Book Reviews: What Happened in France Last May
Obsolete Communism: The Left-wing Alternative. by Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit. (Andre Deutsch. 25s.)
France: The Struggle Goes On by Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall. (International Socialism Special. 2s. 6d.)
French Revolution 1968. by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville. (Penguin. 6s.)
Mai 1968: La Brèche. by Morin. Lefort and Coudray. (Fayard, 10 Frs.)
La Révolution Trahie de 1968. by Andre Barjonet. (John Dldier.)
Daniel Cohn-Bendit is just an ordinary anarcho-syndicalist. In their hastily-written book he and his brother advance the old theory that the direct action of a militant minority can expose the repressive nature of the state and spark off a general strike that will lead to the overthrow of capitalism. They explain the failure of last year’s French strike by the fact that in the last week of May when the government was at its weakest the crowds after trying to burn the Paris stock exchange did not go on to take the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of the Interior, but were dissuaded from doing so by, among others, trotskyist leaders. If they had done this, the claim is, and the workers in the factories had restarted production under their own control the revolution would have succeeded.
This is a simple, and not very plausible, explanation. The real reason capitalism was not overthrown was because the vast majority of French workers were not in favour of this. True, they were greatly discontented with rising prices, lagging wages, unemployment, long hours, harsh discipline, but they were not socialist. So, whatever the outcome of the strike it could not have been the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism. There never was any revolutionary situation and the attempt by anarchists and trotskyists to turn the general strike to defend living standards and working conditions into an insurrection against capitalism was doomed to fail. Its main result has been to strengthen the hand of the Gaullist government.
This book (whose French title Leftism: A Remedy for the Senile Disorder of Communism is a clever play on a title of one of Lenin’s pamphlets, obviously considered too subtle by the publishers) is in four parts. The first has some sound stuff on universities as capitalist institutions geared to turning out a managerial élite to run capitalist industry. The second is the usual anarchist attack on the state and praise for direct action and the general strike. The third is an exposé of the dirty, anti-working class role of the French Communist Party (PCF) from the thirties onward. The fourth—obviously aimed at those who fought side-by-side with Cohn-Bendit on the barricades—is an attack on the Bolshevik theory of the vanguard party. Cohn-Bendit and his brother show quite clearly how Lenin and Trotsky, by means of a policy of state capitalism, began the repression of the Russian workers which Stalin continued so brutally.
This should be essential reading for trotskyists like Cliff and Birchall who still defend the Bolshevik coup and minority dictatorship and call for a centralised and disciplined party. Their pamphlet is not really worth reading as all the facts, and a few common sense observations, can be had by reading the much better-written Penguin Special, despite its misleading title.
Morin, Lefort and Coudray are also basically syndicalists but of a less orthodox kind. Capitalism, they say, has changed into “techno-bureaucratic society” (Morin), “bourgeois-bureaucratic society” (Lefort) or “bureaucratic capitalism” (Coudray) in which the conflict is no longer between the property-owners and the propertyless but between the controllers and the controlled. The main features of this society are bureaucracy and hierarchy: those at the top know best so those at the bottom must obey. The revolutionary students, they say, in challenging this set-up in the universities have pointed the way for the rest of society. Because of the key-role played by the technical and professional groups today their discontent has revolutionary potential. They and their trainees, the students, not the industrial workers, are the force for Socialism.
Since it is an old anarchist myth that the class struggle has always been between rulers and ruled rather than producers and non-producers, it is not surprising to find the three fall back on the syndicalist tradition. Morin is clearly carried away by the whole affair. He talks enthusiastically about the students’ actions as a return to “original communism, purged of all Stalinism, marxism-leninism and bolshevism” which will lead to what Coudray calls the grève gestionnaire (a significant change from the old syndicalist grève expropriate, reflecting the shift of emphasis from ownership to control).
Barjonet’s pamphlet is interesting in that for over twenty years he was head of the Communist trade union centre’s (CGT) research department, a post he resigned in May in protest against the cowardly attitude of the CGT and PCF. He felt (mistakenly, we might add) that a potential socialist revolution was betrayed by the failure of the PCF to act even to overthrow the Gaullist regime. let alone capitalism.
Barjonet traces the defects of the PCF back to Lenin. Leninist practice has always been to try to lead the workers by placing attractive slogans before them. But this merely allots them a passive role and inevitably leads to the Leninist vanguard thinking that it always knows best. “Marxism-Leninism”, says Barjonet and we couldn’t agree more, “has been an historic misfortune for the international working class”. He calls for a return to Marx who clearly understood that the workers themselves, not any leaders, must play the creative role in the socialist revolution and that working class organisations must be thoroughly democratic.
The three books from France show an encouraging rejection of and contempt for Bolshevism. We can only hope that this is the beginning of its demise in western Europe where it has had such a pernicious effect on working class thinking. If the May events have helped this they will have done something.