Submitted by libcom on July 30, 2005

Introduction : What is modern leftism ?

If we consider the whole body of changes which have taken place in every field within the past ten years or so in France, to speak only of that country, we are obliged to recognize that our old habits of thought have ill prepared us to assimilate them.

Whether it be a matter of economic explosion, the massive irruption of children and adolescents into the schools and universities, the rise of total demand to a hitherto undreamt-of level or the new needs born of the wholesale shift of society to a quantitatively higher plane, we are unable to adapt our psychology, our thought and our reflexes to the era of advanced technology (or the 'post-industrial era', as some sociologists like to call it).

If we think that for untold centuries, indeed to the present day in most countries of the world, life as defined by a decent standard of consumption (in terms of food, culture and social benefits) was the prerogative of a privileged minority, it may be said that the present epoch is characterized by the irruption of the masses into the domain of real life, in other words by their emergence on to a plane where the satisfaction of their minimum needs is conceivable.

In its awareness of this emergence from the realm of scarcity, mankind is impatient to satisfy its needs -- all its needs. It is clear that the struggle against the obstacles barring man from enjoying the fruits of his own labour has taken new forms. Seen on the social scale, this means that social struggles have changed both in appearance and objectives.

If we look at the French labour movement from the time of its initial organization in the 1880s (both on a trade-union and a party level) up to the end of the 1950s, it will be seen that it follows a historical line of development starting from a situation of intensive capitalist accumulation and ending up in the age of consumption. Throughout these seventy years. the worker's primary concern was to defend himself against unemployment, poverty, the oppression of the employers, in short against all the hazards inherent in a capitalist economy based on scarcity. The liberal State claimed to maintain a position of neutrality, implying that it was up to the organizations created by the proletariat to fight for the everyday welfare of the worker, and at the same time against a system which by its very nature perpetuated injustice and poverty. Accordingly, the trade unions, however staunchly they may have supported a revolutionary syndicalism in theory, and despite their ambitious programmes and apocalyptic vocabulary, in fact practised a some what milk-and-water reformism. The political parties, which by the end of the century were influenced by Marxism, followed a similar pattern : they offered the masses a revolutionary ideology coupled with a reformist practice (this was as true of the pre-1914 SFIO as it was of the post-1930 CP). The strength of their hold on the masses was in direct proportion to the rigour of their organizational structure. So far as the PCF was concerned, it was still bathed in the glory of a successful revolution, and the extreme subversiveness of its vocabulary was an additional recommendation.

In short, the hold these trade-union and party machines exercised over the mass of the working class was primarily due to the nature of their objectives. Obliged to struggle for immediate economic aims in a situation of scarcity, the proletariat cedes its autonomy and delegates its power, all the more so for the fact that the realities of the capitalist market necessitate the organization and concentration of decision-making. To put it in a nutshell, since it was obliged to transform itself into a pressure-group, the working class equipped itself with all the attributes of a pressure-group : leadership, bureaucracy, hierarchy and authoritarianism.

The results achieved (increases in wages, security of employment, social insurance, other legislation beneficial to the proletariat, democratization of the electoral system) corresponded exactly to the needs of a class seeking to win itself a place within the capitalist system. The true extent of these achievements is open to debate, but it is undeniable that the leadership of the working class, charged with managing the immediate interests of that class, carried out its task by managerial methods.

The reason why this hold has lasted for almost a century, and still survives to a degree. is that the problems of economic and job security were an ever-present reality to two thirds of the population -- and this is a fact that should not be forgotten.

A course of development that began in 1936 was interrupted by the last war, until the flow of militants to the C P was revived by the Resistance. Subsequently, the liberation of France recreated a situation of economic scarcity, job insecurity and, by way of corollary, a resurgence in the power of the Communist Party and of the unions controlled by it. But as France began to emerge from the economic morass, at the beginning of the fifties or thereabouts, the traditional leadership of the working class, despite their unprecedented power, were quite clearly out of touch with the new aspirations of the workers, directed towards the new opportunities offered by the industrial society. A political structure (the CP) and a trade-union structure (the CGT) based on democratic centralism, that is to say total centralization to the benefit of the party and trade-union machines. a strategy which vacillated between reformism and harassment of the State establishment, these were the norms of working-class organization as seen by the majority of the French labour movement in the years following the liberation.

The gap between the specific needs peculiar to the machines in question and the general needs of the working population rapidly became apparent. Stalinism in its broadest sense was, in the West, a brutal effort to preserve, to freeze for ever a politico-social structure which. was after all ephemeral and dated. Organized communism in the capitalist countries had nothing to offer the new needs and aspirations of the workers except intransigence in theory coupled with total compromise in practice. In a world of relative abundance, of unprecedented technological, scientific and economic change, of completely new sociological groupings, the labour movement suddenly and spontaneously rediscovered its most natural, and also most ancient, preoccupations, which the years of 'quantitative' struggle had helped to disguise. The workers, tentatively and uncertainly at first, are beginning to express their will to determine the objectives of this struggle themselves, from the grass roots, and above all to fashion in the society of the future an authentic socialism founded on autonomy of decision, that is to say a decentralized and self-governing socialism.

The new type of social conflict, which for the sake of convenience we shall term 'contestation' [1] and which has become fairly world-wide over the past few years, emerged in a particularly violent, concentrated and massive form in France with the general strike of May-June 1968.

The contestation in these conflicts was aimed at once at the employers, the State authority and the traditional leadership of the workers. By resisting both the repressive structure of society, in whatever part of the world, and the stranglehold of the working-class leadership, the workers were returning to more basic responses that would have been better understood by a Proudhon or a Bakunin than by a Marx or a Lenin. But whereas the Bakuninite critique could only lead to a step backward in the socio-economic context of the time, postulating as it did a collective aspiration towards a more or less mythical past (a society of free and independent craftsmen), the situation today is quite different. For after years of reformism in practice and of dogmatism in visions of the future, many workers now seem ready to assume responsibility for their own destiny and to take the management of their affairs into their own hands. Revolutionary theory is moving in a similar direction : it no longer precedes social action but follows it, or at best runs parallel to it.

The leftist objective, as it may currently be observed, seems to be to provide contestation and its protagonists with a theory to embrace their own practice. But 'leftism' is a term both overused and over-abused, so that it is necessary to clarify certain points before proceeding further.

To the political scientist, leftism may be either a portmanteau word (the generally accepted, journalists' meaning) or a technical term, with a meaning sufficiently precise to be immediately accomodated in the framework of an analysis which transcends it. Either way, the value of such a heuristic, and is in no way essential; hence our definition of leftism is not intended to be exhaustive -- quite the contrary; it is restrictive and selective, deliberately isolating a certain number of characteristics. [2]

We shall here refer to leftism as that segment of the revolutionary movement which offers, or hopes to offer, a radical alternative to Marxism-Leninism as a theory of the labour movement and its development. This at once excludes all the attempts at theoretical renewal that have emerged out of social democracy, to the extent that they are not revolutionary (that is to say they do not aim at the immediate and total overthrow Of capitalist society). It also excludes all movements of communist opposition or a communist renewal, to the extent that they offer no alternative (proposing instead to return to the Leninist or revolutionary sources of communism). To these two 'pure' types one might add a third, situated somewhere between the two; this would consist of the groups which regard themselves as both revolutionary and reformist, which draw both on Bolshevism and social democracy for their inspiration. The French PSU and the British New left provide a good illustration of this category, and there are other small study groups which support the revolutionary reformism of A. Gorz, the Italian 'Il Manifesto' movement, or both.

Only the second category seems to require any comment. It is very wide-ranging and includes a number of groups that are commonly lumped in with leftism. It covers all those movements (most of which are quite old) which accuse the CP of having betrayed Marxism-Leninism, either recently (1956) or since 1925 or even 1923. As the reader will have recognized, these groups are the ones consisting of the various internal 'communist oppositions' (represented in France by Unir-Débats and Le Communiste), the Bordiguists, the Maoists, [3] the Trotskyists, whether Posadist, Frankist, Lambertist or Pablist in tendency. The one feature common to all these groups, beyond their very major theoretical differences, is their reference to Marxism-Leninism and their position in relation to the Communist Party.

By attacking the Party for its betrayal of Marxist-Leninist theory or practice, or both, these groups present themselves as the faithful guardians of orthodoxy. In this sense, they offer an alternative. but an alternative to the leadership of the Party and riot to Marxism-Leninism. In this sense, therefore, one may speak of leftism, but it is a leftism in relation to the Party and not in relation to communist doctrine. It thus seems preferable, in the framework of the definition we have given to the leftist concept. to speak of extremism, for the objective of these groups is to move to the extreme of communist doctrine and not to replace it.

A borderline case is that of the spontaneist Maoists (Mao-Spontex, ex-Gauche prolétarienne, Vive la révolution, etc.) which retained, after May 1968, the tactical spontaneity and the notion of 'propaganda of the deed' derived from the leftists. The presence of Alain Geismar at the head of the ex-Gauche prolétarienne is a good illustration of this marriage of Maoist dogmatism with the spontaneity inherited from the Movement of 22 March. However, to the extent that these groups are only spontaneist at the tactical level, while remaining Marxist-Leninist on the doctrinal level, they will not be included in this study.

Having drawn the distinction between leftism and communist extremism, and having defined it as a practical and ideological alternative to Marxism-Leninism, it only remains to give an account of its aims and its origins, and to ask where it fits into the tradition of the revolutionary movement.

To the extent that it is a movement of ideas, leftism is at once a critique, a praxis and a theory. A critique, firstly, which extends from the revision of Marxism to the point of negating it as a revolutionary theory. In the last analysis, Marx emerges as the theoretician of the bourgeois revolution pushed to the limits of its potentialities. The whole of the Leninist theory of organization, its very conception of revolution as the seizure of political power at the summit, bears all the marks of bourgeois thought. To a leftist, it is therefore not surprising that the Russian Revolution should have resulted in a State-capitalist regime reproducing a more refined and more concentrated version of the system of class domination.

The leftist critique therefore repudiates all the revolutions of the twentieth century, or rather denies them the label 'socialist'; it sees in them the last of the bourgeois revolutions.

This analysis leads to a view of organized communism and social democracy not as deviations from an ideal model, but rather as capitalist institutions, that is to say institutions tending to manipulate capitalist society in the direction of greater efficiency and a greater concentration of power.

Seen in this light, leftism appears as a revolutionary praxis wherever the class struggle breaks the mould previously established by traditional organizations -- everywhere, that is, where it is directed both against the system and against the working-class leadership. This praxis is manifested in wildcat strikes, the occupation of factories, takeovers of cadres and organization at shop-floor, factory or company level outside the existing trade-union or political frameworks. A praxis of this type would unmask the oppressive, restrictive nature of the 'historic' instruments of leadership, which faithfully reflect their bourgeois originals. In this perspective, the general strike appears as the first or at least the most extensive demonstration by the workers against their own organizations.

Leftist theory, on the basis of this type of praxis, adopts and puts forward an entirely new historical analysis and projection. According to this view, socialism is no longer to be regarded as a manipulation of an existing model of society, but a higher stage characterized by the autonomy of human groups. The prefiguration of the emancipated society is more or less detailed according to the group and its particular theoretical bent (for leftism is still far from homogeneous), but all leftists are agreed on the principle of autonomy, which consequently excludes all authoritarian, centralist, interventionist, planned and ideological models. 'Ideology' here means the phenomenon of repression in the realm of the mind and of collective attitudes. Just as bourgeois civilization introduced the structure of authority (paternal, managerial, pedagogical, political, etc.), one of its more heinous misdeeds was to sanctify ideological domination. And the revolutionary leaders, with Lenin at their head, conformed slavishly to this pattern by imposing on the proletariat from outside an ideology -- the ideology of their own liberation.

The object therefore is not to put forward a new ideology, but to abolish and demystify all ideologies. The ideal activity of revolutionaries will be to systematize, to give some coherence to, the fundamental praxis of contestation as it exists here and now. The revolutionaries are therefore concerned to draft a theory for their own practice, without the analysis ever becoming congealed, fixed at it specific historical point, in which case it would become an ideology.

Here again, all kinds of variations are to be found : from the groups which reject all theorizing and rely on the pure spontaneity of the workers, down to those which postulate the organizational forms which the workers will establish (workers' councils, action committees, etc.). However, there is general agreement on the central revolutionary reality, which is the independent activity of the workers in their day-to-day struggle.

As for the means of establishing the socialist society, they are not to be fixed immutably either : far from conforming to a pre-established organizational pattern, revolutionary activity will create its own forms of struggle in the course of the movement to a higher historical stage. In other words, just as socialist society will be characterized by self-government at every level, the revolutionary process will include the totality of individual autonomous struggles. Starting from the hypothesis that a society can only be free if it is freely established, the leftists see in contemporary revolutionary practice a tendency towards autonomy of struggle, towards an instinctive rejection of all leadership and all hierarchies, however revolutionary.

Having projected the principle of autonomy on to its vision of the future, having made this the very essence of the revolutionary process, having aimed at renewing revolutionary thought in its historical dimension by this means, leftism has also found a new conception of the content of this process.

Orthodox analysis on this subject -- drawn principally from the writings of the 'older' Marx, from the analysis in Capital and in the critique of the Gotha Programme -- fixed the revolutionary timetable in advance. The revolution was supposed to come at the climax of the period of capitalist development, when the socio-economic system had matured sufficiently to allow certain factors to come to fruition which the old system already contained within itself in embryonic form. [4] The revolutionary struggle, and the political organization of the masses, appear in this light as both a preparation (notably by education) for the advent of socialism and as a 'hefty shove' to shake the old world on its foundations.

The favoured battle-grounds of revolutionary action are the centres of production. Since all alienation springs from economic alienation, this has to be suppressed first by abolishing wage slavery and collectivizing the means of production. It is therefore no accident that the communist parties have chosen the factory as the base of their organization.

The revolutionary time-scale of leftism emerges as both less determinate and longer than this. An economic evolutionism contradicted by events has been repudiated. On the other hand, a greater place has been reserved for revolutionary voluntarism, and hence for the socialist conscience, although this latter may. of course not be imposed from outside. While it is admitted that a capitalist economy is not without internal contradictions, it has become apparent that the system has found a way of taming its crises and learned to prolong its own existence, The end of capitalism is not yet in sight, and can only be foreseen as the result of a constant and conscious struggle, both against the system and against the traditional revolutionary opposition.

But this conception of the revolution, while it may appear more atemporal than Marxism-Leninism, is also much looser spatially, extending far beyond the simple notion of battle for the abolition of the wage bond. For revolutionary action means to the leftists a permanent struggle on all fronts. All alienations - psychological, sexual, cultural, ideological and, of course, economic -- must be done away with, The front of the revolutionary struggle has thus become greatly extended : the revolutionary process itself has been drawn out both in space and in time. Its ultimate objective is the conquest of all powers, the end of all alienation; something which cannot be achieved within the scope of an insurrection but demands a whole historical period.

It may legitimately be asked whether these few features characterizing the leftist movement are enough to establish it as an entity sui generis.

Obviously since leftism categorizes itself in historical terms, only history will provide a definitive answer. The contemporary observer of a phenomenon can only go by the indicators, and the one which seems to us decisive, and legitimizing by the same token this type of study, is that the totality of analyses, reflexes, ideas and practices which I have termed 'modern leftism' do not constitute a phenomenon specific to a given country, nor did they appear suddenly out of thin air. Since the present work is restricted to a study of leftism in France, it will attempt to consider its genesis in this particular instance. Mere superficial observation will show that it represents the point of convergence of a number of currents differing in form, content and aims -- currents which, for the most part, often sprang from origins which go back well before the last world war, but all of which became crystallized after 1945. Likewise all, or almost all, of them fused after May-June 1969 in the wider movement of world-wide contestation, which thus emerged as the synthesis Of these separate individual currents.

If we have not stopped to detail the content of French leftism, this is because the analysis of its various components in the chapters to follow will be concerned with that very question. Before embarking on the study of individual trends, it would be as well to emphasize that the national framework accorded to this book is entirely arbitrary and was chosen for reasons of practical convenience. Not only is leftism not a specifically French phenomenon, but in its role as a revolutionary alternative it has made its appearance in France a quarter of a century late, compared with Central Europe. This is due to various factors, and primarily to the relatively tardy introduction of Marxism into France and to the richness of a specifically national revolutionary tradition. Similarly, at the time when Marxism was beginning to be seriously questioned in the German-speaking countries, it had only just been properly assimilated by French thinkers and was only just finding its first 'high priests' among them. It was indeed in the interwar period that a number of highly regarded intellectuals and philosophers went over to Marxism : whereas before 1914 it had only provided the inspiration for a part of the socialist movement, from then on it was to be a subject for commentary as well. But no sooner had the Marxian exegesis begun to be introduced (and nourished by the translation, in 1933, of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts) than the final 'Bolshevization' of the French CP and the Stalinization of its leaders was to petrify Marxist-Leninist theory right up to the 1950s. There was talk of a period of Stalinist 'glaciation' (Edgar Morin), and it is true that only a few intellectual circles outside the Party continued to keep up the interpretative and analytical tradition of the twenties. [5]

In contrast, a tradition of high-level theoretical Marxian critique has existed in Central Europe since before the First World War. Austro-Marxism and the critique of Lukács gave rise, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, to a veritable Marxist revisionism and even to attempts to transcend Marxism, after thinkers such as Karl Korsch, Pannekoek, Ernst Bloch, Th. Adorno and Horkheimer had drawn up a critique of Leninism as a non-Marxist political praxis, or of Marxism as an analysis unable to give an account of modern industrial society.

It should be added that several abortive revolutions (Hungary and Bavaria, notably) provided examples of a different kind of praxis, of organizational models differing from Leninism (independent workers' councils, for example).

Besides these neo-Marxist explorations, the occupation of factories in Italy in 1919-20 and the Spanish revolution (1936-7) added more fuel to the non-Leninist and even non-Marxist revolutionary tradition.

It is certainly true that in such circumstances the birth of French leftism can only be viewed in the context of these international precedents. But whereas certain analyses involving a break with orthodox Marxism and a search for new departures could be lifted whole from illustrious predecessors like Lukács and Korsch, other aspects of French leftism stemmed more directly from the French tradition, whether literary (Rimbaud, the surrealists) or political (Fourier, Proudhon, revolutionary syndicalism).

In reality, a multitude of trends go to make up the tissue of an intellectual movement that is challenging for the succession to a revolutionary theory identified with the labour movement for more than fifty years. A survey of the various aspects of the phenomenon of leftism, their genesis and their content, will permit a better appreciation of this many-sided phenomenon, which owes it coherence to an apparently fortuitous convergence of various different factors, united nevertheless by a common aim : to change the world and transform the human condition.


[1] For an initial semantic and political approach, cf. G. Lavau, report to the Congress of the AISP, Munich, 1970 (duplicated text).

[2] A. Kriegel has attempted to draw a distinction between leftism and extremism which is very different from this : it does not seem to me to clarity matters to define leftism as a 'safety-valve'; has not communism too been a safety-valve in most countries ? Les Communistes français (Paris, 1968), pp. 234-5.

[3] Originally, these were against de-Stalinization, against the Russian 'revisionists' and for Mao, the only 'correct' interpreter of doctrine. Since June 1968, the pattern has become complicated by the addition of other elements. The common factor is still that beyond Stalin, Mao or Enver Hoxha, Lenin remains the paragon of the Marxist militant and thinker,

[4] In his critique of the draft Erfurt programme, Engels had already abandoned all the 'revolutionary voluntarism' of the 1840s and 50s , and went so far as to predict a quasi-automatic change-over to socialism, notably in England.

[5] The question is dealt with by G. Lichtheim, Marxism in Modern France (Columbia University Press, 1966). Jean Touchard writes that until 1930 Marx was only known to the French communists through the medium of the October Revolution. It was the 'Philosophies' group that was to discover Marx by way of a philosophical approach and which might have been able to develop a Hegelian interpretation of Marxism, had it not been for the intellectual 'glaciation' of the thirties to which I have referred. See Le Mouvement des idées politiques dans la France contemporaine (Paris, Cours IEP, 1968), pp. 22 and 170.