Editorial: Romantic Rebels

Twenty years ago this month the French took an unscheduled holiday together. For three romantic weeks a minority of revellers bathed in a glorious self-deception, erecting barricades, occupying their places of work, popularising a critique of consumer culture and sending wish-you-were-here cards to the workers, who responded with a General Strike for better wages and conditions but refused to “take power and overthrow capitalism”. Here and there legal authority was replaced by self-catering communes, which actually managed nothing more productive than festivals, traffic and 24-hour talking shops. General de Gaulle’s five-minute television broadcast of 30 May called a halt to the entertainment and within a few days the radicals – like naughty pupils caught misbehaving – were back in class with their heads down. Tedious normality returned, leaving a handful of Redcoats without audiences and British and American sociologists to ponder whether we had witnessed a “revolutionary situation” or an extended lunch break.

The student revolt which triggered worker unrest had its roots in the strict subordination of universities to the Ministry of Education, a factor which served to create a uniformly militant state of mind amongst the young elite. The libertarian spirit of the time had also fostered a New Left rebellion against Communist orthodoxy and liberalism, but the practical result of its propaganda was limited to a number of wildcat strikes in the aftermath of the Communist-led General Strike of 13 May. Cold reality was that the majority of wage and salary earners wanted nothing more than improvements and reforms –  a fact confirmed by the overwhelming ratification of representative democracy in the June general election, when the Gaullists were returned with an increased majority.

The events of May’68 are of concern to socialists because they probably represent most people’s ideas of what a revolution would entail – blood and barricades, factory occupations and the violent overthrow of legal authority. The leading actors in the drama may have represented different strands of left-wing ideology but they all shared a belief in the primacy of industrial action and force as the means to effect social change, the central arguments of syndicalists and anarchists being repeated by Bolsheviks of all varieties. The backbone of their theory was and remains the General Strike, which begins in a small way, spreads in sympathy strikes and occupations and develops into the overthrow of the entire system. A fundamentally elitist approach, it assumes the working class to be a simple giant that needs taking by the hand and leading into the class struggle. Revolution is viewed as the culmination of hundreds of industrial struggles in which workers gain experience and an ever-stronger sense of solidarity, and rests on their ability to take and hold the means of production in face of the combined forces of the state. Its advocates dismiss the possibility that workers can ever reach their exalted level of consciousness without such vigorous exercise.

It is impossible to deny that ideas are conditioned by people’s material experience, but this is a long way from suggesting that industrial struggle will, in itself, automatically produce socialist consciousness. Activists who took to the streets of France in 1968 were not preoccupied with the abolition of the wage labour and capital relationship and its replacement with free access, and no amount of struggle could have conjured these concepts out of the air and into the majority of heads. Had the French left been able to turn their dreams into reality (let’s assume for argument’s sake that the armed forces all happened to be on holiday) they would have had no choice but to administer capitalism since their followers would have gained as little knowledge as they had of its alternative.

Spontaneity may be an asset for the stand-up comic but it is of no use when attempting to dispose of capitalism. The ownership of the means of life  cannot be settled at the factory gate or the barricade because such methods leave the coercive state in the hands of the owning class. When workers are sufficiently class conscious to capture the political machinery for socialism, they will have already used their knowledge to bring their workplace organisations to a similar state of development. They will talk not of mines for the miners or factories for the factory workers, but of the democratic control of the world’s resources by the whole community.

The only movement in the interest of the great majority that can ever be successful is one they understand, desire and vote for. Industrial action for political ends can produce conditions of chaos. But chaos is not socialism, and so long as the great majority do not want socialism, socialism cannot be the outcome.

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