Article on the need for autonomous organizations by the ICO (Informations et correspondances ouvrières). Translated for Root & Branch #3 in 1971.
Revolution and Violence: A Few Reflections - ICO
Revolution & Violence: A Few Reflections
The following article was written by a French comrade a year ago. To the extent that it describes the development of various currents in the left, mostly student groups in France, it is still mostly accurate. We are publishing it, however, not so much for this reason as for its discussion of certain problems of action and organization faced by would-be revolutionaries everywhere.
Since May 1968 things have developed quite a bit in France within the revolutionary (or supposedly revolutionary) groups. During a ﬁrst period, for about the ﬁrst year after the "events", the movement as a whole waited for a renewal of operations. At the end of July 1968 the word was, “as always, the revolution will take place in October." The reopening of the universities appeared full of promise. After that, everyone waited for May 1969. When this anniversary passed, however, it became clear to everyone that history never reproduces itself twice in the same way and that it is useless to await the repetition of events and action already behind us.
In the university this situation was reﬂected in the students’ progressive loss of interest in the struggle. Mostly they fell back into reformist illusions. As time passed, these illusions wore through a bit and gave way to a sort of openly displayed disgust and apathy. The students ﬁgured out that their passage through the Faculties doesn’t (if it ever did) open up a route to the upper strata of the ruling class, and most often they saw it simply as a way to delay their entry into the world of production. Studies appear to them as a way to prolong the “freedom” of adolescence. Such is the ideological expression of the material condition of the students. Of course, this situation is not at all against the interests of the ruling class. If university enrollment was seriously decreased through some new system of selection, the result would be the entrance of a large number of young people onto the labor market, with a dangerous increase in unemployment. On the other hand, keeping the students at school, a sort of unemployed relief, has two advantages: it permits the damming up of this ﬂood of labor-power and preserves it as a threat to other workers; and it concentrates the dissidents of every stripe in regular ghettos. When their time is up, the students will have learned something more or less useful and, with age, will be calmer and more easily directed.
During this time the politically-minded students found themselves reduced to near powerlessness within the Faculties. While certainly tolerated by their fellows and not without their sympathy, they neither carried the mass of the students with them nor really even touched them. In such a situation, sectarianization could only accelerate. Divided because they were weak, splitting more and more, the students were compelled to accentuate the divergences among themselves. Unable to be embodied in real action on things, these divisions necessarily took the ideological form of a radicalization of positions of principle. But it is only fair to say that in this process a certain number of basic political problems were posed and that this resulted in profound divisions within the left movement.
The ﬁrst serious break occurred at the time of the 1969 presidential campaign. While Rouge* didn't hesitate to present a candidate, Alain Krivine, and the AIS† limited itself to supporting Duclos (the PC candidate), the other groups — maoist or anarchist — came out against the elections, which they recognized quite correctly as one of the classic weapons with which the bourgeoisie interests and involves the whole population in its affairs. From this fundamental division — and it should be emphasized that on this point the Leninist groups that came out against participation in the elections broke with a very important part of their master's doctrine — others had to follow.
All the little grouplets agreed on one point: that it was necessary to get out of the Faculties, the ghetto where they were supposed to be confined. “The march to the people" became the general slogan. But how to march? The march to the people requires some response on the part of the people. But today the “people” are still kept well in hand both by the PC (of which much is said) and by the Gaullists (whom people tend too much to forget). This is not to say that the people oppose neither the PC and CGT nor Gaullism, but that it does this only sporadically and temporarily just for limited actions in concrete situations. From this point of view the class struggle has remained on a very low level compared with the pre-war period.
It is, however, undeniable that these limited actions take on a more violent, a more “wildcat” character than before. This undeniable State of affairs is not accidental: it results from the evolution of the capitalist system itself. Its reorganization, its increasing concentration, the necessary destruction of former loci of compromise (parliaments. etc.), further developed integration, leave to the producers and the other layers of the population crushed by this evolution only the resource of brutal revolts which those in power can only repress by force. This was already happening before May 1968, which from this point of view can be seen as a point at which accumulated forces found necessary release. The workers no longer hesitate to go out on wildcats, to go beyond the pale set by the unions, to lock the bosses up in their offices; petty shopkeepers tackle the cops violently, truckers block the roads, etc., just as the students didn't hesitate to fight in May 1968.
The students reacted to this situation in two ways.
For those who followed the traditional schema, it was necessary to pursue the usual sorts of political actions: enter the trade unions to transform them and toughen them up, make alliances with parties of similar positions, etc. This approach met some people's needs. This explains the relative success of this type of leftism in certain workplaces as a certain radicalization of the bread-and-butter struggle got under way.
For others, the creation of a new union. pure and tough, was or is necessary. But attempts in this direction didn't (and can't) get anywhere. If you're going in for union-building, thinks the average worker, mostly non-unionized anyway, you may as well keep the old ones.
The other group started from an analysis of the union in action, or rather of its negative role. These comrades have practically stopped talking about the “treason” of the trade unions, and see them as tied to the capitalist system and thus as instruments of integration. Let us note that in these analyses the other side of the dialectical story is missing. It is necessary to pick out in what respects the unions remain useful to the working class in its daily life. Otherwise the analysis of the real role of the unions vis-a-vis capital is incomplete, making it impossible to understand the attitude of the workers and the facility with which the unions co-opt every wildcat movement by legally consecrating the gains they win.
The recognition of the unions’ negative rule in the revolutionary Struggle and of the uselessness of wishing to transform or make use of them, has constituted a second division among the politicized students. We should stress that the refusal to participate in union activity signiﬁes for the Leninist groups which have adopted it another fundamental break with the teaching of their master. An analogous break with old forms of thought occurred in the case of the anarchists who were forced to recognize that anarcho-syndicalism no longer has any meaning.
The problem of violence has always held a veritable fascination for the intellectuals of the developed nations. The word action tends to have meaning for them only when coupled with the adjective violent and “violent action” means ﬁghting the police, brutality, etc. After May 1968, when streetlights played a not negligible role in opening things up, many people came to think of violence as an end in itself. Instead of seeing in the brutal violence which goes on today the expression of the need of groups (students, shopkeepers. even workers) to make their voices heard in the system, they see it as pure action against the system. This Sorelian point of view leads very quickly to the greatest of political confusions: that of defending in the name of violence alliances between classes and social strata whose roles in the capitalist system are at the very least disparate.**
On this question a new division within the movement takes shape, one which ought to lead to a conception of revolutionary violence more profound than that of violence as an end in itself. It is this point that I wish to develop in what follows.
It is a banality to say that bourgeois society exudes brutal violence from all its pores. Not only does violence appear, exalted or attacked, at all levels of culture, but it can be found in everyday life, where it has become so habitual that it appears normal. The pool of blood is part of the decor of daily life. Car accidents and industrial accidents, veritable assassinations, are naturally assimilated with destiny, meet only with general indifference, and reveal themselves objectively as media for the emergence of a violence which is always there in latent form. Not to speak of past wars, the remembrance of which continues to mark generations, memories — and also perspectives — which vivify the images of massacre and genocide of the present wars. But against this conditioning to bourgeois violence develop, like a by-product, reactions — individual or collective — opposed to the bourgeois world: terrorism. strikes, wild demonstrations, even insurrections. The multiplicity and diversity of these reactions prove that we are dealing here with inevitable phenomena, and the truth of the slogan: we are right to rebel.
But faced with the inevitability of these revolts, the attitude of many comrades is not to investigate things more deeply but to echo Chairman Mao's phrase, "Power ﬂows from the barrel of a gun." Out of this they construct a regular theory of urban guerrilla warfare in the developed countries of which the least one can say is that its foundation is not very sure. This theory only illustrates a romantic attitude to violence.
For the largest group of these comrades, the Gauche Proletarienne, the armed struggle begins tomorrow if not today. Whence the GP’s commando operations, attempts to stir up factories by breaking into them and painting slogans, beating up foremen, etc., the proclamations of triumph in their newspaper, La Cause du Peuple. It is quite remarkable that the GP has produced no real theoretical position, no definition of the ends sought. One could say that from this point of view they join the revisionists (the real ones, from pre-1914) who said with Bernstein: the end is nothing, the movement everything.
The GP is undeniably attractive to everyone, anarchists and council communists included. All of us who are intellectuals admire the well struck blow, the exhibition of cool in the face of repression, self-sacrifice, etc. The intellectual trades do not predispose to moral courage — quite the contrary. So everyone is attracted to “heavies“, and feels ready to accord them a political OK, as if physical courage was in itself a proof of political truth. On this ground one would have to support the Nazis and the fascists, or the bolsheviks who were undeniably heavies in the good old days.
On this point there ought to be a new break. For a certain number of comrades the analysis of the GP is erroneous. It is not that they question the phrase “power ﬂows from the barrel of a gun" but simply that they feel that the times have not yet reached this point. In taking this position they are thrown towards those of us who think that armed struggle, while it will someday be inevitable, is not the essence of revolutionary violence.
It is thus necessary to pose the question, what is revolutionary violence? The way in which we answer this question strongly determines the style of actions which we wish to carry out.
Revolutionary violence is in essence the opposition of the class of producers to the bourgeois class, the class which, individually or collectively***, controls the means of production. This violence must culminate in the dispossession of the bourgeois class and the appropriation of the means of production by the producers themselves.
In general, every attempt, however weak, to organize production by and for ourselves is more violent than any destroying a machine or taking a boss prisoner. It is obvious that this organization of production by and for ourselves cannot do without holding bosses captive or eventually armed struggle, but the kind of revolutionary struggle we carry out depends essentially on the aspect — armed struggle or control of production — we wish to emphasize.
lf we stress armed struggle, if we see social transformation in terms of a simple “seizure of power", then the old Leninist arguments are irrefutable. The bourgeoisie meets the class of producers in motion with a united front and a unified command, and we must oppose it with our own united front. Faced with the bourgeois strategies we must develop strategies “of the people,” and as making war, even guerrilla war, is an operation demanding constant decision-making, we must set up a commanding group which is to decide everything and which is called to account, if at all, only in the course of more or less cultural revolutions.
This short analysis brings out the ultra-leftist character, in its consequences on the plane of organization, of the phrase, “power flows from the barrel of a gun.” More, one sees clearly its bourgeois and even quasi-fascist and stalinist character, which leads straight to the cult of the leader, respect for his decisions, obedience perinde ac cadaver, even to his thought.
This position, which maintains one of the fundamental distinctions of the bourgeois order, that between leaders and led, is particularly adapted to the backward countries where national capital has yet to be formed. lt has shown its efficacy in the Russia of 1917, and in the China 1946. In both cases it made possible the installation of state capitalism, which it preﬁgured in its division between those who know and think and those who carry out orders. It must however be noted that in both cases the ruling system had been shaken by a war with an external enemy (Germany in the case of Russia, Japan in that of China) leading to a collapse of the state apparatus. The other countries in which the gun succeeded in beating the power structure are certain former French colonies and Cuba. But even in these cases, the guerrilla victories cannot be attributed simply to the success of armed struggle. ln Cuba Castro’s action beneﬁted, at least in an early stage, from the aid or tacit accord of a certain fringe of American capital. ln the case of the French colonies, the necessary decolonization — i.e., change in the mode of exploiting one or another backward country — could not take the form which it took (for example) in the English colonies because of the imbecility of the French bourgeoisie, always loath to lose a little in the short run to gain more in the long. In both Indochina and Algeria the French occupation was torn to bits, faced with insurrection (undeniably more serious and farther developed in the former case), caught between the desire to leave and the desire to crush the revolt at its base like in the good old days. In both cases outside aid (Japanese, American, Nationalist Chinese, then Russian and Communist Chinese for VN, American and Russian for Algeria) was not without its inﬂuence on the evolution of these conflicts, which took on the character of rivalries between different capitalist states and economic interests. On the other hand, the OAS, a guerrilla movement undeniably “of the people” and like a fish in the water of the European population in North Africa, was bound to lose as soon as the French ruling class, strong and not in a state of collapse, made its choice and decided to impose it.
The theory of “power from the barrel of a gun” works, therefore, at best in the underdeveloped countries because — by its resemblance to the hierarchical system, by the facts that armed struggle allows the formation of the cadres or administrators of the future society and that guerrilla warfare allows the combination of a "democratization" at the local level with a centralization at the general level — it is adapted to the transformation of feudal society into state capitalism, to the replacement of the old ruling classes by new ones.
These few lines only skim the surface of this subject. We must return to it at greater length on some other occasion, for the clariﬁcation of ideas and the determination of differences between the Leninist groups and the others necessitates a critique of the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban regimes.
To return to the developed countries — developed, that is, from the viewpoint of national capital. If we see in physical violence and in the eventual armed struggle a by-product of the more profound violence which is the class struggle for the expropriation of the bourgeois class, we have quite a different position with respect to the immediate and future situation.
We see, to begin with, that change in the way the producers think is fundamental and that the role of any revolutionary “organization” is to do everything possible to aid this change. Without doubt it is essentially in their struggles that the producers acquire new ways of thinking, and it is vain to hope to “produce” such a change, especially when the “objective”, material conditions are lacking. Still the role, negative or positive, of ideology in the development of consciousness is not negligible. To spread the word on the real struggles of the producers, to show in what way they break with bourgeois tradition, to underline that in them which presages a new organization of society — this must be the work of a group if it wishes to be really revolutionary. lt is not a matter of constituting oneself as an avant-garde in exclusive possession of the truth and trying to impose it on the producers, but, simply, of becoming an echo of the totality of the thinking and practice of the group’s members, thinking and practice which themselves also are part of the class struggle. Spreading ideas does not mean using only "peaceful" means, or simply theoretical articles. Sometimes a well-timed action can play an important role in raising consciousness, even a very important role. (For example, the theft and distribution of 30,000 subway tickets by the GP may help people understand the absurdity of the urban transport system, etc.) What is essential, however, is to keep in mind that our actions, our positions, are only a little part of the social process, and for the most part are important only for ourselves. This is why it is essential not to get locked into one type of action, into one organizational form, or into one-upping other groups.
This leads us to the question of "revolutionary action". To deal with this seriously we must distinguish certain characteristics of the producers’ movement for the control of social reality, characteristics which depend on the development of the struggle.
In fact — to adopt a "triadic" mode, reasoning in the Maoist style — we can distinguish three phases in the revolutionary process, three phases which cover many years — for the revolution itself, while it is an acceleration and a qualitative transformation of history, cannot be reduced to some great day, even the longest of the year. These three phases correspond to three different levels of development.
(a) ln the ﬁrst phase, the producer understands that he/she is exploited. This consciousness is now reached by everyone. Nearly always the producer sees that he/she is exploited even if the factors of integration push him/her to forget it and if — as is mostly the case — he/she ﬁnds this exploitation normal and seeks only to enter the group of exploiters.
(h) ln a second phase, the producer understands that he/she is exploited in common with other producers, that is to say, that he/she is part of an exploited class facing an exploiting class. This second phase of consciousness exists at the moment in a latent state. Most often it is masked by trade union and (in France) Stalinist phraseology. It speeds up and becomes manifest in collective struggles, strikes, riots, etc., in which the solidarity of the producers in the face of the common enemy begins to assert itself.
(c) Finally, in the third phase, the producer understands that with his/her class he/she can transform society and suppress exploitation. This last phase (which can occur only in the developed countries for simple “objective”, material reasons) is by far the most difficult and in fact, historically, has never been reached. At most we have taken part in a few weak steps in this direction. In fact this task is a formidable one, not only in view of the counter-revolution it threatens to unleash, but also and above all because capitalist society has reached such a degree of complexity that it may appear impossible to master it by and for ourselves.
It is besides symptomatic and normal that while political groups and political theories exist corresponding to stages (a) and (b), those corresponding to the last phase don‘t exist, or barely do. The theories which we have only serve up again, with a sauce more or less reheated and spiced up, the social-democratic ideas left over from the last century, according to which the transformation of society will take the form of a “seizure of power” by “labor” organizations of the union or party variety. Far from posing the formidable problems raised by the possibility of the direction of production by “associated, free, and equal producers,” by the domination of work by humanity, by the necessary appropriation of technical skills by the mass of producers for their own use, by the transmission of knowledge, most of the "thinkers" limit themselves to contemplating or patching up the old fashions. For the most part they find that the socialist society will be realized as soon as competent people are in charge, especially if we are careful to make a little cultural revolution from time to time, which will put the really competent people in their rightful place. A fringe group revives the old myth of the “noble savage", the isolated producer reconciled with his/her work and producing for his/her own needs. Others think in terms of the total abolition of labor, which becomes unnecessary thanks to the development (by whom?) of an imaginary automation, an idea which in reality is equivalent to extolling a return to the stone age. Others, finally, are partisans of the “workers councils", the content of which is never made clear, and which is their Deus ex machina, like the party or "democracy" for others.
Without a doubt, as the first historical experiences show, the “council” form seems to he the one which will insure production and distribution in the new society, which will permit the development of the solidarity of all the producers and the realization of the satisfaction of the egoism of each in the satisfaction of the egoism of all. But one cannot escape the problem of how they are to be federated and coordinated. The only attempt at a theoretical solution of this problem is the book of the Dutch comrades: Grundprinzipien Kommunistischer Production und Verteilung, but this leaves the theory at an embryonic level, as does Pannekoek’s Workers Councils****.
Since a solution of this problem— or even a sketch of one— doesn‘t exist, one cannot be surprised if the most conscious militants, who are unwilling to remain at stages (a) and (b), are caught up in a sort of shit, not knowing what to do. The activity of any revolutionary group demands theoretical reﬂection. The absence of this reﬂection matches the weakness of the basic class struggle.
This theoretical work ought to take many forms, because the task to be accomplished is immense and has as many forms as life. It is for this reason that it is essential that there be thousands and thousands of autonomous groups all over the place, dealing seriously with the problems of theoretical and practical work. What we need is as much theory and as many actions as possible— far from the one correct political line dear to all Leninists (real or disguised), which is the spitting image of bourgeois sclerosis and death. This does not imply scattering the struggle-— much to the contrary— but an attempt to deal with social realities, and the recognition that the transformation of society will be the work not of some one political group but of the mass of producers themselves, because the basic struggle goes on at the workplace.
There is no need for groups to have a form determined in advance, to copy a speciﬁc model, to exist for eternity. Dissolutions, recombinations, reamalagations, fusions, clusters. etc. ought to go on. All of this is the condition of progress, as is the confrontation of ideas and experience, as is the action of each group or of each individual, as is also the collective actions and reﬂections of different groups or individuals. This is what went on during the revolutionary periods in Russia, Germany, and Spain (and even in China during certain phases of the cultural revolution), when real social ferment could be seen in the ﬂowering of autonomous groups.
The problem of “political organization" cannot be posed a priori. lt must take many forms: there is no need to set up guidelines. What is important is not to set up fetishes, to remain modest and to see oneself as a part, no more and no less essential than others in the development of revolutionary society, to be aware that if one transcends bourgeois society on certain points one remains still determined by it on many others, to seek as far as possible for actions which above all try to develop class consciousness and one’s own consciousness at the same time, to support the the autonomous action of the masses. By the development of our consciousness we can participate in the development of the struggle at our workplaces with our fellow producers. No place in society is privileged— neither the university nor the factory. The struggle against bourgeois society must go on at all levels.
“We are not lost and we will win if we have not unlearned how to learn.”
Reprinted from ICO (Informations et correspondances ouvrières)
*Rogue is the paper of the Ligue Communiste, one of the two most important Trotskyist groups. The Ligue Communiste succeeded to the J.C.R. (Jeneusse Communiste Revolutionnaire) prohibited after May 1968. It advocates a “revolutionary line" in the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky. It amounts to an alliance with the left wing of the P.S.U. (Parti Socialist Unifié, a small social-democratic party with many tendencies) and also to defend a stronger class struggle in factories. Its principal leaders are Franck and A. Krivine. Krivine was arrested by the French police for his participation in May '68, but he was nevertheless one of the candidates in the elections for presidency in '69.
†The A.J.S. (Alliance des Jeunes pour le Socialisme) succeeded to the F.E.R. (Federation des Etudiants Revolutionnaire) prohibited after May ‘68. This is another important Trotskyist French group. More “rightest” than Rouge (in May ‘68 they did not participate in the barricades) these Trotskyists advocate an alliance with the traditional P.C. (Communist Party). It’s main leaders are Lambert and P. Broue. Their paper is [i[Jeune Revolutionnaire.[/i]
**It is this fundamentally unthinking position with regard to violence which explains how the Gauche Proletarienne (a Maoist group, recently suppressed, inclined toward terroristic activity) and other Maoist groups advocate monstrous couplings between workers and shopkeepers simply because they express their — quite different - problems within the system through violence.
***Individually, in part, in Western capitalism, collectively in the state capitalism of the so-called socialist states.
****Parts 1 and 2 were published as Root and Branch Pamphlet 1 ($1).
From Root & Branch No. 3 (1971), pp. 7-13