Tuesday, May 20, 2008

May '68: Report on the Occupation of the Sorbonne

A Situationist report on the student-occupied Sorbonne

The occupation of the Sorbonne that began Monday, May 13, has opened a new period in the crisis of modern society. The events now taking place in France foreshadow the return of the proletarian revolutionary movement in all countries. The movement that had already advanced from theory to struggle in the streets has now advanced to a struggle for control of the means of production. Modernized capitalism thought it had finished with class struggle -- but it's started up again! The proletariat supposedly no longer existed -- but here it is again.

By surrendering the Sorbonne, the government hoped to pacify the student revolt, which had already succeeded in holding a section of Paris behind its barricades an entire night before being recaptured with great difficulty by the police. The Sorbonne was given over to the students in the hope that they would peacefully discuss their university problems. But the occupiers immediately decided to open it to the public to freely discuss the general problems of the society. This was thus a prefiguration of a council, a council in which even the students broke out of their miserable studenthood and ceased being students.

To be sure, the occupation was never complete: a chapel and a few remaining administrative offices were tolerated. The democracy was never total: future technocrats from UNEF [the students' union] claimed to be making themselves useful and other political bureaucrats also tried their manipulations. Workers' participation remained very limited and the presence of nonstudents soon began to be questioned. Many students, professors, journalists and imbeciles of other professions came as spectators.

In spite of all these deficiencies, which are not surprising considering the disparity between the scope of the project and the narrowness of the student milieu, the exemplary nature of the best aspects of this situation immediately took on an explosive significance. Workers were inspired by the free discussion and the striving for a radical critique, by seeing direct democracy in action. Even limited to a Sorbonne liberated from the state, this was a revolutionary program developing its own forms. The day after the occupation of the Sorbonne the Sud-Aviation workers of Nantes occupied their factory. On the third day, Thursday the 16th, the Renault factories at Cléon and Flins were occupied and the movement began at the NMPP and at Boulogne-Billancourt, starting at Shop 70. Three days later 100 factories have been occupied and the wave of strikes, accepted but never initiated by the union bureaucracies, is paralyzing the railroads and developing into a general strike.

The only power in the Sorbonne was the general assembly of its occupiers. At its first session, on May 14, amidst a certain confusion, it had elected an Occupation Committee of 15 members revocable by it each day. Only one of the delegates, a member of the Nanterre-Paris Enragés group, had set forth a program: defense of direct democracy in the Sorbonne and absolute power of workers councils as ultimate goal. The next day's general assembly reelected its entire Occupation Committee, which had as yet been unable to accomplish anything. In fact, the various specialized groupings that had set themselves up in the Sorbonne all followed the directives of a hidden "Coordination Committee" composed of self-appointed organizers, responsible to no one, doing everything in their power to prevent any "irresponsible" extremist actions. An hour after the reelection of the Occupation Committee one of these "coordinators" privately tried to declare it dissolved. A direct appeal to the people in the courtyard of the Sorbonne aroused a movement of protests that forced the manipulator to retract himself. By the next day, Thursday the 16th, thirteen members of the Occupation Committee had disappeared, leaving two comrades, including the Enragés member, vested with the only delegation of power authorized by the general assembly -- and this at a time when the urgency of the situation demanded immediate decisions: democracy was constantly being flouted in the Sorbonne while factory occupations were spreading all over the country. At 3:00 p.m. the Occupation Committee, rallying to itself as many Sorbonne occupiers as it could who were determined to maintain democracy there, launched an appeal for "the occupation of all the factories in France and the formation of workers councils." To disseminate this appeal the Occupation Committee had at the same time to restore the democratic functioning of the Sorbonne. It had to take over or recreate from scratch all the services that were supposed to be under its authority: the loudspeaker system, printing facilities, interfaculty liaison, security. It ignored the squawking complaints of the spokesmen of various political groups (JCR [Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires, now LCR], Maoists, etc,), reminding them that it was responsible only to the general assembly. It intended to report to the assembly that very evening, but the Sorbonne occupiers' unanimous decision to march on Renault-Billancourt (whose occupation we had learned of in the meantime) postponed the meeting until 2:00 p.m. the next day.

During the night, while thousands of comrades were at Billancourt, some unidentified persons improvised a general assembly, which broke up when the Occupation Committee, having learned of its existence, sent back two delegates to call attention to its illegitimacy.

Friday the 17th at 2:00 p.m. the regular assembly saw its rostrum occupied for a long time by self-appointed marshals belonging to the FER [Fédération des Étudiants Révolutionnaires, Lambertists]; and then had to interrupt the session for the second march on Billancourt at 5:00.

That evening at 9:00 the Occupation Committee was finally able to present a report of its activities. It was, however, completely unable to get its actions discussed and voted on, in particular its appeal for the occupation of the factories, which the assembly did not take the responsibility of either disavowing or approving. Faced with such indifference, the Occupation Committee had no choice but to resign. The assembly proved equally incapable of protesting against a new invasion of the rostrum by the FER troops, whose putsch seemed to be aimed at countering the provisional alliance of JCR and UNEF bureaucrats. The partisans of direct democracy realized, and immediately declared, that they had no further interest in the Sorbonne.

At the very moment that the example of the occupation is beginning to be taken up in the factories it is collapsing at the Sorbonne. This development is more serious since the workers have against them a bureaucracy infinitely more powerful and entrenched than that of the student or leftist amateurs. To add to the confusion, the leftist bureaucrats, echoing the CGT [the biggest union federation, controlled by the Communist Party] in the hope of being accorded a little marginal role alongside it, abstractly separate the workers from the students. ("The workers don't need any lessons from the students.") But the students have in fact already given an excellent lesson to the workers precisely by occupying the Sorbonne and briefly initiating a really democratic debate. The bureaucrats all tell us demagogically that the working class is grown up, in order to hide the fact that it is enchained -- first of all by them (now or in their future hopes, depending on which group they're in). They counterpose their lying seriousness to the "festivity" in the Sorbonne; but it was precisely that festiveness that bore within itself the only thing that is serious: the radical critique of prevailing conditions.

The student struggle has now been left behind. Even more left behind are all the second-string bureaucratic leaders who think it's a good idea to feign respect for the Stalinists at the very moment when the CGT and the so-called "Communist" Party are terrified. The outcome of the present crisis is in the hands of the workers themselves, if only they succeed in accomplishing in their factory occupations the goals toward which the university occupation was only able to hint at.

The comrades who supported the first Sorbonne Occupation Committee -- the Enragés-Situationist International Committee, a number of workers, and a few students -- have formed a Council for Maintaining the Occupations. The occupations can obviously be maintained only by quantitatively and qualitatively extending them, without sparing any existing regime.

Paris, 19 May 1968

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dockers in USA and Iraq strike for "troops out now"

An article written for Solidarity

25,000 dockers at all 29 ports across the West Coast of the USA staged an 8-hour strike on 1 May calling for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq. The action was not only supported by significant demonstrations in the USA but also by a solidarity strike staged by Iraqi port workers in Umm Qasr and Khor Alzubair.

When the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) called the strike in February it was widely reported that it was a mere demonstration, and that the union had one day at its disposal each month for its own purposes. In fact the Pacific Maritime Association tried to use the courts to stop the strike, while trucks and port traffic (10,000 cargo containers are unloaded per shift) were brought to an absolute standstill for the whole shift. The dockers have a powerful union and are in a strong position to defy management.

Of course, we should not give carte blanche credit to the politics of the ILWU leadership. In a typical move to channel working-class radicalism into bourgeois politicking, the union is supporting millionaire lawyer Barack Obama in the upcoming election. And at the strike rally on 1 May the ILWU President McEllrath stressed his American patriotism, “Big foreign corporations that control global shipping aren’t loyal or accountable to any country. For them it’s all about making money. But longshore workers are different. We’re loyal to America, and we won’t stand by while our country, our troops and our economy are destroyed by a war that’s bankrupting us to the tune of three trillion dollars” in a speech full of the same “Bring our boys home” effluent spouted by the SWP-led Stop the War Coalition in the UK.

But the Iraqi dockers took heart from the strike, and staged their own action to demand the withdrawal of troops in an excellent display of international working-class solidarity. Indeed, on 1 May the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions and the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions and Iraq published a joint May Day address calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops, new laws guaranteeing workers’ right to organise and an end to IMF diktats. Similarly, the FWCUI-affiliated General Union of Port Workers in Iraq wrote a letter to the American ILWU welcoming their strike, exalting the principle of working class unity and denouncing both the sectarian gangs and the occupying troops.

The strike shows the possibility of international working-class action against the imperialist occupation of Iraq and offers an important glimmer of hope for the building of a “third camp” independent of both the US-UK armies and the Islamist militias.

Monday, May 12, 2008

May' 68: the first factory occupation

The first factory occupation of May 1968 came at the Sud-Aviation aircraft plant in Bouguenais, near Nantes, in north-west France. 2000 workers went on strike, took over the factory and imprisoned the boss in his office. This step was decisive in moving the May movement as a whole onto the terrain of industrial action, deepening the government's malaise and forcing the unions to take sides.

There had been turmoil at Sud-Aviation since February 1968, when the bosses announced a plan to reduce working time from 48 to 45 hours per week, with only a 1% raise in the hourly pay rate to compensate. Yet it was not until April 9th that the CGT, CFDT and Force Ouvrière unions even held a meeting to discuss their reaction.

They were vacillating - but with 76% of workers voting to "take action", they organised a series of short walk-outs. 1 hour on the 9th, 23rd and 24th of April; 45 minutes on the 25th and 29th; only after this yielded no results did the Lambertist activist Yvon Rocton in charge of the Force Ouvrière union section at the plant propose an all-out strike.

A fight on the 30th in which the boss, Duvochel, was chased around the factory, made clear the workers' anger - but the idea of occupying the factory, or even an all-out strike, seemed risky. The CGT, for their part, claimed that raising the intensity of the strikes would mean breaking the unity of the Sud-Aviation workers. So followed another two weeks of occasional short walkouts - two hour stoppages here and there punctuated by an all-day strike on the unions' joint day of action in the region on 8th May.

But there was a rising tide of discontent with the unions’ tactics, expressed not just through riots in the factory, but also in union meetings, and on May 10th a small majority of workers voted for an all-out strike. However, the CGT and CFDT, who were against such a change of direction, simply decreed that the decision would be deferred until a later date. There was also a lack of outside support. This isolation was somewhat alleviated when the workers' isolation was broken with the nationwide strike of the 13th, and the student revolt showed the possibility of resisting the de Gaulle administration. As Francois le Madec writes, the struggle could take on new forms:

On Monday 14th there were the usual sporadic walkouts. Management were going to meet with the union reps in early afternoon: it wasn’t exactly clear why, but something big was in the offing. The atmosphere was electric. During the first afternoon walkout, between half past two and three o’clock, there was a meeting in the corner of Workshop 4. The workers looked like ants in this massive space: they wandered in from all sides, hands dug into their pockets. There were a few whistles and shouts as the now busy crowd packed out the workshops.

The mood was explosive. Slogans were shouted, and you could see the tension on everyone’s faces. The handful of scabs who dared to keep on working were given a seeing to. You could feel drama in the air. A scab who braved the pack was sprayed with a rivet gun: he went pale and stood as stiff as a starched shirt.

The workers walked out and stood outside the windows of the bosses’ office, where the union reps were being received.

Le père Duvochel [a song about the boss] rang out, followed by the Internationale. Waiting for the next walkout planned for half past three, workers started to talk. There were lively debates and animated conversations. Would the bosses make a reasonable offer?

At half past three was another meeting of all the staff. The union reps had emerged from the bosses’ offices. The CGT rep climbed on a metal mounting-block to speak, but saw worried faces… What news did he have? When he had silence, you could only hear the dull thudding of the compressors and the echo of the machines’ belts turning. He reported that the bosses’ answer was still no.

At once the crowd started to break up: the union reps shouted “Silence!”. At first the workers ran, but then slowed to creep round the western side of the huge offices. The stairs were weighed down by the mass of men gripping the guide-rails. Low voices could be heard, chanting “Ho! Hiss! Ho! Hiss!”. Finally, the door crept open and the crowd burst into the tracing room, their cries dampened by the soundproofed ceiling. The temps were petrified: what were they going to do? The crowd called on them to join their number, but there was a moment’s hesitation… the workers tried to contact the temps’ reps; the crowd advanced through the offices; the anger mounted; but a few temps didn’t want to follow. Finally, the temps’ reps called for a walkout: there were cries of victory among the occupiers. Through the windows you could hear some of the workers crowded in the yard.

They took the stairs down to the director’s office on the first floor. Songs and slogans reverberated through the corridors as the crowd flowed into the hall and occupied the management corridor.

The director came out of his office, flanked by his personnel manager. He forced a smile and said “I am your prisoner, do with me what you will”, a statement greeted with shouts of “Duvochel will give in! We want our pay back! Sign the deal!”. The director replied “You’re not going to get very far with that”.

Anger was reaching a climax. The crowding in the corridor was terrible. The lights kept going out. Fists drummed on the walls to the rhythm “Com-pen-sa-tion”. The director was pushed about roughly, and in vain did he try and escape from the hands of this gang in their dirty blue overalls. An ORTF [French state television] reporter they found there with a camera in his hands (no doubt, he was invited in by the bosses) was precipitously pushed through an office door.

It was impossible to breathe. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, and the smell of oil on the workers’ overalls and sweat made the crowding unbearable. A bar of soap flew over the workers’ heads, striking the boss on the shoulder, and this was followed by a jet of water thrown from the toilet door. What was going to happen? Would somebody lose their nerve? For now at least they were only using their fists to strike up the Internationale.

Already at this stage some people scared by the power of the revolt had hurried out of the premises. But a spontaneous occupation was beginning. Union men arrived and told all the boilermakers to help them seal shut the exits in order to stop workers reluctant to strike leaving the building. Men were already guarding the main exits.

In the management corridor a state of relative calm had been restored, and the director was allowed to telephone Paris. They waited. They sat around. They offered the boss a chair. The men sat on the floor of the corridor and began a series of revolutionary anthems, which would last throughout the first night. Their throats were dry: a litre of red wine passed from mouth to mouth. They offered some to the boss but he refused. They played cards.

The union reps returned from the heart of the factory. They asked them what was happening with the blockades at the exits: they told them that the boilermakers had done a good job, and the metal doors on the western and eastern exits had been soldered shut. The other doors, albeit not soldered, were bolted shut. The occupation was a fortress. There were speeches in the yard, and the workers organised patrols to watch over the exits.

People who did not participate in the action (or barely did so) emerged from their offices and workshops, impatient in the expectation that the problem would soon be sorted out… they didn’t understand the top management. The Paris bosses were totally silent, refusing to negotiate.

The normal time for clocking off came and went, and they had to start thinking about dinner: some people went to the boulangerie and the local grocer. Helped by a few volunteers the canteen staff prepared some Viandox [a product similar to Bovril]

They rigged up a loudspeaker in the bosses’ offices, and the first refrains echoed around the factory.

At the main entrance there was something of a panic, with a few people finding good excuses to escape the plant. It must be said, people were very worried, fearing that the police would come to clear out the factory and thinking about the consequences. Food supplies were a problem: the local boulangeries would not open again until the morning.

News of the occupation spread quickly: workers’ wives and friends came to see what was going on, hoping to speak to their husbands through the gates or talk to the men perched on the walls. The food brought by the workers’ wives and their support on that first night was a vital fillip for the troops’ morale.

But still no news from Paris. Now everyone was thinking about the night ahead. For beds they used boxes, stretchers, packets of fibreglass, rags, shavings of wood…

Some scabs still hoping to escape sidled along the fences, concocting plans for escape, but the more militant pickets going round were keeping an eye out for them. Workers reluctant to strike were out in force at the main entrance, despite the authorisation given to women and workers over sixty years old to leave the plant. Some pretended that they had fallen unconscious or were having nervous breakdowns. An ambulance took them home, the noise of its siren leading many people in the surrounding area to believe that there had been a fight in the factory and the ambulance was taking away the injured.

There was in fact only one injury: someone broke their leg trying to jump across a ditch. But it would be difficult to get opponents of the strike to admit the truth.

As time passed and night came, there was more and more tension at the main gates. There was a busy crowd: people were here, there and everywhere. All the other exits were tightly guarded by pickets, already solidly in place around the factory.

But the main gates were the most vulnerable, and it was here that people wanting to leave the occupation made all their efforts to try and escape. Most of them were temps, of whom there were around 150. They were increasingly angered as all their attempts to break through the blockade were rebuffed. The gates were in the hands of “People’s Guards” who enthusiastically carried out the unions’ joint instructions.

Faced with failure the people trying to escape tried to work together. Some line managers who would later take part in the “scabs’ committee” harangued: they had to bloc and try and break through the blockade by force, even if the human blockade was five or six ranks deep in front of the gate.

The picketers were ready and stood steadfast. The confrontation was brutal, and no quarter was given. In the mêlée you could hear no few daft “philosophical” arguments the rights of the individual and the right to work. But every scab who dared say his piece would get a lecture about workers’ rights!... They were allowed to speak, but not to leave.

But these holy “philosophers” were stubborn: they insisted… The situation remained rather dangerous, since they were organised together, angry and had their eyes fixed on the gates that weren’t being opened for them. But God knows what they were waiting for or what they expected to get out of this: a pressie from the picketers, perhaps? They seemed totally unaware of the importance of what was happening; they were only motivated by their little daily routines and the desire to go home.

For God’s sake! “Democracy” can be difficult at moments like that!

The defence of the main gate was reinforced, since it was important strategically. If they managed to get through there, the whole movement might have gone under. Furthermore, given the course of events, the picketers became more skittish and more unrelenting. But these were only arguments about organisation and exasperation caused by the events: most of the time they just had to go out and get snacks or take food for a striking worker from one of their friends or relatives.

On the other hand, for a few vulnerable souls ill-prepared for such happenings the workers’ “militia” banded together at the entrance raised a few moral and intellectual dilemmas! Without doubt, many of them only had a few fairly naïve ideas about factory occupations gleaned here and there from little history books or sentimental and superficial memories of June 1936.

But those who wanted to leave met with failure, and their exit-by-force was never carried through… their rubbish leaders eventually gave up. They thought about making a few individual openings through the security ring surrounding the factory, hoping to evade the patrols who continued to circle the factory and scoured through the bushes; the bushes where a few scabs had planned to hide themselves for a few hours before reaching their selfish little abodes.

The other scabs stood silent in front of the entrance or returned in small groups to the yard, waiting for better times. Most of them, despite everything, did manage to escape during the first days and nights of the occupation. But that would be no great threat to the success of the factory occupation. Nor was it a great loss for most of the people actively involved in the “new commune” which was being born. These people would later be found in the scabs’ committee. To each his own: the fainthearted outside, the “workers making history” inside.

What mattered was that the gates held, and the movement with them… Some will always make great play of criticising the harsh measures taken to achieve this, at a crucial stage of the occupation. But this type of preaching has no grip on events. They talk a lot about the brutal attitude of over-zealous pickets and of kidnapping… But to the over-zealous preachers who make these easy criticisms we say “Could it have been done differently?” Given the circumstances, the so-called “prisoners” were agents provocateurs causing trouble and regrettable confrontations which would not have taken place if it was not for their reactionary and anti-democratic attitude to a strike which was proven to be supported by the majority of workers. They are poor little preachers who know nothing except how to jabber on about the little ‘morals’ of their exploiters.

The seals on all the doors and exits of the factory were now secure. All along the 1800 metre perimeter wall which encircled the factory, workers devoted themselves to careful work planning and strengthening guard-posts. Personal and collective initiative burst forth everywhere. They set up installations reminiscent of soldiers’ watchtowers in the countryside. The blockade took place quickly and efficiently. They had to hurry as night closed in: it would be a night of unforgettable memories for all concerned, on one side or the other. A clear, cool night… brimming with activism: hard for a few splitters but exciting for the participants.

Revolutionary anthems blaring from a powerful loudspeaker echoed around the huge management offices. The director’s “guard of honour” sang along. This guard of honour was scattered pell-mell, albeit clustered in the tight, smoke-filled corridor which led to the director’s office: the men were sat, either on chairs or the floor, in an entanglement of arms and legs in overalls.

Outside a ring of fire was in the works. The cold of the night fell on the workers’ lightly-clothed shoulders, and everywhere a thousand flaming braziers cast arabesques into the spring night. All these hungry fires consumed an incredible amount of fuel. Contraptions went round in all directions carrying huge quantities of planks, logs and boxes… All night you had the feeling of living in the middle of a tank column, such was the noise of engines cutting through the silence. The enormous reddish flames lit up the walls and also served as spotlights, which was of great help to those watching from guard-posts along the walls.

Small groups of scabs wandered round the factory all night, like sleepwalkers, with their little bags in their arms, hoping to find a way out or some gap in the surveillance that would allow them to escape. These people’s wandering around, clasping little bags in which people normally carried snacks, displayed the “reluctant” workers’ lack of understanding of what was taking place.

The posts which were rather more spread out 'into nature' were served by some odd contraptions: boxes which normally served as packaging for fridges made by Frigeavia, a workshop at the factory which made fridges. The workers wedged themselves into these improvised 'coffins', lay down and closed the boxes again to protect themselves from the cold. Seeing all these bodies lined up in rows in these boxes, one could not help but think of mummies in their tombs! They only took off their work shows. This morbid sight had a fantastical allure, added to by the hallucinogenic effect of the brazier flames. The few white faces you could see in the boxes had a spectral quality when lit up by the flames. The effect was eye-catching, and you couldn’t help but smile, knowing that they were alive and well and your friends. But few of them managed to get much rest, since the day’s events had been so exciting. How could you sleep on a night as special as this? That morning they left their families at home and now, voilà, they suddenly found themselves thrown into an extreme confrontational situation. Groups of people who couldn’t sleep gathered round fires and conversed in hushed tones. There was an amazing feeling of solidarity, brotherhood and power in this bivouac assembly.

News of the occupation quickly spread to the households of Nantes and the surrounding area. A few cars driven by worried wives circled the plant, stopping before the guard post fires. Names were shouted over the walls and through the bars. But it was difficult to make contact with this or that occupier lost in the mas of men scattered across the workshops, offices, wagons and boxes. Only later, when loudspeakers were installed at the main entrance to beam out the names of the comrades asked for, could contact finally be made more easily.

Throughout the night a team of volunteers went from one post to the next carrying an enormous stew pot full of burning hot bouillon and snacks, which served as some comfort on this cold night. For almost everyone this was a night without sleep, a night of nervous tension, all eyes focused on the guard-posts and ears straining to hear news from Paris. But Paris slept…

The big offices were lit up, a permanent headquarters. There, there was no question of trying to sleep even for a minute. It was the place where picketers and activists came to see the boss. For many this was the first time they had met: each of them introduced themselves. In the last few hours “power” had changed hands in the factory. An atmosphere of free discussion reigned; conversation with the old “authorities” was direct and good-humoured; there was curiosity but not hatred.

Revolutionary anthems followed one after the other without end. The corridor was very musical indeed: some songs were moving, sung in unison or listened to in complete silence by the bosses’ guards, and made these people of strength and solidarity - smoking cigarette after cigarette as they supervised the door – watch the birth of this new brash and loud working-class order with deadpan faces. What did they feel as the night wore on? Without doubt, they could only have a limited view of given their lack of direct participation in events outside the office at the guard-posts.

The cold, pale dawn had not yet come to an end, an odd sight for these tired men shivering with insomnia and the nerves build up over the last month. The frippery bodies started to clamber out of their boxes. Their bearded faces hung heavy; their eyes were as red as the last night’s brazier fires. But the moment would pass: time to wake up and have a coffee. Down the length of the wall they could feel the hawthorns; a perfumed bouquet for the “campers” every breakfast-time. Spring and the strike had both arrived: in the morning daisies and hawthorns would start to flower on the cabin roofs.

Throughout the day on 15th May, the factory and its surroundings looked like a giant building site, but the workers soon improved the scene and their ramshackle structures, beginning to construct coverings and cabins. No need for leaders or orders from the union for this ant colony. Solidarity and self-discipline could work wonders.

The “commune” took shape, a “People’s Administration” putting things in place with surprising efficiency. Participants, supporters and locals were struck dumb by all this upheaval. Soon enough, around a kilometre down the road from the factory, a sign put up by the trade unions’ joint committee delineated the borders of the occupied area. It invited passers-by to take a diversion down the Couëts road to get to the Château-Bougon aerodrome.

A hundred metres from the plant they duly erected a blockade with chicanes for cars; there was a special way through for pedestrians. Notices were dug into the ground. New regulations were enacted: to take the “rue de l’Aviation” required a special pass: the “exterior” guard stopped people not from the factory venturing within their “perimeter”.

Only trade union, political party and student delegations that came in the early hours of the morning to bring solidarity to the striking workers were allowed in: but they were not allowed past the red barriers placed around the plant.

At the main entrance they set up an information service with loudspeakers: its work was unceasing and tiring, since workers’ relatives, delegations and all sorts of visitors kept coming in. By the end of the afternoon the square in front of the entrance was packed with people. Until late in the night the loudspeakers did not stop calling people and broadcasting communiqués and trade union instructions. From now on this noise would be a constant part of occupation life.

The speakers were relentless: such-and-such comrade was called to the main entrance… this comrade… that comrade…

After the last day’s anger, an unbelievable tumultuous mood continued to reign at this “iron gate”, both on the walls and among the crowds. Some of them had spent practically a whole day and night on the wall. Wives, mothers and friends were pressed up against the gates trying to see this or that friendly face, get a message across or pass across some food. Along the walls of the offices loads of young women were pressed against each other, trying to hold the hands of their young husbands or fiancés stretched through the bars of the windows.

Whatever comfort this may have offered the striking workers, the situation was plenty confused and tense. The picketers kept the doors firmly sealed, since the success of the occupation could hardly allow for any laxity. Despite this there was a certain degree of movement between the occupation and the outside world, with small groups of men going out to see their family on the other side of the gates: there was time to embrace, have a little chat and hand over a basket of food before going back. When these men had returned, others could go out in their place. They therefore tried to have some sort of balance between the numbers going out and the numbers coming in. Although there were, inevitably, some confrontations between the “supporters at the gates” (who were not exactly delighted) and the workers coming out, the men understood that they had to return all the same.

To guarantee permanent control over this worn-out post the exhausted picketers were taken off duty. They decided to “liberalise but formalise” the exits with a system of badges. Each worker was given a little card on which was written his name, the time of exit and return. The badge was signed by a trade union rep and recorded in a book. This safe-passage also allowed him through the road blockades. This “administrative and regulatory” measure allowed them bit by bit to relieve the gates while maintaining the strength of the occupation. All these details did nothing to cloud the mood.

But a bolt out of the blue in the afternoon changed the atmosphere, as the first report of success passed into the hands of the information service. The speaker cried with joy: the Renault factory at Cléon is on strike! The news spread through the aisles… the men crowded at the gates were overcome with fresh enthusiasm, and the announcement met with cries of joy.

Now the question was on everyone’s lips: is the strike going to spread? Renault: that meant something… everyone was filled with hope. Would there be a general strike tomorrow? They had talked about it so much before, but never really believed it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

May' 68: the Sorbonne Soviet

An extract from libertarian socialist Maurice Brinton's diary of the events in France in May-June 1968

On Saturday 11 May, shortly before midnight, Mr Pompidou, Prime Minister of France, overruled his Minister of the Interior and his Minister of Education, and issued orders to his 'independent' Judiciary. He announced that the police would be withdrawn from the Latin Quarter, that the faculties would re-open on Monday 13 May, and that the law would 'reconsider' the question of the students arrested the previous week. It was the biggest political climb-down of his career: For the students, and for many others, it was the living proof that direct action worked. Concessions had been won through struggle which had been unobtainable by other means. Early on the Monday morning the CRS platoons guarding the entrance to the Sorbonne were discreetly withdrawn. The students moved in, first in small groups, then in hundreds, later in thousands. By midday the occupation was complete. Every 'tricolore' was promptly hauled down, every lecture theatre occupied, Red flags were hoisted from the official flagpoles and from improvised ones at many windows, some overlooking the streets, others the big internal courtyard. Hundreds of feet above the milling students, enormous red and black flags fluttered side by side from the Chapel dome, What happened over the next few days will leave a permanent mark on the French educational system, on the structure of French society and - most important of all - on the minds of those who lived and made history during that hectic first fortnight. The Sorbonne was suddenly transformed from the fusty precinct where French capitalism selected and moulded its hierarchs, its technocrats and its administrative bureaucracy into a revolutionary volcano in full eruption whose lava was to spread far and wide, searing the social structure of modern France.

The physical occupation of the Sorbonne was followed by an intellectual explosion of unprecedented violence. Everything, literally everything, was suddenly and simultaneously up for discussion, for question, for challenge. There were no taboos. It is easy to criticise the chaotic upsurge of thoughts, ideas and proposals unleashed in such circumstances. 'Professional revolutionaries' and petty bourgeois philistines criticised to their heart's content. But in so doing they only revealed how they themselves were trapped in the ideology of a previous epoch and were incapable of transcending it. They failed to recognise the tremendous significance of the new: of all that could not be apprehended within their own pre-established intellectual categories. The phenomenon was witnessed again and again, as it doubtless has been in every really great upheaval in history.

Day and night, every lecture theatre was packed out, the seat of continuous, passionate debate on every subject that ever preoccupied thinking humanity. No formal lecturer ever enjoyed so massive an audience, was ever listened to with such rapt attention - or given such short shrift if he talked nonsense. A kind of order rapidly prevailed. By the second day a noticeboard had appeared near the front entrance announcing what was being talked about, and where. l noted'. 'Organisation of the struggle'; 'Political and trade union rights in the University'; 'University crisis or social crisis?'. 'Dossier of police repression'; 'Self-management'; 'Non-selection' (or how to open the doors of the University to everyone); 'Methods of teaching'; 'Exams', etc. Other lecture theatres were given over to the students-workers liaison committees, soon to 'assume great importance. In yet other hales, discussions were under way on 'sexual repression', on 'the colonial question', on 'ideôlogy and mystification', Any group of people wishing to discuss anything under the sun would just take over one of the lecture theatres or smaller rooms. Fortunately there were dozens of these. The first impression was of a gigantic lid suddenly lifted, of pent-up thoughts and aspirations suddenly exploding, on being released from the realm of dreams into the realm of the real and the possible. In changing their environment people themselves were changed. Those who had never dared say anything suddenly felt their thoughts to be the most important thing in the world and said so. The shy became communicative. The helpless and isolated suddenly discovered that collective power lay in their hands. The traditionally apathetic suddenly realized the intensity of their involvement. A tremendous surge of community and cohesion gripped those who had previously seen themselves as isolated and impotent puppets, dominated by institutions that they could neither control nor understand. People just went up and talked to one another without a trace of self-consciousness. This state of euphoria lasted throughout the whole fortnight I was there, An inscription scrawled on a wall sums it up perfectly'. 'Déjà dix jours de bonheur' (ten days of happiness already).

In the yard of the Sorbonne, politics (frowned on for a generation) took over with a vengeance. Literature stalls sprouted up along the whole inner perimeter, Enormous portraits appeared on the internal walls: Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Castro, Guevara, a revolutionary resurrection breaking the bounds of time and place. Even Stalin put in a transient appearance (above a Maoist stall) until it was tactfully suggested to the comrades that he wasn't really at home in such company.
On the stalls themselves every kind of literature suddenly blossomed forth in the summer sunshine: leaflets and pamphlets by anarchists, Stalinists, Maoists, Trotskyists (three varieties), the [left social-democrat] PSU and the non-committed. The yard of the Sorbonne had become a gigantic revolutionary drug-store, in which the most esoteric products no longer had to be kept beneath the counter but could now be prominently displayed. Old issues of journals, yellowed by the years, were unearthed and often sold as well as more recent material. Everywhere there were groups of 10 or 20 people, in heated discussion, people talking about the barricades, about the CRS and about their own experiences, but also about the commune of 1871 , about 1905 and 1917, about the Italian left in 1921 and About France in 1936. A fusion was taking place between the consciousness Of the revolutionary minorities and the consciousness of whole new layers Of people, dragged day by day into the maelstrom of political controversy. The students were learning within days what it had taken others a lifetime to learn. Many lichens came to see What it was all about. They too got sucked into the vortex. I remember a boy of 14 explaining to an incredulous man of 60 why students should have the right to depose professors.

Other things also happened. A large piano suddenly appeared In the great central yard and remained there for several days. People would come and play on it, surrounded by enthusiastic supporters. As people talked in the lecture theatres of neo-capitalism and of its techniques of manipulation, strands of Chopin and bars of jazz, bits of La Carmagnole and atonal compositions wafted through the air. One evening there was a drum recital, then some clarinet players took over. These 'diversions' may have infuriated some of the more single-minded revolutionaries, but they were as much part and parcel of the total transformation of the Sorbonne as were the revolutionary doctrines being proclaimed in the lecture hails. An exhibition of huge photographs of the 'night of the barricades' (in beautiful half-tones) appeared one morning, mounted on stands. No-tine knew who had put it up. Everyone agreed that it succinctly summarised the horror and glamour, the anger and promise of that fateful night. Even the doors of the Chapel giving on to the yard were soon covered with inscriptions: 'open this door - Finis, le tabernacles','Religion is the last mystification'. Or more prosaically: 'We want somewhere to piss, not somewhere to pray'. The massive outer walls of the Sorbonne were likewise soon plastered with posters - posters announcing the first sit-in strikes, posters describing the wage rates of whole sections of Paris workers, posters announcing the next demonstrations, posters describing the solidarity marches in Peking, posters denouncing the police repression and the use of CS gas (as well as of ordinary tear-gas) against the demonstrators. There were posters, dozens of them, warning students against the Communist Party's band-wagon jumping tactics, telling them how it had attacked their movement and how it was now seeking to assume its leadership. Political posters in plenty. But also others, proclaiming the new ethos. A big one for instance near the main entrance, boldly proclaimed 'Défense d'interdire' (Forbidding forbidden). And others, equally to the point: 'Only the truth is revolutionary', 'Our revolution is greater than ourselves', 'We refuse the role assigned to us, will not be trained as police dogs'. People's concerns varied but converged. The posters reflected the deeply libertarian prevailing philosophy: 'Humanity will only be happy when the last capitalist has been strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat'', 'Culture is disintegrating. Create!','I take my wishes for reality for I believe in the reality of my wishes'; or more simply, 'Creativity, spontaneity, life'. In the street outside, hundreds of passers-by would stop to read these improvised wall-newspapers. Some gaped. Some sniggered Some nodded assent. Some argued, Some, summoning their courage: actually entered the erstwhile sacrosanct premises, as they were being exhorted to by numerous posters proclaiming that the Sorbonne was now open to all, Young workers who 'wouldn't have been seen in that place' a month ago now walked in groups, at first rather self-consciously, later as if they owned the place, which of course they did.

As the days went by, another kind of invasion took place -- the invasion by the cynical and the unbelieving, or - more charitably - by those who 'had only come to see'. It gradually gained momentum. At certain stages it threatened to paralyse the serious work being done, part of which had to be hived off to the Faculty of Letters, at Censing, also occupied by the students. It was felt necessary, however, for the doors to be kept open, 24 hours a day. The message certainly spread. Deputations came first from other universities, then from high schools, later from factories and offices, to look, to question, to argue, to study.

The most telling sign, however, of the new and heady climate was to be found on the wails of the Sorbonne corridors. Around the main lecture theatres there is a maze of such corridors', dark, dusty, depressing, and hitherto unnoticed passageways leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere else. Suddenly these corridors sprang to life in a firework of luminous mural wisdom - much of it of Situationist inspiration. Hundreds of people suddenly stopped to read such pearls as: 'Do not consume Marx. Live it'; 'The future will only contain what we put into it now'; 'When examined. we will answer with questions'', 'Professors, you make us feel old' ; 'One doesn't compose with a society in decomposition'', 'We must remain the unadapted ones'; 'Workers of all lands, enjoy yourselves' : 'Those who carry out a revolution only half-way through merely dig themselves a tomb (St Just), 'Please leave the PC (Communist Party) as clean on leaving as you would like to find it on entering '; 'The tears of the philistines are the nectar of the gods',' 'GO and die in Naples. with the Club Mediterranée'; 'Long live communication, down with telecommunication' ' 'Masochism today dresses up as reformism ; We will claim nothing. We will ask for nothing. We will take. We will occupy'; 'The only outrage to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was the outrage that put him there'', 'No, we won't be picked up by the Great Party of the Working Class', And a big inscription, well displayed'. 'Since 1936 l have fought for wage increases, My father, before me, also fought for wage increases. Now I have a telly, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet all in all, my life has always been a dog's life. Don't discuss with the bosses. Eliminate them.'

Day after day the courtyard and corridors are crammed, the scene of an incessant bi-directional flow to every conceivable part of the enormous building. It may look like chaos, but it is the chaos of a beehive or of an anthill. A new structure is gradually being evolved. A canteen has been organised in one big hall, people pay what they can afford for glasses of orange juice, 'menthe', or 'grenadine' and for ham or sausage rolls. l enquire whether costs are covered and am toad they more or less break even. In another part of the building a children's creche has been set up, elsewhere a first-aid station, elsewhere a dormitory. Regular sweeping-up rotas are organised. Rooms are allocated to the Occupation Committee, to the Press Committee, to the Propaganda Committee, to the student- worker liaison committees, to the committees dealing with foreign students, to the action committees of Lyceens, to the committees dealing with the allocation of premises, and to the numerous commissions undertaking special projects such as the compiling of a dossier on police atrocities, the study of the implications of autonomy, of the examination system, etc. Anyone seeking work can readily find it. The composition of the committees was very variable. It often changed from day to day, as the committees gradually found their feel. To those who pressed for instant solutions to every problem it would be answered: "patience, comrade give us a chance to evolve an alternative. The bourgeoisie has controlled this university for nearly two centuries. It has solved nothing. We are building from rock bottom, We need a month or two...''

Confronted with this tremendous explosion which it had neither foreseen nor been able to control the Communist Party tried desperately to salvage what it could of its shattered reputation. Between 3 May and 13 May every issue of I'Humanité had carried paragraphs either attacking the students or making slimy innuendoes about them. Now the line suddenly changed, The Party sent dozens of its best agitators into the Sorbonne to 'explain' its case. The case was a simple one. The Party 'supported the students' - even if there were a few 'dubious elements' in their leadership. It 'always had'. It always would. Amazing scenes followed. Every Stalinist 'agitator' would immediately be surrounded by a large group of well-informed young people, denouncing the Party's counter-revolutionary role. A wall-paper had been put up by the comrades of Voix Ouvrière on which had been posted, day by day, every statement attacking the students to have appeared in I'Humanite- or in any of a dozen Party leaflets. The 'agitators' couldn't get a word in edgeways. They would be jumped on (non-violently). ''The evidence was over there, comrade. Would the Party comrades like to come and read just exactly what the Party had been saying not a week ago? Perhaps I'Humanité would like to grant the students space to reply to some of the accusations made against them?'' Others in the audience would then bring up the Party's role during the Algerian War, during the miners' strike of 1958, during the years of 'tripartisme' (1945-1947). Wriggle as they tried, the 'agitators' just could not escape this kind of 'instant education'. It was interesting to note that the Party could not entrust this 'salvaging' operation to its younger, student members. Only the 'older comrades' could safely venture into this hornets' nest. So much so that people would say that anyone in the Sorbonne over the age of 40 was either a copper's nark or a stalinist stooge. The most dramatic periods of the occupation were undoubtedly the 'Assemblées Générales', or plenary sessions, held every' night in the giant amphitheatre. This was the soviet, the ultimate source of all decisions, the fount and origin of direct democracy. The amphitheatre could seat up to 5000 people in its enormous hemicycle, surmounted by three balcony tiers. As often as not every seat was taken and the crowd would flow up the aisles and onto the podium, A black flag and a red one hung over the simple wooden table at which the chairman sat. Having seen meetings of 50 break up in chaos it is an amazing experience to see a meeting of 5000 get down to business. Real events determined the themes and ensured that most of the talk was down to earth.

The topic having been decided, everyone was allowed to speak. Most speeches were made from the podium but some from the body of the hall or from the balconies. The loudspeaker equipment usually worked but sometimes didn't. Some speakers could command immediate attention, without even raising their voice. Others would instantly provoke a hostile response by the stridency of their tone, their insincerity or their more or less obvious attempts at manoeuvring the assembly. Anyone who waffled, or reminisced, or came to recite a set-piece, or talked in terms of slogans, was given shod shrift by the audience, politically the most sophisticated I have ever seen. Anyone making practical suggestions was listened to attentively. So were those who sought to interpret the movement in terms of its own experience or to point the way ahead.

Most speakers were granted three minutes, Some were allowed much more by popular acclaim. The crowd itself exerted a tremendous control on the platform and on the speakers. A two-way relationship emerged very quickly. The political maturity of the Assembly was shown most strikingly in its rapid realization that booing or cheering during speeches slowed down the Assembly's own deliberations. Positive speeches were loudly cheered - at the end. Demagogic or useless ones were impatiently swept aside, Conscious revolutionary minorities played an important catalytic role in these deliberations, but never sought - at least the more intelligent ones - to impose their will on the mass body. Although in the early stages the Assembly had its fair share of exhibited nests, provocateurs and nuts, the overhead costs of direct democracy were not as heavy as one might have expected.

There were moments of excitement and moments of exhortation. On the night of 13 May, after the massive march through the streets of Paris, Daniel Cohn-Bandit confronted J M Catala, general secretary of the Union of Communist Students in front of the packed auditorium. The scene remains printed in my mind. ''Explain to us'', Cohn-Bandit said, ''why the Communist Party and the CGT told their militants to disperse at Denfed Rochereau, why it prevented them joining up with us for a discussion at the Champ de Mars?'' "simple, really'' sneered Catala. ''The agreement concluded between the CGT, the CFDT, the UNEF and the other sponsoring organizations stipulated that dispersal would take place at a predetermined place. The Joint Sponsoring Committee had not sanctioned any further developments...'' ''A revealing answer'', replied Cohn-Bandit, ''the organizations hadn't foreseen that we would be a million in the streets. But life is bigger than the organizations. With a million people almost anything is possible. You say the Committee hadn't sanctioned anything further. On the day of the Revolution, comrade, you will doubtless tell us to forego it 'because it hasn't been sanctioned by the appropriate sponsoring committee'...''

This brought the house down. The only ones who didn't rise to cheer were a few dozen Stalinists. Also, revealingly, those Trotskyists who tacitly accepted the Stalinist conceptions - and whose only quarrel with the CP is that it had excluded them from being one of the 'sponsoring organisations'. That same night the Assembly took three important decisions. From now on the Sorbonne would constitute itself as a revolutionary headquarters ('Smolny', someone shouted). Those who worked there would devote their main efforts not to a mere re-organisation of the educational system, but to a total subversion of bourgeois society. From now on the University would be open to all those who subscribed to these aims. The proposals having been accepted the audience rose to a man and sang the loudest, most impassioned 'Internationale' I have ever heard. The echoes must have reverberated as far as the Elysee Palace on the other side of the River Seine...

Friday, May 2, 2008

The struggle for self-management

This "open letter to IS comrades" was printed in the libertarian socialist paper Solidarity on 27th September 1968

Dear comrades,

It is remarkable how few socialists seem to recognize the connection between the structure of their own organization and the type of ‘socialist’ society it might help bring about.

If the revolutionary organization is seen as the means and socialist society as the end, one might expect people with an elementary understanding of dialectics to recognize the relation between the two. Means and ends are mutually dependent. They constantly influence each other. The means are, in fact, a partial implementation of the end, whereas the end becomes modified by the means adopted.

One could almost say ‘tell me your views concerning the structure and function of the revolutionary organization and I’ll tell you what the society you will help create will be like’. Or conversely ‘give me your definition of socialism and I’ll tell you what your views on the revolutionary organization are likely to be’.

We see socialism as a society based on self-management in every branch of social life. Its basis would be workers’ management of production exercised through Workers’ Councils. Accordingly we conceive of the revolutionary organisation as one which incorporates self-management in its structure and abolishes within its own ranks the separation between the functions of decision-making and execution. The revolutionary organisation should propagate these principles in every area of social life.

Others may have different conceptions of socialism. They may have different views on the aims and structure of the revolutionary organisation. They must state what these are clearly, openly and unambiguously. They owe it not only to the workers and students but to themselves.

An example of haziness in the definition of socialism (and of its repercussions concerning revolutionary organisation) is to be found in the material published by the central bodies of International Socialism (IS) in preparation for the bi-annual conference of September 1968.

In the duplicated ‘Statement of basic principles’ (IS constitution) we find that IS struggles for ‘workers’ control’. But we also find that “planning, under workers’ control, demands nationalisation”. These are the only references, in the document, to the structure of the socialist society towards whose creation all of IS’s activity is directed.

How, precisely, does IS conceive of working class ‘control’? What does ‘nationalisation’ mean? How does IS relate to ‘workers’ control’? Does the working class implement its ‘control’ through the mediation of a political party? Or of trade union officials? Or of a technocracy? Or through workers’ councils?

Are those who formulated the IS constitution aware that ‘nationalisation’ means precisely relegating authority of decision-making on industrial policy to a group of state officials? Don’t they realise that the struggle of the French students and workers for ‘autogestion’ (self-management) renders ‘nationalisation’ irrelevant? Apparently they do not. In the analysis of the French events (The Struggle Continues) written by T. Cliff and I. Birchall (and produced as an official IS publication) the relation between self-management and nationalisation is not discussed at all.

Why should a national federation of Workers’ Councils (composed of elected and revocable delegates of regional Councils) allow any other group in society to wield ultimate authority in relation to all aspects of production?

In political terms the question could be posed thus: does IS stand for the policy of ‘All Power to the Workers’ Councils’? Or does it stand for the policy of ‘All Power to the Revolutionary Party’? It is no use evading the issue by saying that in France no workers’ councils existed. When this is the case, it is the duty of revolutionaries to conduct propaganda for their creation.

In Russia, in 1917, Workers’ Councils (soviets) did exist. On July 4, 1917, Lenin raised the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. He ended his article with the words ‘things are moving by fits and starts towards a point where power will be transferred to the soviets, which is what our Party called for long ago’. Yet two months later, on September 12, he wrote: “The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies of both capitals can and must take state power into their own hands”.

However one analyses Lenin’s transition, in the context of Russia in 1917, from a policy of ‘All Power to the Soviets’ to a policy of ‘All Power to the Bolshevik Party’, one must recognise that his choice was a fundamental one, whose implications for Britain in 1968 cannot be evaded.

The leading (i.e. decision-making) bodies in IS are very careful not to state explicitly that, like Lenin, they believe that the Party must take power on behalf of the class. This principle however runs through the entire Cliff-Birchall analysis of the French events. Their analysis is, in fact, tailored to fit this principle.

We say to these comrades: if you believe that the working class itself cannot ‘seize power’ (but that the Revolutionary Party must do it on behalf of the class), please say so openly and defend your views.

Let us put to you our own views on the subject. Political ‘power’ is fundamentally little more than the right to take and impose decisions in matters of social production, administration, etc. This authority is not to be confused with expertise. The experts give advice, they do not make the decisions. Today, during the development of the self-management revolution, it is precisely the authority of decision-making in relation to the management of production (whether the means of production be formally in the hands of private bosses or of the state) that is being challenged. The challenge is being repeated in all branches of social life.

Those who think in terms of ‘seizing power’ unwittingly accept that a political bureaucracy, separate from the producers themselves, and concentrating in its hands the authority of decision-making on fundamental issues of social production must be a permanent social institution. They believe its form (the bourgeois ‘state apparatus’) has to be changed. But they refuse to question the need for such a social institution. They want to capture political power and use it for allegedly different purposes. They do not consider its abolition to be on the agenda.

As for us, we believe that once self-management in production has been achieved, ‘political power’ as a social institution will lose both its social function and justification. To speak of ‘workers’ control’ and of ‘seizing political power’ is to confuse a new structure of society (the rule of the Workers’ Councils) with one of the by-products of the previous form of class society, which was based on withholding from the workers the right to manage.

Comrades Cliff and Birchall fail to recognise the specific, new features of the May events in France. They fail to explain why the students succeeded in inspiring 10 million workers. ‘The student demonstrations created an environment in which people were free to coin their own slogans’ (The Struggle Continues p.17) What slogans? The two most important were ‘Contestation’ and ‘Autogestion’ (self-management). What was being contested? What does self-management mean? How are the two slogans related to each other? Not a word on all this. What we do find however is the important statement (p.18) that “when a worker went to the Sorbonne he was recognised as a hero. Within Renault he was only a thing. In the University he became a man”.

Comrades, you should seek to clarify this assessment (with which we agree). Please tell us what was the mysterious element in the ‘environment’ which transformed a man into a thing and vice-versa. Are we wrong in assuming that a man feels like a ‘thing’ when he has to live as an executant of social decisions which he cannot influence, whereas he feels like a ‘man’ when he lives under social circumstances which he has shaped by his own decisions (or in whose creation he was an equal partner)?

If this is really your opinion, why not say it in so many words?

But if this is really what you believe how could your Political Committee suggest an organisational regulation saying that:
“Branches must accept directives from the Centre, unless they fundamentally disagree with them, in which case they should try to accord with them while demanding an open debate on the matter.” (Perspectives for IS, September 12 1968)

Isn’t the Political Committee attempting to transform IS members from ‘men’ into ‘things’? Isn’t the attempt to limit the right of rank-and-file IS members to initiate political decisions – while democratically permitting them to debate (not overrule!) the directives of the Centre, after having carried them out – an indication of an ideological disease more serious than being out of touch with the spirit of the young workers and students? If IS is to play a significant role in the revolution this regulation must be defeated, not only organisationally but also ideologically.

In the last chapter of their analysis of the French events, comrades Cliff and Birchall quote Trotsky to the effect that “unity in action of all sections of the proletariat, and simultaneity of demonstration under a single common slogan [Are these really essential? Did they ever exist in history?] can only be achieved if there is a genuine concentration of leadership in the hands of responsible [to whom?] central and local bodies, stable in their composition [!] and in their attitude to their political line”. (The Struggle Continues p.77)

This is to confuse the technical and political aspects of a real problem. Coordination is essential and may require centralisation. But the function of an administrative centre should not include the imposition of political decisions.

Trotsky’s argument (and Cliff’s) sound almost Stalinist. A centre “stable in its composition” concentrates in its hands the authority of political decision-making. “The branches must accept directives from the Centre”. The Party ‘leads’ the working class and ‘seizes power’ on its behalf. Workers are ‘summoned’ (p.78) to an “open revolutionary assault on capitalism.” From this it is but a short leap to Trotsky’s statement that “the statutes should express the leadership’s organised distrust of the members, a distrust manifesting itself in vigilant control from above over the Party”.

This approach reveals a very definite view concerning the role of the Centre in relation to the Party and of the Party in relation to the class. But it is wrong to identify this view with Stalinism. It preceded Stalin, Lenin and Marx. As a matter of fact, it has been part of ruling class ideology for centuries.

Cliff and Birchall mobilise every possible argument to support the doctrine of ‘Centre leads the Party, Party leads class’. They write: “Facing the strictly centralised and disciplined power of the capitalists, there must be no less centralised and disciplined a combat organisation of the proletariat” (p.77). Yet two pages earlier they had admitted that “the 14th July 1789 revolution was a spontaneous act of the masses. The same was true of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the February 1917 Revolution (p.74). In other words they admit that two of the most centralised regimes in history were overthrown by masses that were not led by any party, let alone a centralised one. How do they reconcile these facts with their assertion that “only a centralised party can overthrow centralised power”?

The conscious factor in changing history, embodied in revolutionary organisations, can play a significant role in shaping the new social structure. However after the Russian experience it is clear that this ‘conscious factor’ must develop its own self-consciousness. It must recognise the connection between its own structure and practice – and the type of socialism it will help achieve.

Writing in 1904 Lenin took sides unequivocally for ‘bureaucracy’ (as against democracy) and for ‘centralism’ (as against autonomy). He wrote: “Bureaucracy versus democracy is the same thing as centralism versus autonomism. It is the organisational principle of revolutionary political democracy as opposed to the organisational principle of the opportunists of Social Democracy. The latter want to proceed from the bottom upwards and, consequently, wherever possible and to the extent that it is possible, it supports autonomism and “democracy” which may (by the over-zealous) be carried as far as anarchism. The former proceeds from the top, and advocates an extension of the rights and power of the Centre in respect of the parts”.

With all due allowance to the objective factors which contributed to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, these ideas (the conscious, subjective factor) must also be stressed, certainly in 1968.

We can only add here what Rosa Luxemburg, answering Lenin, said in 1904: “Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary working class movement are infinitely more fruitful and valuable than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee”.

Are these words less relevant in 1968 than they were in 1904?

Today in Britain the danger is not that future society will be shaped in the image of a bureaucratic revolutionary organisation based on “genuine concentration of leadership in the hands of responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition”, organisation in which “branches must accept directives from the Centre”, etc. The danger is rather to such organisations themselves. They will cease to be relevant to the social self-management revolution now developing. Before long they will be identified as just other ‘centre-managed’ political bureaucracies, to be swept aside. This is the fate now threatening IS, should the Political Committee’s recommendations be accepted.

We wish all IS members a useful Conference and a serious discussion that will help them clarify their ideas about socialism, workers’ management and the structure and function of the revolutionary organisation.