6. The Depth and Limits of the Revolutionary Crisis
It was a festival without beginning or end; I saw everyone and no-one, for each individual was lost in the same enormous strolling crowd; I spoke to everyone without remembering either my own words or those spoken by others, because everyone's attention was absorbed at every step by new objects and events, and by unexpected news.
THE OCCUPATION MOVEMENT, which had taken over the key sectors of the economy, very rapidly reached every sector of social life, attacking all the control points of capitalism and bureaucracy. The fact that the strike had now extended to activities which had always escaped subversion in the past radically affirmed two of the oldest assertions of the situationist analysis: that the increasing modernization of capitalism entails the proletarianization of an ever-widening portion of the population; and that as the world of commodities extends its power to all aspects of life, it produces everywhere an extension and deepening of the forces that negate it.
The violence of the negative was such that it not only brought the reserves into battle, side-by-side with the shock troops, but it also allowed the rabble, whose task it was to reinforce the positivity of the dominant world, to permit themselves a kind of opposition. Thus the parallel development of real struggles and their caricature was seen at every level and every moment. The action unleashed by the students in the universities and the streets was extended from the start to the high schools. Despite some student-unionist illusions in the High School Action Committees (Comités d' Action Lycéens CAL), the high school students proved by their combativeness and their consciousness that they presaged not so much a future generation of students as the grave diggers of the university. Far more than the university professors, the high-school teachers knew how to learn from their students. They overwhelmingly supported the strike, despite the very firm position taken by the school officials. By occupying their workplaces, the employees of banks, insurance companies and department stores had simultaneously protested against their proletarian condition and against a system of services which makes everyone serve the system. In the same way, the strikers of the ORTF, despite a belief in "objective news," had confusedly seen through their reification and grasped the fundamentally falsified character of all communication in which hierarchy is present. The wave of solidarity which carried the enthusiasm of the exploited knew no bounds. The students at the Conservatory of Dramatic Arts took over the buildings and participated massively in the most dynamic phases of the movement. Those from the Conservatory of Music issued a tract calling for a "wild and ephemeral" music and announced that "our demands be accepted within a given time or revolution will follow." They rediscovered the Congolese tone that the Lumumbists and Mulelists had popularized at the very moment when the working classes of the industrialized countries were beginning to experiment with the possibilities of their own independence, and which expresses so well what all power fears the naive spontaneity of people awakening to political consciousness. In the same way, the slogan "WE ARE ALL GERMAN JEWS," ridiculous in itself, took on a truly disturbing resonance in the mouths of the Arabs at the Bastille, who were chanting it on the 24th, because every one of them was thinking that it would be necessary to avenge the massacre of October 1961, and that no diversion on the theme of the Arab-Israeli War would prevent it.
Although little came of it, the seizure of the ocean liner France by its crew, outside Le Havre, had the merit of reminding those who were now considering the chances of a revolution that the gestures of the sailors of Odessa, Kronstadt and Kiel did not belong to the past. The uncommon became the everyday to the extent that everyday life was opening up to astonishing possibilities of change. The researchers of the Meudon Observatory placed astronomical observation under self-management. The national presses were on strike. The grave diggers occupied the cemeteries. The soccer players kicked out the managers from their federation and drafted The "old mole" spared nothing neither the old privileged groups nor the new ones. The interns and young doctors had liquidated the fiefdom which reigned in their profession, spat on the directors before kicking them out, declared their opposition to L'Ordre des Médecins and put the old conceptions of medicine on trial. The "oppositional managers" went so far as to question their own right to authority, the negative privilege of consuming more and therefore living less. Even the ad-men followed the example of the proletarians demanding the end of the proletariat, by demanding an end to advertising.
This clearly manifested will for a real change cast all the more light on the ludicrous and disgusting maneuvers of the falsifiers, of those who make a living by dressing up the old world in new clothes. If the priests were able to get away without having their churches collapse on their heads it was only because revolutionary spontaneity which in Spain in 1936 had known how to make proper use of religious buildings still submitted to the yoke of Stalino-Guevarism. Because of that it was no surprise to see the synagogues, temples and churches converted to "opposition centers" to serve up the old mystifications with today's flavorings, with the blessing of those who have been dishing out modernist soup for half a century. Since people were tolerating occupied consistories and Leninist theologians, it became difficult to suffocate in their own smugness museum directors calling for the reform of their warehouses, writers reserving the Hôtel de Massa (which had seen writers before) for the scavengers of the cultural elite, film makers recuperating on film what insurrectionary violence didn't have time to destroy and, finally, artists resurrecting the old sacrament of "revolutionary art."
Nonetheless, in the space of a week millions of people had cast off the weight of alienating conditions, the routine of survival, ideological falsifications, and the inverted world of the spectacle. For the first time since the Commune of 1871, and with a far more promising future, the real individual was absorbing the abstract citizen into his life, his work, and his individual relationships, becoming a "species-being" and thereby recognizing his own powers as social powers. The festival finally gave true holidays to people who had known only work days and leaves of absence. The hierarchical pyramid had melted like a lump of sugar in the May sun. People conversed and were understood in half a word. There were no more intellectuals or workers, but simply revolutionaries engaged in dialogue, generalizing a communication from which only "proletarian" intellectuals and other candidates for leadership felt themselves excluded. In this context the word "comrade" regained its authentic meaning, truly marking the end of separations. And those who used it in the Stalinist sense quickly understood that to speak the language of wolves exposed them as no better than watchdogs. The streets belonged to those who were digging them up.
Everyday life, suddenly rediscovered, became the center of all possible conquests. People who had always worked in the now-occupied offices declared that they could no longer live as before, not even a little better than before. It was obvious in the dawning revolution that from then on there could be no more renunciations, only tactical retreats. When the Odéon was occupied the administrative director withdrew to the back of the stage. After the initial surprise he took a few steps forward and cried out: "Now that you've taken it, keep it, never give it back, burn it first!" And the fact that the Odéon, momentarily in the hands of its cultural galley slaves, did not burn only shows that we have just tasted the first fruits.
Capitalized time stopped. Without any trains, metro, cars, or work the strikers recaptured the time so sadly lost in factories, on motorways, in front of the TV. People strolled, dreamed, learned how to live. Desires began to become, little by little, reality. For the first time youth really existed. Not the social category invented for the needs of the commodity economy by sociologists and economists, but the only real youth, of life lived without dead time, which rejects for the sake of intensity a repressive reference to age. "LONG LIVE THE EPHEMERAL! MARXIST-PESSIMIST YOUTH" read one inscription. Radical theory, reputed to be so difficult by the intellectuals who were unable to live it, became tangible for all those who felt it in their slightest gestures of refusal, which is why they had no trouble exposing on the walls the theoretical formulations of what they desired to live. One night on the barricades was all that the blousons noirs needed to become politicized and reach perfect agreement with the most advanced faction of the occupation movement.
The technical aid of the occupied printing presses was combined with the objective conditions which were foreseen by the SI, and naturally reinforced the propagation of the situationist theses. Certain printers were among the rare strikers1 who, superseding the sterile stage of passive occupation, decided to give practical support to those doing the fighting. Tracts and posters calling for the formation of Workers' Councils thus went through numerous printings. The printers' action followed a clear awareness of the need facing the movement to put instruments of production and centers of consumption at the service of all the strikers, but also arose from a class solidarity that took an exemplary form among other workers. The personnel of the Schlumberger factory explicitly stated that its demands "had nothing to do with wages," and went on to strike in support of the particularly badly exploited workers at the nearby Danone factory. The employees of the FNAC similarly declared in a tract that "We, the workers of the FNAC stores, have gone on strike not for the satisfaction of our particular demands but to participate in a movement which has currently mobilized ten million intellectual and manual workers..."
The reflex of internationalism, which the specialists of peaceful coexistence and the exotic guerrillas had prematurely buried in oblivion or in funeral orations by the stupid Régis Debray, reappeared with a strength which might well augur the impending return of the International Brigades. At the same time, the whole spectacle of foreign policy, with Vietnam in the lead, had suddenly dissolved, revealing itself for what it always was: problems for false oppositions. There was applause for the seizure of Bumidom by the Antillais, the occupations of the international dormitories of the university. Rarely had so many national flags been burned by so many foreigners resolved on finishing once and for all with the symbols of the state, before finishing with the state itself. The French government knew how to answer this internationalism, turning over to the prisons of every country the Spaniards, Iranians, Tunisians, Portuguese, Africans and all those who had dreamed in France of a freedom forbidden in their homelands.
All the chatter about partial demands could never efface a single moment of lived freedom. In a few days the certainty of possible total change reached a point of no return. Hierarchical organization, hit at its economic foundations, ceased to appear as inevitable. The refusal of leaders and monitors, like the struggle against the state and its police, had first become a reality in the workplaces, where employers and managers at every level had been kicked out. Even the presence of managerial apprentices (the men of the trade unions and parties), could not efface from the minds of revolutionaries that what had been done with the greatest passion had been done without leaders, and therefore against them. The term "Stalinist" was thus recognized by everyone as the worst insult in the political spectrum.
The work stoppages, as the essential phase of a movement that was hardly unaware of its insurrectionary character, reminded everyone of the primordial banality that alienated work produced alienation. The right to be lazy was affirmed not only in popular graffiti like "NEVER WORK" or "LIVE WITHOUT DEAD TIME, ENJOY WITHOUT RESTRAINT," but above all in the unleashing of playful activity. Fourier had already remarked how it took workers several hours to put up a barricade that rioters could erect in a few minutes. The disappearance of forced labor necessarily coincided with the free flow of creativity in every sphere: graffiti, language, behavior, tactics, street fighting techniques, agitation, songs and posters, comic strips. Everyone was thus able to measure the amount of creative energy that had been crushed during the periods of survival, the days condemned to production, shopping, television, and to passivity erected as a principle. It's with the same geiger-counter that we can estimate the sadness of the leisure factories where we pay to consume, in boredom, commodities we produce in the weariness that makes leisure desirable.
"BENEATH THE PAVING STONES, THE BEACH," joyously proclaimed one wall-poet, while a letter apparently signed by the CNPF cynically advised the workers to forget the factory occupations and to take advantage of their wage increases by spending their holidays at the Club Mediterranée.
The commodity system was undoubtedly the target of the aggressiveness shown by the masses. While there was little looting, many storefront windows were submitted to the critique of the paving stone. The situationists had foreseen for years that the permanent incitement to accumulate the most diverse objects, in exchange for the insidious counterpart of money, would one day provoke the anger of masses abused and treated as consumption machines. Cars, which concentrated the alienation of work and leisure, mechanical boredom, difficulty of movement and the permanent bad temper of their owners, now attracted only the match. (It is quite surprising to find the humanists usually so quick to denounce violence reluctant to applaud this healthy gesture, saving from death the large numbers of people doomed each day to accidents on the roads.) The shortage of money caused by the closing of the banks was felt not as a nuisance, but as an easing of human relationships. Towards the end of May people began to get used to the idea of the disappearance of money. Effective solidarity was alleviating the shortages in individual situations. Free food was distributed in many places by the strikers. Moreover, everyone was aware that in the event of a long strike it would be necessary to begin requisitions, and so to usher in a period of real abundance.
This way of seizing things at the root was truly realized theory and the practical refusal of ideology to such an extent that those who were acting in so radical a fashion were doubly enabled to denounce the distortion of reality of those who operated in their palace of mirrors: the bureaucratic machines that struggled to impose their own reflection everywhere. Thus, those who fought for the most advanced objectives of the revolutionary project were able to speak in the name of everyone and from real knowledge. They were most keenly aware of the distance between the practice of the rank-and-file and the ideas of the leaders. From the first assemblies in the Sorbonne, those who claimed to speak in the name of a traditional group and specialized politics found themselves roundly booed, and hurried from the floor. The people fighting on the barricades never deemed it necessary to hear an explanation, by confirmed or potential bureaucrats, as to who they were fighting for. They knew well enough, from the pleasure that they took in combat, that they were fighting for themselves, and that was all they needed. They were the motor force of the revolution which no apparatus can tolerate. It was mostly against them that the brakes were used.
The critique of everyday life successfully began to modify the landscape of alienation. The Rue Gay-Lussac was named the Rue du 11 Mai, red and black flags gave a human appearance to the fronts of public buildings. The Haussmannian perspective of the boulevards was corrected and the green belts redistributed and closed to traffic. Everyone, in his own way, made his own critique of urbanism. As for the critique of the artistic project, it was not to be found among the traveling salesmen of the happenings or the cold leftovers of the avant-garde, but in the streets, on the walls, and in the general movement of emancipation which carried within itself even the realization of art. Doctors, so often attached to the defense of corporate interests, passed into the camp of the revolution with a denunciation of the police functions forced upon them: "Capitalist society, under the cover of apparent neutrality (liberalism, medical vocation, non-combatant humanism) has put the doctor on the side of repression: he is charged with keeping the population fit for work and consumption (e.g. industrial medicine) and with making people accept a society that makes them sick (e.g. psychiatry)."2 It was the honor of the interns and nurses of the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital to denounce in practice that nightmare universe by occupying the buildings, chasing off the excrement whose demise Breton dreamed of, and taking into the occupation committee representatives of the so-called "sick."
Rarely had anyone seen so many people question so many platitudes, and undoubtedly it will one day be necessary to affirm that in May 1968 a sense of profound upheaval preceded the real transformation of the world and of life. A manifestly councilist attitude had thus everywhere preceded the appearance of councils. But what the new recruits of the new proletariat can accomplish will be done even better by the workers once they get out of the cages where they are kept by the monkeys of trade unionism: that is to say, soon, if one keeps in mind slogans such as "LYNCH SEGUY."
The formation of action committees by the rank-and-file was a distinctive and positive sign of the movement. Nonetheless, most of the obstacles which were trying to break the movement led to their collapse. The committees originated in a profound desire to escape bureaucratic manipulations and to begin independent action at the base in the framework of general subversion. Thus the action committees formed in the Rhône-Poulenc factories, in the NMPP, and in certain stores, to cite only a few, were able from the beginning to launch and consolidate the strike against all maneuvers of the unions. This was also the case with the "worker-student" action committees, which were able to accelerate the extension and reinforcement of the strike. Nevertheless, because they were set up by "militants," the form of these committees suffered from their impoverished origins. Most of them were easy targets for the specialists of infiltration: they let themselves be paralyzed by sectarian quarrels, which could only discourage naive people with good intentions. Many committees disappeared in this way. Others nauseated the workers with their eclecticism and ideology. Without any direct relationship to real struggles, the formation was a bastardized by-product of revolutionary action, giving rise to all sorts of caricatures and recuperations (e.g. Odéon Action Committee, Writers' Action Committee, etc.).
The working class had spontaneously realized what no trade union or party could do or wanted to do for it: it had launched the strike and occupied the factories. It had done the essential, without which nothing would have been possible, but it did nothing more, and thus gave outside forces the chance to dispossess it and speak in its name. Stalinism played its most brilliant role since Budapest. The so-called Communist Party and its trade-union annex constituted the main counter-revolutionary force holding back the movement. Neither the bourgeoisie nor the social democrats could have fought so effectively. It was precisely because the CGT had the most powerful organization and could administer the largest dose of illusions that it appeared all the more obviously as the major enemy of the strike.3 In fact all the unions pursued the same goal. None of them, however, attained the poetry of L'Humanité, which ran the indignant headline: "GOVERNMENT AND EMPLOYERS PROLONG STRIKE."
In modern capitalist society the trade unions are neither degenerated working-class organizations nor revolutionary ones betrayed by bureaucratic leaders, but are mechanisms for the integration of the proletariat into the system of exploitation. Reformist in its essence, the trade union regardless of the political content of the bureaucracy which runs it remains the best bulwark for management. (This was perfectly demonstrated by the socialist unions in the sabotage of the great Belgian wildcat strike of 1960-61.) It is the principle obstacle between the proletariat and total emancipation. From now on any revolt by the working class will be made against its own unions. It was this elementary truth that the neo-Bolsheviks refused to recognize.
Thus, even while calling for revolution, they remained on counter-revolutionary ground. Trotskyites and Maoists of every stripe have always defined themselves in relation to official Stalinism. By that very fact they helped to nourish the illusions of the proletariat about the Communist Party and the trade unions. Thus it was no surprise to hear them crying once more about betrayal where there was nothing but the natural conduct of a bureaucracy. Behind their defense of "more revolutionary" unions was the secret dream of one day infiltrating them. Not only because they could not see what was modern but because they persist in reproducing all the revolutions of our era: from 1917 to the peasant-bureaucratic revolutions of China and Cuba. The strength of their anti-historical inertia weighed heavily in the scales of counter-revolution, and their ideological prose helped to falsify the real dialogues that were beginning everywhere.
But all these objective obstacles, external to the action and consciousness of the working class, would not have survived the first factory occupation if the proletariat's own subjective obstacles were not already there. The revolutionary current that mobilized millions of workers in a few days had come a long way. Decades of counter-revolutionary history are not borne with impunity. Something always remains, and this time it was the backwardness of theoretical consciousness that had the most serious consequences. Consumer alienation, spectacular passivity, and organized separation have been the major accomplishments of modern affluence. It was these aspects which were first of all challenged by the May uprising, but it was the hidden side of the very consciousness of people which saved the old world. The workers entered the struggle spontaneously, armed only with their subjectivity in revolt. The depth and violence of the revolt was their immediate reply to the unbearable dominant order. But in the last analysis the revolutionary mass did not have the time for an exact and real consciousness of what it was doing. And it is this inadequate relation between theory and practice which remains the fundamental trait of proletarian revolutions which fail. Historical consciousness is an essential condition of social revolution. Of course, conscious groups grasped the deeper meaning of the movement and understood its development, and it was they who acted with the most radicalism and effect. For it was not radical ideas that were lacking, but a coherent and organized theory.
Those who spoke of Marcuse as the "theoretician" of the movement didn't know what they were talking about. They didn't understand the movement itself, let alone Marcuse. Marcusian ideology, already ridiculous, was pasted onto the movement in the same way that Geismar, Sauvageot and Cohn-Bendit had been "designated" to represent it. But even they confessed an ignorance of Marcuse.4 In reality, if the revolutionary crisis of May showed anything it was precisely the opposite of Marcuse's theses: that the proletariat had not been integrated, and is the major revolutionary force in modern society. Pessimists and sociologists have to do their homework again, along with the mouthpieces of underdevelopment, Black Power and Dutschkeism.
It was also this theoretical backwardness that gave rise to all those practical weaknesses that paralyzed the struggle. If the principle of private property, the basis of bourgeois society, was everywhere trampled upon, those who dared to go all the way were very rare. The refusal to loot was only a detail: nowhere did the workers go on to distribute the commodities in the big stores. The reopening of certain sectors of production and distribution for the use of the strikers was never attempted, despite some isolated calls in favor of such a perspective. In fact, such an undertaking already presupposed another form of proletarian organization than that of the trade-union police. And it was this autonomous form that was so cruelly lacking.
If the proletariat cannot organize itself in a revolutionary way it cannot win. The Trotskyite moans about the absence of a "vanguard organization" are an inversion of the historical project of the emancipation of the proletariat. The accession of the working class to historical consciousness will be the task of the workers themselves, and that will be possible only through an autonomous organization. The form of the council remains the means and goal of total emancipation.
It was these subjective obstacles that prevented the working class from speaking for itself and which let the phrase-specialists, who were most directly responsible for these obstacles, go on pontificating. But wherever they encountered radical theory they suffered. Never had so many people, with such justification, been treated as rabble: aside from the official spokesmen of Stalinism, it was the Axeloses, the Godards, the Chatelets, the Morins,5 and the Lapassades who found themselves insulted and chased off in the amphitheaters and streets when they turned up to pursue their careers. It is certain that these reptiles took no chances of dying from embarrassment. They awaited their hour, the defeat of the occupation movement, to take up the old numbers once again. In the program of the ridiculous "Summer University" (Le Monde, July 3rd) we found, once again, Lapassade on self-management, Lyotard and Châtelet on contemporary philosophy and Godard, Sartre and Butor on its "support committee."
Obviously, all those who had been obstacles to the revolutionary transformation of the world had not been transformed one bit. Just as unshakable as the Stalinists, who had nothing to say about an ominous movement except that it had cost them the elections, the Leninists of the Trotskyite groups saw it only as a confirmation of their thesis on the lack of a vanguard party. As for the mob of spectators, they collected or sold off the revolutionary publications, and ran to buy posters blown up from photographs of the barricades.
1. A factory in the western suburbs made walkie-talkie radios for the use of the demonstrators. The post office employees in several cities assured communications for the strikers.
2. From Medicine and Repression, a text put out by the National Center of Young Doctors.
3. A tract issued on June 8th, quoted in ICO No.72, signed by the delegate of a Swedish worker-student solidarity committee in Göteborg, reported that Tomasi, the CGT representative at Renault, refused their contribution, arguing that "the current strike is a French affair and doesn't concern other countries, that the French workers were sufficiently advanced and therefore lacked nothing, especially money... that the present crisis was in no way revolutionary, that the only issues were the 'demands,' that the running of the factories by the workers themselves was a romantic idea unrelated to the French situation, that the strike was the result of long years of quiet and patient work by the trade unions, and, finally, that small groups of infiltrators were unfortunately trying to turn the workers against their own leaders by persuading them that the unions had followed the workers into the strike and not the other way around."
4. Although they have in fact read very little, these intellectual recuperators do not shrink from hiding their reading in order to pose as pure men of action. By postulating an independence that would come from action they hope it will be forgotten that they were only publicity's puppets in a represented action. What other conclusions could be drawn from the cynical declaration of Geismar in La Révolte étudiante (Éditions du Seuil) : "Perhaps in twenty years, if we succeed in building a new society and a new university in that society, historians and ideologues will discover the creative sources of what is going to happen in a handful of little works and pamphlets written by philosophers and other men, but I think for the time being these sources are unimportant." The clumsy Geismar can take off his mustache. He has been recognized!
5.This swine is going too far. In his idiotic book Mai 1968: la brèche, he doesn't shrink from accusing the situationists of ganging up "several against one" in some fights. The lie is definitely a profession with this former contributor to Arguments. He nonetheless should know that a single situationist could chase him all the way to Versailles, or even Plodemet.