Anarchy 89/Reflections on the revolution in France

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Reflections on the
revolution in France


France. The re­vival of the great tradi­tion after nearly a cen­tury—1789, 1830, 1848, 1871from the storm­ing of the Bastille to the fall of the Com­mune. A re­minder that most of our polit­ical ideas (and the words they are ex­pressed in) come from France. (It makes it easier to under­stand why old Kropot­kin wanted to fight for France in 1914.) But how the tradi­tion has be­come divided! The Tricolour, the Repub­lic, the Mar­seil­laise, the Re­sist­anceall sym­bols of the estab­lish­ment, of the ex­treme right. But that is nothing new. “Liberty, equal­ity, frat­ern­ity, when what the Repub­lic really means is in­fantry, cav­alry, artil­lery”—said Marx 120 years ago. What is new is that people are sur­prised when the French stu­dents oc­cupy the uni­vers­ities and the French work­ers oc­cupy the factor­ies. The tradi­tion must be part of the French people’s polit­ical edu­ca­tion. We still re­mem­ber our Hunger Marches, our Gen­eral Strike, our Suf­fragettes, our Black Sunday, our Chart­ists; surely the French may be ex­pec­ted to re­mem­ber the Re­sist­ance, the sit-in strikes of 1936, the <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: mut­inies
of 1917">mut­inies
of 1917
, the syn­dic­al­ist move­ment before the First World War, the Com­mune, the July Days, the Great Fear. We are hardly in close touch with French af­fairs, but recent issues of anarchy men­tioned “the sort of activ­ism which is en­demic at the bour­geois Sor­bonne” (Peter Redan Black in anarchy 84) and de­scribed the sit-in strike in Besan­con (Proud­hon’s home town!) at the begin­ning of last year (Chris Marker in anarchy 76). After all, the Nan­terre stu­dents have been strug­gling with the au­thor­ities for a year; where have all the ex­perts been?

Revolution. A timely re­minder that when you come down to it you have to go out into the streets and con­front the forces of the state. That in the end ony a trem­end­ous and ter­ri­fy­ing change in the way so­ciety is organ­ised can bring about what we want. That this will not hap­pen by itself, but that some­one has to de­cide to make it hap­pen. That we have to be pre­mature (only pre­mature action leads to mature action), that we have to make mis­takes (people who don’t make mis­takes don’t make any­thing), that we have to take risks (the blood of mar­tyrs is still, alas, the seed of the faith), that we have to begin by look­ing rid­ic­u­lous and end by look­ing futile. A re­mind­er of William Morris, in A Dream of John Ball, pon­der­ing “how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their de­feat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under an­other name”. A re­minder of the dan­ger of re­volu­tion, in being what Engels called “the most au­thor­it­arian thing ima­gin­able”, in pro­vok­ing counter-re­volu­tion, in tend­ing towards nihil­ism, in ex­pos­ing one’s weak­nesses and giv­ing away one’s strengths, in rais­ing false hopes and bring­ing des­pair.

  Tragic to be so near and yet so far. The young people tak­ing the streets, the in­tel­lect­u­als taking the uni­vers­it­ies, the work­ers tak­ing the fact­or­ies, the farm­ers on their tract­ors—if only the work­ers had run the fact­or­ies and made cars to re­place those de­stroyed in the fight­ing, if only the farm­ers had sent food into the towns for no­thing and re­ceived tract­ors for no­thing in re­turn, if only the shops had opened and the pub­lic trans­port had run with­out any pay­ment, what could the police or even the army have done? Who dare say it couldn’t happen, after Russia in 1917 and Spain in 1936?

Comités d’action. The action com­mit­tees which sprang up in Paris are the obvi­ous des­cend­ants of the coun­cils and com­mit­tees (Soviets) which have always spon­tane­ously ap­peared in pop­ular ris­ings of this kind. Here is the na­tural ad­min­ist­rat­ive unit of so­ciety which we want in place of the par­lia­ment, ex­ecut­ive com­mit­tee, re­pre­sent­at­ive coun­cil, or what­ever, which takes de­ci­sions out of the hands of the people they af­fect. Here is the ad­min­ist­ra­tion of things which must come in­stead of the gov­ern­ment of people.

“Group­us­cules”. Odd how small polit­ical groups—such as the anarch­ists—are often hated and feared by the estab­lish­ment, but are patron­ised and writ­ten off by many rebels. Surely both sides are wrong. They have no power, and yet in re­volu­tion­ary con­di­tions it is often their mem­bers who keep their heads and feed in the ideas which the move­ment lives on. Of course tradi­tion­al­ists and sect­arians have little to con­trib­ute when things really begin hap­pen­ing, but con­scious ex­trem­ists still seem to have a part to play, and it is good to see them pul­ling to­gether when things do hap­pen.

Marxism. Inter­est­ing how it has man­aged to sur­vive what the Com­mun­ists and So­cial Demo­crats have done to it between them, to say no­thing of the so­cio­logists. The liber­tarian Marx­ists seem closer to Marx and Engels than the ortho­dox Com­mun­ists, Trotsky­ists and Mao­ists one one side, and the various re­vision­ists and re­form­ists on the other. It is good that the anarch­ist strain in Marx­ism should be re­mem­bered. At the same time we should re­mem­ber the Marx­ist strain in anarch­ism; the early anarch­ists always ac­know­leged Marx’s im­mense con­trib­u­tion to so­cial­ist thought, and most of us still stand on his ana­lysis of the class so­ciety. If we are glad to see some Marx­ists mov­ing towards us, per­haps we could see how far we can move towards them; Marx­ism with­out the party or the state isn’t very far away. In the London demon­stra­tion of solid­ar­ity with the French on May 26th, it was sig­nific­ant to see the Inter­na­tional So­cial­ism and Solid­ar­ity groups wel­com­ing the anarch­ists in a com­mon front against the So­cial­ist Labour League when Healy and Banda tried to keep things under tradi­tional Trotsky­ist con­trol. The same kind of thing on a much larger scale seems to have been hap­pen­ing in France; the March 22nd Movement is de­scribed as an in­formal coali­tion of anarch­ists, situ­a­tion­ists, Trotsky­ists and Mao­ists, united by com­mon action. The new un­formed, un­named Fifth Inter­na­tional may get back to the ori­ginal aims of the First Inter­na­tional after more than a cen­tury.

Anarchists. Will the part played by the anarch­ists at last con­vince people that anarch­ism is still a re­volu­tion­ary force? We are still play­ing our priv­ate game of watch­ing other groups pick­ing up ideas which they think are new but which we know are old ones from the anarch­ist past. The im­port­ance of young middle-class in­tel­lect­u­als, espe­cially uni­vers­ity stu­dents and grad­u­ates—now at­trib­uted to Herbert Marcuse and the stu­dent lead­ers in Germany, France and Britain, but de­veloped by Bakunin a cen­tury ago from his ob­serv­a­tion of the <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: Ital­ian repub­lic­ans">Ital­ian repub­lic­ans and the <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: Russian pop­ul­ists">Russian pop­ul­ists, and later ex­pressed by Kropot­kin in An Appeal to the Young (1880). The im­port­ance of a con­scious minor­ity, though not an elite, a nucleus of agit­at­ors, though not of con­spir­at­ors—now at­trib­uted to Guevara and Debray, but again de­veloped by Bakunin at the end of his life and later one of the cent­ral prin­ciples of the anarch­ist com­mun­ists and syn­dic­al­ists.
Nearly every single pro­posal made by the new rebels ap­pears in Kropot­kin or Mala­testabut this is not im­port­ant; what is im­port­ant is that anarch­ists are among the new rebels. Ironic that the BBC pro­gramme on anarch­ism, which was broad­cast in the Third Pro­gramme last Janu­ary (and was printed in anarchy 85 last March), was called Far from the Bar­ri­cades, de­spite the pro­tests of some of the con­trib­ut­ors who didn’t feel very far; very near indeed, it seems. And yet how far is the English move­ment from being able to fol­low the French ex­ample? About as far as England is from being able to have such an ex­ample.

Syndical­ists. It seems to be for­got­ten that the CGT, which has played such a dis­grace­ful part, was not always a Com­mun­ist organ­isa­tion but was in fact the ori­ginal syn­dic­al­ist organ­isa­tion, being formed in 1895 pre­cisely to free the French trade union move­ment from part polit­ical con­trol and to pre­pare for the so­cial re­volu­tion by way of the gen­eral strike. The Feder­a­tion des Bourses du Tra­vail is well known to anarch­ists be­cause of Fernand Pellou­tier, its great secret­ary; the Con­feder­a­tion Gener­ale du Travail should be equally well known be­cause of Emile Pouget, the great editor of its paper, La Voix du Peupleto say no­thing of the 1906 Charter of Amiens (the clas­sic state­ment of syn­dic­al­ist prin­ciples) and the great wave of strikes sixty years ago, which should put the pre­sent events into pro­per per­spect­ive. Typ­ical that young rebels in the in­dust­rial move­ment have to re­learn old les­sons again and again, just like those in the in­tel­lectual move­ment.

Sorel. Is he so com­pletely for­got­ten? He is pretty well dis­credited as a seri­ous in­tel­lectual figure (and of course he wasn’t an anarch­ist or the the­oreti­cian of syn­dic­al­ism), but he did have some good ideas, and it’s odd that they haven’t been men­tioned. The general idea of the func­tion of myths—“not de­scrip­tions of things but ex­pres­sions of a de­term­ina­tion to act”—and the partic­ular idea of the myth of the general strike both seem relev­ant. Add the myth of the bar­ri­cades, the myth of the work­ing class, the myth of the soviet, and you have a fairly good pic­ture of what has hap­pened. How he would have en­joyed the at­tempt to burn down the Bourse!

Com­mun­ists. Will the part played by the Com­mun­ists at last con­vince people that Com­mun­ism is not a re­volu­tion­ary but a counter-revolu­tion­ary force? The French Com­mun­ist Party, the Gen­eral Con­feder­a­tion of Labour (CGT) which it con­trols, and the paper L’Humanité which it pub­lishes, have to­gether been one of the main factors pre­vent­ing the suc­cess of the re­volu­tion, after the gov­ern­ment, the army, and the police. Here is the cul­mina­tion of Bol­shev­ism after fifty years. (And the tradi­tional Trotsky­ists were better only be­cause they were weaker.) But the Com­mun­ists have now sur­vived so many ex­posures—Kron­stadt, China, Spain, East Germany, Hungary,
Poland, and so on and so on—that they will prob­ably get over this one too. Even so, this is a par­tic­u­larly clear case of their tra­di­tional func­tion, fully docu­mented and played out in the glare of pub­li­city, and it should be rammed home. How do they live with them­selves, though? Have they for­got­ten how Marx re­sponded to the Paris Com­mune of 1871, and how the CGT used to lead rather than break strikes? They have changed in one way, though; they now betray re­volu­tions before they hap­pen, not after.

Social Demo­crats. Will the part played by the so­cial­ist parties at last con­vince people that so­cial demo­cracy, par­lia­ment­ary so­cial­ism, is not a serious polit­ical force at all? Dread­ful grey old men, stag­ger­ing along trying to catch up with the band-wagon; only Mendes-France ap­par­ently pre­serv­ing any in­teg­rity at all, ten years too late? How much longer do the French have to wait for com­plete con­sen­sus poit­ics, Wilson squash­ing the unions, Brandt in the co­ali­tion? With Mollet, Mit­ter­rand (or is it Miller­and?), and the rest, it shouldn’t be long now. And yet so­cial demo­cracy is all too seri­ous, because it pre­sents the most likely “al­tern­at­ive” to naked cap­it­al­ism on one side and Com­mun­ism on the other, and because it is after all at least better than either of them.

Students. The im­port­ant thing is to de­fine their so­cial posi­tion—their class posi­tion, in fact. So­cial­ists of all kinds have stressed the im­port­ance of the de­sert­ers from the middle class, espe­cially the in­tel­lec­tu­als, and espe­cially the young. Stu­dents are pre­cisely young middle-class in­tel­lec­tu­als (what­ever their origin and what­ever their in­tel­li­gence), and they are at a par­tic­u­lar stage in their lives when they are tem­por­ar­ily taken out of con­tact with the eco­nomic real­ities of their posi­tion, and at the same time brought into con­tact with the the­or­et­ical im­plica­tions of it. Which group is more likely to de­sert the middle class, and which group is more able to do so—though only tem­por­ar­ily in most cases? Not that “the stu­dents” as a class will rebel—most stu­dents are “over­whelm­ingly and ir­re­deem­ably bour­geois”, as Liz Smith put it in anarchy 82, and their class func­tion is to become the brain work­ers of the au­thor­it­arian, ma­na­gerial so­ciety (whether of­fi­cially cap­it­al­ist or com­mun­ist) which sup­ports them for a few years and which they sup­port for the rest of their lives. But the stu­dents who do rebel are among the most sig­ni­fic­ant stu­dents and also among the most sig­ni­fic­ant rebels, so they are doubly im­port­ant. Inter­est­ing how the French stu­dents before the ex­plo­sion com­bined the two usual pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of stu­dent rebels—narrow uni­vers­ity issues (re­stric­tions on learn­ing, on sex, on food, and so on) and wider polit­ical issues (Vietnam, race, cap­it­al­ism, and so on)—but were able to get beyond the usual im­passe only when they made a syn­thesis of them into what may be in­dif­fer­ently called narrow polit­ical or wider uni­vers­ity issues (students’ con­trol of the uni­vers­ity, workers’ con­trol of the factory, people’s con­trol of the streets). It is this syn­thesis,
which stu­dents are uniquely placed to make, which begins a re­volu­tion. And it should get so­cial­ists of all kinds away from think­ing that the in­dus­trial strug­gle is the only one worth bother­ing about.

Workers. The im­port­ant thing is to realise that the work­ing class (in­dus­trial and agri­cul­tural alike) has not sud­denly become re­volu­tion­ary again. No class is re­volu­tion­ary—this is one of the major fal­la­cies of Marx­ism—but the im­port­ance of the work­ing class is its ob­ject­ive eco­nomic and so­cial posi­tion. Power is in the work­ers’ hands—or rather, power is the workers’ hands—but it is hardly ever used in a re­volu­tion­ary way. If any ideo­logy is pecu­liar to the work­ing class, it is that which used to be called “eco­nom­ism”—the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with short-term eco­nomic gains (less work, more pay, bet­ter con­di­tions, higher bene­fits and pen­sions, greater dig­nity) which makes sense in the work­ers’ posi­tion. The three sig­nif­ic­ant things about the French events are that the work­ers are not apath­etic, con­tented, stupid, or any of the things which the right-wing aca­dem­ics and journ­al­ists think, but are still able and will­ing to strike for their rights; that the work­ers are im­mensely power­ful on the single con­di­tion that they act to­gether, in their own inter­ests and on their own ac­count; and that the work­ers may use re­volu­tion­ary means but do not have re­volu­tion­ary ends, ex­cept when their es­sen­tially re­form­ist de­mands are re­sisted. In France the work­ers took the re­volu­tion­ary step of com­bin­ing a gen­eral strike with the oc­cu­pa­tion of the factor­ies, they were so power­ful that so­ciety almost fell into their hands over­night, but they let it go when their short-term gains were won. In the sense that a modern, ad­vanced, in­dus­trial­ised so­ciety can ap­pease the work­ers’ de­mands without col­lapsing, suc­cess­ful re­volu­tion does seem to be im­pos­sible. But it is worth no­ticing how fright­ened every­one is of the pos­sibil­ity that the work­ers won’t be satis­fied. Thou­sands of column inches about the stu­dents’ con­trol of the uni­vers­ities, but only a few about work­ers’ con­trol of the factor­ies; what actu­ally hap­pened, how were things run, how much pro­duc­tion was car­ried on, how much dis­tribu­tion of raw ma­teri­als and fin­ished goods was there, did it work? And what about the mil­lions of agri­cul­tural work­ers? They after all have the ultim­ate power of life or death in their hands.

Leaders and prophets. The media look for lead­ers. But those they find deny that they are “leaders”; so do their “fol­low­ers”. A neat idea that they are simply “mega­phones” for their com­rades. Nice to see that they are not trusted to be any­thing more. This at least is some­thing we are fa­mil­iar with. And yet there is the in­ter­est­ing fact that pro­min­ent people in such move­ments do tend to be out­siders—Cohn-Bendit the German Jew, Dutschke from East Germany, Tariq Ali from Pakistan, Schoen­man from the United States; after all, the anarch­ist move­ment in this country has over and over again been brought back to life by foreign refugees. This is surely a gen­eral soci­olo­gical and anthro­polo­gical pheno­menon—the out­sider brings a new voice, a
breath of fresh air. Thank good­ness for aliens, agit­at­ors, im­migrants.

  The media also look for prophets. But who really listens to them? How many stu­dents had heard of Marcuse before the papers got on to him, and had ever seen a book by him? Most of the others don’t even deal with our prob­lems, but rather those of re­volu­tion in back­ward, agri­cul­tural, des­potic countries. How many people have actu­ally read the thoughts of Chair­man Mao, wrenched from their con­text and be­lied by the cult of his per­son­al­ity? How many are inter­ested in what Guevara said rather than what he did (and how many are sure what that was?)? And how many have read, let alone under­stood, Debray’s art­icles in New Left Review and his book in Penguins? Or Fanon’s? One of the most sig­nif­ic­ant things about the pres­ent move­ment seems to be its dis­trust of the proph­ets as of lead­ers. No sacred texts, no in­fal­lible pontiffs, no ex­com­mun­ica­tions, no ex­ecu­tions. Per­haps it’s just as well that anarch­ist writ­ings are so dif­fi­cult to get hold of; people can come to anarch­ism through their own ex­peri­ence, by trial and error.

Violence and non-violence. Viol­ence is neces­sary and <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: non-viol­ence">non-viol­ence is dead. Is this really the lesson of France, after India, South Africa, the United States, and Britain? It is clear that a phys­ical con­front­a­tion between the rebels and the auth­or­ities is es­sen­tial. But wasn’t the ini­tial con­trast cru­cial? The viol­ent at­tack by the CRS on the un­armed, un­pre­pared stu­dents won more pop­ular sym­pathy at the be­gin­ning than any­thing else could have done. Was the rebels’ later use of viol­ence use­ful? It seems un­pro­duct­ive if not actu­ally counter-pro­duct­ive to throw cob­bles or even petrol bombs at heavily armed and well pro­tected police­men, to throw up barri­cades which are thrown down the same night, to fight without being able to win. Isn’t the only ex­cuse for viol­ence that it works? But the strong will always win unless they break, and the police (to say nothing of the army behind them) have shown no signs of even bend­ing. Is the viol­ence of the French stu­dents (like that of their Brit­ish and Amer­ican com­rades, of the South African and American negroes) really new? Surely the use of viol­ence is only a re­turn to the posi­tion before Gandhi and the Bomb, and we are in danger of for­get­ting the lesson we thought we had learnt, that viol­ence breeds viol­ence and the worst man wins. Do we then con­demn viol­ence? Of course not—there will be viol­ence in every seri­ous strug­gle, and viol­ent re­sist­ance is better than no re­sist­ance—but we must ques­tion the cur­rent re­vival of inter­est in and ap­proval of viol­ent means which brings us closer to our enemies in more ways than one.