How can we explain this passivity, during a period of crisis, among militants who consider themselves revolutionary activists in normal times ? Why did they suddenly depend on the action of others ?
The actions of the Nanterre students begin as a struggle for total liberation. To what extent did the actions of the Censier committees have this character ?
In the first Censier assemblies, and in the street fights, something appeared which broke with the constraints, the obstacles of daily life in capitalist society. As soon as students built barricades, occupied public buildings, recognized no authority within those buildings, they communicated the liberating character of the movement : nothing is sacred, neither habits nor authorities. The regularities of yesterday are rejected today. And it is the regularities of yesterday that make my life regular today : constrained, well-defined and dead. The liberation comes precisely from my independence of convention : I'm born in a certain age which has certain instruments of production and certain kinds of knowledge; I have the possibility to combine my ability with my knowledge, and can use the socially available means of production as instruments with which to realize an individual or collective project. In carrying out an activity, I no longer recognize the constraints of capitalist daily life : I no longer recognize the right of policemen to decide what can and cannot be done with means of production that have been socially created; I no longer recognize the legitimacy of a state or academic bureaucracy which forces me into a system of learning to train me for something which is not my project and to which I'll be bound for the rest of my life.
By pursuing the constrained daily life of capitalist society, the individual performs certain activities because of convention, because he defines himself as someone who has no choice. My activities depend on external circumstances. I do certain things because they are the ones that are permitted. I do not act in terms of my possibilities, but in terms of external constraints.
Social change takes place within capitalist society, but it is not perceived by me as a project which I bring about together with others. The change is external to me; it is a spectacle; it results from huge impersonal forces : a nation, a state, a revolutionary movement... These forces are all external to me, they are not the outcome of my own daily activity. They are the actors on the stage, the players in a game, and I simply watch. I may take sides and cheer for one side or the other, for the villain or the hero. But I'm not in it.
In Censier, in the general assemblies during the early days of the occupation, activity had the character of a project : the external spectacle had been destroyed, and so had the dependence ( since the dependence is nothing but the characteristic role of the member of an audience who watches the spectacle ). Most people originally went to Censier as spectators, they went to see what "the revolutionaries" were going to do next, they went to a show. But by attending one after another assembly where people discussed what to do about the building, about Paris, about the world, they were confronted with the awareness that they were not observing a separate group, a group of actors on the stage. One quickly realized that it's the person sitting next to him, in front or behind him, who defined what was to be done in Censier, and what has to be done outside Censier. These assemblies did not have the character of external spectacles, but of personal projects which one carries out with people one knows : the subjects were activities which would affect all those who made decisions about them.
The passive, cheering attitude of the TV-watcher which existed at the first assemblies is transformed into an active attitude. Instead of passively observing what THEY ( an external, separate force ) are going to do, for example about the cooking in Censier, YOU speak up because you prefer clean to dirty food and because you have the power to change the situation of the kitchen. Once you participate actively, once action is no longer the specialty of a separate group, you suddenly realize that you have power over larger projects than the Censier kitchen : the "institutions" of society lose their character of external spectacles and come into focus as social projects which can be determined by you together with others.
This description is exaggerated; it's an attempt to characterize an attitude. In actuality, such attitudes expressed themselves as tendencies. For example, when some of the bureaucrats of the future appointed themselves to a "service of order" or to a "strike committee" which was to rule Censier under the guise of coordinating its activities, people did not simply watch them "take over," whispering to each other about the villainy of the act. People were angry : they took the necessary steps to prevent the installation of any self-appointed "coordinating committee." They knew that a "central committee" would once again make decisions and undertake actions instead of the occupants, and the newly liberated occupants refused to give up their power, their possibility to act, to decide. When a "service of order" planted itself at the entrance to a general assembly and claimed that "foreigners" could not participate in that assembly, the "service of order" was quickly removed by people inside the assembly.
However, the sense that every individual in the building ran the building, the feeling that if there was something he didn't like he had to act, together with others, to change it -- this sense of an individual's social power, this liberation of the individual, was not extended outside Censier. As soon as people left Censier they were once again helpless; some separate group ( March 22 Movement, The Working Class ) once again became the actor in what was once again a spectacle. The militants were not, in fact, liberated; they did not in fact act as if the society was theirs; they did not act as if society consisted of people with whom to carry out projects, limited only by the available instruments and the available knowledge. Even inside of Censier, a retrogression took place : a division of labor installed itself; special groups did the mimeographing, the cooking, the leaflet distribution.
There were even people in Censier to whom nothing at all was communicated. A group of Americans set up an "action committee of the American Left." This was an example of complete passivity on the part of an entire "action committee." Many of them were draft resisters who had made a decision once, and had "retired" immediately after making it. They went to the Paris demonstrations, to the barricades, to Censier -- not as active participants changing their world, but as spectators, as observers watching the activity of others. The events were totally external to them; the events had no link with their own lives; they did not sense the world as their world. Consequently what they saw was a different kind of people, the French, struggling against a different type of society, French Gaullist society. They were "on the side" of the revolutionaries, the same way one is "on the side" of a particular team in a game. This group was the symbol of an attitude which characterized many others who came to Censier, attended assemblies and committee meetings, and watched, and waited -- like dead things. They absorbed a new commodity, a new spectacle, which was exciting and stimulating because of its newness. Such attitudes were a dead weight on whatever personal liberation did take place at Censier. These symbols of deadness demobilized others, they made it harder for others to realize they had a power which these people didn't dream of taking.
Some people reached the point of asking someone "what can I do ?" and thus already took a step toward living. But when no one gave them "a good answer," they lapsed back into passivity.
The passivity which characterized the "American Left" at Censier also characterized the main "actions" of the most "active" committees of Censier, such as the CitroÃ«n Committee. When the strike broke out we went to the CitroÃ«n factory expecting some kind of fraternization, perhaps dancing in the streets. But what we found was a situation which looked like cowboys herding stubborn cows, namely the CGT bureaucrats trying to herd workers into the factory, with no contact or communication between the bureaucrats and the "masses." The workers had no conception of what was happening to them; they merely stood, waited, and watched the bureaucrats shouting through megaphones.
Everyone watched and no one lived. A bureaucrat shouted a speech, his delegates baaa'd loudly, these cheerleaders called for "enthusiasm" from the spectators, the indifferent "mass." "Masses" is what people become in capitalist society; they visibly transform themselves into herds of animals waiting to be pushed around. Things pass in front of the eyes of the "mass," but the "mass" doesn't move, it doesn't live; things happen to it. This time the bureaucrats were trying to cheer them into pushing themselves inside the factory gates, because the Central Committee had called for a "general strike with factory occupations."
This is the situation when two groups arrive at the factory gate : the Worker-Student Action Committee from Censier, and a Marxist-Leninist group with a large banner, a group called "To Serve the People" ( Servir le Peuple ). The militants of the CitroÃ«n Committee from Censier distribute a leaflet supporting the workers' "demands," while the other group "Serve the People" by placing themselves next to the factory gate in a "strike picket" which serves no function whatever. Gradually the militants of both groups become passive, stand aside, and wait for the "autonomous action of the workers;" they look at the workers ( mainly foreign ) on the other side of the street. It suddenly becomes a spectacle where everyone is watching and each is waiting for all the others to act. And nothing dramatic happens; the sheep slowly get herded into the stable.
And the CitroÃ«n Committee militants ? Well, we helped the bureaucrats herd the sheep in. Why ? We said, "the workers still accept the power of the CGT" and our response to that was to accept the power of the CGT. None of us took the microphone to inform the workers who we were, to tell them what we intended to do. Suddenly we were completely helpless, we were victims of "external forces" that moved outside us. People who are used to submitting continued submitting.
The reason we were there was some kind of realization that personal liberation had to pass through the social liberation of all the means of production. There was also a knowledge that the workers, by alienating their labor, produce Capital as well as the capitalist means of repression. Yet when we went to the factory for these reasons, and didn't fight, what we had done in the street and in Censier had something of a partial character, because through our action at the factory we accepted the repression and we accepted property. Did we realize it was a question of socializing the means of production then or never, that this was the situation we had wanted to create for years as militants ? Suddenly the situation was there, and we were at the crucial place; yet we felt no anger either at the pushing cowboys or at the cows still allowing themselves to be pushed. This lack of anger reflects passivity. We hadn't really liberated ourselves; we didn't grasp the means of production as ours, as instruments for our development which were being blocked by the bureaucrats and by the workers.
We fought the police at one end, and at the other end we told ourselves that the self-appointed union guards were to control the instruments with which means of repression are produced. We caught the spirit of liberation at the barricades, yet by the time we got to the places where repression originates, namely at the places of production, we had lost our anger, we stopped fighting the repression. We accepted. Yet by accepting, we did exactly the same thing as the workers who were herded into factories by the CGT, and who also accepted, stood, watched, and waited.
One of the favorite arguments of "anarchists" and "libertarians" at Censier was : "The workers must make their own decisions; we cannot substitute ourselves for them." This is a blind application of an anti-bureaucratic tactic to a situation where this tactic had no application at all. It meant that action committee militants had no more of a right to tell workers what to do than a bureaucratic mini-party had. But the situation where this tactic was applied was not the one at which it was aimed. The action committee militants were sections of the population who had achieved some level of self-organization. They were not in front of the factory carrying out a strategy which would lead them to "state power." They may have had no strategy at all; in any case, the action was an action of self-liberation, in the sense of eliminating those conditions of daily life which kept them from living. This self-liberation could only have been carried through if they eliminated the obstacles to their self expression. The obstacles to their liberation were in the factories, as means of production which were "alien" to them, which "belonged" to a separate group.
By telling themselves that it was "up to the workers" to take the factories, a "substitution" did in fact take place, but it was the opposite "substitution" from the one the anarchists feared. The militants substituted the inaction ( or rather the bureaucratic action ) of the workers' bureaucracies, which was the only "action" the workers were willing to take, for their own action. The anarchist argument, in fact, turned the situation upside down. The militants thus went in front of the factories and allowed the bureaucrats to act instead of them; they substituted the bureaucracy's action for their own. Later they apologized for their own inaction by talking about the "betrayal" of the CGT. But the CGT was not "to blame" for anything. When the "militants" went to the factory gates and watched, they did no more than the workers who stood and watched. And when the workers watched, they allowed the CGT to act for them. The "militants" rationalised their dependence, their inaction, by saying that the CGT "took over." But the relation is mutual. The militants, together with the workers, created the power of the union bureaucracy. The militants did not go to the factory to liberate themselves; they waited for an inexistent power to liberate them.
Once the strike was under the control of the union bureaucracy, other habits of capitalist daily life returned among the militants. Perhaps the most significant "relapse" was the acceptance of division and separation among different social groups. Even though the committees were composed of workers as well as "intellectuals," and even though committee members ceased to separate each other into these two categories, they developed a "specialist" attitude which separated committee militants from both workers as well as "intellectuals." At the factory they separated themselves from the workers. And in the university they began to separate themselves from "students." The militants developed the attitude that "We are engaged in the most important process because we're going to the factories." There was a self-righteousness about this attitude which was unjustified, since no coherent analysis of the actual importance of the actions was ever made. Contrasted to this lack of self-analysis was a contemptuous attitude towards all committees engaged in "student problems." Perhaps some of the contempt was justified, but the point is that the worker-student committee militants felt no obligation to even find out what the "student" committees were doing. It was automatically assumed that going to the doors of the factories to watch the sheep-like behavior of workers in the face of bureaucrats was, prima facie, more important than anything else that was being done anywhere.
This acceptance of social separation was a relapse in the sense that the people who originally gathered in Censier had begun to break such lines down. Between May 17 and May 20, at the outbreak of the strike, people abandoned their varied separate activities, like literature, specialized jobs. They came to Censier to synthesize their activities in a collective project. For a period of about two or three days, the worker-student committees of Censier were thought to be the point of synthesis of the entire movement. There was a vague feeling that the people who had gathered there were determined to liberate all the means of production for the free development of everyone. It was this feeling that accounted for the sudden excitement around Censier : its general assemblies grew immense, people came from all over Paris to "join" action committees, to ask what they could do in their own neighborhoods. People wanted to be part of this process of liberation. This only lasted for about two days.
This spirit of synthesis, this attempt to integrate one's fragmentary existence into a significant whole, came to an end as soon as the spectacle reaffirmed itself at the gates of the factories. Inside the CitroÃ«n Committee, for example, the attempt to synthesize one's life, to make a whole out of a fragment, was suddenly dead. Only a vague perception that "something unusual" had been felt the day the strikes began remained with the militants. And this vague perception had some extremely ironic consequences. The first day the militants went to the factories was felt to be so significant, it carried so much psychological importance in the minds of the militants, that they tried, for a month afterward, to recapture the 'spirit' of that day. And the actual result was a ritualistic repetition of going to the factories day after day -- and through this repetition, specialization and separation returned. They became specialists in the kind of thing they had done on the first day of the strike. They traveled to the factories, they distributed leaflets, they spoke to workers. But there was a tragic difference between these later excursions and the first visit to the factory. On the day of the strike, they had gone to be part of the entire social process, they had wanted to learn everything. But when they became specialists in "worker-student actions," they lost interest in everything else. They now considered themselves different from the commissions engaged in exposing and analyzing capitalist ideology, from artists undermining the basis for a specialized art. A vulgar kind of "workerism" set in; watching the workers in front of the factory was a more important "action" than exposing capitalist ideology or rejecting a separatist architecture. The will to engage in the entire social process disappeared; what took its place was the same kind of specialization, the same kind of ritual repetition, which characterizes daily life in capitalist society.
The passivity of the militants in front of the factory and the sheep-like behavior of the workers who let themselves be herded around by bureaucrats -- this is the situation which mini-bureaucrats interpret as a confirmation of everything they've always known; this is the situation that "confirms the absolute necessity of a Revolutionary Party." As they see it, the "spontaneous action of the masses" ( the action committee people, for example ) cannot take over the factories, and the "spontaneous action of the workers" can only lead to liberal reformism. Consequently, the "only solution" is for the workers to shift their allegiance from the "reformists" to the "revolutionaries" ( the mini-bureaucracies ); the workers must "recognize" the mini-bureaucracy as "the revolutionary vanguard which will lead them to a different kind of life." "Being recognized" by the workers as their "vanguard" means getting the passive support of the workers; this support will make it possible for the mini-bureaucrats to place themselves into all the positions of power in society. This support will make it possible for the Party to "take state power," namely to head every bureaucratic hierarchy and to dispense repression. In order to "take state power," the "revolutionary Party" must convince the workers that the Party "represents the workers' true interests" and, once in power, will satisfy all of the workers' demands. Defining themselves as the only ones able to realize "socialism," the mini-bureaucrats promise a future in which the activities people engage in will not be projects, but external spectacles carried out by separate groups -- in other words, a future daily life which is identical to daily life in capitalist society, with the "major difference" that the former mini-bureaucrats become transformed into "the government." Furthermore, the condition for their coming to power is precisely the maintenance of this passivity. It's precisely the sheep-like behavior of the workers that permits the mini-bureaucrats to assume the power which had previously been assumed by capitalists, state functionaries, union bureaucrats. The separate power of a separate social group continues to rule over people's activities, only now the ruling group calls itself "revolutionary" and may even call its directorates "workers' councils."
The justification for this behavior on the part of the mini-bureaucrats is the supposed "lack of consciousness" among the workers. However, what these "revolutionaries" call consciousness is the theory which will justify this particular group's assumption of state power. What they call consciousness is the theory which rationalizes the separate power of this particular group. "Consciousness" is what enables the bureaucracy to hold power over society as a separate group while defining itself as "the mass of the workers;" it is the theory which makes it possible for this bureaucracy to imagine that its particular rule is the rule of all. The same passivity, the same spectacle, the same alienation of labor persists, only now the factory director is a party functionary, the foremen are all members of a "workers' council," and the new language which describes this situation is a set of euphemisms which in themselves represent a new stage of linguistic development.
This bureaucratic conception of "power" and "consciousness" is not a rejection of the constraints of capitalist daily life. The bureaucratic "Revolutionary Party" which defines its action within a sea of passivity struggles to become the central constraint of daily life.
However, inactivity and spontaneism, an attitude which holds that "we can't substitute ourselves for the workers," is not the opposite of the bureaucratic conception, since such inactivity represents an abdication to the constraints and conventions of capitalist daily life. The point is to break down the indifference, the dependence, the passivity which characterize daily life in capitalist society. The point is not a new illegitimate appropriation of the social means of production by a new separate group, nor a new illegitimate usurpation of social power by new "leaders," but the appropriation of the social means of production by the living members of society, and the destruction of separate power. Consequently, revolutionaries whose aim is to liberate daily life betray their project when they abdicate to passivity or impose themselves over it : the point is to wake the dead, to force the passive to choose between a conscious acceptance of constraint or a conscious affirmation of life.