A few reflections - Albert Chameau

Expanded takedown of Leninism and the need for many autonomous organizations. Based on an earlier piece by Informations et correspondances ouvrières translated in issue #3 of Root & Branch, a libertarian socialist journal.
This expanded commentary appears in the book Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 5, 2022

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. In France, after May 1968, when streetfights 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.

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 them­ selves 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 byproduct, 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.

Of all human activities, the most fundamental and the most mutilating is labor: fundamental because labor is the very condition of the reproduction of existence and, at least for an elite, a medium for accomplishment; mutilating because it is the very condition of the reproduction of dehumanization and, for the great mass of men, a medium of bondage. Bondage here means subordination to machines and more generally to rules, linked to capitalist production, by which only a small fraction of the ruling classes can pride itself on exercising a limited and most often an illusory power. In exploitative societies—which is to say, at present, in all the countries of the globe—not only is the producer separated from the product of his labor, but he is also reduced to the state of an extension of inert things which modify his behavior without his being able to act on them other than in the prescribed way. For example: the typist dedicated to typing so many letters a day, the worker condemned to tighten the same bolt on an assembly line until the day he retires, the professor giving the same course every year. He is crushed by forces outside him, forces to which he is lead to lend a character both eternal and ineluctable.

The attitude which as a consequence prevails is—pas­sivity. The mental habits formed at the workplace are carried over into life in general. In this latter domain as well, everything tends to reinforce the attitudes of submission and passivity. Just as at work the producer finds himself subjected to preordained systems, so in public life he accepts the domination of institutions and concepts against which he can do nothing, and which strive to mold him and impose modes of conduct on him: nation, government, parties, unions, armies, vacations clubs, culture, etc.

The producer has in fact lost all autonomous life, that is to say, the power to influence, himself, the course of his existence. He compensates for this loss by an exacerbation of what appears to him as his individuality, which in reality is the result of his very conditions of labor: the typist seeks to make herself valuable to her boss, the worker seeks to fulfill his norm, the professor aims at being distinguished, the condition for a successful career.

Thus the division of labor has for corollary the glorification of an individuality false by definition, since a person is the product of the labor of all persons. The individual no longer sees reality except in himself. If he finds himself in a position of power others will appear to him only in the form of abstractions which he can manipulate or sacrifice as he wishes. Adolf Eichmann is perhaps the best example of the kind of humanism whose development contemporary society promotes in individuals. Eichmann felt himself incapable of killing by his own hand; nevertheless he followed orders to preside with care over the setting up of the means necessary to the extermination of millions of people by other people. His case illustrates in a particularly striking fashion a more general attitude. The various inventors, producers, or utilizers of modern weapons, perhaps personally incapable of hurting a fly, in reality do the same thing—directly or indirectly—as Eichmann. The same is true of capitalists, politicians, scholars, administrators of industry and commerce, and also of educators, priests, ideologists, journalists, writers, labor leaders—in a word, the engineers of the soul (to paraphrase Stalin's uncharacteristically inspired phrase)—and finally of the workers themselves, all animated by fetihistic beliefs which help to perpetuate the existing social relations.

Thus, at every moment, at all levels, the society based on exploitation of labor secretes factors of integration which as a whole tend to repress all impulses towards autonomous life. This repression, which tends to maintain in daily life the modes of conduct born of the conditions of labor, is notably incarnated in culture. Cinema, television, literature, comic strips, social theories, and the rest offer the producers just so many modes of identification for his false individuality. He recognizes himself there as society has molded him.

All the same a little air circulates under this heavy shell. If consent is generalized and contents itself with morose self-exaltation, integration cannot be absolute, simply because a human being is not an inert thing. Faced with conditions which are imposed on him, the producer reacts in an “aberrant” manner, sometimes individually (developing mental illnesses, “bad attitudes” to work, searching for uprootedness and other modes of flight), sometimes collectively, when the situation meted out to a category (ethnic or social groups, blacks or students) or to the greater part of the population becomes more unbearable than usual. Then wildcat strikes and demonstrations, rejection of bourgeois rationality, insurrections make their appearance. The multiplicity and diversity of these collective reactions in the present epoch prove that what is at issue are ineluctable phenomena.

Such explosions in one way or another disturb the repressive society which can no longer count solely on pacific forms of integration to insure its cohesion. The power of the State, the supreme incarnation of class society and therefore of the conditions of labor, is forced to resort to demagogy on the one hand, and to physical repression on the other. In fact, just as capital tends to unify itself—the transactions between the different capitalist groups working themselves out either directly or through the State as intermediary—political life manifests an analogous tend­ency: parliament has lost its traditional function as a place for negotiation of compromises between the different interest groups, both within the ruling class and in its relations with the ruled classes. At a stroke the democratic system (that is, the hidden alliance between the classes) is deprived of its mass base, even if the government has recourse in critical situations to the old methods of electoral agitation, whose effects can only be transitory.

Those in power undoubtedly have police forces at their disposal, but, first of all, their total strength is limited and, further, they must—at least in the first phase—act with circumspection so as not to risk giving the conflict a greater extension and fury than it already has. Circumspection in practice means the use of modem, not deadly weapons for the dispersal of crowds, and not, as the May Movement's experience shows, that of civilized methods. Quite the contrary, they do not hesitate to make systematic use of provocation, of indiscriminate beatings, in order to accentuate the intimidating effect—all this to nip in the bud, if it is possible, a movement which is all the more dangerous to the social order in that it is spontaneous and does not have the familiar face of authorized forms of confrontation. Clubbing becomes the continuation of politics by other means.

This limited physical repression creates reflexes of fear which add to the factors of integration which continue to operate. This may suffice to re-establish social harmony, otherwise known as routine. In this case, those in power do not need to employ murderous methods (we speak here, of course, of developed countries, where the relatively high cost of production of the individual engenders, in normal times, a certain respect for the life of first class citizens).

It must be stressed, however, that if traditional political associations and parties have lost, with the essence of their old representative functions, their importance in society, this is not yet true of the various working-class parties and unions, whose role in the return to normalcy is basic. Their function consists in effect in consecrating by law, that is to say in principle in a permanent way, the advantages seized by the struggle and in transforming them into supplementary factors of integration—that work of Sisyphus of which Rosa Luxemburg spoke half a century ago. Products of legality, they present as victories for the masses everything which reinforces legally their control over the masses. In their deepest nature, they are legalists because they know that all suppression of the democratic order entails their disappearance (as in Leninist Russia, Nazi Germany, France, Spain, etc.). But their devotion to the law has not prevented any of the great catastrophes of contemporary history. For it is in the very nature of bourgeois law to profit only individuals or particular groups, to consecrate the division of society into classes, and not to unify the producers and make of them a force which counts for something in society. Thus, in the France of 1968, the legal recognition of the union workplace organization meant that the union delegate will be freed for a certain number of hours from his condition of producer, but does not spell the liberation of his workmates. Thus one sees that these people are not interested in seeing people think and act for themselves and why, as a worker at the Renault plant put it in May, ‘68, “the CGT is more afraid of one student than of a truckload of riot cops.”

The everyday aspects of repression can be neither pinpointed by photography, nor grasped in their infinite variety, because of their apparent insignificance, but they are no less terribly real, and they are the fate, at every moment, of millions of human beings. Police repression is spectacular, and every photo of a cop busy beating a demonstrator’s head (or an onlooker’s) only flashes a light on the violence inherent in class society, a violence which ordinarily takes shape to begin with in the petty vexations, bullyings, and other abuses directed at an individual by some administrator or foreman.

In its brutality, open and collective oppression breaks down the barriers maintained by false individuality, sectional interests, etc. It lays bare what was hidden, and no longer permits doubt and laziness of soul: it provokes the beginnings of consciousness. In our epoch, social crises have become inescapable and, with them, consciousness of the fact that men are capable of organizing, themselves, their own lives. This at any rate is what was set in motion by the young in France in May-June 1968. This the authorities could not tolerate. They hurled against it their forces of repression. The youth responded by building one night barricades of which they had not dreamed that very morning: the violence of oppressed classes is a reflex of self-defense against the violence of the ruling classes which reveals itself.

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. 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.

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.

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,(1) 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.

From this way of looking at revolutionary violence, control of the pace of work by the workers—as has been attempted in certain cases in Italy—is a hundred times more violent than any fight with the riot squad, quite simply because it transcends bourgeois economic rationality and looks beyond society as it exists to a new social order in which work is organized by the workers for their own well­ being. In contrast, guerrilla warfare, riots, etc. remain within the bounds of rationality as defined by the system, since they do not attack in any direct way capital’s control of the production process.

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.

If 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-leninist 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 leaden and led, is particularly adapted to the backward countries where national capital has yet to be formed. It has shown its efficiency 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. In Cuba Castro’s action benefited, at least in an early stage, from the aid or tacit accord of a certain fringe of American capital. In 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 Vietnam, 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 (Organisation Armée Secrète), 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 guerilla 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 or this subject. We must return to it at greater length on some other occasions, 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 byproduct of the more profound violence which is the class struggle for the expropriation of the bourgeois class, we have a quite 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 the role of any revolutionary “organization” is to do everything possible to aid in this change. Without doubt it is essentially in their struggles that the producers acquire new ways of thinking, and it is vain 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 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. It is not a matter of constituting oneself as an avant-guarde 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. 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) In 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.

(b) In 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 “workers,” 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 be 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. (2)

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 stage (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, reamalgamations, 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. It 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.”

1. Individually, in part, in Western capitalism, collectively in the state capitalism of the so-called socialist states.

2. See Part IV this volume.