193Reflections on the
revolution in France
The revival of the great tradition after nearly a century—1789
from 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
.) But how the tradition has become divided! The Tricolour
, the Republic
, the Marseillaise
, the Resistance
all symbols of the establishment, of the extreme right. But that is nothing new. “Liberty, equality, fraternity
, when what the Republic really means is infantry
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
, 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
’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.
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.
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
and the <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: 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
, but again developed by Bakunin at the end of his life and later one of the central principles of the anarchist communists
Nearly every single proposal made by the new rebels appears in Kropotkin or Malatesta
but 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 Peuple—to 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!
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
, East Germany
, 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.
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
from East Germany
, Tariq Ali
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.