A short account of the Citroen Action Committee in the May 68 uprising, by Fredy Perlman.
ARIS, May 30, 1968
The Action Committees born throughout France at the end of May transcend half a century of left-wing political activity. Drawing their militants from every left-wing sect and party, from social democrats to anarchists, the Action Committees give new life to goals long forgotten by the socialist movement, they give new content to forms of action which existed in Europe during the French Revolution, and they introduce into the socialist movement altogether new forms of local participation and creative social activity.
This article will trace the development, during the last ten days of May, of a committee ( the Workers-Students Action Committee -- Citroen ) whose primary task was to connect the "student movement" with the workers of the Citroen automobile plants in and around Paris.
On Tuesday, May 21, a strike committee representing the workers of the Citroen plants called for a strike of unlimited duration. The factory owners immediately called for "state powers to take the measures which are indispensible for the assurance of the freedom of labor and free access to the factories for those who want to work." ( Le Monde, May 23, 1968. )
The same day that the owners called for police intervention, students, young workers and teachers who on previous days had fought the police on the streets of Paris formed the "Citroen Action Committee" at the Censier center of the University of Paris. The first aim of the Action Committee was to cooperate with the factory's strike committee in bringing about an occupation of the factory. The Action Committee's long-term goal was to help bring about a revolutionary situation which would lead to the destruction of capitalist society and the creation of new social relations.
Action Committee Citroen is composed of young French and foreign workers and intellectuals who, from the committee's inception, had equal power and equal voice in the formulation of the committees projects and methods. The committee did not begin with, and has not acquired, either a fixed program or a fixed organizational structure. The bond which holds together former militants of radical-left organizations and young people who had never before engaged in political activity, is an uncompromising determination to dismantle the capitalist society against whose police forces they had all fought in the streets.
The committee has no fixed membership; every individual who takes part in a daily meeting or action is a participating member. Anyone who thinks enough people have gathered together to constitute a meeting can preside; there is no permanent president. The order of the discussion is established at the beginning of the meeting; the subjects to be discussed can be proposed by any member. The committee is autonomous in the sense that it does not recognize the legitimacy of any "higher" body or any external "authority." The committee's projects are not realizations of pre-determined plans, but are responses to social situations. Thus a project comes to an end as soon as the situation changes, and a new project is conceived, discussed and put into action in response to a new situation.
On the day when the strike committee of the Citroen factories called on the workers to occupy their factories, the Citroen Action Committee launched its first project : to contribute to the factory occupation by talking to workers and by giving out leaflets explaining the strike. One leaflet was a call to worker-student unity in the struggle "to destroy this police system which oppresses all of us... Together we'll fight, together we'll win." ( Leaflet "Camarades," Comité d'Action Travailleurs-Etudiants, Centre universitaire Censier, 3Ã¨me etage. )
Another leaflet was the first public announcement of the committee's uncompromising internationalism. "Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers are imported like any other commodity useful to capitalism, and the government goes so far as to organize clandestine immigration from Portugal, thus unveiling itself as a slave-driver."
The leaflet continues : "All that has to end !... The foreign workers contribute, through their labor, in the creation of the wealth of French society... It is therefore up to revolutionary workers and students to see to it that the foreign workers acquire the totality of their political and union rights. This is the concrete basis for internationalism." ( "Travailleurs Etrangers," Comité d'Action, Censier. )
At 6:00 a.m. on the morning of the occupation, when the Citroen workers approached their factories, they were greeted by young workers, students and teachers distributing the orange and green leaflets. On that morning, however, the young Action Committee militants were greeted by two surprises. First of all, they found the functionaries of the C.G.T. ( the communist union ) calling for the occupation of the factory, and secondly, they were approached by the union functionaries and told to go home.
On previous days, the C.G.T. had opposed the spreading strike wave and the occupation of the factories. Yet on the morning of the occupation, arriving workers who saw the union functionaries reading speeches into their loudspeakers at the factory entrances got the impression that the C.G.T. functionaries were the ones who had initiated the strike.
However, the union, unlike the student movement and unlike the workers who had initiated the strike, was not calling for an expropriation of the factories from their capitalist owners, or for the creation of a new society.
The functionaries of the communist union were calling for higher wages and improved working conditions, within the context of capitalist society. Thus the functionaries strenuously opposed the distribution of the Action Committee's leaflets, on the ground that their distribution would "disrupt the unity of the workers" and would "create confusion."
The union functionaries did not spend too much time arguing with the Action Committee militants because the factory occupation did not take place as they had "planned" it.
Sixty percent of the labor force of the Citroen plants are foreign workers, and the vast majority of them are not in the C.G.T. ( nor in the smaller unions ). When a small number of union members entered the factory in order to occupy it, they were kept out of the workshops by factory policemen placed inside by the owners. The vast majority of the foreign workers did not accompany the union members into the factory; the foreign workers stood outside and watched. The union officials made a great effort to translate the written speeches into some of the languages of the foreign workers. The foreign workers listened to the loudspeakers with indifference and at times even hostility.
At that point the union officials stopped trying to chase away the Action Committee agitators : in fact, the officials decided to use the agitators. Among the militants there were young people who spoke the languages of the foreign workers, and the young people mingled freely with the foreign workers. On the other hand, the union officials, seasoned bureaucrats, were institutionally unable to speak directly to the workers : years of practice had made them experts at reading speeches into loudspeakers, and their loudspeakers were not leading to the desired effects.
Thus the functionaries began to encourage the young agitators to mix with the workers, to explain the factory occupation to them; the functionaries even gave loudspeakers to some of the foreign members of the Action Committee. The result was that, after about two hours of direct communication between the foreign workers and the Action Committee members, most of the foreign workers were inside the factory, participating in its occupation.
Proud of their contribution to the occupation of Citroen, the Action Committee people went to the factory the following morning to talk to the occupying workers. Once again they found themselves unwelcome. A large red flag flew outside the factory gate, but the young militants found the gate closed to them. At the entrances to the factories stood union officials who explained they were under strict orders ( from the union's -- and the C.P.'s -- central committee ) not to let students or other outsiders inside the factory. The young agitators explained that they had played a crucial role in the factory's occupation, but the expression on the faces of the union functionaries merely hardened.
That evening the Citroen Action Committee had an urgent meeting. The committees members were furious. Until now, they said, they had cooperated with the union; they had avoided an open confrontation. Their cooperative attitude had made no difference to the union officials; the committee militants had merely let themselves be used by the functionaries, and once used up, they were rejected. It was about time to confront the union openly. The committee drafted a new leaflet, one which called on the workers to push past the union and take control of the factory into their own hands.
Due to the presence of union guards at the factory entrances, a relatively small number of workers read the leaflet. However, among these workers there were some who resented the union take-over inside the factory, and some who began attending the meetings of the Citroen Action Committee and participating in the political discussions at Sorbonne and Censier.
At this point the Citroen Committee together with other action committees at Sorbonne and Censier composed a call to action for the workers inside the factories. "The policy of the union leaders is now very clear; unable to oppose the strike, they try to isolate the most militant workers inside the factories, and they let the strike rot so as to be able, later on, to force the workers to accept the agreements which the unions will reach with the owners," the leaflet explains. However, the leaflet continues, "the political parties and the unions were not at the origin of the strike. The decisions were those of the strikers themselves, whether unionized or not. For this reason, the workers have to regain control over their work organizations. All strikers, unionized or not, unite in a Permanent General Assembly ! In this Assembly, the workers themselves will freely determine their action and their goals."
This call for the formation of General Assemblies inside the factories represents an appeal to expropriate the capitalist class, namely an appeal for insurrection. With the formation of a General Assembly as the decision-making body inside the factory, the power of the state, the owner as well as the union ceases to be legitimate. In other words, the General Assembly of all the workers in the factory becomes the only legitimate decision-making power; the state is bypassed, the capitalist is expropriated, and the union ceases to be the spokesman for the workers and becomes simply another pressure group inside the General Assembly.
Unable to communicate these ideas to the workers at the factory, the Citroen Action Committee drafted a new project. Since sixty percent of the factory's workers are foreign, and since the foreign workers live in special housing projects provided for them by the factory owners, the Citroen Committee decided to reach the workers at their homes. The foreign workers were spending their days at their living quarters since they were no longer able to transport themselves to the factories ( the transport to the factories is also furnished by the factory owners, and was obviously not being furnished during the strike ).
Since this project was conceived during a period when gasoline was scarce in Paris, most of the participants had to hitch-hike to the housing centers. Several related projects were suggested by the Action Committee militants to the foreign workers. First of all the foreign workers were encouraged to help those strikers who were calling for worker-control of the factories, and not merely for wage-raises. And secondly, the foreign workers were encouraged to organize themselves into action committees in order to cope with their own specific problems.
The Action Committee's project initiated and stimulated various kinds of activities among the foreign workers. In some of the living quarters, courses were organized for foreign workers who know no French. In Nanterre, for example, the occupation committee of the University of Nanterre granted a room to a newly formed Action Committee of Yugoslav workers. The room was to serve for political meetings and French lessons. In another center, workers organized to protect themselves collectively from abuses by the landlord's ( namely Citroen's ) agent at the housing center. In some of the ghettos around Paris, where poor workers had run out of food for their families, trucks were found to transport food from peasants who contributed it at no cost. Contacts were established between the foreign workers and the revolutionary workers inside the factories. Foreign workers were encouraged to join French workers in the occupation of the factories. On each excursion to the living quarters, the Citroen Action Committee members told the foreign workers not to let themselves be used as strike breakers by the factory owners.
In all of the contacts between the Citroen Action Committee and foreign workers, the Committee's internationalism was made clear. When the committee members called for the expropriation of the owners and the establishment of workers' power inside the factories, they emphasized that the power over the factory would be shared by all laborers who had worked in it, whether French or foreign. And when some foreign workers said they were only in France for a short time and would soon return home, the Action Committee militants answered that the goal of their movement was not to decapitate merely French capitalism, but to decapitate capitalism as such, and thus that, for the militants, the whole world was home.
- 1 An abridged version of this article was published in the Guardian, June 29, 1968.