People strolled, dreamed, learned how to live. … 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 …
We share the Situationist essay signed by René Viénet (though very likely a collective work), Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement, written immediately in the aftermath of May 1968. (Published in english by Autonomedia, in 1992, and translated by Loren Goldner and Paul Sieveking. Available online at Situationist International online.) The Situationists were in no sense the hidden “leaders” of a leaderless movement. Their theoretical work however before and their participation in, the May events, would serve to orient many.
But as May 68 waned in the month of June, Viénet would write that what was lacking was “theoretical” consciousness among the protagonists; and one can only wonder at such an “explanation”.
Viénet, in his criticism of the orthodox Left in the May events, would go on to produce one of the most emblematic examples of détournement in cinema: “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” (1972) A gesture of impotence, of recollection, of resistance? Perhaps all of these and more.
Concerning original history… the content of these histories is necessarily limited; their essential material is that which is living in the experience of the historian himself and in the current interests of men; that which is living and contemporary in their milieu.
The author describes that in which he has participated, or at least that which he has lived; relatively short periods, figures of individual men and their deeds… it is not sufficient to have been the contemporary of the events described, or to be well-informed about them. The author must belong to the class and social milieu of the actors he is describing; their opinions, way of thought and culture must be the same as his own. In order to really know phenomena and see them in their real context, one must be placed at the summit — not seeing them from below, through the keyhole of morality or any other wisdom.
— Hegel, Reason in History
The author of this work does not seek to hide his sympathies. So there may be some value in the assertion that he guarantess, and can prove the accuracy of, all reported facts and especially all quoted documents. However, despite the truth of everything he has written, he does not pretend to adequately encompass the whole of the occupation movement. The time for such work will come. At the moment there is almost no available material concerning the provinces and very little about the factories, even in the region of Paris. On the other hand, even in limiting himself to the aspects of the occupation movement studied here, essential but nonetheless circumscribed, the author could not discuss certain aspects of the event because their divulgence could be used against various persons. Given the moment at which this book is to be published, this will be easily understood. The author had pleasure collaborating with several members of the Situationist International, two of whom were former members of the Enragés group. Without them the book would certainly not have been written.
Brussels, 26 July 1968
Abbreviations and References
|CAL||Comité d’Action Lycéene: High School Action Committee
|CFDT||Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail: second largest union in France
|CGT||Confédération Générale du Travail: the Communist Party trades union, the largest union in France
|CMDO||Comité pour le Maintien des Occupations: see Chapter 8
|CNPF||Confédération Nationale du Patronat Française: National Federation of French Employers
|CRS||Confédération Républicaines de Sécurité: national riot police
|FER||Fédération des Étudiants Révolutionnaires: Trotskyites
|ICO||Information et Correspondance Ouvrières: student-run bulletin of working class news
|JCR||Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire: the major Trotskyite bureaucratic group of ‘Communist Youths’
|NMPP||Nouvelle Messageries de la Presse Parisienne: monopoly distributors of newspapers
|OAS||Organisation de l’Armée Secrète: Extreme right wing paramilitary organization responsible for terrorism at the time of the Algerian War of Independence
|ORTF||Office de la Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française: government controlled monopoly of radio and television
|PCF||Parti Communiste Française: French Communist Party
|PTT||Poste, Télégraphe et Télécommunications: national postal, telegraph and telephone system
|RATP||Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens: Paris bus and underground rail system
|SFIO||Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière: French Socialist Party
|SMIG||Salarie Minimum Intégral Garantie: minimum legal wage
|SNCF||Société Nationale de Chemins de Fer Française: national railway system
|SNESup||Syndicat National de l’Education Supérieure: National Union of Higher Education Employees
|UDR||Union pour la Défense de la République: From May 30th onwards, both the Gaullist party (formerly UNR — Union pour la Nouvelle République) and groups of anti-red ‘patriots’ formed at de Gaulle’s call
|UNEF||Union Nationale des Étudiants Française: National French Union of Students
|Fouchet Reform||Educational reform introduced by Minister Fouchet in 1966 for the ‘modernization’ of French education. Followed in 1968 by the Faure Reform.
|Alain Geismar||Maoist secretary of SNESup
|Les Halles||Central warehouse district for food distribution in Paris, ‘the belly of Paris,’ demolished by urbanists in 1970.
|L’Humanité||Communist Party daily newspaper
|Nouvel Observateur||Modernist left-wing weekly newspaper
|Jacques Sauvegeot||Recuperator and bureaucratic boss of the UNEF
|Georges Seguy||Secretary-general of the CGT and a major Stalinist
|Sorbonne||The University of Paris|
1. Return of the Social Revolution
Of course, Situationism isn’t the spectre haunting industrial civilization, any more than communism was the specter haunting Europe in 1848.
— François Chatelet, Nouvel Observatuer, January 3, 1968
History offers few examples of a social movement with such depth of struggle as that which erupted in France in the spring of 1968. It offers none which so many commentators said was unforeseeable. Yet this explosion was one the most foreseeable of all. The simple fact was that never had the knowledge and historical consciousness of a society been so mystified.
The situationists, for example, who had denounced and fought the “organization of appearances” of the spectacular stage of commodity society, had for years very precisely foreseen the explosion and its consequences. The critical theory elaborated and publicized by the Situationist International (SI) readily affirmed, as the precondition of any revolutionary program, that the proletariat had not been abolished; that capitalism was continuing to develop its own alienations; and that this antagonism existed over the entire surface of the planet, along with the social question posed for over a century. The SI explained the deepening and concentration of alienations by the delay of the revolution. That delay obviously flowed from the international defeat of the proletariat since the Russian counter-revolution, and from the complementary extension of capitalist economic development. The SI knew perfectly well, as did so many workers with no means of expressing it, that the emancipation of workers still clashed everywhere with the bureaucratic organizations which are the workers’ autonomized representations. The bureaucracy was constituted as a class in Russia and subsequently in other countries, by the seizure of totalitarian state power. Elsewhere a stratum of privileged managers, trade unionists and party leaders in the service of the modern bourgeoisie, whose courtiers they had become, worked to integrate the work force into a rational management of the economy. The situationists asserted that the permanent falsification necessary to the survival of those bureaucratic machines, a falsification directed first and foremost against all revolutionary acts and theories, was the master-key to the general falsification of modern society. They had also recognized and set out to unify the new forms of subversion whose first signs were becoming visible, and which were beginning confusedly to draw the perspective of a total critique from the unified oppressive conditions. Thus the situationists demonstrated the imminence of a new revolutionary departure. For many people these perspectives seemed paradoxical, even demented. Now things have been clarified!
In the present return of the revolution, history itself is the unexpected factor for the philosophers of the state (which is only natural), and the rabble of the pseudo-critique. It’s obvious that analysis attains reality only by taking part in the real movement that suppresses existing conditions. The vacuum organized on this account makes everybody’s way of life one which not everyone can decipher. It is in this sense that the familiar in alienated life and in the refusal of that life is not necessarily known. But for the revolutionary critique nothing was more clear and foreseen than the new era of class struggles ushered in by the occupation movement.1 The revolutionary critique brings its own theory to the practical movement, is deduced from it and is brought to the coherence which it seeks.
The Stalinists, ideologues of the bureaucratic totalitarian form of exploitation, were reduced in France, as elsewhere, to a purely conservative role. For a long time it had been impossible for them to take power, and the international dislocation of the bureaucratic monolith, which is necessarily their frame of reference, had closed this road to them forever. At the same time, that frame of reference, and the practice it entails, made their return to a purely bourgeois reformist apparatus equally impossible. The Maoist variation, reproducing as illusion the ascendant period of Stalinism by the religious contemplation of a revolutionary orient of fantasy, parroted their translations in a perfect vacuum. The three or four Trotskyite sects fought bitterly amongst themselves for the glory of beginning the revolution of 1917 again, as soon as they had succeeded in reconstituting the appropriate party. These “resuscitated Bolsheviks” were too fanatical about the revolutionary past and its worst errors even to look at modern conditions. Some of them mixed this historical exoticism with the geographic exoticism of a more or less Guevarist revolution of underdevelopment. If any of them picked up a militant from time to time this was in no way the result of the truth of their analyses or actions, but simply of the decomposition of the so-called communist bureaucracies.
As for the modernist pseudo-thinkers of the critique of details, these leftovers of militancy who had established themselves in the so-called Humanities Departments and who were thinking for all the weekly magazines, it’s obvious they were incapable of understanding — let alone foreseeing — anything whatsoever, eclectically weighed down as they were with almost every aspect of the old world’s camouflages. They found themselves too attached to the bourgeois state, to an exhausted Stalinism, to a revitalized Castro-Bolshevism, to psycho-sociology, and even to their own miserable lives. They respected everything. They lied about everything. And we find them around today, still ready to explain everything to us!
The great majority of the masses mobilized by the revolutionary crisis of May began to understand what they were living, and therefore understood what they had previously been living. And those who were able to develop the clearest consciousness recognized the total theory of the revolution as their own. On the other hand, all the specialists of ideology and of so-called agitational and subversive activism foresaw nothing and understood nothing. In such conditions, what could they arouse but pity? They serenely replayed their usual music amid the ruins of that dead time during which they had been able to think of themselves as the future elite of the revolution. The melody, so long expected to be their baptism, proved only to be their funeral knell.
In fact the reappearance of critical theory and critical action historically constituted an objective unity. The era’s new needs created their own theory and theoreticians. The dialogue which began in this way, however limited and alienated by conditions of separation, moved towards its conscious subjective organization. And, by the same movement, each one of its critiques began to discover all its tasks. Both of them erupted first as a struggle against the new aspects of exploitation in class society. On the one hand the wildcat strikes of the West and the working-class insurrections of the East inaugurated in practice the struggle against the various bureaucracies.
On the other hand, present revolutionary theory began a critique of the conditions of existence inherent in overdeveloped capitalism: the pseudo-abundance of commodities and the reduction of life to a spectacle, repressive urbanism and ideology; always in the service of specialists of domination. When the Situationist International formulated a coherent theory of this reality, it also showed the negation of this reality in the combined realization of art and philosophy in the liberation of everyday life.2 Thus the theory was both radically new and took up all the old truth of the provisionally repressed proletarian movement. The new program rediscovered at a higher level the project of the abolition of class society, of the accession at last to conscious history and free construction of life, as well as rediscovering the form of workers’ councils as its means.
The new revolutionary development in industrialized countries, which is at the center of all modern history, can be dated from the workers’ uprising in East Berlin in 1953, opposing the bureaucratic imposture in power with the demand for a “government of steel workers.” The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began the realization of the power of the councils, though the country was not sufficiently industrialized and the specific conditions were a national uprising against impoverishment, a foreign oppressor, and general terror.
The beginning of the student agitation in Berkeley, in the autumn of 1964, questioned the organization of life in the most developed capitalist country, beginning with the nature of education, and signaled a revolt which has since extended to almost all European countries.3 Nevertheless, this revolt, however advanced in certain of its main themes, remained partial insofar as it was limited to the “student scene” (itself the object of rapid transformation related to the needs of modern capital), in as much as its recent political consciousness remained very fragmented and weighted down with various neo-Leninist illusions, often including an imbecilic respect for the Maoist farce of “cultural revolution.” The question of the blacks, the Vietnamese War, and Cuba occupied a disproportionate and mystifying position in the American students’ struggle, which was, for all this, nonetheless real. This “anti-imperialism,” reduced to a merely contemplative applause, almost always dominated the student movements in Europe. Since the summer of 1967 the West Berlin student movement has taken a violent turn — demonstrations spread throughout Germany in response to the attempt on Dutschke’s life. The Italians went further, after December 1967, particularly in Turin, occupying the factories and forcing the closure of the major universities of the country at the beginning of 1968.
The current crisis of bureaucratic power in Czechoslovakia, the only advanced industrial country ever conquered by Stalinism, is essentially a question of a hazardous attempt by the ruling class to correct on its own initiative the functioning of its seriously failing economy. It was the pressure of agitation by the students and intelligentsia at the end of 1967 that made the bureaucracy decide to run the risk. The workers’ strikes and the first rumblings of demands for direct factory control will henceforth pose the chief danger to a bureaucratic power obliged to feign liberalization.
The bureaucratic appropriation of society is inseparable from a totalitarian possession of the state and the absolute reign of its ideology. The absence of censorship, the guarantee of free expression, and the right of association, pose in the very near future the following alternatives for Czechoslovakia: either a repression revealing the pure sham of these concessions, or else a proletarian assault against the bureaucratic property of the state and the economy, which could be unmasked as soon as the dominant ideology was deprived for any length of time of its ever-present police. The outcome of such a conflict will be of the greatest interest to the Russian bureaucracy, whose survival would be endangered by the victory of the Czech workers.4
In March the important movement of Polish students also shook Gomulka’s regime — the result of a successful bureaucratic reform after the crisis of 1956 and the crushing of the Hungarian workers. The reprieve won in that earlier period is coming to an end, but on this occasion the workers did not join the students, who were crushed in isolation. Only the pseudoworkers, party activists, and police from the militias intervened in the moment of crisis.
In France a decisive threshold has been crossed, in which the movement has rediscovered its deepest goals. The workers of a modern capitalist country returned en masse to radical struggle. Everything is again put in question. The lies of an epoch crumble. Nothing can remain as before. Europe can only leap for joy and cry out: “Well dug, old mole!”
The situationist scandal in Strasbourg in December 1966 had sounded the death knell for student-unionism in France. The local bureau of the UNEF (Union National des Étudiantes Français) had suddenly declared itself in favor of the theses of the SI, publishing Mustapha Khayati’s pamphlet On The Poverty of Student Life… The method used, the ensuing trials, and the implacable coherence of the analysis all contributed to the great success of this lampoon. We can speak here of the first successful attempt to communicate revolutionary theory to the currents which justify it. Approximately ten translations extended the audience of this text, notably in the USA and in Italy. If its immediate practical impact in France was less strongly felt, this was because the country was not yet involved in the struggles already in motion elsewhere. Nonetheless its arguments were not entirely foreign to the contempt which a faction of French “students” was to express later on, much more accurately than in any other country, for the whole of the student milieu, its rules and shibboleths. The richness of the revolutionary situation in France, which dealt Stalinism the hardest blow it ever sustained in the West, was expressed in the spontaneous takeover by the workers, in their own right, of a large part of a movement explicitly criticizing hierarchy, commodities, ideology, survival, and spectacle. It is also significant to note that the positions or the phrases of the two books of situationist theory which appeared in the last weeks of 19675 were written on the walls of Paris and several provincial cities by the most advanced elements of the May uprising. The greater part of these theses took up the greater part of these walls. As was to be expected, situationist theory has become a practical force taking hold of the masses.
1. Philippe Labro, describing the French atmosphere before the crisis in his book Ce N’est Qu’un Debut (EPP Denoel), ventures to remark that the situationists thought they were speaking in a vacuum. A brave inversion of the truth. It was, of course, Labro, along with so many others, who thought the situationists were speaking in a vacuum.
2. The term “situationism,” never used by the SI, which is radically opposed to any doctrinal establishment of an ideology, has been abundantly thrown about by the press, lumped in with the most fantastic definitions: “vanguard of the student movement” (20 Ans, June 1968), “technique of intellectual terrorism” (Journal de Dimanche, May 19, 1968), and so on. Despite the SI’s obvious development of the historical thought issuing from the method of Marx and Hegel, the press insists on lumping the situationists with anarchism.” The definition by Carrefour, May 8, 1968: “more anarchist than the anarchists, who they find too bureaucratic” is the model of the genre.
3. It is nevertheless necessary to note the persistence of street struggles by radical Japanese students of the Zengakuren since 1960. Their example has been increasingly cited in France in recent years. The political position of their Revolutionary Communist League, to the left of Trotskyism, and simultaneously opposed to imperialism and bureaucracy, was less well-known than their streetfighting techniques.
4. Three weeks after this book was turned over to the publisher, the intervention of the Russian army in Czechoslovakia on August 21, demonstrated perfectly that the bureaucracy had to break the movement at any price. All the western “fellow-travelers” of the bureaucracy, with their displays of astonishment and regret, are naturally less lucid than their masters concerning the vital interests of those masters.
5. La Société du Spectacle by Guy Debord (1971 reprint by Éditions Champ Libre, Paris). English translation (first published by Black and Red, Detroit, and revised in 1977) now available as Society of the Spectacle (Rebel Press/AIM Publications, London, 1987) [and The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone Books, New York, 1994)]. Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations by Raoul Vaneigem (Gallimard). Retranslated by Donald Nicholson-Smith in 1983 as The Revolution of Everyday Life (Rebel Press/Left Bank Books, London and Seattle, latest reprint 1995) [earlier translation by John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking in 1972 (Practical Paradise Publications, London)]. On the Poverty of Student Life Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual, and particularly Intellectual Aspects, and a Modest Proposal for its Remedy, by members of the Intemationale Situationniste and students of Strasbourg, has been freely translated since 1966. (The current edition by Rebel Press/Dark Star Press, London 1985, includes a postscript added later, taken from the English language edition of Champ Libre, Paris 1972.) See also The Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, reprinted 1995 [revised and expanded online 1998-2001]).
2. Origins of the Agitation in France
Of course, utopians can also correctly see the situation which they must leave. If they remain mere utopians, it is because they are in a position to see the situation only as a fact, or, at best, as a problem to be resolved, without ever realizing that both the solution and the path leading to the solution are to be found precisely in the problem itself.
— Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
The refusal already being affirmed by wide sections of youth in other countries had been taken up in France by only a tiny fringe of advanced groups. No tendency towards economic or even political “crisis” could be observed. The agitation launched at Nanterre by four or five revolutionaries, who would later constitute the Enragés, was to lead in less than five months to the near liquidation of the state. This is certainly food for thought. The profound crisis latent in France exists in all other modern bourgeois societies. What was lacking was consciousness of a real revolutionary perspective and its practical organization. Never did an agitation by so few individuals lead in so short a time to such consequence.
The Gaullist regime in itself had no particular importance in the origin of this crisis. Gaullism is nothing but a bourgeois regime working at the modernization of capitalism, in much the same fashion as Wilson’s Labour Party is. Its principle characteristic and success lies in the fact that the opposition in France is even more handicapped than elsewhere in attracting support for a program with precisely the same ends. We must nonetheless note two specific features: the Gaullist accession to power by plots and a military putsch, which marks the regime with a certain contempt for legality, and de Gaulle’s personal cultivation of archaic prestige. It’s ironic that this kind of prestige, so completely lacking in France for one hundred years, began to reappear only with the recent movement, and precisely by shattering the plaster prestige of Gaullism.
The modernization of the French economy and its adaptation to the Common Market, though undramatic, didn’t take place without a certain recession and drop in real salaries through the expediency of Government decrees on social security, with a growth in unemployment, especially for young workers. This was the pretext for the exemplary working class riot in Caen in January, where the workers overstepped trade union demands and looted several stores. In March steel workers of the Garnier factory in Redon were able to bring every factory in the town into their victorious strike, creating their own links independently of the trade unions, and organizing their own self-defense, forcing a CRS (riot police) withdrawal.
The direct repercussions of the Strasbourg affair were first felt at the university dormitories of Jussieu, near Lyon, where, for several weeks during the spring of 1967 the residents ignored every regulation, thus going beyond the academic debate on the reform of anti-sexual statutes. From the beginning of December 1967 the “students” of Nantes went further still. After taking over the local branch of the UNEF, they decided to close the Bureau d’Aide Psychologique Universitaire. They then organized several invasions of the university residence halls: men in the women’s dormitories, followed by women in the men’s. Finally, in February, they seized the Nantes rectory and fought the police ferociously. As Rivarol wrote on May 3rd, “it has largely been forgotten that, as early as February, the riots at Nantes showed the real face of these ‘situationists,’ fifteen hundred students under red and black flags, the Hall of Justice occupied…”
The Enragés group was formed during a struggle against police presence in Nanterre. Some plainclothes policemen had been photographed and on January 26th enlarged reproductions were displayed on posters inside the faculty. This action brought on, at the request of Dean Grappin, the intervention of sixty uniformed men, who were driven off after a brief confrontation. Several hundred leftist militants had joined the original instigators. These included the Enragés as such, along with a dozen or so anarchists. The Enragés were among the least assimilated elements of the university system at that time. Moreover these “campus bums” had found their way to a theoretical agreement with the platform of the Situationist International. They began a systematic assault on the unbearable order of things, beginning with the university.
The environment was particularly revolting. Nanterre was modern in its faculty appointments, exactly as it was modern in its architecture. It was here that the cretins of submissive thought pontificated — the knaves of recuperation, the modernist nullities of social integration, the Lefebvres and Tourraines.1 The scene was perfect: the urbanism of isolation had grafted a university center onto the high-rise flats and their complementary slums. It was a microcosm of the general conditions of oppression, the spirit of a world without spirit. Thus the program preventing the specialists of illusion from speaking ex-cathedra and the use of the walls for critical vandalism were to have great effect. This opened the exit from the sterile protest regurgitated for years against the pettiness of the dormitory monitors or the Fouchet reform, made to order for the UNEF and for all those who coveted leadership.
When the Enragés began to interrupt the courses of the sociologists and several others, the UNEF and its leftist infiltrators reacted with indignation. On several occasions they themselves attempted to protect the professors. The anarchists, despite intentions of their own regarding the local UNEF committee, stayed neutral. Among them Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who had already carved out for himself something of a reputation by excusing himself for having insulted a Minister, was threatened with no less than expulsion from the UNEF on a motion by the Trotskyites (known at the time as the CLER but who later became the Federation of Revolutionary Students). Only because Cohn-Bendit, a German national, had been called to appear before the committee on expulsions at the Prefecture (national police headquarters) did the CLER decide to withdraw their motion. The scandals of the Enragés were already finding an echo in a certain political agitation. Their song about Grappin, the infamous “Grappignole,” and their first comic-strip poster appeared on the occasion of the “National Day” of university residence occupations, February 14. On every side the tone got higher.
On February 14 the Nouvel Observateur wept over Nanterre: The left has dissolved leaving nothing but the Enragés who include no one but three or four representatives of the Situationist International.”
The same day the Enragés issued a tract making clear that they
had never belonged to the Situationist International and therefore could not claim to represent it in any way. Repression would be child’s play if every demonstration that showed the slightest radicalism were the result of a Situationist plot!… [W]e nevertheless reaffirm our sympathy for the situationist critique. Our accord with radical theory can be judged by our acts.
On March 22nd the leftist groups invaded the administration building and held a meeting in the university council room. In the name of the Enragés, René Riesel immediately demanded the expulsion of two observers from the administration and of several Stalinists who were present. After spokesmen for the anarchists, a regular collaborator of Cohn-Bendit’s, had asserted that “the Stalinists who are here this evening are no longer Stalinists,” the Enragés immediately left the meeting in protest against this cowardly illusion. They had, moreover, been accused of wanting to wreck the union offices. They set about writing their slogans on the walls: TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY, BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY, TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS, NEVER WORK, etc. This ushered in a form of agitation that was to enjoy a far-reaching success and become one of the original characteristics of the period of occupations. Thus the gathering of various leftist elements which would be called in the following weeks “The Movement of the 142” and then the “March 22nd Movement” began to constitute itself that evening, without and against the Enragés.
From the beginning, the March 22nd Movement was an eclectic conglomerate of individuals who joined it under purely personal auspices. They all agreed on the fact that it was impossible for them to agree on any theoretical point and counted on “common action” to overcome this gap. There was nevertheless a consensus on two subjects; one a ridiculous banality, the other a new demand. The banality was the anti-imperialist “struggle,” heritage of the contemplative period of the leftist groups which was about to end: Nanterre, that suburban Vietnam, lending its resolute support to insurgent Bolivia. The novelty was direct democracy in the organization. It is true that this intention was only partially realized in the March 22nd Movement because of the double allegiance of most of its members, which problem was discretely ignored or never considered. There were Maoists, JCRs, anarchists of all kinds, from the ruins of the “Anarchist Federation” to the activists of the “Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth,” and up to and including the comical, or questionable, adherents of the “groups of institutional research” (FGERI).2
Cohn-Bendit himself belonged to the independent and semi-theoretical anarchist group around the magazine Noir et Rouge. Because of this and his personal qualities, Cohn-Bendit found himself in the most radical tendency of the March 22nd Movement and more truly revolutionary than the whole of the movement whose spokesman he was to become, and which he therefore had to tolerate.3 Cohn-Bendit, insufficiently intelligent, confusedly informed by various individuals on the theoretical problems of the period, skillful enough to entertain a student audience, frank enough to do the job in the arena of leftist maneuvres, supple enough to work with their spokesmen, was an honest but only a mediocre revolutionary. He knew much less than he should have known and did not make the best of what he knew. Besides, by uncritically accepting the “star” role, exhibiting himself for the mob of reporters from the spectacular media, Cohn-Bendit naturally had to watch his remarks, which always combined lucidity with nonsense, the latter being aggravated by the distortion inherent in that kind of communication. In April he was still declaring to anyone that he was a moderate and in no way an Enrage. That was the time when the press, following a Minister, began to call all the Nanterre rebels “Enragés.”
In a few days the March 22nd Movement had in fact achieved its chief success, with a bearing on the larger movement as a whole, and which had no relationship at all with the chatter about the “critical university” pirated from the German and Italian examples which had already revealed its inanity.4 Whereas all the efforts of the committee on “culture and creativity” had never gone beyond a revolutionary aestheticism which even some meager traces of “situationism” could not make interesting, the simple-minded “anti-imperialist” project of holding a meeting at Nanterre on March 29 pushed Dean Grappin to the first and most consequential of a series of administrative blunders which rapidly extended the agitation. Grappin closed his campus for two days. The menacing specter of a “handful of Enragés” was beginning to haunt the national consciousness.
Among the most concerned, L’Humanité, on 29 March denounced
the commando actions undertaken by a group of anarchists and ‘situationists,’ one of whose slogans — in giant letters — “DON’T WORK!” — decorated the entrance to the campus. For those forty or so students, activity has consisted for several weeks in ‘intervening’ in the lecture halls and discussion sections… occupying the buildings and finally covering the walls with gigantic slogans. How has a handful of irresponsible elements been able to provoke such serious decisions, affecting twelve thousand students in the arts and four thousand in law?
The repressions that began at that moment came too late. Of course, one of the Enragés, Gérard Bigorgue, was effectively expelled for five years from all institutions of higher learning in France without a word from the March 22nd Movement, its journalists, or any other leftist groups (he was reproached for his open contempt for university rules, and his attitude in front of the University Council was in fact scandalous). But renewed threats of expulsion against Cohn-Bendit (already fairly famous and certainly more defensible for many people); the announcement that Riesel, Cohn-Bendit and six other agitators from Nanterre were to be brought before the Committee of the Institution of the University of Paris on May 6th; and, finally, the closing until further notice of Nanterre on May 2nd, provoked an expansion of the agitation among Parisian students. The March 22nd Movement and the UNEF called for a meeting in the courtyard of the Sorbonne on Friday, May 3rd. By trying to break up the meeting, the authorities unleashed the accumulated strength of the movement and provoked it to cross the decisive threshold. How impossible such a development appeared to specialized “observers” is perfectly demonstrated by the brilliant prophesy of the ridiculous Escarpit, who wrote in Le Monde on May 4th: “Nothing is less revolutionary, nothing more conformist than the pseudo-anger of a window-breaker, even if he dresses his anti-mandarinism in Marxist or situationist language.”
1. Towards the end of the 1950s Touraine discovered that the proletariat had disappeared. He persisted in July 1968: “I’ll say it again: the working class, as a whole, is no longer a fully revolutionary class in France.” (Quoted from Labro, Ce n’est qu’un début.)
2. At no time was there a single situationist in this grab-bag, contrary to the lie of Émile Copfermann in his introduction to the collection of ineptitudes published by the March 22nd Movement under the title Ce n’est qu’un debut, continuons le combat (Éditions Maspero).
3. Cohn-Bendit, in a number of interviews, multiplied his concessions to Maoism. For example, in Le Magazine Littéraire of May 68: “I don’t know that much about what Maoism is. I’ve read things in Mao that are very true. His thesis of reliance upon the peasantry has always been an anarchist thesis.”
4. All the sociological-journalistic eulogies on the “originality” of the March 22nd Movement masked the simple fact that its leftist amalgam, while new in France, was a direct copy of the American SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), itself equally eclectic, “democratic” and frequently infiltrated by various old leftist sects. Georges Steiner in The Sunday Times of July 21st, enumerating with perfect incomprehension the theses of the SI, which he considered to be “probably the most advanced of the radical factions,” nonetheless saw that Cohn-Bendit was a “weather-beaten conservative” compared with such “absolutists.”
3. The Struggle in the Streets
I know that you count them for nothing because the court is armed: but I beg you to let me say that they should count for a great deal the moment they count themselves for everything. That is the point they have come to: they themselves are beginning to count your armies for nothing, and it’s very unfortunate that their strength lies precisely in their imagination. One could truly say that what makes them different from all other forms of power is their ability, having reached a certain point, to do everything of which they believe themselves capable.
— Cardinal de Retz, Mémoires
In itself the meeting of May 3rd was banal: as usual three or four hundred hangers-on had responded to the call. The few dozen fascists of the “Occident” group counter-demonstrated at the beginning of the afternoon on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Several Enragés at the Sorbonne called for the organization of self-defense. Furniture had to be broken up as there were no clubs. Rector Roche and his policemen thought this would be sufficient pretext for an attack. The police and the gendarmerie mobile invaded the courtyard of the Sorbonne without meeting resistance. The students were encircled. The police then offered them free passage out of the courtyard. The students accepted and the first to leave were in fact allowed to pass. The operation took time and other students began to gather outside in the quarter. The remaining two hundred demonstrators inside the Sorbonne, including all the organizers, were arrested. As the police vans carried them away the Latin Quarter erupted. One of the two vans never reached its destination. Only three policemen guarded the second van. They were beaten up, and several dozen demonstrators escaped.
It was the first time in many years that several thousand students in Paris had fought the police for so long and with such energy. Endless charges, greeted with hails of paving stones, failed to clear the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the adjoining streets until several hours later. Some six hundred people were arrested. The immediate reaction of the Syndicat National de l’Enseignment Supérieur (the National Union of Employees in Higher Education, SNES) and of the UNEF was to call for an unlimited strike in higher education. The stiff prison sentences handed out to the four demonstrators on May 5th only served to confirm the demonstration that had been called for May 6th to put pressure on the University Council.
Naturally the Stalinists did all they could to break the movement. George Marchais’ editorial in L’Humanité on May 3rd, which exposed this policy almost at the level of parody, angered the mass of students. From that moment on the Stalinists found themselves denied the floor in all the centers of revolutionary agitation which the students began to create.
The whole of May 6th was marked by demonstrations which turned into riots early in the afternoon. The first barricades were thrown up at the Place Maubert and defended for three hours. At the same time fights with the police were breaking out at the bottom of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, at the Place du Châtelet, and in Les Halles. By the early evening the demonstrators numbered more than ten thousand and were mainly holding the area around the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where they had been reinforced only after 6 p.m. by the bulk of the march organized by the UNEF at Denfert-Rochereau.1 On May 8th Le Monde wrote:
What followed surpassed in scope and violence everything that had happened throughout an already astonishing day. It was a kind of street fighting that sometimes reached a frenzy, where every blow delivered was immediately returned, and where ground that had scarcely been conquered was just as quickly retaken… There were dramatic and senseless moments which, for the observer, seemed rife with madness.
And on May 7th L’Aurore noted: “Alongside the demonstrators could be seen bands of young hoods (blousons noirs) armed with steel bars, who had come in from the outlying areas of Paris to help out the students.” The fighting lasted until after midnight, especially at Montparnasse.
For the first time cars were overturned and set afire, paving stones were dug up for the barricades, and stores were looted. The use of subversive slogans, which had begun at Nanterre, had now spread to several parts of Paris. Insofar as the rioters were able to strengthen the barricades, and thus their own capacity for counterattack, the police were forced to abandon direct charges for a position strategy which relied mainly on offensive grenades and tear gas.
May 6th also marked the first intervention of workers, blousons noirs, the unemployed, and high school students who that morning had organized important demonstrations. The spontaneity and violence of the riots stood in vivid contrast to the platitudes put forth by their academic initiators as goals and slogans.2 The very fact that the blousons noirs had fought in the streets shouting “The Sorbonne to the students!” marked an end to an entire era. A week later these politicized blousons noirs were themselves at the Sorbonne.
The UNEF, which had been denouncing the violence throughout the Monday demonstrations, was obliged to change its rhetoric the following day to avoid being totally discredited, and in order to continue its moderating activity. On the other hand the Stalinists of the CGT, giving up completely, preferred to cut themselves off totally from the students in order to keep their hold on those workers who were still isolated from the fighting. Seguy proclaimed at an evening press conference that there would be “no complacency towards the trouble makers and provocateurs who were denigrating the working class, accusing it of being bought off by the bourgeoisie, and who have the outrageous pretension of trying to inculcate it with revolutionary theory and to lead its struggle. Along with other leftists, certain elements are trying to strip student unionism of its legitimate demands and of its mass democratic nature for the benefit of the UNEF. But they are only acting in the interests of established power…”
It was precisely in this context that Geismar, Sauvageot, and Cohn-Bendit could become the apparent leaders of a leaderless movement. The press, radio, and television, in their search for leaders, found no one besides them. They became the inseparable and photogenic stars of a spectacle hastily pasted over the revolutionary reality. By accepting that role they spoke in the name of a movement they did not understand. Of course, to do this they had to accept the greater part of its revolutionary tendencies as far as they manifested themselves (Cohn-Bendit was able to reflect this radical content somewhat better). But since this holy family of improvised neo-leftism could only be the spectacular deformation of the real movement, it represented its most caricatured image. Their Trinity, endlessly offered through the mass media, in fact represented the real communication which was being sought and realized in the struggle. This trio of ideological charm of 819 varieties could obviously only say the acceptable — and therefore the deformed and recuperated — tolerated by such a means of transmission. While the real meaning of the moment which had propelled them out of nowhere was purely unacceptable.
The demonstration of May 7th was so well controlled the UNEF and its hard-pressed monitors that it limited itself to an interminable promenade along a rambling authorized route: from Denfert to the Êtoile, and back. The organizers asked for nothing more than the reopening of the Sorbonne, the withdrawal of the police from the Latin Quarter, and the release of the imprisoned students. They continued to mill around for another two days, during which only minor scuffles took place. But the government was reluctant to fulfill even these modest demands. They promised to reopen the Sorbonne, but Sauvegeot and Geismar, who were already being accused of betrayal by an impatient rank-and-file, were forced to announce that the building would be occupied day and night for a sit-in and “a discussion of the problems of the university.” In these circumstances, Minister Peyrefitte maintained the police presence in the Sorbonne while reopening Nanterre as a test to measure the “goodwill” of the students.
On Friday the 10th more than twenty thousand people met once again at Denfert-Rochereau.3 The same organizers discussed where it would be best to lead the demonstration. After a long debate they decided on the ORTF (radio and television center), but with an initial detour past the Ministry of Justice. Arriving at the Latin Quarter, the demonstrators found all the streets leading to the Seine blocked by the police, which was enough to condemn the absurd itinerary once and for all. They decided to stay in the Latin Quarter until the Sorbonne was returned to them. At about 9 p.m. the first barricades went up spontaneously. Everyone recognized instantly the reality of their desires in that act. Never had the passion for destruction shown itself to be so creative. Everyone ran to the barricades.
The leaders had completely lost control. They had to accept the faît accompli while making clumsy attempts to minimize it. They protested that the barricades should be strictly defensive; and that the police should not be provoked! Doubtless the forces of order had committed a bad tactical error by allowing the barricades to go up without immediately risking an attack to tear them down. But the construction of a system of barricades solidly defending an entire quarter was already an unforgivable step towards the negation of the state: any form of statist power would be obliged to reconquer the barricaded zone that had escaped its power as quickly as possible, or else dissolve. (It was because of the excess of ideological distortion maintained by their idiotic spokesmen that so many people on the barricades believed that the police would not attack them.)
The barricaded quarter was circumscribed by the Boulevard Saint-Michel to the west and Rue Mouffetard to the east, Rue Claude Bernard to the south and the Place du Pantheon to the north, lines touched upon but not controlled by its defenses. Its principal thoroughfares were Rues Gay-Lussac, Lhomond, and Tournefor, going northwest and southeast, and Rue d’Ulm going north and south. Rue Pierre Curie and Rue Ursulines-Thuillier were the only communications east and west. The area in the hands of the insurgents had an independent existence from 10 p.m. until just after 2 a.m. Attacked at 2:15 a.m. by forces moving in from all sides, the quarter was able to defend itself for more than three hours, continually losing ground on the western section and holding out until 5:30 a.m. at the approaches to Rue Mouffetard.
Between fifteen hundred and two thousand people remained on the barricades at the moment of attack. Students did not make up even half that number. On hand were large numbers of high school students, blousons noirs, and a few hundred workers — and not only young workers. This was the elite, this was “the scum” (pègre). Many foreigners and women took part in the fight. The revolutionary elements of almost all the leftist groups were there, notably a large number of anarchists, even some members of the Anarchist Federation — carrying the black flag, which had begun to appear in the street on May 6th, and bitterly defending their stronghold at the intersection of the Rues de l’Estapade, Blainville, and Thouin. The residents of the area showed their sympathy for the very same rioters who were burning their cars by giving them food, water to combat the effects of the gas, and finally refuge from the police.
The sixty barricades, of which twenty were quite solid, allowed a rather prolonged defense and even some respite from the battle, within a limited perimeter. The weakness of the improvised weapons, and particularly the lack of organization which made it impossible to launch any counterattacks to widen the combat zone, left the rioters caught in a dragnet.
The last pretensions of those who hoped to lead the movement collapsed during the night in shameful resignation and pure impotence. The FER, which had the best disciplined flock, paraded its five hundred militants up to the barricades to declare that the whole affair was the result of provocation and that it was thus necessary to leave. Which they did, red flag leading the way. At the same time, Cohn-Bendit and Sauvegeot, still imprisoned by their obligations as stars, went to tell Rector Roche that “to avoid any bloodshed” the police should be withdrawn from the quarter. This extravagant request, made at such a moment to a man with absolutely no power in the situation, was so surpassed by events that it could only sustain an hour of the most naïve illusions. Roche simply advised those who had come to consult with him to tell “the students” to give up and go home.
The battle was very rough. The CRS, the police, and the gendarmerie mobile succeeded in making the barricades untenable by an intense bombardment of incendiary, offensive, and chloride gas grenades, before they would risk taking them by assault. The rioters responded with paving stones and Molotov cocktails. They set fire to cars turned over in zigzag lines of defense to slow down the enemy advance. Some got onto roofs to drop all sorts of projectiles onto the police. Several times the police were forced back. More often the revolutionaries set fire to the barricades they could no longer hold. There were several hundred injured and five hundred arrests. Four or five hundred took refuge in the buildings of the École Normale Superieure on the Rue d’Ulm, which the police did not dare to enter. Two or three hundred others had been able to pull back to the Rue Monge, or found refuge in the homes of the residents of the quarter or escaped over the roofs. The police swept the quarter until noon, beating up and taking off anyone who looked suspicious.
1. Here it is important to point out the gap between the attitude of the organizers and the real struggle that had been under way for hours: “At the approaches to Place Denfert-Rochereau, where no police were to be seen… barricades were thrown up with materials from various construction yards in the area, despite the orders of the UNEF monitors and several other student organizations.” (Le Monde, May 8th)
2. END THE REPRESSION, FREE OUR COMRADES, ROCHE RESIGN, FREEDOM FOR THE TRADE UNIONS, SORBONNE FOR THE STUDENTS. The same backwardness is to be found in the tone of the declaration of the national offices of the Fédération des Ètudiants Revolutionnaire (FER), which on the following day hailed the “thousands of students and young workers who responded to the call of the UNEF to defend democratic and trade union freedom and who found themselves engaged all Monday with the repressive forces of the Gaullist state.” (Author’s emphasis.)
3. The University Council, which was supposed to meet that day to consider the situation at Nanterre, decided to postpone its session because it felt that the necessary calm was not at hand. An anonymous tract, distributed on May 6th, The Council of the University of Paris: Instruction for its Use, had revealed the addresses and phone numbers of all its members. The declaration of René Riesel, The Castle is Burning!, could therefore not be read by the judges, but was simply distributed to the demonstrators.
4. The Sorbonne Occupied
This is where the objective conditions of historical consciousness are reunited. This is where direct active communication is realized, where specialization, hierarchy and separation end, where the existing conditions are transformed into conditions of unity… Only there is the spectacular negation of life negated in its turn. The appearance of the councils was the highest reality of the proletarian movement in the first quarter of this century, a reality which was not seen or was travestied because it disappeared with the rest of the movement which was denied and eliminated by the entire historical experience of the time. In this new moment of proletarian critique, the result returns as the only undefeated point of the defeated movement. The historical consciousness which knows that this is the only milieu where it can exist can now recognize it, no longer at the periphery of what is ebbing, but at the center of what is rising.
— Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
The night of the battle around the Rue Gay-Lussac created a stupor throughout the country. For a large part of the population the indignation linked with that stupor was not directed against the rioters, in spite of the extent of the destruction they had caused, but against the excessive violence of the forces of order. The radio had given a minute-by-minute account of the conditions throughout the night, in which the entrenched camp had defended itself and been defeated. It was generally known that a large number of those who had been seriously injured had not received treatment for hours because the besiegers would not let them out. The police also came under fire for the widespread use of a new and ferocious gas, despite earlier denials of its use by the authorities. Finally, it was widely believed that there had been a number of deaths which the police had covered up once they had reconquered the area.1
On Saturday May 11th, the whole trade union leadership put out a call for a one day general strike on the 13th. For them it was simply a question of putting an end to the movement while getting as much as possible out of the solidarity superficially affirmed “against the repression.” The trade unions were also forced to make this gesture because they saw the profound impression that a week of direct struggle had made on the workers. Such an example was in itself a threat to their authority. Their recuperative strike would not respect the time legally required for forewarning; that was to be its sole subversive aspect.
The government, which, in the early morning as the last barricade fell had initially reacted with a threatening statement alluding to a conspiracy and harsh measures, in view of the protest decided on a complete turnabout. Prime Minister Pompidou, who had returned from Afghanistan on Saturday night, quickly dealt the card of appeasement. He announced that the convicted students would be freed immediately after a new trial, thereby overthrowing the hypocrisy concerning the autonomy of the courts. This action was in fact carried out. He allowed the buildings of the Censier annex of the Faculte des Lettres to be used from Sunday for the legal sit-in that had been demanded for discussion of university reform. The discussion began at once and for several days the studious and moderate atmosphere bore the strain of its birth. Finally, Pompidou promised to withdraw all police from the Latin Quarter on Monday, along with the roadblocks at the entrances to the Sorbonne. On the morning of May 13th the police had decamped and the Sorbonne was there for the taking.
Throughout May 13th the call for the strike was widely observed. In an orderly demonstration, nearly one million workers, along with students and professors, crossed Paris from the République to Denfert-Rochereau, meeting with general sympathy along the way. The slogans affirmed the solidarity of workers and students and demanded, on the 10th anniversary of his coming to power, the departure of de Gaulle. More than 100 black flags were scattered through a multitude of red ones, realizing for the first time the union of the two flags which would shortly become the symbol of the most radical current of the occupation movement; not so much the result of an autonomous anarchist presence as an affirmation of worker democracy.
The trade unionists had no trouble getting the crowd to disperse at Denfert. A few thousand demonstrators, mainly students, left for the Champ-de-Mars to hold a meeting. At the same time other students were starting the Sorbonne occupation. There, an event of decisive importance took place: the students present decided to open the Sorbonne to the workers. The abstract slogan of the demonstration — WORKER-STUDENT SOLIDARITY — was taken seriously for the first time. This step had been prepared for by the real encounter with workers that had taken place that day, and especially by the direct dialogue between the students and advance workers who had come over from the demonstration to say that they had supported the student struggle from the beginning, and to denounce the manipulation of the Stalinists. A certain workerism, cultivated by the bureaucratic specialists of revolution, was certainly bound up in this decision. But what their leaders had said without any conviction and without any real sense of the consequences, took on revolutionary implications because of the atmosphere of total freedom that reigned at the Sorbonne, and which completely undermined the implicit paternalism of their plans. In fact, few workers actually came to the Sorbonne. But because the Sorbonne had been declared open to the populace the lines between “the student problem” and a concerned public had been broken. And because the Sorbonne was beginning to have a truly democratic discussion which called everything into question and which sought to implement decisions arrived at collectively, it became a beacon to workers all over the country by showing them their own possibilities.
The complete freedom of expression showed itself in the seizure of the walls as well as in free discussions in all assemblies. The posters of all tendencies, including the Maoists, shared the walls without being torn down or defaced — only the Stalinists of the Communist Party chose to abstain. Painted inscriptions appeared a little later. That evening the first revolutionary slogan placed in comic strip form on one of the frescos, the famous formula: HUMANITY WILL ONLY BE HAPPY THE DAY THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG BY THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST. This met with some resistance. After a public debate the majority voted to efface it, which was done.2
On May 14th, the Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International was founded.3 Its members immediately began putting up posters — which meant what they said — on the walls of the Sorbonne. One warned about the illusions of a direct democracy billeted in the Sorbonne. Another called for vigilance: THE RECUPERATORS ARE AMONGST US! Still another came out against “any survival of art” and the “reign of separation.” Finally, one poster called for “the immediate dechristianization of the Sorbonne,” and attacked the blameworthy tolerance shown by the occupiers towards the chapel, which still remained intact. It called for the disinternment and dispatching of the “remains of the foul Richelieu, statesman and cardinal, to the Élysée Palace and the Vatican.” It should be noted that this was the first poster in the Sorbonne to be surreptitiously torn down by people who disapproved of its content. The “March 22nd” Culture and Creativity Committee breathed its last on May 14th, with some posters of various quotations by the SI, notably from Vaneigem’s book.
May 14th also saw the first “general assembly of the occupiers.” It proclaimed itself sole power in the Sorbonne and organized the activities of the occupation. Three tendencies emerged in the debate: a considerable number of hangers-on, who said little but revealed their moderation by applause for certain idiotic speeches, simply wanted a university reform, an agreement on examinations, and a sort of academic front with the left-wing professors. A stronger current, which brought together the leftist groups and their members, wanted to push the struggle on to the fall of Gaullism or even of capitalism. A third position, put forward by a tiny minority but listened to nonetheless, demanded the abolition of class society, wage labor, the spectacle, and survival. It was clearly articulated in a declaration by René Riesel in the name of the Enragés. He said that the question of the university had long since been surpassed and that “exams had been canceled at the barricades.” He asked the assembly to come out for the freedom of all rioters, including those looters arrested on May 6th. He showed that the only future of the movement was with the workers — not “in their service,” but at their side, and that the workers were in no way to be confused with their bureaucratic organizations. He asserted that the present alienation could not be fought while ignoring the alienations of the past — “No more chapels!” — nor those being prepared for tomorrow — “sociologists and psychologists are the new cops.” He denounced hierarchical relations with lecturers for being the same kind of policing. He warned of the recuperation of the movement by leftist leaders, and of its foreseeable liquidation by the Stalinists. He concluded with a call for all power to the workers’ councils.
There were diverse reactions to his intervention. Riesel’s proposal concerning the looters got much more jeering than applause. The attack on the professors shocked the audience, as did the first open attack on the Stalinists. Nonetheless, when the assembly chose the first “Occupation Committee” as its executive organ, Riesel was elected. Alone among the candidates to have indicated his political allegiances, he was also the only one with a stated program. Speaking a second time he made it clear he would defend “direct democracy in the Sorbonne” and the perspective of the international power of workers’ councils.
The occupation of the faculties and schools of higher education had begun in Paris — the Beaux-Arts, Nanterre, the Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, Medicine. All the rest would follow.
At the end of the day, May 14th, the workers of the Sud-Aviation plant in Nantes occupied their factory and barricaded themselves in after locking director Duvochel and the managers in the offices and soldering the doors shut. Apart from the example of the Sorbonne, the workers had learned from the incidents which had taken place at Nantes the night before. At the call of the Nantes branch of the UNEF which, as we have seen before, was controlled by revolutionaries, the students refused to limit themselves to a march with the trade unionists. They marched on the police station to demand the end of court proceedings recently begun against them, and the restoration of the annual grant of ten thousand francs which had been taken away after their radical turn. They threw up two barricades which the CRS tried to take back. Some university personnel presented themselves as intermediaries and a truce was made which the prefect of police used to receive a delegation. He gave in on every point. The rector withdrew his complaint to the police and restored the funds. A number of workers from the city had taken part in the fighting and had seen the effectiveness of this type of demand. The workers at Sud-Aviation would remember it next day. The Nantes students immediately offered to support the picket lines.
The occupation of Sud-Aviation, which became generally known on May 15th, was understood by everyone as an act of the greatest importance: if other factories followed the example of that wildcat strike the movement would irreversibly become that historical crisis awaited by the most lucid people. At noon the occupation committee of the Sorbonne sent a telegram of support to the Sud-Aviation strike committee — “from the occupied Sorbonne to occupied Sud-Aviation.”
This was the only activity of which the occupation committee was capable for most of the day, and even this was due to Riesel’s initiative. In fact, from its first meeting the committee found itself faced with a stupefying contrast between the function delegated to it by the general assembly and the real conditions with which it had to work. The occupation committee was composed of fifteen members, elected and revocable on a daily basis by the general assembly and answerable to it alone. All the services which had been improvised or which remained to be organized for the running and defense of the building were placed under its control. Its responsibilities entailed making possible free discussion on a permanent basis, and assuring and facilitating the extension of the activities already under way, which ranged from the distribution of rooms and food and the democratic diffusion of written and verbal information to the maintenance of security. The reality was quite different: the discredited bureaucrats of the UNEF and the old tandem of Kravetz and Peninou re-emerged from the oblivion which had rightly engulfed them, and slipped into the corridors they knew so well to install themselves in a cellar. From there they prepared to gather up all the reigns of real power and to coordinate the actions of all sorts of benevolent technicians who turned out to be their friends. It was a “Coordination Committee” which had elected itself. The “Inter-faculty Liaison Committee” worked for itself. Its completely autonomous staff obeyed no-one but their leader, a nice guy on the whole, who had appointed himself and was interested in discussion only from that position of strength. The “Press Committee,” which was made up of young or future journalists, was not at the disposal of the Sorbonne, but of the French press as a whole. As for the sound equipment, it was quite simply in the hands of right-wing elements who happened to be specialists in electronics.
In this rather surprising situation the occupation committee had some difficulty even in getting a room: each fiefdom that had set itself up had designs on all the offices. A bit discouraged, the majority of the committee’s members disappeared and in despair tried to slip into the various floating sub-committees which at least had the merit of existing. It was obvious that the manipulators referred to above had planned to entrench their power by making the elected Committee mere window dressing.4 They must have been satisfied with the result of their maneuvers on the 15th, because when the general assembly met that evening they proposed to renew en bloc the phantom occupation committee for another twenty-four hours. The eight members of the coordination committee were also confirmed as auxiliaries to the occupation committee. Already strengthened by the practical mechanisms at its disposal, the coordination committee planned to round off its seizure of power by telling the occupation committee that it no longer existed. Almost all the members of that committee, who had reappeared just in time to hear themselves re-elected by the general assembly, had resigned themselves to dispersal. Two members alone tried to appeal to the base to denounce the scandalous manner in which the power of the general assembly had been flouted. Riesel spoke to the occupiers in the courtyard, urging them back into the general assembly to repudiate the bureaucrats. Publicly confronted with general indignation, these bureaucrats shamefully withdrew. And what remained of the occupation committee, supported by elements that had suddenly rallied to it, began to exist in reality.
On the same day the workers at the Renault factory at Cléon, in Seine-Maritime, struck and occupied their factory, locking in the management. The Lockheed factory at Beauvais and Unulec in Orléans followed. Later in the evening two to three hundred people arrived at the Odéon Theater as the audience was leaving and took it over. If the content of this “liberation” remained mostly limited — dominated by people and problems of culture — the very fact of taking over the building completely outside of the university was nonetheless an extension of the movement, a farcical enactment of the composition of the state power. During the night which followed the most beautiful inscriptions of an era appeared on the walls of the Sorbonne.
On the morning of May 16th the occupation of Renault-Cléon became generally known and some of the workers of the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne launched a wildcat strike to prevent the distribution of newspapers. The occupation committee of the Sorbonne, which was meeting in the Jules Bonnot Room (formerly Cavailles) put out the following statement: “Comrades, the Sud-Aviation factory at Nantes has been occupied for two days by the workers and students of that city. The movement was extended today to several factories (NMPP-Paris, Renault-Cléon, etc). The Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne calls for the immediate occupation of all factories in France and the formation of workers’ councils. Comrades, reproduce and distribute this appeal as quickly as possible.”
As has been shown above, the occupation committee had been stripped of all means at its disposal for the execution of the slightest activity. To distribute its appeal it set out to reappropriate those means. It could count on the support of the Enragés, the situationists and a dozen other revolutionaries, using a megaphone from the windows of the Jules Bonnot Room they asked for, and received, numerous volunteers from the courtyard. The text was recopied and went to be read in all the other amphitheaters and faculties. Since the printing had been purposely slowed down by the Inter-Faculty Liaison Committee, the Occupation Committee had to requisition machines and organize its own distribution service. Because the sound crew refused to read the text at regular intervals, the Occupation Committee had their equipment seized. Out of spite the specialists sabotaged their equipment as they were leaving, and partisans of the committee had to repair it. Telephones were taken over to pass the statement on to press agencies, the provinces, and abroad. By 3:30 P.M. it was beginning to be distributed effectively.
The call for immediate occupation of the factories caused an uproar. Not, of course, among the occupiers of the Sorbonne, where so many came forward to assure its distribution, but among the placement of the small leftist groups who showed up, horrified, to speak of adventurism and madness. They were coldly ignored. The Occupation Committee was not about to be called to account by the various leftist cliques. Thus Krivine, the leader of the JCR, was successfully pushed away from the sound equipment and out of the Jules Bonnot Room, to which he had come running to express his disapproval, his anxiety, and even the ridiculous pretension of canceling the statement. No matter how much they might have wanted to, the manipulators no longer had the strength to attack the sovereignty of the general assembly with a raid on the Jules Bonnot Room. In fact, since the beginning of the afternoon the Occupation Committee had formed its own security guard since the beginning of the afternoon, to counter any irresponsible use of its shakily established services. It then set about reorganizing these by a discussion with the rank and file, easily persuading them of the anti-democratic role that certain elements were trying to put over on them.
The task of reconsolidating the Sorbonne was backed up by a series of widely distributed tracts, coming out at an increasing rate. They were also read over the sound system, which was announcing new factory occupations as soon as news arrived. At 4:30 P.M. the tract entitled Vigilance! sounded a warning: “The sovereignty of the general assembly has no meaning unless it exercises its power. For forty-eight hours the carrying out of the general assembly’s decisions has been systematically obstructed… The demand for direct democracy is the least support that revolutionary students can offer the revolutionary workers now occupying their factories. It would be unacceptable for the incidents of last night’s general assembly to be ignored. The priests are taking over when the anti-clerical posters are torn down…” At 5 P.M. the tract Watch Out! denounced the Press Committee which “refuses to transmit the statements of the proceedings regularly voted on by the general assembly” and “which is acting as a committee of censorship.” At 6:30 the tract Watch Out for Manipulators! Watch Out for Bureaucrats! denounced the uncontrolled monitors. It emphasized the decisive importance of the general assembly which was to meet that evening: ”as the workers begin to occupy several factories in France, following our example and with the same right as us, the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne announced its support for the movement at 3 P.M. today. The central problem facing the general assembly is therefore to decide by an unequivocal vote whether to support or disavow the appeal of the Occupation Committee. By disavowing it, this assembly will assume the responsibility of reserving for students a right it refuses to the working class and will make clear that it has no desire to speak of anything but a Gaullist reform of the university.” At 7 P.M. a tract proposed a list of radical slogans to be diffused: “POWER TO THE WORKERS’ COUNCILS,” “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “THE END OF THE UNIVERSITY,” and so on.
The whole of this activity, which hourly increased the number of supporters of the Occupation Committee, was cynically falsified by the bourgeois press, following Le Monde of May 18th, which described it in these terms: “No-one is very sure who is running the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne. In fact a room where this body, elected every night at 8 P.M., is meeting, was invaded at the end of the afternoon by the Enrages of the Situationist International. In particular they are ‘holding’ the microphones of the Sorbonne, which allowed them to broadcast several slogans during the night, which many students saw as adventurist: ‘IF YOU RUN INTO A COP, SMASH HIS FACE IN,’ ‘USE FORCE TO STOP PHOTOGRAPHS BEING TAKEN INSIDE THE SORBONNE.’ However the students of the Situationist International have ‘dissolved all bureaucratic structures’ previously set up, such as the Press Committee and the monitors. The decisions of this committee may be called into question by the general assembly planned to meet this Friday at 2 P.M.”5
The afternoon of the 16th marked the moment when the working class began to declare its support for the movement in an irreversible way. At 2 P.M. the Renault plant at Flins was occupied. Between 3 P.M. and 5 P.M. a wildcat strike took over Renault-Billancourt. Factory occupations began throughout the provinces. The occupation of public buildings, which continued to spread everywhere, hit Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. which was taken over by its personnel.
Confronted by this news, all the leftist groups at the Sorbonne rallied for a march on Billancourt at 8 P.M. The Occupation Committee decided to delay the meeting of the general assembly, which it was nevertheless impatient to confront with its responsibilities. Its statement, issued just before 8 P.M., declared: “In agreement with the different political groups, the March 22nd Movement, and the UNEF, the Occupation Committee has decided to postpone the meeting of the general assembly from 8 P.M. on 16 May to 2 P.M. on the 17th. Everyone meet this evening at 8 P.M. at Place de la Sorbonne to march on Billancourt.”
The entry of Renault-Billancourt into the struggle — the largest factory in France, and one which had so often played a decisive part in social struggles — and particularly the threat of a conjunction of the workers and the revolutionary occupations that had been sparked by the student struggle, horrified both the so-called Communist Party and the government. Even before learning of the plan for a march on Billancourt they reacted almost identically to the bad news they had just received. At 6:30 P.M. a statement from the Stalinist politburo “warned” the workers and students “against all adventurist calls for action.” A little later, after 7 P.M., a statement was issued by the government: “In the presence of various attempts called for or set in motion by groups of extremists to provoke general disorder, the Prime Minister wishes to affirm that the government will not tolerate an attack on the Republic… As soon as the university reform is used only as a pretext for plunging the country into chaos, the government has the duty of maintaining public order…” The government at the same time decided to call up ten thousand police reserves.
Some three to four thousand occupiers of the Sorbonne went in two groups to Billancourt under red and black flags. The CGT, which held every entrance to the factory, successfully prevented any contact with the workers. The UNEF and the SNESup were determined to carry out on the following day the plan to march on the ORTF, which the Enragés-Situationist International Committee had been trying to get adopted by the general assembly since May 14th. When this decision became known the CGT declared at 9 A.M. on the 16th that it “looked like a provocation which could only serve personal power.” At 10:30 the Stalinist party took the same line. At midnight the SNESup and the UNEF yielded and announced the plan had been canceled.
During the night the counter-offensive of the manipulators began at the Sorbonne. Taking advantage of the absence of the revolutionary elements who were out at the Renault factory, they tried to improvise a general assembly with those students who had stayed behind. The Occupation Committee sent in two delegates who denounced the character of an assembly growing out of a thin, specious maneuver. Understanding that it had been fooled, the assembly broke up immediately.
At dawn the workers of the NMPP asked the Sorbonne occupiers to rein- force their picket lines, which had not yet succeeded in imposing a work stoppage. The Occupation Committee sent volunteers. On the number two line of the Metro an anti-union action committee attempted to begin a strike throughout the RATP. More than one hundred factories were to be occupied during the day. Early in the morning the workers from the striking Parisian factories, beginning with Renault, began arriving at the Sorbonne to establish the contact which the trades unions were preventing at the factory gates.
The general assembly of 2 P.M. gave priority to a second march on Billancourt, and postponed discussion of all other questions until the evening session. The FER vainly attempted to invade the stage and its leaders spoke just as vainly to prevent the second march, or, if it had to take place, to have it adopt the quasi-Stalinist slogan “ONE WORKERS’ FRONT.” The FER doubtless saw itself at the head of such a front, along with the SFIO and the CP. Throughout the crisis the FER was to the Stalinist party what the Stalinists were to Gaullism — support triumphed over apparent rivalry and the same services rendered earned, at their respective levels, the same wage of ingratitude. A statement from CGT-Renault had just appeared “actively discouraging the initiators of this march from maintaining that initiative.” The march took place. It was received in the same way as the night before. The CGT had discredited itself even more among the workers by posting the following ridiculous calumny both inside and outside the factory: “Young workers/revolutionary elements are trying to arouse division in our ranks and weaken us. These elements are nothing but the henchmen of the bourgeoisie who are receiving large sums from the management.”
At 1 P.M. the Occupation Committee had printed a tract by workers who had started the strike at Renault, which explained how young workers had won over the rank-and-file in various sections, forcing the unions to belatedly endorse the movement they had tried to prevent: “Every night the workers are expecting people to come to the gates to give mass support to a mass movement.” At the same time telegrams were sent to several countries, expressing the revolutionary position of the occupied Sorbonne.
When the general assembly finally met at 8 P.M. the conditions which had plagued its functioning from the beginning had not improved. The sound equipment worked only for the time necessary for certain announcements and stopped in the middle of others. The direction of the debates, and especially the final vote, were technically dependent on the unknown buffoon, obviously a UNEF hatchet-man, who had appointed himself president of the general assembly at the beginning of the occupation and who, oblivious to all the denunciations and humiliations heaped upon him, clung to this post until the end. The FER, which since that morning had naively publicized its intention to “take charge” of the movement, tried once again to take over the stage. Manipulators from all the sects cooperated to prevent the general assembly from making any pronouncements on the activities of the Occupation Committee which had just asked for a mandate, principally on the call to occupy the factories. This obstruction was accompanied by a campaign of denunciation introducing a number of red herrings: “The Saint Germain-des-Pres appearance” of disorder in the building, the contempt shown for the small leftist groups and the UNEF, the commentary on the occupation of Sainte-Anne in which certain people claimed to have heard a call for the “liberation of the insane,” and other miserable topics. The assembly showed itself incapable of self-respect. The ex-Occupation Committee, unable to get a vote on its activities, and having no desire to take part in the power struggles and compromises going on in the various wings around the selection of a new committee, announced that it was leaving the Sorbonne, where direct democracy was being strangled by the bureaucrats. All its supporters left at the same time and the body of monitors found itself dissolved, while the FER, which had been threatening the tribune for more than an hour, seized the occasion to rush in. It was nevertheless unable to take control of the Sorbonne, where the pockets of power were to persist to the end. The verdict of the Occupation Committee was, unfortunately, completely confirmed by the facts.
This collapse of an attempt at direct democracy at the Sorbonne was a defeat for the rest of the occupation movement, which was to experience its main failure precisely in this area. However, at this point of the crisis it is certain that no group had sufficient strength to intervene in a revolutionary direction with any effect. All the organizations that played any effective role in the further developments were enemies of working-class autonomy. Everything was to hang on the power relations in the factories between the workers, everywhere isolated and cut-off, and the joint power of the state and the trade unions.
1. This has not been shown to be true. The hypothesis is supported by two considerations: on the one hand it is unlikely that nobody died among so many injured and belatedly treated people; on the other hand it is unlikely that the government would have resigned itself to the considerable retreat, so full of risks, that it was to undertake that very evening without taking into account specific information on the seriousness of the confrontation. There is no question that a modem state has at its disposal the means to cover up a handful of deaths. Not, of course, by counting them as “missing persons” but, as some have argued for example, by presenting them as victims of car smashes outside Paris.
2. The author of this work is proud to have written this inscription, controversial at the time, but which opened the way to such fertile activity. (See, on this subject, the magazine Internationale Situationniste no.11, page 32 onwards [The Situationists and the New Forms of Action Against Politics and Art].)
3. Contact between the SI and the Enragés had begun on the day after the Enragés’ tract appeared, February 21st. Having proved their autonomy, the Enragés could collaborate with the SI, which had always made such an autonomy the prerequisite of any working relationship. At the end of the occupations the committee agreed to pursue this collaboration with the SI.
4. Some time later an exasperated Peninou spared no agony in wailing his complaints to onlookers: “We had all agreed,” he moaned, “that no group should participate in the Occupation Committee. We had the agreement of the FER, the JCR, the Maoists, etc. But we had forgotten the situationists!”
5. These calumnies had a hard time of it. In the Paris-Match of July 6th one could read: “This poetic anarchy did not last. A group called ‘the Situationists-Enragés’ took power by what might be called a ‘sectarian legality,’ and also took over its essential, necessary, and sufficient instrument, the sound equipment, a system of loudspeakers through which they were able to pour a torrent of slogans into the corridors and courtyard day and night. Whoever has the sound equipment has the floor and the power. The situationists used the equipment to distribute perfectly ludicrous slogans. For example, they called on all students to ‘support the patients of Sainte-Anne in their liberation struggle against the psychiatrists.'” In quite another genre, the book by the fascist François Duprat, Les Journées de mai ’68 (Nouvelles Éditions Latines) denounced “40-odd students belonging to the Situationist International” as the instigators of the agitation carried on at Nanterre, and claimed to see the hand of the HVA (the East German Secret Police) in the activities of the S.I. He went on to lump the situationists with the March 22nd Movement and to name Cohn-Bendit as their “old friend.”
5. The General Wildcat Strike
In France it is enough to be something for one to want to be everything.
— Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique
of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction
DURING THE DAY of May 17th, the strike extended to almost the entire chemical and metallurgical industries. Following the example of Renault; the workers of Berliet, Rhodiaceta, Rhône-Poulenc and SNECMA decided to occupy their factories. Several railway stations were in the hands of their workers and only a few trains still ran. The postal workers had already taken over the post offices. On the 18th the strike hit Air France and the RATP. Having begun with some exemplary occupations in the provinces, the strike had extended to the Parisian region and then engulfed the entire country. From this moment on even the unions could no longer fool themselves that this chain-reaction of wildcats would not become a general strike.
Spontaneously set in motion, the occupation movement had fought from the beginning all orders and control from the unions. “At Renault headquarters,” wrote Le Monde on May 18th, “the wildcat nature of the beginning of the movement was underlined after the May 13th strike, which had been moderately supported in the provinces. It was seen as equally paradoxical that the center of the revolt was located precisely in a factory where, at the social level, there had been only routine and minor conflicts.”
The depth of the strike limited the unions to a rapid counter-offensive which showed with a particularly brutal clarity their natural function as guardians of capitalist order in the factories. The trade-union strategy had a single goal: to defeat the strike. In order to do this the unions, with a long strike-breaking tradition, set out to reduce a vast general strike to a series of isolated strikes at the individual enterprise level. The CGT led the counter-offensive. Beginning on May 17th, its Central Council met and declared: “The action undertaken on the initiative of the CGT and with the other trade-union organizations has created a new situation and has taken on an exceptional importance.” (This incredible lie is emphasized by the author.) The strike was thus accepted, but only to refuse any call for a general strike. Nevertheless, the workers everywhere voted for an unlimited strike and occupation of the factories. In order to take over a movement that threatened them directly the bureaucratic organizations had first to curb the workers’ initiatives and face the growing autonomy of the proletariat. They therefore took over the strike committees, which immediately became veritable police powers charged with isolating the workers within the factories and formulating their own demands in the name of the workers.
While the picket lines at virtually all the factory gates, still under union orders, prevented the workers from speaking for themselves or to anyone else, and from hearing about the most radical currents then coming to the fore, the union leadership assumed the task of reducing the entire movement to a program of strictly professional demands. The spectacle of bureaucratic opposition reached the point of parody when the newly de-Christianized CFDT attacked the CGT, which it rightly accused of limiting itself to subsistence demands: and proclaimed that “beyond mere material demands it is the problem of management and control of the enterprise which has been posed: This electoral bid by a modernist trade union went so far as to propose “self-management” as the form of “workers’ power in the enterprise: This was followed by the spectacle of the two major guardians of false consciousness taking over the truth of their own lies Seguy, the Stalinists, attacking self-management as an “empty formula” and Descamps, the priest, emptying it of its real content, In fact this quarrel of the ancients and the moderns over the best form of defense for bureaucratic capitalism was only a prelude to their fundamental agreement on the necessity for negotiations with the state and management.
On Monday, May 20th, the strike and occupations became general, with the exception of just a few sectors which would shortly join the movement There were by now six million strikers. There would be ten million in the days to follow. The CGT and the Communist Party, outflanked on every side, denounced any idea of an “insurrectionary strike,” while pretending to stiffen their demands. Seguy declared that his “dossiers were ready for eventual negotiations.” For the unions the only use of all the revolutionary strength of the proletariat was to make themselves presentable in the eyes of an effectively dispossessed management and practically nonexistent government.
The same comedy was being played out at the political level. On May 22nd, the motion of censure was defeated amidst general indifference. There was more going on in the factories and streets than in all the meetings of parliament and the parties. The CGT called for a “day of demands” on Friday the 24th. But in the meantime the attempt to expel Cohn-Bendit from the country brought the struggle back into the streets. A protest demonstration was improvised to prepare for the one on Friday. The CGT parade, which began at 2 P.M., was concluded in calm by a particularly senile broadcast by de Gaul.
Nonetheless, at the same time, thousands of demonstrators had decided once again to defy both the police and the student stewards. The massive participation of workers in the demonstration condemned by the CP and the CGT showed to what extent those two organizations could offer only the spectacle of a strength which no longer belonged to them. In the same way the leader of the March 22nd Movement was able, by his enforced absence, to start an agitation that he would have been unable to restrain.
Some thirty thousand demonstrators had gathered between Gare de Lyon and the Bastille. They set off to march to the Hôtel de Ville. But the police, obviously, had already blocked off all exits. The first barricades went up immediately. It was the signal for a series of confrontations that went on until dawn. Some of the demonstrators were able to break through to the stock exchange and sack it. The fire, which would have fulfilled the dreams of generations of revolutionaries, did only superficial damage to the “Temple of Capital.” Several groups had spread out into the areas around the stock exchange, Les Halles and the Bastille, and were moving out towards La Nation. Others had made it to the Left Bank and were holding the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, before moving in the direction of Denfert-Rochereau. The violence reached its peak.1 It had long since ceased to be the monopoly of the “students” and had become the privilege of the proletariat. The police stations at Odéon and in the Rue Beaubourg were enthusiastically sacked. Before the eyes of the impotent police, two paddywagons and a police car were fired with Molotov cocktails in front of the Panthéon police station.
At the same time several thousand rioters in Lyon were fighting the police, crushing one superintendent under a runaway truck loaded with stones, and surpassing their Parisian comrades by organizing the looting of a department store. There were battles at Bordeaux, where the police retreated, in Nantes, and even in Strasbourg.
Thus the workers entered the struggle, not only against their unions, but moreover in sympathy with the movement of the students, and better still, of thugs and vandals defending absolutely scandalous slogans, ranging from “I COME OVER THE PAVING STONES” (“Je jouis dans les paves”) to “NEVER WORK.” None of the workers who left the factories to find the revolutionaries and work out a basis of agreement with them ever expressed any reservations about this extreme aspect of the movement. Quite the contrary: the workers didn’t hesitate to build barricades, sack police stations, burn cars, and turn the Boulevard Saint-Michel into a vast garden, side-by-side with those Fouchet and the so-called Communist Party would the following day call “scum.”
On the 25th the government and the bureaucratic organizations made a joint response to this insurrectionary prelude which made them tremble. Their responses were complementary: both of them called for a ban on demonstrations and for immediate negotiations. Each of them made the decision that the other had hoped for.
1. The death of one of the demonstrators was later admitted. Much use was made of the unfortunate victim: first it was announced that she had fallen from a roof, then that she had been knifed while fighting against “the scum ” in the demonstration. Finally, the report of a medical expert, which was divulged a few weeks later, concluded that she had been killed by the explosion of a police grenade.
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.
— Bakunin, Confessions
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.
7. The High Point
Let us conclude: those who are unable to change methods when the times demand it doubtless prosper as long as they remain in step with fortune; but they are lost as soon as fortune changes. As for the rest I think it is better to be too bold than too cautious…
— Machiavelli, The Prince
On the morning of May 27th Seguy went to announce to the workers at Renault-Billancourt the agreement concluded between the unions, the government and the employers. The workers unanimously shouted down the bureaucrat, who, as his whole speech showed, had come in hopes of having himself acclaimed for these results. Confronted with the anger of the rank-and-file, the Stalinists suddenly took shelter behind a detail which had been suppressed up to that point, and which was in fact essential — nothing would be signed without the ratification of the workers. Since the workers had rejected the agreement, the strike and negotiations would go on. Following Renault, all sectors rejected the crumbs with which the bourgeoisie and its auxiliaries thought they could purchase the resumption of work.
The content of the “Grenelle Agreement” certainly had little enough to arouse the enthusiasm of the working masses who knew they were virtually masters of production, which they had paralyzed for ten days. The agreement raised wages by seven per cent and lifted the legally guaranteed minimum wage (SMIG — salaire minimum integral garanti) from 2.22 to 3.00 francs. This would mean that the most exploited sector of the working class, particularly in the provinces, those earning 348.80 francs a month, would now have a purchasing power more suited to the “affluent society” — 520 francs a month. The days lost in the strike would not be paid until they were made up in overtime. This tip would already be a heavy burden on the normal functioning of the French economy, especially in its obligations to the Common Market and other aspects of international capitalist competition. All the workers knew that such “benefits” would be taken back in kind with imminent price rises. They felt that it would be much more expedient to sweep away the system which had already conceded all it could, and to organize society on a new basis. The fall of the Gaullist regime was necessarily the pre- requisite for this reversal of perspective.
The Stalinists understood how dangerous the situation was. Despite their constant support, the government had just failed once more to reestablish itself. After Pompidou’s failure on May 11th to check the crisis by sacrificing his authority in the domain of the university, a speech by de Gaulle and the hastily concluded agreement between Pompidou and the unions had failed to circumvent a crisis that had become profoundly social. The Stalinists began to despair of the survival of Gaullism, since they had been unable to save it up till then, and because Gaullism seemed to have lost the elasticity essential to its survival. They found themselves obliged, much to their regret, to run the risk of being in the other camp — where they had always claimed to be. On the 28th and 29th of May they gambled all on the fall of Gaullism. They had come to terms with many pressures, mainly those of the workers, and subsequently of those oppositional elements who began clamoring for the replacement of Gaullism, and thus could have been joined by those who first and foremost wanted the regime to fall. These included the Christian trade unionists of the CFDT, Mendès-France, the dim-witted Mitterrand’s “Federation,” as well as the crowd that turned out at Charléty stadium for the formation of an ultra-leftist bureaucratic organization.1 All these dreamers were raising their voices only in the name of the supposed forces that the Stalinists would put into play to open the way for their brand of post-Gaullism, mutterings which events immediately revealed as ridiculous.
The Stalinists were much more realistic. They resigned themselves to asking for a “popular government” in the powerful and numerous demonstrations staged by the CGT on the 29th, and were already preparing to defend it. They knew perfectly well that such a government would only be a dangerous last resort. While they were still able to help defeat the revolutionary movement before it succeeded in overthrowing Gaullism, they rightly feared that they would be unable to defeat it afterwards. On the 28th of May, an editorial broadcast on the radio had already contended, with a premature pessimism, that “the French Communist Party would never rise again,” and that the principal danger now lay with the “situationist leftists.”
On May 30th a speech by de Gaulle firmly underlined his intention to stay in power, whatever the price. He offered a choice between the coming elections or immediate civil war. Trusted regiments were deployed around Paris and abundantly photographed. The overjoyed Stalinists had no trouble restraining themselves from calling for an extension of the strike to bring down the old regime. They eagerly rallied to the Gaullist elections, no matter what the price would be to themselves.
In such conditions the alternatives were irrevocably posed: the autonomous affirmation of the proletariat, or the complete defeat of the movement — a revolution of the councils or the Grenelle Agreement. The revolutionary movement could not settle accounts with the French Communist Party without first throwing out de Gaulle. The form of workers’ power which would have been developed in the post-Gaullist phase of the crisis, being blocked by both the old state reaffirmed and the Communist Party, no longer had any hope of reversing its approaching defeat.
1. It was to the credit of the Cohn-Bendit faction of the March 22nd Movement that they refused the advances of the renegade Stalinist Barjonet and other ecumenical leftist small-timers. It goes without saying that the situationists, for their part, responded only with contempt. (See the Address to All Workers by the Comité pour le Maintien des Occupations.)
8. The “Council for Maintaining the Occupations” and Councilist Tendencies
This explosion was provoked by groups in revolt against modern consumer and technical society, whether it be the communism of the East or the capitalism of the West. They are groups, moreover, which have no idea at all of what they would replace it with, but who delight in negation, destruction, violence, anarchy, and who brandish the black flag!
— De Gaulle, Televised speech of June 7th, 1968
The “Council for the Maintaining of Occupations (CMDO)” was formed on the evening of May 17th by those supporters of the first Occupation of the Sorbonne who had left with it and who proposed to uphold for the rest of the crisis the program of council democracy which was inseparable from a quantitative and qualitative expansion of the occupation movement.
About forty people were continuously associated with the CMDO, and they were joined for a while by other revolutionaries and strikers coming from various industries, from the provinces; or from abroad and returning there. The CMDO was more or less constantly made up of about ten situationists and Enragés (among them Debord, Khayati, Riesel and Vaneigem) and as many workers, high-school students or “students,” and other councilists without specific social functions.
Throughout its existence the CMDO was a successful experiment in direct democracy, guaranteed by an equal participation of everyone in debates, and the decisions and their execution. It was essentially an uninterrupted general assembly, deliberating day and night. No faction or private meetings ever existed outside the common debate.
A unit spontaneously created in the conditions of a revolutionary moment, the CMDO was obviously less of a council than a councilist organization, thus functioning on the model of soviet democracy. As an improvised response to that precise moment, the CMDO could neither present itself as a permanent councilist organization, nor try to transform itself into an organization of that kind.
Nonetheless, an almost general agreement on the major situationist theses reinforced its cohesion.
Three commissions were organized within the general assembly to facilitate its practical activity. The Printing Commission took charge of the production and printing of CMDO publications, both in operating the machines to which it had access and in collaboration with strikers from certain print shops. The Liaison Commission, with ten cars at its disposal, took care of contacts with occupied factories and the delivery of material for distribution. The Requisitions Commission, which excelled during the most difficult period, made sure that paper, gasoline, food, money, and wine were never lacking.
There was no permanent committee to ensure rapid writing of the texts, whose content was determined by everyone, but on each occasion several members were designated, who then submitted the result to the assembly.
The CMDO itself occupied the buildings of the National Pedagogical Institute on the Rue d’Ulm, beginning on May 19th. At the end of May it moved to the basement of the building next door, a “School of Decorative Arts.” The occupation of the institute was of interest in that, while educators of all kinds were being denounced and ridiculed in their miserable profession, large groups of employees, workers, and technicians seized the occasion to demand control of the workplace and valiantly supported the movement in all its forms of struggle.1 Thus the equal-representation committee of occupation found itself in the hands of revolutionaries. An Enragé from Nanterre was put in charge of security. Everyone congratulated themselves on that choice, even the teachers. Democratic order was disturbed by no-one, which made the greatest tolerance possible: one of the Stalinist employees was even allowed to sell L’Humanité at the door. The red and black flags flew side-by-side on the front of the building.
The CMDO published a certain number of texts. On May 19th, Report on the Occupation of the Sorbonne concluded:
The student struggle has now been superseded. Even more superseded are all candidates for bureaucratic promotion who think it clever to feign respect for the Stalinists at the very moment when the CGT and the so-called Communist Party are trembling. The outcome of the current crisis is in the hands of the workers themselves if they successfully accomplish the occupation of their factories, what the occupation of the university could only outline.
On May 22nd, the declaration For the Power of the Workers Councils stated:
In ten days, not only have hundreds of factories been spontaneously occupied by the workers and a spontaneous general strike totally disrupted the activity of the country, but, moreover, several buildings belonging to the state have been occupied by de facto committees who are taking control. In such a situation, which in any case can’t last but which confronts the alternative of extending itself or disappearing, all the old ideas are swept aside and all radical hypotheses on the return of the revolutionary movement confirmed.
This text enumerated three possibilities, in order of decreasing probability: An agreement between the government and the Communist Party “on the demobilization of the workers in exchange for economic benefits”; the coming to power of the left “which will follow the same policy, albeit from a weaker position”; and, finally, the workers speaking for themselves “by becoming conscious of demands which would express the radicality of the forms of struggle they have already put into practice.” They showed how the prolonging of the current situation could contain such a perspective:
The need to reopen certain sectors of the economy under workers’ control can lay the basis for this new power, which takes everything beyond the limits of the existing parties and trade unions. It will be necessary to put the railways and printing presses back into operation to serve the needs of the workers’ struggle. It will be necessary for the new de facto authorities to requisition and distribute food.
On May 30th, the Address to All Workers declared:
What we have done in France now haunts Europe. Soon it will threaten all the ruling classes of the world, from the bureaucrats of Moscow and Peking to the millionaires of Washington and Tokyo. Just as we have made Paris dance, the international proletariat will again take up arms against every capital city of every state, every citadel of every alienation. The occupation of factories and of the government buildings throughout the entire country hasn’t just stopped the economy, it has called the whole meaning of social life into question. Almost everybody wants to stop living this way. We are already a revolutionary movement. All we need is the widespread consciousness of what we have already done, and we will be the masters of this revolution… Those who turned down the ridiculous contract agreements offered them (agreements that overjoyed the trade-union leaders) have still to discover that while they cannot “receive” much more within the framework of the existing economy, they can take everything if they transform the very bases of the economy on their own behalf. The bosses can hardly pay more — but they could disappear.
The rest of the Address rejected the “bureaucratic-revolutionary replastering” which attempted at Charlety to bring together all the small leftist groups, and refused the hand which the dissident Stalinist André Barjonet shamelessly extended to the situationists. The Address showed that the power of the workers’ councils was the only revolutionary solution, one that had already made its mark in the class struggles of this century. Later, intervening in the struggle at Flins, on June 8th the CMDO issued the tract It’s Not Over, which denounced the methods and aims of the unions in the affair:
The trades unions are ignorant of the class struggle; know only the laws of the market, and in their dealings claim to own the workers… The shameful maneuver to prevent reinforcements from reaching the workers at Flins is only one more repugnant ‘victory’ for the unions in their struggle against the general strike… No unity with those dividing us.
The CMDO also published a certain number of posters, about fifty comic strips, and several appropriate songs. Its major tracts had printings of between 150,000 and 200,000 copies. Naturally, trying to bring its practice and its theory into agreement, the CMDO contacted the workers of the occupied print shops, who gladly put the excellent machinery at their disposal back into operation (it is well known that the independent printers are less dominated by Stalinists than those of the press). The texts were also frequently reproduced in the provinces and abroad, immediately on arrival of the first copies.2 The CMDO itself took responsibility for their translation and first printing in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and Arabic. The versions in Arabic and Spanish were first distributed among immigrant laborers. A falsified version of the Address was reprinted in Combat on June 3rd. The situationist references and the attacks against the Stalinists had been deleted.
Quite successfully, the CMDO tried to establish and preserve links with factories, isolated workers, action committees, and groups in the provinces. The link with Nantes was particularly well-established. Beyond that the CMDO was present in all aspects of the struggle in Paris and the suburbs.
The Council for the Maintaining of Occupations agreed to dissolve itself on the 15th of June. The ebbing of the occupation movement had led several of its members to raise the question of its dissolution a week earlier. That was delayed by the persistence of the struggles of the strikers, notably at Flins, who were refusing to accept defeat. The CMDO had never tried to get anything for itself, not even any recruitment which aimed at a permanent existence. Its participants did not separate their personal goals from the general goals of the movement. They were independent individuals who had come together for a struggle on a determined basis at a precise moment; and who once again became independent after the struggle had ended. Some of those among them, who recognized in the Situationist International the extension of their own activity, continued to work together in that organization.3
Other “councilist” tendencies (in the sense that they were for the councils without wanting to recognize their theory and their truth} appeared in the buildings of the Censier annex of the Faculté des Lettres, where they held, as the “Worker-Student Action Committee,” a somewhat impotent discussion which could hardly progress towards a practical clarification. Groups like “Workers’ Power” and the “Workers’ Liaison and Action Group,” made up of many individuals from various enterprises, made the mistake of accepting into their already confused and redundant debates all kinds of adversaries or saboteurs of their positions — Trotskyites and Maoists who paralyzed the discussion, and who even publicly burned an anti-bureaucratic program drawn up by a commission assigned to the task. The councilists were able to intervene in some practical struggles, notably at the beginning of the general strike, by sending members to help in a work stoppage or to reinforce picket lines. But their interventions often suffered from defects inherent in their very grouping: often several members from a single delegation offered fundamentally conflicting perspectives to the workers. The anti-trade union group “Workers Information and Correspondence” (ICO) — which was not councilist, and was not even sure of its being a group — nonetheless met in another room.
Indifferent to the situation, they rehashed the usual rubbish in their bulletin and replayed their obstructionist psychodrama: was it necessary to stick to pure news pasteurized of all theoretical germs, or was the choice of news already inseparable from the hidden theoretical presuppositions? More generally, the defect of all these groups was to draw their proud experience from past working-class defeats, and never from the new conditions and new style of the struggle which they ignored on principle. They repeated their usual ideology in the same boring tone that they had used during one or two decades of inactivity. They seemed to perceive nothing new in the occupation movement. They had seen it all before. They were blasé. Their knowing discouragement looked forward to nothing but defeat, so that they could publish the consequences as they had done so often before. The difference was that they had not had the chance of participating in the previous movements they had analyzed, and this time they were living the moment which they chose to consider in advance from the angle of the historical spectacle, or even from that of an uninstructive replay.
New councilist tendencies did not appear in the crisis, aside from the CMDO, whereas the old attitudes were completely insignificant both in theory and in practice. The March 22nd Movement, of course, had some councilist whims, as it had something of everything, but it never put them forward in its publications and its many interviews. Nonetheless, a growing audience for the call for workers’ councils was manifest throughout the revolutionary crisis. That was one of the major effects, and remains one of its surest promises.
1. One poster advised: “DON’T SAY ‘TEACHER, SIR,’ SAY ‘DROP DEAD, ASSHOLE’!” Another reminded that “THE EDUCATOR HIMSELF MUST BE EDUCATED.”
2. Among the first reprints we can cite a Swedish pamphlet in the Libertad revolutionary series, a special issue of the clandestine Venezuelan publication, Proletario, and a pamphlet put out by the Japanese Zengakuren under the title Lessons on the Defeat of the May Revolt in France.
3. Certain outside elements were able to claim falsely to be from the CMDO in the same way that individuals — much more frequently — claimed to be members of the SI, whether out of sheer conceit or murkier motives. Two or three nostalgic former members of the CMDO naturally did not miss the chance to exploit their past in a miserably spectacular style. This was completely foreign to almost all the members, who contributed so many remarkable capacities without ever seeking to push themselves to the fore. The Council for the Maintaining of Occupations will return one day, with its time, which will also return.
9. The State Reestablished
Everyone must raise his head, assume his responsibilities and refuse intellectual terrorism… there is no reason for the state to turn over to just anybody its administration, its public institutions, nor for it to abandon its responsibilities and forget its duties.
— Robert Poujade, Speech to the National Assembly, 24 July 1968
The bourgeousie had waited until May 30th to openly show its support for the state. With the speech of de Gaulle the entire ruling class took back the floor and massively affirmed its presence, after having prudently hibernated behind the protection of the CRS for several weeks. The demonstration at the Concorde and on the Champs Elysées was the sub-Versaillaise response to the parades of the CGT calling for a “popular government.” Reactionary hysteria flowed freely, ranging from the fear of the “Reds” to revealing slogans such as “Cohn-Bendit to Dachau!” Old veterans, survivors of all the colonial wars, ministers, ex-commandos, shopkeepers, the kittens from the 16th Arrondisement and their sugar-daddies from the better parts of town, old hacks and all those whose interests and tastes lay in senility, came out together for the defense and praise of the republic. The state thus recovered its base and the police their auxiliaries, in the UDR and the civic action committees. As soon as de Gaulle decided to remain in power a violence without cant took over from the Stalinist repression, whose task it had been up to then to clog up the revolutionary breach, mainly in the factories. After three weeks of almost total absence, the state was able to relieve its hatchet-men in the Communist Party. It put as much effort into driving the workers out of the factories as the unions had put into keeping them locked up inside. De Gaulle had saved the Stalinists from the prospect of a “popular government” in which their overt role as the last enemies of the proletariat would have been so perilous. They would help him do the rest.
For both of them the question immediately became one of ending the strike and making way for the elections. The rejection of the Grenelle Agreement had taught the rulers to be wary of all negotiation at a national level. It was necessary to dismantle the strike in the same way that it had begun, sector by sector, factory by factory. The task was long and difficult. Everywhere the workers were openly hostile to the return to work. On June 5th a statement from the CGT headquarters announced that “Everywhere that essential demands have been met the interest of the workers is to come out en masse for a united resumption of work.”
On June 6th, bank and insurance employees went back. The SNCF, a CGT bastion, also decided to go back. The trains, which had never been put at the disposal of the strikers — as the Belgian railway workers had done during the strike of 1961 — were put back into operation for the state. The first rigged ballots for the resumption of work took place at the P&T and the RATP, where only a minority of union members were allowed to vote; CGT delegates brought about the resumption of work by announcing at each station that all the others had gone back. The employees at Nation, seeing through this gross maneuver, immediately stopped work but did not succeed in relaunching the movement.
The CRS intervened similarly to expel the striking technicians at France- Inter, and to replace them with army technicians. On the 6th of June they drove the workers out of the Renault factory at Flins. This was the first attempt, other than by ideology, to break the strike, which was still complete in the steel industry: the strike-breakers moved in, gun in hand. “The time for marches is over,” wrote the Flins strikers in their call for the re-occupation of their factory, on June 6th. They realized at that moment just how destructive was the isolation they had put up with. Thousands of revolutionaries responded to their call, but only a few hundred were able to join them and fight at their sides. At the meeting organized by the unions at Elizabethville the workers forced the CGT delegate to allow Geismar, a member of the March 22nd Movement, to speak, not out of any feeling for his particular importance, but out of a simple concern for democracy.
The police attacked at 10 A.M. For twelve hours, two thousand workers and students fought it out with four thousand police and CRS in the streets and fields of the neighboring towns. They waited in vain for reinforcements from Paris. In fact the CGT had prevented the departure of the workers from Boulogne-Billancourt1 and kept the trains at the Gare Saint-Lazare from being put at the disposal of the thousands of demonstrators who had rushed there for the fight at Flins. The organizers of the demonstration, with Geismar and Sauvageot in the lead, were just as brilliant. They backed down to the CGT and finished the work it had begun by dissuading those who thought they were going to the aid of Flins from taking over a train, and calling on them to disperse after the first scuffles with the police. For all that, the miserable Geismar got no thanks for his efforts. This bore was still treated as a “specialist in provocation” in a particularly foul communication from the CGT, which did not hesitate to call the Flins revolutionaries “groups foreign to the working class”; “paramilitary formations who have already made an appearance in similar operations in the Paris region.. and who were “obviously acting in the interests of the worst enemies of the working class,” for “it is hard to believe that the arrogance of the management in the steel industry, the support it is receiving from the government, the police brutality against the workers, and the attempts at provocation are not a concerted effort.”
The unions were able to bring about the resumption of work almost everywhere; they had already been thrown some crumbs. Only the workers in the steel industry continued to hold out. After the setback at Flins the state was still going to take its chances at the Peugeot plant at Sochaux. On June 11th, the CRS attacked the workers. The confrontation was quite violent and lasted several hours. For the first time in this extended crisis the forces of order fired into the crowd. Two workers were killed. The time had come when the authorities could act without provoking any reaction. The movement was already defeated and the political repression was beginning. Nonetheless, on June 12th, in the wake of the death of a high-school student at Flins, one last night of rioting saw several innovations: the rapid multiplication of barricades and the systematic bombardment of the police with Molotov cocktails thrown from the roofs.
On the following day the State decreed the disbanding of the Maoist and Trotskyite organizations, along with the March 22nd Movement, using a law from the Popular Front period originally used against extreme right- wing paramilitary leagues.2 Gaullism was making real overtures to the same extreme right under the table. This was the chance to recover the first May 13th — when the Fifth Republic was founded. The exiled leaders of the OAS returned to France. Salan left Tulle as the ultra-leftists were beginning to populate the redoubt of Gravelle.
There was something rotten in the air after the tricolor flags had appeared on Concorde. Merchants, provocateurs, curates, and patriots lifted their heads and returned to the streets in which they would not have dared to appear a few days before. Provocateurs in the pay of the police tried to whip up the Arabs and Jews in Belleville, and thereby provided an appropriate diversion while the mop-up operations in the factories and occupied buildings were being carried out. A campaign of calumny was stirred up around the Katangans at the Sorbonne. The pitiful leftists didn’t fail to be taken in by it.
After the failure of the experiment in direct democracy, the Sorbonne has seen the rise of several fiefdoms, as preposterous as they were bureaucratic. Those the press call “Katangans,” a group of ex-mercenaries, unemployed and déclassés, had quickly cut out for themselves a leadership role in a republic of corporals. The Sorbonne thus got the masters it deserved, but even though the Katangans had already played the game of authority, they did not deserve such miserable companions. Having come there to participate in the festival they found only the pedantic providers of boredom and impotence, the Kravetzes and Peninous. The students kicked out the Katangans in the ridiculous hope that they might get permission, by such a low move, for lasting control of a disinfected Sorbonne for use as a “Summer University.” One of the Katangans could rightly remark that “the students may be educated but they are not intelligent. We had come to help them out…” The retreat of the undesirables to the Odéon immediately provoked an intervention by the forces of order. The last occupants of the Sorbonne had only 48 hours to clean the walls and chase out the rats before the police arrived to let them know that the comedy was over once and for all. They left without the slightest resistance. After the defeat of the movement only imbeciles could believe that the State would not take back the Sorbonne.
In order to ensure the success of the electoral campaign it was necessary to get rid of the last islands of resistance in the steel industry. The unions, and not capital, gave in on the agreements, which allowed L’Humanité to applaud the “victorious resumption of work” and the CGT to call upon the steelworkers to “prolong their success by the victory of the real union of the forces of the left fighting around a common program in the coming elections.” Renault, Rhodiaceta, and Citroën went back on the 17th and 18th. The strike was over. The workers knew that they had won almost nothing. By prolonging the strike beyond May 30th, and by taking so long to end it, they had affirmed in their own way that they wanted something other than “economic benefits.” What they had wanted was revolution. But they had been unable to say it, and had no time to make it.
After the defeat it was natural that the electoral competition of the different parties of order ended in the massive victory of the party in the best position to defend it.
The Gaullist victory was accompanied by the last mop-up operations for the return to normal. All occupied buildings were evacuated. It should be noted that the State waited until the first week in July to use the fundamental juridical argument that “the occupation of buildings designated for public service of any kind is illegal.” For nearly two months it had been unable to use that argument against the occupation movement. (More or less fallacious pretexts were needed by the police to justify the recapture of the Odéon, the Sorbonne and the École des Beaux Arts.)
The acts of vandalism that had marked the beginning of the movement had reemerged all the more violently at its end, showing a refusal of defeat and a firm intention to continue the struggle. Thus, to cite only two exemplary acts, readers of Le Monde of July 6th were informed of “carpets destroyed with eggs, butter, talcum, detergent, black paint and oil; telephones ripped out and painted red, IBM machines destroyed with hammers, windows blackened with paint, medicines strewn about and daubed with paint, records blotted out with spray paints, insulting and obscene slogans: this was the spectacle presented Wednesday morning at the medical offices (including the secretary’s office and that of the Social Service, baptized by the angry inscription “Anti-Social Service”), one of the most important sections of the Sainte-Anne Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital. A scene disturbingly similar to one in Nanterre, where the same means of devastation had been used and where slogans of the same style and spirit reappeared on all the walls… One wonders if there is not some relation between recent changes introduced in this field for strictly professional reasons and these acts of vandalism?” In Combat on July 2:
Monsieur Jacquenod, headmaster of the experimental high school in Montgeron, writes: “In the general interest it is my duty to inform you of the absolutely scandalous doings recently carried out in the Essonne region by the irresponsible Enragé commandos under the influence of a certain ‘Situationist International.’ Contrary to what the press has implied, these sad individuals have proved themselves more harmful than ‘colorful.’ The time for benevolence is past, and the shameful degradations of monuments to the dead, churches, monasteries and public buildings which have been carried out are quite simply intolerable. After getting themselves admitted to our building on false pretexts on the night of June 13-14, they went about sticking up some 300 posters, songs, tracts, comic strips and so on. But the real damage was caused by systematic paint scribbling on the walls of the high school and technical college. On June 21, after the police had opened an inquiry, and out of sheer defiance, new degradations (posters, tracts, writings in ink) were committed in broad daylight inside the buildings.” Monsieur Jacquenod judges it his duty to alert public opinion to these “acts of vandalism, quite harmful to the peaceful climate we are gradually reestablishing.”
1. On the night of June 9-10 a delegation of workers from Flins came to ask for help in the occupied factories and at Boulogne-Billancourt. The students left, but at Billancourt the CGT pickets forbade the delegates access to the factory. The tight partitions which kept the workers in the factories also separated the workers of two factories in the same industry.
2. The pretext was badly framed, for these groups had never armed any militias. All revolutionaries will obviously show their solidarity against this sort of repression. Such measures by the police are, moreover, singularly unsuitable to the character of autonomous non-hierarchical organization which proved to be the most original aspect of the movement. Numerous commentaries on the disbanding tried to assimilate the situationists to the March 22nd Movement. It was only in such circumstances, of course, that the SI did not publicly denounce such an assertion.
10. Perspectives for World Revolution After the Occupations Movement
The Situationist International has sown the wind. It will reap the tempest.
— Internationale Situationniste 8 (January 1963)
THE OCCUPATION MOVEMENT was immediately seen throughout the world as an historical event of tremendous importance, and as the beginning of a new, menacing era whose program proclaimed the speedy death of all existing governments. A renewal of internationalism and radicalization of revolutionary tendencies was the response to the troubled stupor it created among the leaders and spokesmen of all ruling classes. The solidarity of the workers expressed itself in a number of ways — the longshoremen of Savone and Antwerp who refused to load goods going to France, the Belgian typesetters who prevented the passage of the stillborn referendum announced by de Gaulle on May 24th by refusing to print the ballots.
Towards the middle of May the Radical Student Alliance in London sent an address to French workers and students, written in French:
We too have felt the blows of the police clubs and the effects of tear-gas; the betrayals of our so-called leaders are not unknown to us. The sum of these experiences has proved to us the necessity of joining in solidarity with the living struggles against oppressive structures in world society as well as in the universities… But you, comrades, have succeeded in pushing that struggle beyond a questioning of the class nature of the university to a struggle united with the workers which has as its goal the complete capitulation of capitalist society… Together with your comrades in the factories, in the ports, and the offices, you have destroyed the myth of the stability of capitalist Europe, and consequently you have made both the regimes and the bourgeoisie tremble with fear. In the stock markets of Europe the capitalists are trembling, professors and aging technocrats are turning phrases to explain the action of the masses… Comrades, you have reanimated the traditions of 1871 and 1917, you have given international socialism a new force.
The co-ordinating committee of the student strike at Columbia University published a tract in New York at the beginning of June which declared
For more than two weeks twelve million French workers and students have led a mass general strike against the same conditions which confront us in America… Despite the efforts of the trades union bureaucracies, including the “communist” leadership of the CGT, to moderate the movement and to arrive at a compromise with the employers and the Gaullist government, the workers have voted to pursue the strike until their demands are satisfied… If we win in France it will give new life to the international movement which is already manifesting itself in Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, and even here in the United States. When we launch our own battles here we are helping to create the conditions for a victory in France and everywhere in the world. Their fight is our fight. The workers and students in France are looking to us in America for a response to their first giant step in the battle for a new society.
The barricades and Molotov cocktails of the Berkeley students, the very same who had launched the agitation in the university four years earlier, responded at the end of June. In the middle of May a revolutionary organization had been formed by the Austrian youth around the simple program of “doing the same as in France.” At the end of the month occupations of university buildings had taken place in Germany, Stockholm, Brussels, and at the Hornsey Art College in London. Barricades had gone up in Rome on May 31st. In June the students of Tokyo, always combative and resolved on turning the university district into a “Latin Quarter,” occupied their faculties and defended them against the police. Not even Switzerland was spared: on the 29th and 30th of June, riots broke out in Zurich, where hundreds of demonstrators armed with stones and Molotov cocktails took the major police station by assault. “The violent demonstrations in Zurich,” noted Le Monde on July 2nd, “provoked a certain stupor. Numerous Swiss, who believed their country to be immune from the movement of opposition breaking out in Europe, were disturbed in their tranquillity.”
The struggle in the modem capitalist countries naturally awakened student agitation against the dictatorships and in “underdeveloped” countries. At the end of May there were violent confrontations in Buenos Aires, Dakar, Madrid, and a student strike in Peru. In June the incidents were extended to Brazil and then to Uruguay (where they culminated in a general strike), to Argentina, and to Turkey (where the universities of Istanbul and Ankara were closed until further notice), and finally to the Congo (where the high-school students demanded the suppression of exams).
The most important of the immediate results of the French movement was the first tremor against the power of the bureaucratic classes of the East, when Yugoslav students occupied the University of Belgrade at the beginning of June. The students formed Action committees, denounced the bureaucratic ownership of society, demanded authentic self-management in terms of freedom and the abolition of classes, and voted to rename the place Karl Marx University. They addressed themselves to the workers: “We are outraged by the enormous social and economic differences in our society… We are for self-management but against the enrichment of the few at the expense of the working class.” Their movement met with great approval among the workers. As at the Sorbonne, “several workers also took the floor at the interminable meeting at the philosophy faculty, where speakers endlessly took turns in the general enthusiasm.” (Le Monde, June 7th). The regime saw itself stalked to death. The demagogic self-criticism and tearful confessions of Tito, who spoke of resigning if he could not meet the just demands that had been made, showed up the weakness and the panic of the Yugoslav bureaucracy. It knows perfectly well that the radical demands of the movement, whatever maneuvers they left open for Tito himself, signaled nothing less than its own liquidation as a ruling class, and the proletarian revolution which is coming back to life, there as elsewhere. The concessions of the bureaucrats were accompanied in classical fashion with whatever dose of repression they could afford, and the usual calumnies which put forth the inverted reality of their ideology: the so-called Communist League thus denounced the “ultra-leftist radicals… eager to destroy both the democratic regime and self-management.” Even Le Monde (June 12th) recognized that this was “the most important domestic alert that the regime had had since the war.” [Since then the uprising of the Mexican students has surpassed in scale all the other responses to the French occupation movement. Mexico is a country only half-emerged from Latin American underdevelopment.]
France, too, remains in the volcanic chain of the new geography of revolution. Nothing has been settled there. The revolutionary eruption didn’t come from an economic crisis, but, on the contrary, helped to create a crisis in the economy. What was attacked head-on in May was a well-functioning capitalist economy, but that economy, once shaken by the negative forces of its historical supersession, has to function less well: it thus becomes more unbearable, and reinforces its “underside,” the revolutionary movement which is transforming it. The student milieu has become a permanent stronghold of disorder in French life, and this time it is no longer the disorder of a separated youth. The big bureaucratic machines of working-class integration paid a high price for their victory over the strike: many workers have understood. As for the small leftist groups, which were apparently reinforced (all the more so by their unnecessary disbanding by the police), they are virtually finished. The unobtrusive basket of crabs they constituted was strewn about in the limelight during the strike, but always in retreat.
The perspective of world revolution, when it reappeared in France, not only made up for the long delay of its fifty-year absence, but displayed for this reason many premature aspects. Before the occupation movement crushed the state power confronting it, it accomplished what all the revolutionary movements (except that of 1905) had achieved only afterwards. The armed detachments at the disposal of the government had not been defeated. And nevertheless the seizure of certain buildings and their notorious distribution among different subversive groups could not help but evoke some of the events of Barcelona in the summer of 1936. The state was ignored for the first time in France; this was the first practical critique of Jacobinism, for so long the nightmare of French revolutionary movements, including the Commune. In other words, radically new elements were mixed with the sudden return of the specific characteristics of French revolutions — the barricades in Paris awakening Europe. Just as it was not enough to simply ignore the State, there were certainly no sufficiently clear perspectives. Too few people had a coherent revolutionary theory, and its dissemination among the masses had to overcome extremely unfavorable conditions. Apart from the power of the existing order’s spectacular media, there were the counter-revolutionary bureaucracies, which had at that time been unmasked by far too few. Thus no one should be surprised by the many weaknesses of the movement, but rather be amazed at its strength.
Radical theory has been confirmed and tremendously strengthened. It should now make itself known everywhere for what it is, and break all new efforts by the hard-pressed recuperators. The carriers of radical theory had no concessions to make. They must become even more demanding from the position of strength that history has given them. Nothing short of the international power of the workers’ councils can satisfy them — they can recognize no revolutionary force other than the councilist organizations which will be formed in every country. The objective conditions for revolution have become visible as soon as the revolution has begun, once again, to speak as an objective power. Now a fire has been lit which will never go out. The occupation movement has ended the sleep of the masters of commodities, and never again shall spectacular society sleep in peace.
Can Dialectics Break Bricks? …