May ’68 was the largest mass movement in French history, the biggest strike in the history of the French workers’ movement, and the only “general” insurrection the overdeveloped world has known since World War II. It was the first general strike that extended beyond the traditional centers of industrial production to include workers in the service industries, the communication and culture industries—the whole sphere of social reproduction. No professional sector, no category of worker was unaffected by the strike; no region, city, or village in France was untouched. — Kristin Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives
In May 1968, the people remembered that the street can belong to the people. They have not forgotten. They will not forget. — Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism
The only method is for the masses to liberate themselves, and any method of doing things in their stead must not be used. Trust the masses, rely on them and respect their initiative. Cast out fear. Don’t be afraid of disturbances. — The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, August 1966
May ‘68 is often viewed as a symbol of the 60’s, which was defined by student movements and the development of countercultures throughout the world. The dominant image of May is that of the student protests – the communist and anarchist iconography, the Situationists, and the slogans calling for intellectual and sexual liberation. Yet to simply reduce the events of May’68 to that of the rebellious 60s at large is to neglect those particularities that made the crisis go beyond mere student protests. While there were basically movements in every country that sought to revolutionize society – the United States especially with the Black Power, LGBT, Feminist, and Anti-War movements – May ‘68 was a unique explosion.
The main reason for the novelty of May ‘68 is the general strike, and with it, the influence of communist organizations within France. No Western Country, outside of maybe Italy, had a socialist infrastructure like France where the French Communist Party (PCF) was gradually gaining more votes in every post-war election, and the Communist Workers Union (CGT) comprised millions of members. While the two were not technically united under one organization, they formed a close alliance. There were other prominent socialist parties, like the Socialist Party (SFIO) that was in the electoral coalition of the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left. There was also the United Socialist Party (PSU), of which Alain Badiou was a founding member of, which splintered from the PCF due to their passive response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Outside of the CGT, the other major unions were the Force Ouvrier (comparable to the AFL-CIO), and CFDT (Catholic socialists).
The events of May would be defined by the relationship of the PCF and CGT with the student movement. The student movement was diverse – as there were many sects of Anarchists, Maoists, Trotskyists, and Left-Communists that were involved in the protests. However, the organizational form of the student movement was the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF). The UNEF gained prominence for its leadership in the opposition towards the Algerian War of the 50s and 60s. The war radicalized many students, and the PCF’s refusal to support the Algerian decolonial movement alienated young people from the party. By May ‘68, the leader of the UNEF was Jacques Sauvageot, and he, along with Alain Geismar and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, would become the faces of the student movement. Geismar originally left the PCF for the PSU, and then left the latter in 1967 as he became increasingly influenced by Maoism. Cohn-Bendit was a leader in the March 22 movement at Nanterre, where the events of May began.
The French philosopher Louis Althusser, who influenced many students in the Maoist sects, characterized May ‘68 as an “encounter without a fusion”. The encounter was between the student movement and the PCF/CGT, but it failed to fuse into a larger revolutionary force. Both sides were skeptical of each other – the students thought that the PCF was not actually revolutionary, and pointed to their role in the Algerian War, along with their ties to the USSR after the Invasion of Hungary as evidence. The PCF dismissed the students as petty-bourgeois “pseudo-revolutionaries.”
Despite mass student insurrections, the largest general strike in the history of the country, and a communist party large enough to seize state power, May ‘68 ended in failure. In this essay, I will detail the events of May ‘68 before analyzing the role of the PCF, and the party-form more generally, in the crisis. After all, if a revolutionary sequence was partly neutralized by a communist party, why should communists continue to insist on utilizing the party-form in contemporary politics?
The Events of May ‘68
The events of May ‘68 begin at the University of Nanterre, which is located in the outskirts of Paris. In November ‘67, students led a wildcat strike on campus which resulted in the creation of student-teacher commissions, where students were granted a small say in the running of the university. However, the lack of concessions from the faculty in the commissions radicalized students. Students at Nanterre were involved in Maoist groups that were trying to organize migrant workers, and were devoted to opposing the Vietnam War. The students wanted to do something to demonstrate their solidarity with the Vietnamese:
On March 22 a few hundred students gathered together, determined to protest in a spectacular fashion. In addition to Trotskyists from the JCR and anarchists, there were all sorts of students who were involved in the campaign against the American intervention in Vietnam. The question was what to do? After much discussion the students opted for a symbolic act, the seizure of the administrative building; that is, the occupation of forbidden territory legally reserved for the authority. Once inside, drawing on the ex- perience of the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (Socialist German Student Federation), the SOS, they set up commissions on student and workers' struggle, the class structure of the university, imperialism, produced a manifesto, and had time to depart before the police were called in. This was all. But the date is worth remembering. It marks the official birth of a political force - the March 22 Movement - that was to leave its imprint not only on Nanterre.
After the March 22 affair, the Dean called in undercover policemen to try and hound out the radical students. However, the students quickly figured this out, and began posting pictures of the undercover cops on the campus bulletin boards. The authorities tried to tear them down, the students resisted, and in the ensuing conflict, the Dean called in the uniformed police to break up the students. The escalation of the conflict, and the repressive tactics used by the school, radicalized even more students. Towards the end of April, the students proposed two “anti-imperialist” days off on May 2nd and 3rd. Rumors began to swirl that Occident, a far-right organization, had brought in reinforcements from all over France to attack Nanterre in response. With tensions running high, the Dean decided to temporarily close the faculty and suspend classes.
On May 3, activists from the March 22 movement in Nanterre joined a meeting at the Sorbonne, the famous French university in the Latin Quarter. There were about 400 students congregating in the main courtyard, with various sects of Trotskyists, Maoists, and left-wing communists in attendance. They were discussing how to respond to the closure of Nanterre, and preparing for their impending meeting with the disciplinary council, who were threatening expulsion of the leaders of the March 22nd movement.
Jean Roche, the rector of the university, decided to send in the police to break up the meeting. This was a significant decision, as “never before had the police entered the Sorbonne—not even the Germans had violated that sanctuary!” Singer says “by 4 P.M. the Sorbonne was surrounded by a massive police force, helmeted, truncheons in hand, tear-gas grenades at the ready, prepared for battle.” Many students were taken into custody, and the rest of the students responded by confronting the police and demanding the release of their comrades. The police were surprised by the response, and replied with more violence. “The truncheons and grenades only seemed to multiply the zeal, and the number of demonstrators; from a few hundred they grew into a couple of thousand. The police had difficulty in clearing the boulevard. The students immediately revealed what were going to be their main assets: speed, fantastic daring, a flair for improvisation, and knowledge of the terrain.” The skirmishes lasted into the night before fizzling out. May had officially begun.
How did the Communist Party and its press respond? Georges Marchais, a prominent PCF official who would become head of the party in 1972, wrote an article in the party’s paper, L’Humanite, published the morning of March 3 criticizing the March 22 movement. He dismissed the student leaders as petty-bourgeois, and claimed they were serving the interests of the Gaullists. L’Humanite published another article after the events of May 3 with a further critique of the students’ adventurism. Singer cites the article which says, “already now, the great mass of students, including, we are sure, many of those who were led astray, can measure the serious consequences to which political adventurism inevitably leads, even if it is concealed behind pseudo-revolutionary phrases.”
While the rest of France hadn’t yet comprehended the gravity of the conjuncture, the UNEF called for a nationwide university strike, along with three demands: re-open the Sorbonne, withdraw the police, and release the arrested students. The UNEF sent appeals to the labor unions to join the strike, and called for a demonstration on the following Monday (the events began on Friday). After the confrontations, Rector Roche decided to close the Sorbonne indefinitely.
Through the next week, the students and police clashed almost every day. The students, with the general sympathy of the public, would march around the streets of Paris chanting the Internationale and waving red and black flags. After one particular night of police brutality against the students, during which protestors were rounded up into vans and taken into custody, the political climate shifted further in the students’ favor. Now there were mass demonstrations throughout France, not just Paris. Within a week, the UNEF had reached an agreement with other education and labor unions for a demonstration the following week. Eventually, the ministry of education told the students they could grant their first two demands (re-open the Sorbonne and withdraw the police), but not the third (releasing their comrades). The students refused to relent until all their demands were met. Georges Pompidou, the Prime Minister and probable successor to President Charles de Gaulle, was tasked with cleaning up the situation. His idea was to put the ball in the students' court by meeting their demands.
The union demonstration on Monday, May 13th was the biggest demonstration Paris had ever seen, with millions of people pouring into the streets. “It was also the most dynamic [demonstration] in years. There were more red flags than in the past, more fists were clenched above heads in the revolutionary salute, and the ‘Internationale’ was sung time and time again.” Similar marches occurred throughout France. The Sorbonne was reopened that night, and the students immediately began to occupy it.
The general strike began the following week, immediately succeeding the march. The strikes started at the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes, where “more than 2,500 employees at the factory, who had fought for months against a decision to cut working hours, launched May’s first major sit-down strike.” Strikes quickly spread throughout France, and eventually reached the Renault car factory in the outskirts of Paris. The strike wave began on Monday the 13th, and then escalated on the 15th, 16th, and 17th. A common trend throughout the strikes was the leadership and agitation of young workers employed in the factories, who were working jobs inferior to their qualifications. Alain Badiou says “the strike call and the decision to strike had, in general, little to do with official working-class institutions. In most cases, the movement was launched by groups of young workers outside the big union organizations, which then rallied to it, partly in a bid to take control of it.” The younger workers would often launch wildcat strikes, in contrast to the sit-down strikes preferred by the CGT. Singer says that “within a week the tide had swept over the whole of France and paralyzed the bulk of basic production.” Around nine to ten million workers went on strike, ranging from factory workers to chemical and engineering workers, to artists, actors, and architects. It was a wave that threatened to flood the nation.
The general narrative of May ‘68 centers the student revolts, and while they deserve significant recognition and attention, the French state would have not entered such a crisis if not for the general strike. As Althusser says, “the absolutely determining role in the events of May was played, in the final analysis, by the general strike of nine million workers. The mass participation of university students, secondary school students, and young intellectual workers in the May events was an extremely important phenomenon, but it was subordinated to the economic class struggle of the nine million workers.”
The passing of the torch from the students to the workers was tense. The students went to the factories to talk with the striking workers, but were prevented from entering by the CGT. The CGT, like the PCF, was hostile towards the students and wanted them to stop their agitation in the streets, fearing government repression. The students managed to speak with the workers at length from behind the factory gates, but struggled to create good arguments to push for more revolutionary action. Singer adds, “they were also often overawed, treating each workman as if he were the embodiment of the historical role of his class.” The CGT and PCF dismissed the students as petty-bourgeois rebels, and refused to engage with them. According to Singer, the de facto goal of the union was to keep the movement within the bounds of the existing institutions.
At this juncture, the students had to solve three problems: combat the government’s attempt to isolate them; create a program attractive enough for both reformists and revolutionaries; and link their struggle with that of the workers. The last problem was the most dominant. Despite sectarian differences between the different revolutionary student factions, they were all united on the necessity of building the movement from the bottom up - a desire strengthened by the actions of the Communist Party to handbrake the movement. For Singer, the contradiction of May goes as follows:
The communists [in the PCF and CGT], who could carry the movement as far as it would go, were determined to check it. The students and their political allies, eager to push it to a revolutionary conclusion, had neither the equipment or the following to perform the task. Their only chance was to lead into action the masses usually guided by the Communist party. The clash between the two partners was inevitable.
The Communists continued their attacks on the students throughout, siding with the government and calling them lawbreakers.
The government and the CGT set a date for a labor negotiation: May 24th. Going into the negotiations, there were five items on the agenda: increasing social security, securing higher wages, getting shorter hours without reduction in pay, achieving full employment, and “free exercise of union activity within the firm.” The CGT got the government to concede to some demands, like increased wages, but nothing too spectacular given the situation. Singer says that their results were not as successful as in 1936, another period of intense class struggle that led to the 40-hour work week. The union and the government expected the workers to accept their proposal, as did the media, which was already speculating on when the workers would return to the factories. But the workers rejected the terms of the negotiations.
After the failed negotiations, there was a large meeting of about ten thousand people at the Charlety Stadium in the outskirts of Paris featuring Andre Barjonet, a CGT secretary who resigned in protest over their actions in the negotiations, Maurice Labi, a leader in the chemical and glass industries union, and student leaders Sauvageot and Geismar. The crowd gathered at Charlety were coordinating next steps, and many still thought that the PCF could be dragged into revolutionary action. Some believed they wouldn’t, but thought it was important to continue pushing a revolutionary agenda even if that sacrificed short term reforms. Regardless, most members of the crowd were opposed to a parliamentary solution.
The electoral Left, which mainly consisted of the PCF and the Socialist Party (SFIO), was preparing a potential coalition government to overtake De Gaulle, led by Francois Mitterand, the SFIO candidate. Singer believes the Communists should have chosen Pierre Mendes-France, a sort of French New Deal-er, to serve as their grave-digger of capital. Instead, the Communists ruthlessly criticized Mendes-France and chose Mitterand as their “grave-digger.” Singer argues Mitterand was less suited to be a “grave-digger” of capital because he was merely an orthodox democratic socialist politician.
On May 29, De Gaulle mysteriously fled the country without telling anyone in his immediate circles. He met with generals in different areas of France and Germany, getting reassurances that they would back him if necessary. These troops wouldn’t be enough to break the strike, however. De Gaulle decided to change his tactics, and chose to directly attack the Communist leaders. The next day, he made a brief, firm speech denouncing the Communists and affirming that his government would not abdicate.
Heading into June, the students and their allies were determined to maintain the movement and the strike, while the CGT was looking to end it to avoid a negative image going into the elections called by De Gaulle. On June 5, some industries began to end their strikes, and the government, immediately noticing the balances of forces shifting back into their favor, began trying to end other strikes through force. In one case, the police tried breaking up the strike at the Renault car factory, but the workers resisted and even asked the students for help. The students answered their call, and together they fought back against the police, preventing the strike from ending. The government tried again at another factory, meeting further resistance, and in the ensuing battle the police killed two workers. The response from the CGT was weak, and together with the PCF they began openly pushing for an end to the strike to “support” their electoral push. The students believed this strategy was treasonous and defeatist. The contradiction between the two lines was intensifying and coming out into the open. The PCF accused the students of being anti-communist; the students called the Communist Party “strike breakers” and declared that the only anti-communists were those who refuse to see the potential for revolution.
On June 13th, the government outlawed all revolutionary groups and arrested militants, and the PCF leadership did nothing. More industries began to return to work on June 17th, continuing the decline of the strike, and in all of these industries, the unions were a neutralizing force. The government also began reclaiming the former occupied buildings. In the buildup to the election, the Gaullists went all in with red-baiting, anti-communism, and the recruitment of the far right. There was some surprise within the media and political punditry to the incompetence of the PCF in the election, to which Singer replies, “if the left had an alternative, a purpose, a strategy, it would have been in power by then… fortune… favors the bold.”
The election was a resounding win for the Gaullists, who won 43% of the vote. Not only did the PCF lose, but they also lost votes from young people and from the left-center. “In absolute figures the Communist party dropped from 5 to 4.4 million votes… The Gaullists with the official label climbed from 8.4 to 9.7 million.” In less than a month, a mass movement had spectacularly fizzled out.
The Problem of the Party-Form
The party-form is one of the defining themes of May ‘68. After all, this was a situation where a revolutionary movement was pushing for revolutionary change, where an entire country was paralyzed by the largest general strike in its history, and where the sitting government was clearly ill-equipped to handle the situation. We do not know what would have happened if the revolutionaries actually pushed to violently seize state power, à la the Bolsheviks. Maybe the movement would have been crushed, but engaging in historical ‘what ifs’ is a useless exercise – we cannot change the past. The reality is that a revolutionary situation was partially sabotaged by a communist party and union. Why was the PCF unable to serve a revolutionary purpose in May ‘68?
One explanation is that the PCF was never really a revolutionary communist party. The communist party is supposed to serve two very important functions: developing revolutionary theory, and organizing working class struggles into a larger movement. On the first point, we can reference Lenin’s insistence that “without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.” Without a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, communists will not be able to effectively intervene in the class struggle, and May ‘68 alone is proof of this as the PCF never grasped the conjuncture. On the flip side, developing revolutionary theory alone is not enough for a communist party to earn its role as the vanguard. If communists merely developed revolutionary theory, but were incapable of actually organizing others and implementing their theories, then these communists would be useless. The communist party needs to be able to both develop revolutionary theory and cultivate a vast network of organizers and workers who can lead a movement. The communist party needs to connect revolutionary theoretical practice with revolutionary political practice. While the PCF and CGT did not lack influence (there were millions of people in each) they were unable to develop revolutionary theory and analysis. To understand why, we need to understand the PCF’s history and dependency on the Comintern.
The PCF was formed following a split in the old French Socialist Party after the first World War. J. M. Vincent, in his short history of the PCF, writes that the left wing of the fledgling party lacked skilled theoreticians. As a result, they resorted to arguments made in the Comintern to back up their positions. Vincent says, “the party thus became more completely dependent on the Soviet leadership of the Communist International than either the German or Italian parties, and this as early as 1924.” The PCF followed the trajectory of the USSR: a popular front in the 1930s to combat fascism, and then a return to Marxist humanism following the secret speech of Kruschev. "Lacking the originality and political traditions of the leading tendencies of the German CP (from Brandler to Ruth Fischer) or of the Italian CP (from Bordiga to Gramsci), and with memories of anarcho-syndicalism as its only theoretical equipment, the French party offered only very limited resistance to the conceptions of Zinoviev, and later of Stalin—conceptions heavily influenced by events in Russia.” Rather than conducting a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, the PCF viewed events in France through the prism of the USSR.
In the introduction of For Marx, Althusser asserts that the French Marxists were theoretically underdeveloped, and that there was a general anti-intellectual culture within the PCF. For him, one reason the great Marxist intellectuals appeared in Germany (Marx), Italy (Gramsci), Poland (Luxemburg), and Russia (Lenin) was because of the government’s repression of revolutionary intellectuals in those countries. This repression forced many intellectuals to work underground; Marx was forced into exile three times, and Lenin spent large chunks of his life as an émigré. As a result, they “could only seek their freedom and future at the side of the working class, the only revolutionary class.” However, France was different, since the French bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class in the 18th and early 19th century. Althusser says,
It [the bourgeoisie] had defeated the Church… It had been able to use both its position of strength and its past standing to offer the intellectuals a sufficient space and future, sufficiently honourable functions and a sufficient margin of freedom and illusion to keep them within its authority and under the control of its ideology.
Intellectuals in France had been assimilated into the institutions of the bourgeoisie, and that is a reason why there was a lack of Marxist theoreticians in France. Althusser also asserts that French philosophy on the whole had been seriously lacking since the French Revolution. The PCF “was born into this theoretical vacuum.”
So, the PCF lacked revolutionary theoreticians, and thus tethered itself to the Comintern. It thus became a negative force at the same time as the Comintern, due to the hegemony of “Stalinism.” Stalinism typically refers to “authoritarianism” in popular discourse, but there is another conception of “Stalinism” which comes from Althusser and is elaborated by Christine Buci-Glucksmann. For them, the major consequences of “Stalinism” were the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the withering away of the state in the practices of socialist construction. Socialism was said to have already been achieved within the USSR by 1937; Althusser and Buci-Glucksmann criticize Stalin for conceiving of socialism as a mode of production minus contradiction (even though contradiction is the driving force of socialism). Buci-Glucksmann argues that Stalin puts forward two new arguments on the state in his Historical and Dialectical Materialism:
1) The dictatorship of the proletariat is not, in the first instance, a power of a new type (soviets, autonomous mass organization). It becomes a state which reproduces the classic – and at base anti-democratic – separation found in all states: between leaders and led. 2) Socialism is no longer a long term, transitional historical phase before classless society (communism). It is already a society without class struggle, a “harmonious society”: a mode of production.
The removal of class struggle and contradiction from Marxism is by definition revisionist, since these concepts are the motor force of Marxism as a science. Further, if class conflict is already eliminated in socialism, then communism loses all of its meaning. Buci-Glucksmann says,
In my view, this form of theory supports and obscures a particular economistic vision of socialism: mode of production without class struggle, state of the whole people, a productivist ideology, the revival of a certain state-centered nationalism, the reduction of social problems to mainly technical problems, the removal of contradictions and pluralism from civil society.
Stalinism obscures the contradictions between the masses and the state, and between politics and the economy. It excludes the masses from politics, and politics can only occur in the confines of the state and the party leadership. This is compatible with some Maoist critiques of the USSR, which asserts that the Communist Party became revisionist and thus alienated from the people. An important component of communism is the abolition of the division of intellectual and manual labor, where those who do the work would make decisions about the work they’re doing, where every individual is capable of critical thinking, problem solving, and engaging in social practices. Stalinism maintains the division of labor, and thus re-converts workers into cogs of a machine. This is why people eventually grew unfulfilled and alienated in the USSR, and they unfortunately attributed this to socialism rather than to residue left over from the capitalist mode of production.
The argument from Althusser and Buci-Glucksmann is that Stalinism is a distortion of the party-form. The party-form is not necessarily positive or negative. In some cases, it can play a revolutionary role in a movement, as it did in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Chinese Revolution. It can also play a neutralizing role, as it did in May ‘68. Singer summarizes the PCF’s conception of the party as that in which “truth is revealed from above, the leadership can do no wrong, and nothing creative can come from below.” This is why the party was unable to play a revolutionary role in the crisis – the leadership refused to acknowledge that the UNEF was a genuine force, and that they could learn from them. The PCF had gradually transformed into a social-democratic party, and their primary goal was to try to govern the capitalist state. This is revisionism, since the PCF rejected the core thesis of Marxism: the primacy of the class struggle. By choosing class collaboration, they abandoned the revolutionary core of Marxism.
May ‘68 demonstrates the limits of social democracy. The PCF and CGT were large organizations comprising millions of members. They were able to lessen the degree of exploitation for workers in France. After May ‘68, the Socialist Party, the party that emerged out of the SFIO, ruled France for about a decade in the 80s. France achieved everything a democratic socialist would want to achieve and more. It was only after that France was consumed by the neoliberal trend that had already consumed the rest of the West in the 80s.
As Althusser argues, social democracy is necessarily defensive. Social democratic politics, like nationalizing healthcare and education, setting a higher minimum wage, and achieving better working conditions, can only ever lessen the degree of exploitation. But this does nothing to challenge the fundamental structure of capitalist production. Furthermore, Althusser argues that the capitalist class only grants welfare in times of crisis to appease the working class. Is May ‘68 not evidence of this? The French State granted reforms to the CGT to try and end the general strike since they feared a larger revolution consuming them. When the threat of revolution goes away, so do the reforms, as the bourgeoisie attacks the institutions of the labor movement (Reaganism/Thatcherism). Of course, this is all very schematic, but my larger point is that democratic socialism was only able to temporarily improve the lives of workers, and it was only possible because of increased profits produced by imperialism. We cannot forget the fundamental law of Marxism: that history is driven by the class struggle, which can never be fully contained – antagonistic classes can never peacefully coexist. Democratic socialism negates the law of class struggle, by pushing for a social formation where both classes can happily exist – the bourgeoisie can have their money, as long as they treat the working class “fairly.”
While many considered the PCF a “distortion” of the revolutionary party-form, a different, more radical view emerged in light of May ‘68 via Badiou. He argues that the party-form is intertwined with old modes of politics that are no longer fit for contemporary struggles. The old conception of politics was based on the idea that there is a historical political agent which offers the hope for emancipation (the working class in Marxism):
One of that conviction’s implications was that this objective agent had to be transformed into a subjective power, that a social entity had to become a subjective actor. For that to happen, it had to be represented by a specific organization, and that is precisely what we called a party, a working-class or people’s party. That party had to be present wherever there were sites of power or intervention.
Even if there were different conceptualizations of the party, there was a basic agreement that the party-form is central to politics. Or in other words, if there was an agent for emancipatory politics, then that agent had to be organized in the form of a party. In Marxism-Leninism, the agent is the proletariat which has to be organized into the communist party. In democratic politics, the agent is the “people” which has to be organized into a democratic, electoral party. Within this framework, there are two sides to politics: social movements with particular demands (the union), and the party which provides the organizational form for the movement to realize these demands. According to Badiou, May ‘68 was the beginning of the death for this conception of politics, the politics of the party-form, as this period challenged the legitimacy of all of the dominant institutions, parties, and unions: “what we failed to see at the time was that it was the language itself that had to be transformed, but this time in an affirmative sense.” Badiou says that before ‘68, politics was defined by the idea that everyone stays in their role: the workers organize in the union, students in the student union, and so on, and each group is only linked through a larger body. In May, this framework began to fall apart:
Thousands of students, high school students, workers, women from the estates and proletarians from Africa went in search of a new politics. What would a political practice that was not willing to keep everyone in their place look like? A political practice that accepted new trajectories, impossible encounters, and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other? At that point, we realized, without really understanding it, that if a new emancipatory politics was possible, it would turn social classifications upside down. It would not consist in organizing everyone in the places where they were, but in organizing lightning displacements, both material and mental.
Badiou’s analysis underscores the abandonment of the party-form as a legitimate mode of organizing following May ‘68. French communists were disillusioned by the actions of the PCF, and thus went searching for new modes of political practice.
For me, the problem with the party is the problem of institutionalization. The party becomes a fixed institution where the purpose of the party, advancing the class struggle towards communism, is lost amidst the maintenance and survival of the party. This has happened both in countries where state power was seized, like the USSR and China, and in countries that never seized state power like France. Since the party becomes an institution, the leaders of the institution over time will seek to preserve it, even if that means sacrificing the institution’s original purpose. The USSR, plagued by Civil War, imperialist encirclement, and threatened with the development of fascism throughout Europe, chose the road of national peace at all costs. In France, the PCF abandoned their commitment to revolution over time, if they ever had one, in favor of trying to become a ‘legitimate’ party under the bourgeois state. Even Mao, who was acutely aware of this problem, abandoned the Cultural Revolution in favor of stability.
So to summarize, the Party and Unions clearly neutralized the movement of May ‘68. The communists in France had the strength to win, the contradictions of capitalism had been intensifying, but their leaders crumbled. How can you prevent bad leaders in the abstract? How can institutionalization be prevented?
These questions can only be answered if one believes there is a way to preemptively guarantee success, or preemptively prevent failure. While Marxism has been charged with the critique of economic determinism – the view that that revolution will inevitably happen due to the contradictions of capitalism – I do not think this is the case. As I argue elsewhere, the conceptions of Marxism that have been most successfully utilized in revolutionary practice reject any notion of guaranteed success. The concept of the vanguard party, along with Lenin’s insistence on the importance of revolutionary theory and Mao’s theorizations of contradiction and struggle, are in complete opposition to any notion of revolution as teleologically determined by the “laws of history”. This is compatible with Stuart Hall’s thesis of a “politics without guarantees.” For Hall this thesis was advanced in the context of media and cultural practices, but it is also relevant here. “The search for a guarantee was the search for a fixed and stable foundation, which could then serve as a standpoint of moral purity. But just as it’s impossible for power to fix bad images, like racial stereotypes, Hall argued that it’s impossible for us to fix good ones.” Likewise, there is a tendency in Marxist theory to search for an “ideal” organizational or political form that will serve as a foundation for revolutionary politics. Traditionally, this has been the party-form, which, if built, will advance communists towards revolution. The degeneration of communist parties throughout the second half of the 20th century had caused some to invert this thesis. Now the party, rather than guaranteeing success, dooms us to failure. Returning to Hall, no concept, signifier, or category has a fixed, immutable, or predetermined essence. The party-form is not necessarily “good” or “bad,” or necessarily neutralizing, or necessarily a guarantee that we will be successful.
While I do not believe that the construction of a revolutionary communist party will guarantee success, I still believe in the necessity of the party in advancing class struggle. The difference between the party and other forms of organization is its generality. A union is confined to a specific workplace, and only represents the interests of the workers within the workplace. Another example is a tenants union, which represents the interests of the tenants within a specific building(s) or under a specific landlord. The problem with unions and other particular forms of organizing, like mutual aid, is that they are confined to a specific site, goal, or need. What is the endpoint of a union? To negotiate the best possible conditions for the workers. But, it is still confined to the structure of capitalist social relations, and can never fully break beyond them. Even if the goal for a union is to eventually oust the owners so the workers can run the workplace themselves, said workers would still be operating within the larger capitalist system. Forms of organization that revolve around a specific site, objective, campaign, etc., have limits, and another form of organization is necessary to link together various struggles and to develop longer term strategies. This is, generally, the purpose of the party. The party has other necessary functions, such as political education and theoretical formation, recruiting communists, cadre development and building a general communist network. If there are three fronts of the class struggle, the economic, political, and ideological, then the party is the mechanism through which communists can effectively intervene in all three fronts.
If a problem of the party is institutionalization, then attempts to prevent this must center around the conceptualization of the party as a finite instrument that intervenes to articulate social struggles into a broader unity. The party must be conceptualized, as McWhinney and McGlone argue in their essays, in terms of its effects and functions, rather than on wills and intentions. The PCF, or any party, claiming to be Marxist or communist means nothing - what matters is their actions in class struggles like May ‘68. The problem is: what should communists do when a party, which claims to be revolutionary, fails to act like one? Althusser remained a member of the PCF after May ‘68 because he believed the party could be struggled against from within, and he advocated for the party to embrace the mass line to correct the errors that led to the party’s failure to fuse with the students. The other option is to construct new forms of organization, which Badiou and Lazarus did by founding the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste (UCFml), and later the L'Organisation Politique. This problem persists today in the absence of mass communist organizations in the US. Should contemporary communists join organizations like DSA and struggle within them, or build new, independent organizations? I don’t have an answer to this question, and I believe it can only be resolved at the level of politics. While I still defend the necessity of the party, or a similar type of organization, it is not a messianic force, nor a magic bullet that will lead communists to victory.
- Louis Althusser, “Letter on the May Events,” Verso, March 15, 1969, accessed from https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3851-louis-althusser-s-letter-on-the-may-events.
- Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), 65.
- Singer, Prelude to Revolution, 65-67.
- Kristin Ross, May ‘68 and Its Afterlives, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 29.
- Singer, 120.
- Ibid, 122.
- Singer cites the article on page 116. A French version of the article is linked here.
- I immediately think of Lenin on Marx’s response to the Paris Commune: “A few months before the Commune, Marx warned the Paris workers that any attempt to overthrow the government would be the folly of despair. But when, in March 1871, a decisive battle was forced upon the workers and they accepted it, when the uprising had become a fact, Marx greeted the proletarian revolution with the greatest enthusiasm, in spite of unfavorable auguries. Marx did not persist in the pedantic attitude of condemning an ‘untimely’ movement as did the ill-famed Russian renegade from Marxism, Plekhanov, who in November 1905 wrote encouragingly about the workers' and peasants' struggle, but after December 1905 cried, liberal fashion: ‘They should not have taken up arms.’ Marx, however, was not only enthusiastic about the heroism of the Communards, who, as he expressed it, "stormed heaven". Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he regarded it as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments. Marx endeavored to analyze this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it and re-examine his theory in the light of it.” - Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, (1917), 27, accessed from marxists.org.
- Singer, 122-23.
- Ibid, 124.
- Ibid, 130.
- Ibid, 149.
- Jonah Birch, “How Beautiful It Was,” Jacobin Magazine, May 23, 2018.
- Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, (London: Verso, 2010), 29.
- Singer, 157-8.
- Birch, “How Beautiful It Was.”
- Althusser, “Letter on the May Events.”
- Singer, 154.
- Ibid, 166.
- Ibid, 169.
- Ibid, 171.
- Ibid, 190.
- After the speech, there was a large rally in support of De Gaulle that consisted of hundreds of thousands in Paris. The majority of the crowd were conservatives, moderates, and far-rightists who were waving French flags and singing the National Anthem. Many assert that this marked the end of the May ‘68 movement, such as Mitch Abidor, editor of May Made Me, in his appearance on the Rev Left Radio podcast. Singer disagrees with this narrative, as the PCF and CGT still could have pushed the strike forward if they wanted to.
- Singer, 208.
- Ibid, 209.
- I am aware that my account takes the side of the students over the PCF and CGT. Jonah Birch is more sympathetic to the PCF in his account, demonstrating that the PCF played a large role in creating the conditions for the general strike to take place (although Singer emphasizes this as well throughout his book). He also defends the PCF’s response to the crisis as “measured” compared to the students’ implied adventurism. Abidor also defends the PCF, although for slightly different reasons, in his article “1968: When the Communist Party Stopped a French Revolution.” Abidor’s argument is that the workers were not really interested in dramatic revolutionary change, and the PCF knew this. He cites many accounts of workers that were featured in May Made Me, where most of them just wanted better living conditions. He says, “The Communists may have been poor revolutionaries, but they were politically astute. They knew the workers, knew what they would fight for, and got them what they wanted.” Isn’t the problem precisely that the communist party is supposed to serve a vanguard function, and they failed to do this? Shouldn’t they have pushed workers to want more?
- Singer, 215.
- Ibid, 216.
- Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done?, 1902, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/download/what-itd.pdf, 12.
- J.M. Vincent, “The PCF and its History,” New Left Review 1, no 52 (1968), 40.
- “Marxists sought to go beyond this rigid, mechanical view of history, and they found resources in Marx’s youthful writings. Chief among them were the ‘1844 Manuscripts,’ which had been published in 1932 and had gone largely unnoticed until now, when they were avidly taken up both by the Communist Parties and the heterodox left-wing tendencies that criticized them. In the PCF, this was represented in a dramatic extreme by the Party’s official philosopher Roger Garaudy. As William S. Lewis writes in Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism, Garaudy’s project after 1956 was to show “how Marxism is not only a humanism but a theory of human liberation compatible with Judeo-Christian notions of emancipation,” and thus also a practical basis for uniting with Catholics and social democrats.” - Asad Haider, “A New Practice of Politics: Althusser and Marxist Philosophy,” Verso Blog.
- Vincent, “The PCF and its History,” 40.
- Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, (London: Penguin Press, 1969), 23.
- Althusser, For Marx, 25.
- Althusser, 25.
- Ibid, 26.
- I generally find the conception of Stalinism as authoritarianism unconvincing, but there is not enough space to elaborate on that here.
- Christine Buci-Glucksmann, “On the Left-Wing Critique of Stalinism,” Viewpoint Magazine, 2017.
- Constitution of the USSR in 1936, accessed from https://constitutii.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/1936-en.pdf.
- Buci-Glucksmann, “Left-Wing Critique of Stalinism.”
- I expand on this argument in, “What is Marxism?,” Negation Magazine, 2021.
- Jean Daubier, A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York: Random House, 1974), 18-19.
- Singer, Prelude to Revolution, 289.
- Louis Althusser, “Preface to Capital,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, (London: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 85-87.
- Louis Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Bloomsbury, 2017), 118-119.
- Vladimir Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, and Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, 119.
- Badiou’s ideas are also influenced by Sylvain Lazarus, but due to the complexity of his concepts, and the limited space of this essay, I am unable to engage with him here.
- Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, 31.
- Badiou, 33.
- Ibid, 34.
- Daubier, A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 10-11, details how institutionalization leads to the complacency of leadership.
- What is Marxism?, Negation Magazine.
- Asad Haider, “Politics Without Guarantees,” The Point Magazine, 2021.
- Lenin, What is to be Done?, 13.
- Salar Mohandesi, “The Party as Articulator,” Viewpoint Magazine, 2020.
- Louis Althusser, “Something New,” in Essays in Self-Criticism, (1974), 215.
- Badiou, Communist Hypothesis, 33.