Skip to Content

The "New" Theory of Insurrection

The French political scientist Maurice Duverger, whose books have been reviewed from time to time in these columns (see, for instance Socialist Standard of July 1966), wrote an interesting article published in Le Monde on 12 July. Duverger would say he is a socialist but, as we have pointed out, he really only stands for a mild form of state capitalism. Nevertheless his comments on the May events in France are very pertinent.
 
In his article, entitled “Une Révolution Impossible”, he. says that before May 1968 even those who stood for violent revolution had written off the developed capitalist world. Hence the popularity of Mao, Castro and Che Guevara. But after May they worked out a new theory of revolution. Duverger describes it thus:

   The first impulse will be given by the young who are less integrated into the present order than their elders, even those belonging to the working class. Among these the students will play the vanguard role. Their growing number and concentration at certain points, similar to the nascent proletariat in the nineteenth century, gives them a power of intervention which the barricades of Paris and the battles at Flins fully show. Further, their intellectual environment gives them a high degree of political consciousness.
   In the second phase, the detonator of the student revolt will embrace the mass of the workers. By means of a general strike they will then paralyse all activity of the bourgeois State and so reduce it to impotence. At the same time they will begin to replace it with a socialist State, themselves taking over the managements of the enterprises and services and putting them in motion again: this will be the third stage. Thus the old power will become more and more unreal and artificial, while a new power progressively takes its place. Finally, the former will collapse and the latter will completely control society.

Only the second stage was reached in May, they argue, because the Communist Party and its trade union wing, the CGT, restrained rather than encouraged the movement.
 
Duverger’s comments on this are the same as those we have made and are those which one would have thought were the obvious lessons of May: the new theory ignores the great repressive power of the modern state and fails to realise that most workers don't want violent insurrection. The more extreme student organisations have been outlawed and the Gaullists have won a sweeping victory in the elections by playing on popular fear of civil war.
 
Duverger concedes, and so would we, that there is plenty of working class discontent which could explode if the students gave a lead. But, he says, this discontent should not be confused with a desire for violent revolution. The absence of this, except perhaps among the young, “is not the result of the reformism of the CGT and the Communist party. On the contrary, the reformism of the CGT and the communist party is a reflection of this absence". Most workers, for various reasons are opposed to violent insurrection.
 
It is this that makes the new theory dangerous:

  The student movements cannot by themselves overthrow the present order. But they can sufficiently threaten it—or give the impression of threatening it—to sustain and increase a feeling of insecurity amongst the mass of society, which will push society towards authoritarian regimes when they can see no other way of avoiding anarchy.

Thus the new strategy could serve to undermine established democratic institutions and to strengthen the repressive powers at the service of the state.
 
Duverger says that some students are beginning to realise this and

   are today trying to work out a long-term strategy for the transformation of society, keeping their revolutionary ends, but using means better adapted to the conditions of the developed countries.

We are pleased to hear that some lessons have been learned from May (we only wish they would get through to some of the arm-chair insurrectionaries in Britain who want to repeat the French débâcle here). Duverger does not say on what lines they are thinking but he himself points out that nothing can be achieved without the support of the mass of the people.
 
The Socialist Party of Great Britain has something to say on this since, following the lead given by Engels towards the end of his life, we have worked out a policy for social revolution suited to modern capitalism based on the revolutionary use of democratic institutions. Given the growth of the repressive power of the state, insurrections with barricades and street fights are useless. However, thanks to past struggles (including France in 1848 and 1871) in which the workers played a prominent role another way to political power has been opened up: universal suffrage. It is customary in some student circles to dismiss this as a trick, to talk about “parliamentary rubbish" and to call for a boycott of elections. People who speak in this way are refusing to face up to the fact that the great majority of workers do not at present want a social revolution. It is not universal suffrage and the other democratic institutions that are at fault, but the use to which they are put. As long as workers are not socialist-minded (as they are not at the moment) they will use their votes to elect supporters of capitalism, including social democrat and “communist" reformists, and so in effect will hand over political power to the capitalist class—a power, we might add, which can be used to crush student uprising. Elections are the best gauge there is of popular opinion and, unfortunately, they clearly show that only a handful now want Socialism. The task of those who are socialists should thus be clear: not to try to provoke violent clashes with the state in the hope of triggering off a more general uprising, but to carry out an intensive programme of socialist agitation and education. This will involve denouncing the “new" revolutionary theory as dangerous as it could undermine the very institutions which will allow a socialist workers' movement to win power.
 
We are not advocating that parliament be used to pass a series of social reform measures which are supposed gradually to transform society. We are as opposed to reformism as to insurrection. Compromise with capitalism can be avoided by the socialist party only seeking support on the basis of a socialist programme. In other words, in having no programme of reforms or “immediate demands" to be achieved within capitalism. For such a programme would attract the support of non-socialists and so lead the party towards compromise and reformism. 
 
We suggest that the twin dangers of insurrection and reformism can be avoided by building up a socialist party composed of and supported by convinced socialists only. When a majority of workers are socialist-minded and organised into such a party they can use their votes to elect to parliament and the local authorities delegates pledged to use state power for the one revolutionary act of dispossessing the capitalist class and converting the means of production into the property of the whole community. This is the long-term strategy for the transformation of society suited to the conditions of modern capitalism that Duverger's students would do well to consider.
Adam Buick