appointed organizers, responsible to no one, doing everything in their power to prevent any “irresponsible” extremist actions. An hour after the reelection of the Occupation Committee one of these “coordinators” privately tried to declare it dissolved. A direct appeal to the people in the courtyard of the Sorbonne aroused a movement of protests that forced the manipulator to retract himself. By the next day, Thursday the 16th, thirteen members of the Occupation Committee had disappeared, leaving two comrades, including the Enrag鳍 member, vested with the only delegation of power authorized by the general assembly – and this at a time when the urgency of the situation demanded immediate decisions: democracy was constantly being flouted in the Sorbonne while factory occupations were spreading all over the country. At 3:00 p.m. the Occupation Committee, rallying to itself as many Sorbonne occupiers as it could who were determined to maintain democracy there, launched an appeal for “the occupation of all the factories in France and the formation of workers councils.” To disseminate this appeal the Occupation Committee had at the same time to restore the democratic functioning of the Sorbonne. It had to take over or recreate from scratch all the services that were supposed to be under its authority: the loudspeaker system, printing facilities, interfaculty liaison, security. It ignored the squawking complaints of the spokesmen of various political groups (JCR [a Trotskyist group], Maoists, etc,), reminding them that it was responsible only to the general assembly. It intended to report to the assembly that very evening, but the Sorbonne occupiers’ unanimous decision to march on Renault-Billancourt (whose occupation we had learned of in the meantime) postponed the meeting until 2:00 p.m. the next day.

During the night, while thousands of comrades were at Billancourt, some unidentified persons improvised a general assembly, which broke up when the Occupation Committee, having learned of its existence, sent back two delegates to call attention to its illegitimacy.

Friday the 17th at 2:00 p.m. the regular assembly saw its rostrum occupied for a long time by self-appointed marshals belonging to the FER [another Trotskyist group]; and then had to interrupt the session for the second march on Billancourt at 5:00.

That evening at 9:00 the Occupation Committee was finally able to present a report of its activities. It was, however, completely unable to get its actions discussed and voted on, in particular its appeal for the occupation of the factories, which the assembly did not take the responsibility of either disavowing or approving. Faced with such indifference, the Occupation Committee had no choice but to resign. The assembly proved equally incapable of protesting against a new invasion of the rostrum by the FER troops, whose putsch seemed to be aimed at countering the provisional alliance of JCR and UNEF bureaucrats. The partisans of direct democracy realized, and immediately declared, that they had no further interest in the Sorbonne.

At the very moment that the example of the occupation is beginning to be taken up in the factories it is collapsing at the Sorbonne. This development is more serious since the workers have against them a bureaucracy infinitely more powerful and entrenched than that of the student or leftist amateurs. To add to the confusion, the leftist bureaucrats, echoing the CGT [the Communist Party-dominated labor union] in the hope of being accorded a little marginal role alongside it, abstractly separate the workers from the students. (“The workers don’t need any lessons from the students.”) But the students have in fact already given an excellent lesson to the workers precisely by occupying the Sorbonne and briefly initiating a really democratic debate. The bureaucrats all tell us demagogically that the working class is grown up, in order to hide the fact that it is enchained – first of all by them (now or in their future hopes, depending on which group they’re in). They counterpose their lying seriousness to the “festivity” in the Sorbonne; but it was precisely that festiveness that bore within itself the only thing that is serious: the radical critique of prevailing conditions.

The student struggle has now been left behind. Even more left behind are all the second-string bureaucratic leaders who think it’s a good idea to feign respect for the Stalinists at the very moment when the CGT and the so-called “Communist” Party are terrified. The outcome of the present crisis is in the hands of the workers themselves, if only they succeed in accomplishing in their factory occupations the goals toward which the university occupation was only able to hint at.

The comrades who supported the first Sorbonne Occupation Committee – the Enrag鳭Situationist International Committee, a number of workers, and a few students – have formed a Council for Maintaining the Occupations. The occupations can obviously be maintained only by quantitatively and qualitatively extending them, without sparing any existing regime.

Paris, 19 May 1968