B: Revolutionary Consciousness of Social Power

The workers of a highly industrialized capitalist society suddenly cease acting "normally" : they stop working, and they do not go out on an "ordinary" strike for material demands. They occupy their factories, and they begin to talk about expropriation.

To understand this radical break with the usual behavior of workers, it is necessary to understand that this unusual behavior is an ever-present potentiality in capitalist society. The existence of this potentiality cannot be understood in terms of the material conditions of the workers, but only in terms of the structure of social relations in capitalist society.

The basic fact of life in capitalist society is the alienation of creative power. The alienated power of society is appropriated by a class. Concentrated in institutions -- Capital, State, Police and Military -- the power alienated by society becomes the power of the dominant class to control and oppress society. To the creators of the power, the institutions which control and oppress them seem like external forces, like forces of nature, permanent and immutable.

The alienation of creative power and the appropriation of that power takes place through the act of exchange.

The producer sells his labor; the capitalist buys the labor. In exchange for his labor the producer receives wages, namely money with which to buy consumer goods. The purchase and sale of labor in capitalist society reduces labor to a thing, a commodity, something which can be bought and sold. Once the labor is sold to the capitalist, the products of the labor "belong" to the capitalist, they are his "property." These products of labor include the means of production with which goods are produced, the consumer goods for which the producer sells his labor, and the weapons with which the capitalist's "property" is protected from its producers. The alienated products of labor then take on a life of their own. The means of production no longer appear as products of labor but as Capital, as objects and instruments which emanate from the capitalist, as the "property" of the capitalist. The consumer goods no longer appear as the products of labor but as the rewards of labor, as external manifestations of the stature, worth and character of an individual. The weapons no longer appear as products of labor, but as the natural and indispensable instruments of the State. The State no longer appears as a concentration of the alienated power of society, and its "law and order" no longer appear as a violent enforcement of the relations of alienation and appropriation which make its existence possible; the State and its repressive media appear to serve "higher" aims.

The two terms of the act of exchange ( labor for wages, creative power for consumer goods ) are blatantly unequal. They are unequal in terms of their quantity and in terms of their quality. To analyze the French general strike it is necessary to understand both types of inequality, and it is crucial to grasp the difference between them. The quantitative inequality has been thoroughly analyzed by an apologetic and a critical literature. A whole area of knowledge, the "science of economics," exists to mask this quantitative inequality. According to this "science," each side of the exchange is paid for its "contribution" : capital is exchanged for a "corresponding" quantity of profits, and labor is exchanged for a "corresponding" quantity of wages. It is to be noted that the quantities which are exchanged do not correspond to each other, but to a historical relation of forces between the capitalist class and the working class, and that strikes and unions have increased the quantity of goods to which labor "corresponds." However, the purpose of this "theory" is not analytic but apologetic : its point is to mask the fact that more is exchanged for less, that workers produce more goods than they receive in exchange for their labor. Yet this fact is hard to mask : if workers received all the goods they produced, there would be no capital, and there would be nothing left over for State, Army, Police or Propaganda.

Furthermore, the proposition that each is paid for "his" contribution, the capitalist for "his" capital and the worker for his labor, simply isn't true : the capitalist's "contribution" consists of means of production produced by workers, so that the capitalist is paid for the worker's labor. The capitalist absorbs ( or accumulates ) surplus labor, namely what the worker contributes but doesn't get, or what's "left over" after the workers are paid.

Labor unions concern themselves exclusively with the quantitative relation between workers and capitalists. The union's role is to decrease the degree of exploitation of the workers, namely to increase the goods workers receive in exchange for their labor, and at times even to increase the share of social wealth which is distributed to the working class. Unions help workers have more, not be more. They serve to increase the quantity of goods the worker receives in exchange for his alienated labor; they do not serve to abolish alienated labor. Unions, like economists of Communist countries, as well as much 20th Century socialist literature, deal exclusively with the quantitative relation between workers and capitalists.

However, wildcat strikers in France last May did not occupy their factories in order to get a larger share of the goods they produced. It was the Union ( The General Confederation of Labor ) which clamped this goal on the strike, in order to de-rail it. The revolutionary issue last May was the qualitative relation between workers and capitalists, not the quantitative relation. Yet the qualitative relation has not been treated extensively by revolutionary socialists -- perhaps partly because the quantitative problem can be grasped more easily and can be illustrated with statistics in a society which worships quantities, partly because Soviet theorists dismissed the whole problem as "idealism," and partly because capitalist ideologues have tried to co-opt the issue and to transform it into a quasi-religious liberal reform program. The result is that the action of workers and students was far more radical than the theory of most "revolutionary theorists" and "strategists."

The two terms of the act of exchange -- labor and wages, creative power and consumer goods, living energy and inanimate things -- differ in quality, in kind. The two terms continue to differ in quality no matter what happens to their quantities. [19] In other words, the fact that the worker exchanges labor for wages, namely two different qualities, does not change if the worker gets more wages, more consumer goods, more things in exchange for his creative power. There is no "reciprocity" in this act of "exchange" : the worker alienates his living energy in exchange for lifeless objects; the capitalist appropriates the alienated labor of workers in exchange for nothing. ( In order to maintain the fiction of reciprocity, "objective social scientists" would have to say the capitalist appropriates the productive power of society in exchange for his domination; they do sometimes say this, in more euphemistic terms. )

By selling his labor, the producer alienates his productive power, his activity; he alienates what he does in life. In exchange for his activity, or to compensate for his lost life, he eats, drinks, travels, surrounds himself with lifeless objects, abandons himself to animated cartoons, and intoxicates himself with vicarious experiences. [20]

American sociologists have tried to reduce the alienation of labor to a feeling of alienation : thus reduced, the problem can be "solved" in capitalist society, without revolution; all that's needed is some solid propaganda and a competent corps of sociologists and psychologists who know how to change workers' feelings. However, so long as capitalist relations exist, the worker will continue to be alienated even if he feels de-alienated. Whether or not the worker is "happy" about it, by alienating his activity he becomes passive, by alienating his creativity he becomes a spectator, by alienating his life he lives through others. Whether or not he is "happy" about it, by alienating his productive power, he gives that power to a class which uses it to hire him, decide for him, control him, manipulate him, brainwash him, repress him, kill him, entertain him and make him "happy."

The quantitative relations between workers and capitalists have a history. The quantity of goods produced per laborer has increased, the quantity of goods received by workers has increased, and even the share of the social product received by workers may have increased within specific regions, although if one views the world economy as a whole this has not taken place. The application of science to technology increases the productivity of labor and thus the productive power which the capitalist class commands; the increased quantity of goods has enlarged the empire controlled by capitalists; competition in the introduction of technological innovations, and also periodic crises, have ruined inefficient or unlucky capitalists, and thus made possible the centralization of enormously enlarged capitals and the integration of technologically related processes. The centralization of capital and the integration of related processes has meant that numerous activities take place under the same roof, and that production becomes a sophisticated process of coordination and cooperation.

However, the qualitative relation between workers and capitalists does not have a history within capitalist society : it is born with capitalism and abolished with capitalism : it is part of the structural backbone of capitalism. The worker is the ruled object, the capitalist is the ruling subject; the worker alienates his productive power, the capitalist appropriates it; the worker's labor creates products, the capitalist owns them and sells them to the worker; the worker creates Capital, the capitalist invests it; the worker produces more than he consumes, he creates a surplus; the capitalist disposes of the surplus and thus determines the shape of the worker's environment, forms a repressive apparatus which keeps the worker "in his place," and hires propagandists, manipulators and educators who make the worker "like" his condition, or at least accept it. This structural relation between the worker and the capitalist is the integument of capitalist society, it is the shell in which the quantitative changes take place.

It is this shell which began to crack in May. It is this structure which starts to disintegrate, not piecemeal, but all at once. The development of society's productive forces, the centralization of capital and the integration of economic activity, the growth of socially combined and scientifically coordinated production processes, make the capitalist shell increasingly vulnerable. The workers, united by the capitalist under the same roof, cooperative with each other because of the exigencies of the work itself, highly educated to be able to manage the sophisticated technology, no longer tolerate their situation, they no longer tolerate the existence of the capitalist, they no longer tolerate the alienation of their labor and the transformation of their labor into a commodity. Educated, proud of their work, confident in their abilities, they begin to express themselves about the fact that they are reduced to tools. Each finds his own observations confirmed by those of others. The workers become class conscious. They gain confidence in their power, they become conscious of their collective power. They communicate their consciousness to other workers.

The workers start to take over; they start to take possession of the productive forces ( the former "capital" ), and with these powerful productive forces they can destroy the concentrated power of the capitalist class : the State and its repressive apparatus. The capitalist shell starts to burst; the expropriators begin to be expropriated.

This is the beginning of socialist revolution. It is the beginning of a world-wide event : the destruction of capitalism as a unified, world system; the negation of alienation. It is an adventure, the beginning of a process of social creation.

When the Sud-Aviation workers occupied their factory "in the style of the student demonstrators," they were not merely expressing their sympathy with the student demonstrators. And when other workers occupied their factories, they were not demanding more consumer goods in exchange for their alienated labor. Some workers had profoundly understood what was happening in the universities. This was not the traditional "social conflict" between "labor and management." At the Renault automobile factory in Cleon, for example, "the initiative was taken by about 200 young workers, members of the unions ( the General Confederation of Labor and the French Democratic Federation of Labor ), but who seemed to be acting spontaneously, following the model of the students; there was no social conflict in the establishment." [21] In fact, the unions also understood that this was not a traditional strike, that the student example had nothing to do with quantitative improvements within the context of capitalist society, and both unions declared "their resolve not to share the responsibility over the movement with the students, and their will not to permit overflows which could lead to anarchy." [22]

The physical occupation of the factories was the first step towards "anarchy." The next step would be for workers to use factory workshops and yards as places for collective expression. This happened in a few factories. But only a few. The unions begin to take control of the movement. And the unions have no interest in letting creative expression "overflow" into the workshops. It becomes urgent for the students to communicate their example. This is the task of the Censier worker-student committees. To do this, the committees not only have to struggle against the capitalist propaganda, but also against the announced opposition of the unions. "We no longer want to confide our demands to union professionals, whether or not they're political. We want to take our affairs into our own hands. Our objectives cannot be realized without live, concrete and daily information, without a constant, human and imaginative contact between workers and students." [23]

The "constant, human and imaginative contact between workers and students" had been established at Censier since the first day of the occupation; this was the basis for the formation of the worker-student committees. On the night of the occupation, "young workers who had demonstrated in the Latin Quarter, entered a French university for the first time, and were more numerous than the students. They all discuss, sometimes in a disorganized manner, a little too enthusiastically, but everyone is aware that the abstract phrases about the liaison between workers and students can be bypassed." [24] Worker-student solidarity, creative self-expression, collective learning, consciousness of collective power, are all facts at Censier; they have to be communicated to the rest of the population. Creative self-expression and self-organization in one building or one factory are like a strike carried out by one worker.

A worker-student committee is formed for every major enterprise, district, region. The committees include workers from the enterprise, workers from other enterprises, French students, foreign students, professors. The names on the doors of former classrooms refer to places : Renault, Citroën, 5th District, 18th District. The committees are not named according to programs, political lines or strategies, because they have no programs, lines or strategies. Their aim is to communicate to workers what has taken place at Censier. Self-led and self-organized, they do not go out to "lead the population" or to "organize the workers." They know they're not up to this task in any case; but they also know that even if they succeeded in this, they would fail in accomplishing their goal : they would merely reintroduce the type of dependence, the type of relation between leaders and led, the type of hierarchic structure, which they'd only just started struggling to destroy. When a "revolutionary" grouplet takes up residence in Censier, puts its name on a door, and starts to "help" action committee militants with problems of "political program" and "strategy" so that the militants will be able to "lead the workers" more effectively, the militants of several action committees burst into the office of the "revolutionary vanguard," call the experts on revolution professors and even cops, and give them an ultimatum : either learn with us or join the Authorities outside.

Committee militants go to the factory gates to talk to strikers, to exchange information, to communicate. They do not go there to substitute themselves for the union leaders, but to stimulate the workers to organize themselves, to take control away from the union leaders and into their own hands. "The political and union leaders did not initiate the strike. The strikers themselves, unionized or not, made the decisions, and it is they who should make the decisions." For this to become possible, the action committee militants call for a "reunion of all the strikers, unionized or not, in a continual General Assembly. In this Assembly, the workers will freely determine their action and their goal, and they will organize concrete tasks like the strike pickets, the distribution of food, the preparation of demonstrations..." [25] The action committee militants call on the workers to transform the occupied factory into a place for collective expression by the workers.

Workers who are contacted by the Censier militants, or who are reached by the leaflets, do express themselves, they do discuss, and through discussions they do become conscious of their power. However, it was not in the factories that they expressed themselves, but in the "liberated zone," in Censier. By letting Censier become the place for the creative expression of workers, the place for collective learning, the workers failed to transform the factories into places for creative self-expression. In Censier the workers liberated themselves; they did not overthrow the capitalist system. In Censier, revolution was an idea, not an action.

The discussions at the Censier general assemblies were heated. Conflicting conceptions of workers' power, of socialism, of revolution, clashed. But the discussions were liberating. The starting point of every discussion was the actual situation of the occupants of Censier : the constituents decided about and controlled their own activity; they did not give their power to leaders, delegates or representatives who controlled them in their name. This was not exploitation for a different price, or by different people; it was a different quality of life. And speakers drew conclusions from this qualitative transformation of social relations.

"In our opinion socialism must be defined as the overthrow of the relations of production. This is the fundamental point which allows us to unmask all the bourgeois and bureaucratic tendencies which call themselves socialist."

Two principal tendencies are then unmasked :

-- the first defines socialism as the nationalization of means of production and as planning. It's obvious that nationalization can change property relations, but it cannot in any way change relations of production. Concretely, the worker continues to submit to a hierarchic authority in the process of production and in all other areas of social life. This current is represented in France by the French Communist Party, which proposes this model of socialism as a long-term objective. It is also represented by pro-Chinese grouplets and by numerous other micro-bureaucracies who advertise their Bolshevism.

-- the second current, composed of intelligent social-democrats,... insists on the notion of worker-management, but without ever posing the problem of the overthrow of capitalism. Thus they present conceptions of co-management and self-management which can easily be assimilated by capitalism, since, in the context of the present system, they will at best lead to a situation where the workers manage their own exploitation. This current is represented in France by certain anarchist groups, and above all, in a more elaborated form, by the centralist bureaucracy of the United Socialist Party ( P.S.U. ), which has gained some influence in the present crisis through its intermediaries in the leadership of the U.N.E.F. ( The student union ) and the S.N.E. Sup. ( the professors' union ). The same theses are presented, with some variants, by the leadership of the C.F.D.T. ( French Democratic Federation of Labor )."

These conceptions are abandoned. They are replaced by a generalization of what is in fact taking place at Censier, namely a generalization of a real experience.

"Our conception of socialism is the following :

-- the workers directly organize and control the entire process of production and all other aspects of social life. The organs of this organization and control cannot be defined in advance. We can only say that the organization will not be carried out by a party or by a union... This obviously implies the suppression of all hierarchies, on all levels. [26]

This is a call for the death of capitalism, a call for the appropriation of social power by society, a call for workers to appropriate the productive power alienated to capitalists, a call for people to appropriate the decision-making power alienated to the tops of hierarchies, a call for everyone to appropriate the power to think and act alienated to specialists and representatives.

It's the last week in May. Increasing numbers of workers take part in the general assemblies at Censier and at other universities. This is no "grouplet," no "vanguard party;" it's a revolutionary mass movement. At this point it is ludicrous to Censier militants that at some universities there are still "students" discussing university reform and reorganization.

For the Censier militants, "anything is possible." The potentialities of the revolutionary situation are elaborated in leaflets, in general assembly discussions.

"All the programs and structures of the traditional working-class organizations have exploded. The question of power has been posed. It's no longer a question of replacing one government with another, nor of replacing one regime with another. It's a question of installing the Power of the entire working class over the whole society; it's a question of the abolition of class society." [27]

Not only in France, but in the entire capitalist region. The destruction of the capitalist state and its repressive apparatus ( the army and the police ), the force which protects the transfer of the world's wealth from "backward" to "developed" regions and from lower to upper classes, is eliminated. The lack of a regime, of a government, makes it as urgent to extend the revolution beyond the borders of France as it is to extend it beyond the borders of Censier. This point is made in a general assembly; it raises a furor; it's a point that hasn't been raised by revolutionary socialists since the victory of Stalin's conception of "socialism in one country."

"In Belgium, in Germany, in Italy, in England, in Holland, in all capitalist countries, struggles similar to ours or in solidarity with our struggle, are developing." [28]

The economy is paralyzed. All places of work are occupied by the workers. The power of the capitalist regime is suspended :

"...it has lost its factories, it has lost control over economic activity, it has lost its wealth. It has lost everything; all it has left is power : this has to be taken." [29]

The question of power is posed. The first step is realized : the producers physically occupy the places of work : "the red flag of the working class and not that of a party floats everywhere." The next step is for the workers to express themselves, "to organize themselves and to develop their enormous capacity for initiative." [30] At this point, expression is translated into action, the consciousness of collective power is followed by the organization of collective power, the strike is transformed into an "active strike." And at that point,

"...violence is inevitable so long as the menace of losing all they've conquered hangs over the workers, so long as the repressive power of the State continues to exist... Now the workers will have to organize their own power everywhere in order to destroy this repressive power at its roots... The workers must prepare themselves by organizing armed retaliation to any provocation .... They must destroy the very sources of power by making the bourgeoisie useless, by taking over the organization of production and distribution." [31]

"...the state apparatus, whether bourgeois or bureaucratic, is destroyed. There is no longer any specialized repressive corps ( police, army, etc. ); these bodies have given way to the general armament of the working population." [32]

Capitalism is destroyed; alienation is annihilated; an adventure begins : the working population organizes its own social activities; people consciously create their own material and social conditions.

These perspectives were expressed in the general assemblies of Censier. However, Censier was not the place where expression could be translated into social action, where the consciousness of collective power could be transformed into an organization of collective power, where the strike could be transformed into an active strike. And when, at the very end of May, the workers of a chemical plant told the assembly that they had begun to express themselves in their factory, everyone understood. "Until now we've been kept from speaking; but we've taken the floor, we've learned to speak, and this is irreversible." [33] They had formed rank and file committees "composed of all the workers of a sector. The committee is the expression of the will of the workers." This is what had to be done in all the factories when the strike began; this is what will be done when the next strike begins. The perspectives were in the past, or in the future; it had not been done; Censier had served as a substitute.


[19] This statement excludes the likelihood that infinitesimal quantitative changes will gradually lead to a qualitative leap, a prospect offered by J.M. Keynes : with the continued development of society's productive forces, it can become "comparatively easy to make capital-goods so abundant that the marginal efficiency of capital is zero. . ( A ) little reflection will show what enormous social changes would result from a gradual disappearance of a rate of return on accumulated wealth." One of the main social consequences would be "the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital," i.e. the disappearance of the capitalist and the disappearance of capitalism. ( J.M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, New York : Harcourt, Brace, 1964, p. 221 and p. 376. )

[20] It has frequently been noted that the alienated labor of capitalist society differs from slavery and serfdom. The slave's entire being, and not merely his labor ( or labor-time ) is the property of the master; strictly speaking, the slave has nothing to alienate, since he is not a person but an object, a piece of property. The serf, on the other hand, is not owned by his lord, and does not alienate his labor; he is forced to give up the products of his labor, and he receives nothing in exchange ( except the "protection" of his lord -- which in practice means oppression, domination, and often death ). The laborer, unlike the slave, is a "free man" : his body is his own; it is his labor which becomes the property of an owner. Unlike the serf, the laborer alienates his labor, but receives something in exchange for what he gives away.

[21] Le Monde, May 18, 1968, p. 3.

[22] Le Monde, May 18, 1968, p. 3.

[23] Leaflet : "Personnel d'Air-Inter et Air France," May 16, 1968.

[24] "L'Occupation," Action, May 13, 1968, p. 7.

[25] Leaflet : "Camarades," Comité d'Action Travailleurs-Etudiants, Sorbonne and Censier, May 20, 1968.

[26] "Rapport d'Orientation" ( Orientation Report ), read and discussed at the General Assembly of the Workers-Students Action Committees of Censier on May 25 ( ? ), 1968.

[27] Leaflet : "Que Faire ?" Comité d'Action Travailleurs-Etudiants, Censier, May 25, 1968.

[28] Leaflet : "De Gaulle à la Porte !" Les Comités d'Action, May 24, 1968.

[29] Leaflet : "De Gaulle à la Porte !" Les Comités d'Action, May 24, 1968.

[30] "Que Faire ?" Comité d'Action Travailleurs-Etudiants, Censier, May 25, 1968.

[31] "Que Faire ?" Comité d'Action Travailleurs-Etudiants, Censier, May 25, 1968.

[32] "Rapport d'Orientation," ( Orientation Report ), read and discussed at the General Assembly of the Workers-Students Action Committees of Censier on May 25 ( ? ), 1968.

[33] Leaflet : "Rhône-Poulenc," Le Comité Centrale de Grève ( Rhône Poulenc, Central Strike Committee ), May 28, 1968.