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May - June

Situationist International #1 (June 1969)

THE SCANDAL at the University of Strasbourg in late 1966 (out of which came the booklet Ten Days) can be seen as the prelude on the road to the barricades of May. The significance of that little event was the proof in practice of the fragility of the established system in the hands of those conscious of exactly what they wanted and of what stood in their way.

At Nantes, the assault on UNEF — the student union — à la Strasbourg was repeated in November 1967; in February the university was occu- pied (in the end 1500 students occupied the city court house).

At Nanterre, a campus closely resembling — in its lifeless bureaucratic modernity — the large state universities in America, a small group of enragés emerged to combat the police presence on the campus. The liberal university reacted there as it does here: more police. The enragés, in theoretical accord with the SI, proceeded with class disruptions. The whole "left" scene was active, and the university buildings were occupied in February. Following the arrest of six "anti-imperiaIist militants" in Paris, an assembly was called at Nanterre. In the name of the enragés, René Riesel demanded that two observers for the administration and all the Stalinists present be turned out. Refused this minimum, the enragés walked out. Thus the March 22nd Movement was born, a collection of anarchists of all shades, Trots, Maoists, and so on and so on — without the enrages, and in opposition to them.

The agitation at Nanterre continued from all corners, as did the repression. An enragé was expelled from all French universities for five years without so much as a grunt from March 22nd; but when six of the "leading militants" — including Riesel and Cohn-Bendit — faced expulsion, March 22nd and UNEF called the protest rally in the Sorbonne courtyard for May 3rd.

Then, between May 3rd and 9th, a lock-out of the Sorbonne is decided by Roche ( administrator) ; four students are condemned to 2 months prison; a strike is called to protest both the arrests and the closing of the Sorbonne; on the 6th, violent demonstrations extend into the night, 422 are arrested; the following day demonstrations spread to the provinces; the Sorbonne is declared opened and then closed again; Nanterre is open. May 10th is the night of the barricades. Paving-stones and Molotov cocktails against gas, clubs and concussion grenades. 367 wounded; 460 detained. 188 cars damaged. On the 11th, the trade unions, under pressure from the workers, call for a one day general strike, to protest police violence and support the students. By the 13th, the Sorbonne is occupied by the students. By the 15th, the workers have occupied Renault and the occupation movement spreads, as they say, like wild fire. . . .

In the first general assembly of the occupied Sorbonne, Riesel put forward the demands that were implicit in the direct democracy practiced there, and he was elected to the Occupation Committee. This body of fifteen revocable delegates was charged with the organization and maintenance of the occupation, but almost from its formation, it found its work hamstrung by the likes of UNEF bureaucrats and their darling specialists. On the 16th, in view of the accelerating movement of factory occupations, the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne called for .'the immediate occupation of all factories in France and for the formation of workers councils." This scandalized — and united — all the petty bureaucrats and leftish mini-chiefs and, through their manipulations, led to the recall of the Occupation Committee on the 17th. The ex-committee announced that as democracy hnd been manacled once more by specialists of power and as the Sorbonne had effectively separated itself from the workers, the interests of the ex-committee members were no longer there — and they left.

Salaried work stopped, and on the initiative of the workers themselves. By the 20th, the movement encompassed 6 million workers; in the days to follow the figure rose to 10 million. The unions, the bureaucratic men- tality of which recognizes quantity alone, finally saw the fragility of their own possession of the "labor movement" and mobilized to meet the challenge. By their announcements, the occupations were made 'official' but separated. The bureaucratic representatives of each factory or segment of industry raised specific demands (wage increases, and so on) and cited these demands as the bases for the different occupations. Only the unions (and particularly the Stalinist CGT) could put over such a con, because — unlike the State and the bourgeoisie — their handymen and louts were already among the workers. Above all it was necessary to keep the workers separated from one another and from others who found themselves proletarians in the situation. Hence the locking of the factory gates and the use of union functionaries as pickets (guards). Then the reeducation — the reduction — of the workers could begin.

On May 17th a Council for the Maintenance of Occupations (CMDO) was formed by the ex-Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne and others, calling for the extension of the occupations into the direct democracy of the councils. By May 30th, it issued an "Address to All Workers," saying, in part:

The present movement was not 'politicized' by going beyond the miserable trade union demands about salaries and retirement, abusively presented as 'social questions.' The movement is already beyond politics: it poses the social question in all its simplicity. . . . As of now, with the power they hold, and with the parties and trade unions we all know already, the workers have no other way than the direct take-over of the economy and of all aspects of the reconstruction of social life by basic unitary committees, affirming their autonomy vis-a-vis every politico-syndical leadership, and assuring their self-defense by federating regionally and nationally. Following this pattern they will become the only real power in the country, the power of the councils of workers. . . .

The CMDO put into practice the quality of this direct democracy with a guarantee of equal participation to all in debate, decision and execution. Encompassing about forty workers, students, lycéens (high school students), enragés and situationists, it functioned as an uninterrupted general assembly. Cohesion, born in the situation, was reinforced by general accord on the principle theses of the SI. During its existence of less than a month, the CMDO published a number of texts, always articulating what was actually transpiring and what were the minimum steps necessary for advancing the situation into the realm of daily life transformed. CMDO, not a council, but functioning to foster the development of councils, dissolved with the effective end of the occupations.

Vienet's book, which documents and illustrates what has only been summarily sketched here, is historically "objective" and theoretically incisive, without being "detached" — that schizoid state engendered by the spectacular commodity that Cohn-Bendit, for one, mistakes for a natural. Football players, young doctors, ex-mercenaries, elementary school children — all were in some way aware of the antagonism between their roles and their lives, and all moved to resolve it.

But if the events revealed the abandonment of the two organizations (trade unions and mass party ) that appropriated the struggle of the proletariat in the preceding century, they also revealed the left-overs of the idea that "leaders" such as they had are somehow necessary to advance the movement into the proletarian project. There was talk, suggestions, incipient movements toward self-management, sketches of things to come. The councils did not emerge. What occurred was the anticlimactic and reticent movement back to work, the elections, and the selected repressions.

The possibilities announced in France, naturally, will emerge again – and not only in France.