François Martin was the pen name of François Cerutti, who recently published a book on that part of his life: 'D’Alger à Mai 68. Mes années de révolution' (Paris: Spartacus, 2010).
This essay was started soon after May ’68 and completed in 1972. François Martin had worked years before in an Algerian shoemaking factory under (State-controlled) “self-management,” where he experienced how a spontaneous desire to get a grip on one’s fate could end in self-exploitation. Apart from very few minor corrections, his text has been left as it was: we have only integrated Martin’s own notes within the text to distinguish them from ours.
If this text was written today, historical data would be different. Though it still retains strongholds, the French CP has declined, partly through de-industrialisation of traditional working class areas. Besides, one can no longer speak of “Stalinism.” CPs were Stalinist not out of love for Russia, but because State capitalism was a possible solution for capital… usually with Red Army troops around. With the downfall of the USSR, this backward form of capitalism has outlived its usefulness, and CPs have evolved into proponents of radical reforms, or simply disbanded. The traditionally adaptable Italian CP had already gone this way for quite a while before the bulk of the party disappeared in a centre-left party. After protected resistance, the die-hard French CP is now following suit. The sixty-year-old sinister Stalinist farce has been sent to the dustbins of history, alas not by the proletariat, but by the overwhelming drive of commodities. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face,” Orwell wrote in 1984. Sometimes, the credit card is mightier than the jackboot.
More importantly, such an essay today would take into account the worker defeat in the West after the 1970s, and the unrest and struggles that have recently swelled, especially but not only in Asia. Our Postlude will briefly examine these changes.
The original purpose of this text was to try to show the fundamental reasons why the revolutionary movement of the first half of the century took various forms (parties, trade and industrial unions, workers’ councils) which now not only belong to the past, but also hinder the re-formation of the revolutionary movement. But only part of the project was carried out. This task still has to be realised. But it would be a mistake to wait for a complete theoretical construction before moving on. The following text gives certain elements which are useful for an understanding of new forms of the communist “party.” Recent events (mainly strikes in the United States, in Britain, in France, and Italy) clearly show that we are entering a new historical period. For example, the French Communist Party (PCF) still dominates the working class, but it is under strong attack. While for a long period of time the revolutionary movement’s opposition to capital was deflected by the PCF, today this mediation tends to disappear: the opposition between workers and capitalism is going to assert itself more and more directly, and on the level of real facts and actions, as opposed to the situation when the ideology of the PCF was prominent among workers and the revolutionary movement had to fight against the PCF mainly on a theoretical level.
Today revolutionaries will be forced to oppose capital practically. This is why new theoretical tasks are necessary. It is not enough to agree on the level of ideas; one must take positive action, and first of all intervene in present struggles to support one’s views. Communists do not have to build a separate party from the one which asserts itself in practice in our society; yet they will increasingly have to support their positions so that the real movement does not waste its time in useless and false struggles. Organic links (theoretical work for practical activity) will have to be established among those who think we are moving towards a conflict between the proletariat and capital. The present text tries to determine how the communist movement is going to reappear, and to define the tasks of the communists.
The general strike of May 1968 was one of the biggest strikes in capitalist history. Yet it is probably the first time in contemporary society that such a powerful working class movement did not create for itself organs capable of expressing it. More than four years of workers’ struggles prove this fact. Nowhere can we see organisations going beyond a local and temporary contact. Unions and parties have been able to step into this void and negotiate with the bosses and the State. In 1968 a number of short-lived Action Committees were the only form of workers’ organisation which acted outside the unions and the parties; the Action Committees opposed what they felt to be treason on the part of the unions.
Either at the beginning of the strike, or in the process of the sit-downs, or later, in the struggle against the resumption of work, many thousands of workers organised themselves in one way or another outside and against the will of the unions. But in every case these workers’ organisations fizzled out with the end of the movement and did not turn into a new type of organisation.
The only exception was the “Inter-Enterprise” Committee, which had existed since the beginning of the strike at the Censier building of the “Faculté des Lettres” in Paris. It gathered together workers—individuals and groups—from several dozen factories in the Paris area. Its function was to coordinate actions against the undermining of the strike by the PCF-controlled union, the CGT. It was in fact the only workers’ organ which in practice went beyond the narrow limits of the factory by putting into practice the solidarity between workers from different firms. As is the case with all revolutionary activities of the proletariat, this Committee did not publicise its action.1
The Committee continued to organise meetings after the strike and disappeared after its members realised its uselessness. Of course the hundreds of workers who had taken part in its activity soon stopped coming to its meetings. Many of them continued seeing each other. But while the purpose of the Committee during the strike had been to strengthen the fight against union and party manoeuvres, it later turned into a discussion group studying the results of the strike and trying to learn its lessons for the future. These discussions often dealt with communism and its importance.
This Committee gathered a minority. Yet its daily “general assemblies” at Censier, as well as its smaller meetings, allowed several thousand workers to meet. It remained limited to the Paris area. We have heard of no such experiment in other regions, organised outside all unions (including “left-wing” unions: the town of Nantes, in the west of France, was more or less taken over by the unions during the strike).
One must add that a handful of people sharing communist ideas (a dozen at most) were deeply involved in its action and functioning. The result of this was to limit the influence of the CGT, the Trotskyists, and the Maoists, to a minimum. The fact that the Committee was outside all traditional union and party organisations, including the extremist ones, and that it tried to go beyond the limit of the factory, foreshadowed what has been happening since 1968. Its disappearance after the fulfilment of its tasks also foreshadowed the fading away of organisations that have appeared since then, in the most characteristic struggles of recent years.
This shows the great difference between the present situation and what happened in the 1930s. In 1936, in France, the working class fought behind the “workers’” organisations and for the reforms they professed. So the forty-hour week and two weeks of paid vacation were regarded as a real victory of the workers, whose essential demand was to get the same conditions and position as salaried groups. These demands were imposed on the ruling class. Today the working class is not asking for the improvement of its conditions of life. The reform programmes presented by unions and parties closely resemble those put forward by the State. It was De Gaulle who proposed “participation” as a remedy for what he called the “mechanical” society.
It seems that only a fraction of the ruling class realised the extent of the crisis, which it called a “crisis of civilisation” (André Malraux). Since then all organisations, all unions and parties, without any exceptions, rallied to the great reform programme in one way or another. The PCF itself includes “real participation” in its governmental programme. The other large union, the CFDT, advocates self-management, which is also supported by ultra-left groups who are in favour of “workers’ councils.” The Trotskyists propose “workers’ control” as a minimum programme for a “workers’ government.”
What lies at the heart of all this concern is an attempt to end the separation between the worker and the product of his work. This is an expression of a “utopian” view of capital, and has nothing to do with communism. The capitalist “utopia” tries to do away with the bad side of exploitation. The communist movement cannot express itself in a formal criticism of capital. It does not aim to change the conditions of work, but the function of work: it wants to replace the production of exchange values with the production of use values. Whereas unions and parties carry on their debates within the context of one and the same programme, the programme of capital, the proletariat has a non-constructive attitude. Apart from its practical political activities, it does not “participate” in the debate organised about its case. It does not try to do theoretical research about its own tasks. This is the time of the great silence of the proletariat. The paradox is that the ruling class tries to express the aspirations of the workers, in its own way.
A fraction of the ruling class understands that the present conditions of appropriation of surplus-value are a hindrance to the total functioning of the economy. Its perspective is to share the cake, hoping that a working class “profiting” from capital and “participating” in it will produce more surplus-value. We are reaching the stage when capital dreams of its own survival, as proved by the 1972 MIT–Club of Rome report on The Limits to Growth. To achieve this survival, it would have to get rid of its own parasitical sectors, i.e. the fractions of capital which no longer produce enough surplus-value.
Whereas in 1936 the workers tried to reach the same level as other sectors of society, nowadays capital itself imposes on the privileged salaried sectors the same general conditions of life as those of the workers. The concept of “participation” (De Gaulle’s phrase for what others call class collaboration) implies equality in the face of exploitation imposed by the needs of value formation. Thus participation is a “socialism” of misery. Capitalism must reduce the enormous cost of the sectors which are necessary to its survival but which do not directly produce value.
In the course of their struggles workers realise that the possibility of improving their material conditions is limited and on the whole already planned by capital. The working class can no longer intervene on the basis of a programme which would really alter its living conditions within capitalism. The great workers’ struggles of the first half of the century, struggles for the eight-hour day, the forty-hour week, paid holidays, industrial unionism, job security, showed that the relationship between the working class and capital allowed the workers a certain range of “capitalist” action. Nowadays capital itself imposes the reforms and generalises the equality of all in the face of wage-labour. Therefore no important section of the working class is willing to fight for intermediate objectives as was the case at the beginning of the century or in the 1930s. But it should also be obvious that as long as the communist perspective is not clear there can be no formation of workers’ organisations on a communist basis. This is not to say that the communist objectives will suddenly become clear to everybody. The fact that the working class is the only class which produces surplus-value is what places it at the centre of the crisis of value, i.e. at the very heart of the crisis of capitalism, and forces it to destroy all other classes as such, and to form the organs of its self-destruction as a part of capital, as a class within capitalism. The communist organisation will only appear in the practical process of destruction of the bourgeois economy, and in the creation of a human community without exchange.
The communist movement has asserted itself continually since the very beginning of capitalism. This is why capital is forced to maintain constant surveillance and continual violence over everything dangerous to its normal functioning. Ever since the secret conspiracy of Babeuf in 1795, the workers’ movement has experienced increasingly violent and longer struggles, which have shown capitalism to be, not the culmination of humanity, but its negation.
Although the May ’68 strike had hardly any immediate positive results, its real strength was that it did not give birth to durable illusions. The May “failure” is the failure of reformism, and the end of reformism breeds a struggle on a totally different level, a struggle against capital itself, not against its effects. In 1968 everyone was thinking of some “other” society. What people said rarely went beyond the notion of general self-management. Apart from the communist struggle which can develop only if the centre, the class which produces surplus-value, leads it, other classes can only act and think within the capitalist sphere, and their expression can only be that of capital—even of capital reforming itself. Yet behind these partial criticisms and alienated expressions we can see the beginning of the crisis of value which is characteristic of the historical period we are now entering.
These ideas do not come from nowhere; they always appear because the symptoms of a real human community exist emotionally in every one of us. Whenever the false community of wage-labour is questioned, there appears a tendency towards a form of social life in which relationships are no longer mediated by the needs of capital.
Since May ’68, the activity of the communist movement has tended to be increasingly concrete.
Whereas in the years after World War II strikes—even important ones—were kept under control and were not followed by constant political and monetary crises, the past few years have seen a renewal of industrial riots and even insurrections in France, Italy, Britain, Belgium, West Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland. In Poland the workers attacked the headquarters of the CP while singing “The Internationale”. The process was the same in nearly every case. A minority starts a movement with its own objectives; soon the movement spreads to other categories of workers in the same firm; people get organised (strike pickets, workers’ committees in the shops, on the assembly lines); the unions manage to be the only ones capable of negotiating with the management; they finally get the workers to resume work, after proposing unitary slogans which no one likes but everyone accepts because of the inability to formulate anything else. The only movement which went beyond the stage of the strike as it now exists was the movement of riots and strikes in Poland in December 1970–January 1971.
What happened in a brutal way in Poland exists only as a tendency in the rest of the industrial world. In Poland there is no mechanism of “countervailing” power capable of keeping social crises in check. The ruling class had to attack the working class directly in order to maintain the process of value formation in normal conditions. The Polish events prove that the crisis of value tends to spread to all industrial areas, and demonstrate the behaviour of the working class as the centre of such a crisis.
The origin of the movement was the need to defend the average selling price of labour power. But the movement found itself immediately on another field: it had to face capitalist society itself. At once the workers were forced to attack the organs of oppression. Party and union officials were assaulted and the party building was stormed. In some towns the railway stations were guarded in case they might be used to bring troops. The movement was strong enough to give itself an organ of negotiation: a workers’ committee for the town. The very fact that Edward Gierek had to go to the shipyards in person must be regarded as a victory of the working class as a whole.2 A year later Fidel Castro had to go to Chile in person to ask the tin miners to cooperate with the (“socialist”) government. In Poland the workers did not send delegates to the central power to propose their demands: the government had to come to the workers to negotiate… the inevitable surrender of the workers.
Facing the violence of the State, the working class formed its own organs of violence. No leaders had anticipated the organisation of the revolt: it was the product of the nature of the society the revolt tried to destroy. Yet leaders (the workers’ committee for the town) only appeared after the movement had reached the highest point which the situation allowed. The negotiation organ is an expression of nothing more than the realisation by both sides that there is only one solution left. The characteristic of such a negotiation organ is that it implies no delegation of power. It rather represents the outer limit of a movement which cannot go beyond negotiation in the present situation. Reforms, once again, are proposed by capital, whereas the working class expresses itself in practical refusal; it must accept the proposals of the central power so long as its practical activity is not yet strong enough to destroy the basis of that power.
Workers’ struggles tend to directly oppose their own dictatorship to that of capital, to organise on a different basis from that of capital, and thus to pose the question of the transformation of society by acts. When the existing conditions are unfavourable to a general attack, or when this attack fails, the forms of dictatorship disintegrate, capital triumphs again, reorganises the working class according to its logic, diverts the violence from its original aims, and separates the formal aspect of the struggle from its real content. We must get rid of the old opposition between “dictatorship” and “democracy.” To the proletariat, “democracy” does not mean organising itself as a parliament in the bourgeois way; for it, “democracy” is an act of violence by means of which it destroys all the social forces which prevent it from expressing itself and maintain it as a class within capitalism. “Democracy” cannot be anything but a dictatorship. This is visible in every strike: the form of its destruction is precisely “democracy.” As soon as there is a separation between a decision-making organ and an action organ, the movement is no longer in the offensive phase: it is being diverted to the ground of capital. Opposing workers’ “democracy” to the union’s “bureaucracy” means attacking a superficial aspect and hiding the real content of workers’ struggles, which have a totally different basis. Democracy is now the slogan of capital: it proposes the self-management of one’s own negation. All those who accept this programme spread the illusion that society can be changed by a general discussion followed by a vote (formal or informal) which would decide what is to be done. By maintaining the separation between decision and action, capital tries to maintain the existence of classes. If one criticises such a separation only from a formal point of view, without going to its roots, one merely perpetuates the division. It is hard to imagine a revolution which begins when voters raise their hands. Revolution is an act of violence, a process through which social relations are transformed.
We will not try to give a description of the strikes which have taken place since 1968. Though a large number of books and pamphlets have been written about them, we still lack too much information. We would only like to see what they have in common, and in what way they are the sign of a period in which communist prospects will appear more and more concretely.
We do not divide industrial society into different sectors—“developing” and “backward.” It is true that some differences can be observed, but these can no longer hide from us the nature of the strikes, in which one cannot see real differences between “vanguard” and “rearguard” struggles. The process of the strikes is less and less determined by local factors, and more and more by the international conditions of capitalism. Thus the Polish strikes and riots were the product of an international context; the relationship between East and West was at the root of these events where people sang “The Internationale” and not the national anthem. Western and Eastern capital have a common interest in securing the exploitation of their respective workers. And the relatively under-developed “socialist” capitalisms must maintain a strict capitalist efficiency to be able to compete with their more modern Western neighbours.
The communist struggle starts in a given place, but its existence does not depend on purely local factors. It does not act according to the limits of its original birthplace. Local factors become secondary to the objectives of the movement. As soon as a struggle limits itself to local conditions, it is immediately swallowed up by capitalism. The level reached by workers’ struggles is not determined by local factors, but by the global situation of capitalism. As soon as the class which concentrates in itself the revolutionary interests of society rises, it immediately finds, in its situation, and without any mediation, the content and object of its revolutionary activity: to crush its enemies and take the decisions imposed by the needs of the struggle; the consequences of its own actions force it to move further.
We shall not deal with all strikes here. There is still a capitalist society in which the working class is just a class of capitalism, a part of capital, when it is not revolutionary. Party and union machines still manage to control and lead considerable sections of the working class for the sake of capitalist objectives, such as the right to retire at sixty in France.3 General elections and many strikes are organised by unions for limited demands. However, it is increasingly obvious that in most large strikes the initiative does not come from the unions, and these are the strikes we are talking about here. Industrial society has not been divided into sectors, nor has the working class been divided up into the young, the old, the natives, the immigrants, the foreigners, the skilled, and the unskilled. We do not oppose all sociological descriptions; these can be useful, but they are not our aim here.
We shall try to study how the proletariat breaks away from capitalist society. Such a process has a definite centre. We do not accept the sociological view of the working class because we do not analyse the working class from a static point of view, but in terms of its opposition to value. The rupture from capital abolishes exchange value, i.e. the existence of labour as a commodity. The centre of this movement, and therefore its leadership, must be the part of society which produces value. Otherwise it would mean that exchange value no longer exists, and that we are already beyond the capitalist stage. Actually the profound meaning of the essential movement is partially hidden by the struggles on the periphery, on the outskirts of the production of value. This was the case in May 1968, when students masked the real struggle, which took place elsewhere.
In fact the struggles on the outskirts (the new middle classes) are only a sign of a much deeper crisis which appearances still hide from us. The renewal of the crisis of value implies, for capital, the need to rationalise, and therefore to attack, the backward sectors which are least capable of protecting themselves; this increases unemployment and the number of those who have no reserves. But their intervention must not make one forget the essential role played by production workers in destroying exchange value.
On one hand, the initiative of the strike comes from selforganised workers; on the other, the initiative to end the strike comes from the fraction of the workers organised in unions. These initiatives are contradictory since they express two movements which are opposed to one another. Nothing is more alien to a strike than its end. The end of a strike is a moment of endless talks when the notion of reality is overcome by illusions; many meetings are organised where union officials have a monopoly of speech; general assemblies attract fewer and fewer people and finally vote to resume work. The end of a strike is a time when the working class again falls under the control of capital, is again reduced to atoms, individual components, destroyed as a class capable of opposing capital. The end of a strike means negotiation, the control of the movement, or what is left of it, by “responsible” organisations, the unions. The beginning of a strike means just the opposite: then the action of the working class has nothing to do with formalism. All those who do not support the movement are pushed aside, whether they are executives, foremen, workers, managers, shop stewards, or union officials. Managers are locked up, union buildings attacked by thousands of workers, depending on local conditions. During the strike in Limbourg (Belgium, Winter 1970), the union headquarters were stormed by the workers. Everything acting as a hindrance to the movement tends to be destroyed. There is no place for “democracy”: on the contrary, everything is obvious, and all enemies must be defeated without wasting time on discussions. A considerable amount of energy appears during the offensive phase, and it seems that nothing is able to stop it.
At this stage we cannot avoid stating an obvious fact: the energy at the beginning of the strike seems to disappear totally by the time of the negotiations. What is more important, this energy seems to have no relation to the official reasons given for the strike. If several dozens of men bring about a strike of thousands of workers on the basis of their own demands, they do not succeed just because of some sort of solidarity, but because of an immediate community in practice. We must add the most important point, that the movement does not put forward any particular demand. The question the proletariat will ask in practice is already present in its silence. In its own movements the proletariat does not put forward any particular demand: this is why these movements are the first communist activities in our time.
What is important in the process of breaking away from capitalism is that the working class no longer asks for partial and particular reforms. Thus the working class ceases to be a class, since it does not defend its particular class interests. This process is different according to the conditions. The movement which went the farthest, in Poland, showed that the first step of the process is the disintegration of the capitalist organs of repression within the working class (mainly the unions); the working class must next organise to protect itself against the organs of repression outside the working class (armed forces, police, militia), and start destroying them.
The specific conditions in Poland, where the unions are part of the State apparatus, forced the working class to make no distinction between the unions and the State, since there was none.4 The fusion between unions and State only made obvious an evolution which does not appear as clearly in other countries, such as France and Italy. In many cases the unions still play the role of a buffer between the workers and the State. But a radical struggle will increasingly attack the unions and the sections of the working class dominated by the unions. The time is gone when workers form unions to defend their qualifications and their right to work.
The conditions of modern society compel the working class not to put forward any particular demand. The only community organised and tolerated by capital is the community of wage-labour: capital tends to forbid everything else. Capital now dominates the totality of the relations men have with one another. It becomes increasingly obvious that every partial struggle which is limited to a particular relation is forced to insert itself into a general struggle against the entire system of relations among people: capital. Otherwise it is integrated or destroyed.5
In a strike of the Paris bus and subway workers (RATP) at the end of 1971, the resolute attitude of the subway drivers turned the strike into a movement quite different from the strike of one particular category of workers. The content of the movement does not depend on what people think. The attitude of the drivers transformed their relation to the management of the RATP and the unions, and clearly revealed the true nature of the conflict. The State itself had to intervene to force the drivers back under the pressure of the unions. Whether the drivers believed it or not, the strike was no longer theirs; it had turned into a public trial where the unions were officially recognised as necessary organs of coercion against the workers, organs charged with the task of restoring the normal order of things. It is impossible to understand the importance of the “silence” of the working class unless one first understands the powerful development of capitalism until now. It is nowadays considered normal that the end of strikes should be controlled by unions. This does not imply any weakness on the part of the revolutionary movement. On the contrary, in a situation which does not allow partial demands to be achieved, it is normal that no organ should be created to end the strike. Thus we do not see the creation of workers’ organisations gathering fractions of the working class outside the unions on a programme of specific demands. Sometimes workers’ groups are formed during the struggle, and they oppose their demands to those of the unions, but their chances are destroyed by the situation itself, which does not allow them to exist very long.
If these groups want to maintain their existence, they must act outside the limits of the factory, or they will be destroyed by capital in one way or another. The disappearance of these groups is one of the signs of the radical nature of the movement. If they went on existing as organisations, they would lose their radical character. So they will always disappear and later come to life again in a more radical way. The idea that workers’ groups will finally succeed, after many experiments and failures, in forming a powerful organisation capable of overthrowing capitalism, is similar to the bourgeois idea that a partial critique will gradually turn into a radical one. The activity of the working class does not proceed from experiences and has no other “memory” than the general conditions of capital which compel it to act according to its nature. It does not study its experiences; the failure of a movement is itself an adequate demonstration of its limitations.
The communist organisation will grow out of the practical need to transform capitalism into communism. Communist organisation is the organisation of the change from capitalism into communism. Here lies the fundamental difference between our time and the former period. In the struggles which took place between 1917 and 1920 in Russia and Germany, the objective was to organise a pre-communist society. In Russia the radical sections of the working class tried to win over other sections of workers, and even the poor peasants. The isolation of the radical elements and the general conditions of capitalism made it impossible for them to envisage the practical transformation of the entire society without a programme uniting all the exploited classes. These radical elements were eventually crushed.
The difference between our time and the past comes from the vast development of the productive forces on nearly all continents, and the quantitative and qualitative development of the proletariat. The working class is now much more numerous and uses highly developed means of production.6 Today the conditions of communism have been developed by capital itself. The task of the proletariat is no longer to support progressive sections of capitalists against reactionary ones. The need for a transitional period between the destruction of capitalist power and the triumph of communism, during which the revolutionary power creates the conditions of communism, has also vanished. Therefore there is no place for a communist organisation as a mediation between the radical and non-radical sections of the working class. The fact that an organisation supporting the communist programme fails to emerge during the period between major struggles is the product of a new class relationship in capitalism.
For instance, in France in 1936, the resistance of capital was so strong that a change of government was necessary before the workers could get what they wanted. Today governments themselves initiate the reforms. Capitalist governments try to create situations where the workers organise themselves to achieve what are in fact necessities of production (participation, self-management). Contemporary economy entails more and more planning. Everything outside the plan is a menace to social harmony. Every activity outside this planning is regarded as non-social and must be destroyed. We should keep this in mind when analysing certain activities of workers during periods when there are no mass struggles like strikes or attempted insurrections. The unions must (a) take advantage of workers’ struggles and control them, and (b) oppose a number of actions such as sabotage and “downtime” (stopping the line), if they want to stay within the limits of the plan (productivity deals, wage agreements, etc.).
Sabotage has been practised in the United States for many years and is now developing in Italy and France. In 1971, during a railway strike in France, the CGT officially denounced sabotage and “irresponsible” elements. Several engines had been put out of order and a few damaged. Later, in the Renault strike in the Spring of 1971, several acts of sabotage had damaged vehicles which were being assembled. Sabotage is becoming extremely widespread. Stopping the line (“downtiming”), which has always existed as a latent phenomenon, is now becoming a common practice. It has been considerably increased by the arrival of young workers to the labour market, and by automation. It is accompanied by a rate of absenteeism which causes serious trouble to some firms.
These events are not new in the history of capitalism. What is new is the context in which they take place. They are indeed the superficial symptoms of a profound social movement, the signs of a process of breaking away from the existing society. At the beginning of the century, sabotage was used as a means of exerting pressure on the bosses to force them to accept the existence of unions. The French revolutionary unionist Pouget studied this in a pamphlet called Sabotage. He quotes the speech of a worker at a workers’ congress in 1895: “The bosses have no right to rely on our charity. If they refuse even to discuss our demands, then we can just put into practice the ‘Go Canny’ tactics, until they decide to listen to us.”
Pouget adds: “Here is a clear definition of ‘Go Canny’ tactics, of ‘sabotage’: BAD PAY, BAD WORK. This line of action, used by our English friends, can be applied in France, as our social position is similar to that of our English brothers.”7
Sabotage was used by workers against the boss so that he would admit their existence. It was a way of getting freedom of speech. Sabotage took place in a movement trying to turn the working class into a class which had its place in capitalist society. “Down-timing” was an attempt to improve the conditions of work. Sabotage did not appear as a blunt and direct refusal of society as a whole. “Down-timing” is a fight against the effects of capitalism. Another study will be necessary to examine the limits of such struggles and the conditions in which capital could absorb them. The social importance of these struggles makes it possible to regard them as the basis of “modern reformism.” The word “reformism” can be used to the extent that these actions could in theory be completely absorbed by the capitalist system. Whereas today they are a nuisance to the normal activity of production, tomorrow they might well be linked to production. An “ideal” capitalism could tolerate the self-management of the conditions of production: as long as a normal profit is made by the firm, the organisation of the work can be left to the workers.
Capitalism has already carried out some concrete experiments in this direction, particularly in Italy, in the United States, in Sweden (Volvo): the Taylor system as we know it is being transformed, and the assembly line has already partly disappeared in some factories.8 In France, one may regard left-wing “liberal” organisations such as the PSU, the CFDT and the left of the Socialist Party as the expression of this capitalist tendency.9 For the time being, this movement can be defined neither as exclusively reformist nor as anti-capitalist. It should be noted that this ‘“modern reformism” has often been directed against the unions. It is still difficult to describe its consequences on capitalist production. All we can see so far is that these struggles attract groups of workers who feel the need to act outside the traditional boundaries imposed by the unions.
Although the “down-timing movement” can be defined as we have just done, sabotage is different. There are two kinds of sabotage: (a) sabotage which destroys the product of the work or the machine; (b) sabotage which partially damages the product so that it can no longer be consumed. Sabotage as it exists today can in no way be kept in check by the unions, nor can it be absorbed by production. Yet capital can prevent it by improving and transforming its system of supervision. For this reason sabotage cannot become the form of struggle against capital. On the other hand, sabotage is a reflex of the individual: he submits to it, as to a passion. Although the individual must sell his labour power, he goes “mad,” i.e. irrational compared to what is “rational” (selling one’s labour power and working accordingly). This “madness” consists of the refusal to give up the labour power, to be a commodity. The individual hates himself as an alienated creature split into two; he tries, through destruction, through violence, to re-unify his being, which only exists through capital.
Since these acts are outside the boundaries of all economic planning, they are also outside the boundaries of “reason.” Newspapers have repeatedly defined them as “antisocial” and “mad”: the danger appears important enough for society to try to suppress it.10 Christian ideology admitted the suffering and social inequality of the workers; today capitalist ideology imposes equality in the face of wage-labour, but does not tolerate anything opposed to wage-labour. The need felt by the isolated individual to oppose physically his practical transformation into a being totally subjected to capital, shows that this submission is more and more intolerable. Destructive acts are part of an attempt to destroy the mediation of wage labour as the only form of social community. In the silence of the proletariat, sabotage appears as the first stammer of human speech.
Both activities, “down-timing” and sabotage, require a certain amount of agreement among the people working where these activities take place. This shows that, although no formal or official organisation appears, there exists an underground network of relations with an anti-capitalist basis. Such a network is more or less dense according to the importance of the activity, and it disappears with the end of the anti-capitalist action. It is normal that, apart from the “subversive” practical (and therefore theoretical) action, the groups gathered around these subversive tasks should dissolve. Often the need to maintain an illusion of “social community” results in an activity which is secondarily anticapitalist but primarily illusory. In most cases these groups end up by gathering around some political axis. In France nuclei of workers gather around such organisations as the Trotskyist “Lutte Ouvrière,” a number of CFDT union branches, or Maoist groups. This does not mean that some minorities with Trotskyist, Maoist, or CFDT ideas are gaining ground among the workers, but simply that some workers’ minorities are trying to break their isolation, which is quite normal. In all cases, the dissolution of the anti-capitalist network and activity means the re-organisation of the working class by capital, as a part of capital.
In short, apart from its practical activities, the communist movement does not exist. The dissolution of a social disorder with a communist content is accompanied by the dissolution of the entire system of relations which it organised. Democracy, division of struggles into “economic” and “political” struggles, formation of a vanguard with a socialist “consciousness,” are the illusions of days gone by. These illusions are no longer possible to the extent that a new period is beginning. The dissolution of the organisational forms which are created by the movement, and which disappear when the movement ends, does not reflect the weakness of the movement, but rather its strength. The time of false battles is over. The only conflict that appears real is the one that leads to the destruction of capitalism.
On the labour market, unions increasingly become monopolies which help buy and sell labour power. When it unified itself, capital unified the conditions of the sale of labour power. In modern conditions of production, the individual owner of labour power is not only forced to sell it to be able to live, but must also associate with other owners in order to be able to sell it. In return for social peace, the unions got the right to control the hiring of labour. In modern society workers are increasingly compelled to join the union if they want to sell their labour power.
At the beginning of this century, unions were the product of gatherings of workers who formed coalitions to defend the average selling price of their commodity. The unions were not at all revolutionary, as was shown by their attitude in World War I, when they supported the war both directly and indirectly. In so far as the workers were fighting for their existence as a class within capitalist society, the unions had no revolutionary function. In Germany, during the revolutionary upheaval of 1919–1920, the union members went to organisations which defended their economic rights in the general context of the struggle against capitalism, such as the Shop Stewards’ Movement in Britain, the French Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees, and the German General Workers’ Association (AAUD). Outside of a revolutionary period, the working class is nothing but a fraction of capital represented by the unions. While other fractions of capital (industrial and financial capital) are forming monopolies, the working class as variable capital also form a monopoly, of which the unions are the trustees.
The unions developed at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century as organisations defending skilled labour power. This was particularly clear with the rise of the AFL in the United States. Until World War II (or until the birth of the CIO in the 1930s in the U.S.) unions grew by supporting the relatively privileged sections of the working class. This is not to say that they had no influence on the most exploited strata, but this influence was only possible if it was consistent with the interests of the qualified strata. With the development of modern and automated industry, highly skilled workers tend to be replaced by technicians. These technicians also have the function of controlling and supervising masses of unskilled workers. Therefore the unions, while losing important sections of workers whose qualifications fade away, try to recruit this new stratum of technicians.
The unions represent labour power which has become capital. This forces them to appear as institutions capable of valorising capital. The unions have to associate their own development programme with that of industrial and finance capital if they want to keep “their” labour power under control. The representatives of variable capital, of capital in the form of labour power, sooner or later have to associate with the representatives of fractions of capital who are now in power. Government coalitions consisting of liberal bourgeoisie, technocrats, left-wing political groups, and unions, appear as a necessity in the evolution of capitalism. Capital itself requires strong unions capable of proposing economic measures which can valorise variable capital. The unions are not “traitors” in the sense that they betray the programme of the working class: they are quite consistent with themselves, and with the working class when it accepts its capitalist nature.
This is how we can understand the relationship between the working class and the unions. When the process of breaking away from capitalist society begins, the unions are immediately seen through and treated in terms of what they are; but as soon as the process ends, the working class cannot help being re-organised by capital, namely by the unions. One may say that there are no “unionist” illusions in the working class. There is only a capitalist, namely “unionist,” organisation of the working class.
The development of the current relationships between unions and bosses in Italy illustrates what has been said. The evolution of Italian unions should be closely watched. It is normal that in relatively backward areas (from an economic point of view) such as France and Italy (compared to the United States), the effects of the modernisation of the economy are accompanied by the most modern tendencies of capital. What happens in Italy is in many ways a sign of what is maturing in other countries.
The Italian situation helps us understand the French one. In France the CGT and the PCF put up a reactionary resistance in the face of workers’ struggles, whereas in Italy the CGIL and the PCI have been able to re-shape themselves in terms of the new situation. This is one of the reasons for the difference between the French “May” and the Italian “May.” In France, May 1968 happened suddenly and could be easily misunderstood. The Italian situation proceeds more slowly and ultimately reveals its tendencies.
The first phase lasted from 1968 to the winter of 1971. The main element was the birth of workers’ struggles independent of the influence of unions and political organisations. Workers’ action committees were formed as in France, with one essential difference: the French ones were quickly driven out of the factories by the power of the unions, which in practice compelled them to have no illusions about the boundaries of the factory. Insofar as the general situation did not allow them to go any further, they disappeared. In Italy, on the other hand, workers’ committees were at first able to organise themselves inside the factories. Neither the bosses nor the unions could really oppose them. Many committees were formed in the factories, in isolation from each other, and they all began to question the speed of the assembly line and to organise sabotage.
This was in fact an alienated form of critique of wage-labour. Throughout the Italian movement the activity of far-left groups (gauchistes) was particularly noteworthy. Their entire activity consisted of limiting the movement to its formal aspects without ever showing its real content. They bred the illusion that the “autonomy” of workers’ organisations was in itself revolutionary enough to be supported and maintained. They glorified all the formal aspects. But since they are not communists, they were not able to express the idea that behind the struggle against the rhythm of the line and the working conditions lay the struggle against wage-labour.
The workers’ struggle itself met no resistance. This was in fact what disarmed it. It could do nothing but adapt to the conditions of capitalist society. The unions, for their part, altered their structures in order to control the workers’ movement. As Trentin, one of the leaders of the CGIL, said, they decided to organise “a thoroughgoing transformation of the union and a new type of rank-and-file democracy.” They reshaped their factory organisations according to the pattern of the “autonomous” committees which appeared in recent struggles. The ability of the unions to control industrial strife made them appear as the only force capable of making the workers resume work. There were negotiations in some large concerns like Fiat. The result of these negotiations was to give the union the right to interfere in the organisation of work (time and motion, work measurement, etc.). The management of Fiat now deducts the union dues from the workers’ pay, which was already the case in Belgium. At the same time, serious efforts are being made to reach an agreement on a merger between the biggest unions: the Socialist UIL, the Christian-Democrat CISL, and the Italian CP-led GGIL.11
The Italian example clearly shows the tendency of unions to become monopolies which discuss the conditions of production of surplus-value with other fractions of capital. Here are quotations from Petrilli, president of the State-owned IRI (State Holding Company), and Trentin:
Trentin: “Job enrichment and the admission of a higher degree of autonomy in decision-making by the workers’ group concerned (in each factory) are already possible… Even when, because of the failure of the union, workers’ protests lead to irrational and illusory demands, the workers express their refusal to produce without thinking, to work without deciding; they express their need for power.”
Petrilli: “In my opinion it is obvious that the system of the assembly line implies a real waste of human capacities and produces a very understandable feeling of frustration in the worker. The resulting social tensions must be realistically understood as structural rather than conjunctural facts… Greater participation of the workers in the elaboration of production objectives poses a series of problems having to do less with the organisation of work than with the definition of the power balance within the firm.”
The programmes are identical and the aims are the same: increased productivity. The only remaining problem is the sharing of power, which is at the root of the political crisis in many industrial countries. It is likely that the end of the political crisis will be accompanied by the birth of “workers’ power” as the power of wage-labour, under various forms: self-management, “popular” coalitions, Socialist-Communist Parties, left-wing governments with right-wing programmes, right-wing governments with left-wing programmes.12
If the Censier-based committee had cared to publicise its action, it might have made a name for itself and would now be as famous as the Situationist-influenced CMDO, the Council for the Maintenance of Occupations. The CMDO, described by the SI as “a link, not a power,” was active in the Sorbonne from May 10 to 15, when it decided to break up and its participants moved to another university building, ten minutes’ walk from both the Sorbonne and Censier.
In the situationist history of ’68, Enragés & Situationists in the Occupations Movement, (1968, English translation by Autonomedia, 1992) René Viénet writes disparagingly about Censier: “Other ‘councilist’ tendencies (in the sense that they were for the councils without wanting to recognize their theory and their truth) appeared in the buildings of the Censier annex of the Faculté des Lettres, where they held, as the “Worker-Student Action Committee,” a somewhat impotent discussion which could hardly progress towards a practical clarification. Groups like “Workers’ Power” and the “Workers’ Liaison and Action Group,” made up of many individuals from various enterprises, made the mistake of accepting into their already confused and redundant debates all kinds of adversaries or saboteurs of their positions—Trotskyists and Maoists who paralyzed the discussion, and who even publicly burned an anti-bureaucratic program drawn up by a commission assigned to the task. The councilists were able to intervene in some practical struggles, notably at the beginning of the general strike, by sending members to help in a work stoppage or to reinforce picket lines. But their interventions often suffered from defects inherent in their very grouping: often several members from a single delegation offered fundamentally conflicting perspectives to the workers.”
Viénet is as self-satisfied about the CMDO (hence, the SI and himself) as dismissive of Censier. He conflates the undeniable deficiencies of councilism with what the Censier Action Committees really did. Ironically, the Situationists owed a lot more to councilism than they ever realised, and a large part of the critique of ultra-leftist ideology developed in the next text would apply to the SI: see chap. 4, note 1. The CMDO certainly had posters and leaflets widely circulated, in France and abroad, whereas Censier was a lot more connected to workplaces, but the truth is, both were among the best radical aspects of ’68.
On our critique of the SI: Critique of the SI (1979); Back to the SI (2000), available at http://www.troploin.fr/node/5; The SI, extract from The Story of Our Origins, La Banquise #2, 1983. All available on the johngray site. Also And the SI?, from La Banquise no. 4, 1986, available at http://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/and-the-s-i/.
For an active participants’ view of Censier: Fredy Perlman, R. Gregoire: Worker-Student Action Committees: France, May ’68 (Detroit: Black & Red, 1969), and Lorraine Perlman’s biography Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years (Detroit: Black & Red, 1989), available on the Anarchist Library site.
- 2. Gierek was the Polish party leader and ruler of the country from 1970 to 1980.
- 3. In 1983, the French socialist government granted labour the right to a full pension at 60 (on the condition of a 37.5 year contribution). Needless to say, since then, things have repeatedly changed for the worst, under left and right governments.
- 4. This was true of Poland in the early and mid-1970s. Whereas in democratic countries, only a minority of the labour force rejected the unions, in bureaucratic regimes, the mass of workers distrusted unions which were part of the State apparatus. But when Solidarnosc was born in 1980 as a grassroots militant union, it had a large genuine working class support. Solidarnosc combined social and national-democratic demands, which was to be expected in the context of a popular revolt against a dictatorial regime backed and controlled by a foreign power (the USSR). With the benefit of hindsight, it is now easy to realise that the 1970s Polish worker resistance and rebellion were not part of an ascending communist movement. Solidarnosc eventually became legal, helped form the first post-bureaucratic government, and its leader and symbol, Lech Walesa, was elected President of the Republic.
- 5. After 1972 in France, and in the late ’70s in Italy, the revolutionary tide that François Martin and the rest of us expected to rise started to fall. Since then, unionism has gone downhill, without fading away completely. While in the West and Japan, blue collar unionisation in the manufacturing and mining sectors has considerably declined, union density has sometimes increased in the service and public sector, particularly in the United States. In Asian, Latin American, and South African factories, unions can be very active, and new ones are born. As long as capitalism exists, as long as labour confronts capital, labour will resist and organise one way or another.
- 6. This 1972 statement may sound odd forty years later, still we hold it to be valid. Growing unemployment in the West goes together with a global increase in the number of wage earners, not only in the United States but also in France, and even more so on a world scale, where millions of people have been forced into the hardship of modern labour in the last decades, all over Asia in particular. As for France, although the proportion of “manual workers” has decreased in relation to the whole working population, in absolute figures they are more numerous than they were in 1972. We do not live in a post-industrial society.
- 7. Two writings by Émile Pouget (1860–1931) can be read under the title “Sabotage,” a short 1898 text (https://www.marxists.org/archive/pouget/1898/sabotage.htm) and a 1912 book (http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emile-pouget-sabotage).
- 8. “Job enrichment” was to prove more ideological than real. In the 1970s, in the old industrial metropolises, bosses failed to promote worker participation in the running of the shop floor. Since then, ruthless neo-Taylorism in the “New Industrialized Countries” has made a sham of worker participation. Instead of motivating labour by giving it minor responsibilities, business operates on the “Do as you’re told” principle. Whatever “job enrichment” there is takes the form of compulsory multi-tasking.
The Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU) was an odd mixture of people disillusioned by the old official socialist party (called SFIO, which was in office many times after 1945, supported colonial wars, repressed strikes, etc.), and of younger elements in search for a militant modern social democracy. At the same time, a prominent PSU member, Pierre Mendès-France, was a long-time politician, ex-minister and even head of state in 1954–55. Unlike the “workerist” CP, the PSU stood for a “new working class” where technicians and white collar employees would be able to take part in managing the firm. Various PSU members became famous among the spokespersons of May 1968, and later influential in the CFDT. Some leaders later joined the new Socialist Party (PS). After several splits, the PSU disbanded in 1990.
The Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail was born in 1919 as the CFTC (second “C” for Christian): an anti-CGT, anti-socialist union, until it gave up the religious reference in 1966 and became the CFDT, a more open, more “democratic,” more tolerant federation than the CGT. Though it organised far less factory workers than its rival, it had a few local strongholds in industry. After 1968, the CFDT developed a pro-self-management discourse which attracted a number of young militant workers and was in tune with the spirit of the time. A decade later, social utopian well-wishing paled before hard economic reality: the CFDT’s demands and policy became even more “class accommodationist” than those of the CP-controlled CGT.
Both PSU and CFDT stood at the crossroads of the old declining “worker movement” and a rising modernist broader “social movement.” Both had their heyday in 1973–74 when the LIP watch-making plant was occupied and partly self-managed by the labour force. For a while, LIP was a symbol of fraternal worker mutual creativity, as opposed to bureaucratic undemocratic statist socialism favoured by the CGT and CP.
- 10. The French CP’s general secretary made it perfectly clear in 1970: “There are workers we’ll never defend: those who smash machines or cars they manufacture.”
- 11. The merger failed to materialise: in 2013, UIL, CISL, and CGIL still exist as three separate union federations.
Like the SI roughly at the same time, this text regarded Italy as a research lab of proletarian action and capitalist counter-offensive. In the 1970s, Italy was to display a rich variety of workers’ autonomy: indiscipline, absenteeism, meetings on the shop floor without notice, demos on the premises to call for a strike, wildcat picketing, blockade of goods… A permanent feature was the rejection of hierarchy: equal pay rise, no privileged category, free speech… Another aspect was the attempt to go beyond the distinction between representation and action in the functioning of the rank-and-file committees. Such self-organisation was essential as a means of collective action, but when it failed as an organ of a social change that did not come about, it disappeared with the rest of the proletarian surge.
It was no accident that the big factory committees of northern Italy were only loosely connected: resisting the boss can be a local matter, whereas reorganising production and social life means going out of one’s workplace.