Daniel Blanchard (a/k/a Pierre Canjuers) discusses his experience as a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie during the 1950s and 1960s in this undated interview published in 2008.
From Workers Autonomy to Social Autonomy: The Experience of Socialisme ou Barbarie. An Interview with Daniel Blanchard1 – Amador Fernández-Savater
Introduction: the radical gaze
How can thought sink its teeth into reality? That is, how can it be faithful to the old command: “Do not interpret, but transform, by means of collective action….”? For decades the revolutionary party was the answer to this question, as the hinge between theoretical elaboration and political practice, as a view of the whole, and as an expression of universality and an articulation that dispelled the risk of corporative, trade-based fragmentation, etc. It was “the organ of collective thought”, as even the councilist theoretician Anton Pannekoek admitted. By means of the revolutionary party, Marxism ceased to be merely another variety of theoretical speculation and became a material force for practical social transformation. Its truths not only constituted formulations of reality, but molded reality, and produced effects. However, although it reemerges now and then dressed up in new clothes, the answer of the revolutionary party is no longer anything but an illusion. The discourse of the totality, which rises above particular struggles and deduces the political line (the “must be”) from analysis, can only be an effect of language; seductive, proud and completely impotent at the same time. The problem remains, however, although the traditional response to it has been without vigor for decades. The problem of how to record, conceptualize, communicate, embody, accompany and intellectually reinforce the manifestations of social transformation, new forms of politicization, and the search for autonomy.
If autonomy is always creation, that is, the constant reinvention of something different from what is offered by society, and therefore the emergence of the new, of what is not yet inscribed on the present moment, how can we read it with the conceptual schemas inherited from the past? If each era constructs its own forms of radicality, it is nonetheless a reified past that teaches lessons to the present and imposes its own models on it: whether they be armed struggle, or a counter-power or alternative project of society. One thing we can be sure of, however, with respect to this question, is that the processes of a new radicality will never take the forms that we expect them to take: they are always born with impurities, mixed with old elements, sometimes camouflaged, that had lain hidden for decades, and arise in the form of apolitical or anti-political expressions…. The situationists called attention to the “criminal and secretive” aspect that the class struggle had always adopted in every one of its appearances: anti-trade union struggles, wildcat strikes, the “generation gap”, etc. Today we cannot even be sure that what will reappear will display any continuity with the old class struggle, which defined the historical conflict for centuries. How, then, can we interpret the processes of the new politicization if every one of them “betrays” the form assumed by the previous processes (the creation of the Workers Commissions [CCOO] is a betrayal of the form of the underground resistance and the emergence of the “anti-war” movement is a betrayal of the form of the Workers Commissions). What remains of the thread of continuity that allows us to claim that these phenomena have something in common? The search for radicality necessarily requires a radical search. That is, by immersing oneself in the thought of the era, in its experience, in its body. To accompany with one’s thought the new processes of politicization implies a parallel creation of new concepts, new names, and new images. It is not enough to open up our eyes to see the present without trying to force it into the mold of our preconceptions, without categories elaborated in advance which draw the line between the visible and the invisible, without the burden of repetition. A radical gaze is always a constant struggle against the ideologies that repeatedly reinsert what is new into the old schemas, taking advantage of the exhausting toil that underlies all experimentation. It is not, however, a primarily critical or negative struggle. The radical gaze is above all a construction project based on very heterogeneous materials: readings, events, encounters, misfortunes, creative gestures, and signs of refusal. Distinct fragments of the social material that can function as a zoom lens or an interface between the particular and the general, the existential and the political, the individual and the social. The radical gaze experimentally elaborates these materials: it records, synthesizes, conceptualizes. And it in turn produces mental spaces, sayings, images. It is a laboratory, that is, a space that is only marginally separated from everyday life, where, however, everyday life is the raw material; it is a laboratory whose purpose is to contaminate the external world and to transform it.
There have been, are, and will be many laboratories of critical thought. Some are exclusively composed of books and instruments for measurement. In other cases, however, the heat source is experience itself, passions, injuries, and crises. In some cases the materials are chosen in accordance with a pre-existing pattern. And in others, mysterious potions are compounded at the risk of plunging the entire laboratory into disorder. In some laboratories they use rods, beakers and filters to avoid coming into contact with the substances that they are handling. In other laboratories, they inhale the vapors as a first-hand test to determine whether or not their mixtures are working, even though they know that they could be toxic. In one laboratory, safety and hygiene. In the other, a great deal of caution in handling difficult materials that are constantly unstable. There are those who have a mania for classifying everything and there are also those who utilize deliberately provisional and hesitant formulas, which nonetheless permit them to make progress. Some do not draw any definite conclusions despite the wealth of the materials they have collected, while others formulate unprecedented solutions practically from thin air. It is the latter that interest us.
The following interview is an attempt to get to know one of these microcosms, one of the laboratories that plunged into the depths of the malaise of an era: Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB). This revolutionary collective, born in 1948 from a break with the Trotskyist movement regarding the question, at that time decisive, of the “nature of the USSR”, subsequently undertook the analysis of the bureaucracy as the epochal experience that defined the entire reality of the East as well as the West, and eventually also elaborated a critique of alienated everyday life that went beyond class contradiction, a critique that encountered a powerful echo in May ’68.
Daniel Blanchard was a member of SouB from 1957 to 1965. And as he has demonstrated in various texts and a thousand conversations, he is someone who is quite capable of a passionate and vivid narration of that history, ironic with respect to the boundless ambitions of the past, but who is neither a penitent nor a renegade with respect to his devotion to critical thought, with an especially attentive gaze for the details that can truly illuminate the process of the construction of experience, as if they were the seams of a suit or of “the hidden rivets and joints that must be discovered” (Benjamin).
Why SouB; how can its experience be relevant to us today? From 1948 to 1967, the group passed through an era of total bankruptcy of the traditional models of revolutionary thought and action, in which new struggles, at first fragile, that were completely irreconcilable with the inherited theoretical frameworks unexpectedly emerged. Because SouB rejected the primacy of theoretical schema over practical experience, it first of all set itself the task of discovering how to crystallize the motivating idea of the group and its sole truth: it is men who make their own history. This is the task of seeing the invisible and, even more difficult, of accompanying it and instilling it with value. This is why its history can have such powerful resonance in our time: it speaks to us of the process of (self-) construction of a radical gaze in a historical era marked by indetermination and openness where in addition we find precisely the first signs of the labyrinthine passage that leads us from workers autonomy to social autonomy.
The history of SouB seems truly inspiring to me, not as a model containing lessons, but rather as “exemplary action”2 that admits and seeks a thousand distinct withdrawals, resurgences and remissions. The situation has once again radically changed and therefore we must once again seek “the keys to situations”. Many of SouB’s analyses and tools could undoubtedly be reread and reutilized today from the perspective of our current emergency. But that is not the purpose of the following interview. Here we shall attempt to get a closer look at this process of invention of the group, which always constitutes the heart of a radical gaze. Thus, what the experience of SouB can “teach us” is that critical thought is not a result, but a process. It is not composed of procedures, but a way of looking at the world. It is not about a handful of more or less extremist conclusions, but a rigorously situational construction.
Critique is crisis
Amador: In “Crisis of Words”3 you have attempted to explain your idea of critical thought.
Daniel: I think that a discourse or a voice can suddenly become effective and actively “critical” or “revolutionary” at the moment when a certain configuration of the changing reality of history confers upon it the power of magnetizing, reflecting, and amplifying innumerable dispersed voices. In more general terms, it can be said that a text or even a proposition is animated by the critical spirit when the movement that inspires it resonates with the movement that reveals it in reality; that is, when it emerges and assumes form as an analogue of the crisis of the real.
Amador: And was this the case with Socialisme ou Barbarie?
Daniel: I am still convinced that at the time when I encountered the group  and for a few years after that, the continuous movement of the invention of ideas combined with the confrontations of these ideas with one another and with reality caused each one of us to perceive in this adventure, which was the life of the group, a true critical spirit. And I think this is true for many reasons, such as the impacts they have upon each other at different levels. The theoretical work of the group (work that must not be separated from a certain degree of practical invention inspired by an interest in accommodating the forms of organization and the contents of revolutionary politics in the here and now, with the meaning that our analysis of modern society appeared to give the Revolution) then found itself immersed in a crisis of the gaze that certain individuals directed at the world; a crisis, therefore, that affected its thought and the life of its members, and which is nothing but the same crisis that we undergo whenever we are ineluctably compelled to face the fearful necessity of looking at things “with sober senses”, as Marx says. Furthermore, this project evidently brought down a crisis upon an entire corpus of received opinion or dominant ideas—regarding contemporary history, society, the economy, politics, etc.—and especially the Marxist corpus. Ultimately, this project was summoned into existence and fueled by the crisis that the group detected in society, a crisis whose manifestations—especially the Hungarian revolution—would validate and provide further stimulus for the group’s theoretical work. It could be said that, at the time, the discourse of SouB was authentically critical because the arsenal of concepts that it deployed and the weapons of the Hungarian insurgents or the Algerian resistance were aimed in the same direction, against the same powers of the lie and domination, the nullification of thought and of life itself. All of a sudden these concepts ceased to be mere concepts and became words, as if, thanks to a “special effect”, we could see them issuing from the throats of the rebels.
Rethinking everything without fear of isolation
Amador: It seems to me, however, that this “special effect” that you mention did not arise by chance, but is the result of a whole process of inventing new ways of perceiving the crisis of the real, which allowed the group to experience this crisis and to give it categories and names. Let us go back to when the group first formed: what was the first thing about the group that attracted you and made you want to find out more about it?
Daniel: There was one aspect that was very important for me and I think for most of the members of the group as well, which was this impression of being in contact with modernity itself: of being there not for the purpose of repeating hundred year old formulas to describe capitalist society, but to understand the truth of what capitalist society was in our time. What this entailed was understanding society from the perspective of our own experience, that is, not from that of abstract schemas but by virtue of a way of theoretical elaboration that would allow for the contributions that each person could make to the task of understanding modern reality.
Amador: And why did you feel that the existing formulas were no longer valid?
Daniel: After the Second World War we entered a completely different situation. The USSR could no longer continue to be viewed in accordance with the Trotskyist theory, that is, as a degenerated workers state, half-way between capitalism and socialism, but rather as a capitalist society of a new kind, characterized, on the one hand, by the total concentration of capital and its complete fusion with the state and, on the other hand, by the constitution of a new class—the bureaucracy—which collectively exercised power over the means of production and the proletariat. All of this sounds today like a byzantine dispute over the sex of the angels, but it was nonetheless a theoretical point on the basis of which Castoriadis, Lefort and those who joined them broke not only with Trotskyism, but with classical Marxism as well, and finally with Marxism as a whole. The first manifestations of this divergence were already published in the first issue of the journal, Socialisme ou Barbarie. The overwhelming reality of a new society made it necessary to analyze the latter with new categories. This is the point of departure. And the category of bureaucratization functioned as an analytical approach for all of society, including, of course, western society. Domination, oppression and alienation were no longer linked to the capitalist structure as Marx had analyzed it—the relation between owners of capital and proletarians—but to the bureaucracy as a dividing line between rulers and ruled, those who give the orders and those who carry out the orders (in enterprises, parties, trade unions….).
In France, the advent of the Gaullist regime inaugurated a project for the rationalization of French society that resulted not only in the liquidation of the “sugar” and the “oil refinery” lobbies, but more importantly in the transformation of colonial rule into neo-colonial imperialism and, with respect to the productive system understood in its widest sense, by a reorganization of labor in the name of the imperatives of control and efficiency. Numerous service industries, especially the post office and banks, were mechanized and industrialized, and the employees proletarianized. The standard definition of bureaucratic procedure and control was applied to the fields of information and research. In the universities, where the first stages of “democratization” triggered a large influx of students, this same spirit of “rationalization” wreaked havoc, as it tended to model the contents of teaching and professional qualifications in accordance with the needs of the productive apparatus for managerial personnel. From consumption to leisure, from information to the transmission of knowledge, from the laboratory to the factory, everything had to be subjected to the principles of instrumentality and functionality, a goal that is absurd and foreign to the lives of “ordinary people”. Then we redefined the “fundamental contradiction” of capitalism as the crisis and conflict between bureaucratic domination (its servility, irrationality, opacity) and autonomy.
Amador: From the end of the forties to the revolts in the East (Berlin 1953, Hungary 1956), the group embarked on an authentic “sojourn in the wilderness”. That was the price that had to be paid for the radicality of its critical analysis of the bureaucracy and for its position on class autonomy. Orthodox Marxism, which at the time considered itself the arbiter of “the right to live in the world”, absolutely rejected both hypotheses. I am impressed by the group’s resolve, without any recognition or visibility at all. Where did you find the strength to stay the course?
Daniel: I was not a member of SouB during that period, but I soon enough found out that it had been a very difficult and bitter time. The group had only 15 members. Looking at the index of the journal, you can see that the early issues only came out once a year or so and that each issue was very good. A reflection of the difficulties. I think that the strength that kept the group together had two facets. First, the absolute conviction that theoretical labor was essential for the reconstruction of a revolutionary movement. This idea was perhaps most typically represented in the two revolutionary intellectuals, Lefort and Castoriadis. For them, theoretical labor must be relentlessly pursued even if it has no immediate and perceptible echo in society. Second, the fact that these intellectuals were accompanied in the group by other people who completely personified the figure of the revolutionary militant, people who were very determined and who had not abandoned their militancy under even the worst circumstances, such as Vega (the pseudonym of Alberto Maso, a Catalonian who was a member of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War). We must not picture the members of the group during this “sojourn in the wilderness” as pastors without a flock, but rather as militants and combatants. The very bitterness with which the Stalinist party, and its “fellow travelers” who served as its auxiliaries in the intellectual milieu, closed off all the possible means of dissemination of a revolutionary critique of the bureaucracy was a stimulus for them. It is certainly admirable, the fact that during a period of complete isolation, of a paucity of truly creative and meaningful proletarian struggles, the guiding idea of the group remained, even under those conditions, to be in contact with the essential reality of society, until the point came when its views were vindicated by the insurrectionary events in Eastern Europe. Perhaps this also gave us a feeling of intellectual mastery over reality that caused us to be too sure of ourselves.
Not a victim, but a subject
Amador: “Where is the proletariat? Where can it be found, if the organizations that it had itself constructed no longer represent it?” These fundamental questions stimulated and sustained the first stage of the intellectual and militant history of SouB. The usual answers to these questions at the time essentially defined the proletariat as a victim who passively suffers its living conditions, which requires an external leadership to educate it about its living conditions and to lead it to a different world, etc. SouB’s response, however, is quite different.
Daniel: In any event, we thought that it was an active victim! I think we can get a better understanding of the history of the group if we start with this question about the proletariat rather than with the analysis of the bureaucracy. Let me explain. There is an essential idea in SouB that is really the driving force of the group’s theoretical production: it is men themselves who make history and if there is any prospect for revolution we have to seek its sources in the practice of human beings in society. This is the idea that underpins the group’s theoretical trajectory throughout its history. Bureaucratization is linked to this, insofar as the practice of men in society (particularly in their labor, during the group’s early period) calls attention to and makes visible the central fact of bureaucratization, which in turn can explain both the crisis of western society as well as that of the Soviet regimes. Castoriadis summarized it this way: “We cannot understand anything about capitalism and its crisis in a profound sense except by way of the most comprehensive idea of socialism. Because everything we have to say can be ultimately reduced to the following: socialism is autonomy, the conscious direction exercised by men over their own lives; capitalism, private or bureaucratic, is the negation of this autonomy and its crisis results from the fact that, while it necessarily instills in men a tendency towards autonomy, it is at the same time compelled to suppress it.” How did the group express the idea that it is human beings themselves who make their own history? The first issue of the journal responded as follows: the proletariat must be recognized in productive activity itself, which is a properly creative activity, not only of wealth for society, but also of technical skills and self-organization, both for the purposes of the productive process as well as resisting exploitation, and is therefore creative of an experience, and thus, potentially, of consciousness. Our analysis revealed the extent to which the capitalist organization of labor had, in fact, rendered production impossible. In order to make a living and earn their wages, the workers had to disobey the rules and, to a large extent, themselves assume responsibility for organizing the labor process. This “counter-organization” of labor, as we called it, was at the same time an organization of resistance against time studies and the general oppression experienced on the job. And it therefore appeared to us to be the incipient core of a possible self-organization of struggle and, even more, of society as a whole. Even in assembly line labor, where planners have gone to great lengths to eliminate the “counter-organization” of labor, it was not possible to entirely do without human activity and cooperation. As Castoriadis explained, “the new technologies can only be massively applied if millions of workers are concentrated together, which by itself opens up new possibilities that cannot be exploited if the workers do not collaborate. [Those who work on assembly lines] are not illiterate peons, but a mass of semi-specialized workers, homogeneous and disciplined by their jobs, indispensable for production”. Capitalism soon learned about this capacity for self-organization in labor—this was the accomplishment of American industrial sociology—and used it to its advantage.
Amador: “The proletariat is its own creation and its own theory”, Lefort would later write.
Daniel: I do not know if Lefort would say that the proletariat is “its own creation”. In “The Proletarian Experience”, for example, he admits that one cannot repudiate an objective analysis, not only of the historical developments that led to the birth of the proletariat—and of which, of course, it could not have been the only “creator”—but also of its current conditions of existence, upon which the technical development and concentration of capital have had an enormous influence. It is its own creation insofar as it exists for itself, that is, insofar as it is “its own theory”. In any event, however, regarding this point I think that, even if there was no explicit opposition from the rest of the group, this formulation was especially characteristic of Lefort. For Castoriadis, or for Philippe Guillaume, I think that the proletariat is above all creative activity, a potentially autonomous subject, and therefore a subject for itself, but also alienated, because the consciousness that it possesses of itself is only rarely elaborated as “its own theory”. That is why they need the organization of revolutionaries which, in an organic and permanent dialogue with the proletariat, systematizes its experience and derives from this the revolutionary horizon.4
The speech of the workers
Amador: If the parties and the trade unions are denied the feature of being the authentic representatives of the proletariat and if it is claimed that the latter only exists in itself, the problem immediately arises of perceiving what the proletariat wants and what it is doing, and of recirculating this experience, displaying it, communicating it, articulating it. How can this perception be organized? It is not enough just to listen. Concrete ways of “listening” and “dialogue” have to be invented. SouB undertook various attempts of this kind to concretely explore this proletarian experience and to organizationally come to terms with it: the words, “The Word to the Workers”, adorned every issue of the journal, which contained the testimonials of workers, which the group obtained directly or else translated from other sources; it featured direct surveys carried out at the high points of various struggles (such as, for example, the survey they conducted in Belgium during the strikes of 1961); the working class press….
Daniel: The working class newspaper was viewed as an interface (to use the contemporary word) between the revolutionary group and the workers. It also allowed at the same time for such things as “letting the workers speak”, recording first hand experiences and analyzing them in depth, intervening in the struggles or even serving as an organizational nucleus for an action committee…. It was a tool of agitation and organization but also a mirror at the same time, a receptacle for the workers testimonials. These testimonials revealed the initiative which is demonstrated by the workers, both in their work as well as in their struggles, their capacity for self-organization and their tendency to autonomy. The role of the proletariat as bearer of the revolutionary potentials of society was thus localized in their everyday activity in the concrete process of production rather than in the abstraction of economic relations. And this subversive speech of the workers, re-inscribed in the accumulated experience of the greatest moments of the workers movement, provided a positive basis for our understanding of a liberated society at the time—a society that we still called socialist. This was in short the principle underlying the profoundly innovative detour taken by Castoriadis in order to elaborate what he called the “content of socialism” in two long articles published under this title in issues nos. 22 and 23 of the journal. If revolutionary critique traditionally began with the analysis of capitalist society and its defects in order to deduce the nature and the possibility of a socialist or communist society, Castoriadis begins by describing the institutions and operation of socialist society, that is, one that is totally self-managed, such a society as we can extrapolate on the basis of the most advanced achievements of the proletariat in its struggles, focusing in particular on the workers councils of the Hungarian Revolution. Next, in the subsequent stage, this positive model is used to shed light upon and analyze everything that is wrong with existing society. Thus, the ideas that the revolutionary may have regarding the society in which he lives and the one that he aspires to live in, are not the result of either utopian dreaming, or of an alleged science of history, but of the creations of the workers movement. The proletariat is, by its practice, the perpetual inventor of revolutionary theory and the task of the intellectuals is limited to synthesizing and systematizing it.
Amador: Theory as the perspective of the struggles: this priority of experience over ideology as a modus operandi strikes me as very contemporary….
Daniel: Whereas the Leninist organizations kept the manual and intellectual workers strictly separated in specific roles (the latter educating the former in any case), in SouB we devoted special efforts—which were often unsuccessful—to abolish this separation. For example, the relationship between Daniel Mothé5 and Castoriadis was an interesting example of the collaboration of a very intelligent worker, as Mothé was, and a theoretician like Castoriadis. The ideas that Castoriadis elaborated helped Mothé to understand his own reality in the factory. And Mothé was then able to analyze his experience in a very concrete way that in turn nourished the theoretical labors of Castoriadis. But maybe you overestimate, in the practice of theoretical elaboration within the group, “the priority of experience over ideology” (understanding that we are not talking about ideology here in the Marxist sense of the word: a discourse of the ruling class that seeks to veil the reality of its rule). While it is true that revolutionary theory must assume the point of view of the struggle in general, it cannot—except in special cases, like that of Hungary in 1956—assume the point of view of particular struggles. The point of view it assumes—and this constitutes the very foundation of radical critique—is that of the latent and permanent “struggle” of men and women for the reconquest of control over their own lives, for their autonomy. On the basis of this basic and founding struggle, theory evaluated and sometimes criticized particular struggles. This is very clear with respect to our activities during the Belgian strikes or the strikes analyzed in the journal’s regular column, “How to Fight”. What is most striking about our pamphlet on the Belgian strikes is that this theoretical view of society and its “crises” determines the selections of interlocutors and their testimonials about what they experienced. In the same way, when Mothé, Henri Simon or Philippe Guillaume provide an account of their experience at work or of the role of the trade unions at their workplaces, they do so without the slightest hint of naiveté, but rather as social-barbarian militants, as militants of autonomy. The same holds true in the case of the “workers accounts” we received from the foreign comrades of the groups, Correspondence, News and Letters or Solidarity. It was Danilo Montaldi who went to the most extreme lengths in the search for documentation of the experiences of the rank and file.6 In his Autobiografie della leggera (i.e., an autobiography of the marginal elements of the fifties and sixties), he established such close relationships with the “subjects of his autobiographies” that they finally agreed to write their autobiography, that is, to themselves engage in a labor of reflection and, so to speak, of “theorization” concerning their lives.
A shift of perspective: opening up to other creations
Amador: When you first found out about the group you were a student at the Sorbonne. What was your personal motivation to join a group whose attention and whose expectations were principally directed towards the proletariat of the manufacturing industries?
Daniel: The group provided us with the opportunity to discover particular aspects of modern reality that we had never noticed within the bounds of our own individual experiences. For example, thanks to the group I got to know quite a few workers, who informed us about the nature of factory work. The American comrades had a major influence on us, especially the small group, Correspondence7 (based in Detroit, that is, in the very heart of the American auto industry), whose members told us what life was like in what were at that time the most modern cities in the world. In addition, a little while later the Solidarity8 group was formed in England, with Chris Pallis and Ken Weller. All of these people were rank and file comrades and their environment was the factory of England and America. For us, these experiences represented (for me, for example, a petty bourgeois who came from a more or less intellectual background and who had studied History and a little Philosophy at the Sorbonne) an opening to a world that was completely unknown to us. And it was in addition an opening that was not abstract but concrete, because it was bound to an experience of struggle and was not mere sociology.
Our interest in the world of the workers was by no means the other side of the coin of guilt feelings. For my part, it was perhaps instilled by my childhood in the mountains during the war, by associating closely with peasants who were practically Neolithic, and above due to the influence of the stories my father, who was in the Resistance, used to tell when he showed up at our house from time to time, out of nowhere [in English in the original—Tr. Note], almost mythical accounts of the battles fought by the partisans on the mountain peaks and in fabulous valleys in 1944, and I have always considered, beyond all reasoning, that harsh conditions of existence, which engender a powerful solidarity and elemental sociality, as the “real life”. I had the impression of living this myth a little with Mothé in particular. It was very much connected with him. At one time, I even thought of abandoning my career as an “intellectual” and he earnestly provided me with information about training opportunities in the construction trades….
Amador: Despite the fact that he may not be to your taste, I think it would be interesting to mention in this context Alain Badiou’s idea of “shift”. As opposed to the politics that is undertaken in its “own space” and refers back to an identity, “shift” is a concept that suggests a “delocalization” or a “journey”, that is, an opening of other places, other referents, other alliances, other creations and other interlocutors to political intervention. Unprecedented, unforeseen, unheard-of. The shift always begins with a gesture of dis-identification: to refuse to submit to one’s own destiny that is reserved for you by your social position and to open up to other worlds, practices, and creations. It is certainly true that in many cases, this “shift” could imply a religious, transcendent, and sacrificial idea of the political. I am thinking of biographies stamped with the Maoist slogan, “serve the people”. But the “shift” could also signify a liberation from one’s own social role, an enrichment in the fabric of connections with people that you would otherwise not have been destined to meet, the pleasure of crossing boundaries and establishing new social relations, even the development of one’s own voice in the encounter with “the other”, as happened in your case.
Daniel: When I first became acquainted with the group I had already overcome my qualms about being a Professor of History, and I knew that I would have to write papers in order to pass my exams at the Sorbonne. But I can say that it was in SouB that I really learned to write in a rigorous and non-academic manner. To be exact, it was Guillaume (someone who had led an even more incredible life than Castoriadis: he had lived in the bordellos of Marseille and had done an infinity of things; he had also been a factory worker and, above all, he had always cultivated, as a self-taught person, an extremely fertile spirit, with a passionate interest in scientific, technological and military problems; he wrote things in the journal that are extremely interesting) who made me re-write the articles he assigned to me, and was more precise and rigorous in his criticisms than any professor had ever been with me. Finally, after so many years that had been so unproductively wasted stringing together turgid paragraphs of a dissertation so that my conformity could be verified by the exams, I began to learn how to write, that is to recognize, among the rigor and the inventiveness that are expressed by the written word, the dangerous expanse of the freedom of thought.
Despite the “Maoist” connotations of the term, I agree with what you said: I desired this “shift” as a liberation from the social role to which I was destined, as a proclamation of my freedom of movement in society, my freedom to be “another”, etc. It seemed intolerable to be “confined to house arrest”. At a deeper level, this desire was part of my mute revolt against the social order, which I felt was fraudulent. I do not want to frame it in theoretical terms, but I think that this—not being confined to one place, not having a place—is one of the most precious freedoms of modern man.
Autonomy as analytical tool
Amador: Reading the analyses that you devoted to various proletarian struggles of the time (workers in East Berlin, Hungary 1956, metal workers in Nantes, dockworkers in London or Liverpool, auto workers in Chicago, French protests against the war in Algeria, etc.), what strikes me is the great value that you attach to certain aspects of the struggle that generally go unnoticed or are considered to be quite secondary: for example, the importance of local demands (with reference to matters of safety, hygiene or break time on the job) and qualitative demands (concerning the conditions and management of production), the meaning of “silent critique” (inactivity, apathy towards the job) and informal struggles (cooperation, mutual aid), etc. What led you to focus on these “details”?
Daniel: In classical Marxism, the conflict over the distribution of the surplus value had a great strategic importance because, due to the tendential fall of the rate of profit, capitalism could not raise wages except at the cost of its own destruction. But in SouB we noted the long-term rise in real wages, that is, capitalism’s ability to assimilate the class struggle over the distribution of surplus value and to use it even for the purpose of rationalization and overcoming its crises. This realization made a major contribution to shifting the focal point of our analysis of the “crisis” of capitalism from the arena of exploitation to the arena of alienation (bureaucratic rule against autonomy), thus finally clearing the way to the critique of everyday life, understood in its broadest sense: from urbanism to the family, from consumption to sexuality or education….
But perhaps I should pause to clarify this notion of autonomy in order to explain the sense in which we utilized it as an “analytical tool” applied to struggles and, more profoundly, to modern society. With respect to conflicts at the workplace, autonomy was understood essentially as independence from the trade unions. More profoundly, however, we were interested in everything that could reinforce the autonomy of the workers as a class. Autonomy therefore meant cohesion, solidarity, equality, etc. In this sense, we always supported flat rate wage increases, resistance to time studies and, more generally, all those demands that challenged the power of the employers and the bureaucrats, and which undermined the legitimacy of the separation between order givers and those who carry out the orders. Not only did we seek to identify the manifestations of autonomy as a meaningful—although concealed—aspect of social life, but as expressions of the possible opening up of a revolutionary perspective. The struggles that involved a challenge to the foundations of domination seem to us to be so many milestones on the road to a revolutionary transformation of society. Thus, our analysis of social life had an underlying vision, one that was in a certain sense strategic—but obviously not strategic in the sense that Leninists of various stripes understand the word.
For example, we did not simplistically apply to national liberation movements a criterion of revolutionary potential (“the anti-colonial struggles will be a profound shock to the colonial enterprise in the rest of the world”, as was held by the strategic viewpoint of Leninism). There was nothing Third-Worldist about us, we thought to the contrary that decolonization would constitute an opportunity for the capitalist rationalization of modern capitalism and we clearly discerned that these movements had no chance to lead to revolution, as we understood the word. We did, however, think that with respect to what these movements expressed in the matter of spontaneous, “autonomous” revolt, of the assertion of dignity, of practical overcoming of the alienation of the colonized “savage” and of the “civilized” colonizer, they could contribute to the awakening of consciousness of all the dominated peoples—or help make this consciousness more profound where it already existed—in the developed societies as well. In this context it was vital to try to establish a link between these movements and the struggles of the proletariat in the developed countries. Lyotard’s analyses of the Algerian War that appeared in the journal can give you a very precise idea of the nature of our interest in the movements of national liberation: “When a colonized people abandons the arms of critique for the critique of arms, it is not content to change its strategy. It destroys, with its own hands and immediately, the society in which it lives in the sense that it annihilates the social relations that are constitutive of that society. These relations only exist because the men who live under them tolerate them. From the moment when men act collectively outside of that framework, they produce forms of conduct that have no place within the traditional relations governing individuals and groups […]. This situation of anxiety and uncertainty requires a response of intense activity, a thirst for experience and knowledge (communication, hypotheses and constant discussions). The most insignificant detail of reality is examined in relation to general questions. The future is not predetermined; anything is possible. All problems are fair game: land, trade unions, family, religion, industrialization, language, education, culture, etc. Not only is the problem of independence posed, but so is the problem of how to live when we become independent. The Algerians demonstrated for the meaning of life, not for the government. A government cannot be the meaning of life.”
Crisis of life
Amador: The time comes when “you have to choose between remaining a Marxist or remaining a revolutionary”. Your break with Marxism was based on the criticism of the idea that there is a central process (exploitation), a central location (the factory) and a central subject (the proletariat) in revolutionary politics. On the one hand, the group noted the entry onto the stage of new actors (workers with qualitative demands, colonial workers, blacks, women, students…) who did not express themselves only as victims of exploitation. On the other hand, a critique of everyday life was commenced (urbanism, consumption, gender relations, etc.), breaking with the themes of consciousness, the accumulation of objective contradictions, etc. How did the group take this step from the critique of exploitation to the critique of alienation?
Daniel: Perhaps I should describe SouB’s history in a little more detail. From the beginning, SouB broke with the Marxist-Leninist vulgate that reduced the proletariat to the socio-economic status of an exploited class. Confined within this “objectivity”, the proletariat has no subjectivity, its consciousness cannot surpass the level of trade union awareness, that is, it is limited to posing the question of the rate of exploitation. Neither subjectivity, nor consciousness, nor, therefore, alienation. Consciousness is itself objectivized in an alleged sense of history, a destiny dictated by history, which must be fulfilled. There is no alienation, except in the form of a blindness towards this historic destiny. Only the Party can overcome this blindness thanks to science, to Historical Materialism. Having confirmed the catastrophic result of this ideology, that is, the constitution of a new society ruled by a bureaucracy that emerged from the Party, which supposedly embodies the proletariat as historical and political subject, and behind which the proletariat effectively disappears, SouB assumed the task of rediscovering the proletariat where it was constituted, that is, in the concrete relations of production, in labor. And there, the group confirmed that the proletariat was alienated: under exploitation, because this reduces its humanity to the sole factor of labor power and its monetary value, the wage; and also in its labor, because it controls neither its modalities nor its goals (a form of alienation that is expressed in the separation between order givers and those who carry out orders), although it engages in constant struggle to re-appropriate for itself a certain amount of control over the process of production.
I think that the history of SouB can be understood as an effort to devote more profound study to this analysis of alienation and to extend it to all social groups and all aspects of social life.
The impact of this theoretical shift of perspective was, during that period, amplified by an important economic-social transformation that was then underway: the growing importance of intellectual labor in the process of production. The enterprise, and especially the large enterprise, was then beginning to integrate into its organizational structure vast services for applied and technical scientific research, for the rational organization of labor, for advertising, communications, sales, etc. These service departments were organized hierarchically, but unlike the classical production workshop they were not placed under a military discipline, but under a bureaucratic discipline, with a pyramidal structure of authority, positions of responsibility, wages and workers’ interests. Engineers, technicians, scientists, professors, doctors, sociologists, psychologists, administrators, economists, planners, organizers…. Innumerable concrete situations were created whose critical analysis could be undertaken primarily in terms of alienation. Alienation with regard to the social position in the pyramid, competition, the purposes of the enterprise, consumption as a sign of social recognition or prestige, etc. These points are characterized by a certain ambivalence, even a conflict, between a frustration that could go as far as revolt and the desire for integration and belonging. The economy’s new requirements for highly qualified workers led to a massive “democratization” of higher education, which resulted in a vast increase in the number of students, who came from heterogeneous backgrounds, and in a sharpening of the conflict between the “culture” that they were allegedly supposed to assimilate and that of their original environments, between the cultural function of the University and its “social” function, which was absolutely subordinated to utilitarianism.
We then began to re-examine questions like the problem of gender relations (which Marxism had been dealing with for almost a century) and the problem of youth (which played a very special role in that period, especially in the movement against the Algerian War, all the more so insofar as we young people—who could have been drafted—were compelled to be most concerned with this issue). Throughout the world, students participated decisively in the radical movements of that time: I recall the case of South Korea, where the student movement against the dictatorship was extremely violent, or the case of Japan, where we were in contact with the massive radical student movement known as Zengakuren. Of course, I also remember the American movement, and the English movement against the Bomb (the Ban the Bomb Movement), which was largely composed of young people, and in which our friends in Solidarity played an important role. By the way, the guys in the Ban the Bomb Movement stole the secret plans for building bomb shelters for the exclusive use of members of the government from the Ministry of the Interior: thousands of copies of these plans were made and immediately distributed, provoking a major scandal. The incident was known as Spies for Peace. Amidst all the excitement, the movement against the bomb sent the perpetrators of this theft to France for refuge from the police. The two guys who came stayed in my house, where they were well hidden—although the French police almost arrested them for drinking wine in the street! The unity of such apparently disparate activists (proletarians, students, women, technicians) was to be realized and revealed at the same time in May ’68. This can be seen in the innumerable narrations of first hand experience that we could hear in the Odeón Theater in Paris, which revealed the common basis of alienation and oppression shared by all the actors of modern society. Particularly moving was the pleasant surprise felt by so many of those people who suddenly recognized their own experience in the experiences of others.
Amador: During the first stage of SouB, the idea of the proletariat as subject of History was the center of social-barbaric theory. But after 1963, there is no longer any subject of history: the struggles themselves are the subject. There is no need to wait for the “objective contradictions” of capitalism: the main contradiction is subjective, the rejection of a way of life submitted to the bureaucracy and therefore one that is submitted to repetition, silence, and infantilization. In taking this step, SouB was torn apart and in 1963 another divide opened up within the group between those who supported the thesis of Castoriadis (the “Tendency”) and those who insisted “the proletariat was still the only revolutionary force in capitalist society” (the “anti-tendency”). The “anti-tendency” defended the validity of wage struggles and also pointed out that if the objective development of capitalism does not offer a basis for the development of consciousness, there is no other solution than voluntarism, subjectivism and existentialism. Along these same lines, Lyotard (a supporter of the “anti-tendency”) denounced your passage “from exploitation to the crisis of life”.
Daniel: It is certainly true that numerous analyses made by SouB during its last years called attention to the socially widespread sensation of absurdity, which SouB characterized as a sense of inadequacy that could eventually find political elaboration in the development of revolutionary consciousness. The separation between order givers and those who carry out the orders, between formal and informal organization, between rules and life, resulted in an irrationality that, in the form of background noise, was also manifested in a thousand details of everyday life: the obligation to conform to rules that are neither widely observed nor alone capable of upholding the system, a rationalization of labor that only introduces more disorder and conflict, decision making processes concerning technological and scientific activity that are completely out of control and therefore tainted by the senselessness of their demands for rigor and responsibility, etc.
The importance of the crisis of meaning in the group’s critical analysis was constantly increasing. I recall that the book, Growing Up Absurd, by Paul Goodman, was an important point of reference for us. It was a book about adolescence, about the journey to adulthood. Goodman profoundly and vividly describes how the individual is then led into a situation without meaning for him, one that is absurd. Lyotard, Vega and the rest effectively reproached us for elaborating an existentialist theory, without reference to the class struggle, exploitation or capital. This is especially curious in the case of Lyotard, because he very soon switched sides and now only speaks in terms of “existence”. This idea of the crisis of meaning is more valid today than it was then, but perhaps in the past responsibility for this situation could easily have been attributed to an oppressive system, or to some structural causes. There is gender oppression, an authoritarian educational system, etc. One way or another, today everyone is assigned the task of managing their own absence of meaning, of managing their own absurdity. This absence of meaning is manufactured by the system as an essential aspect of the functioning of the machine as a whole (of making money, etc.).
From laboratory to echo chamber
Amador: The paradoxical fact that SouB dissolved one year before 1968 never ceases to be a source of bemusement for me. In May many of the group’s hypotheses were verified. I think that if the initial student revolt then encountered such a powerful echo in the workers’ milieu this was precisely due to the fact that in both cases the same reality was being fought: the organization of all social activity in accordance with the bureaucratic model of efficiency, productivity and control. The fact that bureaucracy was the “dominant practice” that was being combated in May was also revealed in the light of the fact that the forms of the revolt were the same for both students and workers: spontaneity, decentralization, self-expression, initiative, individual responsibility. In short, autonomy. How do you explain the paradox of the dissolution of the group on the very threshold of the event that would confirm its analyses?
Daniel: As I have explained, for the revolutionary organization as such and as conceived by SouB, it was vital to establish a relation of dialogue with the struggles, and more generally with the social practices of rupture. Vital because, I repeat, the manifestations of the profound “crisis” of society, of its “fundamental contradiction”, constituted the only basis for its critique, once the science of the meaning of history and utopian constructs had been discarded. But it was necessary for these manifestations to exist…. Anyway, starting in 1959 (the absence of any working class reaction to DeGaulle’s coup d’état) and especially after 1962 (the end of the war in Algeria and of the opposition that it had spurred among one part of the youth), Castoriadis and those who followed him believed that they could discern a process of “privatization” underway—the withdrawal of individuals from the public sphere and their seclusion in private life and consumption—that neutralized explicit forms of opposition. It was for this reason, finally, that the decision was made to “suspend” the publication of the journal and to dissolve what remained of the group SouB (in the letter sent to the journal’s subscribers, the following explanation was given for this decision: “in a society where radical political conflict is increasingly concealed, stifled, and led astray, and in its most extreme forms is non-existent, a political organization can only rapidly degenerate”).
In retrospect, I think that the concept of “privatization”, consistent with the analysis we carried out with respect to modern capitalism, suffered from a kind of abuse of theoretical radicalism. The theory of “modern capitalism”, that broke so resoundingly with the traditional Marxist or Marxoid schemas, was built up into a terrible impassable monolith that cast a shadow upon the era that prevented us from seeing some very important things, the same things that in a way explain May ’68. We confined ourselves in a vicious circle: a theoretical project, one that wanted to be based in the concrete experience of society, crystallized into a conceptual schema that broke the bond that conveyed that experience and justified this closure in a purely theoretical posture (which, of course, in Castoriadis then found a fertile new resource in philosophical interrogations). Our ideas no longer really composed a political discourse, not even a critical discourse in the sense in which we understood this term, that is, a discourse of rupture. For what else could constitute the source of a discourse of this kind, if not the acts, gestures and words that, from among innumerable social scenes, alter and disturb the existing state of things? In sum, the desire to open theory to what was new contracted and shut the door on reality.
Militant theory (revolutionary, critical, radical…) is not only a mental thing, as Leonardo would say, but also a social and political thing. What I mean is that the relations of production of theory determine the political nature of the theory produced. In the extreme case, we could even say that the connection between what is experienced, the empirical facts and the concept is not just a logical connection, but also a political one. In this sense, the formula of Lefort—“the proletariat is its own theory”—implied the rejection of the revolutionary organization as such, and as it was understood by Castoriadis. SouB was engaged in a profound theoretical journey (as political critique) as long as we were dedicated, not just to “expression”, but to passionately listening to what society had to say from its depths. When we no longer listened to anything—and we thought that there was nothing to hear—then our political theory was exhausted and silenced. I describe this whole process from a very subjective angle in Crisis of Words.
I questioned the “classical” political practice of SouB in the light of May ’68. Except in rare cases—such as the activity of Henri Simon at Assurances Générales or when we participated in demonstrations—action was conceived essentially as a form of speech: analysis of a situation, proposal of actions to engage in…. This was in part due to objective reasons: the group was numerically very weak, and had a presence in very few enterprises. But I believe that this isolation within the sphere of discourse also derived from an exaggeratedly intellectual concept of consciousness, and therefore of alienation. One does not construct one’s own consciousness, so to speak, with knowledge, one does not overcome alienation by means of information (at least not with information alone) but rather, above all, by way of action and experience, with the depth of passion of which each person is capable. This seems to be obvious, but to me it did not seem to be obvious until May ’68. In this sense, the political practice of the March 22 Movement, which they somewhat pretentiously called “exemplary action”, was a revelation to me. It was not about carrying out a model action, but of setting an example that showed that action was possible. “If it seems right to us, we do it.” They broke with the idea that action is a product of an exhaustive and total analysis of reality. They assumed the diversity of society: they did not set an example of what should be done, but one that opened up possibilities, trusting to its contagiousness.
In eras of social and political rupture, the activity of the revolutionaries has always been limited to being a “world game” that involves the production of a simulation, an analogue of the game that undergoes real but subterranean development “on a natural scale”. And this in vitro activity can prove to be quite fertile, as has been demonstrated, I believe (at least with regard to the fifties and sixties), by SouB and the Situationist International. The moment finally arrives, however—perhaps inevitably—when this closed off laboratory becomes an echo chamber within which its residents interpret the reverberation of their own words as the voices of history; they had ceased to listen and to “feel” themselves think and, intoxicated with liberty, with fresh air and freedom of speech, they emit the most absurd foolishness like a burst balloon.
To prevent this from happening, I think that among other things critical theory has to grapple with the shadowy regions of the real, just as each individual must lucidly come to terms with his own shadowy regions: the fact that the world is not complete; the return of the repressed in history (I am referring to historical possibilities that at any given time are not apparent, but are not totally extinguished either and now proceed along underground paths, and are transformed in contact with the real, but they also transform it unnoticeably and are capable at the first opportunity of reemerging as the real itself); the subjective shadowy regions (the death wish, voluntary servitude, the erasure of the reality principle described by Baudrillard…), etc. I think that the theoretical journey of SouB did not take all of this very much into account and it had a tendency to unjustly constrain the real within models that were too narrow, models that were rationally quite satisfactory but which did not make an allowance for their abolition or their collapse. Having said this, I think that radical, revolutionary critical theory is not a science; its purpose is not to provide a comprehensive, neutral account of reality. It is a political act carried out in order to transform the world and seeks to reveal within the real the potentials for positive action (as defined by the theory). Which is not to say that it is devoted to optimism. As far as I am concerned, I undertake the labor of critique (I am not a theoretician; I just take from here and there whatever seems pertinent to me) somewhat as a Pascalian wager: there is no more than one chance in a thousand that a positive transformation of the world will take place, but it is this possibility that interests me, to which I contribute my support and where I grasp my taste for living. I bet on this possibility, without being blind to others.
[Translated in July-August 2013 from the Spanish text:
Fundación Espai en Blanc (Coord.). Luchas autónomas en los años setenta: Del antagonismo obrero a malestar social, Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid, 2008, pp. 259-283.
Available online (August 2013) at:
- 1 Daniel Blanchard (Paris, 1934) is a writer, poet and translator. Among his publications we should mention Idéal portrait (1984), Halte sur la rive orientale du lac Champlain, Vermont (1990), Fugitif (1994), Ici (2001), Vide-poches (2003) and his book of poems, Battant, dormant (2005). In Spanish, Acuerla & A. Machado has published Crisis de palabras: notas a partir de Cornelius Castoriadis y Guy Debord (2007).
- 2 Speaking about his experience in the March 22 Movement during May ’68 in this same interview, Daniel says: “I think that the most interesting thing about it was its conception of action: what they called ‘exemplary action’. This was not action-as-a-model, but action that set the example showing that action was possible.”
- 3 One of the essays featured in Crisis de palabras: notas a partir de Cornelius Castoriadis y Guy Debord, Madrid, Acuarela & A. Machado, 2007.
- 4 SouB broke with the Leninist tradition that was based on a victim-oriented conception of the working class, and opted for “class autonomy” against the program and the leadership of any revolutionary party. How can an organization of revolutionary militants contribute to this autonomy, without representing it or leading it? In 1958, the debate in the SouB concerning organization led to a split between the “majority” and the “minority”. The debate reveals various ways of understanding the unity of the workers and the “intellectuals” in a collective practice of organization and action. On the one hand, Castoriadis (and along with him, the “majority”) said: there are not always struggles, so struggles do not necessarily accumulate memory, language, radicality; an organization is required that will preserve and develop them, an organization of “revolutionary militants”. On the other hand, Lefort (and the “minority”) opted instead for a “facilitating vanguard” that would contribute to the “conceptualization, support for and communications of” the workers struggles and experiences. “The workers movement”, according to Lefort, “will not follow a revolutionary path unless it makes a complete break with the mythology of the party, in order to seek its forms of action in multiple core groups of militants who will freely organize their activity and who will assure, by means of their mutual contacts, their information networks and their connections, not only the confrontation, but also the unity of their working class experiences”.
- 5 Daniel Mothé, whose real name was Jacques Gautrat, was employed between 1950 and 1972 at the Renault factory of Boulogne-Billancourt as a machinist. He joined SouB in 1952. In 1954, he began publishing, with Gaspard (Raymond Hirzel) an agitational bulletin that was distributed in the factory: Tribune ouvriére. His analyses of the workers living conditions, first published in SouB, were revised and re-issued in two books: Journal d’un ouvrier (Minuit, 1959) and Militant chez Renault (Seuil, 1973).
- 6 Danilo Montaldi was a very important figure in the anti-Stalinist extreme left who learned about the work of SouB in Italy and was one of the first people to practice such political innovations as the inquiesta operaia (labor survey), one version of which was the “worker’s testimonial” practiced by SouB. He was the founder of the group that published the journal Unitá proletaria from within the Italian Communist Party.
- 7 As Philippe Gottraux explains in Socialisme ou barbarie, un engagement politique et intellectuel dans la France d’aprés guerre (Payot, Lausanne, 1997), SouB’s links with the United States were first forged within the confines of the Fourth International, between the militants who founded SouB and the militants grouped around the Johnson-Forest Tendency of the Socialist Workers Party. Johnson was the pseudonym of C.L.R. James and Forest was the pseudonym of Raya Dunayevskaya. This left wing minority faction left the Trotskyist organization in 1951 and became an independent organization that began publishing the workers bulletin Correspondence in 1953. Correspondence also featured the presence of Ria Stone (Grace Lee Boggs). Gottraux draws attention to the parallel trajectories of SouB and Correspondence, both of which started from a critique of the Trotskyist interpretation of the USSR, then passed through a period of workerism characterized by the very great value attached to workers self-expression, and finally extending the critique of capitalism beyond class exploitation by casting their gaze upon the emergence of new contradictions in society during the sixties.
- 8 The organization Solidarity for Workers Power, commonly known as Solidarity, was active on both the terrain of the workers struggles as well as in the context of the campaigns that emerged in England during the late fifties in opposition to the atomic bomb. Ken Weller, an active militant in Solidarity, was also a shop steward, that is, a workshop delegate elected directly by the rank and file workers. In 1961 he wrote an article in SouB about this particular form of workers organization that had engaged in struggles that broke with the classical framework of trade union representation. See Socialisme ou barbarie, un engagement politique et intellectuel dans la France d’aprés guerre, Philippe Gottraux, Payot, Lausanne, 1997. Concerning the role of the shop stewards, see the article by Castoriadis, in Spanish, “Las huelgas de la automatización en Inglaterra”, published in La experiencia del movimiento obrero, Vol. I, Cómo luchar, Barcelona, Tusquets Editores, 1979. [Note of the Spanish Editor]