Understanding May

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(Reprinted from Revolution Internationale no. 2, 1969)

The events of May 1968 have produced an extraordinary abundance of literary activity. Books, pamphlets, and anthologies of every description have been published pell-mell, and in impressive quantities. The publishers - always on the lookout for fashionable "gadgets" - have been falling over each other to exploit the immense interest aroused among the masses for anything to do with these events. And they have had no difficulty in finding any number of journalists, photographers, PR experts, professors, intellectuals, artists, and men of letters. As everyone knows, this country is crawling with them, and they are always ready to pick up a good commercial subject.

All this frantic recuperation makes you want to vomit.

But amongst the mass of May's combatants, the interest awoken during the struggle has not come to an end with the street fighting. On the contrary, it has grown stronger than ever. Research, confrontations, discussions all continue. The masses were not mere spectators, or one-off rebels. They found themselves suddenly engaged in a struggle of historic dimensions, and once they had recovered from their own astonishment, they could not help but search for the fundamental roots of this social explosion which was their own work, and for the perspectives which this explosion has opened up both in the short term, and in the more distant future. The masses are trying to understand, to become conscious of their own activity.

This is why it is only rarely that we find in the mass of books written about May any reflection of the disquiet and the questioning amongst the people. These are to be found rather in small publications, in often short-lived reviews, in the duplicated sheets put out by all kinds of groups, or of district and factory struggle committees which have survived May, in their meetings, and through discussions which inevitably are often confused. And yet despite this confusion, serious work is nonetheless going on to clarify the problems raised by May.

After several months of silence, probably devoted to elaborating its work, the "Situationist International" group has just intervened in this debate, through a book entitled Enrages[1] and Situationists in the Occupation Movement.

From a group which did indeed take an active part in the struggle, we had every right to expect a profound contribution to the analysis of May's significance, especially with several months hindsight. We had a right to make demands of this book; but it does not live up to its promises. Quite apart from their own special vocabulary ("society of the spectacle", consumerism, "critique of daily life", etc), we can only regret that the situationists have given in to the fashion of the day, and stuffed their book with photos, pictures and comic strips.

You can think what you like of comic strips as a means of revolutionary propaganda and agitation. And we are aware that the Situationists have a special taste for comics and speech-bubbles as a means of expression. They even claim to have discovered in the technique of "detournement"[2] the modern weapon of subversive propaganda, and see this as a sign of their superiority to other groups which have stuck to the "outdated" methods of the "traditional" revolutionary press, to "boring" articles, and to duplicated leaflets.

There is certainly some truth in the observation that the articles in the press of many little groups are often repetitive, long, and boring. However, this should not become an argument in favor of trying to amuse. Capitalism is constantly discovering all kinds of "cultural" activities, organized leisure, and especially sports for the young. Here it is not just a matter of content, but also of an appropriate method to the aim of turning young workers away from reflection.

The working class does not need to be amused. It needs above all to understand, and to think. Comics, witticisms, and puns are of little use, especially when in reality, there is one philosophical language (full of obscure, convoluted and esoteric terms) reserved for the "intellectual thinkers", while for the great infantile mass of workers, a few pictures with simple headlines will do.

When you denounce the "spectacular" everywhere, you have to take care not to fall into the spectacle" yourself. Unfortunately, this is just what this book on May tends to do. Another characteristic of this book is its tendency to describe events day by day, when what was needed is an analysis that places them in their historic context, and brings out their fundamental meaning. Moreover, what is described is in fact less the events themselves and more the action of the enrages and situationists, as we can see from the title. The absurd exaggeration of the role played by this or that "personality" among the enrages, the self-praise gives the impression that it was not so much the situationists who took part in the occupations movement, but rather that the May movement was solely designed to throw into relief the great revolutionary qualities of the situationists and the enrages. Anyone who has not lived through May would get a very strange idea of what happened from this book. To listen to them, you would think that the situationists had played a dominant part in events right from the beginning. This shows great imagination, and a real ability to "take one's desires for reality". In fact, the situationists share in events was probably less, and certainly not greater, than that of many other groups. Instead of subjecting to criticism the behavior, ideas, and positions of other groups - which would have been interesting, but which they don't do - they simply minimize (how disdainfully and superficially they "criticize" the other "councilist" groups) or ignore them. This is a pretty dubious means of blowing your own trumpet, and doesn't get us very far.

The book (or what's left of it, without the comic strips, photos, songs, grafitti and other reproductions) begins with an observation which is generally correct: May surprised almost everybody, and in particular the revolutionary or supposedly revolutionary groups. Everybody, that is, except of course the situationists who "knew about and demonstrated the possibility and imminence of a new start for the revolution". For the situationist group, "thanks to the revolutionary theory which returns to the practical movement its own theory, deduced from it and raised to the coherence which it is pursuing, certainly nothing was more predictable, and more predicted, than the new epoch of the class struggle...".

There is no law against pretentiousness - indeed it is a widespread mania within the revolutionary movement, especially since the triumph of "Leninism", and the Bordigist current is a striking example of it. So we won't argue with the situationists' pretentions. We will simply ask: where and when, and on what basis, did the situationists foresee the events of May? When they say that "for years they have very accurately predicted the present explosion and its consequences", they are obviously confusing a general statement with a precise analysis. The "prediction" that one day the revolutionary explosion would arrive has existed for 120 years, since the beginning of the workers' movement. For a group which claims not only to have a coherent theory, but better still to "return its revolutionary critique to the practical movement", this is hardly enough. If it is to be anything other than a rhetorical turn of phrase, then "returning its revolutionary critique to the practical movement" must mean analyzing the concrete situation, with all its potential and its limitations. The situationists never made this analysis before May, and to judge by this book they have not done so since: when they talk about a new period of renewed revolutionary struggles, they never refer to anything more than abstract generalities. And even when they do refer to recent struggles, they never do more than observe an empirical fact. In itself, this observation never goes beyond witnessing the continuity of the class struggle, and says nothing about its direction, nor about its ability to open out into a historic period of revolutionary struggles, above all at the international level, as a socialist revolution must necessarily be. Even such a formidable and important revolutionary explosion as the Paris Commune did not open a revolutionary period in history, since it was followed on the contrary by a long period where capitalism stabilized and flourished, and where as a result the workers' movement turned to reformism.

Unless we want to follow the anarchists, who think that everything is always possible where there is a will, we are forced to understand that the workers' movement does not follow a continuously rising curve, but that it is made up of periods of rising and falling struggle, and is objectively determined in the first place by the capitalist system's degree of development and its inherent contradictions.

The SI defines the present period as "the present return of the revolution". What is this definition based on? Here is the explanation:

1) "The critical theory elaborated and spread by the SI showed easily (...) that the proletariat had not been abolished" (how strange that the SI shows "easily" something that all workers and revolutionaries have always known, without having to wait for the SI).

2) "... capitalism has continued to develop its alienations" (who would have thought it?).

3) "... wherever this antagonism exists (as if this antagonism didn't exist throughout capitalism) the social question still remains posed after more than a century" (well, there's a discovery!).

4) "...the antagonism exists throughout the surface of the planet" (another discovery!).

5) "The SI explains the deepening and concentration of these alienations by the delay of the revolution" (it's obvious).

6) "This delay clearly springs from the international defeat of the proletariat since the Russian counter-revolution" (another truth which revolutionaries have been proclaiming for 40 years at least).

7) Amongst other things, "the SI knew very well (...) that the emancipation of the workers would always and everywhere come up against the bureaucratic organizations".

8) The situationists note that the constant lie necessary for the survival of these bureaucratic machines is the cornerstone in the generalized falsification within modern society.

9) They "had also recognized and worked to join with the new forms (?) of subversion whose first signs were already gathering".

10) And this is why "the situationists recognised and demonstrated the possibility and imminence of a new start to the revolution".

We have reprinted these long extracts in order to demonstrate as exactly as possible, and in their own words, what the situationists "knew".

As we can see, this "knowledge" can be reduced to generalities which have been known for years to thousands of revolutionaries, and while these generalities may be enough to affirm the revolutionary project, they contain nothing which might be considered as a demonstration of the "imminence of a new start for the revolution". The situationists "theory" can thus be reduced to a mere profession of faith, and nothing more.

The fact is that the Socialist Revolution and its imminence or otherwise cannot be deduced from a few verbal "discoveries" like the consumer society, the spectacle, or daily life, which are just new words to describe well-known notions of this capitalist society based on the exploitation of the working masses, with all that that implies in the way of human deformation and alienation in every aspect of social life.

Even supposing that we are faced with a new start to the revolution, how does the SI explain that we have had to wait just this amount of time since the victory of the Russian Revolution - let's say, 50 years. Why not 30 years, or 70? You can't have it both ways: either this recovery is fundamentally determined by objective conditions, and in this case it has to be explained which one - something the SI never does - or, it is solely the result of an accumulating subjective will, which shows itself one fine day, in which case it could not be predicted because there would be no criteria to determine its degree of maturation.

Under these conditions, the prediction that the SI is so proud of would be more the work of a soothsayer than the result of any theory. When Trotsky wrote in 1936 that "The revolution is beginning in France", he was certainly mistaken, but this assertion was based on an altogether more serious analysis than that of the SI, since it referred to an economic crisis which was shaking the entire world. The SI's "correct" prediction is more like Molotov's inauguration of the famous "third period" of the Communist International at the beginning of 1929, announcing the great news that the world had just entered the revolutionary period. The similarity lies in the gratuitous nature of both assertions. Molotov thought that the economic crisis, whose study is indeed a vital starting point for any analysis of a given period, was sufficient to determine the its revolutionary nature or otherwise; so, on the basis of the 1929 crisis he thought he could announce the imminence of the revolution. The SI by contrast thinks it enough to ignore anything that smacks of an objective condition, whence its deep aversion for anything to do with an economic analysis of modern capitalist society.

All the SI's attention is thus devoted to the most obvious expressions of social alienation, and it neglects to look at the springs that feed them. We insist, again, that such a critique which deals essentially with superficial expressions, no matter how radical, is bound to be hemmed in, limited, both in theory and practice.

Capitalism necessarily produces its own alienations, and it is not in the expression of these alienations that we should look for the motor of its downfall. As long as capitalism, at its roots, remains a viable economic system, it cannot be destroyed by will-power alone.

"A society never expires before developing all the productive forces that it is capable of containing" (Marx, Preface to a Critique of Political Economy).

A radical critical theory must look at the roots of capitalist society to uncover the possibility of its revolutionary overthrow.

"At a certain stage of their development, society's material productive forces enter into collision with the relations of production... So begins an era of social revolution" (Marx, idem).

This collision that Marx talks about is expressed in economic upheavals, such as crises, imperialist wars, and social convulsions. Every marxist thinker has insisted on the fact that before we can talk of a revolutionary period, "it is not enough that the workers do not want to go on as before, the capitalists must also be unable to continue as before" (Lenin). And here is the SI, which claims to be virtually the sole organized expression of revolutionary practice today, going in exactly the opposite direction. On the rare occasions when this book overcomes its own distaste so far as to deal with economic questions, it is to show that the new start to the revolution is not just independent of society's economic bases, but is taking place in an economically flourishing capitalism. "No tendency towards economic crisis could be observed... The revolutionary eruption did not come from the economic crisis... what was attacked head-on in May, was a capitalist economy working well" (emphasis in the text).

What this is trying to demonstrate is that the revolutionary crisis and society's economic state are two different things, which can evolve each in its own way, without being related. The SI thinks that facts support this "great discovery", and so cries triumphally: "No tendency could be observed towards economic crisis"!!

No tendency at all? Really?

By the end of 1967, the economic situation in France began to show signs of deteriorating. The threat of unemployment caused more and more concern. By the beginning of 1968, the number of unemployed rose above 500,000. The phenomenon was no longer restricted to local pockets, but had reached every region. In Paris, the number of unemployed rose, slowly but surely. The press was full of articles dealing with the fear of unemployment in various milieux. Part-time working had come to stay in many factories, and had provoked reactions from many workers. Sporadic strikes were directly provoked by the question of preserving jobs, or full employment. The young were hardest hit, and began to have difficulty in entering the productive process. The drop in employment was all the more unwelcome, since the labor market was having to absorb generation of the demographic explosion after the war. A fear for the future became permanent amongst the workers, and especially amongst the young. This fear was all the sharper in that it had been virtually unknown since the war.

As unemployment rose, wages and living conditions fell, partly as a result. Naturally, government and bosses tried to make the most of the situation to attack workers' living standards (eg, the decrees on the Social Security).

More and more, the feeling is growing in the masses that the period of prosperity has come to an end. The workers' indifference and "don't give a damn" attitude, which the bourgeois have so lamented during the last 10-15 years, are giving way to a deep and growing anxiety.

Certainly, it more difficult to discern this rising anxiety and discontent amongst the workers than spectacular actions in a university faculty. But you can't go on ignoring it after the May explosion, unless you believe that 10 million workers were suddenly touched, one fine day, by the Holy Spirit of the Anti-spectacle. Such a massive explosion is founded on a long accumulation of real discontent among the masses at their economic situation and working conditions, even if a superficial observer saw nothing of it. Nor can we attribute the economic demands of the strike solely to the scoundrels of the trades unions and the stalinists.

It is obvious that the unions and the PCF (French "Communist" Party) came to the government's rescue by using economic demands to the hilt as a means of preventing the strike breaking out onto a global, social terrain. But we are not talking here about the role of these state organisms; they did their job, and they can hardly be reproached for doing it to the utmost. But the fact that they were so easily able to keep the vast mass of striking workers to the purely economic terrain proves that the masses main preoccupation in taking up the struggle was the increasingly threatening economic situation. While the task of revolutionaries is to uncover the radical possibilities contained in the struggle of the masses, and to take an active part in bringing them to fruition, it is necessary above all not to ignore the immediate concerns that have pushed the masses into struggle in the first place.

Despite the proclaimed self-confidence of government circles, the business world is increasingly alarmed by the economic situation, as we have seen in the financial press at the beginning of the year. What worries them most is not so much the situation in France, whose position is still relatively privileged, but the fact that the economy is slowing down in a context of worldwide economic gloom, which cannot help but have repercussions in France. In all the industrial countries, in both Europe and the USA, unemployment is rising and the economic outlook is getting darker. Despite a whole series of measures, Britain was forced at the end of 1967 to devalue the pound, dragging other countries in its wake. The Wilson government has announced an exceptional austerity program: reduction in public spending, including armaments; withdrawal of British troops from Asia; wage freeze; reduction of domestic consumption and imports; support for exports. On January 1st 1968, the Johnson government (in the USA) sounded the alarm, and announced harsh measures necessary to keep the economy in balance. In March, came the dollar crisis. The economic press became more pessimistic by the day, and began to speak more and more of the specter of 1929 crisis; many feared that this time, the consequences would be still worse. Everywhere, the price of credit rose, the stock exchanges fell. In every country, the same cry: reduce spending and consumption, increase exports at all costs, and reduce imports to the strict minimum. At the same time, the same deterioration appeared in the Eastern bloc, which explains the tendency of countries like Czechoslovakia and Romania to detach themselves from the Soviet grip, and look for markets elsewhere.

This is the economic backdrop to the situation prior to May.

Of course, this is not yet an open economic crisis, first because we are only at the beginning, and second because in today's capitalism the state possesses a whole arsenal of means to slow down, and temporarily to attenuate the crisis' most striking expressions. Nonetheless, it is necessary to put forward the following points:

a) For 20 years since World War II, the capitalism has lived on the basis of rebuilding an economy ravaged by war, of the shameless plundering of the under-developed countries which, through the swindle of national liberation and aid to the construction of independent states have been exploited to the point where they are reduced to desperate poverty and famine, and of a growing production of armaments: the war economy.

b) These three sources of prosperity and full employment during the last 20 years are close to exhaustion. The productive apparatus is faced with a world market more saturated than ever, and the capitalist economy finds itself in exactly the same situation as in 1929, only worse.

c) There is a closer inter-relation between national economies than in in 1929, with the result that any difficulties in one national economy has more immediate and greater repercussions on the economy of other countries.

d) The 1929 crisis broke out after a series of heavy defeats for the international proletariat: the victory of the counter-revolution in Russia completed with the mystification of "socialism in one country", and the myth of the anti-fascist struggle. Thanks to these particular historic conditions, the 1929 crisis - which was not merely conjunctural, but a violent expression of the chronic crisis of decaying capitalism - could develop for years and finally lead to world war and generalized destruction. This is not the case today.

Capitalism disposes of fewer and fewer themes of mystification capable of mobilizing the masses and sending them to the slaughter. The Russian myth is collapsing; the false choice between bourgeois democracy and totalitarianism is wearing very thin. In these conditions, the crisis can be seen immediately for what it is. Its first symptoms will provoke increasingly violent reactions from the masses in every country. Because, today, the economic crisis cannot run its full course, but is immediately transformed into a social crisis, the latter may seem to some to be independent, suspended in mid-air without any relation to the economic situation which is nonetheless its foundation.

Obviously, if we are to grasp this reality fully, it is no good looking at it naively. Above all, it is useless to look for a narrow relationship of cause and effect, limited locally to particular countries or particular branches of industry. This reality's foundations, and the causes that determine its evolution in the final instance, are only to be found globally, on the scale of the world economy. Looked at in this way, the movement of student struggles in every town in the world reveals its fundamental meaning, but also its limitations. If the student struggles in May were able to serve as a detonator for the vast movement of factory occupations, it is because, with all their specificities, they were no more than the forerunners of a deteriorating situation at society's core: in production, and the relations of production.

The full significance of May 68 is that it was one of the most important reactions by the mass of workers to a deteriorating world economic situation.

Consequently, it is wrong to say, as the author of this book does, that "The revolutionary upheaval did not spring from the economic crisis; on the contrary, it helped to create a situation of crisis in the economy" and that "once this economy has been disturbed by the negative forces of its historic overcoming, it must function less well".

This certainly turns reality upside down: economic crises are no longer the inevitable product of the capitalist system's inherent contradictions, as Marx tells us; on the contrary, it is the workers and their struggle who create crises in a systems which "works well". This is precisely what the bosses and capitalist apologists never stop telling us. This was De Gaulle's theme in November, baling the crisis of the franc on the activities of the May enrages[3].

This boils down to replacing marxist economic theory with the political economy of the bourgeoisie. Not surprisingly, with such an outlook, the author explains the immense movement that was May 68 as the work of a small, determined minority which he exalts: "The agitation unleashed in January 1968 by the four or five revolutionaries who were to constitute the enrages group was to lead, in five months, to the virtual liquidation of the state". Later, he writes: "never has an agitation undertaken by so small a number led in so short a time to such consequences".

For the situationists, the problem of the revolution is posed in terms of "leading", if only by exemplary acts. For us, it is posed in terms of a spontaneous movement of the masses of the proletariat, forced to rise up against a decaying economic system, which can no longer offer anything but growing misery and destruction, as well as exploitation.

It is on this granite rock that we base the class' revolutionary perspective, and our conviction in its achievement.


[1] Enrages: in French, literally means "the angry ones". Since this sounds a little strange in English, we have left the original French expression.

[2] "Detournement" is a term dear to the situationists which it is difficult to render into English. Briefly put, it referred to a popular situationist technique of taking products of the capitalist media (advertisements, comic strips, etc) and "turning them against" ("detourner") what they described as the "society of the spectacle".

[3] We refer those who want to blame the November crisis of the franc on speculation by a few "bad Frenchmen" to these lines by Marx:

"The crisis breaks out first of all in the domain of speculation, and only moves later to that of production. To a superficial observer, the cause of the crisis seems to lie, not in over-production, but in over-speculation, which in fact is merely a symptom of over-production. The disorganization of production that comes afterwards seems to be, not the result of its own previous exuberance, but a consequence of the collapse in speculation" (Marx, Review from May to October 1850, published by M. Rubel in Etudes de Marxologie, no. 7, August 1963).

History of the workers' movement: